The 4 Division Series start Saturday, and pick up Sunday with the games featuring the wildcard winners hosting the teams with the best records.
One new wrinkle – in some ways to get the wildcard winners a guarantee of 2 home games – is a return to the 2-3 format, which also can compress the series with less travel in the event of a Game 5.
Reds at Giants
Two teams that had stellar 2010 seasons, but both missed the postseason in 2011, are on the upswing again.
Both teams have most of the same key players – minus each team’s closer. Brian Wilson tore an elbow ligament early this season and was replaced by Santiago Casilla and more recently by Sergio Romo. Both are capable, but not as intimidating as Wilson. Plus the overall bullpen quality has suffered in something of a chain reaction.
The Reds arguably upgraded. After parting company the Francisco Cordero high-wire act, and then tabbing Ryan Madson only to have him succumb to Tommy John surgery, Dusty Baker finally turned over the reins to Aroldis Chapman (a/k/a The Cuban Missile; 38 saves, 1.51 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and an obscene 122 K’s in 71-2/3 innings) and the Reds are better off for it.
The Reds have struggled at the top of the order, with Drew Stubbs failing to hold down the leadoff spot (.213 BA, .277 OBP). Joey Votto missed significant time with a knee injury, but Cincinnati didn’t miss a beat.
Uncharacteristically, it was the Reds’ pitching that stepped up – not only Chapman at the back end, but also Cy Young contender Johnny Cueto (19-9, 2.78, 1.17). Homer Bailey threw a September no-hitter. Bronson Arroyo is playoff-tested. While Cueto leads, nearly anybody is capable of turning in a solid effort.
The Giants are no slouches on the mound, either – but Tim Lincecum‘s awful year (10-15, 5.18, 1.47) is cause for concern. Matt Cain is the undisputed ace (16-5, 2.79, 1.04), while Madison Bumgarner provides excellent support in the #2 spot (16-11, 3.37, 1.11). Barry Zito (15-8, 4.15, 1.39) is once again relevant.
Outlook: This may end up being the most tense series of the 4 division series, because runs figure to be hard to come by. Defense may take center stage, and the Reds need to improve of their self-destructive 2010 NLDS against the Phillies if they want to advance. Matt Cain may need to beat Johnny Cueto twice to get the Giants to the NLCS – and I wouldn’t bet against him.
Prediction: Giants in 5.
Nationals at Cardinals
The other National League series also features a postseason success story against a new kid on the block. In Washington’s case, they haven’t visited this neighborhood since they were the Montreal Expos – and if you go back to the Senators, you are going back to the Minnesota Twins’ franchise, not the expansion Senators who became the Texas Rangers.
Much has been made of Stephen Strasburg being shut down based on his having had Tommy John surgery in 2010. As dominant as Strasburg has been, Gio Gonzalez is the staff ace and the likely Cy Young winner in the National League (21-8, 2.81, 1.13 with 207 strikeouts). Jordan Zimmermann (12-8, 2.94, 1.17) is a solid #2 with a career trajectory similar to the Giants’ Bumgarner (with his own 2009 TJ surgery) and Edwin Jackson has had some postseason success. Whether Ross Detwiler or John Lannan gets the call in Game 4, the key will be having a 2-1 lead rather than a 2-1 deficit by then.
Both teams have terrific lineups, but the Nationals have not been tested under the glare of the postseason.
Outlook: The Cardinals keep turning nothing into something. They are tough to pick against because they are so fundamentally sound, and nothing seems to faze them. But they really don’t have the horses on the mound to match Washington. Who’s going to step up and outduel Gio Gonzalez? Lance Lynn was an all-star turned second-half bust – not unlike Chad Billingsley in 2008.
Prediction: Nationals in 4
Athletics at Tigers
I lived in Detroit as a child in 1972. Just saying Tigers-A’s takes me back to a classic 5-gamer between the aging Bengals with guys like Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Norm Cash and Mickey Lolich going up against the up-and-coming A’s, who would win their first of 3 straight World Series behind Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace and others.
The Tigers 40 years later still have star power in Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, last year’s Cy Young and MVP in Justin Verlander and new Tiger Prince Fielder. Yet Detroit slumbered through most of the season and barely made the postseason coming out of a weak division.
Oakland, meanwhile, is an example of using all 25 guys in the right situations. They came out on top in a tough AL West, which had 3 quality teams.
Outlook: Both teams are on the upswing, but the A’s are red hot. This series may be the only one where the home team wins every game.
Prediction: Athletics in 5
Yankees at Orioles
Like the Cards-Nats series, the question of who can beat Gio Gonzalez is replaced in this series by who can beat C.C. Sabathia.
Will the Orioles simply be happy to get this far? Or can they really slay their division rival?
Baltimore, like Oakland and St. Louis, has a way of playing fundamentally sound, maximize every opportunity situational baseball. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win – but looking at this matchup “on paper” would be a mistake.
Outlook: If Sabathia wins Game 1 and the Orioles can bounce back to win Game 2, it’s fair to say that the winner of Game 3 will win this series. The O’s figure to turn to Joe Saunders on full rest. Can he neutralize the Yanks like he did the Rangers? Can the Orioles’ bullpen keep putting up zeroes?
Prediction: Orioles in 4