MLB Playoffs: Pirates face familiar foe in postseason return
The Central Division clearly was the cream of the National League crop throughout the regular season, so it's no surprise that the NL wild-card game is between division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Whichever team wins Tuesday night's postseason game, the first hosted by the Pirates since George Bush -- the elder one -- sat in the Oval Office, will advance to face the Central's top birds, the Cardinals, beginning Thursday in St. Louis.
On paper, the Pirates should be favored in the one-game playoff. They won 11 of 19 regular-season meetings against the Reds and finished four games ahead in the standings. It doesn't help that Cincinnati limped to the finish line, losing its last five games.
The X factor for the Reds is Tuesday's starting pitcher, Johnny Cueto (5-2, 2.82 ERA). After a stellar 2012 outing, the right-hander was limited to 11 starts this season. The good news: He looked stellar in his two September outings (1-0, 0.75 ERA, 10 SO in 12 IP). Better news: Cueto is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against Pittsburgh.
On the flip side, Pirates starter Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA) had a good year, but three of his losses came against the Reds. Cincinnati third baseman Todd Frazier (.234, 19 HRs, 73 RBIs) has smashed two home runs off the left-hander this season.
If some of the Reds' more fearsome hitters, such as Joey Votto (.305, 24 HRs, 73 RBIs), can chase Liriano, it will be that much tougher on the Pirates lineup -- led by Andrew McCutchen (.317, 21 HRs, 84 RBIs, 27 SBs) and Manhattan's Pedro Alvarez (.233, 36 HRs, 100 RBIs) -- to play catch-up. Look for the Reds to get the job done.
Braves, Dodgers limp into NLDS
As stacked as the NL Central was in 2013, the league's East and West divisions were just as top-heavy. Thank the Braves and Dodgers, respectively, for that.
Whichever team emerges from this five-game NLDS, beginning Thursday, earns the right to face the best of the Central, be it the Cardinals, Pirates or Reds. Right now, neither Atlanta nor Los Angeles looks like a worthy challenger.
Sure, both teams won more than 90 games this season, but both were under .500 in September.
Complicating matters for the Dodgers are a litany of injuries to key contributors. Matt Kemp won't play again in 2013, and fellow outfielder Andre Ethier isn't likely to play much, either.
But injuries are nothing new for L.A. this year. Rarely have the Dodgers fielded their optimum lineup. Only Adrian Gonzalez (.293, 22 HRs, 100 RBIs) and Ethier saw action in more than 132 games.
Yet, even in just 104 games at the major league level, rookie Yasiel Puig (.319, 19 HRs, 42 RBIs) sparked this team from a sluggish start to lead them to the postseason.
The Braves have dealt with injuries to some extent, too, but they enter the postseason relatively healthy. Atlanta's biggest issue is how it's starting pitching stacks up to L.A.'s. Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA), Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21 ERA) and Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20 ERA) have been good, but the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA), Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA) and Hyun-jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA) are better.
As long as the Dodgers receive contributions from a few of their talented, healthy hitters, they should be able to put away the Braves and reach the NLCS.
Pitching could be difference-maker in Tigers-A's series
Think home-field advantage matters in the ALDS between the Tigers and Athletics? Think again.
In seven regular season meetings between the AL Central division champs and the West winners, the visiting team was 5-2. (For what it's worth, Oakland won the season series, 4-3.)
So should the A's be worried that they're hosting three out of five games in this series if it goes the distance? Of course not. But there's no reason to give anyone an edge based on that fact alone.
The real difference-maker here is likely to be pitching. Most years, the prospect of Tigers ace Justin Verlander starting two games in a playoff series -- starting with Friday's Game 1 -- would be a scary proposition. But a pedestrian season (13-12, 3.46 ERA) compared to that of teammates Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90 ERA) and Anibal Sanchez (14-8, 2.57 ERA) makes manager Jim Leyland's choice tougher to swallow this year.
Oakland's pitching doesn't quite stack up to that trio, but a more balanced lineup led by underrated third baseman Josh Donaldson (.301, 24 HRs, 93 RBIs) gives the A's plenty of weapons to challenge Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez, who combined to strike out 659 batters this season.
But above all, no player is more valuable to either side's success than Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (.348, 44 HRs, 137 RBIs). The slugger, who made a run at a second consecutive Triple Crown and was successful in winning a third straight batting title, battled a groin injury late in the season. If he's unable to perform at his peak, that dramatically alters Detroit's postseason outlook.
However, such strong pitching should be able to carry the Tigers into the ALCS, even if they may need five games to get there.