Raise your hand if you foresaw a Baltimore-Kansas City ALCS matchup back in April. Anyone? Anybody at all? No? That’s what I thought. It’s a matchup that’s 30 years in the making and it features ball clubs that find a way to win in vastly different ways. The Royals stole more bases than any other team in the league while the Orioles plodded along the base paths, finishing dead last in baseball, 12 behind the next slowest team. Instead the O’s mashed their way to victory, racking up a Major League best 211 homers in the process, more than double the number of dingers hit by Kansas City. Both teams feature solid starting staffs and deep bullpens that have been dynamite this year when protecting a lead. This series has all the makings of a barn burner. So who’s going to win? Let’s take a run-through at some of the more salient points:
When Johnny Cueto exited stage left after striking out lead-off hitter Angel Pagan, the prevailing sentiment concerning the Cincinnati Reds was that they were in big trouble. Their staff ace had just left an enormous, tone-setting playoff game with back spasms, which meant that Cincinnati’s excellent bullpen would have to carry a large load, which can be unsettling going forward. You never want to waste bullets when you don’t have to, and the Reds were going to have to use a majority of their bullets. To make matters even worse, opposing Cueto on the bump was Giants’ ace Matt Cain, the owner of a 16-5 record, a 2.79 ERA, and a perfect game. Things couldn’t possibly have appeared any worse for the Reds, that is, until Dusty Baker decided to show the world what he has learned over the past couple of seasons.
How much does momentum matter on a baseball field? Can a team that enters the playoffs at its lowest point top one that’s been riding a hot streak for more than a month now? How much stock do you put into the notion that the team with the most talent eventually wins out? Does being a two-time defending champion with all the benefits of big game experience matter? Or can a team that’s seemingly been playing above its head continue to their magical ways? These are just a sampling of some of the storylines floating around a compelling winner-take-all contest between Texas and Baltimore to kick of the American League playoffs.
The inaugural Wild Card round (affectionately known as the Coin-Flip Round) takes place today and will feature a pair of exciting games. The first game on the docket matches up the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals with the Atlanta Braves, while game #2 has the Baltimore Orioles traveling to Arlington to take on the Texas Rangers. I suggest you cancel any plans you previously had for this afternoon/evening, because do-or-die baseball is here, which means that last year’s World Series combatants could be eliminated tonight. Let’s start by taking a look at the series over in the National League.
Barring a massive change in the playoff winds, the St. Louis Cardinals will be taking their repeat tour down to Atlanta to kick off the National League playoffs next Friday. Atlanta enters the final stretch week with a Wild Card spot already clinched, whereas St. Louis’ magic number is down to just 4 and their 3.5 game lead over Milwaukee and Los Angeles appears to be held with an iron grip. So, with the do-or-die game just over a week away, which pitchers should both franchises be looking at to make the pivotal, playoff-opening start?
The race for the American League West title hasn’t been much of a contest for most of the season, until recently that is. At the All-Star break the Rangers had a comfortable 4 game lead on the surging Los Angeles Angels while nobody thought too much of the A’s, who were sitting 9 games back with a strong pitching staff. The Oakland A’s have been on fire since , posting the best record in baseball at 41-18 (.695 win %), while eating up 7 games in the standings. It’s not like the Rangers have been slouches either, as they have played .576 baseball (34-25) since the break.
All of that good baseball by the bay has put Oakland in the driver’s seat for the 1st Wild Card spot, owning a 5 game lead over 3rd place Los Angeles and a 3 game lead over Baltimore that may shrink by a game if the A’s drop today’s game. But as everybody knows, you don’t want to play in that play-in Wild Card game, because anything can happen in a single game series. No, the A’s have the sights set on something a little bigger: the AL West crown. The only question is: can the wrestle it from the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers?