NEW YORK — Over the course of six months and 162 games, fans have patiently waited for the two words that separate Major League Baseball from all other sports during the fall season; October baseball.
Few sports capture the excitement baseball does during its final act — a high-end caliber month of only the best teams squaring off for a chance at a World Series title.
For every fan wishing baseball expanded the playoffs to more teams — an argument worth debating — is another fan appreciative of the premier level of play witnessed during the most exclusive postseason in sports.
The quest to reign supreme begins Wednesday afternoon when the Tampa Bay Rays, American League East champions for the second time in three years, host the AL West champ Texas Rangers, in their first trip to the playoffs since 1999.
Their reward? A date with either the defending champion New York Yankees, or the Minnesota Twins, Central division winners for the sixth time since 2002.
On the other side, the Philadelphia Phillies will put their National League crown on the line when they open their division series against this year’s cinderella team, the Cincinnati Reds, who return to the postseason after a 14-year hiatus.
Let’s use the W’s (minus the when and the where, click here for the official MLB postseason schedule) to help make sense of it all.
Tampa Bay Rays (96-66, tops in AL), 1st AL East
Who: David Price (19-6, 2.72 ERA, .221 opponents’ batting average)
What: Despite a lineup that boasts plenty of power and speed, the Rays managed to get no-hit twice this year and had the second lowest team batting average (.247) in the AL. Price anchors a once-promising staff that will need to do a better job of getting the ball to Rafael Soriano and his 45 saves.
Why: The Rays can without question get back to the World Series for the second time in three years, but their first title in franchise history hinges squarely on the starting pitching. Their decision to start James Shields (13-15, 5.18) in Game 2 over Matt Garza (15-10, 3.91) gives Texas a chance to steal back home field advantage.
Minnesota Twins (94-68), 1st AL Central
Who: Joe Mauer (.327, .402 OBP, 43 2B)
What: There will be a gaping hole in the middle of the Twins lineup with the announcement Canadian first baseman Justin Morneau will miss the entire postseason due to post-concussion syndrome. And despite having already endured nearly two months without their slugger, Morneau’s presence will be sorely missed when the stakes are raised.
Key stat: The Twins, who have home field advantage in the ALDS, own the AL’s best home record, going 53-28 at their new ballpark Target Field.
Why: Ron Gardenhire’s troops have already overachieved given their rash of injuries this year, which includes replacing two quality closers in Joe Nathan and Jon Rauch. Unless Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75, 7 CG) can come back to haunt his former team, the Twins will be hard pressed to knock off the defending champs.
Texas Rangers (90-72), 1st AL West
Who: Josh Hamilton (.359, 32 HR, 100 RBI, 40 2B)
What: Texas makes its first playoff appearance after 10-straight seasons watching October baseball from home. The Rangers bring to a well-balanced lineup with them, one that led all of baseball with a .276 team average.
Why: Hamilton had a phenomenal year despite missing 29 games due to various injuries. The MVP-candidate was the only player in the majors this year that hit at least .330, with an on-base percentage over .400, slugging over .600 and OPS (the sum of the latter two) over 1.000.
The Rangers will need a healthy Hamilton and the Cliff Lee of last year’s postseason (4-0, 1.56, 2 CG) for a shot at their first title in franchise history.
New York Yankees (95-67), Wild Card
Who: Robinson Cano (.319, 103 R, 29 HR, 109 RBI, 41 2B)
What: The Yankees are…well, the Yankees. They boast one of the most potent lineups in baseball, one that includes Mr. November himself, Derek Jeter.
The Yankees captain is the all-time playoff leader in games played, hits, runs and sits third in home runs, while sporting a batting average of .313 in postseason play.
New York also features five players with at least 24 home runs (Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, and Curtis Granderson) and a potential Cy Young award winner in C.C. Sabathia (21-7, 3.18, 237.2 IP).
Why: All the Yankees need to do to get back to the World Series is to get a strong pitching performance from the rest of the staff.
With the announcement that A.J. Burnett will pitch out of the bullpen if needed during the ALDS, all the pressure will rest on veteran left-hander Andy Pettitte, who would likely make two starts if the series goes five games, and 24-year-old righty Phil Hughes.
Rust will be a concern for the 38-year-old Pettitte, who has made just four starts since July 18 due to injuries and has allowed 13 earned runs over his last 15.2 innings.
Philadelphia Phillies (97-65, tops in MLB), 1st NL East
Who: Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44 ERA, 9 CG, 4 SHO)
What: The defending NL champs are eager to win their second World Series in three years and they absolutely have the talent to do so. Philadelphia has been banged up for much of the year but finally appear to be healthy. Combine this with a deadly trio of starting pitchers and you’ve got bad news for the opposition.
Why: There is a possibility, albeit unlikely, the Phillies go with a three-man rotation for the duration of the playoffs in what’s been dubbed “H20” (Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt). After Oswalt struggled in his first outing following his acquisition at the trade deadline, the Phillies have gone 41-17 and are the odds-on favorite to win their third World Series championship.
Cincinnati Reds (91-71), 1st NL Central
Who: Joey Votto (.324, 37 HR, 113 RBI, .424 OBP)
What: Formerly known as “The Big Red Machine” in the 1970s, these Cincinnati Reds aren’t your dad’s team. The Reds, to their credit, took advantage of a weak division by playing their best baseball early before stumbling to the finish line by going 14-16 from September 1 on.
Why: Votto is a favorite to win the MVP after a Triple Crown-type season but that won’t help much in October. Unfortunately for Reds fans, a first-round date with the Phillies doesn’t help either.
San Francisco Giants (92-70), 1st NL West
Who: Tim Lincecum (16-10, 3.43, 231 SO)
What: It’s a tale of two teams with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants are the worst offensive club of the eight remaining teams in the playoffs, sitting last in runs scored, runs batted in, stolen bases and an average higher than only the Rays. Rookie of the Year candidate Buster Posey gives the Giants a bit of pop in the order, clubbing 18 home runs in just 108 games since being called up at the end of May.
Pitching on the other hand, that’s another story.
Led by Lincecum, the Giants pitching staff led the majors this year in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts. Four starters eclipsed the 190-inning, 150-strikeout mark in Linceum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez and should be able to take advantage of an equally light-hitting Atlanta team.
Why: With home field advantage in the first round against the Braves, San Francisco has a good shot at playing in the NLCS for the first time since 2002. The ability to generate some offence will be the key factor in getting any further.
Atlanta Braves (91-71), Wild Card
Who: Tim Hudson (17-9, 283, 228.2 IP)
What: Atlanta squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the season, giving manager Bobby Cox the send off he deserves. Having already announced his retirement at the end of the year, Atlanta will be playing for its legendary skipper who has guided the team to 15 playoff appearances under his reign.
Why: The Braves will need their offence to step up in a big way against a stingy Giant pitching staff. While they don’t boast a ton of power, they do come with consistency. Seven different Braves hit at least 10 home runs, including Rookie of the Year candidate Jason Heyward (.277, 18 HR, 77 RBI).
Yankees over Twins in four.
Rays over Rangers in five.
Phillies over Reds in three.
Giants over Braves in four.
Yankees over Rays in seven.
Phillies over Giants in five.
Phillies over Yankees in five (MVP – Roy Halladay).