One thing about predicting this new round of the playoffs… It’s a total crapshoot. Complete and unadulterated crap. It all depends on how the team’s pitching rotations line up as the season ends. Both of these teams were going all out to win their divisions, so they didn’t have time to set anything up properly. That, and the fact that literally anything can happen in any one game of baseball, makes it really hard to predict a winner accurately. I’ll give it my best shot, though.
Wild Card Game 1: Orioles @ Rangers
The Rangers fumbled away the division after holding a 13 game lead at one point, and a five game lead with nine to go. While they didn’t play all that badly (Oakland really played incredibly well), they still let Oakland sweep them in three games to close the year. In that regard, they have no one to blame but themselves for not being able to rest for the next few days. The Orioles, meanwhile, battled the Yankees until the very last day of the year. They were the Oakland A’s of the AL East scenario, overcoming a 10 game deficit to the Yankees and battling them for the division lead for the entire month of September. No one ever thought the Orioles would make it this far, so they deserve a lot of credit too.
How The Orioles Can Win
I really don’t understand how the Orioles managed to stick around and give the Yankees a real run for their money this season. They weren’t even outscoring their opposition until the last month of the season, and only finished with a +7 run differential overall. Rookie Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen led them with only 12 wins (12-11) and none of their regulars finished the year hitting over .300. Nick Markakis topped them with a .298 average, and only Nolan Reimold finished over .300 at all, and he only had 67 ABs. It really is quite baffling. The Orioles did do one thing right with the bats though. They hit 214 home runs, which was good enough for second in the majors. Chris Davis, who has been red hot lately topped them with 33 bombs, but they had four other players with 20+ and six total with 10+ homers. They also have an amazing bullpen. Their top five relievers had ERAs under 2.65, and their closer, Jim Johnson, had 51 saves. 51!
They also have a certain “je ne sais quoi” that just keeps them winning ballgames they probably have no business winning. They have had that sort of destiny and mystique around them this season that the Yankees had in the late 1990s. You just knew they were going to find a way to win close games. This team won 16 extra innings games in a row this year, which was one off the major league record (they were 16-2 overall). They also went 29-9 in one-run games. This is not the team to get into a close battle with. They’ll find a way to win, especially with that fantastic bullpen.
The Orioles do have a couple of disadvantages in this matchup though. For one, the game is at Texas. I know they say home field doesn’t matter in baseball, but I think it matters everywhere. It’s always more comfortable at home. Secondly, they are a bit of a feast or famine team, as they also had seven guys with 100+ strikeouts. If Darvish gets that splitter going on his strike out game, it could be a long day for these hitters. Finally, the Orioles don’t have their best pitcher on the mound for this game. They will be starting Joe Saunders, who was designated for assignment and traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier this year. That’s not exactly a guy says that this game is in the bag.
How The Rangers Can Win
The Rangers have one of the most devastating lineups in all of baseball. With names like Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre and the likes peppered throughout their lineup card, they’re a legitimate force to be reckoned with at the plate. Texas scored more runs than any other team in baseball (808), barely topping the Yankees (804). They could potentially just slug their way through the Orioles, especially if the Baltimore pitching falters in any way.
The other advantage the Rangers have is that they have one of their top two pitchers ready to go in this game. Yu Darvish might be a rookie, but he has very legitimate professional experience from his time in Japan. He’s also no stranger to the post-season, having pitched in the Japanese playoffs for his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, in five of the last six seasons. In eleven total starts, Darvish went 8-2 with a 1.38 ERA. That boy good! On top of that experience, Darvish pitched his best ball down the stretch (one of few rangers who can make such a claim). Over his last eight starts, Darvish put up a 5-1 record with a 2.35 ERA. Overall, the rookie made the American League All-Star team and finished the season 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA. His 221 Ks in 191.1 innings were good enough for fifth place in the American League too. Although he did not face the Orioles in the regular season, he could be a matchup nightmare for a team that is very much prone to the swing and a miss.
The problem for the Rangers really comes down to lack of momentum. They basically got embarrassed this week by the A’s. They had their division all but sewed up and couldn’t win one stinking game. The last game wasn’t even close, as Oakland blew them out 12-5 (in a game the Rangers led 5-1). That can really mess with a team’s psyche, but at least they get to fly home for this game. That can sometimes be a good cure.
Again, this is a bit of a crap shoot, but the Rays showed what good pitching can do to the powerful Orioles lineup. The one game that they managed to win was a 1-0 affair in which James Shields struck out 15 O’s. They scored five runs in those three games facing Alex Cobb, Shields and Jeremy Hellickson. I think Darvish is going to carve his way through these hitters with little problem. I also think this Rangers’ offense will be too strong for either Johnson or Saunders. Rangers win this one and move on to face the Yankees in the ALDS.
Wild Card Game 2: Cardinals @ Braves
Last season, the Cardinals surged ahead of the Braves for the only Wild Card spot after an epic collapse that saw the braves blow a 10 game lead in the last month of the season. This season the Braves had no such collapse, but the Cardinals nearly did. They made it to the playoffs in the penultimate game of the year, but because the Dodgers lost and not because they were playing particularly well. The defending champion Cardinals must now fly to Atlanta to take on the Braves in National League’s wild card game. It should be a doozy, and should be one of the better pitching matchup of the entire post season.
How the Cardinals Can Win
At 88-74, the Cardinals have the worst record of any of the playoff teams other than the Tigers (also 88-74). You know what that means? Jack squat. They were also the worst team in the playoffs last season (90-72) and they won the World Series. They were also the worst team in 2006 (83-78) when they, all together now, won the World Series. Regular season records literally mean nothing once you make the playoffs, and the Cardinals have proven that again and again. The guy pitching this game, Kyle Lohse, might be their third best starter talent-wise, and he went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA this year. With the team missing Chris Carpenter for most of the year, and Adam Wainwright adjusting to life after Tommy John too, Lohse stepped up to lead this rotation. He’ll look to do the same one more time against Atlanta on Friday afternoon.
The Cardinals lost Albert Pujols this past off-season, but it didn’t stop them from boasting one of the better offenses in the league in 2012. Yadier Molina (.315, 22 HR, 76 RBI) might be taking home the MVP this year and Allen Craig, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltrán all smashed over 20 home runs this season. They can flat out hit the baseball, so if they get going and Lohse can hold the Braves at bay, they can take this game.
The weakness I see for the Cardinals, as far as this game goes, is the bullpen. I’m not completely sold on anyone that first year manager Mike Matheny can call on down there. If the game gets tight, that could be a problem. Jason Motte might have saved 42 games, but he blew seven. He throws a million miles an hour, but sometimes it’s a little too straight. The rest of the bullpen is a bit ho hum, although Mitchell Boggs had a very good year.
How the Braves Can Win
10-1, 1.57 ERA. Those were Kris Medlen’s numbers this season. As a starter, he went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in twelve starts. Those are video game numbers. In fact, the Braves haven’t lost the last 23 starts Medlen has made, which is an MLB record. The kid has been absolutely absurd since he joined the rotation a couple of months ago.
The Braves also boast one of the nastiest bullpens in the majors. Their second year closer, Craig Kimbrel, set a major league record of his own this season by becoming the first major league reliever to ever strike out more than half the batters he faced over the course of the season when he K’d 116 men in 62.2 innings (231 batters faced). The rest of their bullpen isn’t bad either. Guys like Chad Durbin, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters can shut down lineups too. If Medlen gives them seven solid innings, that might be all she wrote for the Cardinals.
If the Braves have a game-to-game weakness, it’s the offense. It was announced that the slumping Brian McCann will not play in the Wild Card game, which leaves the Braves with only two real thumpers in the batting order. They are Jason Heyward, who led the team with 27 bombs, and Freddie Freeman, who popped 23 of his own. Atlanta only hit .247 with 149 home runs this season. They are a team that could be easily shut down at the plate.
At the end of the day, I think the Cardinals will win this one. Medlen has been unbelievable this season, but he’s not very experienced in high pressure situations. At some point, he has to have a bad start, and I’m sure the Cardinals’ offense is more than willing to make that happen. I think they have too many boppers for Medlen to handle, and the Braves offense won’t be able to overcome any lead greater than a couple of runs. Cardinals win.
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