With the MLB regular season coming to an exciting conclusion, the playoffs begin Friday afternoon with the first ever games between two wildcard winners. The new format, implemented to upgrade the excitement around baseball certainly did that and more, with 16 teams mathematically alive within the final week of the season. On the AL side, the Texas Rangers will head home to Arlington and take on the Baltimore Orioles, while the Atlanta Braves will host the St. Louis Cardinals.
After holding five game lead with just nine games to play, the Rangers self destructed over the final ten days of the season and surrendered the division to the Oakland A’s in the season finale. The Rangers have easily advanced to the World Series the past two years and were once again the American League favorites. Texas will throw out prized offseason acquisition Yu Darvish, who has come over from Japan and has had a pretty solid season replacing the departed C.J. Wilson. The key for the Rangers however won’t be who’s on the mound, but rather putting behind the mental gaffes which cost them in the final game. It started with Josh Hamilton booting a fly ball that gave Oakland the lead, as well as the inability to continuously put away the A’s in two out run scoring positions.
For the Orioles, everything has seemed to fall in place with a 93 win season not a single expert predicted. The O’s will throw out mid season acquisition Joe Saunders and have brought baseball back to life in one of the games most historic cities. Behind the emergence of it all has been the development of a dynamic offence, consistent enough starting pitching and a bullpen pieced together with power arms. The Orioles rejuvenation has sparked a jump up from dead last in the league in opponents WHIP and 27th in league strikeouts to 14th overall in both categories. The meteoric climb by Buck Showalter’s team has been enough for the Orioles to compete with the Yankees all season long.
Prediction: The Orioles are good, but Texas will head to Yankee stadium for the ALDS.
On the National League side, the Atlanta Braves head into the wild card game with a surprise of their own in middle reliever turned starter Kris Medlen. While the 26 year old has had a historical season in all areas of his game (2.42 FIP, 3.9 WAR, 1.57 ERA) the spotlight will lie straight in the face of Chipper Jones, as the game could be the final one in his illustrious 19 year career. The Braves have gotten good pitching all season and have rebounded very well from a collapse for the ages last September. With a bullpen that has been managed much more effectively by Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves are set up nicely for their return to the postseason.
On the flip side, the Cardinals will be under plenty of pressure from their fans with the 2011 World Series championship fresh on their minds. The Cardinals have re-tooled from top management down, with Mike Matheny completing his first year at manager and Carlos Beltran replacing the bat of Albert Pujols. Yadier Molina has quietly put up MVP numbers for the red birds and anchors a staff that has again done a stellar job. Kyle Lohse will start Friday in what has easily been the best season of his career. The 16 game winner has been a workhorse with 211 innings pitched in the absence of multiple pitchers throughout the year. With Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter now healthy and ready to go, the Cardinals have the weapons to be a dangerous team once more.
Prediction: The Braves knock out the defending champs at Turner field and head to DC to play the Nationals Saturday.
With the new wildcard races giving more teams a chance to make the playoffs, it can be said that the structure of baseball is finally catching up to that of other sports. While not expanding to a point where the regular season is a round robin, the addition has already allowed teams a chance to compete and lets division winners set up their rotation as a reward. No matter what the results of the Wildcard games tomorrow, the refreshing change has brought a new element the game, and is a much needed step in the right direction.
Alykhan Khamisa – @alykhan_khamisa