Baseball Legends Are Born in the Chilly Month of October

It’s the new postseason. Filled with all the new intrigue and mystique of the one-game playoff, this one win-or-go-home extravagance features four teams that played 162 games for this very moment. By the time you read this, two playoff teams would have already been sent packing. Not familiar with the new postseason format? Or not sure what to make of this year’s contenders? In this year’s wide open field, let’s take a look at the contenders.

For starters, let’s take a close look at the National League.

Atlanta Braves v. St. Louis Cardinals

Rewind to September of last year: the Braves held an eight-and-a-half game lead, only to have their pitching decimated by injury, a hitting slump and one of the worst September collapses in history. Red-hot St. Louis came from nowhere to win the Wild Card and went on to win the World Series, but now Chipper Jones’ Braves are looking for revenge in a one-game playoff.

Atlanta’s offense has been much more consistent this season, led by Jones’ swan-song season, and with their newfound ace Kris Medlan (10-1, 1.57 ERA) starting Game 163 and Cy Young candidate Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen, the Braves seem poised to keep runs off the board.

Problem is, the Cardinals’ forte is their offense. Even without Albert Pujols this year, the 2012 Redbirds have Yadier Molina, Matt Holiday, World Series MVP David Freese and the National League lead in runs scored, slugging and OPS. Now, throw in a rotation with Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse. An unsettled bullpen is the main reason why this year’s Cardinals only have 88 wins as they look to repeat. The Braves offense has been inconsistent in the past, so ultimately their starting pitching after Medlan and the offense’s consistency will determine how long the Braves’ stay in October lasts. Similarly, the Cardinals will need to consistently score more runs than their inconsistent pitching gives up.

The Division Winners: San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals

Of the three, San Francisco has the most experience. Washington has the most wins. As for Cincinnati, look to Aroldis Chapman’s 105 mile per hour fastball.

San Francisco did just win the World Series two years ago with the same core players. Only now, Buster Posey has matured from rookie phenom to MVP candidate; Matt Cain has emerged as a true ace; and Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro are creating absolute havoc at the top of the lineup. In 2010, the offense showed up in October and they won it all. In 2011 it didn’t, and they watched the whole postseason from home. Which one shows up this year will go a long way in deciding the Giants’ fate.

Similar to the Giants, Cincinnati is back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. Joey Votto will do what Joey Votto does, and the pitching is talented enough to give up the fewest runs in the league this year. This team’s core is young and talented, and should be relevant for years to come, but alas, they’re inconsistent at times. The October maturation of young studs like Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey, among others, is the biggest key to the Reds’ success.

The Washington Nationals have this year’s biggest storyline, but what gets lost is the balance behind the regular season’s best team. Uber-phenom Bryce Harper, who at 19 years old couldn’t even partake in the teams champagne celebrations, has been all the talk of the league this year. But what the casual fan doesn’t see is a dynamic pitching rotation that leads the league in ERA. Problem is, that team had Stephen Strasburg. The team’s most dominant pitcher, Strasburg, had his season end a month ago by Nationals management, who felt it would be in his best long-term interest as he recovers from his Tommy John Surgery two years ago. The offense is solid and balanced, but they will need to get hot in October for Harper and company to get another champagne shower this year.

Next up, the American League.

The Play-in Game: Texas Rangers vs. Baltimore Orioles

This is perhaps the easiest and hardest teams in the playoffs to get a handle on. In Texas is the team that has gone to back-to-back World Series, and features Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre and company, plus Japanese free agent Yu Darvish. But on the other hand, this team can’t seem to pitch right now and they blew a double-digit lead in the AL West. Which Rangers team shows up is anyone’s guess.

Speaking of guesses, hardly anyone guessed before the season that the Orioles would even reach the postseason. The team has no hitter hitting .300 and no pitcher with even 200 innings pitched, but manager Buck Showalter has had his team play inspired and seemingly over their heads all season, and so against the odds they are here in the win-or-go-home game. Midseason acquisition Joe Saunders will start that game on the mound, and how he and the rest of the pitching staff fare in October will be crucial in determining exactly how much pixie dust Buck Showalter’s O’s have left for this season.

The Division Winners: Oakland A’s, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees

Probably the most surprising of the six total division winners is the Oakland A’s. They traded their arguably three best players — Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill — this past offseason, but the young prospects they received back in those trades, along with the youth already in Oakland, all took big steps forward this year and matured into a possible powerhouse for years to come. For now though, they are by far the most inexperienced team in October, and that much youth usually hinders teams this time of the year.

The Detroit Tigers, on the other hand, were picked by almost all to win the Central, except they almost didn’t. They trailed the White Sox in the standing almost all year, and only in September did the Tigers establish themselves as the team most predicted. But now, with reigning Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, Cy Young, MVP winner Justin Verlander and an absolutely stacked middle of the lineup, a hot Tigers team might have reached people’s expectations just in time.

And finally, the New York Yankees, who did what they do — win. Their 13th division title in 17 years lacked familiar face Mariano Rivera (torn ACL), but Derek Jeter did what Derek Jeter does: he hit .316 with 15 home runs in what has been an underrated season for the Yankee captain. With Jeter, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson leading a stacked Yankees lineup, and CC Sabathia anchoring the rotation, the Yankees once again have the big names to go deep in October. How well the not-so-well-known players do might be what ends up determining the Yankees fate.

My picks: In a postseason filled with the new turmoil of the wild card game and realignment of home games in the playoffs, experience will be key. I’m picking the Cardinals and the Yankees to play in the fall classic, and alas, I don’t predict a repeat champion, meaning call it taboo all you want, but I’m picking Derek Jeter to win his sixth World Series ring.