The 2013 postseason will feature beards, Bucs and bygone Twins.
Less likely? Blowouts.
Not since 1995, when there were two fewer teams and a strike that erased three weeks of the season, have so few runs been scored in the major leagues as this year. And the teams that qualified for the playoffs did so by following that trend; the teams with the five lowest starting-rotation ERAs in the National League all qualified for the postseason, while the American League’s playoff rotations all ranked in the top six.
Count on that theme to carry over into the postseason, which reaches the Division Series stage beginning Thursday afternoon. Each of the eight finalists has an ace, and some lucky teams have two or three, pitchers with established track records who are being relied upon to shut down the opposition and get the game to the bullpen with a lead.
But when every team has superstar pitching, who wins the ring? Maybe it’s the Red Sox, who scored more runs than anyone. Maybe it’s the Cardinals, who had better clutch hitting than the other 29 teams. Could be the A’s, who own the most reliable defense. Or how about the Tigers, with the game’s best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, in the middle of the lineup? And then there are the Pirates, back in the postseason after 21 years, making them America’s favorite underdogs.
Here are five story lines to follow as the unpredictable postseason plays out:
Kershaw, Kershaw & Friend
That Clayton Kershaw was the NL’s best pitcher this year is well known. It may come as a surprise, however, that the Dodgers own the second-best pitcher in the NL postseason as well. While Kershaw posted an otherworldly 1.83 ERA, Zack Greinke quietly built a 2.63 mark of his own, a half-run better than any other NL postseason starter. He hasn’t given up more than two runs in a start since July. With each of them pitching twice per series, the Dodgers will put tremendous pressure on the other pitching staffs.
The relentless attack
Without the benefit of a DH, the Cardinals operated an American League offense; they scored a whopping 77 more runs than the next-most-proficient NL team, and were the only NL team among the nine highest-scoring in baseball. They did it without a dominant hitter, too. No Cardinal reached 100 RBI or 25 homers, but an MLB-best five starters had 75 RBI or more. The secret? Their .330 batting average with runners in scoring position, far and away the best in the league. Taking advantage of opportunities is what makes a champion.
Is it the beards?
The Red Sox went from a 93-loss, last-place team in 2012 to the highest-scoring team in the game in 2013, with 28 more wins. They had the best home record in the AL, drew more walks than anyone but Tampa Bay, and have a closer in Koji Uehara who has retired 56 of the last 60 hitters he has faced. They also lead the league in shaggy, scraggly whiskers, a symbol of the unity that last year’s team lacked. “It’s a bonding element. It takes the focus off the daily grind,” new manager John Farrell told reporters this week. “We wanted talented guys who were good teammates. If this is how they express it, that’s fine with me.”
Detroit and Oakland reprise their memorable first-round showdown of a year ago, a five-game thriller that included two walk-off wins, two shutouts, and four straight one- or two-run games. Three outs from elimination in Game 4, the A’s rallied with a three-run ninth, only to be shut down by Justin Verlander in the deciding game. This A’s team is more balanced offensively and has a stronger starting staff — but the Tigers feature Verlander, ERA champ Anibal Sanchez and Cy Young front-runner Max Scherzer. Still, don’t count out the A’s — the Tigers, strangely enough, are 1-9 in Verlander’s past 10 starts (including two against the Twins), and closer Joaquin Benoit has never saved a postseason game.
Seven of the eight remaining teams include former Twins, and most of those 11 players are in prominent roles. Justin Morneau of the Pirates and David Ortiz of the Red Sox bat cleanup for their teams, while Torii Hunter bats in front of Cabrera. Delmon Young was the MVP of the ALCS last year and homered in his first at-bat for the Rays on Wednesday night. Francisco Liriano has already won a playoff game for the Pirates, and he’ll go again against the Cardinals. And in the bullpen, Craig Breslow of Boston, Luis Ayala of Atlanta and Oakland closer Grant Balfour all pitch in critical situations. Also on playoff rosters: Cleveland’s Matt Carson, Pittsburgh’s Garrett Jones and Dodgers utilityman Nick Punto, who, along with Ortiz, already owns a World Series ring. Which former Twin will join them? We’ll know in three weeks.