The wild-card round is over, and now we're into the division series round. Despite having three winner-take-all games over the last three nights, all three were one-sided and rather dull affairs. Let's hope for more interesting baseball and, at least, closer games as we move further into the 2013 postseason.
There will be a single game thread for the two games Thursday that will post at 3 p.m. CT, one hour before the first game (Cardinals/Pirates); here's a preview of the two series and my prediction on who will win them.
Cardinals vs. Pirates
The Cardinals had the best record in the National League and led the league in runs scored. Series over! Right?
Not so fast. The Pirates' pitching staff was probably the single biggest reason for their big step forward into postseason play for the first time in 20 years. They allowed the second-fewest runs in the league; Francisco Liriano's great comeback year and the bullpen were the biggest reasons for that. All of the Pirates' top five relievers (Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson) had ERAs of 2.80 or lower; the top five starters, who accounted for 137 starts, all had ERAs of 3.59 or lower.
Can they stop the high-powered Cardinals offense? The teams nearly split their season series, the Cardinals winning 10 of the 19 games. Pittsburgh outscored St. Louis in those 19 games 87-85 -- but there's a catch to that. The last time the two teams met, the Cardinals swept a three-game series in St. Louis by scores of 12-8, 5-0 and 9-2. The Pirates righted their ship after that sweep and went 13-7 to end the season.
For the Cardinals, that sweep started a 17-5 season-ending run and St. Louis ended the regular season with a six-game winning streak that included the sweep of an apparently disinterested Cubs team.
Will the three-day layoff hurt the Cardinals? Will the fact that they were fattening up on also-rans while the Pirates played seven of their last 10 against the tough Reds offense make a difference? Will the Pirates' relative lack of run-scoring (they scored only 32 more runs than the Cubs this year) hurt their chances?
In the postseason, good pitching usually stops good hitting. The Cardinals have good pitching, too, though their bullpen has taken a bit of a hit recently with the horrid September of closer Edward Mujica (as usual, St. Louis didn't miss a beat when they installed Trevor Rosenthal in that role). The Cardinals have a reliever who you probably have never heard of (even though he pitched eight times against the Cubs) who set an obscure big-league mark this year:
Kevin Siegrist, a rookie left-hander in the Cardinals’ bullpen, allowed two earned runs in 39⅔ innings this season. That gave him an 0.45 earned run average, the lowest in the majors by a lefty reliever (minimum 35 innings) since 1876.
They keep churning 'em out. St. Louis is good, but Pittsburgh has "team of destiny" written all over it. Pirates in 5.
One thing is for sure in this series. If the Braves don't feel you're playing the game the right way, they will let you know. I can't wait for the first time someone in the Atlanta dugout or on the field thinks they've been shown up by Yasiel Puig, who plays the game with enthusiasm and abandon -- too much abandon, in the view of some. That alone ought to make for an interesting series.
The Braves and Dodgers rank first and third, respectively, in fewest runs allowed in the National League this year (the Pirates are second). They rank fourth and seventh, respectively, in runs scored, and so I'd expect this to be a low-scoring series.
Though both teams have excellent pitching, the Dodgers' rotation trumps the Braves', with Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke a touch better, in my view, than Atlanta's top three of Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran. The Braves seem quite confident in those three as they left Paul Maholm off their roster for this series. They also left off Scott Downs; they must not think they'll need lefthanded relief. That leaves only Luis Avilan to face Adrian Gonzalez in a critical situation; Avilan was really good this year, but you'd think they'd want more than one guy.
The Braves also left second baseman Dan Uggla off the roster; his batting average was atrocious this year (.179, tying current Cubs coach Rob Deer for the lowest ever for a qualifying hitter), but Uggla did draw 77 walks (fourth in the N.L., one more than Anthony Rizzo) and hit 22 home runs. They might miss that, although Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Justin Upton provide plenty of power for a team that led the league in home runs.
The Braves are good. The Dodgers are a bit better. Dodgers in 5.