#4 Pittsburgh Pirates vs #1 St. Louis Cardinals
National League Division Series
Game 1: Pit @ Stl ; Thursday, October 3rd, 5:00 PM EST
Game 2: Pit @ Stl ; Friday, October 4th,1:00 PM EST
Game 3: Stl @ Pit; Sunday, October 6th, TBD
(If Neccesary) Game 4: Stl @ Pit; Monday, October 7th, TBD
(If Neccesary) Game 5: Pit @ Stl; Wednesday, October 9th, TBD
How They Got Here: The Pittsburgh crowd was rocking on Tuesday night, as the Pirates won their first playoff game since 1992. The 6-2 victory ended the Cincinnati Reds' season and moves the Pirates on to the NLDS vs the St. Louis Cardinals.
Strengths: Pittsburgh's offense is very balanced with players who can do a little bit of everything. They have players like Pedro Alvarez and Marlon Byrd who hit for power, guys like Justin Morneau and Neil Walker who have gap power, a speedy player in Starling Marte, and a player who can do all of that in Andrew McCutchen. The Pittsburgh bullpen had the 2nd lowest ERA in the National League at 2.89. They have two pitchers in Jason Grilli and Mark Malancon who can shut the door if called upon. A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano give the Pirates a rotation that can strike out 10 on any given night. The Buccos produced one of the best home records in baseball at 50-31. The crowd is insanely loud and hungry to see their Pirates bring a championship home to their city.
Weaknesses: When you have a young team, a lot of the time you unfortunately have an inexperienced team. Will the Pirates be able to handle games under the big lights of October? The Cardinals have been here, done that before; the Pirates have barely played a primetime game in a decade. The Pirates were 3rd in the National League in strikeouts and the offense can be inconsistent at times. Pittsburgh's pitching staff does get a lot of whiffs, but they walked the 2nd most batters in baseball.
Keys to victory: The Pirates may have the best new weapon in baseball: their home ballpark. That crowd at PNC Park on Tuesday really rattled both Johnny Cueto and his teammates. If the Buccos can steal one game in St. Louis, they may be able to take this series in 4. The Pirates cannot give the Cardinals extra opportunities. The Nationals gave the Cards extra life in the 9th inning of game 5 of the NLDS last year and they took advantage of it, and had a remarkable comeback win. It'll be important for Pittsburgh to not allow the Cardinals to get out to a big lead early. If the Pirates can get into the Cardinals bullpen fairly quickly, there are some questions on how sturdy that group of pitchers will be.
St. Louis Cardinals:
How They Got Here: The St. Louis Cardinals are in the playoffs for the 3rd year in a row and for the 10th time since 2000. They won a hard fought NL Central title for the first time since 2009 with a record of 97-65; the best record in the National League. Now they face the winner of the Wild Card, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the NLDS.
Strengths: The Cardinals are the best team in baseball at implementing the “next man up” philosophy. They have the best depth of any team in the playoffs. A lot of these players have already won a World Series ring, so they know what it takes to get the ultimate prize. This lineup doesn't really have a star, but they still have one of the most devastating lineups in the game. Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Matt Carpenter helped lead this Cardinals offense to the most runs scored in the National League. Adam Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in the game since he made his MLB debut in 2006 and beating him twice in a 5 game series could be an impossible task. The Cardinals are a team that doesn't need to rely on homers and seems to come up clutch every time there is a runner in scoring position.
Weaknesses: Trevor Rosenthal is a very talented rookie with a blazing fastball but he was just implemented as the closer last week. Will he be able to get the final three outs with the brightest lights shining on him? The Cardinals' best hitter with runners in scoring position, Allen Craig, will be out for the NLDS and will be replaced by Matt Adams. Matt Adams is a good hitter and filled in nicely for Craig to end the season, but don't underestimate the loss of Allen Craig to the Cardinals' lineup. While Adam Wainwright is a stud, the rest of the rotation is a little inexperienced and young. Rookies Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha have yet to play on the big stage, Lance Lynn started two games last year in the NLCS but didn't make it out of the 4th inning in either, and Joe Kelly pitched in the playoffs last year but only as a reliever.
Keys to victory: The Cardinals need to take care of business at home. If the Cardinals win all of their home games they will be moving on to the NLCS. However, if they let the Pirates steal a game at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals will need to win atleast once at the new greatest home field advantage in the MLB. The Red Birds are at their best when they play smart, fundamental baseball. The Pirates are a young and inexperienced team, so if they take advantage of their mistakes it'll go a long ways to winning this series. St. Louis can't leave their young starting pitching in the game too long if they struggle to pitch well. It'll be even more important to jump out to a nice sized lead when the rookies are on the hill. Score early and often; I still don't know if the Pirates have a good enough offense to make a comeback if they are down big early in a game.
First And Ten Staff Picks:
Seth Guttman: Pirates in 4. “I think the Pirates can steal a game in St. Louis in either games 1 or 2. Then when they get back to PNC, I think Shelby Miller, Joey, Kelly, and Michael Wacha will struggle to keep their composure while pitching in front of that loud PNC Park crowd. I have the Pirates upsetting the Cardinals and adding a new page to their magical season.”
Chris Marcotrigiano: Cardinals in 4. “While the Pirates are riding high after a historical win at home, they are running into a juggernaut in the St. Louis Cardinals. With a starting rotation consisting of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller, the Cards should be able to keep the Pirates' explosive offense at bay.”
Harris Yudin: Cardinals in 4. “The Cardinals have the most balanced team in baseball, with their offense, rotation, and bullpen all being very deep and talented. They've all been there before, and I think the Pirates' inexperience catches up with them.”
Anthony Tartamella: Pirates in 4. “The Pirates have so much momentum coming off of that great Wild Card win over the Cincinnati Reds. Their pitching looks great and the team looks hungrier than ever.”
#3 Los Angeles Dodgers vs #2 Atlanta Braves
National League Division Series
Game 1: LAD @ Atl ; Thursday, October 3rd, 8:30 PM EST
Game 2: LAD @ Atl; Friday, October 4th,6:00 PM EST
Game 3: Atl @ LAD; Sunday, October 6th, TBD
(If Neccesary) Game 4: Atl @ LAD; Monday, October 7th, TBD
(If Neccesary) Game 5: LAD @ Atl; Wednesday, October 9th, TBD
Los Angeles Dodgers:
How They Got Here: After a very slow start to the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a remarkable 2nd half going 45-23. The Dodgers finished the season with a 92-70 record and a NL West division championship. Now they are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and primed to make a deep October run.
Strengths: The Dodgers have the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw. The soon to be two-time Cy Young award winner had another remarkable season with a 16-9 record, 1.83 ERA, and 232 strikeouts. Facing Kershaw twice in a 5 game series will be a tough task for the Atlanta offense to deal with. While I still think he is a bit overrated, Zack Greinke did have a very nice season and the rookie southpaw from Korea, Hyun-Jin Ryu, did a very nice job as well. Those three were a big reason why the Dodgers finished with the best starters ERA in all of baseball. It finally looks like Hanley Ramirez is finally back to hitting the way we expect him to. In limited action he hit .345 with 20 homers and 57 RBIs, and was one of the main reasons the Dodgers ran away with the NL West in the second half. The Dodgers' magical playoff run may have been sparked by the polarizing up and coming star Yasiel Puig. Puig brought an energy and spark to the Los Angeles ball club that brought life to an almost dead in the water team. Do not try to run on Puig's arm; he may have the best outfield arm in all of baseball.
Weaknesses: The Dodgers had their great season without their superstar outfielder Matt Kemp. Kemp is already ruled out for the rest of the playoffs and Andre Either, while on the NLDS roster, may not be able to do anything but pinch-hit in this series due to an ankle injury. So the Dodgers, once thought to have too many outfielders, will now have to put someone like Skip Schumaker out there. Yasiel Puig is an amazing talent but he still seems to make a lot of bone-headed mistakes. Los Angeles can't afford for Puig to run them out of an inning or throw off a cut-off man; that could cost them a game or two. The Dodgers bullpen is pretty good but they have a lot of pitchers who have a tendency to give up a lot of walks.
Keys to victory: The Dodgers need to have the lead going deep into games or else the dominant Braves bullpen will eat them alive. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinkie, and Hyun-Jin Ryu need to give distance so the Dodgers' shaky bullpen doesn't have to hold down the fort. The Braves had the best home record in all of baseball in 2013, so winning both games at Chavez Ravine is crucial. The Braves offense is full of great fastball hitters, so the Dodgers need to keep them off-balanced and change speed. Atlanta's offense is very hot and cold, so if you can pile up the strikeouts, you're going to have a great chance to win this series. Take advantage of the young Braves rotation and Freddy Garcia; they can be beaten.
How They Got Here: After everyone proclaimed the Nationals the NL East champions before the season, the Atlanta Braves won it during the only part of the season that matters. They claimed their first NL East title since 2005 with an impressive 96-66 record. Atlanta took total control of this division in April and never gave it up.
Strengths: The Braves finished with the best home record in all of baseball at 56-25. The Braves had the lowest bullpen ERA in the MLB at 2.46 and have the best closer in the game in Craig Kimbrel. Atlanta's strength has always been in developing pitching and this rotation is an example of that once again. Kris Medlen had a fantastic 2nd half for the second year in a row; he's gone atleast 6 innings while giving up no more than three runs in his last 7 starts. Mike Minor did struggle a bit in the 2nd half but he finished the year with a very solid 3.21 ERA, 1.09 Whip, and 181 strikeouts. If it wasn't for Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig, we could be talking about Julio Teheran as the rookie of the year. The 22 year old right hander went 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.17 Whip, and 170 strikeouts. Freddie Freeman really broke out and has been an RBI machine all year long. Is it too soon to rename the “Justin Upton Trade” the “Chris Johnson Trade?” After coming over from the Diamondbacks, Chris Johnson finished 2nd in batting average in the National League, behind just Michael Cuddyer. Evan Gattis is a tremendous offensive weapon off the bench.
Weaknesses: This Atlanta team led the National League in strikeouts. This lineup is very hot and cold. When they are going strong, they could put up 10 runs in the blink of an eye. However, when this lineup is not hitting well, it will seem like they strikeout every single at bat. Freddy Garcia is starting game #4 (if necessary) over Paul Maholm, which I completely disagree with. While Paul Maholm hasn't been great this season, atleast you know what he is. Freddy Garcia could implode at any second and I think it's really risky for Fredi Gonzalez to throw him out there. The Braves have a very inexperienced top half of the rotation that has pitched one combined playoff game. B.J. Upton has had playoff success in the past but he's hit a pathetic .184 this season. Elliot Johnson and Paul Janish will be manning second base instead of the scuffling Dan Uggla.
Keys to victory: The Braves need to protect their home turf. They need to cut down on the strikeouts or the Dodgers pitching will eat them alive. Get Craig Kimbrel the ball with a lead. Find a way to get runners in scoring position when Freddie Freeman comes to the plate. The Braves must get quality outings from their starting pitching if they expect to keep up with the Dodgers' potent rotation. Don't give Hanley Ramirez or Adrian Gonzalez a good pitch to hit. They must find a way to win one of Clayton Kershaw's starts.
First And Ten Staff Picks:
Seth Guttman: Braves in 5. “I don't feel great about this pick at all but I'm going to stick with my gut here. I think these two teams are very similar in talent, and my usual tiebreaker for a playoff series when I don't know who to pick, is the better bullpen. The Braves have the better bullpen, therefore I'm going with the Braves. If my predictions come true we'd have a rematch of the famous 1992 NLCS between the Pirates and the Braves, where Sid Bream sent the Braves to the world series with his famous slide into home.”
Chris Marcotrigiano: Dodgers in 5. ”The Dodgers sustained a huge blow when they learned that Matt Kemp would be sidelined for the playoffs. Andre Ethier will have to step in to fill the void and players like Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez will have to have monster series at the plate. That is easier said than done against the solid pitching staff that the Braves possess, but I think LA has the tools to get it done.”
Harris Yudin: Dodgers in 5. “The Braves lack veteran leadership and experience in their starting rotation. Also, their offense strikes out a lot, which is something the Dodgers' pitching staff will feast on. The Dodgers are more reliable and have a balanced team. The one weakness the Dodgers may have is the back end of the bullpen.”
Anthony Tartamella: Braves in 5. “The Braves have a great team on paper and now looked prime to make a run at the NL pennant. The Braves great pitching and defense will lead them to victory.”