MLB Playoffs 2012: Dark Horses Who Will Challenge Pennant Favorites

Brandon Burnett@B_Burnett49Contributor IIIOctober 2, 2012

ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 1: Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals returns to the dugout after scoring a run against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium on October 1, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Winning baseball games in October isn't about having the biggest payroll, it's about getting hot at the right time and riding that momentum into postseason glory.

Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cards went 23-9 over the final 32 games of the 2011 season and not only rallied in miraculous fashion just to make the playoffs, but shocked us all by winning the 11th World Series Championship in club history.

The playoff field for this year's October Classic is all but set, and the National League presents us with some rather unfamiliar faces.

None of the four teams who have currently clinched a spot—Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Washington—made the playoffs last season. If St. Louis, who is guaranteed at least a share of the final wild-card spot and can win it outright with a win or a Dodgers loss either today or tomorrow, makes the one-game wild-card playoff against the Braves, they'll be the only returning playoff team from last year.

The AL field is completely set, with the Rangers, Yankees and Tigers all returning from 2011. The A's and Orioles are the newbies, and we're all surprised to see them here.

Of course, the Rangers have a stranglehold on the AL pennant and look to make a third straight appearance in the World Series. But don't consider them a shoe-in just yet. Texas is the only AL playoff team to post a losing record in their last 10 games (4-6), and the A's are now just a game out of the AL West lead, with two to play.

Let's look at a dark horse team from each league that will challenge the the usual pennant contenders in 2012.

AL - Detroit Tigers

It's hard to call a squad that took the Rangers to six games in last year's ALCS and became the first AL team to clinch their division this year a dark horse, but that's exactly what these Tigers are.

Detroit was three games behind the White Sox for the AL Central lead just two weeks ago, with little shot of claiming a wild-card spot. It was basically division or bust, and the Tigers stars came up huge down the stretch to secure a second straight division crown.

With a 14-6 record in their last 20 games, the Tigers are suddenly playing exactly the type of baseball they'd hoped to be playing in the regular season's final month.

Led by AL MVP candidate and triple crown hopeful Miguel Cabrera, the offense has been contributing heavily, and the starting pitching has been lights out.

The Tigers have a team ERA of 3.54 since the All-Star break, good for second in the American League. Arguably, you could make a convincing case that the Tigers have the best pitching staff in baseball.

Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer make for a nasty trio of starting pitchers that are a combined 24-8 in 43 starts since the break.

The relievers have been shaky throughout the year, but the return of Al Alburquerque couldn't have come at a better time and closer Jose Valverde has only one blown save since July 14th.

On offense, Cabrera continues to prove he's the best hitter in baseball. He's posted career-best numbers in home runs (44) and RBI (137), and with Prince Fielder behind him in the clean-up spot (.313 AVG, 30 HR and 108 RBI), Detroit's dynamic duo is ready to terrorize opposing pitchers all October.

There are questions that remain, however.

Max Scherzer has been bogged down by shoulder fatigue right before the playoffs. He says he'll be 100 percent for the postseason (per Tom Gage of the Detroit News), which is crucial for the Tigers postseason hopes.

Also, can the Tigers get enough run support from the supporting cast on offense? Shortstop Jhonny Peralta's bat has been extremely inconsistent (.173 AVG in September) and newly added second baseman Omar Infante hasn't been great, either.

Defense has been a noted issue as well, but Leyland has done well to fix the outfield by playing Andy Dirks and Quintin Berry in favor of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch. Young is better suited for a DH role, which is where he's been playing.

He's no Victor Martinez, who Detroit has been without all year, but Young is a serviceable option at the plate who can drive in important runs on occasion.

It hasn't been a perfect season for the Tigers, and many wrote them off as serious pennant contenders due to their inescapable inconsistencies at the plate as well as in the field.

It's all coming together now, and you'd be foolish to count these cats out. 

NL - St. Louis Cardinals

The defending World Series Champs, a dark horse? Seriously?

You bet. 

Remember, Albert Pujols is gone, there's a new skipper in town and Chris Carpenter missed 150 games this year with a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder. 

Nonetheless, the Cards are all but back in the postseason and prepared to defend their title.

St. Louis struggled mightily in late August and early September, but they're closing out the season in style once again. The all-in Dodgers are red-hot and have won six straight, but the Cards have 11 wins in their last 14 games in an effort to stave off their furious rally. 

Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright is returning to All-Star form, allowing two runs or less in 12 of his last 16 starts. A slow start was expected, considering he missed all of 2011 after having Tommy John surgery. Wainwright has lowered his ERA from 4.75 to 3.94 during that stretch. 

Carpenter, the 37-year-old veteran starter, is back at the perfect time. He's been a postseason hero for this squad in each of their recent championships, and the team won five of the six games he started in last year's October Classic. 

Don't forget that Kyle Lohse is having a career year on the mound (16-3 with a 2.86 ERA), and 25-year-old Lance Lynn has 18 wins on the year, including in each of his last five starts. 

Sure, there's no Prince Albert to build the batting order around, but the Cards have arguably the most consistent group of hitters in the National League.

Five guys have at least 20 HR and 76 RBI on the year, and St. Louis is currently three runs shy of the Brewers for most runs scored in the NL. 

Albert who?

The Cardinals are usually a forgotten team when discussing contenders leading into the playoffs. This year is no different, and that's apparently how they prefer it. 

The bullpen could use a little more consistency, outside of closer Jason Motte (41 saves, 2.78 ERA) and reliever Mitchell Boggs, but it's hard to find any other glaring weaknesses on this roster. 

New manager Mike Matheny hasn't been perfect, and he's learning on the fly, but if there's one thing we've learned in Major League Baseball over the past few years, it's that you can't count this team out. 

The Nationals have lost 10 of their last 16, and are without Stephen Strasburg until 2013. I'm not writing them off, but despite being tied for the best record in baseball, I wouldn't call them favorites. 

The Braves, Giants and Reds are all playing solid baseball just like the Cardinals, and at this point, the race for the NL Pennant is basically a crapshoot. 

All I'm saying is if St. Louis does clinch the second wild-card berth and trumps the Braves to advance to the NLDS, look out. 

This team knows how to win, and they're winning at the perfect time. 


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