MLB Playoffs 2012: 4 Players Who Must Deliver in Wild Card Play-Ins
For the first time, the MLB Wild Card teams will be decided by a one-game playoff before the official start of the postseason.
Four teams will be reduced to two after just one afternoon of baseball, and the stage is set for outstanding individual performances to steal the day.
The Baltimore Orioles put together a fantastic season in the AL East, but fell just short of catching the New York Yankees for the division title. On Friday, the O's will face the Texas Rangers, who must recover from suddenly dropping their division lead into the hands of the gritty Oakland Athletics on the final day of the regular season.
In the National League, defending champion St. Louis Cardinals must battle against the NL East stalwart, the Atlanta Braves, in order to give themselves a shot at retaining the title.
Sudden-death baseball will be a sight to see on Friday. The following four players carry the fates of their teams on their shoulders and will play a big role in deciding the outcome.
Baltimore Orioles: C Matt Wieters
What a year it has been for Orioles' backstop Matt Wieters.
Although he only hit for a .249 average, Wieters contributed 23 homers and 83 RBI. More importantly, Wieters was vital to the the O's pitching staff. He guided his pitchers against the loaded batting lineups in the AL East, helping Baltimore back to the postseason for the first time since 1997.
Friday presents his toughest task of the season.
Wieters will attempt to lead either lefty Joe Saunders or right-hander Steve Johnson against a Rangers' lineup that can swing with the best.
The Orioles are going to be forced to slug to keep up with Texas. Wieters has the ability to limit the amount of scoring his team has to do by effectively navigating through the likes of Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and veteran Michael Young.
Lastly, Wieters can provide some instant offense with one or two big swings on Friday. If Wieters knocks in multiple runs, the Orioles will continue their fairytale season and best the Rangers to make the postseason.
Texas Rangers: CF Josh Hamilton
Just two days after a costly error in a last-day loss to Oakland, Rangers superstar Josh Hamilton will retake the field with even more on the line.
In order for his team to experience a more positive result, Hamilton will need to turn in a performance reminiscent of the opening months of the season.
Although his final numbers are still gaudy (43 homers, 128 RBI while batting .285), Hamilton's play steadily declined during the summer months to get him to this point.
It's all out the window now.
Despite failing to defend their AL West title, the Rangers need to take a deep breath and have faith that their lineup will perform in a sudden-death situation.
Hamilton can make an early difference with his bat. He is and always will be a free swinger. If Texas' star slugger connects against Baltimore, expect the rest of a powerful Rangers' lineup to follow suit.
Atlanta Braves: P Kris Medlen
The Braves have to feel confident coming into a one-game playoff for the last postseason spot.
Pitcher Kris Medlen has guided his team to 23 consecutive victories dating back to 2010. On Friday, he'll take the mound against Kyle Lohse and the Cardinals in what is sure to be a classic NL pitcher's duel.
With the Wild Card berth on the line, Atlanta will rally behind the man who has become their stopper. Medlen is 9-0 in 2012 with a .97 ERA.
The young pitcher's job will be to get the Braves through the majority of the ballgame and turn the reins over to stud closer Craig Kimbrel (42 of 45 in save opportunities this season).
Medlen will face Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Allen Craig and Matt Holliday in the heart of the Cardinals' lineup. For the Braves to win, he must contain the offensive production of St. Louis' biggest threats; any of the four are capable of single-handedly stealing the show and the playoff berth on Friday.
This game could be decided by one big inning. Medlen's job is to make sure that inning doesn't happen early—and to quickly limit the damage if it does occur.
St. Louis Cardinals: P Kyle Lohse
As previously mentioned, the bout between St. Louis and Atlanta is going to be a pitchers' duel.
Luckily for the Cards, they'll roll out their ace in Kyle Lohse to oppose Atlanta's red-hot Kris Medlen.
Lohse finished the regular season with a 16-3 record and solid 2.86 ERA. Still his individual efforts were not quite enough to guarantee the defending World Series champs a spot in the 2012 postseason.
In order to secure that privilege for his team, Lohse will also have to go deep into the ballgame against a Braves lineup featuring four dangerous lefties (Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and slugger Freddie Freeman).
Last time around (May 30), Lohse gave up five runs on nine hits against the Braves. On Friday, he must avenge his poor mid-season outing and keep the Braves under three runs.
Lohse will have expert signal-caller Yadier Molina to rely on, as well as a team that knows the level of determination necessary to make deep postseason runs.
Look for the righty to rise to the occasion in a game that should be decided by a small margin.