On Friday, Major League Baseball will unveil its unprecedented wild-card format for the 2012 playoffs.
The Texas Rangers host the Baltimore Orioles, while the St. Louis Cardinals play visitor to the Atlanta Braves in a one-game playoff.
The winner of each matchup will move on to face the division champion with the best record in its respective league. That means the New York Yankees for the AL wild-card winner and Washington Nationals for the NL survivor.
Texas experienced a rather epic collapse during the final week of the season. It went 1-5 over its last six games, made all the more unbearable by being swept in the final three for just the second time all season.
That loss to the Oakland A’s in the last game of the regular season moved the Rangers out of first place for the first time essentially all season. Ron Washington’s club now finds itself in the dreaded wild-card round.
Occupying the other side of this dogfight is the Orioles. Buck Showalter’s club jostled back and forth with the Yankees and Rays seemingly all season long. It was tied with the Yanks until Oct. 1, but the Rays subsequently knocked them into the wild-card round.
These two clubs’ identical records do not accurately reflect the David vs. Goliath nature of this series. Texas was supposed to be a powerhouse team; Baltimore, on the other hand, wasn’t even projected to make the postseason.
Moving to the other league, the Braves were in contention for the NL East crown until the Nationals ran away with it starting in mid-August. Atlanta has been a relative lock for the wild card ever since, officially clinching on Sept. 25.
St. Louis, meanwhile, has been a fairly strong club throughout, with various fluctuations in the standings. The closest it came to the first-place Reds in the second half was five games out on Aug. 9.
The Cardinals then moved their focus to the Pirates and Dodgers—as well as the Brewers and Phillies for a time—until clinching the wild card on the second-to-last day of the season.
Rookie manager Mike Matheny leads his Cardinals and their explosive lineup. Fredi Gonzalez's Braves, for their part, are a well-rounded, superior team with an edge in overall pitching.
Let’s now preview each matchup and predict the final outcomes.
Orioles at Rangers
Joe Saunders (9-13, 4.07 ERA) vs. Yu Darvish (16-9, 3.90 ERA)
In a perfect world, the Orioles would have preferred Chris Tillman in this one-and-done. He had gone 9-2 with a 2.78 ERA since beginning his season on July 4 before his final start.
Unfortunately, their most consistent starter is unavailable after surrendering three runs (all on homers) on Wednesday.
Saunders, though, has been solid since being acquired from Arizona in late August. He posted a 3-3 record with a 3.63 ERA in his seven starts with the team.
He does not possess the strikeout stuff that Tillman has but instead succeeds by mixing speeds, locating and getting batters to hit his pitch. This approach, though, could prove deadly when facing the offensive juggernaut that is the Texas Rangers.
Rangers hitters are batting a collective .350 in their careers off Saunders with nine home runs and 26 RBI. Ian Kinsler in particular has a .417 BA with four big flies and eight RBI.
Saunders will need to utilize his postseason experience—but not the results—to overcome the unfavorable odds in his first start against Texas in 2012. His 21 home runs allowed this year do not bode well against the 200-HR Rangers.
On the other hand, the Rangers have one of their key starters locked and loaded for the one-game playoff.
Yu Darvish put together his best month since April by going 3-0 with a 2.21 ERA and 39 strikeouts through five September starts. The former Japanese star and MLB “rookie” punched out 221 batters in 191.1 innings in his first campaign in the states.
He has not faced Baltimore all year. The advantage, then, surely lies with the pitcher, whose repertoire of pitches is far beyond what these Orioles hitters face on an everyday basis.
The O’s are in for a rather tough evening because they rely on the long ball for their offensive output. They’ve hit 214 home runs on the year—No. 2 in the AL—compared to just a .247 average, .311 OBP (fourth-worst), 1,315 strikeouts and an AL-low 58 steals.
In other words, they are not adept at drawing out at-bats or playing small ball.
Darvish will not concern himself with his 89 walks on the year. Rather, he’ll feast on the Orioles’ strikeout tendencies in a shutdown effort in his first MLB postseason start.
He’ll hold Baltimore to two runs or less, while Texas will unleash fury in a home-run barrage fashion after its fallout during the final week of the regular season.
The scrappy never-say-die Orioles will finally meet their demise.
Cardinals at Braves
Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA) vs. Kris Medlen (10-1, 1.57 ERA)
Unlike the AL wild-card matchup, there is no questioning the Game 1 starters in the National League.
The underdog Cardinals will roll out their ace Kyle Lohse from the regular season.
Lohse is a crafty veteran enjoying a career year in 2012. He boasts an excellent 3.76 strikeout-to-walk ratio of 143 to 38. His 38 walks and just 192 hits allowed in 211 innings pitched reveal his ability to keep hitters off the basepaths.
He finished strong by recording four quality starts in his five final outings.
Braves hitters have fared well lifetime against Lohse. They have a batting line of .321/.371/.482 with five home runs and 23 RBI in 162 at-bats. Not surprisingly, Chipper Jones leads the way with a .462 average and five RBI.
If Lohse pitches anything like he did at Turner Field in late May, the Cards could be going home as quickly as they entered the playoffs.
He surrendered five runs (two HR) and nine hits in only five innings of work. Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman both homered and drove in two against the Cardinals' starter.
Lohse will have to relegate that start to distant history to give his team its best shot at victory.
Kris Medlen, Lohse’s counterpart, is in the midst of Major League Baseball history.
The Braves have won 23 consecutive times in games started by Medlen. His win over the Mets broke a 75-year-old record that was matched just once in 1953.
Aside from his .909 winning percentage, Medlen dominated by way of the punchout and plate command. He recorded an even better strikeout-to-walk ratio than his foe at 5.22 (120:23) with his deadly fastball-changeup combination.
He rarely gave up the long ball—just six in 138 IP—and posted an outstanding 0.91 WHIP.
Against the Cardinals in 2012, Medlen made three relief appearances in May but did not log a start. He pitched 5.2 innings and gave up three runs—quite mediocre by his standards.
However, he punched out five Cardinals without allowing a walk or home run.
The only batters on St. Louis with any real success against Medlen are Matt Adams and Rafael Furcal. Adams is no longer with the club, and Furcal is still sporting an injured elbow.
The remaining Cardinals are 4-for-22 (.182 BA) with two RBI.
On paper, this appears to be a completely lopsided advantage in favor of the Braves. They have the dominant pitcher and home-field advantage and have triumphed over St. Louis’ starter in the past.
But knowing the Cardinals' track record, this resilient bunch could very well pull a 2011 and shock the baseball world.
“You-never-know” possibilities notwithstanding, the Braves will handle the visiting team behind Medlen and timely run production.
The 2012 St. Louis Cardinals are not your 2011 variety.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16