With about two weeks left in the 2013 Major League Baseball season, the playoff pictures are starting to come into focus, but there's still a whole lot of jockeying for position going on, especially in the wild-card races.
From this Friday, the 13th, until the last day of the regular season on Sept. 29, teams that are already in the picture will be looking to fight for a better position in front of the camera, while those who are on the outside looking in will be hoping to elbow their way into the frame.
In the National League, while the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves are on the verge of clinching their divisions, the NL Central is far from over, as the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are all within 2.5 games of each other entering play Friday.
Of course, the two teams that fall short of that crown will have to face each other in a one-game wild-card playoff. (Yes, the Washington Nationals are lurking, but they're still not dressed in their picture-perfect attire, so they're not yet ready for their close-up.)
Over in the American League, on the other hand, the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics appear to be in varying degrees of good-to-great shape as the photographer is starting to count backward from 15 (as in games left).
But—boy, oh, boy—the wild-card race in the Junior Circuit is something else, as 2.5 games is all that separates six different teams (deep breath now): the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals.
Not all of the above teams in the AL are going to be able to strike a pose, but because everyone is packed in so tightly and ready to say, "cheese!" we'll consider them all in a rundown of the 10 most likely wild-card matchups across both leagues.
The potential pitching matchups will be a major focus below, and in the interest of entertainment factor and common sense, we're going to figure that all teams will be manipulating the schedule to enable them to throw their top arm.
Certainly, though, things could change based on how the races play out between now and the final few regular season games; for instance, if a playoff berth is on the line, a team may be forced to pitch their top starter just to get into the actual wild-card contest.
For the sake of sanity, let's start with the Senior Circuit, where the the scene is closer to being set.
Before we begin, it's worth pointing out that the NL wild-card game is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 1, while the AL one is Wednesday, Oct. 2.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
Regular Season Series: 10-9 in favor of the Pirates
Likely Starting Pitchers: RHP Adam Wainwright (16-9, 3.03 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.2 K/9) against LHP Francisco Liriano (16-7, 2.92 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 9.1 K/9)
Wainwright against Pirates in 2013: 1-0 (3 starts), 21 IP, 7 ER (3.00 ERA), 15 H, 20:6 K:BB
Liriano against Cardinals in 2013: 3-0 (3 starts), 24 IP, 2 ER (0.75 ERA), 10 H, 20:5 K:BB
Who Would Win: Cardinals. The season series was oh-so-close, and this pitching matchup could be closer than expected, especially with Liriano having owned St. Louis all three times he's faced them. Wainwright, though, has been almost as great in his three starts against Pittsburgh. With no clear pitching edge, it comes down to offense, and the Cardinals have a better and deeper lineup than the Pirates.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Cincinnati Reds
Regular Season Series: 11-8 in favor of the Cardinals
Likely Starting Pitchers: RHP Adam Wainwright (16-9, 3.03 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.2 K/9) against RHP Homer Bailey (10-10, 3.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.9)
Wainwright against Reds in 2013: 1-3 (4 starts), 22 IP, 19 ER (7.77 ERA), 29 H, 18:7 K:BB
Bailey against Cardinals in 2013: 2-2 (4 starts), 24.2 IP, 11 (4.01 ERA), 25 H, 20:7 K:BB
Who Would Win: Reds. Wainwright hasn't fared anywhere near as well against the Reds as he has against the Pirates (and really, most other teams this year), which could make this a dicey game for St. Louis. If Cincinnati's potent lineup can make Wainwright work like they have so far—he's averaged under six innings per start against them—they could take advantage of the Cardinals' overworked bullpen.
Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds
Regular Season Series: 7-6 in favor of the Pirates
Likely Starting Pitchers: LHP Francisco Liriano (16-7, 2.92 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 9.1 K/9) against RHP Homer Bailey (10-10, 3.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.9)
Liriano against Reds in 2013: 0-3, (3 starts), 16.1 IP, 8 ER (4.41 ERA), 14 H, 21:7 K:BB
Bailey against Pirates in 2013: 0-1 (2 starts), 12.1 IP, 5 ER (3.65 ERA), 13 H, 20:1 K:BB
Who Would Win: Pirates. Both pitchers have whiffed well above a batter per inning in their outings against the other club but, partly because of that, neither one has had much luck lasting all that long or pitching all that well. If Liriano can neutralize big lefty bats Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, though—even if it's for only six innings— the Pirates excellent bullpen could take care of the rest.
Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Regular Season Series: 2-1 in favor of the Rangers
Likely Starting Pitchers: RHP Yu Darvish (12-8, 2.84 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 11.9 K/9) against LHP David Price (8-8, 3.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.4 K/9)
Darvish against Rays in 2013: N/A
Price against Rangers in 2013: N/A
Who Would Win: Rangers. This one is tough to judge because there's not much in the way of 2013 history here, both between the two teams and the pitchers.
A potential X-factor could be Nelson Cruz's return to Texas' lineup to team with fellow righty-hitting Adrian Beltre and give the southpaw Price fits, while the right-handed Darvish takes advantage of the Rays' righty-heavy lineup, including biggest threats Evan Longoria and Wil Myers.
Texas Rangers vs. New York Yankees
Regular Season Series: 4-3 in favor of the Rangers
Likely Starting Pitchers: RHP Yu Darvish (12-8, 2.84 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 11.9 K/9) against RHP Hiroki Kuroda (11-10, 2.99 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 6.7 K/9)
Darvish against Yankees in 2013: 1-0 (2 starts), 11.2 IP, 3 ER (2.31 ERA), 9 H, 10:4 K:BB
Kuroda against Rangers in 2013: 1-0 (2 starts), 13.2 IP, 2 ER (1.32 ERA), 11 H, 9:2 K:BB
Who Would Win: Rangers. Yes, Kuroda, who consistently keeps the Yankees in games, would get the ball over former ace CC Sabathia, who has been way too inconsistent to count on in a do-or-die contest.
With New York's lineup severely depleted due to injuries, including the latest to Brett Gardner, Darvish might only have to worry about handling lefty-hitting Robinson Cano in a key spot of a game that could, surprisingly, be a low-scoring affair.
Texas Rangers vs. Cleveland Indians
Regular Season Series: 5-1 in favor of the Indians
Likely Starting Pitchers: RHP Yu Darvish (12-8, 2.84 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 11.9 K/9) against RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (11-9, 3.62 ERA, 1.39, 9.2 K/9)
Darvish against Indians in 2013: 0-1 (1 start), 6 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 4:1 K:BB
Jimenez against Rangers in 2013: 2-0 (2 starts), 13 IP, 1 ER (0.69 ERA), 6 H, 10:7 K:BB
Who Would Win: Indians. With Justin Masterson out with a poorly-timed oblique injury and unlikely to be able to pitch, the nod goes to Jimenez, who has been much better over the past few months and who held the Rangers down both times he faced them.
Plus, Cleveland's lineup is loaded with batters who hit from the left side, which might make it tougher for Darvish, who allows a reasonable .672 OPS against them (compared to .507 versus righties). Cleveland is 5-1 against Texas this year, but this one still would be an upset.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. New York Yankees
Regular Season Series: 9-7 in favor of the Rays
Likely Starting Pitchers: LHP David Price (8-8, 3.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.4 K/9) against RHP Hiroki Kuroda (11-10, 2.99 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 6.7 K/9)
Price against Yankees in 2013: 1-1 (2 starts), 14 IP, 5 ER (3.21 ERA), 13 H, 10:1 K:BB
Kuroda against Rays in 2013: 0-1 (1 start), 6 IP, 7 ER (10.50 ERA), 9 H, 3:1 K:BB
Who Would Win: Rays. Again, all the Yankees' injuries would leave them short-handed against one of the top arms in the game. And considering Price is a left-hander to boot, he might be able to neutralize New York's only stud hitter, Robinson Cano, who bats from the same side.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Cleveland Indians
Regular Season Series: 4-2 in favor of the Rays
Likely Starting Pitchers: LHP David Price (8-8, 3.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.4 K/9) against RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (11-9, 3.62 ERA, 1.39, 9.2 K/9)
Price against Indians in 2013: 0-1 (1 start), 5 IP, 8 ER (14.40 ERA), 10 H, 3:3 K:BB
Jimenez against Rays in 2013: 1-0 (1 start), 8 IP, 0 ER (0.00 ERA), 4 H, 7:1 K:BB
Who Would Win: Rays. Price's ugly line in his lone outing against Cleveland came all the way back in April, and he's throwing much, much better of late. As mentioned above, the Indians have a lot of lefty batters, although Price would have to take care of switch-hitters Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera.
While Jimenez dominated Tampa in his start against them, his blowup factor is much higher than Price's.
Texas Rangers vs. Kansas City Royals
Regular Season Series: 2-1 in favor of the Rangers
Likely Starting Pitchers: RHP Yu Darvish (12-8, 2.84 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 11.9 K/9) against RHP James Shields (11-9, 3.38 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.5 K/9)
Darvish against Royals in 2013: 0-0 (1 start), 7 IP, 0 ER (0.00 ERA), 3 H, 6:2 K:BB
Shields against Rangers in 2013: 0-0 (1 start) 7 IP, 1 ER (1.29 ERA), 5 H, 5:1 K:BB
Who Would Win: Rangers. Despite his nickname, Shields has always struggled in big games (2-4, 4.98 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in six postseason starts), which means the Royals' best bet would be to stay in the game and deploy their dynamite bullpen. That's a tough recipe to cook up against Darvish.
Texas Rangers vs. Baltimore Orioles
Regular Season Series: 5-2 in favor of the Orioles
Likely Starting Pitchers: RHP Yu Darvish (12-8, 2.84 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 11.9 K/9) against RHP Chris Tillman (16-5, 3.66 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.7 K/9)
Darvish against Orioles in 2013: N/A
Tillman against Rangers in 2013: 1-0 (1 start), 8 IP, 2 ER (2.25 ERA), 6 H, 7:3 K:BB
Who Would Win: Orioles. Another big upset, as the Orioles have a power-hitting offense (MLB-high 196 homers) that also doesn't strike out much (sixth-fewest), which means one of, say, Chris Davis (49 HR), Adam Jones (31), J.J. Hardy (25) or Matt Wieters (21) has the ability to get to Darvish with one swing.
All statistics are accurate entering play Friday.