Heading into play on Thursday, the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox each owned a 99.9 percent chance to make the postseason, according to ESPN.com's playoff odds. In other words, their bags are packed for a trip to baseball's postseason.
When they get there, many will predict a head-to-head battle in the American League Championship Series. If the playoffs started today, Boston would be pitted against the winner of a Texas-Tampa Bay wild-card play-in game, while Detroit would open with a 2012 Division Series rematch with the Oakland Athletics.
Blessed with big payrolls and star power, a prime-time matchup could loom in the ALCS.
Here's an early attempt at handicapping the potential showdown between long-time American League foes.
In terms of preseason predictions and expectations, the team with pressure on them when the calender hits October resides in Detroit.
After losing in the World Series in 2012 and ALCS in 2011, there is pressure on the Tigers to get over the hump and bring home a World Series championship. With a veteran, championship manager, expensive stars littered throughout the roster and an older owner desperate for a ring, it could be now or never for this group of Tigers.
On the other hand, Boston is finishing a remarkable turnaround and heading into October with house money. After the disaster that was the 2012 season of 93 losses, Boston could reach 93 wins by the weekend.
Unlike the postseason teams in the aftermath of the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles, the Red Sox shouldn't feel pressure heading into October. In reality, few expected them to be where they are headed.
If Detroit and Boston meet, expect fireworks throughout a seven-game series. No matter how dynamic or intimidating the pitching can be on either side, these offenses are relentless.
As of this writing, Boston and Detroit ranked first and second in runs scored and OPS across all of baseball. With middle of the order threats like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, power and on-base ability is in abundance.
Of course, the best hitter in the sport, Cabrera, likely holds the key to this series. While it feels ridiculous to question him, his numbers have fallen off precipitously after a five-month Triple Crown defense.
Through Aug. 26, Cabrera was hitting a ridiculous .359/.450/.688. Since that date, he's only posted a .261/.414/.348 slash line.
The two best offenses in baseball can set off fireworks at any moment, but Cabrera's ability to get hot, hit everything in sight and put a team on his back for seven games can change the dynamics of the postseason.
Through 152 and 153 games, Detroit and Boston, respectively, are separated by a narrow margin in total team ERA (3.65 to 3.76), but the margin grows (3.48 to 3.86) when extrapolating the numbers for the starting pitchers on each side.
Attempting to correlate regular season success into postseason dominance with starting pitchers can be a difficult and fruitless task. For example, Curt Schilling, a borderline Hall of Famer, put together one of the best runs of postseason pitching (133.1 IP, 2.23 ERA), while Greg Maddux, a candidate for unanimous induction into Cooperstown, pitched well (198 IP, 3.27 ERA) but was not overwhelmingly dominant.
Those examples set the stage for big names in big moments next month for Detroit and Boston.
While head-to-head battles can change or shift depending on the length of the Division Series for either team, here's a possible pitching forum for the ALCS, with Tigers' pitcher listed first:
Game 1: Max Scherzer vs. Jon Lester
Game 2: Justin Verlander vs. Clay Buchholz
Game 3: Anibal Sanchez vs. Jake Peavy
Game 4: Doug Fister vs. John Lackey
Between those eight starters, there are 15 combined All-Star Game appearances, two Cy Youngs, a possible 2013 Cy Young winner and seven other appearances within the Top 10 of Cy Young balloting.
On the other hand, there's recent down years (Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Verlander) and injury history (Peavy, Buchholz, Sanchez) littered throughout the group.
Extreme talent and the ability to dominate any lineup is there, but predicting who will rise to the occasion like Curt Schilling did in 2004 is a very, very arduous task.
Much like with Detroit's lineup, their star pitcher holds the key in this potential battle. While Max Scherzer might be the name you are thinking, it's their former ace Justin Verlander that will dictate how far they go and if they can navigate Boston's lineup.
#Tigers have now lost 9 games Justin Verlander has started just since all-star break (12 starts). Only lost 9 all year in 2011 (34 starts)— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) September 19, 2013
After a loss on Tuesday night to Seattle, Verlander talked (via CBS Detroit) about how unpredictable his performance in the postseason may be, despite feeling better as this season moves along.
“The stuff has been getting better almost every time out,” Verlander said. “How I’m going to be in the postseason, we’ll see. You never want to say anything clinched until it is.”
If he's the Verlander of MVP and Cy Young fame, Detroit has a sizable advantage in this area.
This may sound blasphemous when referencing anyone but the great Mariano Rivera, but when breaking down the bullpens for Detroit and Boston, only one name really matters: Koji.
As in Koji Uehara, the best reliever in the American League.
After scuffling throughout the early part of the season, Detroit steadied their bullpen through a combination of Joaquin Benoit (21-for-21 in save opportunities) and Drew Smyly (77 K in 73.2 IP), but neither has come close to the dominance of Boston's closer.
Injuries and ineffectiveness from other options prompted Red Sox manager John Farrell to give Uehara a shot to close early in the summer. To say he hasn't disappointed would be an understatement.
As Dave Schoenfield of ESPN.com's Sweetspot pointed out in a post earlier this week, Koji's season (69 IP, 10.67 SO/BB, 1.16 ERA) has been legendary. As of that writing, Uehara had only allowed a .126 batting average against and .393 OPS.
In other words, he's turned every hitter in baseball into roughly the equivalent of the average National League pitcher at the plate.
Detroit's pen, if given length by their starters, can finish the job with the Benoit-Smyly combo, but only Boston has the most dominant closer on the planet right now.
Outside of the National League, where double-switching and substitutions can be a major part of every game in the postseason, American League benches aren't talked about as big factors heading into October.
In Boston, it should be part of the equation due to their bench containing a group of semi-regular players that will play roles throughout October.
Between outfielders Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp and Quintin Berry; catcher David Ross and infielders Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks, Boston has a bevy of game-changers to plug in and out of the starting lineup, substitute for defense or call on for major pinch-hitting duties.
In Gomes, there's a powerful outfield bat that will start against left-handed pitching. Mike Carp, in the midst of an outstanding season (.307/.371/.548), showed off his fortitude in a big moment last week in Tampa. Berry, recently acquired from, ironically, Detroit, can steal a bag at any time. Bogaerts and Middlebrooks could be the future left side of Boston's infield, but are very viable options in the present.
As for Detroit, their everyday lineup is less flexible, but two players, from vastly different perspectives, can change a series.
If Johnny Peralta can show the team enough to activate him, possibly as an outfielder, his bat will provide a major boost.
Also a name you shouldn't forget: Utility man Don Kelly. The left-handed hitter can play virtually every position on the diamond and has swung the bat better in 2013 than any point in his career. As Oakland found out last year, while walking Cabrera and Fielder to get to Kelly with the game on the line is the textbook decision, he might make you pay.
John Farrell is the likely American League Manager of the Year for the work he did with a Red Sox team that lost 93 games last season. His pitching acumen and calming influence was exactly what Boston needed a year after the Bobby Valentine experiment went horribly, horribly wrong.
That being said, he'll give up years of postseason experience to Jim Leyland in a possible late October battle. To be fair, though, that's not always a bad thing.
As Red Sox fans would quickly note, Terry Francona was far, far less experienced in October than Joe Torre way back in the fall of 2004. Seven games later, few seemed to hearken back to that narrative.
Both managers are excellent and on the pulse of their respective teams.