Pictured: two huge pieces to the World Series puzzle in Detroit.
A few short months ago, 30 teams departed from spring training with a common dream to win the World Series.
After the Tampa Bay Rays' 5-2 win over the Texas Rangers in Game 163, that number, for the moment, is down to 10. And for these clubs, winning the World Series is now less of a dream and more of an actual attainable goal. One that's only a few wins away.
Some teams obviously look like they have better shots than others, mind you, which is true every year. However, there's a script for every team that ends with champagne being sprayed and much rejoicing among the local fans.
What we're going to do today is dive into these scripts.
What lies ahead is basically a list of things that need to go right in October for the 10 teams in contention for the World Series, but with a slight twist. The discussion will be had from a mindset that assumes certain things are going to go right, thus highlighting the ideal October scenarios for each team.
And away we go...
Kris Medlen woke up down the stretch, posting a 1.64 ERA and regularly going deep into ballgames in his last 10 appearances. He's heading into October pitching like a legit No. 1.
This makes Medlen poised to be the guy people were saying the Braves didn't have: one who could match up against the likes of Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw.
Mike Minor, meanwhile, will surely pitch more like the guy he was in the first half, when he posted a 3.02 ERA and a 4.42 K/BB ratio. Julio Teheran will continue his strong second-half run, which saw him up his strikeout rate while posting a sub-3.00 ERA.
The biggest change for the Braves, however, will come on the offensive side.
Only the Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins struck out more often than the Braves, but this problem is going to be fixed just in time. The Braves' suddenly increased ability to make contact is going to make them a better match for upcoming matchups against elite pitchers.
While they're at it, the Braves are going to see their key right-handed batters step up and do some more damage against left-handed pitching. This will reverse a notable trend from the regular season, as Braves righties were mediocre against lefty pitching.
With good pitching and improved hitting working for Fredi Gonzalez in October, his team is basically going to be able to call it a day early if it has a lead after six innings.
That's when Jordan Walden, David Carpenter and Luis Avilan will be called on to get the ball to Craig Kimbrel. After allowing only four earned runs in his final 54 appearances, Kimbrel is poised to light it up in October and help deliver Atlanta's first World Series title in almost 20 years.
There was one big key to the Red Sox's success in 2013, and it's going to be more of the same in the postseason: Offense, offense and more offense.
That the Red Sox had the best and most balanced offense in the league this season is not up for discussion; they were the only team to score over 800 runs, and it was a complete effort. Boston finished first in MLB in on-base percentage and ranked in the top 10 in home runs and stolen bases.
"More of the same" in this case will involve Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino staying in good health and keeping the speed coming, while David Ortiz and Mike Napoli take care of the bulk of the power. The Red Sox will also get some pop from Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Will Middlebrooks, while Dustin Pedroia continues to be his typical pesky self.
That the Red Sox will be doing their usual thing on the offensive front will come in handy late in games, as it will keep their mediocre middle relief corps from having to do too much. Of course, Boston's starters will have a hand in that too.
Say what you will about there not being a true ace in John Farrell's starting rotation, but Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy is about as solid as it gets. The first three all ended with sub-4.00 ERAs, and all four averaged at least 6.5 innings per start.
Boston's four starters will keep the innings coming. Combine that with the offense's usual production, and Koji Uehara is going to find himself with plenty of multi-run leads to protect in the ninth inning.
Given that this is a guy who allowed only one earned run with a 52-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 37 outings, Boston's third title in 10 years ought to come easily.
The Reds can rely on Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, and they have to like what they saw from Todd Frazier in September. Choo and Votto have been on base all year, and Frazier enjoyed a well-timed power surge at the end.
The key guys are going to be Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. Phillips is going to be energized by the bright lights of the postseason and shake off his subpar second half (.668 OPS) to be a key contributor once again. Bruce also had an up-and-down second half, but there's no time like the present for him to go on one of his trademark home-run binges.
Cincinnati's starting rotation will be glad to have the extra help, especially in light of Mat Latos' balky elbow. But he's going to pull off a classic postseason warrior act and fight through that to be the pitcher he was between the end of May and late August, when he posted a 2.78 ERA in 16 starts.
Homer Bailey, meanwhile, will be a perfect complement for Latos by shaking off his subpar final regular-season start and getting back to being the guy he was in the 12 previous starts (2.77 ERA).
Maybe the Reds won't blow teams away with their arms or overpower teams with their bats, but that's OK, because nobody wants to face them in games that are close in the late goings. That's when Billy Hamilton's speed will come into play as an unparalleled advantage, and nobody wants to face Aroldis Chapman with the game on the line these days.
Why? Because he struck out 41 of the last 81 batters he's faced, and he has plenty of gas to keep it up in October to help lead the Reds to a World Series title.
Maybe you don't look at the Indians and see a team with great starting pitching, but that's what they enjoyed in the second half. Only the Tigers and Dodgers got a better ERA from their starters.
Ubaldo Jimenez did his part. He posted a 1.82 ERA in 13 second-half starts, and struck out nearly 30 percent of the batters he faced along the way. He's now a guy who can match up with any ace.
Danny Salazar, Scott Kazmir and Corey Kluber, meanwhile, are poised to catch a lot of casual fans off-guard. Salazar and Kazmir both struck out better than 10 batters per nine innings in the second half, and Kluber is solid both at missing bats and limiting walks.
Oh, and don't sleep on the Indians offense. They were one of only six teams to top 150 homers and 100 stolen bases during the regular season, so the offensive versatility needed to win shootouts is there. And if a game is close at the end, the Indians will have opponents right where they want them.
They'll have Jason Giambi standing by, for one. But he's not the only one who can come up with a clutch hit, as the only playoff team with a better OPS than the Indians in high-leverage situations this season was the St. Louis Cardinals.
Yes, the Indians do have a bullpen that can make things interesting, but they're going to have a not-so-secret weapon in October. Justin Masterson will be returning to his relief roots, and he has the fastball-slider combination and the stamina to be a long relief/closer hybrid.
The Indians made it look easy at the end of the regular season, and they have the goods to keep it up in October.
It was a simple formula for the Tigers in the 2012 postseason: Let the starting pitchers do their thing and go from there.
This same formula ought to work just fine in 2013.
The Tigers are set up perfectly to grab quick 2-0 leads in each series if it's Max Scherzer in Game 1 and Anibal Sanchez in Game 2. Scherzer's going to be the AL Cy Young winner, and Sanchez was the guy who captured the ERA crown. They're the best one-two punch in the American League, hands down.
It's therefore almost unfair that the Tigers have Justin Verlander as a Game 3 option. He had a rough season by his standards, but he posted a 2.27 ERA in September with 48 strikeouts in 39.2 innings. He's ready to crush the competition just like he did in the first two rounds last October.
Like with the Red Sox, the Tigers don't want to rely too heavily on their middle relief. But like with the Red Sox, that's no tall task. The starters have the goods to deliver the ball straight to Joaquin Benoit, who was nearly flawless closing games during the regular season.
As for the offense, don't worry about Miguel Cabrera. He'll be fine after getting some rest in the week leading up to the postseason, and he's actually going to get some help from Prince Fielder this year. Fielder finished the season with a .928 OPS in his last 43 games, with about a third of his total home run output coming in that time. His swing is in place.
When it all falls into place, there will be no stopping the Tigers.
Look for the Dodgers to make it look easy by jumping out to quick two-game leads in every series they play. That's what Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are going to be able to do in October.
Kershaw finished the season with a sub-2.00 ERA, but Greinke was just as good down the stretch. Over their last 16 starts, both Kershaw and Greinke posted a 1.57 ERA. No joke.
Not that the Dodgers' No. 3 starter is any slouch, mind you. Hyun-Jin Ryu posted a 2.45 ERA over his final 10 starts and was a model of consistency all season long. The Dodgers' 2-0 series leads should easily become 3-0 this October thanks to Ryu.
It gets shaky after Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu, and it's less than ideal that Matt Kemp won't play and Andre Ethier might also be a non-factor. The good news, however, is that the Dodgers will still have their two best offensive players to lead the way.
Hanley Ramirez has been on a mission ever since June, posting a 1.026 OPS over his final 82 games. He's in line for a huge postseason, and Yasiel Puig will be right there with him. Even outside his monstrous month of June, Puig was still a dangerous hitter with an .836 OPS over his last 78 games. He's also done enough to show he can handle the spotlight.
Even if things don't go as swimmingly as they could for the Dodgers, their bullpen will allow them to get away with it. Only three teams saw their bullpens post better ERAs in the second half, and Kenley Jansen is as sure a thing as there is in the ninth inning. He posted a 1.33 ERA and held hitters to a .401 OPS in his last 39 appearances.
The Dodgers were unstoppable during the summer. Watch them be unstoppable in the fall, too.
It's true that the A's don't have the deepest collection of starting pitchers, but what they do have is something they didn't have last year: a guy who can match up with any ace they might come across.
That's Bartolo Colon. He logged quality starts in 23 of his 30 outings, and he followed up a 2.70 ERA in the first half with a 2.54 ERA in the second half. It bodes well that his formula involves throwing strike after strike. He will not be hurting himself in October.
As for A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker, both are better than they get credit for. And don't worry, they'll surely do a better job of keeping the ball in the yard in October than they did in the regular season.
The A's offense, meanwhile, will be doing the opposite.
Just like in 2012, the A's were one of the best hitting teams in the second half this year, notably slugging an MLB-best 88 homers. Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes each hit over 10 bombs after the break. And even if Cespedes is too hurt to play in October, the A's will have a solid platoon in Chris Young and Seth Smith to pick up the slack.
Like the Braves, the A's just need to have the lead after six innings. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook make for a killer relief duo, and Grant Balfour taps into adrenaline better than any closer in MLB. In October, his supply will be more than ample.
Things haven't tended to go right for the A's in the postseason during the Moneyball era. That ought to change this year.
It never hurts to have power arms in the postseason, and that's one reason why the Pirates are a team to be feared.
Both Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett have been overpowering hitters all year, as both boast strikeout rates in the neighborhood of 25 percent. For starting pitchers, that's upper-crust territory.
Gerrit Cole is a more recent arrival to that territory. As was inevitable with his insane stuff, he started missing bats at an impressive rate down the stretch. He struck out 26 percent of the batters he faced in his last 11 starts, posting a 3.01 ERA along the way.
And while Pittsburgh's offense was a mixed bag for most of the season, it's clicking at the right time.
The Pirates had their best power month of the year in September, clubbing 32 homers. Neil Walker hit seven, and Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez both hit four. With the three of them hot, negotiating the middle of Clint Hurdle's starting nine will be no easy task.
But at the end, it will come down to this: If the Pirates have a lead after seven, the opposition is doomed.
Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli are both going to turn the clock back to earlier in the season when they were the best relief duo in the league. Both had sub-2.00 ERAs and were holding opponents to a sub-.500 OPS before Grilli got hurt in July.
Power arms and power bats. Now there's a way to win in October.
If you're looking for a good Game 1 starter to produce a quick and easy series lead, it doesn't get much better than Adam Wainwright.
Wainwright tied for third in MLB in WAR during the regular season, and he led the National League in innings and complete games. He's ready to be for the Cardinals what Chris Carpenter was in 2011.
As for the starters behind Wainwright, it's not ideal that none of them is even close to Cardinals ace in terms of his ability to eat innings. Lance Lynn's only a six-inning guy, and Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Joe Kelly aren't even that. Miller and Wacha both have low pitch counts due to their youth, and Kelly has a low pitch count because he's a converted reliever.
But here's the thing: Whoever's not pitching out of the rotation among those three will be pitching out of the bullpen. Like the Indians and Masterson, the Cardinals are poised to have a reliever who's part long man and part shutdown reliever.
Not that the Cardinals need to worry about the late innings, mind you. Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal were both tremendous during the regular season, and Mujica's rocky September will surely prove to be little more than a case of bad luck catching up to him. He'll get over it.
Of course, it's not likely that these two will have to protect many small leads. Even without Allen Craig, the Cardinals offense is deep and balanced, with both the ability to get on base and hit for some power. There's also the fact that no team was better at hitting with runners in scoring position, and that's a habit that tends to play well in October.
If the 2006 and 2011 Cardinals could win it all, so can these Cardinals. They are, after all, a better team.
The Rays are as well off as anyone in the one-two punch department with David Price and the criminally underrated Alex Cobb, who finished with a 2.41 ERA in his last nine starts.
Of course, things won't be so simple for the Rays, as Price's complete-game effort Monday night in the wild card play-in game will make it hard for Joe Maddon to line up his rotation the way he wants.
That's not a deal-breaker because of Chris Archer and Matt Moore. Archer has the stuff to overpower hitters, and Moore's control problems don't hurt him. That's what having filthy stuff can do for you. There's a scary thought for you: Imagine facing Archer and Moore before facing Price and Cobb. Once the first two do their thing, it will be a breeze for the Rays.
Granted, it's hard to be optimistic about Fernando Rodney if he's only given small leads, as he's too wild to hold such leads consistently. The Rays, however, should be able to give him some decent leads in October.
Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers are heading into October hot after each posted an OPS over .900 in September. James Loney has been consistent all season, and there's never any telling when Ben Zobrist will sneak up and do something extraordinary.
But Evan Longoria's the guy to fear. He goes through stretches when he's impossible to get out. He went through one in the ALDS and ALCS in 2008, and he ended the season with nine hits in his last 25 at-bats.
He's going to be a postseason monster once again, and the Rays are going to be catapulted because of it.