While the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians still must battle for the American League Wild Card, the National League Division Series is set. The Pittsburgh Pirates knocked off the Cincinnati Reds to earn the final spot in the round.
The victory sets up another matchup with a division rival for Pittsburgh. It will take on the top-seeded St. Louis Cardinals. The other series will feature the NL East champion Atlanta Braves and the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Only five regular-season victories separated the four teams left standing in the National League. The parity should make for some terrific postseason battles. Knowing that, let's take a look at the NLDS schedules, via MLB.com, and predict which teams will advance.
Pittsburgh Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Although it might not result in a World Series title, it sure seems like something special is going on in Pittsburgh. When players like Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin are hitting key home runs after being nomads in recent seasons, the foundation for a great story is set.
But now, the Pirates have to go up against one of the most fundamentally strong franchises in sports. The Cardinals' ability to plug holes with unheralded players who quickly becomes key assets is astounding. Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams are a few recent examples.
Ultimately, the series is going to come down to the Pirates' pitching staff, which ranked third in ERA, against the Cardinals' lineup, which scored the third-most runs. Even though they put up six runs on 13 hits in the wild-card game, the Pirates aren't build to win a series of slugfests.
It all starts with A.J. Burnett standing tall against Adam Wainwright. On the surface, it's a sizable edge for the Cardinals, but Burnett has been a pleasant surprise for Pittsburgh. If he can steal Game 1, suddenly the entire outlook changes.
The teams had some tremendous games during the regular season, and that should carry over to October. Expect a lot of close, hard-fought games and just enough things falling right for Pittsburgh to see its run continue.
Prediction: Pirates in 4.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves
The Dodgers have no shortage of star power. Big names like Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are scattered throughout the roster, creating a team with plenty of playoff upside.
Yet, the Braves shouldn't be overlooked. They ran away with the NL East thanks in large part to a pitching staff that led the majors in ERA. Starters like Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran aren't household names, but they were outstanding in the second half.
Atlanta only needs six innings from their starters because the bullpen has remained a strong suit. Led by the game's best closer, Craig Kimbrel, and a pair of reliable setup men, David Carpenter and Luis Avilan, it's a staff built for postseason play.
The only question is whether or not the Braves will produce enough runs. The key for Kershaw, Greinke and Co. is keeping Jason Heyward off base atop the order. The Atlanta lineup has been a lot more dangerous with him leading off, so the Dodgers must neutralize that edge.
It's easy to see the Braves winning a couple of close games with timely hits and the Dodgers exploding in a few others to make this series go the distance. A deciding fifth game would be a virtual tossup with a slight advantage to the Braves, which have been great at home.
Prediction: Braves in 5.