After the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians finish the wild-card action on Wednesday night, the focus will quickly shift to the divisional series. The round gets underway on Thursday with the start of both National League matchups.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, who survived a wild-card battle against the Cincinnati Reds, take on the division rival St. Louis Cardinals. In the other series, the star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers go up against the high-upside Atlanta Braves.
Given the narrow gap between the NL teams, it wouldn't be a shock if both series went the distance. With that in mind, let's examine both openers and make predictions for which clubs will jump out to the early advantage after Game 1.
Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals
The biggest question mark heading into this game is which version of A.J. Burnett shows up for the Pirates. Will it be the revitalized veteran who posted a solid 3.30 ERA during the regular season or the pitcher with a lifetime postseason ERA of 5.08 in seven starts?
If it's the former, Pittsburgh will have a great chance to capitalize on the momentum from its wild-card triumph to steal Game 1 from Adam Wainwright. That said, Burnett had his second-highest ERA of the season in September, including a start where he gave up five runs in just three innings to St. Louis.
With Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams now helping spark a battle-tested Cardinals lineup, highlighted by Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran, Pirates pitchers won't have much margin for error. That's why it's tough to trust an up-and-down starter like Burnett in a key spot.
All told, Wainwright should outpitch his counterpart en route to a 1-0 series lead.
Prediction: Cardinals, 5-3
Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves
Clayton Kershaw was fantastic during the regular season. He posted an eye-popping 1.83 ERA, making him the only qualified starting pitcher to finish with a mark below 2.19. His presence as the staff ace is a huge edge for the Dodgers.
The Braves will attempt to counter with Kris Medlen. The unheralded right-hander posted Kershaw-like numbers in September, with a 1.00 ERA in five starts. He also pitched 13.2 innings against the Dodgers this season without giving up an earned run.
In other words, this game should be a terrific pitching duel. As the series goes on, offensive stars such as Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward should begin to shine. In Game 1, however, the pitchers should steal the spotlight.
Expect to see a lot of zeroes on the scoreboard, and in that type of matchup it's hard to pick against Kershaw right now.
Prediction: Dodgers, 3-1