In baseball, one player generally can't win a series all on his own, but he can certainly tip the scales heavily in the favor of the team he's playing for. I've identified four players who will do just that in the 2013 MLB Divisional Series.
From two starting pitchers that could factor into more than one game to a pair of speedy players that bring a bit of pop to the table as well, these four players will launch their teams into the next round.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves: Hanley Ramirez
If I thought this series would go five games, it would be Clayton Kershaw here. But I think the Dodgers will win in four, and I think a healthy Hanley Ramirez will be the reason why.
Quite simply, the Dodgers are a much better team with Ramirez in the lineup than they are without him. Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated summed it up well:
When he was available, Ramirez hit .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers in 336 plate appearances, while the Dodgers scored 4.22 runs per game and went 51-26 in his starts. When he was not, the team averaged 3.81 runs per game and went 41-44. Late in the year, Ramirez was bothered by an irritated nerve in his back that affected his left hamstring, limiting him to just 15 September starts, though he did hit .370/.462/.704 when available and is said to be 100 percent.
With Matt Kemp done for the year and a solid Atlanta Braves rotation and excellent bullpen, runs could be hard to come by in this series for the Dodgers. But his combination of speed and power is rare, and Ramirez will be the man to spark this offense to enough runs to support Kershaw and Greinke.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates: Adam Wainwright
There's a very good chance that this series will go five games—I personally believe it will—which means the Pirates will have to face Adam Wainwright twice.
And that will be Pittsburgh's undoing.
Wainwright was excellent this season, going 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 219 strikeouts. In three starts against the Pirates, he went 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 20 strikeouts. The Pirates hit just .208 against him. Pittsburgh was patient, however, walking six times.
Wainwright is also 1-0 in four career postseason starts, allowing nine runs and striking out 27. In three of those starts, he allowed just one run. Don't be surprised if he leads the Cardinals to wins in Game 1 and Game 5.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury
Ellsbury's return, after fracturing his foot, is bad news for the Rays.
His ability to get on base atop the order, steal bases (52 in 56 tries this season) and force a pitcher to pay attention to him while trying to get out Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz is a quick way to start a rally.
Ellsbury has been decent in postseasons past, hitting .261 with 11 RBI and five stolen bases. Facing a solid pitching staff, generating runs through small ball rather than relying on the home run will be key for Boston. In Ellsbury, the Red Sox have the perfect weapon to lead that style of attack.
Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland Athletics: Max Scherzer
Like Wainwright, Scherzer could potentially be available for Game 1 and Game 5. And seeing as this even series seems destined for five games, that will give the American League's best pitcher the chance to shine.
It's not easy to outperform Justin Verlander, but that's just what Scherzer did this year, finishing 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, 0.970 WHIP and 240 strikeouts. Granted, the Athletics hit him this year, as he went 0-0 with a 4.91 ERA in two starts against them. He did compile 16 strikeouts in those contests, however.
But missing bats is key in the postseason, especially against an A's team that can generate runs. Scherzer's wins in Game 1 and Game 5 will be the difference in this series.