The 2013 MLB postseason picture was settled for each division series on Wednesday evening after the Tampa Bay Rays shut out the Cleveland Indians 4-0 in the American League Wild Card.
It was the third different city in four days for the Rays, but a fantastic pitching performance by starter Alex Cobb drove Joe Maddon's club to an ALDS matchup with the pennant-winning Boston Red Sox.
In the other AL showdown, the Central champion Detroit Tigers will square off with the second-seeded Oakland Athletics.
After 20 straight losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates finally got off that skid and beat the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Wild Card, setting up a tilt with the division rival St. Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately, the Pirates' quest to continue their thrilling run got off to a bad start on Thursday.
The same can be said for the Atlanta Braves, who finished better than their NLDS opponent in the Los Angeles Dodgers in the regular season, but find themselves as underdogs.
Below is an analysis of each five-game series and predictions as to how all four will play out.
Note: All information and statistics are courtesy of MLB.com.
Pittsburgh Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The pitching matchup in the opening game was between the Cards' 19-game winner Adam Wainwright and Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett, who posted a 10-11 record but just a 3.30 ERA, the victim of little run support.
That theme continued for Burnett, but he was far more at fault for being charged with seven runs in the third inning. He was pulled after he failed to retire any of the eight batters he faced in that frame.
St. Louis took control from the start and never let up, winning Game 1 in blowout fashion, 9-1.
It's been a heck of a run by the Pirates and one of the league's best stories in recent memory for them to have made it to the postseason. However, the run is going to end here against the NL's best team.
As ESPN's John Buccigross points out, St. Louis had the best average in the NL with runners in scoring position this season, while the Pirates were 14th:
That type of execution is not a fluke when the sample size is 162 games.
The Pirates boast stars such as Andrew McCutchen and big bats in 36-dinger hitter Pedro Alvarez, but there isn't enough consistency to hold up against St. Louis' power pitching.
Prediction: Cardinals in four.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves
The big showdown on Thursday pitted Dodgers ace southpaw Clayton Kershaw and the Braves Kris Medlen, whose circle changeup and two-seam fastball give opposing hitters nightmares.
Kershaw got the upper hand by far in LA's 6-1 win, pitching seven innings of three-hit ball, letting up one earned run and striking out 12 Braves batters.
Meanwhile, Medlen had an outing to forget in allowing nine hits and five runs in four-plus innings.
Odds are, though, no division series will have stronger starting pitching than this one between LA's Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu and Atlanta's Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Tehran.
One edge that the No. 2 seed Braves have is in the closer slot, where Craig Kimbrel has been lights out in converting 50-of-54 save opportunities.
Kenley Jansen, Kimbrel's Dodger counterpart, has 26 saves of his own, but the same number of blown saves.
For that reason, if Atlanta can get good starts out of Minor and Tehran and keep themselves in these next two games, this series should go the distance.
The problem is that the Dodgers have a far better lineup across the board between Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig, among others. Atlanta was fifth in the MLB in home runs, but it won't be able to rely on that as much in this series.
That unsustainable model of offensive production will reveal itself and result in a disappointing, decisive Game 5 loss at Turner Field.
Prediction: Dodgers in five.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Boston Red Sox
This AL East battle will be gritty and full of smart, fundamentally sound baseball. Boston led the season series 12-7 in rising to the top of the American League crop.
After losing 93 games a season ago, the Red Sox have come back with a fury in 2013.
The Toronto Blue Jays were regarded as World Series contenders before the season, the resurgent Baltimore Orioles had completed a stellar 2012 campaign and the New York Yankees had been a perpetual powerhouse. Out of that competitive division, Boston emerged as the best.
No team in baseball scored more than the Sox, got on base more or had a better slugging percentage. It's hard not to like them.
Then again, Maddon's Rays are a resilient bunch that will fight to the end. Boston's No. 3 rank in quality starts combined with its top-flight offense will be enough to get it through in rather easy fashion, though.
Prediction: Red Sox in four.
Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland Athletics
Both teams have excellent starting pitching, but also possess potent offenses. Something will have to give between two World Series-caliber clubs, one of which will be going home prematurely.
Even Tigers 21-game winner Max Scherzer understands how difficult it can be to play in the Coliseum when the A's fans are in full force, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser:
Scherzer and Justin Verlander will get the starting nod in Games 1 and 2, respectively, while the A's will deploy a revitalized Bartolo Colon in the opener, followed by 23-year-old Sonny Gray.
A legitimate concern for Detroit is the September decline of superstar Miguel Cabrera, who hit .356 and swatted 11 home runs in an amazing August, but cooled down to .278 with only one homer the next month.
The depth of the Athletics lineup will get them through to the ALCS, as they get revenge on the team that knocked them out at this stage of last year's postseason.
Prediction: Athletics in five.
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