With two games now in the books in both the ALCS and NLCS, we are rapidly approaching the 2013 World Series, but there is still a lot of baseball to be played in each of the championship series.
In the National League, the Cardinals squeaked out a 3-2 win in 13 innings in Game 1 of their series with the Dodgers. In Game 2, 22-year-old Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha outdueled Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in a 1-0 victory. The series shifts to Los Angeles on Monday night for what will be a must-win Game 3 for the Dodgers.
Over in the American League, the Tigers one-hit the Red Sox for a 1-0 victory of their own in Game 1 of that series. In Game 2, Tigers ace Max Scherzer threw 5.2 hitless innings, but the Red Sox came back, thanks to a game-tying grand slam from David Ortiz in the eighth inning. That set up Jarrod Saltalamacchia to be the hero with a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth for a 6-5 victory.
Looking ahead to Game 3 in each series and beyond, each team has a handful of things it needs to do if it wants to cap off its 2013 postseason run with a World Series title.
1. Keep the momentum on their side with a Game 3 win in ALCS
After struggling to get their offense going in Game 1 and against Max Scherzer in Game 2 of the ALCS, the Red Sox finally came to life, as they plated five runs in the final two innings of Game 2 to even the series heading back to Detroit.
They'll now face a red-hot Justin Verlander, who's pitching like the Verlander of old in October, having allowed just six hits while striking out 21 in 15 scoreless innings during the Tigers' ALDS matchup with the Oakland A's.
John Lackey takes the mound in Game 3 for the Red Sox, and while he put up significantly better numbers at home this season (6-3, 2.47 ERA) than on the road (4-10, 4.48 ERA), he did allow just two runs in seven innings of work in his lone start at Comerica Park this year. The momentum is on the Red Sox's side right now, and they'll need to keep that going in Detroit.
2. Get things going offensively
Through the first 16 innings of their ALCS matchup with the Tigers, the Red Sox went a dismal 4-for-51 (.078 BA) at the plate, but they finally broke through with five hits over the final two innings on Sunday night, scoring five runs in the process.
During the regular season, Boston's 853 runs scored topped all of baseball—a full 57 runs more than the second-place Tigers in that category—as the Red Sox employed a relentless attack from top to bottom in their lineup.
With easily the weakest pitching staff of the four remaining postseason teams, the Red Sox will rely on their offense more than any other club. They need to build off of Game 2, not just with the momentum, but specifically from an offensive standpoint.
3. Get a great start out of someone not named Jon Lester
The Red Sox starting rotation may not stack up to the rest of the field, but it is an experienced veteran group and all four pitchers are capable of pitching like a staff ace when they're on.
Jon Lester has filled the role of ace so far, and while he's 1-1 in his two starts, he's allowed just nine hits and three runs in 14 innings of work.
Clay Buchholz pitched well in Game 3 of the ALDS, but he was hit hard on Sunday night. John Lackey and Jake Peavy enjoyed varying levels of success in their ALDS outings, but neither made it out of the sixth inning in their starts.
The other three teams left in the postseason each have more than one starter capable of going out and giving their clubs a complete-game gem. The Red Sox are going to need someone to step up and serve as a second ace behind Lester if they hope to contend for a title.
4. Turn things over to the bullpen after seven innings with a lead
Looking back at point No. 3 on this list, while a shutout would certainly be welcome from one of their starters, all that the Red Sox really need is for guys to throw seven strong innings before turning things over to their bullpen for the final two frames.
During the regular season, the setup duo of Craig Breslow (61 G, 1.81 ERA) and Junichi Tazawa (71 G, 3.16 ERA) was among the best in the league. Closer Koji Uehara (73 G, 1.09 ERA) was arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball this season.
That trio has combined to allow just seven hits and one run so far this postseason in 12.2 innings of work, with the lone blip being the walk-off home run that Uehara allowed to Jose Lobaton in the ALDS. He looked sharp on Sunday though, and if the Red Sox can carry a lead into the eighth inning, things seem to be in good hands.
1. Get another big start from Justin Verlander to regain momentum
By most accounts, it was a down year for Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander, as he went just 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA after signing a massive seven-year, $180 million extension in the offseason.
That said, Verlander finished the regular season strong, posting a 2.27 ERA in September and throwing 12 shutout innings with 22 strikeouts over his final two starts. That has carried over into the postseason, where he put together two brilliant starts against the A's in the ALDS and will now take the ball in a pivotal Game 3 in Detroit.
Verlander allowed seven hits and four runs in five innings of work in his lone start against the Red Sox this season, but that came back in June, when he was in the midst of a tough stretch of starts.
2. Miguel Cabrera's power stroke must continue to come around
Once again this season, there was no more dangerous hitter in the majors than Miguel Cabrera, as he put up a fantastic line of .348/.442/.636 with 44 home runs and 137 RBI to make a strong case for a second straight AL MVP award.
However, a groin injury has hampered him for over a month now, and he hit just .278/.395/.333 with one home run and seven RBI in September.
While Cabrera is hitting just .259/.310/.481 so far this postseason, he has homered in two of the last three games, so perhaps that's a sign that at least some of his power is returning. If he can play closer to the Cabrera who led the Tigers before his groin injury, it would be a huge boost for the Detroit attack.
3. Keep getting dominant outings from the starting rotation
The Tigers rotation looks to be their ticket to a World Series title. While the bullpen coughed up a lead on Sunday and is a question mark, Detroit's starting rotation needs to keep putting the team in position to win with strong starts.
Justin Verlander (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 15 IP) and Max Scherzer (1-0, 1.93 ERA, 14 IP) have both been phenomenal in their starts so far this postseason. Behind them, Anibal Sanchez bounced back from a rocky ALDS outing to no-hit the Red Sox for six innings on Saturday night, and Doug Fister turned in a quality start in a no-decision in his only start so far.
They have a clear advantage over the Red Sox in the starting pitching department, but that advantage will be gone if they can reach the World Series, regardless of who advances out of the NL, as both teams have fantastic starting staffs. The rotation needs to just keep doing what it's doing and hope that things fall into place around them.
4. Step up at the back end of the bullpen
It's no secret that the bullpen is the Tigers' biggest weakness. That was never more evident than in Game 2 of the ALCS, when five Detroit pitchers combined to allow five hits and five runs (four earned) in one-plus innings of work.
Middle relief has been a mess all season for Detroit, but the late-inning trio of Drew Smyly, Jose Veras and Joaquin Benoit had been relatively reliable prior to their recent blowup.
It may well have been the perfect storm of a few bad pitches and the Red Sox bats finally coming to life, but it raises some red flags. The Tigers' starting rotation is too good to have outings like the one that Scherzer turned in on Sunday night spoiled. Nothing will kill the morale and momentum of a team quicker than its bullpen blowing what looked to be a sure win.
1. Find a way to beat Adam Wainwright, win Game 3 of NLCS
There are no two ways around it: After dropping Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis, the Dodgers have to come away with a victory in Game 3 if they're going to have any chance of getting back into the NLCS. To do that, they'll have to beat Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.
After the Cardinals scratched out an extra-innings win in Game 1 and Michael Wacha outdueled Clayton Kershaw in Game 3, the Dodgers will now pin their hopes on Hyun-Jin Ryu against Wainwright as the series moves to L.A.
Wainwright allowed seven hits and three runs over seven innings for a no-decision in his only start against the Dodgers this season. Ryu also went seven innings in his lone start against the Cardinals, and he allowed just five hits and an unearned run for the win.
2. Get Hanley Ramirez back healthy.
Rookie Yasiel Puig consistently earned praise this season for sparking the Dodgers' turnaround, and while he certainly played a role, it's no coincidence that Hanley Ramirez also finally got to 100 percent right around the time the team got hot. The Dodgers were 55-31 with Ramirez in the lineup.
Ramirez finished the regular season with a .345/.402/.638 line and 20 home runs in just 304 at-bats. That carried over to the NLDS, where he went 8-for-16 with six extra-base hits and six RBI.
He was 0-for-2 in Game 1 of the NLCS, but he reached base four times, including being hit by a pitch when he was drilled in the ribs with a fastball. The result was a fractured rib, and after sitting out Game 2 he's in the lineup for Game 3, as the Dodgers' will look for production out of their top hitter despite the injury.
3. Hit like they did in the NLDS
Most viewed the Dodgers pitching staff as their biggest strength entering the postseason, and while they've been terrific with a 2.44 ERA so far this postseason, it doesn't look like good pitching alone will be enough for them to win it.
After hitting .333/.390/.572 as a team in the NLDS and outscoring the Braves 26-14, the Dodgers are batting just .184 and have struck out 24 times through the first two games of the NLCS.
With their two aces having already pitched in the first two games of the series, chances are they'll need some run support for the likes of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco these next two games. Looking ahead, if L.A. can pull off the comeback and reach the World Series, it will be squaring off against one of the best offenses in the league, regardless of who they're facing, so getting things going offensively is a must.
4. Give Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke another chance to dominate
If you were to tell me that the Dodgers would get the type of starts they did out of Zack Greinke (8 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 10 K) and Clayton Kershaw (6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 5 K) in the first two games of the NLCS, I'd have guessed that the series would be tied up at the very least, but that's not the case.
Instead, the Dodgers have to hope they can win at least one of the next two games for their rotation to roll back around to one of their two aces.
Given the chance for redemption of sorts, and with the season hanging in the balance, those two would no doubt be on top of their game. They remain the biggest keys to the Dodgers' chances of winning it all this season.
SP Michael Wacha
1. Bury the Dodgers with another gem from Adam Wainwright in Game 3 of the NLCS
After throwing Adam Wainwright in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS, the Cardinals were left with Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha to counter the Dodgers' dynamic duo of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. They managed to come out of that up 2-0 in the series.
With the series heading to Los Angeles, it will be Wainwright taking the mound in Game 3 with a chance to bury the Dodgers and put them on the brink of being swept in the series.
The big right-hander was 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA in the NLDS, bringing his career postseason line to 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA and four saves in 15 games (six starts). He'll be looking to add to that impressive resume his next time out.
If the Cardinals can win Game 3 and wrap things up with Lance Lynn on the mound in Game 4, that would allow them to set their rotation up for what will be a tough matchup for their staff against either AL team's lineup.
2. Keep the Carlos Beltran magic coming
At 36 years old, Carlos Beltran is not the dynamic five-tool threat he was in the prime of his career, but he has already come up with some huge hits so far this postseason, adding to what is one of the best October resumes in baseball history.
With 41 career playoff games under his belt, Beltran has a .340/.448/.740 line with 16 home runs and 34 RBI. He's perhaps best known for his 2004 playoff run with the Astros, when he went 20-for-46 with eight home runs and 14 RBI in 12 games.
He's just 6-for-26 so far this October, but he had two home runs and six RBI in the NLDS. He drove in all three runs in the Cardinals' 3-2 Game 1 victory in the NLCS, capping things off with a walk-off single in the 13th inning.
Offensive production is a team effort, and good pitching tends to trump good batting more times than not in October, but Beltran has elevated his game time and again in October. He could be a real difference-maker.
3. Make things easier on the young staff by getting things going offensively
The Cardinals have hit just .187/.267/.307 in seven games this postseason, and while doing just enough offensively has made for some exciting games for Cardinals fans so far, a blowout here and there would certainly take some pressure off of their young staff.
The Cardinals scored over five runs 57 times during the regular season, including putting up double-digit runs a whopping 19 times. That was thanks in large part to an unheard-of .330/.402/.463 line with runners in scoring position.
Those numbers have dropped to .200/.293/.314 in the postseason, where St. Louis has averaged just 2.3 runs per game as a result. While their young pitchers have been up to the task so far in tight situations, a two- or three-run cushion would certainly make things a lot easier on them.
4. Young arms must keep pitching beyond their years
Of the 12 pitchers on the Cardinals' postseason roster this season, seven are 25 years old or younger, including the team's Game 1 and Game 2 starters in the NLCS in Joe Kelly (25) and Michael Wacha (22).
Those seven pitchers have combined for a 1.85 ERA and 1.00 WHIP with 40 strikeouts in 39 innings of work so far this postseason, and they will be relied on to keep that going moving forward.
Those young arms have thrived in the bright lights of the postseason so far. They'll need to continue to pitch at a high level if the Cardinals are going to claim their 12th World Series title.