Road to the Pennant: Top 10 Must-Do's for National League Playoff Teams
A 162-game season came down to the last game.
The Phillies and Reds clinched their divisions early on, but the NL West and Wild Card spots came down to the wire. In the regular season's final game, the Braves, Padres, and Giants fought it out on the field and engaged in intense scoreboard watching off it.
But the hypothetical three-way tie didn't materialize as the Braves managed to squeeze by the Phillies in an 8-7 victory, and the Giants took care of business in San Francisco shutting out the Padres, 3-0.
A 162-game season is always fraught with drastic ups and downs, season-ending injuries, breakout years, nine-game losing streaks (Braves), 11-game winning streaks (Phillies), the lowest team ERA over the course of a month in over forty years (Giants), and 45 come-from-behind victories (Reds).
But at the end of the day, it all comes down to six to twelve games in October. Who will rise to the occasion? Who will choke under pressure? What will be the crucial factors for these teams if they want a shot at being the 2010 World Champions?
10. Philadelphia: Southpaws in the Pen
While it’s nearly impossible to find holes in the Phillies’ starting rotation, the team only has two lefties in its bullpen—J.C. Romero and Antonio Bastardo. Romero left the final regular-season game early with lower back soreness, though he should be ready to go for Game 1 against the Reds on Wednesday. In any case, the Phillies will need to carefully strategize the use of their scarce lefties in the pen, particularly when head-to-head matchups become so important late in the game.
9. Philadelphia: Stay Healthy
The Phillies’ season has been plagued by injuries to mainstays of their lineup—Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino. While these players have come back from their stints on the DL, there are still some lingering aches and pains. Reliever J.C. Romero and catcher Carlos Ruiz left Sunday’s game against the Braves early, and Jimmy Rollins missed most of September with a strained right hamstring. Everyone looks good to go for the playoffs, but the Phillies will need to monitor the health of these key players throughout.
8. Cincinnati: Flame-Throwing Cuban Rookies
Reds’ rookie Aroldis Chapman made his debut on August 31, 2010 and proceeded to retire the side with nine pitches. Less than a month later, he was clocked at 105.1 mph, the fastest pitch ever recorded in MLB history. Chapman has been an integral part of what had been a struggling Cincinnati bullpen. His dominance will be a critical component of the Reds’ success this postseason.
7. Cincinnati: Don't Crack Under Pressure
The Reds haven’t been to the postseason in fifteen years. Other than Bronson Arroyo, no one on the eleven-man pitching staff has ever been to the playoffs. Their offensive leader, Joey Votto, is a solid MVP candidate but still only in his third full season in the big leagues. How the Reds respond in the high-pressure postseason environment, particularly in the face of hostile Philadelphia fans, will be a strong driver in determining how far they go.
6. San Francisco: Barry Zito
It’s a tired tale for Giants fans. With a seven-year, $126 million contract, baseball fans in San Francisco are still waiting for the return on their investment for the 2002 AL Cy Young winner. Zito has won one game in his last fourteen outings and was the source of frustration in critical games late in the season. Should the Giants turn to Zito, the only starter with postseason experience, or an inexperienced but more recently reliable arm like that of Jonathan Sanchez? For a team that has been unable to rely on its offense consistently, getting the starting rotation in line will be a key to how the Giants do in the postseason.
5. San Francisco: Win Rookie of the Year Competition
Rookie of the Year talk all season long has revolved around the matchup between Giants’ catcher Buster Posey and Braves’ right fielder Jayson Heyward. Posey has had a breakthrough year for the Giants with an above-.300 batting average through most of the season that has earned the 23-year-old the cleanup spot in the lineup. Posey will have a chance to prove why he deserves to be named the Rookie of the Year when his team takes on Heyward and the Braves in the NLDS.
4. Atlanta: Win Rookie of the Year Competition
Jason Heyward’s contributions to the Braves this season has been just as critical as Posey’s to the Giants. Heyward consistently comes through in the clutch for the team with 18 homers and 77 RBIs on the season, and his strong work ethic and maturity make him an important figure off the field as well. If Heyward can win the battle of the rookies against Posey, the Braves have a legitimate shot to win the Division Series against the Giants.
3. Atlanta: Starting Pitching
Oddly enough, the bullpen isn't the Braves' problem with a 2.96 ERA, second only to San Diego. The team's 3-man starting rotation should be competitive led by veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe. But these two, along with young right-hander Tommy Hanson have been inconsistent at times, and high pitch counts have kept them from going much deeper than the fifth or sixth inning. The Braves are relying on solid efforts by these three to take them past the first round of the playoffs.
2. Atlanta: Back to the Basics
With late-season injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, the Braves’ defense, particularly in the infield, has been shaky. The Braves have committed a league-leading 64 errors this season, and unearned runs were been the cause of losses in crucial games during the last week. Any Bobby Cox-led team should be well-grounded in the fundamentals, and the postseason is no time to let careless mistakes flare up.
1. And it all Comes Down to... Will.
The Phillies are looking to make it to the World Series for their third consecutive time, anxious for another chance at a ring after losing to the Yankees in 2009.
The Reds, infused with new energy from youngsters like Joey Votto and Aroldis Chapman, are determined to go all the way after winning their first division title in 15 years.
The adrenaline-happy Giants are riding a late-season resurgence, ending a seven-year playoff draught, the longest for any NL West team.
The Braves are a tight-knit and resilient group that has refused to give up all season, propelled by a motivation to send Bobby Cox off in style in the final season of his 32-year managerial career.
So. Who wants it?