On Friday, eight of baseball's best teams will begin the 2011 MLB playoffs with a common goal in sight. With the World Series weeks away, the division series round of the playoffs will begin with some very intriguing matchups.
Of course, it is not known for sure who will be the two wild card teams, but we can guess, right? In any case, the last few years have shown us that pitching plays an absolutely pivotal role in determining who survives in the playoffs and who goes home.
This year, pitching staffs will range from the almost unfair starters of the Phillies to the questionable rotation of the Yankees.
So, when it all comes down to it, which pitchers are the most important?
Let's take a look.
Author's note: This is not in any particular order
James Shields, Tampa Bay SP: 'Big Game' James has had a career year for the Rays, throwing 11 complete games. But will this success translate to the playoffs? That remains to be seen.
Jason Motte, Cardinals Closer: Is this guy for real? Motte has had a great second half for the Cards, and if they make the playoffs, he will play a vital role. St. Louis has good starters, but will its bullpen hold up?
21-4, 2.88 ERA, 222.0 innings, 3.60 K/BB, 1.09 WHIP
Kennedy is perhaps the most surprising ace of any such pitcher in the playoffs. The former Yankees prospect has blossomed in the desert, turning 2011 into his coming out party. He will headline an interesting Arizona rotation that also includes Josh Collmenter, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders.
Kennedy has terrific movement on his fastball and will have to hope his heater moves around like crazy. He will set the tone for the Diamondbacks this October.
13-7, 3.54 ERA, 200.2 innings, 2.77 K/BB, 1.16 WHIP
Milwaukee has two very solid starters at the front of their rotation in Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke. But because the traditional playoff rotation is three or four men deep, the Brewers must trust righty Shaun Marcum to be the pivotal third starter.
The Brew Crew has the offense and bullpen to succeed. If their starters pitch well, they could make some serious noise in the postseason. Marcum will have to turn in a strong performance in his game in order for the Brewers to succeed.
4-2, 2.41 ERA, 32 saves in 34 chances, 3.75 K/BB, 1.17 WHIP
Everybody knows about the starting rotation of the Phillies. Between Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley, the Phils have an embarrassment of riches in terms of starters. But what happens after them? What happens with a one-run lead against a team with a great offense?
That's where Ryan Madson comes in. The closer has been rock-solid this year, but must continue to be so. Otherwise, Philadelphia's great regular season might go for naught.
2-3, 2.79 ERA, 31 saves in 37 chances, 1.73 K/BB, 1.16 WHIP
Texas' sophomore closer is going to the playoffs for the second time, and again he will play a vital role in the Rangers' success. Texas has a very solid starting rotation with C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis. Coupled with the team's potent offense, a strong performance from the bullpen could mean that the Rangers are on the fast track back to the Fall Classic.
Last year Feliz was phenomenal in the playoffs, allowing only one run in seven outings. If he can repeat that performance this year, watch out for the Rangers.
15-9, 4.43 ERA, 195 innings, 3.11 K/BB, 1.35 WHIP
With Justin Verlander on the mound for what will probably be two starts in the division series, the Tigers must get a strong performance from Scherzer. The righty has had a solid season, but nothing overly special. When he's good, he's really good. But if he's off, Scherzer doesn't have the blow-it-by-you stuff that Verlander does.
For Detroit to advance, they will need a strong outing or two in each round from its No. 2 starter, Max Scherzer.
16-4, 3.70 ERA, 165.1 innings, 1.72 K/BB, 1.33 WHIP
For as great as New York's lineup is, their starting rotation is equally shaky. Aside from C.C. Sabathia, who even still isn't a guaranteed win, the Yankees will have to rely on the likes of Nova, Bartolo Colon, A.J. Burnett or Freddy Garcia to make some big-time playoff starts. Nova, the rookie who has had a stellar season, need to pitch well beyond his years.
If Sabathia loses his first start, Ivan Nova might be the only man who could stave off elimination for the Yankees. Life in the first round is short. Nova will be pivotal to the Yankees advancing.
2-2, 1.98 ERA, 46 saves in 48 chances, 3.40 K/BB, 1.16 WHIP
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Brewers are going to play a lot of close games in October. They have a penchant for nail-biters, and with good reason. Having Francisco Rodriguez and this guy, John Axford, definitely helps their cause. Axford has been absolutely lights-out this year, and keeping him in top form is vital to the Brewers' playoff hopes.
As long as his devastating breaking pitches are working, Axford gives the Brewers a huge leg up over whoever they happen to be playing.
5-3, 3.38 ERA, 74 games, 11 saves in 14 chances, 2.57 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP
He's the best playoff reliever you've never heard of, and David Hernandez could make a real name for himself by having a solid October. The Diamondbacks had a great regular season, but it will mean nothing unless they are able to win the tightly-contested games of October. With closer J.J. Putz throwing extremely well, it will be up to Hernandez, Arizona's most-used reliever, to provide shutdown innings leading up to Putz.
If he does well, you will learn to love him. If not, well, he'll just stay anonymous.
16-7, 2.94 ERA, 223.1 innings, 2.78 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP
So you want to be an ace, huh? Well, C.J. Wilson, the playoffs turn good pitchers into great ones, and this is your chance. Wilson will enter this October in a different position than last year. In 2010, he had Cliff Lee ahead of him to carry the rotation. This year, Wilson will spearhead the Texas pitching staff's push into late October. He has had a tremendous 2011 campaign.
If he can keep throwing the calm, collected games that he is known for, the Rangers will be just fine. But if he somehow implodes, Texas may not have the rotational depth to pick up the slack.
17-8, 2.40 ERA, 232.2 innings, 5.67 K/BB, 1.03 WHIP
Remember how dominant Cliff Lee was in last year's postseason. Remember why the Phillies acquired him? This is why. Lee has a proven record of dominance in October, and Philadelphia will be holding him accountable to that record as the playoffs begin. Lee has been nothing short of stellar in 2011, and one can only expect him to continue to perform at a high level.
But this is truly where Lee will earn his money. Is he still the best October pitcher in baseball? Or were his sexy regular season stats just a trick?