Critical Matchups That Will Decide Each 2013 ALDS, NLDS Series

Chris Stephens@@chris_stephens6Correspondent IIOctober 3, 2013

Critical Matchups That Will Decide Each 2013 ALDS, NLDS Series

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    As the MLB divisional round kicks off Thursday, excitement abounds for fans of eight teams.

    With two teams already out of the playoffs, tomorrow is no guarantee, and teams have to get down to business starting with Game 1.

    But what must teams do to ensure they advance to the next round?

    Here's a look at the critical matchups that will decide each divisional series.

    Note: All stats obtained from Baseball-reference.com.

Clayton Kershaw vs. Top of Braves Lineup

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    The Braves and Dodgers are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since the 1996 NLDS, which the Braves won in three games.

    Atlanta won five of the seven games between the two teams this year, outscoring the Dodgers, 27-17.

    But that was all before the All-Star break. Since then, the Dodgers are 22 games over .500 and were at one time the hottest team in baseball, winning 42 of 50 games.

    There's no doubt Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball this year, going 16-9 with a 1.83 ERA and 232 strikeouts. However, he didn't face the Braves in 2013 and hasn't since 2011.

    It is important to note, however, that Kershaw has an 8.31 career postseason ERA, but that was in 2008 and 2009.

    The top of the Braves lineup is key, starting with Jason Heyward. From the leadoff spot, Heyward batted .322 with six home runs and 16 RBI this season. And despite not hitting leadoff against the Dodgers at all, Heyward still managed a .320 average and six walks.

    After that, there's Justin Upton, who was very familiar with the Dodgers during his time with the Diamondbacks. Upton is batting .103 against Kershaw in his career, having struggled throughout.

    The Braves finished third in baseball with 1,384 strikeouts. Heyward had 22 of them in the leadoff spot, while Upton had 52 from the No. 2 hole.

    This year, Kershaw has held No. 1 and No. 2 hitters to a .209 average and 58 strikeouts. 

    If Heyward and Upton can get on base, that could set up Freddie Freeman nicely in the No. 3 hole; Freeman is batting .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBI.

    The possibility exists of the Braves seeing Kershaw twice in the series (if it goes to five games). In the end, the abilities of Heyward and Upton in those games could be the difference in the Braves advancing or going home.

Braves Bench vs. Dodgers Bullpen

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    The Braves bench is among the best in baseball, batting .247 with six home runs and 27 RBI. The big hitter there is Evan Gattis, who is 6-for-10 with four home runs as a pinch-hitter. 

    But that's not all. The Braves also have Reed Johnson, who was one of baseball's best coming off the bench, going 11-for-37 with one home run and six RBI. Then, there's the speed of Jose Constanza and Jordan Schafer in the late innings as well.

    The Atlanta bench has the ability to make noise late in the games, making it always a possibility for them to come back in a close game.

    All of this is brought up because the Dodgers bullpen has been so-so this year. The Dodgers have a combined bullpen ERA of 3.49. Kenley Jansen has provided stability over the second half with 28 saves, but the Braves have also gotten to him when they faced him. The Braves are 5-for-14 against Jansen, including two home runs. But again, that was in the first half.

    With a slew of great starting pitchers, the games could end up being close in the late innings. And in those situations, this matchup will be critical.

    More than anything, the Dodgers have to keep Gattis from hitting the long ball. He's been clutch for the Braves during the regular season, and he'll get his chance to do it again in the playoffs.

Matt Adams vs. Any Pirates Pitcher

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    According to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Allen Craig is out for the NLDS and possibly the rest of the playoffs. The Cardinals do have a capable backup in Matt Adams, but the one thing having Adams in the lineup does is take a big bat off the bench for late-game situations.

    Adams is batting .284 with 17 home runs and 51 RBI. He's shown he's capable of filling that role, but he's never had to do it in the playoffs.

    Against left-handers, Adams is batting .231 with three home runs and 10 RBI. Against righties, he's batting .295 with 14 home runs and 41 RBI. Against the Pirates as a whole, he's batting .133.

    Of the Pirates starters expected to go in this series, Adams has only faced A.J. Burnett (who will start Game 1), and he was 1-for-9 with four strikeouts against him.

    The most telling matchup could be against Francisco Liriano, who is allowing lefties to hit .131 off of him this year. The Reds lefties went 2-for-11 against him Tuesday, and that was three of the best in the NL in Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. What do you think Liriano is going to do with an inexperienced lefty like Adams?

    With Adams likely batting in the cleanup spot, it's going to be his chance to shine. But, will the nerves of the postseason get to him?

Marlon Byrd, Russell Martin vs. St. Louis Pitching

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    After Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game, it's clear Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin are going to be key in the NLDS. The pair went 5-for-8 with three home runs and four RBI, propelling the Pirates to the win.

    There's no doubt Andrew McCutchen will impact the series, but that's expected from a potential league MVP. What he's going to need is support behind him in the lineup. And if Tuesday is any indication, that's something he has.

    St. Louis counters with Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller. The trio has combined to win 49 games and strike out 586 batters. And Pittsburgh's duo has only struggled against Wainwright, going 2-for-12. Against Miller, they're 4-for-12, while going 5-for-16 against Lynn.

    For Martin, it's especially important to build upon Tuesday's game as he's only batting .127 since Sept. 1. Byrd, on the other hand, is hitting .319 and has been a real catalyst since being traded from the Mets.

    When Martin and Byrd both get a hit, the Pirates are 8-3. It's a small sample size, but so are the playoffs.

Max Scherzer vs. Oakland's Lineup

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    On Tuesday, I wrote about how it was a mistake that Detroit manager Jim Leyland named Max Scherzer as the starter for Game 1 against the A's. Being named a starter in that game means he would get the call in Game 5 if the series goes that far.

    Scherzer has struggled against the A's this year, tallying a 4.91 ERA in 11 innings. The A's are hitting .295 against him as well. In his last start against the A's on Aug. 29, Scherzer gave up five runs in five innings, including two home runs.

    Now, it's not to say Scherzer isn't worthy of starting Game 1. He won 21 games and had a 2.90 ERA. But, that doesn't take away from his struggles against Oakland.

    This matchup is key because if Scherzer struggles in the ALDS, the Tigers are going to have trouble winning the series.

Justin Verlander vs. Sonny Gray

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    Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray will be the starters in Game 2 of the series. Depending on what happens in Game 1, one pitcher is going to have a lot on his shoulders.

    Will it be the upstart Gray, who has never pitched in a postseason game before? Or will it be the veteran Verlander, who in other years was the Tigers' best pitcher?

    In 10 starts this year, Gray is 5-3 with a 2.85 ERA. He previously pitched four scoreless innings as a reliever before being moved to the rotation.

    Verlander is 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA in 34 starts.

    One of these pitchers will have the weight of an entire fanbase on him. It's something Verlander is accustomed to, while Gray will get his first taste of it.

Desmond Jennings vs. Boston Pitching

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    Desmond Jennings struggled for much of the year but caught fire in September, batting .404 with three home runs and 13 RBI.

    He had previously batted .149 in September and looked lost at the plate. But, he turned it around in September and has already come up big against the Indians to send the Rays to the ALDS.

    Jennings went 2-for-3 with a big two-run double in Wednesday's game to help give the Rays a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning.

    Against the Red Sox, Jennings is going to be key again as he'll need to maintain his level of play for the Rays to continue on.

    Boston pitchers have held Jennings to a .238 average and struck him out 22 times. And despite his hot September, Jennings went 2-for-11 in three games against the Red Sox during the month.

    They've held him down before, but with the way Jennings has been playing as of late, he could be the catalyst in the lineup to get everyone else going.

Red Sox Batters with RISP vs. Rays Starters

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    A large reason the Rays are in the ALDS is because they've held down the fort with runners in scoring position. Boston is going to have to come through in those opportunities.

    Texas and Cleveland combined to go 4-for-18 with runners in scoring position against the Rays in their respective playoff games. And to advance in the playoffs, you can't do that.

    The Rangers had a chance in the second inning on Monday when Adrian Beltre doubled to begin the inning. But three straight outs left him on second. Then, after Alex Rios doubled home a run in the sixth inning, both Beltre and A.J. Pierzynski grounded out. David Price simply got himself out of jams in that game.

    Against the Indians, Alex Cobb did the same thing. Asdrubal Cabrera came up with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning, only to ground into a double play. The next inning, the Indians had runners on first and third with no outs, but a strikeout and two ground outs ended that threat.

    The theme behind the Rays winning was getting the outs with runners in scoring position.

    If Boston is going to stop the Rays, who have a lot of momentum after two straight win-or-go-home games, they have to hit with runners in scoring position.

    They've done a good job of that this year, batting .278 with 50 home runs and 634 RBI. And, they're going to have to do it once again in this series.