Fall is in the air, which, in the sports world, means three things: 1) Football is likely once again dominating your television sets. 2) All thirty NBA teams are in training camp to prepare for their regular late October start to their regular season; and 3) The casual fan might finally be making an effort to tune in to Major League Baseball — after all, the 2012 MLB Playoffs are underway.
This season was the first in MLB history where ten teams, not eight, received invitations to the big dance. In reality though, it's still eight teams, with a caveat.
The new playoff settings added an additional wild card team to both the American and National Leagues, meaning each League — in addition to the regular three division winners — also saw two wild card teams in the running instead of the customary one. The four wild card teams take part in a single sudden death game with the winner officially punching their ticket to their league's divisional playoff round.
But enough explanation, let's jump right in about ten things you need to know about this year's MLB Playoffs.
10) The Atlanta Braves lose; Chipper Jones' career ends on a less than stellar note.
Last night, the dream for two of the four wild card teams, came to an abrupt end when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves 6-3.
Chipper Jones' storied baseball career patrolling the hot corner for the Atlanta Braves has now come to an end. It's been a great run, Chipper. Even though I'm not a Braves' fan, believe me when I say that the game of baseball won't be the same without you.
Not only are you arguably one of the greatest Braves ever — you've also been one of the game's greatest ambassadors throughout your playing career. For my money, there will never be a better switch-hitter in the history of this great game than Chipper Jones. The eight-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger was a model of consistency; whether it was with his glove or his bat.
Enjoy retirement, Chipper. Even though I didn't watch much Braves' baseball, I can say this for sure — it won't be the same without your familiar No. 10 on the field.
9) "Moneyball"! It Lives!
If this crazy turn of events doesn't have Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane smiling, then I don't know what will. The Athletics took home the AL West crown, beating out high-spending heavy-hitters like the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers. Finally, after so many down years, Beane can honestly say that he has a winning product out on the field.
The services of Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes were a wise purchase, and he, along with Josh Reddick, lead a starless but nevertheless extremely potent offensive club into the 2012 post-season. The A's have seemingly mastered the art of producing runs, having compiled the third best mark in baseball in that regard since the All-Star break and unlike teams like the Yankees and Rangers (both of which the A's beat out), Beane's boys did it while spending pennies on the dollar.
8) The St. Louis Cardinals are once again primed to make a deep playoff run after earning their spot via the sudden death Wild Card game.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't the 2011 Cardinals — aka the defending World Series Champions — a Wild Card team?
Even without Albert Pujols (who will be watching his old team in the playoffs from his couch), the Cards' once again sport a top-notch offense with guys like Matt Holliday, David Freese, Jon Jay, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran. But for how good their hitting is, we can't forget about the steady starting rotation featuring Adam Wainwright, a returning Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse. Like last year's Cardinals, this year's team is playing it's best ball at the right time. Will they be able to ride this timely hot streak to another title? One thing's for sure — you can never count them out.
7) The Texas Rangers' bats were silenced by Orioles' pitching.
If the Rangers' bats don't flourish, they're that much more likely to lose games. While it's true that Japanese rookie phenom Yu Darvish is indeed the real deal and was well worth the price, the entire staff had it's struggles at times throughout the regular season, thus ranking Texas in the middle of the pack in team ERA. Pitching and defense remain the keys to winning a title, and unfortunately for the Rangers, they just didn't show up the way they needed to in those two categories.
6) Buster Posey and Matt Cain will be keys to the San Francisco Giants' playoff hopes.
After completely obliterating his knee last season, the Giants' star catcher Buster Posey has returned full force and looked better than ever. How much better has he looked? To put it simply, he was the best hitter in baseball after the All-Star break — even better than Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers.
Bruce Bochy's club may not be stacked with power hitters throughout the lineup, but they certainly know how to manufacture runs, ranking second in runs per game since the break. Even without Melky Cabrera in the lineup, I definitely expect this club to make some noise before it's all said and done.
5) Good luck to the rest of the league in slowing down the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera.
That's right folks, the Tigers are back in the post-season and this time around, with a healthy (not to mention beastly) Miguel Cabrera in tow. Oh, and some guy named Prince Fielder too. Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer lead the way for a starting rotation that also recently acquired Anibal Sanchez.
With skipper Jim Leyland having this group primed to play their best baseball in the playoffs, you can bet that the Tigers should be a tough out for anyone.
4) The playoff success of the Cincinnati Reds rests squarely on the shoulders of Jay Bruce.
Bruce is one of the streakiest hitters in the game today. When he's on, he's on and can occasionally carry the Reds with his offense alone. But when he's off, the Reds aren't as formidable. No doubt first baseman Joey Votto will continue to do his thing and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw some timely clutch hits from Brandon Phillips as well, but Bruce is going to have to produce if the Reds want to advance.
3) 'Lady Luck' and Buck Showalter's managing decisions will be main catalysts for the Baltimore Orioles.
The Orioles' bullpen is probably the best in the league. Basically, if this team has the lead heading into the eighth inning, you can close the books, because it's over. Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Troy Patton, Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day and Jim Johnson make up a group that's led the O's to a mark of (73-0) when leading after the seventh inning.
Since September, the O's have an AL-best 50 home runs as a team, which hopefully means that their power is peaking at the right time.
2) The Washington Nationals may not miss Stephen Strasburg as much as we initially thought.
Cy Young hopeful Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann lead a great one-two punch at the top of the Nats' starting rotation, and you better believe that Washington would have no problem putting they up against any other team's top two starters. Like the A's, the Nationals don't really have that one true star anywhere in their lineup, but they've shown that they can be a dominant offensive club nonetheless.
While the team is young and is lacking playoff experience, Nationals' manager Davey Johnson has been to the playoffs three other teams prior, and should have no issue leading his young group through the trenches.
1) The Yankees seem to have everything coming together at the right time.
Second baseman Robinson Cano has been on an absolute tear as of late, so don't be surprised if he continues his great play into the post-season. The starting rotation of CC Sabathia, Andy Pettite (40-years old, but still plays superbly) and Hiroki Kuroda who has quietly had a solid season in his first year in Yankee pinstripes have the Yankees feeling pretty comfortable about their starting pitching.
Another reason why the Yankees will be tough to stop? The versatility throughout their roster and the amount of different lineups they can throw at opposing pitchers on a nightly basis. Good luck slowing all of the switch-hitters and lefties the Bronx Bombers can bring to the plate.
The only question that I have — as well as what's lingering in the minds of baseball fans everyhwere — can the Yankees win the title without Mariano Rivera closing games out? They haven't done so since 1978, so we'll have to wait and see.