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An alphabetical look at the keys to the 2013 MLB pennant races.
Maybe the third baseman was rushed through the Pirates’ system, or maybe he’s been a little slow to develop, but the Pirates have been rewarded for their patience with the young slugger. The second overall pick in 2008 is tied for the NL lead in homers and is fourth in RBIs. If the Bucs can hang on and win the NL Central, Alvarez will be a key component.
The Boston righthander was 9-0 through his first 12 starts. But a neck strain and bursa sac inflammation have sidelined him since June 8. Boston’s chances increase dramatically with a healthy Buchholz in the rotation for the playoffs.
The best hitter on the planet in the middle of the lineup for the Tigers is the No. 1 factor in how far Detroit can advance this season. The Tigers need Miggy completely healthy in order to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Drama (lack of)
The only drama in the NL may be which of the three NL Central teams — the Pirates, Cardinals or Reds — will win the division and which two will be left to play in the wild-card game.
There is very little postseason experience — and even less proven success — among NL starting pitchers likely to earn starts this October. A.J. Burnett of the Pirates has the most starts (7, all with the Yankees) and a 5.87 ERA. The Braves’ starters have one start in the postseason combined. The only two starters with postseason success are Adam Wainwright of St. Louis, with four starts and four saves in the playoffs and a 2.48 ERA over 32.2 innings; and the Reds’ Mike Leake, who had a terrific start last season against the Giants.
Opponents may choose to pitch around Cabrera, leaving Fielder as the focal point of Detroit’s lineup. The big man struggled at a .173 clip in the postseason last year with only one extra-base hit. He’s been a valuable protector for Cabrera in the regular season, but how he performs in the playoffs could determine the Tigers’ fate.
The Pirates’ closer was almost perfect for the first three months of the season, but his injury has forced Pittsburgh to shuffle its bullpen. So far, there have been few problems as Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson and Vin Mazzaro have taken up the slack. But the Pirates have a much better shot at winning the NL Central with their closer healthy. He’s beginning to make a few rehab appearances in the minor leagues, hopeful that he can return to Pittsburgh by mid-September.
The Braves’ offense took off when Heyward was moved to the leadoff spot, and Atlanta has been one of the hottest teams in baseball since. But Heyward was hit in the face with a pitch on Aug. 21, causing him to be out until late in the season. His healthy return will be critical for the Braves once the playoffs begin.
In one of the most significant trades at the deadline, the Tigers acquired Iglesias from the Red Sox anticipating the suspension of shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Iglesias will not provide pop to match Peralta, but his defense is terrific.
The Dodgers’ starting pitching has been terrific, and the lineup has been hitting on all cylinders. If there is an Achilles heel for Los Angeles, it would be the bullpen. Jansen closed just 78 percent of his opportunities last season, and allowed 33 percent of inherited runners to score. He’s been much better this season, however, closing 88 percent of his opportunities and allowing just 14 percent of inherited runners to cross the plate.
The most dominant pitcher in the majors this season must continue to confound hitters in the playoffs. The lefty carries a career 5.87 ERA in the postseason, and he needs to be the shutdown ace in order for the Dodgers to win a series — or more.
Throughout his career, there has been little doubt as to Liriano’s immense talent. But his inconsistency has confounded pitching coaches over the years. Right now, he’s the Pirates’ ace, but if he falters, the Pirates’ dream of postseason success could fade with him.
Myers has anchored the Rays’ lineup from the cleanup spot. Since early July, he’s batting .339, and when he drives in a run, the Rays are 17-5. When he doesn’t have an RBI, the team is 18-22 (in games he plays).
When the Rangers were at their best earlier this season, the bullpen was terrific. The closer didn’t blow his first save until May 26 after he had successfully closed 16. He now has 38 saves in 40 chances. But he’s walked 10 in his last 13 innings and is showing signs of wearing down. Texas doesn’t need a tired Nathan.
Boston’s rebound from last season’s debacle has been remarkable. And Ortiz has been right in the middle of the turnaround. He leads the team in batting average, slugging, on-base percentage, home runs and RBIs. Yeah, he’s sort of a key to the Red Sox hopes.
Puig’s energy and all-out style are fun to watch, yet can be exasperating for his manager because of careless mistakes and spotty concentration. But when he’s on his game, he is a scary figure in the batter’s box. The Dodgers need him to be on.
While the official Quality Start statistic is among the most meaningless, it is critical that teams’ starting pitching get deep into games to save bullpen arms down the stretch. As we saw two years ago in Atlanta, tired bullpens can be disasters late in the season.
Anything baseball can do to ensure that the right calls are made is welcome.
The Rangers’ best run producer (at the time of his suspension), Nelson Cruz, is currently suspended, as is shortstop Jhonny Peralta of Detroit. The Tigers reacted well and added shortstop Jose Iglesias, improving their defense. Texas has managed to improve its offensive numbers without Cruz, but the lineup is not nearly as intimidating with the right fielder missing.
I know the Twins’ elimination number is less than 20 with almost a month to play. But no team will have more say in more pennant races than the Twins. Minnesota has seven games against the A’s and the Rays visit Target Field for three. The Twins will spend the final week hosting the Tigers (3) and the Indians (4).
Since becoming the team’s full-time closer in late June, Boston’s Uehara is 3-0 with 15 saves in 17 chances with an 0.29 ERA. He has 41 Ks and has allowed just 10 hits and two walks. With the health and stability questions surrounding Boston’s rotation, it’s critical that Uehara is sharp at the back end of the bullpen.
Max Scherzer is getting most of the attention in Detroit (and rightfully so) with his 19-1 record. But the horse manager Jim Leyland will lean on in the postseason is Verlander.
He’s been there before. Twice in fact. He’s been to within a strike of winning the World Series. Twice in fact. Last season ended too soon for the Rangers’ manager, and he is determined to have his troops ready for October. Not letting the AL West title slip away like last season is the first order of business.
Boston called up its top prospect in mid-August, and he will be a key for the Red Sox. Shortstop Stephen Drew is batting under .250, and the Sox need an offensive spark from the position. Bogaerts has made three starts at shortstop and two at third. He’s hitting .316 but has just one extra-base hit.
In St. Louis, fans know him by one name. The off-the-charts defensive catcher has proven to be one of the best hitters in the NL this season. Certain to receive serious MVP consideration, Yadier Molina is the most indispensable position player in the pennant race. The Cardinals can ill-afford for him to miss a beat.
One of the best defensive second basemen in the big leagues, Zobrist has also made starts in left, right and short. He’s also hit in each of the first five spots in the batting order. He is the heart and soul of the Rays’ lineup.