Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox is trying to win his second World Series title in his last season as skipper; the Texas Rangers are trying to win their first playoff series ever; and the Philadelphia Phillies are looking to become the first NL club since the St. Louis Cardinals from 1942 to 1944 to go to three consecutive World Series.
The postseason starts this week with four Division Series, all four of which are up for grabs. While there are still favorites and underdogs, every team begins the playoffs with a clean slate.
Without further ado, here are some predictions for the first round.
Tampa Bay Rays (96-66, AL East Champion) vs. Texas Rangers (90-72, AL West Champion)
There is an abundance of talented left-handed pitchers in this year?s postseason, and two of the top southpaws will be on display in this series.
Tampa Bay?s David Price (19-6, 2.72) will look replicate his 2008 postseason success, this time as the team?s No. 1 starter. Coming off a breakout season in which he clearly positioned himself as the Rays? ace, Price will get the ball in Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 5.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay?s young lefty will have to square off against Texas? elder lefty, who is no stranger to October success.
Cliff Lee (12-9, 3.18) is arguably the most feared pitcher in the playoffs this year, thanks in large part to his success in the 2009 postseason with the Phillies. In five starts with Philadelphia, Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and two complete games, including two victories in the World Series against the favored Yankees.
Lee has had his struggles down the stretch for the Rangers, including a 6.35 ERA in August, but he had a similar downfall towards the end of the 2009 regular season for the Phillies. One can only assume he?ll regroup for the playoffs once again.
When it comes down to it, Price and Lee essentially wash each other out. The other guys in each team?s rotations will determine the winner of this series, and Texas has the edge in that department.
The Rangers? Game 2 starter, C.J. Wilson (15-8, 3.35) has been solid all year, while Tampa Bay?s Matt Garza (15-10, 3.91), James Shields (13-15, 5.18) and Wade Davis (12-10, 4.07) have all been inconsistent.
If there?s a major offensive question mark in this series, it?s the health of Rangers center fielder and AL batting champion Josh Hamilton.
After injuring his ribs on Sept. 4, Hamilton missed the remainder of the month, but returned for the final series of the year against the Angels. On Saturday, he eased Rangers fans? minds by hitting a two-run home run in his team?s 6-2 victory.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
Minnesota Twins (94-68, AL Central Champion) vs. New York Yankees (95-67, AL Wild Card)
Minnesota finally has a great chance of winning its first playoff series since 2002.
The Twins, the AL?s hottest team in September, host the Yankees, a team with more problems than any other club playing extra baseball.
While Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has several quality arms to turn to in October, Yankees skipper Joe Girardi has just one; though he is very good.
CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18) is the only reliable starter for the Yankees nowadays, due to A.J. Burnett?s (10-15, 5.26) career-worst season and Andy Pettitte?s (11-3, 3.28) injury questions.
Meanwhile, the Twins have two starters — Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62) and Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75) — who were Cy Young candidates for most of 2010.
Plus, Minnesota finally has a quality bullpen, despite losing All-Star closer Joe Nathan at the beginning of the season. In 2009, the Twins were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS, largely due to the fact that they couldn?t hold several leads late in games. This year, the Twins made midseason acquisitions of two closers, Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes, who have joined Jon Rauch as a formidable trio in the back end of the ?pen.
The 2010 Yankees are very similar to the Red Sox of 2005. Coming off an inspiring championship season, New York has a similar roster in its run to defend its title — the execution just hasn?t been as strong.
Prediction: Twins in 5
Philadelphia Phillies (97-65, NL East Champion) vs. Cincinnati Reds (91-71, NL Central Champion)
This appears to be the most lopsided series of the Divisional Round, but don?t be fooled – the Reds can play some ball.
Cincinnati has a nice mix of young star players like MVP candidate Joey Votto and slugging outfielder Jay Bruce to go along with reliable veterans like second baseman Brandon Phillips, third baseman Scott Rolen and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who always seems to find his way into the postseason.
What?s more, the Reds have the ultimate secret weapon for October. Cuban southpaw Aroldis Chapman, known for his ability to hit 100 mph on a regular basis, was a key factor out of the bullpen for Cincinnati down the stretch. He?ll be especially crucial in this series, as the Phillies boast a trio of great left-handed hitters in Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez.
Luckily for the Phillies, even if their lefties are neutralized, they have several other All-Star players on their roster like Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino.
But in the end, it?s Philadelphia?s starting pitching that will allow them to win this series with ease. Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44), Roy Oswalt (13-13, 2.76) and Cole Hamels (12-11, 3.06) give the Phillies the most feared trio of arms in the playoffs, and will likely carry the team deep into the playoffs.
Prediction: Phillies in 4
San Francisco Giants (92-70, NL West Champion) vs. Atlanta Braves (91-71, NL Wild Card)
Both of these teams earned playoff spots on the last day of the regular season. One of them will be gone within a week of Game 1.
The Giants clinched the NL West with a victory over the Padres on Sunday, and Atlanta beat San Diego in the wild-card race by defeating the Phillies earlier in the afternoon.
Though the Braves were the best team in the NL throughout the first four months of the regular season, they have many factors going against them right now. Atlanta lost star third baseman Chipper Jones earlier in the year, and is now without All-Star second baseman Martin Prado and his .307 average.
The Braves will showcase a very solid core of starting pitching, though, in this series, as Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00), Tommy Hanson (10-11, 3.33) and Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83) will start Game 1, Game 2 and Game 3, respectively.
But when it comes down to it, San Francisco?s starters will simply dominate Atlanta?s weak lineup.
Two-time defending NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum (16-10, 3.43) has been fabulous in September, going 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA for the month. He?ll start Game 1, and will be followed by Matt Cain (13-11, 3.14) and Jonathan Sanchez (13-9, 3.07), whom each rank in the top 16 in the NL in ERA and strikeouts.
The Giants? rotation, combined with an exciting lineup led by rookie catcher Buster Posey, will be more than enough to win this series outright.
Prediction: Giants in 3