We've reached that magical time in the baseball season. The leaves are changing, there's a bite to the morning air and the playoffs are upon us. Eight teams have entered the second season, each of them hoping to go all the way. The six-month odyssey of the regular season is over, the results of those 162 games nothing but a memory. We've reached the reset point.
Each of the eight teams left in the hunt deserves to be there. They've hit well enough, pitched well enough - they've won enough. Each team has a chance at taking a nice long run through the month of October. Any one of these teams could find itself hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy and celebrating a World Series championship. It's the postseason - first one to 11 wins.
However, some teams might have a better shot than others. Here's one man's thoughts on their respective chances at going all the way and bringing home that elusive victory. Given my checkered history with regards to sporting prognostication, we can safely assume that however things work out, it probably won't be like this.
Philadelphia Phillies (NL East winner)
There can be no disputing that the Philadelphia Phillies have to be considered the overall favorites to win this year's World Series. They were utterly dominant in the regular season, bulldozing their way through the league on their way to becoming the only team to surpass 100 wins this season. The story has been their starting rotation, of course - the team features Cy Young candidates Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, not to mention the excellent Cole Hamels. The Phillies led the major leagues with a team ERA of 3.02 and were third in strikeouts.
And while the vaunted offense might have dropped off a notch or two this year, there's still plenty of offensive firepower in the form of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and the surprising Shane Victorino. During the regular season, the team was in the middle of the pack in most respects, but now that the heat has been turned up, we can expect a bump in performance. This is a team of postseason veterans; they know what it takes to win on this stage.
No matter who the Phillies face on their journey through the playoffs, they are going to be the favorite. None of the other teams can match their starting pitching - and in October, pitching is king.
New York Yankees (AL East winner)
This may not be the New York Yankees juggernaut of seasons past, but there's a lot to like about their chances in 2011. They've got their usual star-studded lineup going; centerfielder Curtis Granderson has been the shining star of the offense (and an MVP candidate), but he's hardly alone. Robinson Cano had a monster year in his own right, while Mark Teixeira put up nearly 40 home runs. The team as a whole led the league in home runs, while finishing second in runs and fourth in steals. That is an offense that should scare even the most talented pitching staffs this fall.
With that sort of run scoring, the pitching doesn't necessarily have to be great. However, the Yankees are also lucky enough to have one of the game's few truly dominant aces in C.C. Sabathia. However, there are some questions after him. Rookie Ivan Nova won 16 games in a solid season, but after that, there's a pretty steep drop-off - the thought of A.J. Burnett in a playoff start should give even the most unabashed Yankees homer a bit of a chill.
Still, with a batting order stuffed with good hitters and a legitimate ace in Sabathia, the Yankees are more than capable of dispatching any team that faces them. If the bats get hot, the Yankees will take home the trophy.
Milwaukee Brewers (NL Central winner)
The Brewers are my sentimental favorite to go all the way. I think it would be a great thing for a franchise that hasn't had a championship in 30 years. They've got the horses to do it - their offense is driven by some serious star power. In Ryan Braun, the Brewers have a do-it-all outfielder, a 30 homer, 30 steal performer who just missed a batting title. In Prince Fielder, they've got one of the most prodigious power sources in the game - second in the league in home runs along with over 100 RBI. Pair those two potential MVPs with guys like Corey Hart and Ricky Weeks and you're looking at a scary lineup.
The pitching in Milwaukee has been quietly excellent. They've got five starters with double-digit wins, including Yovanni Gallardo with his 17 wins and 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke one win behind him. Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum give the Brewers four solid starters - a luxury not every playoff team has. Throw in a lights-out closer in John Axford and the Brewers pitching looks capable of breaking off a long run.
The Brewers appear to have all the pieces. If they can find a way to get past the Philadelphia buzzsaw, they could go all the way. They may well be the second-best team in the postseason.
Texas Rangers (AL West winner)
The Rangers might have lost the Series last year, but the 2010 champion San Francisco Giants are watching the playoffs on TV this year. Texas is right back in it, thanks in large part to their dynamic offensive lineup. Josh Hamilton had another excellent season, as did Adrian Beltre. Second baseman Ian Kinsler went 30/30, while Michael Young blew up for a monster year. All in all, the team led the majors in batting average, while finishing second in homers and third in runs. Top to bottom, this might be the scariest lineup in the entire postseason.
The Texas pitching staff is another that flew a bit under the radar during the regular season. The rotation is a group of guys who are really solid, led by C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando. None of them are spectacular talents, but they all get the job done. At the end of the game, however, closer Neftali Feliz is a spectacular talent indeed. Mike Adams is another pitcher that'll be tough to face out of that Ranger bullpen. These guys are better than you might think.
Frankly, these guys probably should be higher on this list. However, there's something about these guys that doesn't quite feel like a winner. Call it a hunch. Of course, now that I've said that, they'll cruise to the title.
Detroit Tigers (AL Central winner)
The Tigers put together an excellent regular season and cruised to a division title. They've ridden on the backs of a handful of stars and a whole lot of talented role players to put themselves into a position to win it all. Their offense is centered around all-world hitter Miguel Cabrera; the guy led the league in on-base percentage and won the batting title. Victor Martinez hit .330 with over 100 RBI himself. Surrounding those two were a bunch of above-average hitters who overachieved; it all cohered into a first-rate lineup.
You can't discuss the Tigers without talking about Justin Verlander. The overwhelming Cy Young favorite is working on a season for the ages, leading the AL in wins, strikeouts and ERA. He has been as dominant as any pitcher in the last decade. Starters Doug Fister and Max Scherzer might not have the cachet of some of the other starters, but these guys can throw. If they can stand up to the pressure, Detroit is a very scary team.
The Tigers look good, but they're going to need a fair amount of luck to make it to the promised land. They just don't have any margin for error. Still, if they get rolling, they'll be tough to stop.
Tampa Bay Rays (AL wild card)
No team is happier to be here than the Tampa Bay Rays. They had to put together a strong final month coinciding with an epic collapse by Boston just to make it into the playoffs. However, they certainly earned their spot. The Rays pitching staff has been excellent across the board all season long, led by James Shields, one of the best, most durable pitchers in the majors. Behind Shields, the Rays features such talents as David Price and likely Rookie of the Year winner Jeremy Hellickson. The bullpen, led by closer Kyle Farnsworth, is almost as strong as the rotation.
The lineup certainly isn't as dominant as the pitching, but there's nothing wrong with the Rays in the batter's box. Third baseman Evan Longoria leads the charge, but key contributors have come from all over the lineup. Players such as Ben Zobrist, Casey Kotchman and B.J. Upton bring serious skills to the table. There's the potential to score some runs here, although the Rays don't have the flashy numbers of some of the other playoff offenses.
The Rays played their hearts out to get here, but the likelihood of their journey culminating in a championship seems pretty slim. They've got some really good pitching, but the bats will probably wind up a few runs short.
St. Louis Cardinals (NL wild card)
You can never count out the St. Louis Cardinals. This is a team that year in and year out puts forth a maximum of effort and achieves real success. Albert Pujols remains the heart and soul of this team, and while he didn't have his usual spectacular season, he still hit nearly 40 home runs and scored 100 runs. Lance Berkman also had a great season, while Matt Holliday was solid. The rest of the lineup is filled with scrappy overachiever-types, the sorts of players that manager Tony LaRussa loves. The team led the National League in runs scored and batting average.
The pitching that has been a strength for the Cardinals in recent years was a bit less effective this season, but no rotation that includes Chris Carpenter can be counted out. Jaime Garcia also had an effective season, while Edwin Jackson has been the team's best starter since coming to the team at the July trading deadline. The bullpen is full of solid performers; there aren't any spectacular guys, but no real stinkers either. As a unit, they're a good group.
The Cardinals worked really hard to get here. While the offense has been extremely productive and the pitching has been solid, they just don't look to have the talent of some of the other contenders. If the starters get hot, the Cards could roll, but otherwise, thanks for playing.
Arizona Diamondbacks (NL West winner)
In a list of eight teams, some team's got to be eighth. On this list, that's the Diamondbacks. They seem to have won with smoke and mirrors, taking on the gritty persona of their manager Kirk Gibson and simply willing themselves to the title. The starting rotation is spearheaded by Ian Kennedy, who won 20 games, and Daniel Hudson, who won 16. The two make up a decent one-two punch, but after that, the strength of the rotation drops precipitously. Closer J.J. Putz had a great season, putting up 45 saves, though the rest of the bullpen is uneven at best.
As far as the lineup, some pundits call the Arizona offense 'Justin Upton and a bunch of guys.' It's not quite that extreme, but Upton is definitely the leader of the offense. However, guys like centerfielder Chris Young and catcher Miguel Montero have made significant contributions. That said, the Diamondbacks just don't have anything close to the lineup depth of these other teams. Upton is great, yes, but there are just too many easy outs.
Unless things play out absolutely perfectly - Upton explodes, Kennedy and Hudson go lights out, some close calls fall just right - the Diamondbacks will lose their last game of the 2011 season.
ALDS - Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees - Yankees win 3-2
ALDS - Tampa Bay Rays vs. Texas Rangers - Rangers win 3-2
NLDS - St. Louis Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Phillies - Phillies win 3-1
NLDS - Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Milwaukee Brewers - Brewers win 3-1
ALCS - Rangers vs. Yankees - Yankees win 4-2
NLCS - Brewers vs. Phillies - Phillies win 4-3
World Series - Yankees vs. Phillies - Phillies win 4-2