So who else had the Washington Nationals going to the World Series this year?
With one glaring exception, however, the 2013 National League postseason slate is more or less something that reasonable people could see coming: three of the teams -- the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Atlanta Braves -- made the postseason last year, and of the two newcomers, the Los Angeles Dodgers added over $100 million dollars to their yearly payroll over the last sixteen months or so; if that sort of an investment in a team that already had the best starting pitcher in the world doesn't get you into the postseason in a division as weak as the NL West has been recently, people should probably be looking for new jobs.
That brings us to the Pittsburgh Pirates, this year's out-of-nowhere surprise hotshot dark horse that will be hosting their first playoff game since 1992. Not their first playoff series -- their first playoff game. There's something darkly humorous in the idea that the Pirates, who have a number of pitchers playing so far over their heads right now that last years' Orioles would blush, could host a single event on Tuesday evening and then that might be it until 2034, but that's hardly Pittsburgh's fault; that's just how the wild card works these days.
It's an odd quirk of the scheduling that the Pirates and Reds will have played four times between Friday and Tuesday night and that despite the fact that Pittsburgh won the first three of those games, it really doesn't mean anything at all unless they win the fourth. Such is the nature of the playoffs. The Pittsburgh starting pitcher will be Francisco Liriano (3.02 ERA, 161 IP), the poster child for the sort of career years that the entire pitching staff has had in 2013; the Reds will answer with Johnny Cueto (2.82 ERA, 60.2 IP); and anyone who purports to know what's going to happen in any given nine-inning contest is working some kind of angle. Joe Saunders outpitched Yu Darvish in the American League wild-card game last year and the biggest star of the NL game was the infield fly rule. You want to know what's going to happen in Tuesday night's game? Ask me Wednesday.
Regardless of who walks out of PNC Park with a date in the divisional round, they're not going to catch the St. Louis Cardinals by surprise. Each of the playoff teams in the Central has played 38 combined contests against the other two playoff teams in the Central this year; the Dodgers and the Braves played seven. All else being equal one would think the Cardinals would prefer to face the Pirates, considering that the 2013 Pirates offense plates fewer runs per game than the NL league average despite having MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen (.317/.404/.508, 674 PA) in the lineup every day. PNC Park is a pitchers' park but it's not that much of a pitchers' park -- and if it is that much of a pitcher's park, well, that just makes the combined 4.15 ERA from Pirates starters since August 1 look that much worse. Their starting pitching is what brought Pittsburgh to this dance; if it bails on them now, the 2013 Pirates postseason DVDs are going to be really short.
Some writers would have you believe that Billy Hamilton's inclusion on the playoff roster is the biggest story for the Cincinnati Reds going into this postseason; try not to listen to those people. There will be more than enough time for that particular brand of Hamiltonian stolen base madness around the time fantasy baseball starts up next April and an outfield prospect who posted a .651 OPS in a full season of Triple-A ball suddenly becomes one of the fifteen most valuable players in the league. The biggest story for the Reds right now is who won't be playing in the wild-card game: Reds ace Mat Latos was going to start the contest but was scratched for Cueto, who has spent most of the season on the disabled list with a lat strain. Latos is experiencing discomfort in pain in his right (throwing) arm, and while manager Dusty Baker is confident that Latos would be able to make a theoretical start in Game 1 of the NLDS should the Reds advance Tuesday night, one would expect that to be the case for anything short of Latos's arm just falling off at the shoulder. Like their rivals in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, the Reds need their pitching staff to show up to be the same team in October that they were over the six months that got them there.
Los Angeles and Atlanta do too. The five teams representing the National League in the postseason are also the five teams in baseball with the fewest runs allowed per game in 2013, and leading that quintet is the Atlanta Braves. The Braves have problems of their own, of course -- their staff was already bullpen-heavy, with Atlanta relievers putting up an ERA over a run smaller than the pitchers in the Braves rotation, allowing almost 100 fewer points of OPS against and being headlined by the best short reliever in baseball in Craig Kimbrel, but with the injuries to Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy, Paul Maholm getting an MRI and Alex Wood being handled with kid gloves due to a team-imposed soft innings cap, the Braves are seriously considering sending Freddy Garcia out there to pitch Game 4 of the NLDS. And as good as Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen have been this year at the top of the Atlanta rotation, Los Angeles's Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu have been better for the Dodgers. At the very least Atlanta will have homefield advantage for the series.
At the end of the day I think the Dodgers and the Cards are the class of the National League, and I don't think any team in the playoffs can go to a playoff rotation better than Kershaw-Greinke-Ryu if need be. My picks reflect that fundamental belief.
But it might not hurt to at least prepare yourself for the idea of World Series MVP Pedro Alvarez, just to be safe. It's been that kind of year.
Cincinnati Reds over Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals over Cincinnati Reds
Los Angeles Dodgers over Atlanta Braves
Los Angeles Dodgers over St. Louis Cardinals