Breaking down the MLB playoffs from A to Z
Everything you need to know about the 2012 MLB postseason in alphabetical form.
A -- Aroldis Chapman: The Reds' flame-throwing closer saved 38 games for the NL Central champions but had to be shut down in early September due to shoulder fatigue. He returned to the bullpen on Sept. 22, and says he's rested and ready. With the importance of the bullpen magnified by postseason pressure, Chapman's health and ability to pitch on consecutive days is key to the Reds' World Series title hopes.
B -- Buckle up: That's the postseason rallying cry of the Baltimore Orioles, taken from manager Buck Showalter. The O's not only broke their streak of 14 straight sub-.500 seasons, but Showalter led the team on a remarkable worst to not-quite-first journey to make the postseason for the first time since 1997. Last season, Baltimore finished 69-93; this season, 93-69. Showalter would be a lock for American League Manager of the Year if not for what's going on in Oakland.
C -- Cincinnati: Is there a more under-the-radar playoff team than the NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds? They were the first team to secure a postseason spot -- on Sept. 20 -- and two days later they clinched the division. With Cy Young contender Johnny Cueto anchoring the rotation, strong defense, a stellar bullpen with the lowest ERA (2.65) in the major leagues, rookie of the year candidate Todd Frazier and All-Star Joey Votto, the Reds are poised for an October run starting Saturday in San Francisco.
D -- Defending champions: With their ninth postseason appearance since 2000, the St. Louis Cardinals will have a chance to defend their 2011 title. This year, they became the National League's first second wild-card team. The reward? A trip to Atlanta for Friday's one-game wild-card matchup against the Braves.
E -- "Enter Sandman:" Mariano Rivera's entrance music will not be heard at Yankee Stadium in the postseason for the first time in over a decade (it was introduced in 1999 and wasn't used in 2008 when the Yankees last missed the playoffs). The seemingly ageless closer will be watching from the sidelines and the AL's top seed will be relying on Rafael Soriano for postseason saves. Soriano has had an outstanding season filling in for the irreplaceable Rivera, converting 42 of 46 save opportunities. But he's not Rivera and until he untucks his jersey, Yankees fans will be slightly more on edge.
F -- First-time manager Mike Matheny: If experience matters, don't tell Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Matheny had no managerial experience when he became just the sixth manager in baseball history to take over a defending World Series champion. (He replaced the retired Tony La Russa.) Despite losing ace Chris Carpenter for almost the entire season (Carpenter returned to the rotation on Sept. 21) and Albert Pujols to free agency, Matheny led his team into the playoffs. Will Matheny follow in his predecessor's footsteps and win another unlikely World Series title?
G -- Green and gold: The Oakland A's are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006. If it weren't for the O's and their remarkable success, the A's would be the most unexpected success story of the year. With one of the two lowest payrolls in the majors this season, the A's staged a league-high 14 walk-off wins with a group of rookies and castoffs. And they did this all by batting .238 as a team. Nothing about this makes sense, but they won nine of their last 11 games (including a season-ending sweep of Texas) and overcame a 13-game deficit in the AL West to steal the division title from the Rangers. Fun fact: The A's also led the league in players named Brandon (five).
H -- Home runs: The Yankees live and die by the home run. With four more bombs in the Bronx on the final night of the regular season, the Yankees set a franchise single-season home run record with 245. Note: It's not all taking place at the bandbox in the Bronx. The Yankees have 107 dingers on the road, most in the majors. Speaking of home runs, did you know the Oakland A's 112 home runs are the most in the American League since the All-Star break?
I -- Ichiro: When the Yankees traded for the 38-year-old Suzuki, fans embraced and welcomed him, making his pinstriped jersey the No. 3 seller since the All-Star break. But his on-field performance during the September stretch run has been nothing short of a revelation. From Sept. 1 through Game 161, he hit .367 with 38 hits, two home runs, seven doubles and 13 RBIs, adding excellent defense and some key stolen bases. Will this hot hitting continue into October?
J -- Jim Thome: The 42-year-old lefty slugger is back in the postseason. Thome joined the Orioles in July via trade from the Phillies and has added a veteran presence to a lineup filled with young players and castoffs (Nate McLouth, anybody?). While Thome missed all of August due to a herniated disc, he's provided some key hits during the O's stretch run. And who doesn't like Thome? Exactly.
K -- Kris Medlen: Medlen has been a legitimate ace since he joined Atlanta's starting rotation on July 31. The Braves are 12-0 in Medlen's starts this season and have won an MLB-record 23 straight games started by Medlen, dating back to 2010. Along the way, he's struck out 120 batters with a 1.57 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP. There's a reason he's starting Friday's wild-card game for the Braves. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Braves' ridiculous closer, Craig Kimbrel, and his 42 saves, 1.01 ERA, microscopic 0.65 WHIP and 16.7 K/9, best all time.
L -- Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones Jr.: After 19 seasons, the Braves' future Hall of Fame third baseman gets one last postseason appearance. A career .303 hitter, Jones will retire as one of only two switch-hitters in major league history to bat at least .300 from both sides of the plate. Even if the 40-year-old doesn't get another World Series ring, he's definitely going out on top after a stellar year, with a slash line of .287/.377/.455. According to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, only one other Hall of Fame position player had a final season that compares to Chipper's 2012: Ted Williams. Not too shabby.
M -- Melky who?: When All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera was suspended on Aug. 15 for a positive testosterone test, he was hitting .346. Many wondered if the Giants could sustain such a hit. San Francisco not only survived, but thrived, finishing third in the National League in hitting (led by NL batting champion Buster Posey, who won the title because Cabrera volunteered to remove himself from consideration). The Giants rolled to the NL West title with a remarkable 30-14 record after his suspension. The Giants announced Cabrera would not be rejoining the team for the NLCS should the team advance. So long, Melkman.
N -- Natitude: The Nationals' marketing department introduced this made-up word as the motto for the 2012 season, and despite much mocking, the Nationals laughed all the way to the best record in the National League (98-64) and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. With superstar in the making Bryce Harper and just the right mix of veterans and youth, look for Natitude to stick around the nation's capital long after the slogan gets retired.
O -- One-run games: The Orioles' remarkable season has been made even more remarkable by their success in one-run games. The O's were an unprecedented 29-9 in games decided by one run (.763 winning percentage). I'll let that sink in. Baltimore lost only nine games decided by one run. By comparison, the Yankees are 22-25 in one-run games. Is that a predictor of success? Not necessarily. But having the confidence to win close ones can't hurt in October.
P -- Posey for MVP: Giants fans have been tweeting #MVPosey for a few months. Giants catcher Buster Posey, who returned this season after a devastating leg injury, led the team to the NL West title with an impressive combination of offense, defense and game management. Posey led the league in hitting with a .336 batting average, becoming the first catcher to win an NL batting title since 1942. He also hit 24 home runs and had 103 RBIs while making 111 of his 130 starts behind the plate. (He played 29 games at first base.) Posey and Votto in the same NLDS series? Yes, please.
Q -- Quirky scheduling: Because the additional wild-card game had to be shoehorned into an already set schedule, the two top seeds in each league will start the five-game division series on the road. The top seeds could lose the first two games on the road and return home needing to win three straight to advance to the league championship series. Thankfully this 2-3 format will not happen again after this season.
R -- Rivalries renewed: Under the previous MLB postseason rules, teams from the same division could not face each other in the five-game division series. This meant if the top seed and wild-card teams came from the same division, the top seed might be matched against a division champion with a better record. The addition of the second wild card provides two benefits: division champions do not play in the single-elimination, wild-card game and division rivals can now face each other in the division series. This is good news.
S -- Sensational slugger Miguel Cabrera: Take your AL MVP discussions elsewhere. Regardless of who wins, Miggy had one of the most impressive offensive seasons in history for the AL Central champion Tigers, winning the first Triple Crown since 1967 (yes, it's been 45 years since this has been accomplished). Cabrera finished with 44 home runs, 139 RBIs and a .330 batting average, coming up big for the Tigers during their September push for the AL Central title. Walking Miggy to get to Prince Fielder isn't really an option for Tigers' opponents, but he's a dangerous enough hitter that it's a consideration.
T -- Texas three-step: The 2011 Rangers were the first team to lose two consecutive World Series since the Atlanta Braves in 1991-92. The 2012 Rangers would be the first AL team to make three straight World Series appearances since the Yankees of 1998-2001. With a powerful offense, solid starting pitching and rejuvenated closer Joe Nathan, the Rangers looked ready for more October success. But after losing the final three games of the season and the AL West division title in Oakland, the Rangers' run could end in Friday's wild-card game before it even starts.
U -- Unexpected is expected: Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but if there's anything we've learned from the past several seasons, it's to expect the unexpected in the postseason. Last season, the Cardinals upset the Phillies and Brewers en route to their thrilling World Series win. The A's and O's have already proven all the prognosticators wrong with their unexpected success this season. Bring it on.
V -- Verlander being Verlander: Lost amid all the Cabrera Triple Crown talk is that last year's Cy Young Award winner and MVP Justin Verlander has rounded into typical Verlander form in the past month. Verlander made six starts in September during the Tigers' critical postseason push, won five of them and struck out 41 batters in 42 innings with a 1.93 ERA. Three of the wins came against Cleveland, Kansas City and Minnesota, but the Tigers have to be feeling pretty good about Verlander and Doug Fister at the top of their playoff rotation. Verlander finished the season with a record of 17-8, an ERA of 2.64, six complete games and 239 strikeouts in 238⅓ innings pitched.
W -- Welcome back, Davey Johnson: The Nationals are 138-107 since 69-year-old Johnson took over as manager in June of 2011. With the team's National League East title, Johnson became the second manager in major league history to win a division title with four different teams (Billy Martin is the other). What his players lack in postseason experience (six current players have been in the playoffs), Johnson makes up for in spades, with his sixth postseason appearance as a manager. Fun fact: Johnson managed the Orioles the last time the Nats' beltway neighbors made the playoffs in 1997.
X -- X-rated pitches: When Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish is on, his stuff is absolutely filthy. The Japanese sensation features a devastating curve, a fastball in the low 90s, a slider and a cutter, which he used to victimize batters to the tune of 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings (221 strikeouts in 191⅓ innings pitched) in a strong rookie campaign. Darvish had been set to start Game 1 of the ALDS but with the Rangers' unexpected fall from division title to wild card, he's starting the single-elimination game against the Orioles this Friday at Arlington. If the Rangers are going to advance, Darvish needs to bring his nastiest stuff.
Y -- Yo knows: Oakland surprised the baseball world before the 2012 season by springing for a four-year, $36 million contract with Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, making him the highest paid player on the team. If not for Mike Trout's record-setting rookie season in the same division, we'd be talking more about Cespedes' terrific first year. He hit .292 with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs, including five home runs to tie the game or give his team the lead in the seventh inning or later. In the most telling stat of all, the A's went 82-46 when Cespedes started and 12-22 when he didn't.
Z -- Zimmerman(n): Ryan Zimmerman is one of two current Nationals (Ian Desmond is the other) who played for the team in 2005, its first year in Washington, D.C. The All-Star third baseman has suffered through seasons with 91, 89, 102, 103 and 93 losses but is now enjoying the first division championship in franchise history. Jordan Zimmermann gets overshadowed by Stephen Strasburg (hey, did you hear he's been shut down for the year?) and 20-game winner Gio Gonzalez. But the righty starter, three years removed from Tommy John surgery, has had a great season, going 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA and a 1.170 WHIP. Plus, he wears high socks. Gonzalez and Zimmermann make a nasty one-two punch at the top of the Nats' rotation.