MLB Playoffs: Wild-Card Kickoff Tonight

The MLB playoffs start tonight at 5 PM ET with a game that’s everything Bud Selig could have hoped for when he instituted this AL/NL doubleheader f one-game knockouts. The first game will be St. Louis visiting Atlanta. Here we have the two teams that were the National League side of last year’s wild finish, when the Cardinals overtook the Braves on the final day of the season. And we have Atlanta legend Chipper Jones potentially playing his final game. Yes, this wild-card game knockout is a good idea.

We’ve also got both of last year’s World Series teams playing for their lives. Along with St. Louis, Texas is shockingly playing in the nightcap when they host Baltimore. The Rangers needed one win in three tries against Oakland to clinch the AL West, and couldn’t do it. Now we’ve got the two-time American League pennant winners, in the midst of a hard September fade, having to fight for its life against one of the sport’s great Cinderella stories in the Orioles—who, by the way are led by a former Texas skipper in Buck Showalter. Yes, this wild-card game knockout is a good idea and is making for some great theatre.

Atlanta has realistically known they would be in this game for a couple weeks, at minimum. The Braves pulled away in the wild-card race, and while the NL East title was always a possibility, they never got closer than three games. So it’s logical that manager Fredi Gonzalez has his best starter, Kris Medlen, lined up for this game. Medlen came back from elbow surgery and faced with the need to limit his innings, Atlanta showed the foresight that Washington did not do with Stephen Strasburg. The Braves just started Medlen’s season later and now he’s 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA, the best pitcher in baseball since his return.

St. Louis didn’t have the same luxury, going to the regular season’s penultimate day before clinching the wild-card, but it’s still worked out for them. One could argue the Cards would be better served if Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter were available to pitch this game, but Kyle Lohse has been the team’s best all season long, at 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA.

The fact the Cardinals could open the Division Series on Sunday with Wainwright and Carpenter make them a more realistic threat to top-seeded Washington, who awaits tonight’s winner. But for a one-game shot, I’d take my chances with Medlen, the home team and a passionate home crowd hoping they get to see Chipper in action again this weekend.

Las Vegas agrees, and Atlanta is a heavy (-170) favorite tonight. For those unfamiliar with moneyline betting terms, it means you have to bet $170 to win $100, whereas if you take the underdog, you get (+160), meaning a $100 bet brings a $160 return. That’s a heavier number than I’d be comfortable with, given the presence of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and David Freese in the St. Louis lineup. But at night’s end, the odds still say it’s Atlanta that moves on.

Texas is an even bigger favorite at (-190), as they send ace Yu Darvish to the mound. Baltimore will counter with Joe Saunders. Darvish’s numbers are better—the ERA is 3.90 compared to 4.07 and when you consider Saunders spent more than four months of the season in the National League pitching to DH-less lineups, the contrast is even sharper. But since being acquired by the Orioles, Saunders has turned in six consecutive solid outings. None have been against the caliber of a lineup he’ll face tonight,  but Saunders has postseason experience from his days with Mike Scoscia’s Angels in the late ‘00s.

Given those odds, I’d take my chances with the Orioles tonight. Texas is on a hard slump and while Darvish is their best arm, I don’t think of him as true stopper material. And Baltimore’s bullpen is nearly limitless, giving them an edge in any game that’s tight after five innings. If Texas is going to win it would be the bats opening up early on Saunders, but if its close, is anyone ready to say the Oriole Magic that’s been going all summer long wouldn’t pull it out. That’s why I’m leaning the Birds tonight.

The winners of each game host Washington and the NY Yanks on Sunday to begin Division Series play. They’re hosting because of baseball’s bizarre decision to have the lower-seeded teams open these series at home, with the favorite getting the final three.