With both American League Wild Card Games out of the way, the stage is now set for the 2013 Division Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox along with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics.
A full list of each division series game can be viewed here.
There are a number of key matchups and focus points that emanate from each series and it is likely that these factors will play a crucial role in deciding which team advances to the League Championship Series.
Boston will boast home-field advantage when the series kicks off on Friday, October 4. While the Red Sox have a solid pitching staff, the Rays can counter with an excellent staff of their own. Which staff will give first and will home-field advantage during the series prove to be the difference?
As far as Oakland versus Detroit is concerned, the A's can also match up a staff against that of the Tigers. Their series also starts on October 4. Oakland has enjoyed the fruits of a remarkable season thus far and it seems as if everything has gone their way during the course of the year. Can that be enough to get the A's past this hurdle?
After all, it was Detroit that knocked the A's out of the playoffs at this same point a year ago.
Let's take a look at these key matchups and examine specifically which ones could prove to make all the difference.
ALDS: Rays vs. Red Sox
The 97-65 Red Sox take on the AL Wild Card winning Rays who boasted a regular season record of 92-71. Boston gets home-field advantage in this one and will hope that element, combined with their resurgence during the regular season will be enough to power their way over a strong Tampa Bay team.
Rays' Bullpen versus Red Sox Lineup
During the AL Wild Card Game, this author wrote a piece describing how potent Tampa Bay's pitching would be against Cleveland.
Needless to say, my assumptions were proven correct.
Now, the Rays will take that vaunted pitching staff over to the division series against Boston.
Tampa Bay's combined staff has a 3.54 ERA against Boston this year and is holding the Red Sox to a .208 batting average. That may be good enough during the regular season, but will it hold up in the playoffs?
While both staffs employ formidable rotations, the Rays bullpen is something to consider as a strength. Often enough, playoff series are won or lost in late innings and relievers can prove to be the difference between a championship run and an early exit.
Relievers Joel Peralta and Jake McGee have been two of the more reliable members of Tampa Bay's bullpen and both figure to play significant roles against Boston. Peralta has a 4.83 ERA against the Red Sox this year and his record is 0-3 in his relief efforts against the team.
McGee on the other hand has yet to allow a run against Boston over ten appearances.
A focus point in this aspect will fall upon how Boston's David Ortiz will factor against the bullpen.
The job of shutting him down in the late innings will fall to lefties McGee, Alex Torres and Cesar Ramos. In Ortiz's career, he is 1-for-8 with a walk against Ramos, 1-for-5 against McGee and 1-for-3 with a double against Torres.
If Ortiz and the rest of Boston's lineup can turn it up against Tampa Bay in the late innings, they should have a good chance of moving on in the postseason. If not, the series could spell trouble.
The Jacoby Ellsbury Factor
There is no doubting the importance of Boston's leadoff hitter to their lineup. Yet Jacoby Ellsbury is more than just an offensive spark plug.
Defensively, he is one of the best in a Red Sox uniform and boasts a .992 fielding percentage.
When he is on the bases, Ellsbury is always a threat to run having stolen 52 bases this season while being caught only four times. This attribute earned him the nickname "Sultan of Swipe" according to ESPN's Gordon Edes.
One major question mark consistently surrounding Ellsbury however is his durability. Injuries have already plagued him this season—most notably down the stretch—and it is safe to assume that Boston cannot afford to be without him in the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, all signs point to Ellsbury being okay for October baseball as Scott Lauber of The Boston Herald reports.
About the injury and subsequent recovery, Ellsbury noted:
I definitely wanted to get in some games before we hit the postseason, and I did that. I played three of the last four, and I’m definitely pleased with how everything went. I think it couldn’t have went any better.
If that is the case, Boston's lineup will be that much better off. The Red Sox will turn to Ellsbury to be a prime difference maker against Tampa Bay and having him healthy is the best thing they could hope for.
Prediction: Red Sox in Five Games
ALDS: Tigers vs. Athletics
In 2012, these two teams met in the same series with Detroit getting the best of Oakland in five games. That should leave a bitter taste in the mouths of the A's as they look to continue their dominant season deep into October.
Starting Rotations—Strength versus Strength
One rotation is well known. One is relatively unheard of.
When one thinks of Detroit's starters, he or she will consider Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Oakland's starters are nowhere near as heralded. Names like A.J. Griffin and Bartolo Colon, who led the rotation in ERA this season, do not necessarily pop off the table.
Yet that does not mean that the Tigers' pitching staff will get the best out of the A's in this regard.
By name alone, it is easy to assume that Detroit's starters will dominate this series. Yet Oakland's rotation is nearly just as formidable.
While A's pitchers may not be as dominating, they are effective because they keep runners from reaching base. Oakland gave up the fewest walks and yielded the lowest on-base percentage—.299—in the league.
The A's can also count on a superior bullpen.
Last season, Verlander beat Oakland in Games 1 and 5 of the AL Division Series. This season, he owns a 1-1 record and a 3.27 ERA against the A's. He is beatable and Oakland will hope they can at least get the best of him when it counts.
Colon is slated to start against Verlander in Game 1 and will carry his 2013 3.00 ERA against the Tigers. More importantly, Colon is on a roll and boasts a 1.04 ERA over his last four starts.
As Scott Miller of CBS Sports points out, Colon could be the big difference maker in the Athletics' fortunes this year compared to 2012.
While the Tigers' rotation is as good as advertised, Oakland's rotation cannot be shaken off. The fact that they will potentially pitch three out of five games at home also is a bonus.
Look for this matchup between both teams' starters to be key.
Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson
Similar to the starting rotations, one of these players is well known. The other is not.
Miguel Cabrera is coming off his 2012 Triple Crown season and an All-Star nomination this year. Josh Donaldson on the other hand got snubbed when it came to the All-Star Game.
Yet both will face off in what promises to be an exciting matchup between two extremely talented players.
In Cabrera's case, he will have to deal with a slew of injuries that have plagued him down the stretch. Those could spell disaster for his postseason campaign this year and it is a curious note that with Cabrera's injuries, Detroit scored one run or fewer in seven out of 26 games in September.
The only solace for Cabrera and the Tigers is knowing that he will be protected by the bats of sluggers like Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez.
On the other side, Donaldson has put together a season worthy of national attention.
One of the more entertaining aspects of Donaldson's game is the fact that he emulates and admires Cabrera in so many ways.
Upon finding out about the admiration, Cabrera noted via ESPN:
Oh, that's great. That's awesome. He's a great player. He's one of the reasons the Oakland A's are in the playoffs. He brings a lot of energy to their ballclub. I think you'll see he can change the game with his bat but his glove, too.
While plenty of the national focus will be on what Cabrera does during the series, one cannot turn away from Donaldson and what he is doing this season. Expect that to carry over into October as well.
Prediction: Athletics in Five Games
Both of these series promise to be entertaining as each features prominent clubs with attributes that got them this far.
All of the teams bring a variety of strengths and accolades to the table and these, among other factors, will play prominent roles during the division series.
Yet these key factors will prove to be vital as each team squares off with the hopes of making it to the AL Championship Series. Getting the most out of the aforementioned notes will be a critical element to continued success.
Fans should gear up for these dynamic and exciting series as they unfold.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.