Five storylines to watch this October

DAN TOMAN, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 3:26 PM ET

NEW YORK -- The plot line gets thicker in October, just ask Alex Rodriguez.

No player has endured more scrutiny over the last decade than the New York Yankees slugger for his inability to perform in the clutch and lead his team to the promised land. And in the Big Apple, 'promise' is a strong word.

But Rodriguez isn't alone. Storylines can swallow a player and team whole during the most critical month of the year on the diamond. Ask Barry Bonds (minus his superhuman 2002 postseason) but not Derek Jeter (see 1996-present). The backdrop to drama is omnipresent in baseball's most exciting month of the season. Curt Schilling's sock, Don Larsen's perfection, and Reggie Jackson's bat are just some of the legacies that have been born when all the marbles are on the line.

Until the legends are made, however, they are only tales of speculation used to whet the appetite for what promises to be the best baseball of the year.

What isn't such a sure thing is how the script will play out. Here's a look at five storylines that could help us figure out where the ending of this chapter of baseball history may lead.

1. Yankees arm-less and ready

We know the Yankees can hit. The Bronx Bombers continued to wreak havoc on pitching this year in what is arguably baseball's most dangerous lineup. It boasts a who's who of all-stars and features five players with at least 24 home runs (Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson), not to mention 'Mr. November' himself, Derek Jeter.

Although some will point to a year in which the shortstop began his inevitable decline, his play down the stretch has suggested anything but. Since being given the day off on September 11 with his average at a season-low .260, the Yankees captain has upped his game at just the right time, hitting .333 (23-for-69) over New York's final 17 games.

Unfortunately for the Yanks' pitching staff, there's not enough optimism to go around.

Among New York's four predominant starters (a term used loosely after the collapse of A.J. Burnett and his 5.26 ERA), only CC Sabathia (9-4) has a winning record post-all-star break. And the numbers get a lot worse from there. The trio of Burnett -- who figures to be the odd-man out for the division series against the Twins, and possibly beyond should the Yankees go further -- Pettitte and Hughes provided adequate stability behind Sabathia through the first three-and-a-half months of the season, particularly the latter two, who combined to go 22-4 prior to the mid-summer classic. Since then, the staff has crumbled, with the three posting a mark of 9-15 and a 6.35 ERA from July 13 on.

While Sabathia prevents the Yankees from going into critical panic mode for the American League Division Series, given his ability to pitch two of a possible five games, New York finds itself in as vulnerable a position heading into the postseason as a 95-win team can be. Pettitte, the starter for Game 2 in Minnesota, has not looked right since returning from injury in September, allowing 13 earned runs over his last 15.2 innings.

And the almighty stopper, Mariano Rivera? True, his numbers this year (33 saves, 1.80 ERA and 0.83 WHIP), to go with his unparalleled playoff success, are strong indicators he'll be just as dominant as ever, but his 60 innings pitched are the second-lowest of his career and despite the notion he heads into October fresh, the numbers don't look so good when you consider his five blown saves are his most since 2003. Grasping at straws? Maybe. But in order to test the soon-to-be 41-year-old arm, Yankee starters have to make it there.

2. Will Halladay get his elusive ring?

For a pitcher who had endured 11 straight seasons of not making the playoffs, Roy Halladay sure picked a good team with which to break that trend. The most dominant right-hander of the last decade took his workhorse-like approach to the City of Brotherly Love and it's been quite the honeymoon since. And now, after 320 "meaningless" starts, Halladay finally gets the ball in the environment he's longed for. The Philadelphia Phillies will roll out their ace for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday, in the former-Blue Jay's first October start of his career.

Halladay has been his usual self this year, treating NL hitters to the same Cy Young-worthy stuff he's punished the American League with for years. The 33-year-old has enjoyed a career year and will look to anchor the deadly trio now known as "H2O", comprised of lefty Cole Hamels and deadline acquisition Roy Oswalt, with the goal of getting the Phillies back to the World Series for the third straight year.

Halladay posted the best 30-start numbers (innings, strikeouts, ERA and WHIP in addition to throwing his first no-hitter) of his 12-year career for Philadelphia, and one can expect that to continue for the league's best big-game pitcher never to be in one.

Forget H2O, perhaps the city of Philadelphia should look up the scientific formula for champagne.

3. Oh, who invited you?

They may be late for the party -- 14 years late for Cincinnati and 10 for Texas -- but the Reds and Rangers are back in the postseason, and there is no R&R in their plans.

Both teams seemingly came out of nowhere this year to win their division with relative ease and earn a date with the top-seeded team in their respective league. Each club is anchored by a power-hitting superstar (Rangers' Josh Hamilton and the Reds' Joey Votto), a rejuvenated veteran (Vladimir Guerrero and Scott Rolen) and plenty of depth throughout their lineups. Whereas Texas led the majors with a .276 team batting average, the Reds' set the pace in the NL at .272.

But that, however, is where the similarities end.

Although both clubs enter the division series as clear-cut underdogs on the road (especially Cincinnati), Texas does have a realistic shot at giving the Rays a scare. And there's a big reason why; pitching.

Cliff Lee, acquired via trade from Seattle in July, gives the Rangers the true ace they've lacked for some time. Despite a dreadful August (1-4, 6.35 ERA), Lee, who carried the Phillies on his left arm to the World Series last year, has been throwing darts ever since. The 32-year-old lefthander went 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA in four September starts and offers the Rangers a chance at stealing Game 1 in Tampa. Any time a team can take away home field advantage in a five-game set, it's clearly a series up for grabs. Lee's sidekick C.J. Wilson (15-8, 3.35 ERA) is in the midst of a career year, and as long as his increased work load (130 more innings than he's ever pitched) doesn't catch up to him in October, don't expect the Rangers to go quietly.

Everything is bigger in Texas, including expectations.

4. Young blooded

Yes, October is a time where legends are born in baseball. Almost literally.

Who could forget 1996, when two baby-faced talents in Derek Jeter and Andruw Jones burst onto the scene and pretended what they were doing was par for the course?

The 19-year-old Jones, with all of 31 regular season games under his belt, turned into a star overnight after leading his Braves to a World Series Game 1 victory by going 3-for-4 with two home runs and five RBI in his first game at Yankee Stadium. Jones finished that postseason with three homers and nine runs batted in.

Jeter, meanwhile, wrote the first few pages in his "How to" manual on playoff baseball after hitting .360 (22-for-61) in 15 games and helping the Yankees win their first title since 1978. The 22-year-old Rookie of the Year has never looked back.

This year's edition of youngsters features another duo, both from the NL, who will be looked upon to carry their teams to the next level.

No surprise one of those players is Votto. Although the Reds first baseman is well-known in baseball circles already after flirting with the Triple Crown for five months and emerging as the favorite to win MVP, Votto is making his first appearance in October and it's bust or boom for him and his team.

Despite a strong supporting cast that includes Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Jonny Gomes and Drew Stubbs, there is no doubt where Cincinnati's postseason aspirations rest. For the Reds to have any hope of getting past the Phils, Votto will have to pick up where he left off in the regular season (.324, 37 and 113). He may have just turned 27, but this star-in-the-making could come of age with a magical run this fall.

Meanwhile out West, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey has caught the clutch-bug and only Atlanta pitching can cure it. Good luck.

The 23-year-old Posey has exploded onto the scene and has not only garnered Rookie of the Year consideration, but quietly some MVP consideration as well. Posey's 408 at bats likely keep him on the outside of that discussion, but consider what he's done since being called up at the end of May.

Posey led all Giant regulars with a .305 batting average, while finishing third (tied) in home runs (18) and RBI (67) in just 108 games. And if his two-run homer to extend the Giants lead to 4-1 in their playoff-clinching victory on Sunday was any indication, the youngster has a flair for the dramatic too.

5. Farewell, Bobby

After a dramatic final day of the regular season, Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves are heading back to the postseason. The Braves return to the playoffs after what must feel like an eternity considering their dominance during the 1990s. Following a four-year run in Toronto, Cox came back to Atlanta for the 1990 season and proceeded to guide the Braves to 14 playoff appearances in 16 years.

Now, after a four-year absence from October, Cox gets the farewell party he deserves. With five NL East pennants, four Manager of the Year awards, and a World Series, Cox's resume is as complete as they come, however, the 69-year-old has made it known this fall will be his final act in the dugout.

The wild card-winning Braves open the playoffs in San Francisco on Thursday versus the NL West champ Giants and rest assured, Atlanta fans are hoping to send Cox off into retirement with one final tomahawk chop.


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