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Key players on day of drama that offers best, worst of short series


This is cruel. This is unfair. This just isn't right.

Just ask the Nationals, who won 98 games, who waltzed away with the NL East, who over the course the 162-game season were the Best Team in Baseball --- and now, after one measly loss at home, here they are, a team on the brink, just one loss from getting kicked to the curb by a team that won 88 games and in last year's playoff format wouldn't even have gotten an invite to this dance.

Is baseball's best-of-five Division Series format fair? No, especially not this year, as it's more of a coin flip than ever. Is it time for a best-of-seven first-round? Yes, probably.

Has it made for some great drama? You bet.

Here we are, another quadruple-header on tap, a day that begins with one Game 5 at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati and ends with another at the Coliseum in Oakland, where more miracles are conjured than at Lourdes. There will be the Best Pitcher in Baseball facing a baby-faced rookie. There will be two closers hungry for redemption. There will be loud and crazy fans in four cities, waving white towels and red towels and yellow towels. There will be Stephen Strasburg, sitting and watching from the dugout, and fans in Washington wondering, what if...?

Herewith, the players to watch on a day that has a chance to match September 28, 2011 in drama:

Jose Valverde, Tigers

You knew it was coming, and when it did, it was just as ugly as you imagined: it took just eight pitches, and Detroit's two-run ninth inning lead was gone, just like that. Valverde gave up four hits and three runs in 2/3 of an inning of Oakland's 4-3 win in Game 3. His fastball averaged below 92 mph. His splitter had no bite. Yes, the Tigers have Justin Verlander taking the mound tonight against Jarrod Parker -- but if called upon, how will Valverde bounce back 24 hours after his meltdown?

Joe Saunders, Orioles

The Orioles brought out both Chris Tillman and Joe Saunders into the interview room at Yankee Stadium before Game 3, and the first question someone asked was: "Just how weird is it that you're sitting there next to each other not knowing exactly who's going to be the starting pitcher tomorrow?" Saunders said, "We were kind of hoping you would tell us," and the room broke out in laughter.

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After Game 3, Buck Showalter sat in the same room and said Saunders was his guy. This was a surprise to many -- Tillman was one of the hottest pitchers in the AL over the last month and a half. Saunders was brilliant, of course, against the Rangers in Texas in the AL wild card game, allowing just one run in 5 2/3 innings and keeping the O's in the game against Yu Darvish. Can the lefthander, who is 3-1 with a 5.82 ERA against New York, do it again in the Bronx? The Orioles magic, after 16-straight extra inning wins, disappeared last night. Is it gone for good?

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees

They booed, of course. There was a smattering when he grounded out in the first inning, and then they really came down in the bottom of the fourth, when he couldn't catch up to a 91 mph fastball. They booed again when he struck out with a man on first in the sixth. Then there was Raul Ibañez to save the day, and to save A-Rod from the back pages of the tabloids. (Well, sort of.)

A new day, a new opportunity: Rodriguez has seven hits in 16 career at bats against Saunders (two doubles and two home runs). Can he win back the city tonight?

Aroldis Chapman, Reds

He's the most overpowering pitcher in the series, but Chapman has pitched just two innings against the Giants. In Game 3 he dominated in the ninth, throwing just 15 pitches in a two-strikeout inning -- but Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker yanked him for Jonathan Broxton, and the Reds lost in the 10th. There's a significant drop-off from Chapman to any other reliever in the Reds bullpen.

Has Baker learned his lesson? With so much at stake today, will Baker let the Cuban Missile go for more than an inning?

Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals

Let's first remember who left town: Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. Let's remember who got hurt: Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal. And yet, Mike Matheny has the Cardinals just one game away from a return to the NLCS. Matheny's team looks like a serious contender, because of the bullpen -- it has found a new weapon in Rosenthal, a 21st round draft pick in 2009, out of Cowley County Community College in Kansas. Rosenthal, 22, has retired seven of the eight batters he's faced in the postseason, and he's a big reason why the Cardinals are peaking now, at just the right time.

Stephen Strasburg, Nats

It was inevitable, really. The Stephen Strasburg Debate was going to take center stage the moment the Nationals fell behind in a playoff series, and on Wednesday, after Pete Kozma ripped his improbable second inning home run to put the Cardinals up 4-0, right on cue, the MLB Network broadcast cut to Strasburg in the dugout, in his jacket, staring out into the field. They showed a graphic of Strasburg's dazzling stats, they showed Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, the man who made the call, sitting alone in his box. Today's game in D.C. will be about Stephen Strasburg as much as anyone on the field. Maybe today Ross Detwiler outpitches Kyle Lohse, maybe the Nats regroup and make it all the way to the World Series. But if this magical Nats season ends here, this afternoon, a long offseason of second-guessing begins.