Atlanta will begin its trek in search of more hardware for manager Bobby Cox on Thursday, a game that will feature a defending Cy Young Award winner and two favorites for Rookie of the Year. That's just part of the appeal of the series opener between Atlanta and San Francisco, two teams that clinched a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season.
And in the American League, Tampa Bay and Texas will square off for the second straight day, as will New York and Minnesota. The stakes get higher with every pitch and every hit, and the odds grow longer for any team that falls behind in a short series. They'll have their chance to break back Thursday, though, perhaps resetting the drama all over again.
With that in mind, here's a few of the potential storylines that could turn out to impact Thursday's games. Three of the four series will be in play, with Philadelphia and Cincinnati getting the day off to prepare for Friday's Game 2. And in this case, they'll also get a chance to dissect Roy Halladay's historic no-hitter, which gave the Phillies a 1-0 edge in the NLDS.
RANGERS AT RAYS, Game 2
2:30 p.m. ET, Tropicana Field
On your left: The Rays had to be excited by the pre-series pitching matchup, which showed the Rangers going with left-handed starters in both Games 1 and 2. Tampa Bay had gone 36-20 -- the best record of any AL team -- against southpaws this season, but it dropped its last three regular-season games in those circumstances.
Now, the Rays' strength comes under direct assault again. Veteran Cliff Lee shut Tampa Bay down in Game 1, and the Rangers will hand the ball to fellow left-hander C.J. Wilson on Thursday. Wilson won just once in his last six regular-season outings, but he was 7-5 with a 3.35 ERA before the All-Star break and 8-3 with a 3.36 mark after it.
If Wilson can come out and give the Rangers that same kind of consistency, he can go a long way toward putting Tampa Bay in a perilous position. On the other hand, Tampa Bay's dominance against lefties could well reassert itself. Right-hander James Shields would be the likely beneficiary in that case, and the Rays will need a solid start of their own.
"They don't have a really high team batting average," said Wilson, who is in his first full season as a starting pitcher. "But they have a lot of stolen bases and they try to walk a lot. That's how they are going to try to beat me."
Anyone but New York: Texas had played four playoff series in franchise history prior to squaring off against the Rays, and all of them had come against the Yankees. And it was a difficult history in that the Rangers had lost nine of 10 playoff games -- including nine in a row -- and had scored just two runs in their last six postseason games.
Texas scored twice in the second inning Wednesday to wipe that stat away, giving a positive experience to its youth-laden roster. The Rangers, in fact, had just five players with postseason experience prior to this series, and Michael Young had played in 1,508 games -- the second-longest tenure of any active player -- before appearing in the playoffs.
Now, with a victory under their belts, it might be interesting to see if the Rangers can take the next step.
"We're happy we won Game 1 and we're pleased with the effort," said Young, who went 0-for-4 in his team's series-opening victory. "But we know we have to have the same kind of effort tomorrow."
Law of averages: The Rangers came into this series with the highest batting average (.276) in the AL, albeit the lowest league-leading total in a generation (since Boston batted .272 in 1990). Tampa Bay, meanwhile, tied for the fifth-lowest average (.247) in the history of AL postseason teams, tying the '74 and '81 Oakland A's.
Truth be told, the average hasn't stopped them from scoring runs. The Rays are just the second Major League team since 1900 to score 800 runs while batting .250 or less, and their 1,292 strikeouts are the most ever for a playoff team. Tampa Bay has to find a way to overcome those numbers and may find a suitable match against Wilson.
The Texas starter only allowed 161 hits this season, but he led the league with 93 walks. The Rays set a team record and led the Majors with 672 walks this season, perhaps pointing to a Thursday recipe for success.
"We're still confident. That's the way we are," said outfielder Carl Crawford in the wake of the Game 1 loss. "It's a disappointing loss. We're not going to lie about that, but we feel good about our chances [in Game 2]."
Sweet relief: Tampa Bay (3.33) and Texas (3.38) posted the two best relief ERAs among AL teams this season, a fact that could spell some late-inning drama on Thursday and beyond. Neither bullpen allowed a run in Game 1 and only one reliever threw more than one inning, giving both teams a well-rested 'pen for Game 2.
And if one player's going to be the difference-maker, it might be Texas closer Neftali Feliz. He set Major League rookie records in both saves (40) and save percentage (93) this season before closing out Game 2 with a scoreless ninth. If Feliz saves a playoff game, he'll become the youngest pitcher to do so since Pittsburgh's Don Robinson in 1979.
YANKEES AT TWINS, Game 2
6 p.m. ET, Target Field
History lesson: The Yankees, who won Game 1 on Wednesday, 6-4, have consistently handled the Twins, perhaps giving Minnesota additional motivation to win this series. New York has posted nine straight non-losing records against Minnesota in the regular-season series, and it's managed to eliminate the Twins from the ALDS three times since 2003.
New York swept Minnesota last year and then went on to win its 27th World Series championship. The Yankees, though, are trying to rewrite their own page in history. New York had home-field advantage in all three prior series against Minnesota, and the Yankees -- who earned this year's Wild Card -- will have to prove they can do it on the road.
The Yankees have been the league's Wild Card four times, but they've never escaped the first round in those circumstances. New York has a chance to rewrite that trend, but only if it can keep Minnesota from reversing its luck.
Meet the managers: Both managers -- New York's Joe Girardi and Minnesota's Ron Gardenhire -- are former players who have met interesting milestones in their second career. Gardenhire became the first big league manager to make the playoffs six times in nine years, while Girardi is the youngest Yankees manager to win the World Series.
Gardenhire had previously been tied with Hall of Famers Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver, both of whom qualified for the playoffs five times in their first eight seasons. Girardi, just 45 years old, joined Ralph Houk and Billy Martin as the only men who have won the World Series as both a player and a manager during their tenure with the Yankees.
Girardi led the Yankees to a sweep over Gardenhire's Twins last season, but his job won't get any easier this year. The Twins own the league's best home record (53-28), giving them a handy advantage if the series goes five games.
Grudge match: The Yankees haven't forgotten how little they got out of Carl Pavano, and they'd like nothing more than to spoil his season by hitting him around in the playoffs. Pavano won just nine games in three seasons after signing a lucrative free-agent contract with New York, and this will be his second time facing them in the playoffs since then.
The Yankees beat Pavano in last year's divisional series, but he pitched well in that game. The right-hander has logged a 1.71 ERA in nine career playoff appearances, and he even pitched well against New York in the 2003 World Series. Now, coming off 17 wins and his best ERA (3.75) since 2004, he has to prove that he can do it again.
Born hero: If the Twins are going to hold down the Yankees, they might have to start at the top of the order. Derek Jeter, New York's shortstop and leadoff man, has built his impressive reputation on being great in big moments. Jeter came into this series as the all-time postseason leader in hits (175), runs (99) and games played (138).
Jeter, who had also hit safely in 52 of his previous 61 playoff games entering Thursday, ranks second on the all-time postseason charts in extra-base hits (50) and third in home runs (20). The veteran slumped to full-season lows in average (.270), on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.370) this year, but could well use the playoffs to make up for that.
The end-game: Mariano Rivera owns postseason history in much the same fashion as Jeter. Rivera came into this year's playoffs with the all-time records for saves in the ALDS (16), ALCS (12) and World Series (11). He had also pitched in a league-record 88 postseason games and racked up a best-ever 0.74 postseason ERA.
"I am confident he will be Mariano," said Girardi. "Is there trepidation about using him more than three outs? A little bit. But there may be a situation where we say this is what we are going to do. There is trepidation all year long about using him more than three outs. We try not to do it. ... We will see how he is feeling and how he's throwing the ball."
The Twins have mixed and matched in the wake of a season-ending injury to closer Joe Nathan. Jon Rauch started as the relief ace, but yielded once Minnesota acquired Matt Capps in midseason. Capps -- who closed 26 games for the Nationals and 15 for the Twins -- is one of three all-time players to have at least 15 saves for two teams in the same season.
BRAVES AT GIANTS, Game 1
9:30 p.m. ET, AT&T Park
One more for the road: Twenty-five years with one team and 2,504 victories, a four-time recipient of the Manager of the Year award. That's just part of the career jacket for Cox, who will retire after the season. Cox, one of just two big league managers (along with Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy) to post six 100-win seasons, will serve the Braves in an advisory capacity next season. For now, though, he's a warm-and-fuzzy sentimental pick for some postseason success.
"I know we've got to play our best ball against this team," said his counterpart, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy. "You're not going to get anything past Bobby, that's for sure. I'm glad he's in the playoffs this year."
Cox won't have lineup linchpin Chipper Jones this fall, and the three-headed rotation mix of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz is long gone. Instead, the Braves are forging a bright future around Brian McCann and Jason Heyward as their manager attempts to reach the NLCS for the first time since 2001 and the World Series for the first time since 1999.
Compare and contrast: Heyward and San Francisco's Buster Posey, considered by many analysts to be the top two contenders for the league's Rookie of the Year award, will meet head-to-head in this series.
Heyward led all of the NL's qualifying rookies in batting average (.277), on-base (.393) and slugging percentage (.456), but Posey would've wrested two of those distinctions from him if he'd had enough at-bats. Heyward, who turned 21 in August, racked up the highest on-base mark for a 20-year-old since Alex Rodriguez in 1996 and the sixth-highest since 1900.
Posey, meanwhile, has assumed the twin responsibilities of hitting cleanup and calling the shots for the league's best pitching staff. Posey, in fact, logged the most RBIs (67) for a Giants rookie since 1982 and the most hits (124) since 1986. He had seven homers in both July and September, twice tying the team's monthly record for homers by a rookie.
"If he gets hot, he has the talent to be able to carry you," said Jones of Posey, perhaps recognizing a bit of himself in San Francisco's difference-making rookie. "That's something you need this time of year."
Freak show: Make way for the two-time defending Cy Young Award-winner and the three-time National League strikeout champion. Tim Lincecum will make his first postseason start in the series opener, and he'll be trying to dispel rumors of his demise. Lincecum, who was spectacular in September, is trying to overcome the damage of a difficult August.
The right-hander went 0-5 with 7.82 ERA in that month, showing signs that he can be beaten for the first time in his brief career. Now, Lincecum -- who is 56-27 with a 3.04 ERA and 907 strikeouts in 811 innings over the last three years -- has to begin writing his resume anew. And he'll be matched against Atlanta's Derek Lowe, a veteran of 21 postseason starts.
Hurricane connection: The Giants may have anticipated a comeback year for Aubrey Huff, but they could not have expected what they got from Pat Burrell. Burrell -- who played with Huff at the University of Miami -- started the season with Tampa Bay and earned a release after batting .202 with a .294 on-base percentage through his first 24 games.
That guy disappeared after signing with San Francisco, though, and Burrell went on to bat .266 with a .364 on-base mark in 96 games with the Giants. Burrell contributed 18 home runs and 51 RBIs to the Giants, who made the playoffs by the barest of margins, and Huff, a free-agent signee, supplemented his offense with 26 homers and 86 RBIs of his own.
Phillies and Giants -- Workout Day
Zeroes all across: Halladay threw just the second no-hitter in postseason history on Wednesday, providing punctuation for the perfect game he threw during the regular season. Halladay's gem is the first postseason no-hitter since Don Larsen threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and the Reds will have to find a way to bounce back in Game 2.
Polanco's back: Or will he BE back? The Phillies chose the eight-day NLDS format because the off-day between Games 1 and 2 allows them to go with three starters on regular rest -- but now it could have the benefit of giving third baseman Placido Polanco healing time. Polanco will continue to receive intensive treatment for the strained back that knocked him out of the Game 1 lineup, although his availability for Friday night's game will remain a game-time decision.
Oswalt? Oh, well: Tough combination facing the Reds in Friday's Game 2. Veteran Roy Oswalt is 23-3 against them and 5-0 in Citizens Bank Park. Two of those losses have come this year, perhaps evening the scales. Oswalt has never faced the Reds since leaving the Astros, but he owns a career postseason record of 4-0.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. Jim Street, Bryan Hoch, Tom Singer and John Schlegel contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.