Following victories by the Yankees on Tuesday and the Cardinals and D-backs on Wednesday, the stage is set. And it's a crowded stage indeed.
The Yankees and Tigers will play in New York on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. The D-backs and Brewers will face each other in Milwaukee at 5 on Friday, followed by the Cardinals and Phillies in Philadelphia at 8:30. All three games will be aired on TBS.
The winners will advance to their league's Championship Series. Only Texas, a winner in four games over Tampa Bay, has made it thus far.
It will be the first time in a decade that the postseason will feature three such deciding games. The last occurrence was in 2001, when the Mariners and Indians, Yankees and A's, and D-backs and Cardinals all squared off in a Game 5. Ultimately, the Mariners, Yankees and D-backs emerged victorious, with the latter two clubs eventually meeting in the World Series.
That was the only previous time that's happened since the eight-team, Wild Card-playoff format began in 1995. But it did happen once before -- in 1981, when a midseason work stoppage led to the season being split into halves, resulting in four first-place clubs in each league moving on to the postseason. That October, the Yankees topped the Brewers (then in the American League East), the Expos got past the Phillies and the Dodgers outlasted the Astros, all in five games.
Did home-field advantage show a trend in those decisive games? It did, as five of the six Game 5 winners were the home team. The 1981 Phillies were the only home-field loser.
Overall, home teams are 8-9 in such games, but they've lost six of the past seven.
As for 2011, given the fireworks of the regular season's final day on Sept. 28, it should be of little or no surprise that the Division Series will boil down to one game for six clubs. Perhaps the biggest challenge for each side will be to overcome the pressure of taking the field with only one game deciding the fate of its season.
Opinions about who will win varied on Thursday morning.
Dan Patrick said he was "sticking" with the Tigers on his radio program, which ran a poll on its website in which Detroit was leading by a considerable margin as the listeners' choice as the most likely of the three road teams to win.
Citing their bullpen as superior, Buster Olney of ESPN picked the Yankees, as did Dodgers manager Don Mattingly on Patrick's show. "You gotta take Philly at home," Mattingly added.
Bob Klapisch of the The Record in New Jersey went with New York, saying the Yanks have a "psychological edge" they didn't have when they fell hard in Game 5 of the 2005 Division Series against the Angels.
"The Yankees are always about excess: The most stars, the highest payroll, more history than anybody else, the most excessive ballpark in the world," wrote New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica. "But nights like tonight? They don't come along all that often, even here. We sure get one tonight."
In New York, one might anticipate pressure for Ivan Nova, who will take the ball in the AL's lone Game 5 on Thursday after the Yankees trounced the Tigers in a 10-1 victory in Game 4 in Detroit. However, the 24-year-old rookie right-hander has been unflappable on the big stage and under the bright lights of the Bronx.
"I don't see the reason to feel pressure," said Nova, who held the Tigers to two earned runs over 6 1/3 innings on Saturday, in the rain-delayed resumption of Game 1, which the Yankees won, 9-3. "Like I always say, if you get nervous, you're going to be in trouble because you can't control yourself. You can't control what you have to do."
"I'm not surprised that he's relaxed," Yankees manager Joe Girardi added. "I've seen him relaxed all year. That's just kind of his personality. He's kind of a laid-back kid."
The last time the Yankees won a postseason series in its final game was in 2003, when Aaron Boone homered off Boston's Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the ALCS.
Boone, an analyst for ESPN, tweeted his thoughts about recent developments Thursday morning:
"Pretty cool we get three game fives today and tomorrow," he wrote. "Exciting start to the postseason!"
The Tigers will go with Doug Fister, who also pitched in the Game 1 resumption and was strong until the Yankees put together a six-run sixth inning. Detroit had its chances in Game 4, but Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson made two outstanding catches, both of which could be considered game-savers, even if the final score was 10-1.
"I wish I could tell you what's going to happen," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "but I don't know."
The National League will have a marquee pitching matchup in Philadelphia, where Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter, former Toronto teammates who have both won Cy Young Awards, will duel. The right-handers, who played together for the Blue Jays from 1998-2002, offered vastly different performances in their first Division Series starts. Halladay rebounded from a first-inning, three-run home run by Lance Berkman to pitch shutout ball for the next seven innings in the Phillies' 11-6 win in Game 1. Carpenter lasted just three innings and gave up four runs pitching on three days' rest in Game 2, an eventual 5-4 Cardinals win.
Those on both teams understand the tall order they'll face on Friday.
"It's a dream matchup, because the two guys are great -- you can't ask for anything scripted better than that," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said following Game 4. "I mean, that would be an experience of a lifetime for any of us."
The other NL matchup will feature an encore of aces from Game 1 -- a 4-1 Brewers win -- as Arizona's Ian Kennedy and Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo take the mound. Kennedy put together a solid but unspectacular outing, allowing four runs over 6 2/3 innings. Gallardo was electric, holding the D-backs to one run over eight innings while striking out nine.
On the line for the Brewers will be the chance to play in a League Championship Series for the first time since 1982, while making their first NLCS appearance (they switched leagues in 1998). The D-backs will be seeking their first trip to the NLCS since 2007.
"It's good," said D-Backs third baseman Ryan Roberts, who hit a big grand slam in the first inning of the D-backs' 10-6 win in Game 4. "We had confidence all year. We had confidence when we were down 0-2. Anything can happen. That's why you play the set of five. So, we're going to go back in there and try to play our game, do the same thing we've been doing."
Teammate Chris Young, who homered twice on Thursday, echoed Roberts' sentiments.
"We're not going to give up, even when we're down 2-0. In the clubhouse, we still believed we could do it," Young said. "At the time, our goal was to get back to Milwaukee. And now we've reached that. It's a toss-up now, so we're going to be ready to go."
Jon Star is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.