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With playoff hunt heating up, TBS crew has insight

Sheffield, Pedro, Ripken and Darling offer thoughts on two-week push and beyond

NEW YORK -- The gradual introduction of your 2014 postseason participants is in progress, with the Angels the first to clinch a berth on Monday and two East Division clinchers possible Tuesday.

If that isn't a strong enough reminder that the postseason is almost here, then there was another during the day on Tuesday as Turner Sports gathered its American League postseason broadcast talent for a publicity event. Pedro Martinez uttered his first official 2014 "Wacha-Wacha" for Cardinals fans, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ron Darling debated a possible Jon Lester-James Shields AL Wild Card pitching matchup, "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston's new postseason video debuted and imagination ran wild.

There is so much yet to be decided with relative newcomers still in the hunt, and the TBS broadcasters are as spellbound as you are. They will televise the entire AL postseason, from the AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser on Sept. 30 (currently lined up as Royals at A's) through the AL Championship Series clincher.

"These teams sometimes, when you get to the last two weeks, there's no rhyme or reason sometimes," Darling said. "The games don't go so easily. Your star pitcher goes eight shutout innings and you might still not win the game. It's a very mercurial time. I love watching these last two weeks."

Martinez pitched nearly 100 innings over the course of five postseasons, the last one five years ago with Philadelphia. It is almost that favorite time of year again, but these days, his much-anticipated October appearances are in the TBS studio, where he made his debut last fall. He will team up again there with Gary Sheffield -- the guy he once faced for Boston in Game 5 of that classic 2004 Red Sox comeback against New York in the ALCS.

"I'm a little bit more relaxed. I have a better idea of what I'm going to be facing," Martinez said. "I know what the challenges are going to be. Hopefully the group will click like it did last year. … This year is going to be not easier, but I'll be more comfortable."

As if to signal how close the postseason is again, he added this for Cardinals fans: "Wacha-Wacha. Michael Wacha. I hope he gets better, and he can help the team hopefully make it to the playoffs."

Yes, that was Pedro last fall, practically making a new analysis-entertainment living off of those three simple words: Wacha-Wacha-Wacha. No word on if Wacha will be back -- or if the Cardinals can maintain their present position and return to the playoffs -- but Pedro will be there again. His presence alone is sure to be one of the top attractions for viewers, besides the on-field action, and you got a glimpse of the Sheffield-Martinez interaction on Tuesday, when they debated the National League MVP race, with Sheffield sticking up for a position player such as Miami's Giancarlo Stanton and Martinez contending that precedence is already set so that Clayton Kershaw should get the nod.

"It's a lot of fun," Sheffield said of sharing the studio with Martinez. "I got a chance to do it last year with Pedro and Tom Verducci, so we had a good time. To come back this year with Pedro, he's the guy who keeps us laughing on the set and keeps light of everything. 'Wacha-Wacha.' We get to talk baseball and everything we know and have fun doing it."

Those two will be joined by former talent Casey Stern, a new TBS studio host. Ripken and Darling will team up again with play-by-play man Ernie Johnson as the lead game-broadcast crew. All of them were introduced at the MLB Fan Cave in Manhattan, along with the new marketing campaign starring Cranston, the Emmy Award winner.

"I don't have many reps in the booth, but [it helps] when you've got guys like Darling and Ernie Johnson around you, who help shape you and help you understand what's going on from a functional standpoint," Ripken said. "I think I have the knowledge inside my head, I played baseball, I kind of get it. My job is to interpret how the game is played and give you some insights in the way I think about the game."

Ripken, Martinez, Darling and Sheffield all have something else in common, in addition to providing TBS insight during the postseason. Each man has one World Series ring. Ripken won with Baltimore in 1983, Martinez with Boston in 2004, Darling with the Mets in '86 and Sheffield with the Marlins in '97.

While they touched on basically every baseball topic that moves, all four of them were asked by to simply give "one team to watch" this postseason. Here are their picks:

Martinez: "I think Baltimore. Baltimore is the team that has been threatening every year. They have somehow overcome every adversity that there is. To continue to battle, they're pulling off the flag this year, and I think they're attempting to win."

Sheffield: "The Angels. When you've got the best player in baseball, that's always great for TV and great for drama, because you never know what level he's going to step his game up to when he gets to the playoffs."

Ripken: "Since I know the Orioles, and have been watching them pretty well, I'd recommend peeking at the Orioles just because they have a good overall nucleus as a ballclub. But for my overall curiosity, I'm going to focus the next two weeks on the Angels. For a couple of years, you'd look at them on paper and you'd think, 'OK, they're going to compete. And they're going to win.' For whatever reasons, they didn't. But this year, they've gotten past that. They're cruising, as good as they can. They've got a great offense, a great pitching staff. And I've always liked Mike Scioscia as a manager. So I'm going to start focusing on that team, why they're so good. They might be the only team that has a chance to win 100 this year, and that's usually a big mark."

Darling: "The Nationals are my team to watch, because as opposed to two years ago, when everyone thought they were going to go, at least to the World Series, this year they have been put on the back burner because they had a bad year last year. They haven't had Ryan Zimmerman for a lot of the year, they're still going to win 95 games, their bullpen is kind of straightened out now that [Drew] Storen's going well, and people underestimated their rotation. [Stephen] Strasburg is going to be in this year. [Jordan] Zimmermann is one of the best pitchers in the game. Gio Gonzalez is starting to hit his mark, and Doug Fister was one of the best trades we saw all winter. So if I had a team, I don't know why they are under the radar, but they are, they could be that team."

Who's going all the way? A wide variety of opinions were floated, but Ripken probably summed up the majority sentiment.

"Geographically, it would be great to say it's going to be Baltimore and the Nationals," he said. "But I imagine you can make another case for the other coast, Angels and the Dodgers. It is so hard. I mean, to look at it, the 162-game schedule proves who is the best team in the league in that particular year. The best teams in the playoffs are the ones that get a hot pitcher, that play really well, that execute really well in that timeframe. So it's difficult to say."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.