When the season began, I made my predictions about how it would end up. I wrote, cleverly, I thought, that making predictions about baseball is a foolish sport, because the season is so long and the game so unpredictable.
I thought this would protect me from the usual avalanche of e-mails informing me that I am an idiot, which it did not do.
But I actually did pretty well, as did, I think, most prognosticators. Except for the fact that the Seattle Mariners went absolutely bananas, winning 116 games to tie the major league record — though they played 10 more games than the team whose record they tied — the American League went about the way most people thought it would, with the Yankees winning the East and the Indians the Central, and the A’s and Mariners qualifying for the playoffs from the West, though most of us thought the A’s would repeat as division champs.
In the National League, the Braves, as expected, won the East, the Cardinals and Astros tied for the Central — most people picked one or the other — and the Diamondbacks won the West, which was probably the biggest surprise, though Arizona had its preseason supporters, as did Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Nobody thought the Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies would still be threatening in their divisions in September, and if you say you did you’re a liar. I picked the Cincinnati Reds to win the National League Wild Card, and they lost 96 times and missed the playoffs by a mere 27 games. Dang.
In my defense, though, I admitted at the time that it was a dumb pick and I was just making it for the hell of it.
And I picked the Cardinals and A’s as league champs. That may or may not happen, but as the season ended, they were the two hottest teams. Don’t write me: I’m not saying I’m not an idiot, necessarily. Just that I have my moments.
So: What a year. Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs. Rickey Henderson broke the career record for runs scored and collected his 3,000th hit. Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn said classy goodbyes after long, classy, Hall of Fame careers. Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki had rookie years like hardly anybody has ever had a rookie year before. The Twins and the Phillies and, briefly, the Mets put together surprising runs. Sammy Sosa did his thing and the Cubs actually stayed alive into late September. Roger Clemens was 20-1 at one point.
And the Red Sox executed a nosedive that would have made the Red Baron proud. There’s something comforting in that. It’s like the arrival of an old friend: The leaves are changing and the Sox are in the dumper — it must be autumn.
And yet for all of that, baseball was not great in 2001. It cannot be great again until the Wild Card is discarded. As long as the best second-place team makes the playoffs, we cannot have a great pennant race, because a great pennant race requires that the loser be eliminated. (It also requires two top teams, which is why the National League East race between the mediocre Braves and Phillies, neither of whom were good enough to be the Wild Card, was so pale.)
The Cardinals and the Astros played for the N.L. Central Division title Sunday. They were the two best teams in the league this year, so Sunday should have been like a playoff game, but the atmosphere was decidedly unelectric. “This was a game for seeding,” said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa after his team lost. “It’s not life or death. It was life or a better life.”
Life or death is what makes baseball great. Death to the Wild Card.
The playoffs start Tuesday. Time for more predictions.
Cleveland Indians vs. Seattle Mariners
There are always crazy anomalies like this in baseball, but the Mariners, one of the greatest teams of all time, performed just about the greatest pratfall in baseball history this year — against the Indians. The M’s were cruising to an easy win, leading 12-0 after three innings and 14-2 at the seventh-inning stretch in Cleveland on Aug. 5, but the Indians scored three in the seventh, four in the eighth, five in the ninth and one in the 11th to win 15-14.
The Indians had been reeling at the time, losing three in a row and six of their last seven, and that spectacular, nationally televised win has been cited by some pundits as turning their season around, although in fact they lost three of their next four games, and overall weren’t noticeably better after Aug. 5 (29-23, .558) than they had been up to that point (62-48, .564).
Still, it’s a hell of a win to look back on and gain confidence from, and the Indians, led by Juan Gonzalez, Jim Thome and Roberto Alomar, can score a lot of runs. They scored more than everybody in the league this year — except Seattle.
There’s some bad blood between these teams, stemming not only from the huge comeback but also from a bench-clearing incident on Aug. 25 that arose from Cleveland’s Omar Vizquel demanding that Seattle pitcher Arthur Rhodes remove his sparkly diamond earings. That, and their powerful offenses, should make this one entertaining. But the M’s are too much. They simply have no weaknesses, except maybe on the left side of the infield, where third baseman David Bell is mediocre and shortstop Carlos Guillen, who isn’t great anyway, has tuberculosis. Still, that’s nitpicking. There’s no reason to think the Mariners won’t sweep, but we’ll throw the underdogs a bone.
Prediction: Mariners in four.
Oakland A’s vs. New York Yankees
Well, what do you do with the Yankees? I mean, they looked so bad going into the playoffs last year. They almost threw away a huge lead in the American League East and limped into the postseason with only 87 wins, practically none of them after Labor Day. They barely squeezed past the young, scrappy A’s in the first round … and then calmly went 8-3 against the Mariners and Mets for their third straight championship.
This year, the Yankees look vulnerable again. They’re old and they’re hurting. Pitchers Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez and outfielders Chuck Knoblauch, Paul O’Neill and David Justice have all been aching and/or slumping in the last few weeks.
On the other hand, the Yankees say those guys are all feeling better, and they did win 95 games this year, and they’re still the Yankees. They’ll send Clemens out in the all-important Game 1, and New York went 27-6 when the Rocket started, including a 20-game win streak at one point, though that had as much to do with run support as with Clemens’ pitching, which was good but not spectacular. Mike Mussina actually had a better season.
On yet another hand, just in case you have three: The A’s are the hottest team in baseball. You may have missed it, but while the Mariners were winning 116 games, the A’s were winning 102, making them the second best team in the majors, by a lot. The Yanks were next, seven games behind. Since July 2, the A’s are 64-18. That’s seven games better than the Mariners (57-25) over a three-month stretch. Maybe the Mariners coasted a little, but the Athletics are just on fire. They won 29 of their last 33, for crying out loud. That sounds like a college football record.
The A’s top three starters — Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito — are very good, though maybe not quite as good as the Yankees’ Clemens, Pettitte and Mussina, and New York’s bullpen is better. But the A’s have a huge offense — they averaged well over six runs a game after Sept. 1. They’re still young, and they’re hungry, having come so close to beating the Yankees last year. And there’s the feeling that with star first baseman Jason Giambi likely to leave via free agency, it’s this year or never. After the Yankees swept a three-game series from the then-struggling A’s at Yankee Stadium in April, the A’s haven’t lost a game to them, sweeping a pair of three-game series in Oakland.
Prediction: You can go broke betting on the Yankees to lose when they have money on the table themselves, but I think the A’s are too hot, and they know they can beat the champs. Besides, I picked the A’s to win the whole thing before the season started, so I guess I should at least stick with ‘em in the first round. A’s in five.
Atlanta Braves vs. Houston Astros
This is one series where the home field advantage doesn’t mean much. The Astros have it, but they might wish they didn’t. They had the best road record in the league (49-32), while the Braves had a worse home record than any other team that’s ever been to the postseason (40-41).
So, who do you like? The Braves? Sure, they won their 10th straight division title, but they’re not a very good team. They only won 88 games, same as the Chicago Cubs, and their offense was anemic even before they lost catcher Javier Lopez to a sprained ankle. Ace Greg Maddux hasn’t won since Aug. 22, going 0-4 with a 3.95 ERA — not awful, but not Madduxian — in his last seven starts, six of which were Braves losses. Plus, there’s the Braves’ history of postseason futility. Their nine previous division championships have resulted in one World Series title, though they’ve been better than you remember in the playoffs, winning five of six divisional series and five of eight League Championship Series.
So how about the Astros? Well, they’ve never won a playoff series, and they finished the season by losing nine of their last 12, nearly coughing up the Central Division crown, which they salvaged by beating the Cardinals Sunday. They’ve lost starter Pedro Astacio for the year to injury, and Roy Oswalt, their impressive (14-3, 2.73 ERA) rookie, has a strained groin. The Astros are hoping, hoping, hoping he’ll be able to pitch in this series.
The Astros lineup is formidable, but their two big stars have been postseason flops. In 11 games, leadoff man Craig Biggio is 5-for-42 (.119) with a homer and six RBIs, and slugger Jeff Bagwell is 5-for-39 (.128) with four homers and seven RBIs. Moises Alou had a great World Series in ’97 for Florida, but otherwise he’s done nothing in postseason either.
But give the Astros credit for winning when they had to this weekend. They went to St. Louis and beat the red-hot Cardinals, the National League’s best home team, two out of three. It says here that Houston will finally get a chance to celebrate in the postseason.
Prediction: Astros in five.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
You’ve heard the famous rhyme describing the Boston Braves’ starting rotation of the late 1940s? It went: Spahn and Sain and pray for rain. With the Diamondbacks, it’s Johnson and Schilling, then take a drilling.
When Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling starts, the Diamondbacks are 52-18, a .743 winning percentage, which is a little better than the Mariners. When anybody else starts, the Western Division champs are 40-52, a .435 winning percentage, which is a little better than the Expos. The way to beat them in a short series is to beat Johnson or Schilling once, then run the table against their other guys. Easier said than done.
There is hope for the Cardinals, though. They faced Johnson twice this year — both in an 11-day stretch in April — and beat him both times, roughing up the giant fireballer for 12 runs in 13 and 2/3 innings. Schilling they managed to miss altogether, though lifetime the right-hander is only 5-7 with a 4.21 ERA against St. Louis. Last year the Cardinals beat him twice. Johnson is 4-6 with a 3.62 ERA lifetime against the Cards.
St. Louis is also blistering hot, or was before the Houston series over the weekend. Except for a 10-game win streak in May, the Redbirds didn’t get going until mid-August, when they won another 10 in a row to launch a 36-14 stretch run. They won 20 of their last 26. The first five guys in their order — Fernando Viña, Placido Polanco, J.D. Drew, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds — all hit over .300, and all of them but Polanco finished strong.
The Cardinals’ starting pitching is solid, as is their bullpen, though there’s no traditional closer. They do it by committee. History says that having one guy with a ton of saves is a good predictor of postseason success, but I don’t believe there’s a causal relationship there.
La Russa, the Cardinals manager, specializes in the pitching change that leaves fans scratching their heads — and calling for him to pack his bags, despite his success — and the latest is his Game 1 starter. He’s picked Matt Morris to pitch the opener against Arizona. On the surface, Morris makes sense. He’s a 22-game winner. But he’s had two seasons: 15-2, 1.62 ERA at home, 7-6, 5.15 away. Why not set the rotation so that he pitches in St. Louis?
Aside from their pitching duo, the Diamondbacks aren’t much to look at. They do have Luis Gonzalez, and mercy me, what a year he had (.325, 57 homers, 142 RBIs), but beyond that, they’re pretty ordinary, though they catch the ball well.
I’ve been underestimating the Diamondbacks for three years now, and I’ve mostly been wrong. They won the division in ’99 and again this year without any help from me. So, why change now. Besides, the Cardinals have the hot hand, and they were my preseason pick. Say what you will about my predictions. I’m loyal to them.
Prediction: Cardinals in five.
In the next round I’m picking the Mariners over the A’s in a humdinger, and the Cardinals over the Astros, whose pitching injuries will be too much. My new World Series prediction is Mariners over Cardinals in a walk.
But I reserve the right to start over after my first-round picks get clocked.
And before we crown the Mariners champions, we should consider this. One hundred sixteen wins do not guarantee anything. Here’s Ken Rosenthal writing in the Sporting News about the Mariners: “You don’t win 116 games by accident. You don’t win 116 with a team that can’t win a short series. You don’t win 116 games and then collapse.”
Well, that’s right, except that it’s not true. Yes, the Mariners are the dominant team in baseball this year, and yes, they have to be considered the heavy favorite to win the World Series. Pundits who say otherwise are just trying to avoid the boring prospect of picking the obvious favorite, or hoping to have something to crow about if the upset winner they predict actually comes through — see your humble servant’s confident peg of the Cincinnati Reds as the N.L. Wild Card this year.
But the fact is, you do win 116 games and then collapse. In fact, every single team that has ever won 116 games has collapsed. That’s a group that includes one member, the 1906 Chicago Cubs, an astounding team, a club that went 116-36, better than three wins every four games. Projected out to a 162-game season, their .763 winning percentage would have meant 124 wins — they’d have blown out the Mariners by eight games!
These were the Cubs of Tinker to Evers to Chance, and more importantly, of Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown, Jack Pfiester and Ed Reulbach, who I daresay would match up nicely with Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Aaron Sele, no disrespect intended to that trio of Mariners, who combined to go 53-17. The Cubs’ big three went 65-18. Not that you had a much better chance against their other three starters, Carl Lundgren, Jack Taylor and midseason pickup Orval Overall, who went a combined 41-12, and who I mention because I try to get Orval Overall into at least one story a year.
So what did the Cubs do? They went to the World Series against the crosstown rival White Sox, who had won the American League by winning 93 games, 25 fewer than the Cubs. They were dead last in the league in hitting, though fourth (out of eight) in scoring, and were second best in the league in runs allowed. In short, the Southsiders didn’t have a chance against the mighty, unbeatable, 116-win Cubs.
So who won the Series that year? You can look it up. I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t the Cubs.
And while you’re at it, look up the 1954 Series, which featured the Indians, who had won 111 games. They didn’t win either. To be fair, the 114-win 1998 Yankees, the only other team to ever win more than 111, did win the World Series.
Seattle manager Lou Piniella put it best on Aug. 5, after his team blew that 12-run lead in Cleveland: “You never know about baseball, that’s for sure.”