The baseball playoffs open Tuesday with a triple-header. The first team to take its cuts will be the San Diego Padres, losingest bunch in the history of the postseason, having had to win five of their last six to avoid becoming the first team to ever make it this far with a losing record.
The bad news for San Diego is that it has to play the St. Louis Cardinals, the only club to win 100 games this year. The good news is that the Padres have transformed over the course of a few days.
Just last week, baseball purists were concocting arguments for why the rules should change to keep the likes of the Padres, then with a losing record, out of the playoffs. A few wins and an off day later, the Padres are … plucky underdogs! They’re Cleveland State, Valparaiso. It’s October Madness!
Tuesday’s action starts with the Padres at the St. Louis Cardinals on ESPN at 1 p.m. EDT, followed by the Boston Red Sox at the Chicago White Sox at 4 on ESPN and the New York Yankees at the Los Angeles Angels at 8 on Fox. The Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves get underway in Atlanta on Wednesday.
In honor of the sleek redesign Salon is rolling out this week, this column is proud to drop its former patented rambly playoff preview format in favor of a new, modern, quick-hitting, dynamic and, if I may say so, downright snazzy boldface-item gambit — just like most of the other playoff previews out there.
The Cards will win ’cause: They’re the vastly superior team, even if Carpenter is terrible. They still have a tremendous lineup, even without injured Scott Rolen and usually injured Larry Walker. The rest of their pitching staff is pretty good too — the Cardinals led the league in earned-run average — even after losing reliever Al Reyes on the season’s final day. They can even catch the ball. Just about everywhere you look, including uniform design, the Cardinals are superior. If they don’t win this series, it’ll be one of the biggest playoff upsets in history.
Unlikely heroes: Woody Williams, San Diego. Mark Grudzielanek, St. Louis.
Random boldface factoid: On Aug. 17, 1976, in St. Louis, the Cardinals scored three runs in the first inning and went on to beat the Padres 9-4. Both teams were hopelessly out of it at the time and would each finish fifth in their six-team divisions, and the game had no historical significance at all.
Prediction: Cardinals in four
Houston Astros vs. Atlanta Braves [PERMALINK]
Credentials: Just as they did last year, the Astros overcame a horrendous start to charge to the wild card as one of the hottest teams in baseball. Just as they did last year, the Braves sashayed to the Eastern Division title despite the usual spate of predictions that their run of division crowns, begun in 1991 when they played in the West, would end.
The Astros will win ’cause: They’re hot. They played .625 ball over the last 72 games, including a 12-5 run at the end to hold off the Phillies. They have dominant pitching, with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt the Big 3 starters and closer Brad Lidge all but unhittable. And they’re playing the Braves, whom they beat last year, and who are to losing in October what Rembrandt was to painting faces.
The Braves will win ’cause: The Jones boys, Chipper and Andruw, have got to start playing better in the playoffs someday. Tim Hudson and John Smoltz are formidable starters, though Smoltz has been nursing a sore shoulder. The Braves were tremendous at home this year, 53-28, and they get three home games in this series. Hudson can remind the Astros that having a Big 3 of starters doesn’t guarantee anything. Atlanta’s roster has turned over enough that maybe they’re ready to throw off their habit of getting bounced in October. If not, they still sometimes wait till after the first round to lose.
Unlikely heroes: Jason Lane, Houston. Brian Jordan, Atlanta.
Random boldface factoid: Ironically, as they say on TV, Game 1 of this series, Wednesday, will be played on both the 48th anniversary of Game 3 of the 1957 World Series, when the Yankees beat the Milwaukee Braves 12-3 to take a 2-1 series lead before losing in seven games, and the 47th anniversary of Game 4 of the 1958 World Series, when Warren Spahn shut out the Yanks to give Milwaukee a 3-1 lead before the Yankees won the last three games.
Prediction: Astros in five
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Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox [PERMALINK]
Credentials: The White Sox roared out of the gate and then nearly pulled a swoon for the ages from Aug. 2 to Sept. 22, going 22-26 and losing 13 and a half games off their 15-game lead over the Cleveland Indians. But they come into the playoffs having appeared to right the ship, winning eight of their last 10 to close out the Indians and win the Central. Then again, they looked like they’d righted the ship when they won seven in a row in early September. Then they went 4-10.
The White Sox can match the Red Sox’s famous 86-year run of incompetence, which ended last year, and do it two better. They haven’t won the World Series since 1917, and they haven’t even played in it since 1959, their only appearance since throwing the Series to the Cincinnati Reds in 1919. The Pale Hose lack only the literary and marketing artistry that made Boston’s losing somehow noble.
The Red Sox defended their first World Series title in 86 years by leading the East for most of the year before the Yankees got hot in September and passed them. The teams ended up tied for first with 95 wins, but the Yanks got the division title based on head-to-head records. One-game playoffs are only played for division titles when the loser won’t get the wild card, and the Sox claimed that with a win on the season’s last day.
The Red Sox will win ’cause: They score big shovelfuls of runs. They were the only team in the majors to score 900 this year, and they scored 169 more — over a run a game more — than the White Sox. They’re also playoff-seasoned, for what that’s worth, having played in the last two American League Championship Series against the Yankees. The White Sox haven’t been here since 2000, with a very different team. If the White Sox of August and the middle of September show up, this’ll be a wipeout.
The White Sox will win ’cause: They pitch better. Their starting pitchers are better than Boston’s, probably better than everybody’s except Houston’s, and the Red Sox lack the two dominant arms they had last year: Pedro Martinez, who went to the New York Mets, and Curt Schilling, who has battled injury all season, though he pitched well in the playoff clincher Sunday. The White Sox would benefit from having a couple of power pitchers to challenge Boston’s patient sluggers, but there’s certainly enough arm talent for them to take the series.
Unlikely heroes: Carl Everett, Chicago. Curt Schilling, Boston.
Random boldface factoid: According to Baseball-Reference.com, the only two men who had played for all four teams in this year’s American League playoffs as of the end of 2004 were pitcher Ken Brett and catcher Jerry Moses, who both came up with Boston and were teammates from 1967 to 1970. No one has played for all four N.L. teams.
Prediction: Red Sox in five, in the most entertaining series of the first round
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New York Yankees vs. Los Angeles Angels [PERMALINK]
Credentials: The Yankees finished 16-5 to take the East for the 1,376th straight time. Their loss to the Red Sox Sunday was meaningless except that it gave the Angels, who won that day, home-field advantage in this series. The Yanks whined in unseemly fashion that Buck Showalter, the manager of the Angels’ opponent Sunday, the Texas Rangers, didn’t play his best players. This complaint would have gone over better if New York hadn’t skipped Mike Mussina’s turn so he could pitch Game 1 Tuesday, instead sending Jaret “5.97 ERA” Wright.
The Angels looked like they’d waltz to the Western Division title once the Rangers faded in midsummer, but they got a challenge from the resurgent Oakland A’s in the second half. But the A’s faded too and the Angels closed the season going 14-2 to win by seven games.
The Yankees will win ’cause: They’re the Yankees. They score almost as many runs as the Red Sox. They’re almost unbeatable if they can get the ball to Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera with a lead, and in the playoffs that often only means getting to the seventh inning. A couple of the questions around their starting pitching — Does Randy Johnson have any more big games in him? Can Mike Mussina reverse his recent slide? Can Shawn Chacon be counted on? Aaron Small? Really? — are answered yes.
The Angels will win ’cause: With Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Washburn, John Lackey and Paul Byrd, they have better, more reliable starting pitching, and their bullpen is solid too. Francisco “K-Rod, Not to Be Confused With the Yankees’ Felix ‘F-Rod’” Rodriguez and Scot Shields are in the same class as Rivera and Gordon at the back.
And while the Angels have some depth in their pen, the Yankees are in trouble if they have to start bringing in middle relievers. The Angels are a pretty free swinging bunch, so they won’t get starters out by elevating pitch counts. But they can hit.
Unlikely heroes: Any starting pitcher, New York. Chone Figgins, Los Angeles.
Random boldface factoid: Did you know? Boldface was invented by Benjamin Franklin! He inadvertently hit the F1 key on his computer while typesetting an edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac. He liked the resulting boldface type and the rest is history. Of course, the F keys were blank in those primitive times, but were later designated F1, F2 and so on in Franklin’s honor.
Prediction: Angels in five
LCS predictions: Astros over Cardinals, Angels over Red Sox
World Series prediction: Astros over Angels
Previous column: A-Rod vs. Ortiz, postseason awards
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