October. It’s a time of rebirth, renewal. I know the leaves are falling outside your window. Stick with me on this.
You know how in some old movies an elderly character dies and emerges as a ghost? The ghost is always young and beautiful, about 25 years old. Why that age? Why not just a few years younger, not quite so creaky but still plenty wise? Why not 11 years old, or a newborn baby ghost? Huh? Why?
The answer is that there were very few elderly actors or 11-year-olds the studios were interested in letting carry a movie, and very few newborns who could do it. Even Shirley Temple was only doing regional theater in the first few weeks of her life. But we’re supposed to be talking about baseball.
The eight teams that make the playoffs are reborn in just this way. No longer are the Detroit Tigers the wheezing jalopy leaking oil on the way to the finish line or the St. Louis Cardinals a slumping Venus de Milo team — no arms — that won exactly one more game than the 2005 San Diego Padres club that some fans wanted legislated out of the playoffs.
The New York Mets have suddenly stopped being the satisfied bunch that’s been coasting since the NBA Finals were still going.
The Tigers are once again the surprise story of 2006, a young team with a deep rotation and a wily manager. The Cardinals have defending Cy Young winner and candidate Chris Carpenter and defending MVP winner Albert Pujols, and they’re the Cardinals, who have been here before and know what it takes. The Mets are the class of the National League, tied with their interborough rivals for the best record in baseball.
And so on. New beginnings. Clean slates. Fresh starts. Sappy music. Just like in those old movies.
But as Fox television, with its tireless ear for clichés, will remind you ad nauseam: Unlike in the movies, “You can’t script this.” That’s good because the script would call for the Mets and New York Yankees, with the best records in baseball, to meet in a repeat of the 2000 Subway Series, which for all the hype at the time got historically low TV ratings while annoying everyone outside of New York.
All manner of typists, chatterers and civilians are making their predictions today, and roughly one in eight will be right about who wins the World Series. A little more if the New York Yankees win it, a little less if the Padres or Oakland A’s do.
The ones who happen to guess right will brag about their prognosticating ability. Good for them. Getting lucky gives you that right.
That disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at the four series in the best-of-five divisional round.
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Oakland A’s vs. Minnesota Twins [PERMALINK]
Oakland general manager Billy Beane, who has exploited market inefficiencies to build the A’s into a perennial contender despite a small payroll, was famously quoted in Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball” as saying, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”
A nicer way to say that is that Beane has elimination problems. The A’s haven’t made it past the first round in four tries during Beane’s tenure. This series will make it five.
The A’s no longer have the Big Three of starters Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, but Zito, Rich Harden and Dan Haren aren’t much smaller. Oakland also has a fine bullpen. Trouble is, the Twins have the best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana, available to start Games 1 and, if necessary, 5. And the best bullpen in the game too.
Plus the best home record in baseball, a history of being nearly unbeatable at home in the playoffs and home-field advantage.
With emergent slugger Justin Morneau, who has gotten some MVP chatter, and the spectacular Joe Mauer, the first American League catcher ever to win a batting title, the Twins offense gets more attention than the A’s offense does.
The A’s are known as a weak-hitting team, but they’ve actually outscored the Twins by about a quarter of a run since the All-Star break. Led by dreamboat outfielder Nick Swisher and rebounding superstar Frank Thomas, the A’s have averaged 5.28 runs a game since the break. They’re a better hitting team than you probably think.
But with Santana, rookie Boof Bonser, the collection of sealing wax and wire known as Brad Radke and a miles-deep bullpen led by Joe Nathan, the Twins should make them seem like the banjo-hitting A’s of the first half.
Prediction: Twins in five
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Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees [PERMALINK]
The Tigers ooze into the playoffs on a five-game losing streak, which is even worse than that sounds. They were all home games, the last three were against the Kansas City Royals, they blew a five-run lead to the Royals in one of those games and a six-run lead in another, losing both in extra innings, and, just to make it all even worse, it turns out that if they’d won even one of those games, they would have won the Central Division and gotten to open the playoffs at home against the A’s rather than in Yankee Stadium.
The good news for the Tigers: They’re not likely to suffer a letdown.
The Yankees have one of the great offenses of all time. Joe Torre’s announced Game 1 lineup has Alex Rodriguez hitting sixth. Of course we all know A-Rod had a lousy year. All he did was hit .290 and slug .523, with 35 home runs and a .392 on-base percentage.
Robinson Cano hits ninth on this team. He hit .342 with 41 doubles. He’d hit third for a lot of teams. His numbers were not notably dissimilar to those of Miguel Tejada, Grady Sizemore or Lyle Overbay.
Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada. See what I mean?
The Tigers have a deep rotation led by rookie Justin Verlander, but all of the starters — Game 1 starter Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman and Kenny Rogers are the others — have had rough patches down the stretch. There’s a reason this team finished the season on a 19-31 run, or crawl.
The Yanks’ Achilles’ heel is pitching. Game 1 starter Chien-Ming Wang has had a great year, as has 37-year-old Mike Mussina, though he’s had arm, shoulder and groin problems in the second half, and recently has had to deal with a bruised thumb. After that, it gets rough. Randy Johnson is an achy-backed shell of his former self, and then, well, pray for rain.
Mariano Rivera’s still at the back of the bullpen, but he was bothered by a sore elbow in September and may not be able to pitch as much as he usually does in the playoffs. And between the starter and Rivera, the Yankees bullpen can be an adventure.
All this means a Tigers win wouldn’t be out of the question or all that surprising, but on paper, the Yankees just have too much lumber.
Prediction: Yankees in four
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St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padres [PERMALINK]
The Cards have the Q Rating in this series, but the Padres are the better team. America, meet the Padres. Padres, America. Quick: What position does Adrian Gonzalez play?
Has a repeat playoff team ever been less well-known than these guys, the least glamorous of the five California teams, playing game after game after two-thirds of the country has gone to bed?
Last year the Cardinals swept the Padres in the first round before anybody even noticed San Diego was around. Not this time. The Padres are stacked with good pitchers, led by starters Jake Peavy and Chris Young and relievers Trevor Hoffman and Cla Meredith, and their offense is better than it seems.
They were 13th in the league in runs scored at only 4.51 a game, but they play half their games in a pitcher’s park. Looking only at road games, a good way to minimize park factors, the Padres had the fourth best offense in the N.L., averaging 5.14 runs a game.
The Cardinals have almost no pitching beyond Carpenter and journeyman starter Jeff Suppan. The bad news about closer Jason Isringhausen is that he’s out for the year. That’s also the good news.
Albert Pujols is in the middle of the lineup, but the St. Louis offense is just OK these days, with Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds both struggling with shoulder problems. Neither cracked a .700 OPS in September. Edmonds, also dealing with the aftereffects of a concussion, barely played. There’s a reason this team won only 83 games.
A lot of reasons, actually, but the main one is it’s not a very good team. It’s just plain luck that put the Cardinals in a weak division this year. That’s why they’re getting ready for the playoffs rather than trying to figure out what went wrong and whether manager Tony La Russa should get a pink slip. Just plain luck.
One thing that could help the Cardinals is that this is the series that has an off day between Games 1 and 2. That would allow Carpenter to pitch Game 4 on normal rest, lessening the difference between the teams’ starting rotations.
Not by enough, though.
Prediction: Padres in four
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Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Mets [PERMALINK]
So. The Mets coasted for half the season and still ended up with the best record in the league, tied with the Yankees for the best in baseball. Is a Subway Series inevitable?
Of course not. Nothing’s inevitable. Crapshoot, remember?
The Mets are without Pedro Martinez, leaving them with a lot of questions beyond Tom Glavine, and at this point in the year it’s not like Glavine, who is 40, is beyond question.
John Maine has had a nice sophomore year, but he has a grand total of 133 and two-thirds big-league innings pitched, none of them in the playoffs. Orlando Hernandez pitched well after coming over from Arizona, but he has been a model of inconsistency for years. Steve Trachsel was uninspiring as usual.
The Mets have a solid closer in Billy Wagner and a good bullpen to get the ball to him. Guillermo Mota, a disaster in Cleveland, was a nice late-season scrap-heap find.
Their lineup features the dynamite quartet of Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright, but the other half of it is weak. The good news is it’s a heavily left-handed lineup, and the Dodgers’ only lefty is Hong-Chih Kuo, who has given the Mets fits.
The Dodgers have been one of the better teams in the league in the second half — 42-32 since the All-Star break. Their rotation is deep, with Derek Lowe, Kuo, Greg Maddux and Brad Penny. Penny’s had a sore back lately, and Maddux, who pitched well after a trade from the Chicago Cubs, is even older than Glavine, whom he’ll face in Game 2.
Takashi Saito has been a very good replacement for Eric Gagne as the closer, but the Dodgers bullpen isn’t quite as deep as New York’s.
The Dodgers can hit too, with no MVP candidates but solid seasons from Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Rafael Furcal, J.D. Drew, Andre Ethier and catcher Russell Martin. They also have a good bench, led by the shockingly resurgent Marlon Anderson, and that’s important because Garciaparra, Kent and Drew are all injury risks. Garciaparra’s pretty much always hurting.
It looks like a pretty even series. I think the Mets are a slightly better team, and they have home-field advantage. But I’m going to take a flier on the Dodgers. Who needs another Subway Series? We saw that movie in 2000, and it bombed at the box office.
Prediction: Dodgers in five
ALCS: Twins over Yankees
NLCS: Padres over Dodgers
World Series: Twins over Padres
Previous column: Stumbling to glory, NFL wisdom
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