Playoff picking, but not grinning

Our writer boldly holds forth on the Yankees, the Mariners and the most hideous uniforms in baseball, and asks himself, "How many times can you be wrong about one team?"

Published October 16, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Boy, don't all those people who wrote off the New York Yankees after they lost the first two to the Oakland A's feel silly now. You know who you are. The A's were the best team in baseball in the second half. They were going back for two games in Oakland, where they'd beaten the Yankees six straight times and won their last 17 in a row. All they needed was one win over the fading, aging, hurting Yanks. No problem. Next?

Except the Yankees got off the canvas and won both of those games, forcing the A's to fly back to New York for Game 5 with the kind of bounce in their step usually used by the condemned walking the last mile. The A's spent Monday night bumbling in the field and stumbling on the bases, and the Yankees moved on again.

And what about all of you who wrote off the Seattle Mariners, down two games to one after taking a 17-2 shellacking from the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 Saturday? You know who you are too. Silly.

So, now that we're all feeling sufficiently silly, and some of us doubly so, let's take a look at the League Championship Series, and I don't mean a look through the MasterCard Fan Cam, about which: What the heck is that about? Does the MasterCard Fan Cam purposely seek out nondescript-looking people who are staring into space? Do no pretty women attend baseball games anymore? Are there no dancing fools with big pot bellies and no shirt? Is there perchance a cute toddler in the stands? Hey, Jim, here comes the Fan Cam: Put on your brown sweater and your glazed look.

But I digress. It's the Atlanta Braves vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League, starting Tuesday, and the Mariners vs. the Yankees in the American League, starting Wednesday.

Arizona and Atlanta may be first in the National League alphabetically but they were only third and tied for fifth this year on the field. They were good enough, though, to knock off, respectively, St. Louis and Houston, who tied for the best record in the league.

The Astros, who limped into the postseason by losing nine of their last 12, somehow managed to go downhill from that slide and didn't even put up a little bit of a fight against the Braves, who had braved a tepid pennant race against the Phillies, a race between teams so mediocre that when they played seven crucial games against each other down the stretch, attendance failed to reach 30,000 five times, and never reached 33,000. Sure, Atlanta fans are blasé and Philadelphia has an awful stadium, but I prefer to think it has more to do with the fact that people know a crappy product when they see it.

Those Braves, the crappy ones, the ones who had gone a scintillating 10-10 in the stretch run, were nowhere to be found against Houston. Instead, the old Braves showed up, the ones whose pitching dominated the '90s, at least until World Series time. Atlanta pitchers gave up six runs, five of them earned, on 19 hits in the three games. Bye-bye, Houston.

The Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals played about as entertaining a five-game series as it's possible to play, even if the Cardinals got into the playoffs because of the evil Wild Card rule and the Diamondbacks have the ugliest uniforms since the '70s Astros. I mean, what are their colors? Unless I missed a few, they wear blue, purple, black, bronze and white. Yech. And that Southwest-inspired, zig-zag, hey didn't I see that pattern on the tables at Taco Bell design scheme. These guys make the short-pants White Sox look like Fred Astaire.

But you have to give it to them. They got to the playoffs by winning whenever Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson pitched and despite the fact that they hardly ever won when anybody else pitched. And they beat the Cards despite Johnson losing Game 2. Schilling and Matt Morris matched up for a brilliant pitchers' duel in Game 1, surpassed only by the one they staged in Game 5. Both times, Schilling was better by a hair, 1-0 and 2-1, with the D-backs getting to the NLCS on Tony Womack's game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday night, a hit that followed a failed suicide squeeze that looked like it would kill the rally. Oh, it was a nail-biter.

In St. Louis they'll grumble all winter about Cards' manager Tony La Russa, master of the every-other-pitch pitching change, leaving Mike Matthews in the game long enough to give up four hits including Greg Counsell's decisive three-run homer in the seventh inning of the pivotal Game 3, but the fact is, the Diamondbacks won this series as much as the Cardinals lost it. They're a gutsy, veteran club, and as long as Schilling's arm doesn't fall off, it doesn't pay to bet against them.

With their cast of journeymen and fading stars -- with Counsell and Greg Colbrunn, Matt Williams and Mark Grace -- the Diamondbacks seem capable of doing just exactly as much as they need to do to win, even when their one non-pitching star, Luis Gonzalez, doesn't hit. I didn't believe they'd win the West and I didn't think they'd beat the Cardinals. Now, I don't believe they can beat the Braves, but how many times can you be wrong about one team?

Prediction: Diamondbacks in seven.

Their big problem in the NLCS is that they can't use Schilling until Game 3. By then they will have had to face Greg Maddux in Game 1 and Tom Glavine in Game 2. They'll have Johnson, who has pitched better in the postseason than his reputation for failure would have you believe, in Game 1, but Miguel Batista in Game 2. The Diamondbacks were 24-11 when Johnson started, 6-9 when Batista, who spent long stretches of the year in the bullpen, did. If Maddux is on, the Diamondbacks have a very good chance of going to Atlanta down 2-0.

But Maddux was less than stellar down the stretch, and he was the only Braves starter who was shaky against Houston. Batista pitched beautifully against St. Louis. The Braves' lack of offense will catch up with them in a seven-game series, and Arizona will do just enough -- in that way they do.

The only hope you have not to have to watch those awful uniforms in the World Series is that you're talking to the guy who picked Cincinnati to win the Wild Card, not to mention Houston over Atlanta, St. Louis over Arizona and Oakland over the Yankees.

I did, however, foresee big things for Johnny Depp way back in the "21 Jump Street" days. So I'm not totally hapless.

Now, before we get to the American League -- because really, I feel so silly about the A's-Yankees thing -- let's talk about Fox, which has actually been doing a good job with the broadcasts. When we last shared a postseason with Fox a year ago, the network was driving us crazy with MTV-style quick-cutting when it should have been focusing its cameras on -- I know, this is crazy -- the baseball game.

During the time it took a pitcher to go into his stretch, check the runner at first and deliver a pitch -- maybe three seconds -- we would get shots of the manager, some fans praying, the runner at first, the other manager, another fan, the pitcher's eyes, the first manager again, the first fans again, the other manager again, the first baseman, the other team's starting pitcher and the entire upper deck, third-base side. Every pitch. It was like watching cable with a speed freak, and he's got the remote.

This year Fox is taking a much more sedate approach. Someone must have gotten to the higher ups and convinced them that that part where the pitcher is holding the ball and he's about to throw a pitch? That's part of the game. The game doesn't start when he throws it. Good for Fox for getting that, and here's hoping it's remembered for the rest of the postseason.

Studio host Jeanie Zelasko, fresh from NASCAR broadcasts, has wrenched the crown of Most Annoying Media Personality You Never Heard of Two Months Ago from Ashleigh Banfield of MSNBC, but if she'd just stop calling the playoffs "the tournament" and the World Series "the big dance," she'd be halfway tolerable, in a James Brown kind of way. (I mean the Fox Sports James Brown, not the Godfather of Soul James Brown.) And a note to color guy Steve Lyons: The first time I heard you refer to a first baseman digging a low throw out of the dirt as "pickin' and grinnin'" I thought it was kind of cute. The last 547 times, I didn't.

But here's a good line by Lyons: "Can you imagine what it would be like if you were a Yankee player and you didn't like the taste of champagne?"

The Yankees have now perfected this act -- which, now that you mention it, they stole from James Brown, the Godfather of Soul one -- where they look half dead, stumbling and feeling blindly for a soft spot to land when ... wait a minute! They shrug off the cape that the sax player has just draped over them, leap back to the microphone and -- Ha! Good God! It's too funky in here!

The A's, owners of 31 wins in their previous 35 games, were vaporized. Mike Mussina, who had a better year than Roger Clemens, despite the Clemens Cy Young Award hype, silenced them in a tense Game 3, 1-0, and then the A's fell apart, losing the next two in spluttering, can't anybody here play this game fashion. So much for the beatable Yankees, who pulled this same stunt a year ago, entering the playoffs on as cold a streak as any team had ever entered them, losing the first game of the divisional series, then rolling to their third straight World Series title.

The Mariners won an inhuman 116 games this year, then almost stumbled against the Cleveland Indians, who weren't supposed to be able to pitch. The Indians pitched up a storm, or at least Bartolo Colon and C.C. Sabathia did in Games 1 and 3, and the Indians poured across 17 runs, 14 more than they needed, in the latter game for a 2-1 lead. They should have saved some runs for the weekend. The M's calmly came from behind to win Sunday in Cleveland and then dispatched the Indians Monday in Seattle.

That sets up an American League Championship Series between a pair of overdogs. In the '50s Red Smith wrote that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel. That ceased to be true for a long time, but it's true again, though these days it's more like rooting for Microsoft. Oh, sure, they're a little more lovable than they might otherwise be given the current state of things. They do represent wounded, resilient, heroic New York, and they do wear those FDNY and NYPD hats during batting practice and all that. But they're still the Yankees. They're still that big kid down the block who has all the toys but never plays with them because he'd rather have fun by smacking you in the back of the head.

And the Mariners are one of those juggernaut teams, a wire-to-wire division winner that just abused people all year. They're not much fun to root for either. They do have that history of futility, and you've got to like a team that rises to the top after losing its superstars -- Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. But 116 wins is too much. It's gauche. The Mariners are like that big kid's twin brother, and the twins are about to fight. There's nothing to do but pick one.

I'm picking -- but not grinnin' -- the Mariners. It should be a hell of a match-up. The bullpens alone, both superb, are worth the price of admission, which is having to sit through Jeanie Zelasko "game breaks." Both teams are incredibly opportunistic. Give them a tiny little chance -- a booted grounder, a leadoff walk, a missed cutoff man -- and they'll cash it in. They both have guys up and down the lineup as well as on the bench who have come through time and again in clutch situations. The hitting heroes of this series are just as likely to be the role players, the Jorge Posadas and Scott Brosiuses and Shane Spencers, the Mike Camerons, Mark McLemores and Dan Wilsons, as the superstars, the Derek Jeters, Bernie Williamses, Edgar Martinezes and Ichiros.

The Mariners' starting pitching is probably a shade better than the Yankees', especially with Clemens hurting, but the Yankee arms have all that big-game experience. Who would you rather give the ball to in a do-or-die game, Jamie Moyer (20-6, 3.43 ERA this year; 2-1, 2.70 ERA in three lifetime playoff outings) or Andy Pettitte (15-10, 3.99 this year; 4-2, 1.56 ERA in seven postseason outings during the Yankees' current championship run)?

I don't know either. But that's the way it goes all down the line. Ichiro or Jeter? Williams or Martinez? Take your pick.

Here's mine: Mariners in seven. And that ought to strike fear into the hearts of Mariners fans everywhere.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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