I can think of a convincing argument why each of the four teams in the National League playoffs can't win the pennant, and I can think of a convincing argument why each of the four teams in the American League playoffs can't lose.
In the National League the Atlanta Braves have no offense and tend to fizzle in the postseason. The Arizona Diamondbacks have no Luis Gonzalez and a fading Curt Schilling. The San Francisco Giants have also underachieved in the postseason, and their starting pitchers aren't made of quite the same stuff as their fine bullpen. The St. Louis Cardinals are hot, as they were at the end of last year, but they lost in the first round last year, when they had better starting pitching.
In the American League, the New York Yankees are tremendous, as usual. The Oakland A's are scorching hot and have three brilliant starters. The Anaheim Angels somehow just keep winning and winning. The Minnesota Twins are just too delicious a story to lose, and besides, they're practically unbeatable at home.
What's a handicapper to do? It may just be that they're going to have to play the games and decide for themselves.
Which is probably for the best, because my predictions are so often wrong that one reader has posited the existence of the Kaufman Curse, which is sort of like the Sports Illustrated Curse, only it affects teams that I've picked to win rather than S.I. cover subjects. And I'm still getting e-mail from crazed, gloating New Englanders about having said the St. Louis Rams would win the last Super Bowl, leading me to wonder if these people are sending the same notes to every sportswriter in America.
I'm man enough not only to admit but also to remind you that I picked the New York Mets, who finished last, to win the N.L. East and the Twins, who won the A.L. Central by 13 and a half games, to finish third. And I only had one division winner (St. Louis) and three playoff teams (St. Louis, San Francisco, Oakland) pegged.
In my defense, though, I said at the time that my choice of the Boston Red Sox over the Yankees was wishful thinking, and at the rate the Baltimore Orioles were losing at the end (32 of their last 36!), they needed only a few more months to fall behind the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, thus making my annual Rays-over-Orioles prediction finally come true. And I think I should get points for saying that the Angels would be good enough to win the A.L. Central, which they were. Thank you.
And now, just as the Orioles persuade themselves to go out there and play every day, I must soldier on in the face of defeat. You have to pay to behold the Orioles' incompetence but it's free to laugh at me. On the other hand, the Orioles serve better food.
Here are my fearless playoff previews and predictions. The team listed first has home-field advantage in the best-of-five "divisional" round, meaning it hosts Games 1, 2 and, if necessary, 5.
Atlanta Braves vs. San Francisco Giants
The Braves won 101 games while playing in a division with no really bad teams, and they have the best pitching in the league. But: They're anemic on offense, so good pitchers shutting down their few big sticks -- Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and to a lesser extent Andruw Jones -- for a few days can punch them out of a short series in a hurry. Plus: One of the Braves' main advantages in the regular season, third and fourth starters Kevin Millwood and Damian Moss being just as effective as top two Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, is muted in a short series, where teams can get by with three starters. And: They're the Atlanta Braves. They've been in the last 10 playoffs, often as the favorite, and they've won only five pennants and one championship. Underachieving in the postseason is sort of their thing. It's what makes them the Braves, kind of like how that hoochie-coochie thing is what makes Charo Charo, not to wander off subject.
The Giants are the hottest team in baseball, having won their last eight games to beat out the Los Angeles Dodgers for the wild card. They also have a powerful offense, led by Barry Bonds -- third in the league in scoring despite playing in a pitchers' park. But: Their starting pitching is just OK, and the last two times this aging team made the playoffs, in 1997 and 2000, they lost to wild-card teams (though eventual league champions) with barely a whimper.
Prediction: Giants in five.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think Bonds is going to be the difference. Bonds has been famously futile in the postseason, hitting .196 with one home run and six RBIs in 27 games, which is the equivalent of one-sixth of a full season. For years I've said that this was not an anomaly, that Bonds was a lousy clutch hitter year-round, and he was so bad in the playoffs because the playoffs are nonstop clutch situations.
This has gotten me in trouble with smart people like my stablemate Allen Barra, who insists there is no such thing as clutch hitting. "I feel like we're talking about religion," Barra once said to me when I was prattling on about how there is too such a thing as hitting in the clutch. "You sound as if you want to believe in it. So I don't know what to tell you, except that I've never seen a shred of evidence to support any such notion."
I believe -- religiously! -- that there's no statistic that proves the existence of clutch hitting not because there's no such thing as clutch hitting, but because nobody's come up with a way to measure it yet. There was no evidence that the Earth orbits the sun either until somebody proved it.
I think Bonds is a different player now, a different hitter, than he's been for most of his career. He's so dialed in, as ex-ballplayers who are now announcers are fond of saying, such an effective hitting machine, that it's damn near impossible to get him out regardless of the situation. My real prediction here is not just that the Giants will win this series, but that Bonds will play well in October for the first time in his career. That'll give the Giants just enough to overcome the Braves' superior pitching and prove true the often forgotten second part of that old baseball dictum: "Good pitching always beats good hitting -- and vice versa."
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The defending champion D-Backs, thanks to a day off following Game 1, get to throw Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling at the Cards twice each in a five-game series. But: Schilling has not been his unhittable self lately (2-3, 5.01 earned-run average in his last seven starts, dating to Aug. 26), and Arizona's best hitter, Luis Gonzalez, is out for the year with a separated shoulder. Also out is Craig Counsell, who always seems to shine in the postseason. And besides, once you get to those games where Johnson or Schilling is not the starter, the Diamondbacks are just on the sunny side of lousy. Plus: Byung-Hyun Kim, who burst into flames in last year's World Series, doesn't exactly inspire confidence coming out of the bullpen, the other members of which also don't inspire confidence.
The Cardinals are blistering hot, having finished the season 21-4 and 37-13. Since adding Scott Rolen, they've become an even more formidable lineup than they had been, which is saying something. And they genuinely believe they're a team of destiny, having survived and even thrived despite the shocking death of star pitcher Darryl Kile.
But: Their pitchers are banged up. Starter Woody Williams has battled a pulled side muscle all year and is a question mark to start Game 3. Closer Jason Isringhausen has a sore shoulder and isn't exactly a dominant, lights-out closer anyway. Their most effective starter down the stretch, Andy Benes (5-1, 1.66 ERA in 11 starts since July 30), is held together with duct tape, Juicy Fruit and regular chiropractic appointments. And anyway manager Tony La Russa is only planning to start Benes if Williams can't go. Plus: The Cards were piping hot going into the playoffs last year too, and they got dumped in the first round by Arizona.
Prediction: Diamondbacks in five.
It's true that Curt Schilling hasn't been Curt Schilling lately, but this is October, and he's, you know, Curt Schilling. You have to figure he'll deliver at least one Curt Schilling game out of the two he'll pitch. The Cardinals' real problem will be Johnson. He's been so good that saying he's the shoo-in Cy Young winner is damning him with faint praise. He went 24-5 with a 2.32 ERA, but you knew that. Did you know this? In his last 13 starts, dating to July 26, he was 11-1 with an ERA of 1.31. Opponents hit .173 off him, and he struck out more than 12 batters for every nine innings. If you throw out his only bad start in that period -- against the Giants, interestingly -- his ERA drops to 0.83.
The Cardinals beat Johnson in the playoffs last year, but it's hard to picture them, or anybody else, beating him right now. Pencil in two wins for Arizona, and that's too much to overcome, even for a team that's so good at overcoming.
As for losing Gonzalez, that's bad, but it might not be as bad as you'd think, because Arizona has Matt Williams back, and he's on a tear. In September, Williams hit .309 with seven homers and 21 RBIs in 22 games, which is a lot more than Gonzalez (.250, 3 homers, 13 RBIs in 20 games) produced. The D-Backs will miss Gonzo, but they should scrape by without him.
New York Yankees vs. Anaheim Angels
In this league, everybody looks as though they ought to win.
The Yankees finished with the best record, they have the most powerful offense, and their starting rotation is not just deep, it's hot, except for Roger Clemens, who will start Game 1. Clemens has an ERA of 4.99 in his last 10 starts, but the Yankees have won eight of those games. Andy Pettitte is 11-2, 2.70 ERA since the All-Star break. David Wells won his last four starts, allowing five earned runs in 31 innings. Mike Mussina allowed three earned runs in his last 31 innings, covering four starts, but the Yankees lost three of those games, two of those because of bullpen failures.
That's the Yankees' weakness, if they have one. The bullpen. Mariano Rivera, as good a postseason relief pitcher as there's ever been, has had a sore shoulder, and manager Joe Torre says he probably won't bring him in before the ninth. Those inning-plus saves by Rivera have been a key to the Yankees postseason success in recent years.
The set-up guys, Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton and Steve Karsay, have been good but not dominant. On the other hand, when you can bring guys like Jeff Weaver and Orlando Hernandez out of the bullpen, you're pretty loaded.
Plus: They're the Yankees. They win in the postseason. It's what makes them not the Braves, kind of like how being all brainy and dignified makes Condoleezza Rice not Charo, if I may wander off-topic again.
So how can the Angels beat them? Well, gosh, how can they not? All the Angels have done all year is win, and don't ask me how.
They have a couple of good starters, Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz, but it drops off after that. Kevin Appier had a decent year but tailed off badly (1-3, 5.08 ERA) in September. The bullpen, though, led by closer Troy Percival, is a clue to the Angels' success. It's deep and good.
The Angels also have some big bats, guys like Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus. And they have a bunch of guys like David Eckstein and Scott Spiezio and Adam Kennedy. Overachieving dirty-uniform types. This is just a team that somehow, thanks to Mike Scioscia's Manager of the Year type job I guess, has learned how to win, which they did 99 times. But ...
Prediction: Yankees in four.
The Angels are good, but the Yanks are better, and this is their time of year. If I have to give a reason other than Bronx Bomber mojo, which I don't think I do, I guess it would be starting pitching.
Oakland A's vs. Minnesota Twins
The A's, as is their custom, turned into the best team in the universe the second half of the season. They first got hot in June, winning eight straight twice on either side of a lone loss. Then they settled into an amiable pattern of playing .500 ball for about five weeks, culminating in a loss to the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 2. From the next game on, the A's went 41-11, including a league-record 20 wins in a row starting Aug. 13.
Oakland has run into the Yankees in the first round in each of the last two years, losing both times. This year they draw the weakest team in the playoffs, the Twins, who built their fat 94-67 record by repeatedly assaulting the weak teams in their own division. Minnesota was 50-25 against the A.L. Central, 44-42 against everyone else. (It gets better: The Twins were 28-9 against Kansas City and Detroit, 66-58 against everyone else.)
A's manager Art Howe says he'll go with a three-man rotation in the first round of the playoffs, which is a good idea because he has three men -- Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson -- who are better than anyone else's three men, and who make the A's the team to beat in the American League, Yankees or no. Howe should stick with that three-man rotation the rest of the way too. The A's will succeed or fail on the backs of that trio. Billy Koch is an adequate closer, the rest of the bullpen is so-so, and the offense, though it has a couple of stars in Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, is average at best. If Zito, Mulder and Hudson pitch the way they're capable of pitching, the A's win it all. If not, they're toast.
The Twins are everybody's favorite story, the small-market team that not only survived Bud Selig's foreclosure attempt but did so with a vengeance, moonwalking to the division title with a young, exciting, likable team made up of guys who actually seem to like each other and have fun playing baseball. Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones emerged as stars. Ron Gardenhire struck just the right tone in his rookie year as manager. Everyday Eddie Guardado saved 45 games. The Homer Hankies even made a comeback.
Unfortunately, the Twins don't have the starting pitching to stay with the other teams in this tournament. That's why they're only about a .500 club when they aren't beating up on the poor Royals and Tigers.
But: If the starters can keep the Twins close, they've got a chance, because their bullpen is superb. And don't forget: The Twins don't lose at the Metrodome in the postseason. In 1987 and 1991 they went 3-1 in the playoffs and 8-0 in the World Series at home. If they can steal a road game in each of their playoff series, they'll get to the World Series, where they'll have four home games.
Prediction: A's in four.
The Twins will steal a game, but it will be at the Dome. The A's starters are just too much.
So my predictions leave me with the Giants and Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series, the Yankees and A's in the American League. I think the A's will finally beat the Yankees this year because of that trio of starters, and the Diamondbacks will beat the Giants because of this tortured logic: If Arizona has beaten St. Louis, that means Curt Schilling must have pitched well, and if Schilling is pitching well, the Giants can't beat the Johnson-Schilling one-two punch.
Besides, every time I predict the Diamondbacks will lose, they win, so I've stopped fighting it.
Until the World Series, that is, when I'm thinking the A's will beat them, throwing all those market-size arguments -- remember them? -- into disarray.
As always, I reserve the right to make all new predictions next week when all of the above turns out to have been wrong.