The first man to throw a pitch in the 2003 baseball playoffs will be Mike Mussina of the New York Yankees. That ought to give you a clue that even if there hasn't exactly been an earthquake in the big league landscape, there's at least been a little bit of jostling.
Mussina will go into his windup Tuesday at 1:06 p.m. EDT, give or take a nanosecond, and what that means is that the Yankees are no longer the rock stars of baseball. Rock stars work at night. Whatever else has been going on in this crazy world over the last nine years, you could count on the Yankees playing their playoff games in prime time, but they're mere curtain raisers this year, because this year we have the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs open their series against the Atlanta Braves under the big top Tuesday night, Fox TV having decided that America is so over Derek Jeter and company, winners of five pennants and four World Series since 1996 and in the playoffs for the ninth straight year. We're poised now to embrace Sammy Sosa and his scrappy, 88-win Cubbies, in the postseason for the first time since '98 and only the fifth since World War II -- and one of those times was two months after that sailor kissed that nurse in Times Square.
It's not true, by the way, that 72-year-old Marlins manager Jack McKeon was that sailor.
The Cubs survived a pennant race, if we can call it that, with the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals to win the National League Central Division with an 88-74 record, a mark that would have left them 13 games behind their first-round opponent, the Braves, if they happened to play in the same division. Atlanta won 101 times and, after winning the division championship in every full season since 1991 with dominant but un-video game-esque pitching, they did it this year with offense, pounding out 5.6 runs a game -- a run a day more than their opponents scored and 1.1 runs a day more than the Cubs did.
But the Cubs, a pitching-heavy team, have Sosa, who rehabilitated himself from his embarrassing bat-corking incident and a slow start and finished with 40 homers and 103 RBIs, remarkable figures considering he only had 10 and 35 on the morning of July 1, the exact midway point of the season. And they're the Cubs, that sad sack of baseball teams, winners of the World Series in 1907 and '08 and not since. The Boston Red Sox have gone almost as long, since 1918, and they have legions of lit professors on their side, but the vibe is different in Boston. The Red Sox have been tantalizingly close time and again, nipping at the Yankees' heels, fumbling crucial grounders, always falling just short. The Cubs have just been bad, year in and year out, with occasional forays into pretty goodness, but rarely anything like the powerhouse teams that have broken hearts in New England.
That history of futility makes any Cubs triumph seem like a magical convergence of destiny and fate and history and legend to their fans, who can't even be referenced without the words "long-suffering." So they go bananas, and it's contagious. I had several of them e-mail me over the weekend to tell me that Saturday, when the Northsiders clinched the division title with a double-header sweep over the Pirates, was the greatest day of their lives. All the world loves a loser who perseveres.
It doesn't hurt that the Cubs have had a national cable contract for decades. Most Cubs fans I hear from don't live anywhere near Chicago. But the Braves have had a national cable contract for even longer, and nobody gets too excited about them. They're the better, more exciting team, with marquee names like Chipper and Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux and Russ Ortiz, but they fill even their hometown fans with inertia, going to the playoffs year after year but bringing home only one World Series title, in 1995. It's the Cubs that have knocked the Yankees out of prime time.
The Yanks will get their moment under the bright lights, though, on Thursday, when their second game against the Minnesota Twins is the prime-time affair. The Red Sox and Oakland A's are the headliners Wednesday night. The only one of the four first-round series that won't get prime-time treatment before the weekend, when starting times are still to be announced, is the one between the Florida Marlins and the San Francisco Giants, the defending National League champs.
The Giants have Barry Bonds, baseball's version of Paul Bunyan these last few years, but McKeon has already said he has no intention of letting the great slugger see any strikes in meaningful situations. That, combined with the rest of the country's lack of interest in teams that play in the Pacific time zone and/or Florida, means the Giants and Marlins get to play in daylight.
For the second year in a row, there's no clear favorite going into the playoffs. The Yankees, Giants and Braves were all 100-game winners, but they all have flaws. The Red Sox, Twins, A's, Cubs and Marlins all finished strong, but they all have their weaknesses, too, which is why they needed strong finishes to qualify for the playoffs.
A brief look at the first-round series, which are best of five:
Minnesota Twins (90-72) vs. New York Yankees (101-61): Each team throws three hot starters at the others: Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, in that order, for the Yankees against Johan Santana, Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse for the Twins. The Yankees are bigger names but the Twins are a little hotter, their trio going 22-3 with a 3.19 ERA after Aug. 1, compared to their elders' 21-6, 3.62.
Minnesota was as good as anyone after the All-Star break, when they traded for Shannon Stewart, their first real leadoff hitter since Chuck Knoblauch. That and their traditional postseason home-field advantage at the Metrodome, an awful hangar of a place but fearsome when it's filled with screaming, hankie-waving fans, makes them a nasty challenge for New York. But here's the catch: The Yankees are 7-0 against the Twins this year. And here's the catch to the catch: None of those games were played after April 21. Prediction: The Yankees will do just enough to get the series back to New York for Game 5, which they'll win. Yanks in five.
Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Oakland A's (96-66): The Red Sox have the game's best pitcher, Pedro Martinez, plus so-so Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe and an iffy bullpen. The A's have Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, neither of whom is terribly far behind Pedro (yet another ace, Mark Mulder, is injured), plus so-so but hot Ted Lilly and an excellent bullpen. The Sox lead the majors in scoring, pounding away with leadoff man Johnny Damon, batting champ Bill Mueller and sluggers Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra and the man Sox fans think should be MVP, David Ortiz. The A's have Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez and ... did I mention that bullpen? They struggle to score.
The A's have fizzled in the first round the last three years, and there's been some talk that the patient, walks and homers philosophy that works so well over a long season is poorly suited to short series against good teams. Eleven of the 12 experts making predictions at ESPN.com think the Sox are going to win this series. I think the Red Sox will be done in by their bullpen and the Oakland starters. Prediction: A's in four. And a note to Sox fans: Ortiz is the shiznit, but you don't get to be the MVP by playing in only 128 games with no time spent on the disabled list.
Chicago Cubs (88-74) vs. Atlanta Braves (101-61): The Braves hit a ton but their 4.10 team ERA is the highest among N.L. playoff teams. The Cubs pitch like crazy but their 4.5 runs per game is the lowest among all playoff teams. The question is whether good pitching (Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior) beats good hitting (Sheffield, the Joneses, Javy Lopez), and the answer is that it always does. And vice versa. I always appreciate the chance to reference that line.
Prognosticators have learned over the last three presidential administrations that you can go broke betting against the Braves in the regular season and for them in the postseason. I picked the Phillies to win the Eastern Division this year, so I might as well stay the course. Prediction: Braves in four.
Florida Marlins (91-71) vs. San Francisco Giants (100-61): It would be so simple if life were a movie. The Giants might or might not win the World Series this year, but they'd certainly get there. After their epic collapse in Game 6 of last year's World Series, and the dramatic, even melodramatic sight of Bonds shuttling between his father's deathbed and hitting game-winning home runs in front of roaring crowds, the Giants simply must get to a World Series Game 7. And it must be the ninth inning, two outs, game on the line, and Bonds, aging, hurting, misunderstood, fighting tears and visions of the old man looking over his shoulder, stepping in against Mariano Rivera, because it has to be the Yankees, and it has to be their best pitcher. Whether he strikes out or hits a home run would depend on what kind of movie it was, but we certainly wouldn't have to worry about whether the Giants could get past the wild card team in the first round.
The Giants do have to worry, though. The Marlins are without slugging third baseman Mike Lowell, and they miss him, but they went 19-8 after he got hurt. Florida, which looked like a decent team in spring training, but one that would surely be broken up at midseason by owner Jeffrey Loria, who has a history of that sort of thing, got off to a rough start. The hiring of McKeon on May 11, which looked strange at the time because of his age, got them smoothed out big-time. Playing old-fashioned little ball, with speedy Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo at the top of the lineup, the Marlins played .600 baseball the rest of the way. Dontrelle Willis had a nice rookie year, you might have heard, but Mark Redman, Josh Beckett and Brad Penny all pitched pretty well too.
The Giants don't have great starters beyond Jason Schmidt, and with Bonds being walked all the time they must rely on others to drive in runs. The question for the Giants, as it was last year, will be: Can someone hitting behind Bonds do enough damage that the other team pays a price for walking him? The answer for most of last year's postseason was yes. Prediction: Giants in five.
Looking ahead, I'll take the Yankees over the A's and the Giants over the Braves in the League Championship Series, then the Yankees over the Giants in the World Series. But as always I reserve the right to pick again after all of my first-round predictions turn out wrong.
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