It's crapshoot time at last! The baseball playoffs begin Tuesday, with the Dodgers and Cardinals opening up at 1 p.m. EDT in St. Louis. The Red Sox visit the Angels later in the afternoon and the Yankees host the Twins in prime time. The other series, the Astros vs. the Braves, starts in Atlanta Wednesday.
Here, starting with the National League, is a big, rambly preview of the four first-round series. But first, please note: While I mention gambling once or twice in this column, it's vitally important to your financial well-being that you not make wagers based on any predictions made in this space. If you'd like me to be involved in the squandering of your fortune, just send me the money directly. Thank you.
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Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals [PERMALINK]
The Cardinals weren't supposed to do much this year. Almost nobody picked them to win the National League Central -- ahem, almost nobody -- because it didn't look like they'd have enough starting pitching to support a formidable lineup.
They got enough, spent the whole season looking like the best team in baseball, and finished with 105 wins even after coasting for the last two weeks. They had the division sewn up by the first of August.
Now the big question being debated in this great nation's baseball parlors is: "Are this year's Cardinals the 2001 Mariners redux?"
You might not know the word redux gets tossed around in baseball parlors but you'll surely remember that the '01 Mariners won 116 games -- more than anybody since 1906 -- only to get smoked in the American League Championship Series by the Yankees, at which point everyone in the world pretended they'd known that was going to happen. They'd just forgotten to say anything about it beforehand, you see.
They'd known because the Mariners didn't have any dominant starters, just a bunch of pretty good ones, and you need dominant starters to win in the playoffs, an assertion that is as accepted in baseball as it is unproven. Blogger Brian Gunn, a Cardinals fan, not coincidentally, has done some spiffy research that suggests that while ace starters are always nice to have, they're no more important in the postseason than they are in the regular season.
The Cardinals have to like that idea. They have no ace, but for most of the season they were just about equally likely to win no matter which of their five starters took the ball, which is to say pretty likely. Chris Carpenter, who was their best starter, their most equal, if you will, is out for the Dodgers series with a biceps injury. But the rotation's deep enough that it shouldn't matter much. The Cardinals also have a terrific, deep bullpen. And a great defense. And the most explosive lineup in the league.
I don't think the Cardinals are the 2001 Mariners, though it should be noted I didn't think the 2001 Mariners were going to be the 2001 Mariners either. What I mean is there's no real reason to think the Dodgers, champions of the N.L. West, will beat the Cardinals, except that this is baseball, and it's the postseason, and things like that happen.
In fact, the last time the Dodgers won anything in the postseason was in 1988. And what did they do then? Dun-dun! They pulled a big upset over the powerhouse Mets in the National League Championship Series. And then what? Dun-dun! They pulled an even bigger upset over the even more powerhouse A's in the World Series. And who was managing that 104-win A's team? Dun-DUN! Tony La Russa, current manager of the Cardinals. And how did the Dodgers do it? Dun-dun-DUN! They had a dominant starter, Orel Hershisher!
This all means bupkis, of course.
Except to remind us that upsets do happen in October. The Dodgers lack the quality starting pitching that's traditionally taken them as far as they've gone in the postseason. They win with defense, a good bullpen -- great when they get to closer Eric Gagne -- and just enough hitting, led in a big way by Adrian Beltre, who finally had the breakout year he'd been penciled in for since he was signed while in diapers. In almost any other year, he'd have been a legitimate MVP candidate.
Trouble is, Gagne aside, the Cardinals are at least as good at all of the things the Dodgers are good at and better at most of them. The starting pitching is better, the bullpen is better overall, the fielding is comparable and the lineup is no contest. The Cardinals have three guys who in normal times would be MVP candidates: Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. Oh, and incidentally: Larry Walker is on this team. When Larry Walker is an incidentally, you've got yourself a team there.
It doesn't help the Dodgers that Gagne, who has had to pitch more since setup man Guillermo Mota was sent to the Marlins in the Paul Lo Duca-Brad Penny trade, has a sore shoulder and is taking cortisone shots, though he says he's OK. If the Dodgers can get the game to him enough times, he gives them a chance at a pretty big upset.
Prediction: Cardinals in four
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Houston Astros vs. Atlanta Braves [PERMALINK]
"Well, it happened again." That'll be the loser's reaction no matter who wins this series.
Astros win and it'll be another year for the Braves winning their division but not the World Series. They've only won the whole thing once, in 1995, during their astounding streak of 13 straight division titles in nonstrike years. A first-round loss this year would be their third in as many years, their fourth in the last five.
"Well, it happened again. The Braves are great in the summer but they can't win in the postseason."
Braves win and it's eight straight losses in playoff series for the Astros, who have never won one. A loss would be their fifth straight first-round defeat since the two-round league playoffs were introduced in 1995. It would be the fourth time they've lost an opening series to the Braves, the third in a row. The Astros are 2-12 in playoff games in the current format, 1-9 against the Braves.
"Well, it happened again. The Astros can't win a playoff series, and they sure can't beat the Braves."
All of this, of course, means squat city.
It means a lot more that the Astros are hotter than Diablo Sauce heading into the playoffs, having gone nuts since Aug. 15, when they were in 215th place in the wild-card race. They were so far out of it they were chasing the New York Mammoths. They were looking up at the Bad News Bears.
Then one day -- Aug. 15 -- they scored three in the ninth in Montreal to beat the Expos. "Hopefully, we'll use that as a springboard for some more kind of wins like that," said manager Phil Garner, who had taken over for the fired Jimy Williams at the All-Star Break. Starting with that game, the Astros finished 36-10 to win the wild card on the last day of the season.
But one can make too much of that. Just ask the A's. They finished almost as hot as this year's Astros in 2000 and even hotter in 2001 and 2002. Each time, they got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. On the other hand, you can ask last year's Marlins, who went 21-8 down the stretch and finished the season winning six of their last seven, then won the World Series. Beware of generalizations about hot teams.
But also beware of teams with two great starting pitchers. Roger Clemens, who at 42 has been dominant, and 20-game-winner Roy Oswalt have the best chance of being this year's version of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001. The Astros were 44-24 when Clemens or Oswalt pitched this year, 48-48 when anyone else did. Since the Astros started their hot streak, they've been 18-2 with the big two pitching, 18-8 behind everybody else.
The Braves' rotation is four-deep without being spectacular. Jaret Wright, John Thomson, Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton have all consistently given Atlanta a chance to win, and the Braves, who walked away with the N.L. East, aren't noticeably better when any one of them is on the mound. It's similar to the Cardinals' rotation, and not surprisingly the Braves and Cards are 1-2 in the league in ERA. This series sets up as a nice trial of the "you need dominant pitching in the postseason" theory.
Thomson has a pulled muscle in his side, which is the kind of injury that can be nothing or ruinous. He's penciled in to start Game 2, but he might miss the series. Hampton is also hurt, with a bad knee, but he looked good in his last start. Shoot, it's October. Everybody's banged up.
Both teams like to get the game to their closer, John Smoltz for the Braves and the not-nearly-as-famous or playoff-tested Brad Lidge for the Astros. The rest of the bullpens have been good, the Astros a little hotter lately. Both can score some but don't strike fear into opponents' hearts.
The Astros' two great stars, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, have been lifelong playoff flops. If they continue that pattern, the Astros will be in trouble. But my trick knee was right when it told me in 2002 that Barry Bonds would throw off his postseason troubles that year, and it's saying the same thing, though not as emphatically, about the two creaky killer B's.
At the start of the season I picked the Astros to win the wild card and go to the World Series, the theory being that if this very old team got to the playoffs, their starting pitching would make them tough to beat in a short series. That's still true even though they've lost Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller to injury, which is a pretty amazing statement.
Prediction: Astros in five
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Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees [PERMALINK]
Welcome to the bizarro world of the Yankees, where you can win 101 games and lead your division from late spring to the wire, then have everybody talk about how you're ripe to be beaten in the playoffs by the Twins, who were nine games worse while playing in the easier Central Division.
Why does that happen? Partly because the Yankees are the Yankees -- write this down, kids, these are the real insights: the Yankees are the Yankees -- but partly because of that starting pitching thing. The Yankees, A.L. East champs, not only don't have any dominant starters, they barely have any ambulatory ones. They also have a so-so bullpen, though manager Joe Torre might be able to mask that a bit in the postseason by riding Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera hard.
The Twins, meanwhile, have Johan Santana, who's just about as hot as a pitcher can be, plus Brad Radke, a solid veteran having one of his best years, and a good bullpen.
We've talked about Santana recently, but let's just take a second here. The last time the Twins lost a meaningful game that Santana started was July 11, when he gave up two runs in eight innings to the Tigers but the Twins got shut out. The Twins then won Santana's next 14 starts, Santana getting the win in 13 of them, not one of them a cheapy -- he gave up more than two runs twice, both times surrendering three.
During that stretch -- we're talking here about two months, from July 17 through Sept. 24 -- Santana's ERA was 1.09. In 99 and a third innings, he struck out 124 and walked 22. He didn't allow a run in his first four starts in September. He hasn't allowed more than one run in a game since Aug. 18, more than two since Aug. 7, more than three since June 3. Etc., etc. I could go on.
And it's not like he was getting fat against the weak teams. During his hot stretch, he beat every team in the league except the Tigers and Blue Jays, against whom he didn't pitch. He beat the White Sox, Royals and Orioles twice.
The Twins did lose Santana's last start Wednesday. With the division already clinched, he pitched five innings against the Yankees, who were still playing for keeps, allowing a run on three hits and leaving with a 3-1 lead, which the bullpen lost as Santana lathered, rinsed and repeated.
History apparently tells us that having a dominant starter isn't any more important in the playoffs than in the regular season, but even if we don't believe that because top starters pitch a higher percentage of their teams' games in short series than they do all year, or just because we don't want to change our minds about something we've thought for a long time, we shouldn't underestimate how important Santana was to the Twins during the regular season.
When he took the ball on July 17 in Kansas City, the Twins were 47-42, a .528 winning percentage, trailing the White Sox by a half game in the Central Division. From that day forward, the Twins went 45-28 (.616), a half-game better than the Yankees, and won the division by nine games. It helps a team quite a bit to be a virtual lock to win every fifth game.
How much does it help? Well, through July 16, the Twins were 37-33 when anybody other than Santana started, a .529 winning percentage. From July 17 on, when anybody other than Santana took the hill, the Twins were 31-27, a .534 winning percentage. They were basically the same team they'd always been. The difference was that they went 10-9 in Santana's starts through July 16, and 14-1 in his starts after that.
If the second half had gone like the first for Santana, the Twins would have gone 8-7 in his starts. They'd have finished with 86 wins and would have been fighting off the White Sox down to the last weekend, which might have forced Santana to pitch, which might have meant he could only start one game against the Yankees instead of two. Conversely, if his first 19 starts had gone like the last 15, the Twins would have won 17 of them, which would have meant 99 wins at season's end, which would have changed not just the way you think about them, but their first-round opponent. They'd have been hosting Boston rather than visiting New York.
Oh, my, does having a dominant pitcher mean a lot in the regular season.
As it stands, the Yankees face the prospect of seeing a nearly unbeatable pitcher twice in five games, which could put them in the position of having to win all three games in which Santana doesn't start. That's the bad news for them. The good news is they're capable of doing this, while also being capable of beating Santana. Whether you should bet on this or not is up to you and your rabbit's foot, but more fortunes have been lost than won betting against the Yankees in October.
New York has the second most potent lineup in the league after the Red Sox, with Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez leading them to a team record in home runs, and any time you set a team record in the Bronx, you're really doing something. Plus they have a dynamite closer in Rivera, and they're just the Yankees. They're good at this kind of thing.
The Twins don't have a particularly scary lineup, but the Yanks spent the last two weeks of the year staring intently at each day's starting pitcher and going, "Hmm, think he can start in the postseason?" Kevin Brown broke his hand punching a wall, the moron. Javier Vazquez has been awful in the second half. Orlando Hernandez says his arm is dead. They'll send Mike Mussina, who finished a rocky season pitching well, in Game 1 and then hope for the best, which is usually what they get at this time of year. And lots of runs.
It's not an unreasonable hope, but I think the Twins, behind Santana and just enough otherwise, will win a close one.
Prediction: Twins in five
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Boston Red Sox vs. Anaheim Angels [PERMALINK]
This one should be fun. The last time they met in the playoffs, in 1986, it was fun, part of what I think was the most exciting postseason in the 35-year history of the expanded playoffs. The Red Sox were down to their last strike when Dave Henderson saved their bacon with a home run.
It should be fun this time because the Angels and Red Sox are both hot, and they're both fun teams to watch, aggressive, scrappy clubs -- belying the fact that after the Yankees they're the two highest-paid bunches in baseball -- who specialize in getting off the deck to win games and even, in the Angels' case, their division, the A.L. West.
The Sox, perennial runners-up to the Yankees in the A.L. East and wild-card winners for the fourth time in seven years, have the two dominant starters in this series, Curt Schilling, who was better than everybody in the league except Santana this year, and Pedro Martinez. The popular view of Martinez is that he's washed up, not the great pitcher he once was. While the latter is true, he's hardly washed up.
He was eighth in the league in ERA, second in strikeouts, fourth in WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning), sixth in innings pitched. He's not the Pedro of the turn of the century, but hardly anybody else ever has been. A guy can fall pretty far from that level and still be awfully good.
The Angels don't exactly match up with the likes of Jarrod Washburn and Bartolo Colon, especially when you consider that the Red Sox lead all of baseball by scoring almost six runs a game. But the rotations have back halves too, and the Angels have to feel a little better about Kelvim Escobar and John Lackey against Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield.
The Angels also have a terrific bullpen, with closer Troy Percival and setup man Francisco Rodriguez, who would be a closer with most teams. The Red Sox have a pretty good pen too, but their closer is Keith Foulke, and while he's had a good year, he's just not the kind of guy who gives you that secure feeling when you hand him the ball in the ninth. At least not me.
But the real difference in this series, other than the two top starters, is the lineups. The Red Sox lead the league in just about everything offensively. The Angels do a nice job of putting the ball in play and manufacturing runs, but they're a middle-of-the-pack hitting team even at full strength, and they're missing the suspended Jose Guillen and the injured Adam Kennedy. They small-balled their way to the championship two years ago, but I don't think they have the horses this time.
The best thing about the Angels overtaking the A's and making the playoffs is that the world will get a good look at Vladimir Guerrero, who should be the league MVP. If you're not a big baseball fan and you don't live in Quebec or on the West Coast, you probably haven't seen much of Guerrero, who at 28 is well on his way to what looks like an inner-circle Hall of Fame career, all of which he spent in Montreal before this season.
It's not just that Guerrero is a great player, a free-swinging slugger with a cannon arm in right field. He's also just plain fun to watch, the only player I've ever seen who reminds me even a little bit of Willie Mays. He and Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez, who isn't as complete a player but is simply a hitting machine, make this series worth the price of admission even before you take into account the raucous crowds, the Cooperstown-bound Boston starters and the nonsense of the Babe Ruth curse, which I'd promised myself I wouldn't mention.
Promises are made to be broken. Curses are too. We'll see about that in the next round, but for now, the Red Sox have too much for the Angels.
Prediction: Red Sox in four
Previous column: Team chemistry experiment
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