The dark ages are over. For the first time since 2003, both the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs are in the playoffs, which begin Wednesday. They're dancing in the aisles over in accounting at sundry media outlets.
The last time baseball's two beautiful losers shared a postseason was an orgy of page views, huge rack sales and smokin' ratings numbers. The Worldwide Leader was so heartbroken over both of them being eliminated in the League Championship Series that it provided daily coverage of an imaginary Cubs-Red Sox World Series on ESPN.com.
It was the most shameless page-view whoring in the history of online sports coverage other than this column's occasional mentions of Beyoncé topless. We like to remind readers from time to time that we don't go for that sort of cheap, or even free, hot pix business around here.
And yes, the Red Sox: beautiful losers. Still, yes. They did win a World Series in 2004, but they're a few years of massive payrolls and habitual winning from shedding their romantic, literary aura.
The Cubs made it back to the playoffs as National League Central Division champs in their first year under manager Lou Piniella and after an offseason in which they threw about $300 million at the problem of being lousy.
It worked. They got excellent seasons from the two big imports, outfielder Alfonso Soriano and pitcher Ted Lilly, as well as fine years from third baseman Aramis Ramirez and pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who both got contract extensions. Even vastly overpaid newcomer Jason Marquis provided solid stretches of non-wretchitude for his $9 million.
The Red Sox ended their one-year postseason drought by becoming the first team to win the American League East while not wearing New York Yankees rompers since 1997, when Baltimore won it. While the Yankees were winning nine straight division titles, the Red Sox finished second to them eight times.
This year, that was reversed. Wow, it's like the whole world's upside down! Unless you live in Baltimore, Toronto or Tampa Bay, the latter strongly suggesting that you're a fish. There might be more fish who can read in Tampa Bay than there are Devil Rays fans in all of Florida, but we seem to have drifted off the topic.
The Yankees have made the playoffs for the 13th year in a row, though for the first time since '97, they're the wild card. But they've been on a serious roll since the start of June, so don't get the idea the Bombers are limping into the playoffs.
As has been the case for quite a while now, the American League appears to be noticeably superior to the National, though that's hardly meant a lock on the World Series for the junior circuit. National League teams have won three of the six championships since the Yankees' three-year streak ended with the Arizona Diamondbacks' win over them in 2001.
The D-backs, having been to hell and back since that classic Series, return to the playoffs this year, having won the N.L. West with the best record in the league despite giving up more runs than they scored, which is not the sort of thing teams with the best record in the league tend to do.
They'll meet the Cubs in one best-of-five divisional-round series, while the two comeback teams, the Eastern Division champion Philadelphia Phillies and the wild-card playoff surviving Colorado Rockies, meet in the N.L.'s other set.
In the American League, the Red Sox play the Los Anahangeles Angels, who waltzed away with the West, while the Yankees take on the Central Division champion Cleveland Indians, who tied the Sox for the best record in all of baseball, but don't get mentioned until 630 words have been blurted.
That's what you get for not being the glamorous and sexy Red Sox or Cubs.
Here's a quick look at the four divisional-round series. One thing to be aware of is that the postseason schedule has been changed this year. Baseball and Fox TV wanted the World Series to start on a Tuesday, as it did from 1903 to 1984, with a weekend in the middle, rather than the format that's been in place since 1985, with the Series starting on a Saturday and ending, if it goes seven games, the following Sunday.
To accomplish that, they've added days off to the first round. Every series now gets an off day after Game 4, including the one series that already had an off day after Game 1. That series -- Angels-Red Sox this year -- only has one set of back-to-back games, which is highly unusual in baseball.
What all this means is that teams, especially in that series with the extra day off, can use fewer starters without having to bring them back on short rest. That can be an advantage for clubs whose rotation is strong up front. And what I mean by that is the Cleveland Indians.
The home team in the headline is the one that hosts Games 1, 2 and, if necessary, 5.
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Chicago Cubs at Arizona Diamondbacks [PERMALINK]
The Cubs have better hitting, better starting pitching, a better bench and maybe a better manager. And a better stadium in a better city. And better uniforms.
The Diamondbacks have a better bullpen, though that would be less true if Piniella would use his best reliever, Carlos Marmol, in the most important situations, rather than in the middle innings.
But I'm taking the D-backs. And it's not because of that bullpen or any silly curses. Or any not-so-silly reasons rooted in actual baseball analysis. It's because way back in March, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the electric light had scarcely been invented, I predicted that the Arizona Diamondbacks would win the National League pennant.
I have no idea who's going to win the National League pennant at this point. I do think the Cubs are a slightly better club than the D-backs, but I also think all four surviving N.L. teams -- plus the San Diego Padres, New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers -- are more similar in quality than different. Throw their names into a hat and pick one.
So I'm not going to go against the wisdom of my six-months-ago self at this point. Brandon Webb, a bunch of relievers and the stretchy socks of Eric Byrnes have taken my preseason pick this far. I'll stick with them.
Prediction: Diamondbacks in four
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Colorado Rockies at Philadelphia Phillies [PERMALINK]
The battle of the comeback kids. They can both ride the momentum of their furious finishes -- 14-1 for the Rox, 13-4 for the Phils -- or they can both let down after battling furiously just to get into the playoffs. Or some combination. Or neither. You think I know? I don't know. The playoffs are a crapshoot, remember?
Unless they're both deflated, this series should be a humdinger. These are the two highest-scoring teams in the league, by far, and they play in ballparks that encourage that kind of thing. The key to the series will be which team can scrounge around to find enough pitching.
The Rockies were better at that over the course of the season, and they're also better fielders, which helps the hurlers. But the Phillies have the two best pitchers in this series, starters Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick. They're kids, though, and who knows how they'll react to the big stage.
These teams are awfully similar, and I'll go with the Phillies for the same reason I'm going with the Diamondbacks. I predicted Arizona would beat Philadelphia in the NLCS six months ago, and I'm way too close to being right to cast that aside without a compelling reason to do so. Like, for example, knowing what I'm talking about.
Prediction: Phillies in five
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Los Angeles Angels at Boston Red Sox [PERMALINK]
The Red Sox got the reputation of a collapsing team in the second half because their big lead in the A.L. East kept shrinking. It shriveled from 11 and a half games on the morning of July 6 to four on Aug. 13. Then, after they built it back up to seven games as late as Sept. 5, it shrunk to a game and a half on Sept. 20.
But it wasn't that the Sox were collapsing. They were playing roughly .500 ball, going 17-16 in that first period, 6-8 in the second. Not great, but not terrible, and most first-place teams spend good chunks of their schedule playing .500 ball. The thing was the Yankees, after that slow start, were scorching, going 25-9 and 11-2 in those stretches.
More on the Yankees in a second, but the issue here is the Sox were never really sick.
The Sox ended up tied with Cleveland for the best record in the league, and it's legit. They didn't quite get a Manny Ramirez year out of Manny Ramirez, and J.D. Drew and Coco Crisp were big disappointments, but they made up for that with a career year from Mike Lowell, the usual from David Ortiz and solid contributions from Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.
And pitching. The Sox led the league in pitching, with Josh Beckett in the Cy Young conversation, Curt Schilling choogling along and Daisuke Matsuzaka contributing, even if he wasn't the second coming of Pedro Martinez as advertised. The bullpen, led by Jonathan Papelbon, was dynamite, though they struggled at the end, and Eric Gagne was a disaster after a deadline trade.
I'm picking the Angels.
And it's not because of my preseason predictions, when I had the Red Sox winning the East and the Angels, uh, hey! Look over there!
I'm just getting a 2002 kind of vibe out of these Angels. They look a lot like that Series-winning team to me, with good starting pitching, led by the criminally underappreciated John Lackey, and a solid bullpen, though not quite the dominant one they had five years ago.
They're doing all those annoying Anahangelistic things, like getting an unexpected comeback year from Garret Anderson and contributions from all kinds of useful non-stars like Chone Figgins and Maicer Izturis. Vladimir Guerrero, the big horse, can't play the outfield because of a bad triceps, but he can still hit. Oh, my, can he.
Prediction: Angels in five
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New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians [PERMALINK]
The whole season counts. I get that. All those lazy games in April and May, they count exactly as much in the standings as those tense ones in September. But stick with me for a minute, and toss out April and May. Since June 1, the Yankees are 72-39. That's a .649 winning percentage.
A team that wins that often over a whole season wins 105 games. It might be more useful to think of New York as that kind of a team than as the 94-win wild-card team they actually are when you count all those April and May games, when New York went 22-29.
You may have heard about the year Alex Rodriguez had. But he wasn't alone. The Yankees fell four runs shy of averaging six per game, which hasn't been done since the 2000 Chicago White Sox. The Yankees have the best-hitting catcher in the game and a second baseman who puts up numbers that would be acceptable for a corner outfielder, and they're practically afterthoughts. (Names: Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano.)
What's really scary about the Yanks is that they're starting to get contributions from kids who have come up through their system. For all the ink spilled on Roger Clemens -- he was decent in 17 starts and is struggling with sore hamstrings now -- the news was the emergence of Joba Chamberlain, Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy.
If they can buy championships and develop them, what's left? Well, we'll see. The Yankees still haven't won anything.
But I like them to outslug the Indians in this series, even though Cleveland has that one-two pitching punch of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, who are better than anyone else's top two. Things go a little south after them, but the bullpen is solid, though again, the best pitcher, Rafael Betancourt, has to stand by and watch Joe "5-plus ERA" Borowski close.
I'm giving short shrift to the Indians here -- Grady Sizemore! Victor Martinez! Travis Hafner even in an off year! Jhonny Peralta! -- but I think the Yanks are just going to pound them into submission with their bats.
Keep in mind, I thought the same thing about the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2004 World Series.
Prediction: Yankees in four
So yeah, I have both the Cubs and Red Sox losing in the first round, to the sound of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending in media offices all over Manhattan.
And it gets better: I'm predicting an all-West World Series, a ratings disaster that will spark anguished cries of "Who cares about these teams!?" from the entire Eastern time zone, plus Chicago.
ESPN might have to pay for the real Cubs and Red Sox to play an actual series against each other, just to have something to talk about.
NLCS: Diamondbacks over Phillies
ALCS: Angels over Yankees
World Series: Angels over Diamondbacks
Previous column: Wild-card classic
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