Baseball playoffs: Red Sox-Cubs Series?

Could be, but the Angels, not the Sox or Rays, had the best record in the A.L. And: Is this really the year at Wrigley?

Published October 1, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

That was fantastic, amazing, incredible. Who knew there could still be games like that?

The Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins played a playoff game Tuesday night in two hours, 20 minutes. Wow!

The White Sox won 1-0 on a home run by Jim Thome against Nick Blackburn, who was otherwise almost flawless. John Danks pitched eight shutout innings for Chicago, and Ken Griffey Jr. and A.J. Pierzynski teamed up on a nice play to nail Michael Cuddyer trying to score from third on a fly ball to center, Griffey making a solid throw and Pierzynski making a nifty pickup on a tough hop.

The win gives the White Sox the American League Central Division championship and a ticket to St. Petersburg to open the playoffs against the Eastern Division champion Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday.

It wasn't officially a playoff game. Divisional or wild-card tiebreakers, 163rd games, are considered regular-season contests. But in every other way, they're playoff games. The loser goes home and the winner advances. That's the definition of a playoff.

And it was a dandy. If they're all like that, crisply played, well pitched, well fielded, gripping to the last out, this'll be a great playoff year. We'll take a few more runs, though, as long as we're going to be doing this every day for the next month.

The Los Angeles Angels, champions of the West, play the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox in the other American League Series. The Sox got in as a wild card. In the National League, the Central Division champion Chicago Cubs, with the best record in the Senior Circuit, play the Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of the West, while the wild-card Milwaukee Brewers take on the Eastern Division champion Philadelphia Phillies.

That series was to kick off a triple-header of Game 1s Wednesday, all of them on TBS, which approaches baseball with a decidedly un-Fox-like attitude of respect and enjoyment.

Here's a quick look at the four series, keeping in mind this column's increasingly firm position that baseball predictions are utter nonsense. The home team in each headline will host Games 1, 2 and, if necessary, 5.


Milwaukee Brewers at Philadelphia Phillies
This one is up first Wednesday, and get used to that. With the Cubs and Dodgers in the other series, this one is the official National League curtain raiser.

The Brewers rode the left arm of deadline acquisition C.C. Sabathia to get here. When Sabathia first took the mound for Milwaukee on July 8, the Brewers were 49-40. From that day forward they were 14-3 when Sabathia pitched, 27-29 when he didn't. The good news for the Brewers is that Sabathia, who is 290 pounds and bionic, is scheduled to pitch twice in the best-of-five series. The bad news is that he isn't scheduled to pitch the other three games.

National media coverage of the Phillies makes them seem like recipients of a windfall in the form of the New York Mets collapsing, but that's not what happened at all. The Phillies beat the Mets by three games. They won 92, more than anybody in the National League except the Cubs, and they're a legitimately good team.

They score a lot of runs, a product of big sticks like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and the unfairly maligned Pat Burrell, but also of their hitter-friendly ballpark. On the other hand, the park doesn't do their pitchers any favors, and that bunch turned in the fourth-best ERA in the league.

The bad news about that: The top three were the Dodgers, Cubs and Brewers.

A lot will hinge on how Game 1 starter Yovani Gallardo fares for the Brewers. He's an exciting young pitcher, but he's only worked once since blowing out his knee in early May, and Wednesday afternoon marks his debut on a big stage. A good performance from him and a win in Game 1 means the Brewers only have to win behind Sabathia. Sounds simple, doesn't it?
Prediction: Phillies in five

Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are the class of the National League. Nobody else scored five runs a game. The Cubs scored 5.31. And they were second -- to the Dodgers -- in ERA. They won 97 games, five more than anybody else, and spent the entire year looking like this would finally be the year.

You might not have heard this but it has been a while since the Cubs have won the World Series. I think like at least 15 years or something. Listen carefully over the next few weeks. Someone on TV might mention it and you can get the story straight.

The Dodgers did lead the league in pitching, but they were 13th in runs scored. They won the incredibly weak N.L. West with an 84-78 record. They tied the Florida Marlins for the seventh-best record in the 16-team league. Keep the Marlins in mind when you think about how good the Dodgers are.

But things did change once they got Manny Ramirez in the big deadline trade. He joined the club on Aug. 1. At that point, they were 54-54 and averaging 4.17 runs per game. From that day forward, they averaged 4.63 runs per game. Ramirez energized the franchise and the fan base and carried them to the playoffs. But for all that, all the Dodgers did with Manny on board was go 30-24. Not exactly the 2007 Colorado Rockies.

If the Dodgers had played at that 30-24 pace over the 162-game schedule, they'd have won 90 games, one more than the Mets. And all anybody can say about the Mets is "What went wrong?"

To be fair, the Dodgers finished better than that. They went 19-8 following an eight-game losing streak in late August that looked at the time like curtains for them.

And they do have a pitcher's chance. Derek Lowe is the hottest pitcher in baseball -- two runs allowed in his last 36 and a third innings over six starts -- and he'll start twice if the series goes the distance. Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda have been very good. But Greg Maddux, the possible Game 4 starter, has been hit-and-miss, and former closer Takashi Saito, back from an injury in the last week of the season, has struggled.

And the Cubs have some pretty hot pitchers too. They can see Lowe with Rich Harden and raise with Ryan Dempster. Harden put up a 1.77 ERA after coming over from Oakland in a July trade. He gave up fewer than three runs 10 times in 12 starts. Dempster finished with a 2.96 ERA and allowed fewer than three runs in 10 of his 13 starts after the All-Star break.

The big question mark for Chicago is Carlos Zambrano, who threw a no-hitter on Sept. 14 but otherwise was awful down the stretch. Even counting the no-no, Zambrano's ERA since Aug. 1 is 7.28.

But still there is the Cubs offense, which is more than half a run better than the Dodgers' post-Manny-infusion offense. Chicago's balance and depth should be plenty to blow away a Dodgers team that finished strong, but isn't on the Cubs' level.
Prediction: Cubs in four


Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Angels
Almost completely ignored while the national media covered bathroom trips and hangnails in the A.L. East race, the Angels put up the best record in baseball by three games, becoming the first 100-game winners since the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals.

And now a tangent about 100-win teams: The last one to win the World Series was the 1998 New York Yankees. Over the next seven years, 1999-2005, 13 teams won 100 or more games. And now the Angels are the only team in the last three years to do it. Competitive balance!

Not only did none of those 13 triple-digit teams win the championship, only three even went to the World Series, the '99 Atlanta Braves, '03 Yankees and '04 Cardinals. Seven of the 13 lost in the League Division Series, the first round of the playoffs, the one starting Wednesday.

Here are the 100-game winners in the last 10 years, and what happened to them:

2005 St. Louis Cardinals, 100 wins, lost in NLCS
2004 New York Yankees, 101 wins, lost in ALCS
2004 St. Louis Cardinals, 105 wins, lost in World Series
2003 New York Yankees, 101 wins, lost in World Series
2003 Atlanta Braves, 101 wins, lost in NLDS
2003 San Francisco Giants, 100 wins, lost in NLDS
2002 New York Yankees, 103 wins, lost in ALDS
2002 Oakland A's, 103 wins, lost in ALDS
2002 Atlanta Braves, 101 wins, lost in ALDS
2001 Seattle Mariners, 116 wins, lost in ALCS
2001 Oakland A's, 102 wins, lost in ALDS
1999 Atlanta Braves, 103 wins, lost in World Series
1999 Arizona Diamondbacks, 100 wins, lost in NLDS

All of which has nothing to do with the Angels, of course. What they have is solid pitching and a better offense than you might think. They were 10th in the American League in runs scored at 4.72 a game, but in the 56 games they played after picking up slugger Mark Teixeira at the trading deadline, they averaged 5.09 runs a game, which would have put them fourth in the league, just behind Minnesota.

The Red Sox can at least match them on both hands. A funny thing happened after Boston traded away Ramirez. The Sox went from scoring 4.94 runs per game with Manny to scoring 5.79 without him. That's funny because it's an even bigger gain than the Dodgers got by adding Manny.

But the Red Sox closed the season in a bit of an offensive slump, and they're hurting. J.D. Drew, their best hitter in the second half, missed all of September with a bad back, and is trying to be ready for the playoffs. Mike Lowell and pitcher Josh Beckett are also banged up.

On April 22 Dustin Pedroia knocked in Jacoby Ellsbury with an eighth-inning double at Fenway Park to give the Red Sox a 7-6 win over the Angels in the first game of the year between the teams. They played eight more times the rest of the year and the Red Sox didn't win again. That'll change in this series. But I'm taking the 100-win team.
Prediction: Angels in five

Chicago White Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are a novelty, going from perennial doormathood to the Eastern Division title, but they're no fluke. They're good. They've got a better, deeper rotation than the White Sox and a solid bullpen once you get past the troubles of their closer, Troy Percival.

The Sox come in having won three straight do-or-die games against different teams. They beat Cleveland on the last day of the season Sunday to stay alive, beat Detroit Monday in a rainout makeup game to force Tuesday's playoff with Minnesota, then won that.

They're either hitting on all cylinders or emotionally wrung out. Unfortunately for us predictors, we won't know till they play Game 1 against the Rays. If they lose, they're wrung out, is how it works. You too can be an analyst.

More to the point, their pitching isn't quite as good or as deep as Tampa's, they're going to miss injured slugger Carlos Quentin, and, especially with Carl Crawford returning to the lineup, the Rays are going to run like mad on Pierzynski, who almost never throws anybody out.

For all the excitement of the last few days, the White Sox aren't that good. Over the 162-game schedule, they tied with the Twins for the fifth-best record in a 14-team league. They were one game worse than the Yankees. And all anybody can say about the Yankees is "What went wrong?"
Prediction: Rays in three

I realize I'm picking the team with the better record in all four series, which is boring. Sorry. I'm just boring sometimes.

That's great how you just said, "All the time." Really great.

Subsequent predictions
LCS: Cubs over Phillies, Rays over Angels
World Series: Rays over Cubs

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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