October 2008

ALCS Predictions: The New Postseason Kings

PapiTwin.jpgHow quickly have we forgotten 2004 and 2007?  After watching the media coverage of the ALCS that begins on Friday night in Tampa Bay, there has been almost an overwhelming consensus that the upstart Rays will dethrone the defending-champion Red Sox and reach the first World Series in franchise history (of course, every Ray victory has some sort of historical significance these days!).  Not so fast, people…

Let’s look at this series a game at a time.  The series opens in Tropicana Field, where the Rays have been nearly a completely different than they are at home, but who really thinks the Rays will win both of those first two home games against the playoff-savvy Sox?  Game 1 pits Daisuke Matsuzaka (18-3, 2.90) against James Shields (14-8, 3.56), while Game 2 is Josh Beckett (12-10, 4.03) vs. Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49).  I’d actually favor the Sox in both games, but let’s say (for home-field advantage sake) that the series is even when it moves back into Fenway.

This is where things are sure to get interesting, as it is the classic case of “postseason aura” (which the Red Sox have finally wrestled away from the Yankees) vs. “young team that isn’t intimidated” (the Rays have never experienced this situation before, so how can they be too overwhelmed?).  In that scenario, however, I will take the most experienced team any day of the week.  Although the pitching matchups in Game Three, Jon Lester (16-6, 3.21) vs. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70), and Game Four, Tim Wakefield (10-11, 4.13) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38), perhaps swing a little bit toward the Rays (at least compared to the first two games), I’ll still take the experienced hurlers over the green ones.  Even if the series is 2-2 after four games, the pitching matchups will be who has the best bullpen, and what starters can come back effectively on short rest.  All four Sox starters are battle-tested, while all the Rays are first-timers.  As a Twins fan, I would not feel too confident on a guy like Matt Garza coming back in a game seven facing, say, Tim Wakefield.

Offensively both clubs can score runs.  In fact, I think the only way Tampa Bay can win this series is if they completely outscore the BoSox, and by a large margin at that.  However, the Boston lineup has developed a habit of producing in the clutch, with guys like David Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Jason Bay, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, and some guy you would never expect (Jedd Lowrie?!) providing the back-breaking hits to the opposition.  I thought that the departure of Manny Ramirez would really hurt Boston come postseason time, but Manny’s replacement, Jason Bay, has performed admirably after escaping Pittsburgh.

My “official” prediction, then, is for Boston to defeat Tampa Bay in six games.  The Rays have had a great ride, but I think that the playoff experience of nearly every Boston player will be too much for the scrappy Rays to overcome.  However, I would expect to see many close, hard-fought games.  Whereas the Yankees of old developed their “mystic and aura” in the playoffs by crushing opponents, the Red Sox have won in the playoffs by getting the late-inning clutch hits.

NLCS Prediction: Phils Keep Fightin’

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Well, that sure turned out well for me (as yours truly predicted a Cubs-Brewers NLCS).  Before I “analyze” (which nowadays seems to be code for “predict wrong”) the correct NLCS matchup, however, lets take a quick look at how each team advanced out of the first round:

-The Los Angeles Dodgers stunned the baseball world by sweeping the heavily favored Chicago Cubs, who were by far the best team in the National League all season long.  The Dodgers pretty much dominated every aspect of the season, outscoring the Cubbies 20-6 overall in the three-game sweep.

-The Philadelphia Phillies beat the Milwaukee Brewers on the strength of their starting pitching, getting fantastic starts from Cole Hammels, Brett Myers (who defeated the seemingly untouchable C.C. Sabathia), and Joe Blanton.  The Philly pitching staff held the Brew Crew to just a .206 series average (including just 1 home run).

So, this Thursday night, the Dodgers will open the best-of-seven series in Philly.  Personally, I will admit that I don’t know a whole lot about either team, as I don’t follow the NL nearly as much as I should.  However, I was very impressed by what I saw from the Phillies in their series against the Brewers.  Over the last decade, the Phils (at least in my mind) have had a reputation of never being able to advance deep into the postseason, whether it be being beaten in late-season play or in the ALDS.  This time, though, at least they have cleared that hurdle, and now I think they are poised for the World Series.  They can pitch with anybody (and I would say pitch better than LA), and their bats, guys like Rollins, Howard, Burrell, and Utley, are usually difficult to contain.

Of course, the other perspective on this series is that the Dodgers are a white-hot club right now, one that has been pitching lights-out AND outscoring opponents by multiple runs at the same time.  However, I think the difference maker will be that the Philly offense will be more difficult to contain than the Cubs’ hitters.  From my (albeit limited) experience, the Cubs have the type of lineup that, while it can score many runs, can be worked through by a solid starter, which is exactly what happened to them against LA.  Philly, though, has hitters (mentioned above) with proven track records that I think will step up in the big series.

So, at least to me, this series will hinge on the productivity of Philadelphia’s offensive attack.  If they can score a decent amount of runs, which I think they will, their pitching is good enough to hold LA down, resulting in a 4-1 dominating series win.  If the Phillies’ offense struggles, though, LA has a very good chance of putting runs on the board in bunches and making this a very close series.

As much as I would like to see a Red Sox/Dodgers World Series (with the whole Manny Ramirez and Joe Torre in Boston connection), I don’t think that the Dodger Blues will hold up their end of the bargain.  The Sawx, on the other hand…

Heads You Win, Tails I Lose

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Before looking back at the 2008 Minnesota Twins (as well as discussing the current playoff situations), I first have to comment on something that has generated a bit of controversy of late: the practice of flipping a coin to determine tiebreaker scenarios.

First, however, I want to say that I am NOT in any way, shape, or form blaming the Twins’ loss to the Chicago White Sox on home field advantage.  The Twins were out-hit (barely) and out-pitched (barely), but we were beaten fair and square and I tip my hat to the Sox for doing so.

That being said, however, the process of determining a ballpark for a tiebreaker is still wrong.  Why is head-to-head record not used?  To put the fate of the most crucial game of the season (at least to that point) for both teams involved up to a 50-50 chance just doesn’t seem right to me.  Perhaps if the head-to-head record is tied then a coin-flip is needed, but NOT until that point.  Again, I’m not complaining here, but I think the Twins would have won that tiebreaker in the Metrodome, while the Sox would have (and did) win it at “The Cel”.  To have that determined by a coin flip…ridiculous.

The best example I can use for this is the old determination of home field advantage in the World Series.  Before 2003, the AL and NL just rotated that advantage (key word) each year.  Again, stupid.  Personally, I loved the idea of making the All-Star game the determination of World Series home field (as it also serves the purpose of having the All-Star game mean something), but I also wouldn’t have objected to an NFL-like scenario, where the team with the best record gets that advantage.

Perhaps this is something that can be addressed by MLB brass in the offseason, as it really needs to be changed (and not just because my team lost, either).

Playoff Notes:

-So, C.C. Sabathia can lose.  Of course, the Phils are still the Phils (I like to call them the Minnesota Vikings of the baseball world), so the Brewers are still in it.

-I still think the Angels will defeat the Red Sox.  Whereas in past years the Angels lived and died on the performance of John Lackey, they now have Ervin “Pitching Like Johan “Santana and Joe Saunders waiting in the wings.

-The biggest surprise so far has been the Dodgers’ performance against the Cubs.  The “Team of Destiny” Cubs are now on the brink of elimination.

One More Win

ChewCud.jpgAt the end of each Minnesota Twins baseball season, it leaves a bit of a hole in my life, as I have spent so much time devoted to the cause.  All those nights (or afternoons) spent cheering on the hometown boys, and now I know that the next time I will see them winter will be over, hopefully I will have survived it (no easy feat here in MN!), and spring will be dawning anew.

This season, however, leaves an especially strange emptiness in my sports conscience, however, as it is the first time since the Twins returned to competitiveness (roughly 2001) that they have been eliminated so late in the season without making the playoffs.  A quick look:

2001- Got out to a big leader, but eventually were caught and passed (on the run) by Cleveland in early September.

2002- Eliminated in ALCS.

2003- Eliminated in ALDS.

2004- Eliminated in ALDS

2005- Weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until mid-September, but never really made a hard charge either (always 4-5-6 games back).

2006- Eliminated in ALDS.

2007- Eliminated from playoff contention in very early September.

The reason I bring this up, is because it really affects the way I view the rest of the MLB playoffs.  To me, a successful season involves making the playoffs…once you are their, it is truly a crap-shoot.  So, if the Twins make the playoffs and get eliminated, I never get too down (or, at least not stay down for too long).  However, I go through a little bit of a “retraction” period each time the Twins don’t make the playoffs.  For about a week or so after they were eliminated from playoff contention (’01, ’05, and ’07), I didn’t follow them nearly as close as I once did (as it didn’t seem to matter as much).  Eventually, of course, I would come to my senses and cheer them on to whatever finish intended for them, and by that time I would be pumped for the playoffs to see meaningful baseball again.  This year’s experience, then, is so different: there really was no time between the Twins getting eliminated and the playoffs beginning.  Thus, I am finding it a bit difficult to get excited about the playoffs when the sting of the loss to the ChiSox is still so fresh.  This feeling will probably pass come AL/NL CS time, but for now I will probably be following the playoffs at an arm’s length.

Of course, what hurts more than the one-game playoff loss is the realization that we blew it for ourselves.  During that horrendous road trip, just think of how many times the Twins should have won a game during the late innings, only to see the starting pitcher or bullpen (most likely) blow it.  Then, once the pitching great straightened out, the offense went completely silent the final week of the season against Kansas City, when just a few more runs would have the team sleeping in Tampa Bay tonight.

For the next month (or however long it takes), then, I am going to examine the 2008 Minnesota Twins on a position-by-position basis, touching on things like what went right (and how to carry that over to 2009), what went wrong (and how to fix them before 2009), and how we might stack up with the pertinent competition come April ’09.

To conclude, I would just like to say that I DO NOT believe this season was a “lost cause” by any means.  We came into the season with questions on both sides of the ball, and most of them were answered in a big way (especially the starting pitching and young hitters)…a positive way.  Although I said above that I consider a playoff experience to define a successful season, the Twins really weren’t that far away…one more win, actually.

Playoff Notes:

-Boy, my predictions sure are turning out well so far.  Unless the Angels pull off a big comeback against Boston in the late inning(s), each team that I predicted to lose their respective series so far (Boston, Philly, and the Dodgers) will have won Game One.  You can almost expect a White Sox victory tomorrow…!

ALDS Predictions

AmericanLeagueLogo.jpgNow that the Chicago White Sox are the final entree into the AL playoffs (tear), here are my predictions for the ALDS:

Boston Red Sox vs. Anaheim Angels: I’ll take the Angels in four games for this series.  The Halos have easily been the best AL team the entire season, and have been resting up for October baseball for weeks.  True, the Red Sox have good pitching (Beckett, Daisuke, Lester), but lingering injuries are a big issue for them.  Personally, I’d take Lackey, Santana, and Saunders any day.  Offensively, the Sox know how to score runs, but who knows how they will react to a non-Manny Ramirez postseason (i.e. can Jason Bay or someone else step up in the clutch?).  Besides 2002, when they won the World Series, the Angels’ postseasons have been doomed by an inability to score runs.  That’s why guys like Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter were brought in, to pair with Vlad the Destroyer and a deep lineup that can beat you out of any slot.

Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays: Rays in four.  No, I don’t like the Rays just because their opponent is the sworn enemy of my Twins.  I just think that Chicago really isn’t that great of a team (I think I would have picked the Twins to lose to TB as well).  Both teams can pitch, but Tampa Bay’s offense is better built to score runs in the pitching-dominated postseason…Chicago’s sluggers will strike out too much.  The big factor in this series, though, is the first two games being played in Tampa, where the Rays have been nearly unbeatable.  This could easily be one of those series where the home team wins every game, but I think TB can pick one off in the Windy City to win earlier than that.

Playoff Notes:

-Philadelphia beat Milwaukee earlier today thanks to the strong pitching of Cole Hammels.  Of course, Mr. Automatic Win (C.C. Sabathia) is on the mound for the Brewers in Game Two, so this series will be even very soon. 

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