Results tagged ‘ Playoffs ’

RP: You Are The Weakest Link…Goodbye?

nathanreview.jpgAlthough the 2008 Minnesota Twins season was effectively ended on a Jim Thome home run in game number 163, the season realistically slipped away during the month of August, when the bullpen inexplicably failed to record any key outs (even Joe Nathan included, for a time) and lost game after game in the late innings.  Any major league manager will tell you that any competitive team needs to have at least a decent bullpen, and right now that is about the only weak link (albeit a major weakness) for the Twins to potential shore up over the offseason.  A quick look at how the major relievers fared in ’08:

Joe Nathan (67.7 IP, 39 SV, 1.33 ERA): Despite a shaky spell in mid-August, Nathan was by and large the most dominant closer outside of Anaheim’s Francisco Rodriguez for the majority of the season.  No reason to be concerned here.

Matt Guerrier (76.3, 5.19): After Pat Neshek went down with a season-ending injury, Guerrier stepped up as an ace setup man, bridging the gap to the dominant Joe Nathan.  Alas, Guerrier completely crumbled as the season progressed, getting to the point where he was pretty much “off limits” in crucial games down the stretch.  His mindset is probably what needs the most soothing heading into ’09, as he was really messed up at the end of this year.

Dennys Reyes (46.3, 2.33): Reyes turned in a decent season out of the pen (his numbers are tricky, as he rarely throws to enough batters per inning to factor into the earned runs), but needs to work on one crucial area: control.  When facing good hitters in pressure situations, Reyes would often throw terrible wild pitchers (ones Joe Mauer wouldn’t have a chance at stopping) and letting runners move up.  So, batters would then key on the strikes and blast them, as Reyes would practically have to throw the ball right down the middle to be confidant of getting it in the strike zone.

Jesse Crain (62.7, 3.59): Crain can throw harder than any of the Twins’ current middle relievers, but still completely wilts in pressure-packed situations (think of LaTroy Hawkins trying to close in 2001).  He far and away led the team in walk-off hits given up, due (like Reyes) to shoddy control, allowing batters to tee off on the pitches thrown down the pipe to prevent walks.  The one hope for Crain is that ’08 was his first season back from arm surgery, so perhaps he was still just getting himself back into playing condition (although I don’t think so).

Craig Breslow: (38.7, 1.63): All in all, Breslow (acquired in mid-season from the Cleveland Indians) was probably the most consistent reliever of the bunch.  He didn’t pitch many innings, but got the job done more often than not.

As if those less than thrilling reports weren’t bad enough, three more Twins relievers (Brian Bass, Juan Rincon, and Eddie Guardado) turned out to be complete busts, with no chance of returning in 2009 (Bass and Rincon are already gone).

There is, however, at least some hope on the horizon.  Pat Neshek, the side-winding righty that is so difficult to figure out, will be back in ’09, while young Jose Mijares impressed many people in crucial late-season 2008 action.  If those guys can come back strong, perhaps the Reyes’, Crain’s, and Guerrier’s of the world can better settle into their own specific roles.

Playoff Notes:

-Is there anyone alive out there right now who DOESN’T think the Boston Red Sox are going to advance to the World Series by beating the Rays tonight?!  Here is the starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester (16-6, 3.21) vs. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70).  The Sox are just following their typical playoff pattern…dominate the ALDS, come from way behind in the ALCS, then dominate the World Series.  Will it continue?  I think so.

CF: Spick and Span? Not With Go-Go.

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When Torii Hunter (arguably the most popular Twin since their rise to prominence in 2001) left for the Anaheim Angels via free agency after the 2007 season, a gap hole was left in center field at the Metrodome.  After an intense Spring Training competition for the job between Carlos Gomez (acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade), Denard Span (the heir apparent to Hunter’s job until he struggled in the minor leagues), and Jason Pridie (a cast-off from the Rays who had a great spring).  Although Span seemed the more polished of the three come April, “Go-Go” Gomez was named the starter due to his almost unbelievable speed and the excitement he brought to the club and their fans on a daily basis.

For the first few months of the season, Go-Go was indeed the most exciting player on the team, whether it was streaking to catch balls out in the field or flying around the basepaths after driving the ball into the gap.  As the season stretched on, however, pitchers began to learn how to pitch to the rookie Gomez, and the strikeouts and terrible at-bats began piling up.  At one point, Ron Gardenhire considered benching the fiery youngster (after dropping him from 1st to 8th or 9th in the order), but Carlos likely saw his job saved when Michael Cuddyer went down with an injury, and Span (the guy who would have taken over in CF) came up to replace him instead.

Gomez did finish the season on a high note, and his stats are respectable for essentially a first-year player: 577 AB, 79 R, .258 BA, 33 SB.  However, he also struck out a near Twins-record 142 times and also was prone to defensive lapses in CF from time to time.  His blazing speed and cannon arm more often than not made up for his mistakes, but too many times would a ball roll right under his legs or he would juggle the ball at a crucial moment.

Of course, Gomez would still be penciled in as the starting CF in 2009 if not for the emergence of Span (who will be moved back to his natural position when Cuddyer returns next year).  During the 2008 season, Span manned the leadoff spot in the order like no Twin has done since Shannon Stewart, working deep into counts, drawing walks, and spraying the ball all over the field.  In 347 at-bats, Span hit .294 with 70 R, 50 BB, 102 H, and 18 SB.  Whereas Gomez struggled in the pressure of the leadoff spot, Span thrived.  Defensively, Span made some of the most athletic catches ever seen in the Metrodome, and also has a rifle arm.

So, with Cuddyer (and his shiny, long-term contract) coming back to man RF in 2009 (as he should), it should be an interesting battle for the centerfield spot.  Whereas Span seems to be ready right now, Gomez is a remarkable young talent whose potential is the teflon roof.  Knowing Gardy, each player will get their share of ABs in 2009, although a riskier move would be to deal one of them for a relief pitcher that the club so desperately needs (to be discussed later).

Playoff Notes:

-Perhaps it is time I stop doubting the Rays, as their 13-4 crushing of the Red Sox tonight leaves them one game away from the World Series.  I still think the series will need to go back to Tampa to be concluded, but now the Red Sox are up against the wall and will find it extremely difficult to beat the young Tampa club three times in a row.

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.

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