Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Welcome (back) to Postseason Baseball.

Apologies for not weighing in once over the last month or so. I've been traveling, taking time off and looking to the future. My travels took me to Arizona for a Diamondbacks game and The Grand Canyon and then into the perpetual industrial light show that is Las Vegas. My time in Phoenix, seeing a Dbacks - Giants game, gave me incredible first hand insight to National League baseball amidst a division race, and to be honest, one could hardly tell this was happening. The usual small ball was still there, but for a team that had just been whiplashed by the Dodgers in the standings, the Dbacks played with such little enthusiasm and the fans were just as lacadazical. All this made my appreciate life in Boston, especially during a pennant chase. The vigor on all of the Sox players' faces when they run out of the dugout for both warmups and the first time they take the field; the excited nervousness that each fan exudes, while he or she too takes their place for the game for the first time; the way both Landsdowne street and Yawkey Way literally buzz hours before the first pitch up until well after the last -- all these define September and October baseball in Boston.

So with Fall baseball upon us, I want to run through the 8* teams left playing, give my two cents and find us a winner. (*- writing this article at 9 am PST on 9/30/08, the last playoff team has yet to be determined (between CHW/MINN)). Here is the American League, with the National League to follow tomorrow:

Boston RED SOX (95-67) vs. Los Angeles ANGELS of Anaheim (100-62)
2008 Regular Season Series: Angels, 8-1

By now, we should all know the deal - the Red Sox have the Angels number in the Fall, but the Halos beefed up their team this year and took eight of nine meetings between the two postseason rivals in the 2008 regular season. Despite being the unusual small ball offense in the AL, the Angels powered up and outscored the Sox, 61-33 during those meetings, scoring six or more runs in seven of the games. The SoCal-ians were able to hit .305 as a team against Boston, stealing 10 bases in 11 games, while socking 40 extra base hits, doing most of this damage in Beantown (5 of 8 wins), a place that is their usual dying ground.

Some might be quick, however, to attribute these outbreaks to the Red Sox staff, as both Dice-K (0-1 10.80 ERA) and Lester (0-0 7.20 ERA), 18 and 16 game winners, respectively, had some of their worst starts against them. And yes, even Josh Beckett, amidst his shaky 2008 campaign, was 0-2 with a 7.43 ERA himself against the Halos. On the other side, the Angels staff wasn't tremendously better, but just a lot more situationally effective. Jon Lackey came within two outs of a no hitter in Boston, while Joe Saunders stymied the Sox offense over his two starts.

But, the biggest issue with this series for me is the timing of these games. All 11 meetings had taken place by the trading deadline, before both clubs had become their present selves. The Red Sox were enduring turmoil with Manny Ramirez, who had one foot out the door, while the Angels were still adding in Mark Teixiera, a perennial Gold Glover and Silver Slugger. Crazy enough though, since their last meeting, the Red Sox have played better baseball, ending the season on a 34-19 run, while the Angels actually played .600 ball, about 20 points below their season average.

So with all that said, we enter a best-of-5 between the two teams. Josh Beckett being pushed back due to injurt actually helps the Sox in this scenario. Beckett, who has been the Sox third best starter all year (though his last few outings, his stuff has returned to being ace material) will pitch the crucial Game 3 now, where the home team will either be up 2-0 looking for the close out, down 0-2 with the season on the line, or tied 1-1 in the pivot game. Lester, the team's true ace this year, will pitch Game 1, Dice-K, who is 9-0 on the road, in Game 2. Thanks to Mike Scioscia's decision to start the series on Wednesday, there will be a day off in between Games 1, 2 and 3, meaning Jon Lester is available to pitch Game 4, if need be, where his 11-1 record of 2.49 ERA speaks for itself. This indeed puts the pressure on Anaheim to make sure they win their home games, or else they return to Boston, where the home town nine had the second best home record in the league, to face Beckett and Lester back-to-back.

My analysis: If the Angels starters are able to get through the Red Sox offense (second in the league) and into their own bullpen, this could be a short series. However, the Angels' offense has become incredibly inconsistent and impatient, so if the Sox starters are able to work counts and go deep into games, nullifying the Sox middle relief, I like the Red Sox to steal one in Anaheim. Coming back to Fenway 1-1, the Red Sox won't lose, especially to the Angels.

My prediction: Sox in 4

Chicago WHITE SOX / Minnesota TWINS (88-74) vs. Tampa Bay RAYS (97-65)
2008 Regular Season Series: Tampa Bay over Chicago, 6-4; Tampa Bay and Minnesota, 3-3

I couldn't wait the extra five hours for the 163rd game of the season, so I'm going ahead and deciding this series. (Quick note/rant: Why does Chicago host the one-game playoff based upon the coin flip? The Twins took the season series, 10-8. The White Sox are 1-8 at the Metrodome, while the Twins are 2-7 at US Cellular. If I'm a Twins fan, something doesn't seem fair here.)
The Tampa Bay Rays, the season's feel good story, actually enter this series as big favorites over the scrappy Central teams, and they deserve to. Aside from actual postseason experience, Joe Maddon's club is pretty close to complete - they hit for power, can manufacture runs, have above average starters and a great bullpen. Without Troy Pervical, who was shaky at best, they lack a legitimate closer though.

The White Sox for the most part have been an abberation all year. They played about .500 ball for the first two months and then played 14 games over .500 for the next three, amassing a small lead along the way. They did so on the wings of their situational offense (Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye and Alexi Ramirez), top heavy rotation (Gavin Floyd, Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle), and defensive grit (Orlando Cabrera, Nick Swisher and adding Junior along the way). Though, the surgence of Paul Konerko and Jim Thome's bats helped as well. Then, with the team clicking and showing signs of hope for the postseason, they managed one good inning in the Metrodome for what was then considered their final showdown with the Twins, dropping all three games and their division lead along with it. If this team does make it in, they certainly have a potent offense and decent pitching. However, their offense includes a bunch of free swingers (73 K's against Rays pitching in 344 ABs) and almost no speed (25th in SB), as they led the league in having guys doubled up, despite showing an affinity for getting walks. The Rays pitching thrives on this, especially the power arms of Kazmir and Garza.

The Twins are a completely different beast. Despite trading away their ace in Johan Santana, losing cornerstone and gold glover Torii Hunter to the Angels, losing Matt Garza and Carlos Silva and starting a slew of rookie/2nd year players, they managed to finish the season in a tie for first with 88 wins. The Minnesotans never trailed in the Cental by more than three games all season and used their home field to their advantage, springboarding past the ChiSox in the second to last series of the year. In a real change of pace, the Twins offense is what carried the team this year through thick and thin. As a team, they're fourth in the league in runs scored (829) and tied for third with the Red Sox for batting average (.280). With the 2006 MVP, Justin Morneau, carrying providing the power (another great year - .302, 23, 129) and the 2008 AL batting champion, Joe Mauer (.330, becoming the first catcher to lead the AL in batting twice), remaining one of the toughest outs in baseball, the Twins have one of the top 3-4 in the playoffs. Rookies Carlos Gomez and Denard Spann have provided up the team's speed, accounting for exactly half of the team's 102 stolen bases. They can certainly manufacture runs, but aside from Morneau, they seriously lack power (2nd to last in the league in HR). The team's usual strength, their pitching, has been mediocre as a whole for the season. They were finally smart enough to bring Francisco Liriano up from the minors (6-1, 3.70 ERA in 11 starts since rejoining the team) and they've been pleasantly surprised by Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker's performances, but they lack that shut-down top of the rotation starter that Santana had provided. While it is incredibly refreshing to see a team like the Twins continue to succeed with their small market, I don't see them having a chance against the Rays, even with them have the fourth best home record (53-28).

My analysis: I see the Rays being too consistent through with both their lineup and rotation to succumb to either of the Central's teams. The Rays have the pitchers to overpower most of both lineups, while neither Central team can boast the same in return. The Rays are nearly unbeatable at home. The Central's only chances are to jump on a starter early and pile it on, or attempt a late-inning comeback against the Rays' backstop. I realistically don't see any of this happening.

My prediction: Rays in 3.