(Immediate side note - anyone else disagree with the "There's only one October" campaign? Isn't that disproven exactly 334 days later?)
So after less than a week (really, one of the faster LDS rounds I can remember), we're down to four teams. The best four teams? Maybe. The most deserving four teams? As of right now, certainly. And, with the exception of Tampa Bay, we some of the biggest market teams left, so there's definitely a surplus of baseball fans still very interested throughout the country.
Of the four LD series, three went four games and one was a sweep. For those GMs that argue a five game series isn't a fair assessment of a team's ability, I beg to differ. Who really thinks that the Angels and Cubs, owners of the best record in their respective league, would suddenly bounce back from their short series troubles and win their series in seven games? Sure the Angels began to show more life in the latter two games, but the same problems that hounded them all series (bad defense, inability to hit with RISP) again cost them their last game, and it should have cost them the game before, if it weren't for the Red Sox offense returning serve.
Of those four series, the Dodgers had to have looked the most convincing, with the Rays pretty close behind. I think if you put a gun to my head, I'd take these two to meet for the Fall Classic right now. While I'd love to put the short series with Cubs on their choke artist offense, credit must be given to the Dodgers pitching staff, who clearly entered the series with a gameplan and executed it almost flawlessly. Derek Lowe, who is most certainly pitching for another contract in the same way he did in 2004, was highly effective, save for his mistake to DeRosa. Billingsley, finally getting some national attention, made the Cub hitters look overmatched on practically every pitch and Kuroda just continued his season-long dominance over the opposing club. Having to deal with those starters (and still having rookie-phenom Clayton Kershaw and 350 game winner Greg Maddux waiting in the wings) and then having to deal with their bullpen proved far too difficult for the Cubbies' offense and will be difficult for any upcoming offense.
The Rays blew through the really-shouldn't-have-been-there White Sox with their 2008 M.O. - great starting pitching and situational offense. Each starter went at least 5.1 innings and three of the four gave up three runs or less. Garza was the lone culprit, who walked too many (four, three of which came around to score) and couldn't save himself. Some quick numbers to keep in mind - each of the three games the Rays won, they scored six runs and each Rays starter recorded exactly four strikeouts... a little weird, but it happened. The back end of their bullpen sure hasn't missed a beat being without a pure closer. Grant Balfour, the emotion-on-the-sleeve pitcher he is, has looked terrific, literally blowing his opponents away with gas and a slider that's been above average over his last several outings.
Their offense though has been, in a word, pesky. Other than BJ Upton's power resurgence and Evan Longoria's opening day, the Rays offense consistently rallied runs across the plate. All but three Rays drove in a run, and two of those players weren't even starters. They had four guys tally five or more hits in the series and they successfully swiped seven bags in eight attempts. That, ladies and gentlemen, is getting it done.
As for the series with the Red Sox, they seemingly have advantages in almost every facet. Their starting pitching is deeper, though not as shutdown dominant at the top (which Josh Beckett shows up will be a major key for this series), statiscally speaking, they had a much better bullpen, and their offense was much better in their short LDS. However, the Red Sox have been here before (four times in the last six years, actually). They know what it takes (starting pitching and defense, really) to win in October and have become very very good at it.
I see this series coming down to these three important things:
1) The health of Josh Beckett
We know what Jon Lester can and will do when he's given the ball in the postseason. We know what to expect from Dice-K (though the overall result is still up in the air). But with Josh Beckett, can he return to any sort of the form he was in during last year's postseason? After his one start versus the Angels, it certainly doesn't look promising. Beckett labored in every inning, surviving many situations where the Angels threatened to break the game open. He was fooling any batters, either, especially Mike Napoli. What made Beckett so unhittable last year was his dominant fastball setting up his breaking pitches that froze batter after batter. In Game 3, he had poor command of the breaking pitches and was only able to dial his fastball up to 93, maybe 94, not the 97-98 he had last postseason. Now, a 80% Josh Beckett is still better than any starter the Rays can throw, but my estimate from Game 3 had Beckett at about 60-65% of his normal self (not maxing out on velocity, missing location, being slow to cover first base). If the Red Sox can get 80% Josh Beckett, they have two studs at the top of their rotation that are almost certain to win at least three games. Without good Beckett, the pressure is back on Lester to win both of his, or else.
2) The Rays bullpen
The Rays bullpen, as I mentioned before, is really, really good. They have four capable relievers that have been getting it done night after night. They gave up exactly 1 (one) run in their four postseason games, while posting a 0.69 WHIP. Easily put, they are dominating batters late, which doesn't bode well for the Red Sox. Against the Angels, the Sox put five runs (of 18 total) on the board after the seventh inning, with three of those proving to be the winning runs. Also, the Sox enter the series with the knowledge that this bullpen has had their number all year -- a complete turnaround from the mentality they had against the Angels (Scott Shields and Francisco Rodriguez, in particular). If the Rays are able to get the quality starts from their starting pitchers they got all year against the Red Sox, this bullpen, even without the typical shutdown postseason closer, is going to be next-to-impossible to come back against.
3) The Red Sox 2-3-4
Remember Dustin Pedroia vying for the American League MVP? Seems like ages ago now, especially with his 1-17 showing against the Angels. Pedroia, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis combined to go 9-52 (.173) in those four games, each driving in one run a piece. If the Sox have any hopes of returning to the main October stage, these three need to pick it up and do so quickly. During the regular season, they accounted for almost half the runs scored against the Rays (35 RBIs). JD Drew, Jason Bay and Jed Lowrie each had a great series, but they cannot be expected to carry this team again. Jacoby Ellsbury has been everything the Sox could have hoped he'd be in the postseason (mainly, his October '07 form), continually setting the plate for a big inning, but he's been stranded more often than not thus far. Much like the question with Beckett, if the Sox don't get the normal production from these guys, it could be a quick series.
One other, last note -- it will be interesting to see how home-field shakes out. The Rays were the best home team during the regular season, with the Red Sox right behind them. In the playoffs, however, the Sox threatened to lose both home games, while Tampa steamrolled. The two teams traded home-field sweeps of the opposition until September, when the Rays eeked out two wins in Fenway with clutch hitting.
This series, right now, is tough to assess without knowing the pitching matchups, as Sox skipper Terry Francona has many options and variables in play. In my initial preview, I took the Sox over the Rays, because I'm a homer, so I'll stick to my guns on that, but I'll go more in depth once the matchups are posted.
For the National League, the Phillies did exactly what I had expected and came through with big hits - that is, except Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (combined 4-26) having now been here before. For the Phillies to even have a chance in this series, their hitters need to become even more aggressive at the plate. The Dodgers pitching staff hardly walks anybody and is boasting a 24:6 K/BB ratio in the playoffs, which does not bode well for the Utley-Howard-Burrell 3-4-5. Cole Hamels was simply brilliant in his only start (8 ip, 2h - could have gone the complete game if Manuel didn't have a man crush on Brad Lidge). The rest of the Phillies staff needs to continue to pound the strike zone and not issues walks, as the Dodgers offense, as I'm sure you've seen, makes walks count.
From the early outset, I like the Dodgers in this series in 6 games; however, the big game is Game 2. With Hamels no doubt pitching the first game, if Brett Myers can shutdown the Dodgers offense and send them back to LA in an 0-2 hole, the pressure builds on the young squad, something they really haven't dealt with in a while, or dealt well with in the past.
For now, let's let the terrific LD round settle and enjoy this, because, there's only one October.