Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome (back) to Postseason Baseball

What a great finish to a great regular season last night.

After blogging about the White Sox pitching, in my mind, being mediocre, Jon Danks stepped up huge, devising a terrific game plan against the Twins, holding them to a meager two hits. The M&M brothers went 0-fer. Ozzie couldn't have asked for a better performance - he only needed one inning of relief and Jenks was his '05 overpowering self. Even on the final out, which Brian Anderson made a great catch on, Jenks hit 100 mph. That's sick.

Amazing stat about the White Sox being the first team in history to finish a season with three wins against three different teams, in three straight days nonetheless. Does this change my mind about their series with Rays, which I blogged about yesterday? No. Makes me think they might take one game, but that would certainly be it.
Despite almost all of ESPN liking the Angels in five games, I still stick to my Rays -Red Sox ALCS that I predicted yesterday. If this does come to fruition, it would be the fifth all AL East ALCS since 1997. Now, onto the National League:

Chicago CUBS (97-64) vs. Los Angeles DODGERS (84-78)

2008 Regular Season Series: Cubs, 5-2

This is one of those perfect October baseball matchups. The best team in the league pitted against the hottest. Sure, the Dodgers emerged from the scrap heap that is the NL West to get into the playoffs with the least amount of wins since 2006. But remember, much like these Dodgers, that 2006 Cardinals team got hot at the right time and rode it to a championship. What makes this matchup so intriguing are the numerous matchups that will take place and I'm not even including Greg Maddux's triumphant return to the Windy City.

Let's start with the Cubbies. They are the American League shaped team misplaced in the National League. They boast several power hitters and have a middle of the order that drastically change a game in one inning. Staring down an inning where Soriano, Lee and Ramirez are expected is not an enviable position. In addition to these guys, the Cubs picked up a revujinated Jim Edmonds from the scrap heap, who went on to be his early 90s self, and they got a playing-beyond-his-years season from their rookie catcher, Geovany Soto, the sure-fire candidate for Rookie of the Year. Offensively, they ranked first in the NL in runs scored, total bases and OPS (1st for both slugging and OBP, respectively). They have average to slightly above average speed on the bases as well.

Complementing their offense, their starting pitching was also the best in the league, leading in ERA (3.75) and batting average against (.237). With the excellent mid-season trade for Rich Harden, their starters go four deep, and five when Jason Marquis decides to show up. In this series, they plan to start Ryan Dempster (17-6, 2.96 ERA) followed by Carlos Zambrano (14-6, 3.91), Rich Harden (5-1, 1.78 in 12 starts w/ CHC) and then Ted Lilly (17-9 4.09) if needed. That's three power arms to start a series. Dempster has actually been the best of bunch, overpowering hitters and mixing his pitches (plus-fastball, plus-slider, changeup) well. Zambrano has incredible stuff (witnessed in his no-hitter), but can be absolutely erratic, which affects his mental make-up and then loses it. I think Harden is going to the be key for this pitching staff in the postseason. He has experience with the Athletics and can have unhittable stuff. Last year, after Zambrano was faulty in Game 1, the Cubs were reeling. This year the depth will provide much more confidence for the squad. Middle relief is big concern for this team, but the backend of their bullpen has been lights out all season with Carlos Marmol, closer of the future, and Kerry Wood.

Now, the Dodgers. They entered the season with their usual blend of young talent and aging veterans, but were selling high on the idea of Joe Torre coming to manage them. Through the first half of the season, they rode their surplus of arms and sat one game back of the Diamondbacks before they reshaped their team completely. Acquiring Manny Ramirez provided them with easily the best offensive player in the NL West since Barry was cast away. And Manny provided them with more than they ever could have expected, hitting .396 with 17 home runs and over 50 RBIs (2nd player in MLB history to have 50+ RBIs with two teams in one season). With Manny now in their middle of their lineup, every other batter sees better pitches and becomes more selective. There's a reason the Dodgers went from being 13th in the NL in OBP before August to first in the league by far in September. Also aiding their offense for this series is the return of Rafael Furcal, who will bat leadoff. This adds to their already above average speed on the bases. Offensively, this team is very similar to recent Angels teams, where they have quick and capable batters that able to manufacture runs surrounding a slugger in the middle. Their biggest weakness offensively at this point is inexperience outside of Manny. Pitchers need to able to get the outs that they should and face Ramirez with no one on to limit the damage.

Getting back to the Dodgers' arms, they have a very formidable 1-2-3 in Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24, 2004 postseason warrior), Chad Billingsley (16-10, 3.14) and Hiroki Kuroda (9-10, 3.73). As a team, the Dodgers lead the league in ERA (3.68) and were second only to the Cubs in batting average against (.251). Lowe and Billingsley alone could win a short series, while Kuroda limited the Cubs to only one earned run over 15.1 innings against him this season (Manny-less, mind you). Unlike the Cubs, the Dodgers only need 5-6 good innings from their starters, as they bullpen is one of the best in the entire league. They boast several great arms in Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, closer Takashi Saito and rookie Clayton Kershaw, if they don't choose to start him in Game 4. To be effective against their arms, the Cubs need to go with Lowe's pitches and not try to place/pull them, or else it will be ground ball/double play city. To beat Billingsley, they need to jump on him early, as he is erratic starting most of his games; if they let him settle in, kiss the game goodbye. Kuroda seemingly is a smoke-and-mirrors guy, so the Cubs just need to be patient.

My analysis: If the Dodgers can continue to be patient with their at bats and get people on for Manny, he can carry them to the next round alone. However, I worry about their inexperience, especially against the Cubs' rotation depth. I expect the Cubs to actually split in Chicago, losing Zambrano's game, but then come back and sweep through Los Angeles on the arms of Harden and Lilly.

My prediction: Cubs in 4

Philadelphia PHILLIES (92-70) vs. Milwaukee BREWERS (90-72)

2008 Regular Season Series: 5-1

Welcome back to the postseason, Milwaukee. In one of the best stories of the year, the Brewers are finally in the postseason field for the first time since 1982, the second-longest such streak. The Brewers, riding the mid-season acquired arm of C.C. Sabathia surged past the Mets in the final two series to claim rights to the NL wild card, and thus, a date with the twice-reigning NL East champion Phillies. The last time these clubs met, the Brewers needed wins badly, but were swept out of Philadelphia in four games, outscored 26-7.

On paper, this series looks like a complete mismatch, sans Game 2 when the big man will be on the mound for the Brew Crew. They boast a ton of young talent, but as you can put together, none have postseason experience. The Milwaukee nine will be relying on the reigning AL Cy Young for everything he can give them. Rookie phenom Yovani Gallardo, who normally has great stuff, will be pitching Game 1 - just his second start since May 1 - followed by Sabathia and then anyone's guess. Some combination of pu-pu platter of Dave Bush / Jeff Suppan / Manny Parra / Seth McClung will go until CC can come back. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the Brewers' pitching staff has only one reliable option at this point in Sabathia. Their closer, Salmon Torres, has been horrific over the last month and no one else from the bullpen has really cemented themselves as the first one out of the pen. There's a reason the Brewers rode Sabathia on three days rest and nine innnings each time.

For the Brew Crew to be successful, they absolutely need to score runs. One run games do not suit them whatsoever. Ryan Braun has been everything the team could ask, delivering big hit after big hit. The Phillies will approach him very cautiously. Prince Fielder, on the other hand, has delivered big (both clutch and mammoth) hits all season, but has become very impatient in the waning weeks. Corey Hart, an Allstar this season, has become very inept, chasing slider-away pitch after pitch. While Ray Durham has provided incredible leadership and Craig Counsell provides experience, this lineup has too many weaknesses that will be exploited.

The Phillies, on the other hand, look unstoppable right now. Sure, they stumbled at the end a bit, but they have all the elements to be successful in October: potent offense, legitimate ace starter and closer and terrific speed. Also under their belt is the terrible postseason showing they had last year, where Howard, Utley and Rollins all looked overmatched. That experience allows them to expect and anticipate at-bats better. You better believe the Brewers are watching video of the Rockies' staff from last year on repeat. With Shane Victorino also being a cog in that offense, Howard was able to rake over the month of September (342, .848 slugging, 10 HR and 28 RBIs). One major weakness that does trouble this Phillies offense is that most of their power comes from the left side. This will aid Sabathia tremendously, as if he needed any more help.

Philadelphia's pitching is good, not great, and dependent upon major conditionals. Cole Hamels (14-10, 3.09) is the rock of the staff and will give Prince Fielder fits. After Game 1, things become interesting. The Phils definitely have the talent to make this a short series, with Brett Myers (10-13, 4.55), Joe Blanton (4-0, 4.20 in 13 starts for PHL) and Jamie Moyer (16-7, 3.71) following. All three pitchers have postseason experience and can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is also true. The Phillies get the Brett Myers they saw immediately following his mid-season promotion to the majors (six wins in nine outings), then they'll have a dominant 1-2 punch with a formidable 3-4 following them. If not, then the Brewers will be pesky. Another major question lies in the backend of their bullpen. Brad Lidge has returned to the elite this season, posting an insane 41-for-41 mark in save opportunities; howevever, everyone remembers what made him drop from the elite in the first place. Lidges' postseasons have not been a strong point and his mental makeup has to be called into question here. The real question is how much the change of scenery will affect him come the ninth inning in Game 5 in a one run game, 2-on, no outs.

My analysis: Philadelphia getting the quick bounce last year will help them tremendously this year, as their offense will settle in and continue to rake. Hamels will be the only game they win with pitching. I like Sabathia in Game 2, but can't picture the Brewers platter of starters escaping the Phillies' offense alive.

My prediction: Phillies in 4

So for those keeping track, I have a Rays-Red Sox ALCS and a Cubs-Phillies NLCS.

From there, I have to be a homer and continue to like the Red Sox, as their starting pitching and experience will lift them past the Rays in 6. I think the Cubs have too much pitching and that's what wins championships. I'll take the Cubs in 5.
Sox-Cubs World Series ... hell would have frozen over 5 years ago. Since the Red Sox don't lose to the National League in the World Series anymore, I'll take the Stockings in 4 with Kevin Youkilis taking the MVP. I'm such a homer.

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