First, thoughts on the week that was in the MLB playoffs:
– Bit of a disappointing division series in several ways- no instant classics, five game series or extra-inning games, but it??s impossible for playoff baseball to get you down. We had some entertaining close games like Game 2 of the Yanks-Tigers series, which might put an end to Mike Mussina??s career as a Yankee, and Game 1 of the Mets-Dodgers series, a confrontation that featured a huge Nomar double and a classic Dodger bullpen blowup.
– Biggest surprise came in the first game of the playoffs: Oakland beating Santana at home. Santana had one of the longest home winning streaks in the history of baseball, so light-hitting Oakland comes into town and scratches out enough runs to pull out a victory. The Twins lost that series on their own just as much as the A??s won, especially in the first two games. The Twins refused to have any strike zone discipline, didn??t wait long enough for Zito and Loaiza to make mistakes, and ended up hitting a few solo homeruns in the process without manufacturing runs like they usually do. The series was over when Hunter made the misplay in center. I mean, he rarely ever does something like that (besides the 2002 ALDS), and it came at a perfect time in the most crucial game.
– Biggest flop goes to our pals in the Bronx. Robinson Cano, whom I predicted to be the next Rod Carew, hit .133 and was a complete non-factor. Alex Rodriguez hit .071 and was dropped to eighth in the batting order. Johnny Damon grounded out to second more times than I can count. Torre makes the mistake of pitching Jaret Wright, a straight fastball pitcher who gives up an absurd amount of hits, especially on the road, instead of either Cory Lidle or Wang on short rest in Game 4. Plus, Wright throws roughly 270 pitches every five innings, which means more innings for the shaky Yankee bullpen in a close game. Did I mention Mariano Rivera did not pitch one freaking inning this series??
– I truly think the key to winning championships is pitching. The Padres have decent starting pitching and a decent bullpen. But their lineup is atrocious. Why didn??t I see this before? Their 4-5-6 hitters last night were Josh Bard, Russell Branyan and Mike Cameron. A lineup like that can only take you so far before falling flat on their asses. They decided the Division Series would be a proper time to do just that. Losing to Jeff Weaver at home was the ultimate killer- they needed to pick up that game in order to give themselves a great chance of coming home to San Diego in Game 5 with Peavy on the hill. If not for Branyan??s two-run double, the Cardinals would be the ones carrying around brooms. I??m stunned, frankly.
– Another point: We can look at the past Wild Card winners, sure, but this first round proves that going into the playoffs hot may not be a factor in winning. The Cardinals and Tigers were in the midst of apocalyptic chokes in the last two weeks of the season and end up dominating their series against teams with recent momentum. The playoffs are a new season. Speaking of that, Jim Leyland is an amazing manager and needs to win Manager of the Year. Speaking of awards, Frank Thomas not winning Comeback Player of the Year is downright atrocious.
– It seemed popular to forget about the Mets chances when Pedro and El Duque went down, but we all forgot some huge factors. 1) Their lineup is the best in the National League, and the best of the four teams remaining. The balance of speed, contact and power is unmatched in baseball today. 2) Their bullpen is extremely stable and reliable in the late games- they have Feliciano, Bradford and Wagner from the left side, and Mota, Hernandez and Heilman from the right side. Again, nobody can match that balance. The starting pitching is actually very good: John Maine has a .212 OBA and has been excellent in the second half (Pujols owns him though), Glavine pitched well in Game 2, and Trachsel/Bannister/Perez isn??t too shabby.
– Watching all of these former Red Sox in the playoffs is more frightening than finding out Rocky VI was being made. In Game 1 of the Padres-Cards series, you had Mark Bellhorn pinch-hitting and predictably struck out, then Todd Walker bat next. Later, Derek Lowe was starting Game 1 and Nomar was batting cleanup for LA with Grady Little in the dugout. If Pedro were healthy, my head would have exploded. Just a scary turn of events in the last three years.
Now onto the Championship Series preview. Let??s hope I do a little better than the DS predictions.
Tigers hitting- 822 R, 1510 H, 2445 TB, .276 BA, .781 OPS, 203 HR
Athletics hitting- 771 R, 1429 H, 2264 TB, .260 BA, .752 OPS, 175 HR
The Tigers offense looks to be off and running, while the Athletics struggle to score runs. With the help of some Frank Thomas dingers against Santana, excellent pitching performances and facing Brad Radke in Game 3, they were able to sweep. The Tigers pitching is much better top-to-bottom than Minnesota and will send a pitcher out there each game with an excellent chance to win, which means Oakland will need big contributions from players like Marco Scutaro and Mark Kotsay. Someone new has to play the role of hero and score the big run in a 4-3 win for Oakland to win this series. They evidently have no hope of out-slugging the Tigers, who showed their powerful bats against the Yankees. This leaves pretty much no doubt Detroit has the edge when it comes to putting up chunks of runs and winning with offense.
Mets hitting- 834 R, 1469 H, 2474 TB, .264 BA, .780 OPS, 200 HR
Cardinals hitting-781 R, 1484 H, 2382 TB, .269 BA, .769 OPS, 184 HR
This one is quite obvious. The Cardinals need to give Pujols help, as the Mets will be pitching around him to face the wounded Cardinals Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. There??s no way Ronnie Belliard hits .500 again, we can come to that conclusion. Like the A??s need to do, the Cardinals will likely be out-slugged in the NLCS but can match the homeruns with innings like the 6th they performed last night. They need to be patient at the plate and take walks, hit singles, timely doubles and hope Pujols gets on base in a big situation to change the course of the series. It??s bound to happen. The Mets just need to keep rolling. They have the firepower in their lineup with the best 3-4-5 in the game. They can steal bases. When Shawn Green is hitting doubles with ease, you know your team has it made.
Strong edge: Mets
Tigers starting pitching- Nate Robertson, Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman
Athletics starting pitching- Barry Zito, Esteban Loaiza, Danny Haren, Rich Harden
Both of these teams ranked in the top 5 in nearly every pitching statistical category during the regular year, a huge reason why they??ve made it to this stage. It??s hard to go against the Tigers at this point. Robertson had one bad inning in Game 1, Verlander made one bad pitch, and Rogers and Bonderman were spectacular against a tremendous offense. The A??s were great against Minnesota, but the Twins lineup is much weaker and they still have question marks. When will Barry Zito choke? Is Esteban Loaiza actually reliable? Is Haren ready to start a possible Game 7? Can Rich Harden come back in full force? As I said before the playoffs, Harden is the key. As of now, I have to give the edge to Detroit.
Slight edge: Tigers
Mets starting pitching- John Maine, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, Oliver Perez
Cardinals starting pitching- Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan. Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis
This one is tough to break down. I seem to think the Mets offense will destroy Weaver, Suppan and Marquis. I??m not as confident the Cardinals offense can handle Maine or Glavine. Both starting staffs have been decimated by injuries and poor performances this season, which means the series will likely be dictated by either an ace winning two games on his own, the bullpens or a run brigade. I seem to be leaning towards the bullpens. Carpenter has the ability to shut down the Mets with his filthy slider on the inside corner and primarily impeccable control. Basically, he needs to win two games.
Slight edge: Mets
Tigers bullpen- Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, Jamie Walker, Jason Grilli
Athletics bullpen- Huston Street, Kiko Calero, Justin Duchscherer, Joe Kennedy, Chad Gaudin
Both have shaky closers. Both have outstanding setup men. The difference lies mainly in the back end of the bullpen, where the Tigers possess that shutdown lefty in Jamie Walker and other contributors like the possibility of a Mike Maroth appearance, or Troy Percival (kidding). Actually, I lied. The difference is Detroit??s Joel Zumaya, who was clocked at 103 in Game 2. Two quality pens, nonetheless.
Slight edge: Tigers
Mets bullpen- Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Roberto Hernandez, Guillermo Mota, Chad Bradford, Pedro Feliciano
Cardinals bullpen- Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Tyler Johnson, Anthony Reyes, Brad Thompson
The Cardinals bullpen stepped up in a big way in the San Diego series, but I??m not confident they can match up with the Mets bullpen. Wainwright is a filthy closer, so luckily the Cards won??t have to deal with Looper in the ninth inning at Shea, but the comparison is still not very close. As I mentioned before, the balance of lefty/righty in the Mets pen is essential to a World Series run and they possess that luxury. The Cardinals are getting there with Tyler Johnson, but not quite.
Strong edge: Mets
Did anyone see the Tigers celebration Saturday? Thought so. Edge: Tigers and Mets
If any team can make Frank Thomas happy, they win. Edge: Athletics and Mets
Team with most at stake
The Mets have the city in their palms, now they have the chance to keep it. Edge: Athletics and Mets
I??ll go with the World Series experience in this case. Strong edge: Tigers and Cardinals
The A??s and Cards can flash the leather. Slight edge: Athletics and Cardinals
Final thoughts: The Tigers and Mets seem to win most categories, but these series will definitely be entertaining, close, nail-biters, the games we were sadly missing in the previous round. All four teams have exciting ballparks anxious for a trip to the World Series. The ALCS will be filled with young, excellent starting pitching and the NLCS could be a battle of the bats. This is October baseball at its absolute finest.
Detroit over Oakland in seven games
New York over St. Louis in six games
First, thoughts on the week that was in the MLB playoffs: