MLB Playoff Points (and Picks)
With three of the four divisional series set, let’s use a Q+A format to assess each team and its opponent in the first round of the playoffs.
Yankees at Indians
How did the Indians get here? With pitching. There was a lot of speculation that the Indians pitching staff would be woefully insufficient for a prospective contender in 2007. Then C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona combined to win 38 games with a 3.15 ERA, and finished the season as the indisputable top-two in the league. Rafael Betancourt posted a 1.47 ERA in 68 appearances as the primary setup man to closer Joe Borowski, who saved 45 games in 53 chances. As a staff, Cleveland gave up the third-fewest runs (704) in the AL, and was ranked third in team ERA (4.05).
How did the Yankees get here? By bashing. The Yankees offense produced 968 runs in ’07, by far the most in MLB, while also leading the AL in home runs (201) and batting average (.290). In the middle of a lineup where every guy hit for power and average, Alex Rodriguez had one of the most prolific across-the-board individual seasons of all-time. The Yankees pitching staff cleaned itself up over the course of the campaign, but it was the Bombers bombing that represented the impetus of their dominance from mid-summer on.
Who are the X-factors in this series? There’s no question that Cleveland’s offense and New York’s pitching staff will be on the clock in this ALDS. Remember, the Indians were supposed to be scoring runs in bunches this season. However, their two key cogs, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, both experienced major drop-offs in production from a year ago. If Cleveland is to stand a chance going swing for swing with the Yanks, Hafner and Sizemore will have to step it up. On the flip side, if those left-handed hitting sluggers decide to turn it on the Yankees are going to need guys coming in in big spots to get them out. For this reason the pressure will be on Joba Chamberlain (who’s been nasty since his call-up) and Ron Villone (the Yanks’only lefty in the pen) to get the ball to Mariano Rivera, something the Yankees have had difficulties doing the last few postseasons.
Who wins and why? Yankees in five. I’m just not sold on the back end of Cleveland’s staff in any kind of series with the Yankees bats. Sabathia and Carmona will give the Indians a chance to win games in the late innings but against the Yankees it’s the last six outs that are always the toughest to get. There are too many good and patient hitters in that lineup to allow Cleveland’s aces to be throwing into the eighth and ninth inning, which means Borowski (and his 5.07 ERA) will have to play a deciding role. That’s not a good thing for the Tribe.
Angels at Red Sox
How did the Angels get here? By playing their ball. They score quite a few runs (822; fourth in the AL) given their lack of power (123 home runs; 28th in MLB). What they do is move runners; steal bases; stretch doubles into triples; hit and run. In a word, they’re manufacturers. By being aggressive and forcing the issue they mass-manufacture runs and are good at it. They win close ballgames because they have the ability to hit a single, steal a base, advance on a grounder and score on a fly ball. They’ve shown this style to be uniquely theirs in the AL, which is how they consistently win games.
How did the Red Sox get here? With starting pitching. Josh Beckett has been superb, and the Cy Young of the American League if I had a vote. As a whole, Dice-K’s first season in the bigs was successful. Most were predicting him to be in the neighborhood of 200 innings and 15 wins and he won 15 games in 204 innings. 13 of those wins came before August 11, which would indicate that he ran out of gas down the stretch. But he also may have been pacing himself, as his last three starts were solid after a month during which he got hit very hard. Curt Schilling spent some time on the DL but always gave the Sox a chance to win ballgames. And Tim Wakefield matched his career high with 17 wins.
Who are the X-factors in this series? The Angels are going to need John Lackey and Scott Shields more than ever. They are a banged up team right now offensively. Lackey is their ace and Shields gets them to Francisco Rodriguez. Both have been battered by the Sox this year (Lackey’s ERA against Boston this year is 8.38; Shields’ is 8.10), and if that doesn’t change the Angels will be headed home quickly. For the Red Sox look no further than Manny Ramirez. During Manny’s vacancy David Ortiz came alive and certainly appears like he’s going to carry that into October (especially in light of the cortisone shot he received in his ailing knee). If Manny regains his power stroke and thus re-assumes his role as half of the fiercest hitting-tandem in baseball, the Sox will coast.
Who wins and why? Sox in four. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not fond of starting to set up a playoff rotation and resting key personnel for postseason play a full two weeks before clinching anything. BUT…it sure looks like Terry Francona knew exactly what he was doing when he put eight and nine days between starts for his horses while giving days off to virtually every regular player, all with the Yankees breathing down the Sox’ backs. Through his moves Tito basically said: “screw it, if we have to sacrifice the division in the name of lining up our staff and getting key guys healthy, gimme that wild card and we’ll run with it.” Turns out they not only achieved their long term goals but still managed to eek out home field throughout the playoffs. That really kills Anaheim’s chances, because their brand of baseball is not conducive to Fenway Park.
Cubs at Diamondbacks
How did the Cubs get here? Lou Piniella. I said it before the season, that Lou would not let the Cubs fail. Sure, they had a nice Cubby-swoon out of the gates, prompting a vintage Lou-meltdown on June 2nd. After the loss to the Braves on that Saturday afternoon the Cubs stood at 22-31; seven and a half games behind Milwaukee. From that day on they played .577 baseball (63-46), and stormed past the Brewers in August. Carlos Zambrano knocking out Michael Barrett surely helped the ball club come together, but it was the fighting spirit that Piniella injected right from spring training that hoisted the Cubs up and propelled them to division champs.
How did the Diamondbacks get here? Brandon Webb. His surreal late-summer run of 42 scoreless innings, which included shutouts in three straight starts to begin the month of August, had the Dbacks playing with an air of invincibility and allowed them to distance themselves from the pack in the NL West. Their lineup is deep (five guys have hit at least 15 home runs) but lacking a true slugger in the middle. Jose Valverde saved an MLB-best 47 games this year, which helped maximize Webb when he wasn’t spinning complete game gems.
Who are the X-factors in this series? For the Dbacks it’s undoubtedly Livan Hernandez. He’s the only Arizona pitcher who’s ever experienced postseason play. He’s a good “one guy” to have, having pitched in two World Series (including the 1997 World Series with the Marlins, when he notched the MVP). If the Dbacks are going to have a fighting chance, they’ll have to pitch well, which will require Livan to assume the role of leader. For Chicago I’m looking squarely at Alfonso Soriano. He’s been scorching all of September, setting the Cubs record for home runs in the month (14), and has been itching to get back to October since he left the Yankees after the 2003 season.
Who wins and why? Cubs in four. If Webb doesn’t win Game 1 I could see a sweep. Ted Lilly and Rich Hill are solid lefties who can strike guys out and the Cubs bullpen is serviceable (particularly setup men Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol). However, the series will be decided by the offenses, and in my opinion the three best bats are all in the Cubs lineup (Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez).
NL Wild Wild Card Rockies over Padres
ALDS Red Sox over Angels in 4; Yankees over Indians in 5
NLDS Cubs over Diamondbacks in 4; Phillies over Rockies in 5
ALCS Red Sox over Yankees in 7
NLCS Cubs over Phillies in 6
World Series Red Sox over Cubs in 6