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Monday, October 04, 2004

Play Ball!

The regular season is over, and the matchups are set.

Here's how I see it breaking down for the first round:

American League
New York Yankees (101-61) vs. Minnesota Twins (92-70)
Season Series: NYY (4-2)
The Twins had clinched a spot in the playoffs a while ago, but couldn't secure themselves home field in the first round, and have the unenviable task of facing the Yankees. But they do have some important weapons at their disposal, most prominently the pitching of probable Cy Young winner Johan Santana, who comes into the playoffs on a blazing hot streak, shutting down the offenses of all comers - including the Yankees last week, and impressive wins against the potent Boston and Cleveland attacks.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, if there's any team that could get to Santana, it's the Yankees, who have several lefty-mashers in tow - Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams all hit lefties very well. The Twins offense is by far the weakest of the four AL playoff teams, and they owe their record in large part to having the softest schedule in the majors.
The Twins have a superior first two starters in Santana and Brad Radke, and a stronger bullpen, traditionally a Yankee strength, so they have a chance to pull off the upset in a five-game series. Joe Nathan has been essentially the equal of Mariano Rivera, and while Tom Gordon has been the only reliable set up man for Joe Torre, Ron Gardenhire has had success with Juan Rincon an Grant Balfour as of late. The Twins, as always, bring good defense to the table. They've got a nearly 50/50 chance of spoiling all the "Curse of the Bambino" montages depicting the eight decades of the storied Yankee-Red Sox rivalry that Fox is feverishly preparing as we speak.
But between the postseason experience, the deeper (if less spectacular) starting corps and the vastly more powerful offense of the Yankees, they should have more than enough weaponry to get past the Twins. The Twins are a better team than last year's edition that lost in four to the Yankees in the ALDS, but I still don't think they have quite enough to take out the Bronx Bombers. But it's going to be a dogfight.
Yankees in 5.

Anaheim Angels (92-70) vs. Boston Red Sox (98-64)
Season Series: BOS (5-4)
The good news for Anaheim is that they survived multiple stings from the injury bug and the annual Oakland August surge to get into the playoffs, and get home field advantage. The bad news is that they draw the Red Sox in a five-game series, a team that looks built to win a short series. The Angels have a respectable rotation but no starter that equals Curt Schilling, and don't have the bats to match the Red Sox attack.
Anaheim does have, with Barry Bonds out of the postseason picture, the most fearsome hitter in any surviving lineup in Vlad Guerrero, who after toiling in relative obscurity in Montreal, at last gets to grace the October stage. And anyone facing the Angels in a short series has to be concerned about the depth and quality of their reliever corps, especially if the Angel starters can keep the games close into the later innings, something they emphatically couldn't do the last time these teams faced off. Also, if the Angels can get runners on base, especially their faster baserunners (David Eckstein, Chone Figgins, Darrin Erstad) they can manufacture runs since the Sox are generally easy to steal and run on; the Angels led the majors in steals with 143. However, that's a big if, since Angel batters walk less than most of the league despite a league-high .283 average.
Boston counters with a strong group of starters (Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and two guys who finished strong, Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield) and an top-to-bottom offense no playoff team (or non-playoff team) can match. Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, and company should strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, and their versatile bench can provide speed and defense instead of clout if those attributes are what the situation calls for. That offense should be enough to power them into the ALCS and, should the Yankees similarly prevail in their opening round matchup, set up a sequel to last year's epic confrontation.
Pedro comes in struggling, Nixon may still be gimpy, and everyone's probably underestimating the Halos. But the Sox are still favored, and they deserve to be.
Red Sox in 4.

National League
St. Louis Cardinals (105-57) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)
Season Series: STL (4-2)
St. Louis is rested and ready for the playoffs, as the Dodgers had to work much harder to get in. Not that the Cards are terribly dependent on any one pitcher, as their calling card is a powerful offense led by Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, and Jim Edmonds. Tony LaRussa is known for having deep and capable bullpens, and this year is no exception, with Isringhausen, King, Tavarez, and Kline.
The Dodgers have Eric Gagne as a fearsome weapon for the 9th, and capable set-up guys Carrara and Brazoban. And their offense is not without some firepower; consider the breakout season of Adrian Beltre and the two strong months Steve Finley delivered down the stretch, not to mention Shawn Green and headcase Milton Bradley. Can Jeff Weaver be hot instead of cold? Can Jose Lima keep his latest remarkable resurrection going? How good of an ace can Odalis Perez be with only seven wins? The Dodgers have more questions than answers going into the playoffs, and that's never good if you're facing a 105-win team.
The Cards, despite their impressive regular season record, are vulnerable to being taken out in a short series, especially without rotation anchor Chris Carpenter for this round, and questions about Scott Rolen's health. But I don't think that upset happens here.
Cardinals in 4.

Atlanta Braves (96-66) vs. Houston Astros (92-70)
Season Series: Even (3-3)
The Braves are back; yet again, they got the last laugh as observers wrote them off. Like the Red Sox, the Astros played the role of highly-touted underachievers (44-44 when Jimy Williams was fired) for the first half of the season, only to come on strong down the stretch, leapfrogging ahead of the Giants, Padres, Cubs, and Marlins to grab the NL Wild Card.
In past years, teams would worry about Atlanta's starters mowing them down, but this year it's the Astros holding the pair of aces, with Roy Oswalt and a re-rejuvenated Roger Clemens. Nonetheless, a rejuvenated Jaret Wright, rescued-from-Planet-Coors John Thomson and Mike Hampton, and Russ Ortiz have all been solid contributors. Juan Cruz and Antonio Alfonseca capably back up closer John Smoltz. Little of it is flashy, but it's worked like a charm, and like clockwork, Bobby Cox is back in the playoffs. And all of those pitchers are preferrable to Brandon Backe and Carlos Hernandez, who figure to fill out the Houston rotation with Andy Pettite and Wade Miller sidelined for the season. Can they keep things close against the Joneses Andruw and Chipper so that Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell, and Jeff Kent can de the difference makers?
The 'Stros, in their 42 year history, have never won a post-season series (in seven tries) at any level. But the same could be said about the 2002 Angels before they went all the way. Roger Clemens' history in big games isn't promising, but this may be a year where all the old rules are broken. I'm going with the hot team here.
Astros in 5.


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