Before I jump into the four playoff series on the verge of happening, starting tonight, a few words about the Wild Card games from the past few nights.
As far as the Reds/Pirates game, while the fan in me was hopeful that Liriano’s established success against left-handers would be a mirage come playoff time, it turns out that his being the statistically best pitcher against lefties this year was a foundation of stone, a monolithic configuration of stats that determined exactly what was going to happen. Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce were unable to do anything against his brutal slider, and when the Reds’ success is predicated upon the rest of the line-up, your chances of winning plummet dramatically. Add in a very rusty Johnny Cueto, and you’re screwed. The Bucs, on the other hand, fueled by an intensely rabid collective of fans raising the Jolly Roger (and something about a plastic duck, but I leave that up to you to search out), looked every bit the part of a team that belongs in September. Be it Liriano’s pitching, timely homers by Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin, or perfectly timed defensive shifts that feasted upon a litany of ground balls, the Pirates played the part of a team that deserved to be playing where they were. In this instance, the better team won.
On a separate note, this could mark the end for the brief Shin-Soo Choo era in Cincinnati, as well as the beginning of the end for Dusty Baker. It’s hard not to look at the Reds and see a team that underachieved this year, and many Reds fans are continually irate at Dusty’s decision-making process, something that has spilled over to national attention at times. The decision to bat Choo at lead-off against a noted lefty-killer, to start Cueto who had not truly pitched against playoff caliber hitting for months, and to keep your best weapon (Billy Hamilton) on the bench for the entirety of the game will lead to increased calls to make a managerial switch in the offseason. It remains to be seen if the Reds will or will not make a change.
Meanwhile, over in the American League…
The shutout by the Rays over the Indians speaks to several different factors. Alex Cobb (who I am fighting to refrain from calling Lee J. on instinct) pitched, if not quite masterfully, like somebody who knows how to win a big game on the road, scattering eight hits across 6 2/3 innings. At one point, he got out of a 1-out, bases loaded jam in the fourth, followed by one of those runners-at-the-corners-with-no-outs instances that will have the Indians kicking themselves for weeks on end as they settle into a long, quiet offseason. The Ray lineup, powered by a home run from postseason hero/goat Delmon Young and a back-breaking two run double in the fourth from Desmond Jennings, didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but when Cobb pitched as well as he did, they didn’t need to. Their experience won this game, and their ability to get hits when they mattered. (On a separate note, if I ever sound too much like the bastard child of Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver in my writing, somebody come over here and put me out of my misery, please and thank you.) It might even go so far as to say that the mirage of Cleveland’s winning streak was shattered by having to play a good team, but let me also add that it is incredibly hard to win ten baseball games in a row, especially when they are in a do-or-die situation. Adding in the mental stress of a postseason game and the requirement for everything to go right in order to win and you see what the Indians were up against. It’s not their fault and they’ve had a marvelous season that ended with a playoff trip that, and let’s be honest here, almost nobody actually believed would happen this year. If the Indians can keep developing, and maybe find a solid starter to fill out the rotation, they’ll be making noise again next year.
And now, onto the Divisional Series!
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
Yes, because everyone wanted to see EVEN MORE NL Central action!
The Pirates are riding their emotional win, alongside a line-up that gets hits when it matters. On the other side is the St. Louis Cardinals, who just completed a season where they set a record for batting average with runners in scoring position. (.330, in case you were wondering. The previous record holder was .312 by the Boston Red Sox of 1950. And yes, you’re absolutely right, that is slightly insane.) There are two schools of thought where this is concerned. One is that the Cardinals have an incredible lineup that scores at historic rates (not quite true, though they’re good at scoring runs); the other is that this rate is not sustainable when you don’t get to play the Cubs and Brewers every other week, but must face quality pitching.
Which the Pirates have, by the way. They start A.J. Burnett tonight, followed by former #1 draft pick Gerrit Cole, Liriano (about who we’ve waxed superlatives enough, thank you, I’m still a bit hung over about that loss), and sinkerball pitcher Charlie Morton. Manager Clint Hurdle has constructed a defense that is designed to play towards collecting ALL the ground balls, ALL the ground balls, All the time, and as such, the Cardinals might have a hard time finding the gaps for their dribblers that scored runs all season long. Furthermore, the Pirates line-up is only marginally less than the Redbirds, as first baseman Allen Craig is forced to the bench with a bum ankle this series. Hitters like Matt Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, and Yadier Molina will make things tough, and ace pitcher Adam Wainwright (who in any other year would win a deserved Cy Young after this season) will manage to eke out one win sometime during this series, but the Pirates are riding a
rabid (Strike that, I’m tired of people using rabid to describe the Pirates’ fans from Tuesday night’s game. It’s as though twenty years of losing have reduced Pittsburgh fans to starving wolverines who have no idea of what good baseball looks like and now that they’ve seen it are going into a frenzy like wild sharks in an aquarium. Pittsburgh is a city with a rich baseball tradition, multiple World Series championships, and a litany of All-Star, Hall of Fame players in the classiest sense who deserve all the respect, adulation, and recognition that…well…okay, just stop calling them rabid) enthusiastic fan base that will get at least two more home games. And that might be enough. Prediction: Pirates in five.
Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
This series comes down to one basic factor, from where your columnist is sitting: who has the better pitchers? The line-ups for both teams somewhat cancel each other out; the Braves are steady and consistent, if slightly unspectacular (not a lot of 11-run outbursts to be found here), while the Dodgers 1-4 hitters (Puig, Crawford, Ramirez, Gonzalez) are amazing, followed by a motley crew of “yes, we spent a lot of money last offseason, but A.J. Ellis is still our catcher” type personalities. Where the bullpens stack up, one might see an advantage to the Braves (or to whichever team features Craig “Lowest Career ERA in MLB History” Kimbrel (Yes, history.)) that is neutered when you look at the Dodgers pen, where Kenley Jansen is almost as good. (1.88 ERA to Kimbrel’s 1.21 ERA)
Which leaves the starters.
The Braves have a successful, homegrown rotation (hmm, that didn’t sound quite how I wanted it to…) led by Kris Medlan, Mike Minor, and Rookie of the Year candidate Julio Teheran, none of whom have a higher ERA than Minor’s 3.21. They’re built for sustained success over a longer series, and would be prime contenders…except that they’re playing the Dodgers, who will be trotting out (in reverse order!)…
Number Three…LHP Hyun-jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA, .252/.299/.361 slash line) (Grantland has described Ryu as a Korean version of David Wells. This is factually inaccurate, as I’m not sure how likely Ryu is to wind up in the mosh pit at a Metallica concert)
Number Two…RHP Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA, .234/.291/.355) who looks to be fully recovered from his collarbone injury earlier in the year, and who would be a deadly staff ace on anyone’s team. Then again, there’s this guy…
Number One…LHP Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA, .195/.244/.277) 3-time ERA leader in the National League, and, if you would believe the hype, a clone of Sandy Koufax. I think that comparison is far too easy to make (they were both lefties, they were both Dodgers, they both are unbelievably hard to hit against, their signature pitches were fastballs and curveballs, etc.) and speaks to a somewhat lazy approach to headline-generating in sports media. Besides, Koufax took YEARS to establish himself before he turned into an ape-shit crazy-good pitcher from ’61-’66. Kershaw is this good already and has a career ERA of 2.60 over 1180 major league innings, and he’s only twenty-five years old. All the awards. All the superlatives.
Also, if the Braves have to play against Kershaw and Greinke twice, (neither of whom I see losing…and if they do, it won’t happen again) this could be a very short series. Prediction: Dodgers in four.
Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays
A worst to first team against a scrappy team that has fought its way into playoff contention makes for an interesting story, but the fact of the matter is that the Red Sox are among the candidates for the best team in the league. Their pitching, anchored by a resurgent John Lackey, Clay Bucholtz, and Jon Lester, is formidable; a solid bullpen led by the best reliever in baseball this year, Koji Uehara, closes out the games. And that’s before getting into a lineup featuring the familiar names of Pedroia, Ortiz, Ellsbury, and co., joined this year by the steady presence of Mike Napoli and the defensive wizardry of Jose Iglesias. The Red Sox are built to play in October baseball games, and are already familiar with the Rays, having gone 12-7 against the Rays this year. It’s hard not to look at this contest and forecast a sweep; the Rays just don’t have the timely hitting necessary to overcome the high caliber pitching of the Sox, while the Boston lineup is tested and true against the Rays (with the only noticeable slip coming back in 2008).
Sorry, just not a lot to say here. AL East baseball has been so hyped this year, I’m feeling turned off by the lackluster results. Check back with me for the ALCS. I should care more by then. Prediction: Boston wins in four.
Oakland Athletics vs. Detroit Tigers
I’m trying to care. Really, I am. I’m trying to ignore the A’s history of one-and-done’s, that wafer-thin line-up (though Josh Donaldson is a stud MVP candidate…who will lose out because this guy and this guy exist), and a pitching rotation that performs adequately and spectacularly when called upon, but has no outstanding ace to go up against the monstrosity that is the Detroit Tigers baseball club.
Instead, I’m going to list the Tigers’ rotation, followed by one name (who is admittedly an x-factor for the series, but not as big a one as you might think)
Max Scherzer: 2.90 ERA, .198/.254/.329, 240 K’s, 10.08 K’s per 9 IP
Justin Verlander: .3.46 ERA, .253/.315/.376, 217 K’s (Admittedly an off-year for the man who for the last two years was the Best Pitcher in Baseball, a title he yielded to Kershaw this year. On the other hand, that might not matter if the Tigers pull through with a World Series win this year.)
Anibel Sanchez: 2.57 ERA, .229/.286/.330, 202 K’s
Doug Fister: 3.67 ERA, .281/.329/.381…okay, maybe they won’t pitch Fister, but worse things have happened.
And then there’s Miguel Cabrera, who had an otherworldly year from April through August before getting hurt and tailing off. He says that he’s going at 100% (but then, why would he not?) and if he is, he drives the Tigers lineup. If he’s not, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder, and Co. should be able to generate enough offense to overcome the Tenacious A’s. (See what I did there?) Prediction: Tigers in three.
Current Predictions Record: 1-2 (That wild card round was not good to me.)