|THE VERY HUGE MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW.|
It's a little disappointing, one has to admit, to see six of the eight teams that made last season's baseball postseason returning this year. That's nothing against those teams, their players or their achievements; they all deserve to be there, they all have their backstories, they all have tons to play for. But last year's postseason, for the second consecutive year, was historic and amazing and absolutely will not be topped. Even with many of the same teams, and the same storylines, this will feel like the sequel that can't live up.
That said, that won't stop any of us from staying up until 1 a.m. pretty much every night for the next month. Baseball fans are about to go AWOL until November; pay attention, because you can totally steal their stuff when they're not looking.
Here's a preview of the each playoff series. For what's it worth, last year in this space we accurately predicted every single postseason series. This year, we'll confess, we very much hope we're wrong.
It is a considerable irony that the year the Red Sox came the closest to actually ending the Yankees' run of AL East championships -- the rivals ended the season with the same record, with the Yankees winning the "tiebreaker" -- it turned out that falling just short worked to their advantage. Whether you think the White Sox or the Angels are better (we tend to go with the White Sox, actually, though it's undeniably close), the Red Sox, by virtue of finishing "second" in the division, have a first-round matchup that requires less travel against a team with less postseason experience and much, much quieter fans. In the old days, of course, they would have settled the AL East with an extra game so there would be no room for debate, but in the old days, they used to think Laserdiscs were cool, Mike Myers was funny and "Cole" was an actual appropriate first name for a human being who doesn't wear an eyepatch and star on a soap opera.
It seems like a while ago that the Red Sox seemed listless and off-kilter, almost hangover-like, following their breathtaking World Series run last year, doesn't it? The last two weeks at Fenway were full of unbearable tension, with a final weekend series that started out as do-or-die before merging into premature Yankees celebration and ending with Adam Hydzu hitting off Felix Rodriguez in front of 40,000 fans listening to the Patriots game on their headset and wondering why, exactly, they paid $850 to watch this crap. David Ortiz' performance in the last quarter of the season was beyond description and, if there is any justice, secured himself a Most Valuable Player award. (As some have pointed out, those who supported Steve Nash for NBA MVP -- despite his complete inability to play defense -- should have no problem with voting for a guy who spends the top half of Fenway innings urinating and trying to talk batboys into eating something disgusting for 100 bucks. And vice versa for those who were against Nash. Yes, we know it's not the same guys voting, mind you; we just hope you understand what we're getting at.) The point is: After three-quarters of a season spent coasting on talent, good vibes and appearances on television shows with men named Kai who have yellow streaks in their hair, the Red Sox are alive, alert, awake and enthusiastic now.
And they will need to be. It seems almost cruel that Frank Thomas would spend his entire career in the relative obscurity of the South Side -- culminating in his appearance before Congress in March, where he was relegated to a big screen television in the corner of Senate chambers, struggling to stay awake as everyone forgot he was there -- and then end up too injured to participate in the best postseason opportunity his team has had in a decade. The White Sox could use his bat, because this is not a team that specializes in clutch hitting, getting on base or, for that matter, being tall and looking menacing. Too much has been made of whackjob manager Ozzie Guillen's propensity for "small ball;" this team lives off the home run as much as last year's much maligned model did. The difference this year is the pitching, particularly Mark Buerhle and the suddenly red-hot-despite-being-89-years-old Jose Contreras, who will start Game 1. The major concern for the White Sox is their bullpen, which has been forced to mix-and-match of late, with the roulette wheel stopping on former drunkard Bobby Jenks, a very tall, very big man who nevertheless has a name more apt for a guy dealing cards in the back of a Queens warehouse, wearing a visor and chewing on unlit cigars. (In the voice of Ray Liotta: "You knew when Bobbyjenks was running the Astoria poker game, the big guns were going to be out and you knew it was no place for the low-runners.")
This is a much better matchup than people realize. The White Sox might have played above their heads a bit this year, but this is a team that could have been playoff worthy the last few years but didn't catch any breaks. The breaks fell their way this year. Their pitching is vastly superior to the Red Sox's, the bullpen is equally, the lineup much inferior. This seems like the type of series where the White Sox shock some people by winning two of the first three, scaring the beejesus out of backward-hat-wearing Golden Tee fans everywhere. We see a 2-1 White Sox lead going into Game 4, when Ortiz hits a grand slam in the 14th inning at Fenway before a shellshocked Chicago collapses in a Game 5 at Comiskey. The White Sox will then miss the playoffs for the next seven years, get on a nice run in 2010 and then go through this whole thing again. By then, we're betting Frank Thomas weighs about 340 and is still sitting in front of that remote camera, waiting for Congress to just call on him already.
Red Sox in five.
It is a source of continued frustration among fans of baseball's other 29 teams that the Yankees, even when they do everything wrong, still fall on their face in the exact right direction. At one point this season, the Yankees' rotation was: Aaron Small, Chien-Ming Wang, Tim Redding, Scott Proctor and Sean Henn. Cliff Clavin would call those "five people who have never been in my kitchen." To quote noted statistical mavens Baseball Prospectus, coming into this season, those five had a combined VORP of "Poop." And somehow the Yankees still made this work; Small and Wang even had excellent seasons. There is a theory that you could put Charles Nelson Reilly in pinstripes and he'd hit at least .284 with runners in scoring position. There is merit to this theory, though Rip Taylor would be a much better fit for the ticker tape parade.
Because of Small, Wang and other inexplicable successes like Robinson Cano -- which previous to this year was simply known as our favorite brand of tuna -- the Yankees were able to offset most of their mistakes, of which there were plenty. Signing Carl Pavano and Jared Wright for the amount the Yankees paid was idiotic; expecting center fielder Bernie Williams to be able to cover ground any more expansive than the fourth hole on a mini-golf course was stupid; thinking Tony Womack should be paid for anything more than picking gnats out of Ruben Sierra's ears will get you a silver medal at the Special Olympics, at least. And yet here the Yankees are, not just hanging around, but thriving. The credit, strangely enough, goes mostly to general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre, each of which proved (for the first time, really) that they could push the right buttons when resources were limited. The year when we all get to laugh at the pathetic Yankees for missing the playoffs is not here yet. Here, have some pie. It'll make it all better.
Meanwhile, the Angels. First, a bit about that name. It has been well reported that Angels owner Arte Moreno, looking to capitalize on the Los Angeles market while observing contract obligations with the city of Anaheim to keep the word in the team's name, switched the name to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a clever bit of nomenclature misdirection. What Moreno was betting on was the simple laziness of sports journalists; no way, he thought, would they ever actually type out the whole name "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim," and, eventually, the "Anaheim" part would be lost. Few safer bets have ever been made. By now, even people from Anaheim have forgotten the name of their town; when asked where they're from, they usually just say, "Down by the river, yonder ho there." Crafty guy, Arte Moreno.
This series is an obvious contrast between a team that can pitch like crazy and one that can hit all loco. (Hey, remember Gerardo? He just came to our mind for a second, apropos of nothing. You know what else we loved? Snow's "Informer." Anyway.) The old adage is that pitching wins in the playoffs, which is pretty much true except for a few years ago, when, lo, a very different Angels team beat the tobacco out of everyone. We imagine the Yankees smashing the Angels in one game, maybe the one Randy Johnson pitches, and everything else becoming a late-inning battle. You can't like the Yankees in that scenario; we have visions of Tom Gordon just getting hammered in a tight spot, which is what he gets for being in the title of a Stephen King book. (Dolores Claiborne gets a two-year deal next year for $4 million.) We have a sense the Yanks go down violently, and much more quickly than people suspect. Sorry, Joe Buck: The ALCS will have fewer black-and-white flashbacks this year.
Angels in four.
Any Cardinals fan who's being honest with himself or herself must admit: Secretly, we're all terrified of this postseason. Maybe it's the lingering refuse of last year's World Series squat-thrust, maybe it's the late-season struggles of Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Albert Pujols, maybe it's the suspicion that the Cubs and Brewers are about to make a division run next year, maybe it's the pressure of wanting to send out Busch Stadium with a title we're all scared to a level that denies excretion. When asked by a friend the other day which team we wanted the Cardinals to play in the NLDS, we answered, "No one. We're hoping the other team misses all their flights." Though it's perfectly natural for a team playing at the level St. Louis has all year -- they once again were the majors' only 100-win team -- to ease up on the energy late, the collapse of the pitching staff, the gimpy bones of the aged-30-plus sluggers, the loss of Scott Rolen, it has us lying under our desk, holding our Woobies tight. (That's the blanket from Mr. Mom, by the way. Not our Johnson. So you know.) The last-game-of-the-season injury to key setup man Al Reyes was our new Vince Coleman/Carpenter in '04/Rolen in '02/Mike Matheny in '01 moment. Something always goes astray right when we need it most.
We, along with other Cardinals fans, are overreacting, to be sure, and it's not like the Padres are the 1927 Yankees or, for that matter, the 2005 Mets. The Padres just barely sneaked over .500 for the season, and their fans spent an unusually high number of days cursing and throwing stuffed animals at the television for an eventual playoff team. The lineup is full of aging gimps, and the rotation is flamethrower Jake Peavy and a bunch of guys with poorly irrigated soul patches. But in the playoffs, that can be enough: The Padres' bullpen is shut-down, and Petco Park has a way of providing scary late-night moments.
Do they have enough to overcome the Cardinals? Game One will be the key. If Peavy can outduel Carpenter at Busch, the Redbirds could have lost their homefield advantage before anybody even realized the playoffs had started. It could put the Cardinals in a must-win position immediately; last year's World Series proved the team got real wobbly when smacked with the first punch. (Oh, and if Jeff Suppan reaches third base at any point in this playoffs, manager Tony LaRussa is heretofore instructed to pinch run for him, with anyone, Ray King, the hot dog guy, Fredbird, whoever.)
A first-round collapse is not out of the question. But here's thinking that the Cardinals come from behind to win Game 1, knock around Pedro Astacio in Game 2 and steal one in San Diego to advance. Because if this series comes back to St. Louis for a decisive Game 5, you're going to have some extremely paranoid, petrified Midwesterners, and usually such things are limited to big events, like prom, or maybe when there's a tornado.
Cardinals in five.
Ah, the Atlanta Braves. God bless 'em. The world just seems a little bleaker with the Braves in it, doesn't it? They're always involved in the one playoff matchup nobody really cares about; they could play the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings and no one would get too fired up about it. Which is a shame, because Billy Dee Williams, the ladies love him. The Braves have such inevitability now -- win the division, lose in the playoffs -- that no one really differentiates between the current Braves model and those of 10 years ago, even though no one other than John Smoltz was actually on both teams. It is ingrained in our brains now that the Braves will not win the World Series; we'd bet fewer people are picking the Braves than any other team in the playoffs.
But this is not a bad team. Manager Bobby "Ike Made You!" Cox has found the right mix of veterans like Smoltz and Chipper Jones and young upstarts like Jeff Francoeur and Ryan Langerhaus; this team feels a little spunkier, a little more college rah-rah than past teams. That can't hurt. People are taking the Braves lighter than they should.
However. A very strong argument could be made that the Astros have the three best starting pitchers in the postseason in Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, who, you might remember, has a wee bit of playoff experience. Houston's offense is missing both Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent from last year's model, which just missed the World Series, but the addition of Pettitte makes Houston extremely frightening and the team everyone in both leagues was hoping would just miss the wild-card. Didn't happen. They now bring a different ace to the mound every night; right now, don't be too certain that the Cardinals wouldn't want any of those three guys rather than Chris Carpenter.
Last year, when the Astros fell just short, everyone said it was their "last chance." But that was way off: This team looks even more primed than last year. They should have little trouble dispatching a pesky Braves bunch.
Astros in four.
The last two World Series champs from the AL face off in a series that would be us in serious danger of resuscitating Rally Monkey mania. The Angels have the same advantages over the Red Sox that they did over the Yankees, but the Red Sox have traditionally had the Angels' number, and you can imagine the team playing much looser in the ALCS when they don't have to mess with the Yankees. (Or they could pull a Marlins-Yankees and just forget to show up.) We imagine many Manny/Ortiz moonshots into the Night Of Anaheim, and a series that feels very similar to the run of last October.
Red Sox in six.
As mentioned before, last year's NLCS was a vastly superior series to the ALCS, not that anybody noticed. This year's could, if possible, be even tighter. The Astros have a huge starting pitching advantage, and if Chris Carpenter doesn't rediscover his mojo, the Cardinals will be in serious trouble. Can St. Louis find enough good pitches to hit? The only weak spots on the Astros' staff are in middle relief. That doesn't give the defending NL champs many innings to pound. St. Louis' starters will have to match Clemens, Oswalt and Pettitte. We just don't see it happening.
Astros in six.
Hey, look, it's another all wild-card World Series. Great. Fenway faithful will wet themselves over the opportunity to boo Roger Clemens on the biggest stage of all. (The notion of Manny vs. Rocket in October is intoxicating even for someone who dislikes both teams.) We have a sneaking suspicion the Red Sox are about to go all Patriots on us for a while. And this time they'll clinch it at home. Thanks. That'll be a good time for everyone.
Red Sox in six.
Will Leitch is the managing editor of The Black Table and editor of Deadspin.com. His second book, Catch, will be released by Penguin this December.