The Tenth Inning – Divisional Series Preview ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic
Texas has disappeared at the end of the season for the third consecutive year, their stay getting shorter and shorter each time. The Reds have still yet to advance beyond their initial playoff round in their three appearances since 2010, something that has to be heartbreaking to the good baseball fans of southwest Ohio that I know quite well. And how weird do the American League playoffs look without the New York Yankees involved? I would say that I’m saddened by their absence… but that would be lying.
Still plenty of great feel-good stories still exist, none bigger than Tuesday’s Pirates victory (detailed extensively below). Beyond that, the Red Sox rebound to go from worst-to-first, the A’s once again cobble together a borderline miraculous season to win the AL West, the Dodgers roar back with a second-half for the ages, and the low-budget Rays continue to turn heads. Yes, folks, the best month in the sports calendar is here, as the NHL returns to the ice, the NFL begins to materialize with the haves and have-nots, and college football enters full throttle into conference play. But there is, without question, nothing better than the feel of playoff baseball. I do like hockey’s postseason better on the whole, but the tension palpable in a full stadium on a dark night in the crisp October air is the best moment in sports, and the 2013 version of the MLB postseason promises to once again come chock-full of those exact moments. Grab a pumpkin latte or apple cider and let’s get the “real” postseason underway!
It’s almost hard to imagine that the team that won the most games in the American League and tied for the most wins in all of baseball managed to be an “under-the-radar” story, but thanks to Pittsburgh, Oakland, and the LA Dodgers, the Red Sox managed to do just that. Behind their third manager in three years, Boston went from cellar dweller to division winner, and now they get home field throughout the entire postseason. Sox nation really couldn’t have asked for much more out of this season than they’ve gotten so far.
The question now is how far this team will go. They’re matched up against the proverbial “Little Engine That Could” in the Rays, who have defied the odds season after season since their breakout 2008 campaign that saw them capture the AL pennant. This week, all the Rays have done is win a do-or-die game on Sunday in Toronto, Monday in Arlington, and Wednesday in Cleveland. That sets up Matt Moore against Jon Lester in an all-lefty matchup Friday at Fenway that should be an absolute dandy. In fact, with the way that Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, Alex Cobb, and David Price have pitched this season, I would venture that every game in this series will be well-pitched.
That means this portion of the LDS will probably be determined by which team’s offense produces the most clutch hits. Just looking at the roster, it would be natural to assume that the Red Sox would have the advantage – with Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, etc. – but that’s not necessarily the case. The Rays have produced their fair share of big hits, notably Delmon Young re-appearing in the wild card playoff game against Cleveland. They also have Evan Longoria, who should be at an advantage against Lester in game one and has proven over the course of his career that he can really hit just about anyone, even in the biggest moments. So while I would give Boston the advantage in this category, it’s not as lopsided as it might otherwise seem.
The one area Tampa does have the edge, though, is bullpen. Fernando Rodney has had a very good year and has been a postseason closer before – don’t underestimate that experience compared to Koji Uehara for the Red Sox, who was used solely in a mop-up role with Texas in 2011. True, his 1.09 ERA in 74.1 innings this year is downright nasty, and that’s before considering his 9 walks, 101 strikeouts, and 0.57 WHIP. But the postseason is a different animal, so I’ll just reserve judgment on Uehara until he proves he can close out games on the biggest stage for at least one round. That said, I think the rest of the Red Sox team is good enough to push past Tampa. Boston won 12 of 19 games between the two teams this year, and I think they’ll get that number to 15 by this time next week.
2) Oakland Athletics @ 3) Detroit Tigers
Once again, the A’s have defied the odds, but once again they have to be saying to themselves, “not the Tigers again!” In 2006, it was Magglio Ordonez’s game four homerun that completed Detroit’s sweep of Oakland in the ALCS and sent the A’s into a tailspin for a bit, only to emerge last year from the depths of the AL West, sweep Texas on the final weekend to win the division… and draw the Tigers in the opening round. Detroit won the first two games before heading to Oakland, where the A’s took games 3 and 4 to set up the winner-take-all game 5 at the O.co Coliseum… where Justin Verlander promptly threw a complete game shutout to seal the series for the Tigers. So now, for the third time in as many playoff series, Oakland finds the Detroit Tigers standing in their way of advancing to the next round.
Perhaps, though, this year could be different. Unlike 2012 where the A’s had to win each of the last three games just to avoid the wild card game, this year they opened a big September lead and cruised to the finish as the AL’s number two seed. Only Bay Area fans and baseball fanatics probably know more than a small handful of the players, but this is actually a talented group that can score runs many different ways. They have speed at the top of the lineup with Coco Crips and his 21 stolen bases, batters that make good contact and get on base like Josh Donaldson, John Jaso, and Jed Lowrie, and plenty of power with Crisp, Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Yoenis Cespedes leading the way. This team should score runs, though Detroit’s pitching is quite good, if you haven’t heard.
The issue is on the mound, where the ageless (thanks Biogenesis) Bartolo Colon is the team’s top starter, followed by Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker, and Dan Straily – not exactly household names. Their task will be extremely difficult as they try to go pitch-for-pitch against Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Plus, the A’s staff will have to contend with an absolutely loaded Tigers offense, and that’s even before addressing Miguel Cabrera. If the projected AL MVP doesn’t play, this Detroit lineup still has so much power and the ability to break open a game in a hurry that they will still give Oakland’s pitching nightmares. Cabrera is expected to play, though, which means there’s no lineup on the planet that could match what Jim Leyland will likely pencil in for game one – Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Andy Dirks, Omar Infante, Alex Avila, Jose Iglesias. Oh, and did I mention that Jhonny Peralta’s suspension is over and he’ll be eligible for the series? That’s a scary collection of hitters with really no easy out on the entire board.
Oakland is a great story, and once again there’s no reason to expect them not to battle hard and well. I just don’t see how they can manage to overcome all of Detroit’s talent and weapons, even with home field advantage. It just might be a case of history repeating itself all over again.
Watching Tuesday night’s Wild Card game was absolutely incredible. It was similar to the atmosphere at Shea Stadium in 2006, Philadelphia in 2007, or Detroit the last couple of seasons. Anytime a team reaches the playoffs after a drought, the fan base tends to bring plenty of passion and intensity to the ballpark. It’s often times the reason why watching playoff games in Anaheim or Atlanta tend to be somewhat boring – the fans got complacent, something Pirates fans never had a chance to do. I love the energy and excitement surrounding this team, and as a Mets fan they are the only team remaining in the NL playoffs that I can stomach, so I’m pulling for them in a big way.
Still, I will acknowledge that they are big underdogs in this series, and if it happens to wind up that a game five is necessary, all of my fictional wagering money would be on the Cardinals. They’ll have their ace Adam Wainwright going twice, and A.J. Burnett isn’t exactly Curt Schilling in the postseason, so St. Louis has the advantage if they have to play a decisive game at Busch Stadium. That’s why, after watching last night, I don’t think it gets that far. The Pirates had all of the pressure last night – first playoff game in 21 years, at home, one game, do-or-die, and everything else – and thanks to the performance of their three “veterans” in Marlon Byrd, Russell Martin, and Francisco Liriano, the Pirates delivered the biggest win in franchise history since winning the 1979 World Series. They stood toe-to-toe with a team that was making their third postseason appearance in four seasons and forced the Reds to blink, a rather impressive accomplishment.
On the Cardinals end, they’re lacking a little from the team that won the 2011 World Series. The lineup still has some punch with Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, and Matt Holiday, not to mention a career year from Matt Carpenter, but I don’t trust Mike Matheny’s bullpen in a tight, close game. They’ll need their starters – who are, albeit, quite good beyond Wainwright with Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, and either Michael Wacha or Shelby Miller – to go deep into games in order to feel more comfortable about the tax that will be put on their relief corps. This team did win 6 straight and 10 of 12 to end the season, though, so they’re playing extremely well.
There’s no shortage of information on the opponent for these two teams, having met 19 times in the regular season. The Pirates did win the seasons series 10-9, but the Cards have won the last four including a sweep at Busch Stadium September 6-8 where St. Louis outscored Pittsburgh 26-10. The Pirates desperately need a split on the road so they can hand the ball back to Liriano in game three with a chance for to take a lead in the series. That’s exactly how I think it plays out, too, and the Pittsburgh faithful that have been so rabid for the Steelers and recently the Penguins will see their baseball team continue its dream season on to the NLCS.
2) Atlanta Braves vs. 3) Los Angeles Dodgers
There’s certainly no shortage of storylines in this series, especially with the way the Dodgers slumped to start the season and then roared to the finish. On the day they clinched the NL West, the Dodgers had actually produced a record over 81 games (56-25) that would have been good for the third-best record of all-time if extrapolated out over a full 162-game season. Don Mattingly deserves a ton of credit for keep the ship steered in the right direction, and a bunch of castoffs from Boston managed to find their grove together, helped out by the addition of rookie phenom Yasiel Puig. The Cuban will be needed, though, because their thought-to-be best player, Matt Kemp, will be out for LDS and likely the entire postseason. Suddenly GM Ned Colletti looks like a genius for not dealing an outfielder when it looked like the Dodgers had a surplus, because now they can trot out Puig, Andre Ethier, and Carl Crawford and still have a very good outfield trio.
Speaking of outfield trios, Atlanta might be home to the most disappointing one in the entire game – and that includes Miami and Houston. B.J. Upton had an absolutely miserable year, his younger brother Justin wasn’t significantly better, and Jayson Hayward couldn’t stay healthy. The Braves starters combined to hit just .237 with 50 homers among them – which includes 27 from Justin alone. Thankfully for Atlanta, the “throw-in” from Arizona in the deal or the younger Upton, Chris Johnson, wound up hitting .321 to support masher Freddie Freeman, who emerged as the most legitimate power threat in the Braves lineup. This isn’t really about offense for Atlanta, though. They’ll rely on a solid pitching staff that admittedly could use Tim Hudson, but will still be plenty formidable with Kris Medlan, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran. Plus, like the Yankees of the last decade and a half, the game is an inning shorter thanks to the presence of the NL’s best closer, Craig Kimbrel. He has support, too, from Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, and Anthony Varvaro, so manager Freddi Gonzalez should be pretty confident heading into the later innings of games with a lead.
The problem is, I don’t think that will happen much. As the pitching gets better in the postseason – and none were better during the regular season this year than Clayton Kershaw – the at-bats become even more valuable, and the Braves collectively struck out 1384 times as a team. Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Ricky Nolasco, and Hyun-Jin Ryu will all have a field day with this lineup, one I just don’t think is capable of scoring runs in the absence of the long ball. Atlanta is an all-or-nothing team, and offenses that typically operate in that fashion are dismissed rather quickly from the playoffs – just as I think the Braves will be in 2013.
Check back after the completion of the LDS for a full ALCS and NLCS preview from “The Tenth Inning,” only at the Ultimate Capper.
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