AL and NL Division Series Previews
The second season begins today. Eight out of 30 teams remain in the running for the World Series. If the playoffs are a "crapshoot" as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane once said, then the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Dodgers have as good of a chance to win it all as the New York Yankees and New York Mets.
To help me sort it all out, I have turned to eight writers who have followed their respective teams for years. Their expert analysis and opinions are included in each of the previews below. Be sure to visit each of their sites for an even deeper look into the series at hand.
New York Mets (first place, NL East, #1 seed) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (NL wild card, #4 seed)
GAME 1: Dodgers @ Mets, Wed., 4:00 PM ET - Lowe (16-8, 3.63) vs. Hernandez (11-11, 4.66)
W L PCT HOME ROAD RS RA NY Mets 97 65 .599 50-31 47-34 834 731 LA Dodgers 88 74 .543 49-32 39-42 820 751
Head to Head: Mets, 4 games to 3.
The series between the Mets and Dodgers will come down to two battles: the one between the Mets and Hong-Chih Kuo, and the one between Mets SS Jose Reyes and Dodgers C Russell Martin.
The opening game of this series will be crucial for the Mets, given that the left-handed Kuo, who has pitched well already this season at Shea Stadium, is set to start in Game Two. It's no secret that the Mets have struggled against left-handed pitching since early-August. Therefore, a loss for the Mets in Game One could realistically put them down two games heading to Los Angeles to face their old nemsis, Greg Maddux.
Meanwhile, as always, Reyes will have the responsibility of providing momentum for the Mets, while confusing and demoralizing the Dodgers. Martin's job will be to control him. If he can, New York's offense will struggle.
In the end, because of their veteran advantage in these two scenarios, I believe the Mets will control both battles and win the series.
There's little reason to think that any National League team should be able to beat them on the way to the World Series - except for the fact that what happened in the first few months of the season might no longer be relevant. The Dodgers finished the season 7-0 and 41-19, and in a four-game series in September, took two easy victories from the Mets and nearly a third. The Mets should be chomping at the bit to show their supremacy, but the Dodgers have positioned themselves as a worthy rival. Dodger rookie Hong-Chih Kuo may not be ready for the pressure of a Game 2 start, but will Steve Trachsel and/or John Maine be ready for later games themselves? Call the Mets the favorites, but as far as a series prediction goes, I offer only this: Game 5 heads into extra innings.
San Diego Padres (first place, NL West, #2 seed) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (first place, NL Central, #3 seed)
GAME 1: Cardinals @ Padres, Tue., 4:00 PM ET - Carpenter (15-8, 3.09) vs. Peavy (11-14, 4.09)
W L PCT HOME ROAD RS RA San Diego 88 74 .543 43-38 45-36 731 679 St. Louis 83 78 .516 49-31 34-47 781 762
Head to Head: Padres, 4 games to 2.
The Padres and Cardinals are pretty evenly matched, but San Diego's pitching staff is deeper. As long as the Padres don't let mega superstud Albert Pujols beat them again, they stand a good chance of advancing. Some folks are predicting that San Diego will take the series in fewer games, but since this is the Padres, and they don't do anything the easy way, it'll almost certainly go the distance. That fifth game probably will go extra innings and scare the bejeezus out of the home crowd. And then everyone will have to try and figure out what bejeezus means. Face it, this could get ugly.
Why? In a word, bullpens. The Padre relievers had the second-best ERA in the league, 0.62 better than their Cardinal counterparts (who ranked 7th). San Diego's top three relievers (Hoffman, Linebrink, and Meredith) held batters to a .212 average and a .256 on-base percentage; St. Louis' top trio (Wainwright, Looper, and Hancock) posted .249/.303 in those categories. The Cardinal trio was effective; San Diego's was dominant.
New York Yankees (first place, AL East, #1 seed) vs. Detroit Tigers (AL wild card, #4 seed)
GAME 1: Tigers @ Yankees, Tue., 8:00 PM ET - Robertson (13-13, 3.84) vs. Wang (19-6, 3.63)
W L PCT HOME ROAD RS RA NY Yankees 97 65 .599 50-31 47-34 930 767 Detroit 95 67 .586 46-35 49-32 822 675
Head to Head: Yankees, 5 games to 2.
One team has gotten steadily better as the season progressed, the other steadily worse. Now that the Yankees have Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield back, Joe Torre can wield a lineup that will quickly run up pitch counts on starters and run through relief pitchers.
I remain amazed that the Tigers won so many games in the American League with that lineup. But their steady slide in the second half (19-31 in the last 50 games) was probably a better representation of their roster than how they performed in the first half
The Yankee pitching is suspect because of late-season injuries to Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera. But they need only be adequate for the Yankees to win this series.
This is your classic match up of pitching vs. hitting and in a playoff setting, pitching usually rules. I like the game two battle of Justin Verlander over Mike Mussina and the game four match-up of Jeremy Bonderman over Jaret Wright, so that leaves the Tigers having to win their game five matchup against Chien-Ming Wang. I expect the Tigers to lose bad in game one but then figure Wang out the second time through in game five.
Minnesota Twins (first place, AL Central, #2 seed) vs. Oakland A's (first place, AL West, #3 seed)
GAME 1: A'S @ Twins, Tue., 1:00 PM ET - Zito (16-10, 3.83) vs. Santana (19-6, 2.77)
W L PCT HOME ROAD RS RA Minnesota 96 66 .593 54-27 42-39 801 683 Oakland 93 69 .574 49-32 44-37 771 727
Head to Head: Twins, 6 games to 4.
To me, winning in the playoffs is all about starting pitching. If your starting pitcher can keep you in the game, anything can happen. He just has to be able to turn the game over to a strong bullpen and specifically, a strong closer. So, how do we compare the Twins starters to the A's starters? Well, Johan Santana is remarkable. He faces the A's best, in Barry Zito. After those two pitchers, neither team is really sure what it will get. The Twins have question marks, and the A's have pitchers with potential who just haven't put it together yet for various reasons. That's why I think this series will be won in the bullpens. That definitely favors the Twins whose season bullpen ERA was just 2.03 (the A's 3.57 is good for third in the AL). Offensively, both teams are middle of the pack. The A's have Frank Thomas, Nick Swisher and a bunch of other guys. The Twins have Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and the very hot Torii Hunter right now.
However, the beauty of the playoffs (and maybe its frustration), is that it is a new season. You never know who is going to play poorly in a short series. And you know that some lesser-known player is going to come up with some big hits. I expect that to be the case. Both of these teams are very good, very sound teams. But I think that the Twins bullpen will be the factor that helps them advance to the ALCS.
These are two very similar teams: they both have good starters, deep bullpens and a solid defense (each team committed only 84 errors). Neither offense is intimidating; the two teams finished 8th and 9th in runs scored.
The Twins have two major advantages in this series. First, the A's let-'em-hit-it-weakly approach to pitching and defense seems to be neutralized on artificial turf. The A's had an AL-worst 6.21 ERA on fake grass this year. In the six games at the Metrodome between the two teams this year, the Twins scored 37 runs. In Oakland, the Twins only scored four runs in four games.
The second Twins' advantage is having Johan Santana lined up to pitch twice. The A's either have to somehow beat Johan Santana at the Metrodome, where he hasn't lost in over a year, or sweep the three non-Santana games. Barry Zito will probably have to outduel Santana at least once, if his career in an Oakland uniform is to continue beyond this series. Santana is by far the best pitcher in these playoffs, and he should be the difference here.
As for me, I would take the Mets, Padres, Yankees, and Twins. Favorites all. These teams had better records than their opponents and also beat them head-to-head in every case. Should an upset occur in the NL, I would expect the Dodgers to beat the Mets. In the AL, I can see the A's beating the Twins, especially if they handle Santana in the opener. If there is a sweep, I would look for the Yankees to get their brooms out against the Tigers.
Thank goodness, the games are played on the field rather than on paper. It's time to get after it. Play ball!