Friday, October 3, 2008

Remember When I Used to Write About Baseball?

I have to issue a most serious, sincere apology to all those who have enjoyed reading my thoughts about baseball for the egregious, inexcusable five-month hiatus of Jake's Baseball Blog. I guess I'm just not very good at keeping up two blogs at once, and with this unbelievable election season I have focused my writing for fun over at Blue Musings. What's most inexcusable about my hiatus is that it took place basically during the entirety of the actual season. Now it's October, the leaves are turning, and eight teams are left to vie for the World Series title. And I have regret about not getting my feelings about these last five months out to you.

You never got to hear my feelings on the incredible rise of the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the most surprising playoff teams in recent history. I never let you know how I felt about the New York Mets imploding once again, and the injustice of Omar Minaya's four-year extension. I never wrote here about CC Sabathia's dominance of the NL, Tim Lincecum's breakout season, and Cliff Lee's improbable road to 22 wins. I never came here to discuss the longest All-Star Game in history, and the emotional closing of the stadium where it was played. I never gushed over Dustin Pedroia's MVP season, and him perhaps becoming my favorite Red Sox player ever. And, most regretfully, I never came here to pour out my incredibly conflicted feelings about the trade of Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers, perhaps the seminal off-the-field happening of my entire time following the Sox.

So, once again, I'm sorry. But I'm here now, and as always, this is the best time to be watching. I'll handicap for you what I expect to see in the remainder of the Division Series.

Dodgers v. Cubs (LA leads 2-0): I think it's safe to say the Dodgers hold that "Team of Destiny" mantle that went along with the Rockies, Tigers, White Sox, and Red Sox in the last four postseasons, respectively. They didn't finish the regular season with a great overall record, and they played rather passively until the trading deadline. Then came Manny. He hit .396 with 17 homers the rest of the way, and the Dodgers essentially left Arizona in the dust for the West Division crown. Now, they're a dynamic group mixing youngsters and veterans, and they're heading back to Chavez Ravine after ripping the Cubs' guts out in two at Wrigley.

It's hard not to feel bad for the Cubs and their fans. They had, on paper, the very best team in the NL all season, and then they run into the momentous Dodgers buzzsaw in October. They didn't just lose those first two games in Chicago: they were embarrassed there. They could never get that vaunted offense going, and both Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano were inconsistent in their starts.

Tomorrow night Hiroki Kuroda will face off against Rich Harden in a do-or-die game for the Cubs. Given Harden's unpredictability, and the likelihood of a raucous Dodgers Stadium crowd, I think this series will be over after tomorrow's game. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dodgers won each of their next five games, either. They are the Team of Destiny in 2008. But, as the Rockies and Tigers proved, the Team of Destiny doesn't always win it all.

Brewers v. Phillies (Philly leads 2-0): My vote for "Least Surprising Outcome Through Two Games in the LDS" goes to this series. The Brewers got into the playoffs by the hair on Prince Fielder's ass, and their big weaknesses have been exposed thus far. Inexperienced guys in clutch situations, bad defense, bullpen woes, and no one to pitch well for extended innings besides Sabathia. His inability to get through the fourth inning in yesterday's game speaks volumes about just how screwed the Brewers are. We saw the same thing last year with Sabathia in the playoffs. It appears that he, like just about any other pitcher these days, just simply can't perform once they his 250 innings in a season.

On the other side, the Phils have seen two excellent starts from Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, and while the ghosts of Brad Lidge's playoff past seemed to come alive in Game 1, he definitely settled down in Game 2. The offense has come up with timely hits with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino leading the way. Philly will look to Jamie Moyer to close out the series in Milwaukee. I won't rule out one Brewers win at home here, but Hamels will get the ball again Sunday, so I don't expect this series to go much past that. It will be great for the Phillies and their long-suffering fans to finally get back to the NLCS.

Of course, they'll just be heartbroken again after the Dodgers sweep them in that series.

White Sox v. Rays (Tampa Bay leads 1-0): Before this series began, I had this unexplainable, gut feeling that Chicago's momentum from beating the Tigers on Monday and then topping Minnesota in their one-game playoff Tuesday would lead to them pulling the upset against Tampa. I didn't get to see this game last night, but given Javier Vazquez's poor performance, and the apparent cohesiveness of the Tampa offense, I may have to rethink that stance.

Is Tampa's playoff inexperience a curse or a virtue? Will they wilt in key spots or will they be too scared or stupid to know how to act? I'm still having a tough time fathoming that the Tampa Bay Rays are in the playoffs. We are talking about the same Rays that finished last almost every other year of their existence, right? In my AL East preview from February, I said Tampa would be a "fun team to watch in 2008 and may surprise some people," and they could "drum up enough interest to get people out to the Trop even when the Sox or Yanks aren't in town." So I was right in those regards. But I never, ever thought they would have this much success this fast (I picked them to come in 4th), and here they are with homefield advantage in the ALDS.

If Mark Buehrle can stop the Rays train tonight, I'll feel much more confident about my gut feeling of the White Sox winning this series. If not, then I think we can safely pencil the Rays in for the ALCS.

I still can't believe I just wrote that last sentence.

Red Sox v. Angels (Boston leads 1-0): This Red Sox season has certainly not been without drama and intrigue. The Manny Saga aside, we saw awesome years from Pedroia, Youkilis, Lester, Matsuzaka and Papelbon, mediocre seasons from Beckett, Wakefield, the centerfield platoon, Varitek, and the rest of the bullpen, and abysmal/injury-plagued seasons from Buchholz, Drew, Lowell, Ortiz and Lugo. We saw the emergence of young future stalwarts like Jed Lowrie (Lugo only plays on the Red Sox as a $9 millon backup from now on. Period.), Justin Masterson and Manny Delcarmen. They played their best baseball behind the mid-season acquisitions of Jason Bay, Paul Byrd and Mark Kotsay. It was Bay who hit the go-ahead bomb to give the Red Sox the lead in Game 1 against the Angels. He had exactly the same number of postseason homers in 2008 as Manny. Until about 20 hours later. (Damn you, Manny).

I'm sure there were plenty of people who thought the key injuries to Lowell and Drew, Beckett's first start being pushed back to Sunday, and not having #24 out there would lead to a quick exit from the 2008 playoffs for the Red Sox. Well, they all forgot that these are the Red Sox, and their playoff success has never been about one guy, or two guys, or three guys. It's always been about 25 guys who go out there everyday and wear the jersey with pride, and they respond to the greatest fans in the world each time. They're going to win behind the sterling success of Lester and Dice-K, and the intense, in-your-face, leave-everything-out-there style of Pedroia, Youkilis and Papelbon. Everything else will trickle down from that.

Wednesday's win was the 10th in a row for the Red Sox against the Angels in the postseason, dating way back to that mythical Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, when Dave Henderson saved the Red Sox season with a homer off Donny Moore (followed by Henderson jumping roughly 25 feet in the air while skipping up the 1st base line). Spike Owen said that on the plane ride back to Boston, all 25 Sox, to a man, knew they'd win Games 6 and 7 to get back to the Series. I almost feel like the Red Sox just know this time around that they're going to win despite the odds. These Angels are a stacked group, the best all-around team in baseball. But there's just something about these two teams getting together. I just think these Sox are a better team than these Angels right now.

If the Sox can manage a win tonight, and head back to Boston 2-0, they will be back to the ALCS for the fourth time in six years. They're on a collision course to face Manny and the Dodgers in the World Series.

I can't even begin to imagine what a series like that will mean.

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