Wednesday, October 8, 2008

LCS Previews

The NLCS will commence in Philadelphia Thursday night, so I figured I would get on here and give my brief previews for that series and the ALCS set to kick off Friday in St. Petersburg. There's a ton of intrigue involved in both matchups, and I'm happy that all four teams remaining are excellent clubs and are all conceivably good enough to win the World Series. I'll start out with the National League:

Dodgers v. Phillies: Both clubs defeated NL Central foes, with the Dodgers completing a sweep against the Cubs and Philly taking four games to dispatch Milwaukee. Each team has balance on offense, terrific starters and a deep, strong bullpen. For LA it's their first NLCS in 20 years and for the Phillies it's been 15. They've both had good teams in the interim years but never could quite get over the top. Now they'll vie for a chance to be the NL representative in the Fall Classic.

I wrote in my last post here that LA feels like the Team of Destiny in 2008. Their tight win in Game 3 in front of the LA fans only adds to my feeling on this. To make the Cubs, the best NL club during the regular season, look as poorly as they did in the NLDS is remarkable. They have this Red Sox-esque mix of veterans and young players (I don't have to tell you that some of those guys WERE Red Sox at one point) that works very well for the personality of the club. Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, Derek Lowe and Juan Pierre and well-complimented by the likes of Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, Blake DeWitt, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Jonathon Broxton. They've got an energy and feel about them great playoff teams always possess. And it doesn't hurt that Joe Torre is at the helm. He's been through a few of these before himself.

As for Philly, their pitching carried them through the Milwaukee series with strong outings in each of the four contests. Cole Hamels has emerged as a bonafide ace for this club, and if they can continue to get strong outings from Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer this series may go the distance. Of course, the Phillies offense is nothing to sneeze at as well, with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell anchoring the lineup.

Interestingly enough, I watched these teams lock up for a Saturday game in Philadelphia in late August. It was the 2nd game of an eventual series sweep for the Phillies, with Cole Hamels dominating and Clayton Kershaw looking very much like a 20-year-old. What got me about this game was the middle of the Dodgers' order, with Manny hitting cleanup and playing left, with Nomar hitting 5th at shortstop. It felt like 2002 all over again.

Anyway, I could see Hamels going out and knocking the Dodgers off their momentum somewhat by taking the first game. After that, however, I see this series as all Dodgers. If they can take Game 2 in Philly I feel very confident they'll win all three games at LA. This is their year to make it to the World Series. It pains me to predict this because no town needs a title of any kind more than Philly. They have a good team, and maybe this group will win the first major sports title for Philadelphia since 1983. But I just feel like it's not their year.

Red Sox v. Rays: I figured there was a very good chance this could have been the 2010 or 2012 ALCS matchup. But never did I think coming into this year that it could be the 2008 ALCS matchup. I'm still having a tough time taking these Rays seriously. I mean, they're the freaking Rays, aren't they? Imagine the Clippers and Lakers playing for the Western Conference title, or the Blue Jackets taking on the Red Wings for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. It's just not right. The Rays shouldn't be here. Not now. Not while the Red Sox are still the best franchise in baseball.

But here they are. They took care of the White Sox, despite my best gut feelings. I should have known better, considering the one-dimensional nature of Chicago's club. They've done it with James Shields and Scott Kazmir at the top of their rotation, but I have every reason to believe the rest of their starts won't pan out when the pressure is on in Fenway. The idea of Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine having success in Boston in October might be the biggest "I'll believe it when I see it" scenario I've had in a long time. I almost feel like Joe Maddon is pulling a fast one on us with Sonnanstine and he's really going to start David Price in that game. I mean, really? The guy's got a #1 overall pick with an electric left arm just sitting out in the bullpen and he's going to start Andy Freakin' Sonnanstine over him? Something smells here.

Tampa's offense performed well against Chicago and their success against Boston pitching during the year will give them confidence going in. I do wonder about their bullpen, I'm not sure I would trust Dan Wheeler to close out a playoff game with 39,000 Sox fans screaming for his head. (That scenario is applicable to games in both Tampa and Boston). I once had an away message that said: "The three things in the world that I love most: Hot girls, sandwiches, and the Tampa Bay bullpen." I figured that if I was hanging out with hot girls, while downing a steak and cheese, while watching Tampa's parade of 21-year-old-shouldn't-be-in-the-majors-deer-in-the-headlights relievers pitch blow leads against the Red Sox, I'd be in heaven. I'm not sure where I'm going so I'll stop.

This provides a nice segue into my feelings on the Red Sox heading into this series. I have never been prouder of a Red Sox team than I was surrounding this past series against the Angels. I mean that. They played their asses off to win the first two games in LA. They had many opportunties to end the series in Game 3 but couldn't capitalize. They could have withered away in Game 4 after the Masterson Cross-up (which is what that play would have been called for ever if they'd lost that game and eventually the series in LA), but they played tough, and won an incredible game to advance to the ALCS.

There's no question that on paper the Angels were the better team, but they killed themselves with careless mistakes and couldn't make the best of opportunities like the Red Sox did. Erick Aybar's inability to execute a squeeze bunt in that key spot, given the emphasis that Mike Scioscia's clubs put on fundamentals, may have been the biggest surprise of the entire 2008 postseason thus far.

The Sox will miss Mike Lowell dearly. They are a weaker team without him on the field. But Mark Kotsay proved the other night that he can play first base with the best of them, and his scorcher down the line in the 9th should have been the winning hit of Game 4. We know Youk can play a mean 3rd base. And with new, emerging leaders like Jed Lowrie and Jason Bay, I feel more confident than ever about this team's ability to win.

My biggest concern going forward is the bullpen, and in particular, the ability of Jonathon Papelbon to bounce back on a day-to-day basis for the rest of the playoffs. I'm confident he will, simply because he's Papelbon, and it's the playoffs. By the way, if you missed his antics after the series clincher Monday night, then I feel bad for you. There is no one on earth like this guy, and we're so lucky to have him around.

Anyway, I have a lot of confidence the Red Sox will be able to capitalize on the youth and inexperience of the Rays in this ALCS. It should be fun to watch the pseudo-home crowd in Tampa, and like the other LCS, I feel if the Sox can take one game in Tampa this series might not get back there for Game 6. Then we'd have the Dodgers-Red Sox match up everyone's been dreaming about.

Of course, that scenario of intrigue almost never happens (see 2003). For the sake of the game, I hope it does.

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.