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2008 Playoffs
Division Series Preview
October 1, 2008

Chicago is celebrating, sending two teams to the playoffs for the first time in over 100 years.  The networks are celebrating because two Chicago teams and two Los Angeles teams are in the playoffs.  If the Mets would have made it, it would have been a dream come true for ratings-watchers.

The theme of the 2008 Playoffs could be Lord of the Flaws.  Every team in this postseason is far from perfect.  From an outsider’s view, it seems that the Cubs, Angels, and Rays have the fewest things to worry about, but no team is hardly a lock as evidenced by recent runs by not-so-perfect teams like the 2006 Cardinals and the 2003 Marlins.  There’s usually a surprise or two along the way, but TCO will try to steer you in the right direction before the first pitch is thrown.

As it stands, the Cubs (yes, the Cubs) have the best shot simply because I don't see any National League team standing in their way to the World Series.  The Angels, Red Sox, and Rays have the talent to win it all but will be forced to battle each other along the way.  In fact, the Boston/Los Angeles series might just be the two teams with the most potential for playoff success.  Unfortunately, they play each other in the first round.

Of the eight teams, some have talent, some have experience, and some have both.  It's too hard to say who will be standing at the end, but we can take a look at each Division Series and tell you who will move on to the LCS. 

National League
Philadelphia vs. Milwaukee
With Ben Sheets lost for the season, Milwaukee’s one advantage (pitching depth) is taken away.  At this point in the season, the Phillies and Brewers are very similar teams, having to depend on one or two pitchers to carry them while a slugging offense does the rest.

Game 1 pits Cole Hamels against young but talented Yovani Gallardo.  Gallardo has some terrific stuff, but Hamels is the kind of power pitcher built to win a playoff game.  CC Sabathia throws in Game 2 and, despite the dismal playoff performance last year, I’m not going against CC the way he’s been carrying the team.  Unfortunately for Milwaukee, that may be the end of the line.  Braun and Fielder are quite capable of carrying the offense, but the Phillies boast Howard, Rollins, Utley, and Burrell, so it’s going to take an overachieving effort on the mound from someone other than Sabathia if the Brewers want to advance.

This series figures to be close, but it seems that when one team builds momentum in a short series, it’s hard to stop (only 2 of the last 16 division series have gone 5 games).  Philadelphia has crafty veteran Jamie Moyer ready to throw Milwaukee off balance after seeing strikeout pitchers Hamels and Myers, and more importantly, they have Brad Lidge at their disposal.  That’s enough to give Philly the edge in a short series.  The only thing that worries me is that almost every expert on ESPN is picking the Phillies in four games.  Rarely is everyone right.  Nevertheless, I’m joining the hive mentality.
Prediction: Phillies in 4

Los Angeles vs. Chicago
Quite simply, the Dodgers are just overmatched in the pitching department, and that will be too much to overcome.  Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley are quite capable, but Ryan Dempster has been dominant at home (Chicago’s Game 1 starter) and hasn’t really gone into a slump the entire season (2.96 ERA).  Carlos Zambrano is easily the best or worst pitcher in the series, so Game 2 might be LA’s chance to steal one if “Big Z” is off his game that night.

What tips the scales in Chicago’s favor is having an ace like Rich Harden start Game 3.  Kuroda will start for the Dodgers and has been very Zambrano-like this year, sometimes dominant but potentially disastrous.  While Harden is unlikely to see the 7th inning, Game 3 comes after a day off and Chicago’s top bullpen arms (Marmol, Wood) should be plenty rested and ready for action.  Having 17-game winner Ted Lilly pegged for Game 4 doesn’t hurt either.

On offense, Manny Ramirez has shown that he can carry the Dodgers when needed, but the Cubs will treat him like an aging dog with bladder issues, walking him frequently.  It will be up to the younger stars in LA like Kemp, Ethier, and Martin to come through with the extra hit when needed.  They might be up to the task, but the Cubs’ offense of Soriano, Ramirez, Soto, Lee, and a host of valuable platoons will keep the pressure on LA and give Chicago an easy ride into round 2.
Prediction: Cubs in 3

American League
Boston vs. Los Angeles
Top notch closers?  Check.  Fear inducing hitter in the middle of the lineup?  Check.  Three solid starting pitchers?  Check.  Boston and Los Angeles both supply plenty of weapons.  The winner of this series will be the one who can put the exclamation point where the question marks are.  Can Josh Beckett regain a little playoff magic?  Is Jason Bay good enough to help anchor the lineup with Ortiz and Youkilis?  Will Lowell and Drew be healthy enough to contribute?  Will the Angels lineup outside of Vlad and Teixeira do enough to make a difference?

The Red Sox have dominated the Angels in the postseason recently and my hunch is that they will find a way to win, but there are just too many variables against them right now.  While Jon Lester has been remarkable and Matsuzaka has been even better, I have a feeling that Beckett will not be able to overcome the oblique injury and that will ultimately be Boston’s downfall.

Mark Teixeira will come up big in several situations and LA’s depth will help them prevail in what should be a series of close games.
Prediction: Angels in 4

Chicago vs. Tampa Bay
One team snuck in on the day after the day after the last day of the season.  The other team nestled into the playoffs comfortably around mid-September.  Still, it’s not a lock to pencil in the Rays for the ALCS just yet.

Chicago has proven that they don’t go away easily, besting the Indians and Tigers over the course of the season despite no one picking the White Sox ahead of them.  Then their team MVP, Carlos Quentin, was lost for the season, but they still hung on to make the playoffs.  The young pitchers (Danks, Floyd) seem battle tested and ready based on their performances the past few days.  Still, the White Sox just don’t have the ability to win games in as many ways as Tampa Bay.  Rarely will the White Sox string together a series of base hits, keeping the pressure on the pitcher.  Instead, it will be a walk and a home run, with some strikeouts and double plays mixed in.  When the ball is flying out, it’s a successful formula, but at all other times, it’s just a lesson in frustration.

Tampa Bay’s pitching is what got them here, and it’s likely what will put them in the next round.  Shields, Kazmir, and Garza are all capable of dominating a game, so the pressure will be off the Rays’ offense to score in bunches.  If the young squad can put a couple early runs on the board in their home park, it will be tough for the White Sox to come back.

Like the Dodgers against the Cubs, it’s not that the White Sox CAN’T win this series – anything can happen in 5 games;  it’s just a lot more likely that the Rays will continue their success at home, winning the first two games and finish up the series in Chicago.  If Vazquez can’t pitch into the 7th inning in Game 1, there will be too much pressure on Mark Buehrle to turn things around in Game 2.  As exciting as Chicago’s recent ride has been, look for it to end in a few days.
Prediction: Rays in 3