Division Series Preview
October 2, 2006
Baseball in October. Greg Maddux is here. Tom Glavine is here. John Smoltz and the Braves? Maybe next year. It was a wild, sometimes ugly, finish to the season, with many of the playoff teams just happy to still be alive. There is no dominant team, making this year's title one for the taking.
If you've been reading my blog, then you already know that one team who won't be taking any trophies home is the St. Louis Cardinals. Here's why: in 30+ years, not a single National League team has even made it to the World Series if they finished the regular season in the bottom half of the league in ERA. In 2006, St. Louis finished 9th of 16 NL teams in ERA. The other 3 NL playoff teams? 1st (San Diego), 3rd (New York), and 4th (Los Angeles).
Normally, I make all of my predictions at once, but this year I will only make predictions round by round so that each matchup can be scrutinized. My preseason pick was the New York Yankees, so it will be hard to pick against them, but you just never know what a matchup might bring down the road. On to the Division Series matchups:
Detroit vs. New York
Before you completely count out Detroit because of their recent free fall, remember that the Chicago White Sox entered last postseason playing mediocre ball and only lost 1 game through the entire playoffs. Detroit still managed to finish the year with the league's best ERA, and the bullpen is stocked with talent. Failing to get to that bullpen with a lead will be the Tigers' greatest downfall.
There is no room for mistakes in New York's lineup, so Detroit will have to be practically perfect on the road to open the series. With Chien-Ming Wang starting Game 1 for the Yankees while Detroit's most experienced starter, Kenny Rogers, is forced to the bench until Game 3 because of his inability to pitch in Yankee Stadium, I just can't see the Tigers coming back to Detroit in good shape. New York has home field advantage, a starting pitching edge in Games 1 and 2, and a lineup deeper than any in baseball. Detroit's season ending slump will continue into October, propelling New York into the ALCS.
Prediction: New York in 4
Oakland vs. Minnesota
Flip a coin on this series. Oakland and Minnesota match up about as evenly as 2 teams can: strong pitching led by an ace (Santana and Zito), one power hitter in the middle of the lineup (Morneau and Thomas), and a dominant closer (Nathan and Street), not to mention fundamentally sound baseball on both sides.
Johan Santana is the best of the bunch, but if Zito can match him in Game 1, the advantage falls to Oakland. Look up the last time Santana lost in the Metrodome, however, and the odds are not with the A's. Expect this series to go the distance, with Nathan closing out Game 5 in the Metrodome after a brilliant 8 innings by the best pitcher in the playoffs.
Prediction: Minnesota in 5
St. Louis vs. San Diego
The Cardinals swept this series last year, but San Diego is an improved club and St. Louis is nowhere near the team it was last year. Age and injuries have caught up with the Cardinals, leaving them to lean even harder on Albert Pujols than before. Fortunately for St. Louis, Pujols is capable of winning games all by himself.
San Diego's pitching is vastly better than St. Louis, with Jake Peavy and Chris Young making a pretty nasty 1-2 punch. In fact, Young has been one of the hottest pitchers in the NL over the past month and is just reaching his prime. The Padres could use a little more power in the lineup, but the offense is built for playoff baseball: get on, get over, get in.
With Carpenter a shadow of his former self, San Diego will win at LEAST 1 of the first 2 games, putting a lot of pressure on the shaky Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis. Pujols will humble San Diego's pitching staff (best ERA in the NL), but it won't be enough to offset the blowups Cardinals pitching can deliver.
Prediction: San Diego in 4
Los Angeles vs. New York
I'm already looking forward to Game 2's matchup of Maddux vs. Glavine, but the entire series presents many interesting matchups. With veterans like J.D. Drew, Garciaparra, Delgado, Beltran, Kent, Lofton, and others fighting for a chance at a ring, this series is capable of having several heroic finishes before it's over.
With Pedro Martinez in street clothes, New York's starting pitching looks extremely suspect. El Duque will start Game 1 despite being nothing more than mediocre all year. Any pitching woes New York may have is offset by a lineup with few weaknesses. Floyd, Green, and Valentin are well past their prime but should provide more stability than unproven youngsters in the same role.
Los Angeles scored only 14 runs less than New York this season but did it differently than the Mets. While the Mets were never afraid of the home run (200 this year), the Dodgers scored their runs by leading the NL in OBP and depending on the timely hit. In this particular matchup, I think LA's approach could drive the New York starters away early, forcing Willie Randolph to go to his stellar bullpen sooner than he wants.
If and when the series extends, Los Angeles will have the advantage of throwing Brad Penny, a true dominant ace when healthy, and Derek Lowe in the last 2 games. Penny is just the kind of pitcher who can shut down high powered offenses with power of his own. This will be an exciting series, but this time Grady Little won't need Pedro Martinez to advance to the next round. Since the Mets DO need Martinez but can't use him, the Dodgers will prevail in a Game 5 blowout.
Prediction: Los Angeles in 5