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2004 Division Series Preview
October 5, 2004

If baseball was just about pitching and statistics, the Cubs would be playing in October, the Braves would be watching from their homes, and Oakland would actually win a playoff series.  Anaheim got it done two years ago with a solid bullpen, mediocre starters, and a strong offense.  Florida won it all last year with dominant starting pitching and a consistent, solid lineup.  Arizona prevailed in ’01 with two dominant starters and not much else.  New York has won it with pitching and hitting over the past decade.

No single formula can determine success in the playoffs, and even the statistics themselves can be misleading.  Atlanta finished the year with a major league leading team ERA of 3.74, but they have probably the least feared rotation heading into the playoffs.  The victors will result from the best combination of pitching, hitting, defense, managing, and luck.  Without the last ingredient, Florida would never have reached the NLCS (thanks to a dropped flyball in San Francisco), let alone the World Series (thank you, Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez, etc.).  Without further adieu, let’s take a look at who has best positioned themselves to get lucky this year.

American League
Boston vs. Anaheim
The most intriguing of the four matchups, Boston and Anaheim both have the right mix to win it all.  Schilling’s games will give the Red Sox the upper hand, but with Pedro struggling (losing his last four starts), some of the games will come down to the bullpen, one of Anaheim’s best assets.  I expect Schilling to dominate in at least one of his two starts, Vladimir Guerrero to single handedly win a game, and for Anaheim’s bullpen to secure a game 5 lead and finish off Boston in the most exciting series of the first round.
Prediction: Angels in 5

Minnesota vs. New York
Despite the gaudy record the Yankees hold over the Twins at home the past few years, Minnesota matches up well and is poised for an upset.  Johan Santana has been the league’s best pitcher, and I fully expect him to win Game 1, putting an end to Minnesota’s woes in the House That Ruth Built.  New York’s pitching is very suspect, and starting Jon Lieber in Game 2 isn’t exactly consoling.  The Yankees can hit with the best of them, and have several future Hall of Famers in the lineup, but the Twins are a more well-rounded bunch.  Even Minnesota’s bullpen has caught up with the Yankees, with Romero and Nathan neutralizing the dominance of Mariano Rivera.  Expect the games to be close, but Minnesota will get the early lead and keep it, making Rivera a non-factor in the series.
Prediction: Twins in 4

National League
Houston vs. Atlanta
This is a tough one.  Houston is on fire and is doing everything right, but Atlanta just keeps on winning despite what appears to be a very mediocre team on paper (Charles Thomas? Adam LaRoche? Jaret Wright as a #1 starter?).  With Clemens and Oswalt going in the first two games, everything points to Houston, but Atlanta has done it all year long against similar odds, so there’s no reason things will change now.  My mind says Houston, but my gut says Atlanta.  Julio Franco will come through with a game winning hit, Jeff Bagwell’s ailing shoulder will cost the Astros a run or two (Furcal and Atlanta’s pitchers will take advantage), and Clemens will shown some signs of being human, losing the opening game.
Prediction: Braves in 4

St. Louis vs. Los Angeles
The Redbirds have come down to earth a little in September, but the Dodgers kind of limped their way into the playoffs, so neither team is riding a high right now.  St. Louis had nothing to play for, however, so the past month shouldn’t be indicative of what they can do.  Losing Chris Carpenter is a severe blow to a questionable starting staff, but St. Louis’ offense more than offsets any problems they might have on the mound.  A lineup with Walker, Pujols, Rolen, Edmunds, etc. against LA’s starting trio of Perez, Weaver, and Lima is a mismatch the Dodgers will not be able to overcome.  “Lima Time” will prevail in Game 3, but that will be LA’s only win.
Prediction: Cardinals in 4

Check out TCO's 2004 Season Preview for an April flashback to see how well The Commish predicted this season's outcomes.