Tuesday, October 9, 2007

2007 ALCS/NLCS preview

By Rick Morris

I correctly predicted the participants in the American League Championship Series, but missed wildly on the NLCS. In that matchup, we will see one of the greatest underdog vs. underdog matchups in the recent history of sports.

The Diamondbacks are a fascinating story. This team, so filled with young and raw talent, but so underdeveloped, seemed to morph into their 2009 selves right before our very eyes against the Cubs in the Division Series. Assuming that everyone stays healthy, the Arizona lineup will in another year or two be very comparable to the Big Red Machine, the ’95 Indians or the Yankees of the past year or two, whichever comparison you prefer. But they’re just not there yet – regular season numbers don’t lie. I love to find cross-sports analogies, and I’m trying in vain to come up with an example of a team collectively playing a year or two ahead of its time like what we’ve seen from the BabyBacks. The closest comparison I can find right now is the ’92 Cowboys, who were thought to be a year or two away once they reached the playoffs, but their regular season performance was far more advanced than that of the ’07 Diamondbacks. The ’74 Steelers were also young, but again, probably more developed than this team.

Fans of the Backs and Rockies won’t appreciate my conclusion on this matter, but the success of these teams speaks largely to the utter mediocrity of the National League. These teams play in a tough division, but it is flawed. The Padres have yet to get serious about augmenting their great pitching with even an adequate offense and the Dodgers continue to be mired in an identity crisis about whether they’re a big-spending veteran team or one totally committed to their superlative young talent. The less said about Frisco, the better. And the league as a whole has perhaps never been further behind the AL. Clearly, the Cubs “won” their division by being the least flawed of a bad bunch in the Central and the Phillies, like the Rockies, were just treading water before playing super-hot baseball starting in mid-September. When one great streak at the right time can put you in October, it’s more a testament to the mediocrity around you that allows you to blow by them. Whoever wins the NLCS will deservedly be a steep underdog to the team coming out of the “winner’s bracket.”

NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: Can the “future version” of the Diamondbacks stick around for one more series against the Rockies? At the risk of underestimating the Rockies for the second consecutive round, they shouldn’t have to. Their legitimate ace is one more than Colorado has and their bullpen is as sweet as any in the game, so they rate the edge in any close game going into the late innings. Plus, the one advantage that the Rocks have, their insane momentum, should diminish from the lag time between series. They do have an incredible core of young hitters just entering their primes, led by the underrated-no-more megastar Matt Holliday, so they should not be underestimated, especially in games when the DBacks trot out an overmatched pitcher (I’m looking at you, Doug Davis). Colorado’s only chance seems to be to steal one from Brandon Webb in Game One and keep the offensive momentum steamrolling over Arizona’s thin remaining starting pitching. If they can do this, they could win in a relatively short series. But I don’t see that happening. Diamondbacks in 6.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: These are clearly the two best-balanced teams in Major League Baseball at the moment, as the first round demonstrated. With Curt Schilling reverting to October form as I predicted for the first round, he has earned his way into the #2 slot in the rotation, which promises a pair of incredibly tight pitching battles in the first two games of the series as Beckett-Sabathia and Schilling-Carmona will keep us all on the edge of our seats. Dice-K probably still rates an edge over whoever the Tribe designates as a #3, however. The lineups seem fairly even at the moment, owing largely to the roll that Indians like Asdrubal Cabrera and Kenny Lofton have been on lately. The bullpens also seem well-matched, with the notable exception of Papelbon vs. Joe Blow at closer. That disparity, combined with the Boston edge in starting pitching depth, is likely to tell the tale in the end. Red Sox in 6.

World Series Prediction: Red Sox in 5.

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