Wednesday, October 3, 2007

2007 ALDS/NLDS preview

By Rick Morris

The first round of the MLB playoffs has resembled “March Madness” almost since the inception of the three-round playoff format instituted in 1994 (but not utilized until 1995 – thanks again, players’ union!). This year could well be the wildest yet, with four fairly evenly-matched teams in the superior American League and a number of hot teams in the National League – with only the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks not needing an insanely hot second half just to make the postseason in another down year for the NL. Before anyone overestimates momentum going into October, however, remember that the Cardinals and Tigers were ice-cold going into the playoffs last year only to turn it on when it counted and that the Cleveland Indians were absolutely dominant heading into the 1996 playoffs only to have their fortunes turn on a dime against Baltimore. Here’s how each of the series looks going in:

RED SOX/ANGELS: More than any other series, this one has many mirror-image elements. Both teams go three-deep with scary starting pitchers and are the only teams in the postseason to be able to make that claim. Both aces are legitimate big-game pitchers with both John Lackey (2002) and Josh Beckett (2003) having been on the hill for their teams in a World Series clincher – and both did it under impressive circumstances with Lackey having achieved it in Game Seven as a rookie and Beckett pitching on short rest. Lackey has been awful at Fenway Park and the Red Sox have home-field advantage, so advantage Boston in terms of the top of the rotation. Both teams have great bullpens, but saw big lapses down the stretch. Both pens are anchored by flamethrowing young dominators. The Red Sox have more power than the Angels, but not as much as you would have thought coming into the season – frankly, the top power hitters for both teams were a bit disappointing this year. The Angels, conversely, have better speed, much as you would expect. With so little appearing to separate the teams, ultimately the advantage seems to go to Boston based on Lackey’s Fenway issues and the marvelous strikeout-to-walk ratio of Curt Schilling seeming to foreshadow another great October. Red Sox in 5.

INDIANS/YANKEES: Too much has been made of the Yankees’ domination of the Tribe in the regular season, when, due to a fluke of the schedule, they did not have to face C.C. Sabathia once. The Indians have the widest edge in starting pitching of any of the eight Division Series teams, as the dual aces of Sabathia and Fausto Carmona blow away anyone the Yanks have at this stage of their careers. Unfortunately for the Indians, they lost the American League #1 seed to Boston on a tiebreaker and, as such, lost the right to choose a more spread-out playoff schedule – and therefore cannot pitch Sabathia and Carmona twice on normal rest as they would have otherwise. That format would have rendered Cleveland a dramatic favorite instead of a narrow one. Still, Jake Westbrook’s matchup against Roger Clemens in Game Three is the only one where the Yanks have a clear-cut advantage on paper. The Yankee bullpen is somewhat shaky outside of super-rookie Joba Chamberlain and the still-somewhat-fearsome Mariano Rivera. For the Tribe, the two Rafaels (Betancourt and Perez) have provided almost all of the great moments, along with up-and-down closer Joe Borowski. The Bronx Bomber lineup is superior to Cleveland’s, although the likelihood of defensive specialist Doug Mientkiewicz appearing regularly at first base diminishes the advantage. analyst Bob Glassman correctly stated that one of the key matchups during the series will come in likely MVP Alex Rodriguez’s first two or three at-bats against C.C. Sabathia, against whom he has done well. If Sabathia, perhaps the Cy Young frontrunner, can shut down ARod, the usual chatter about October failures and the 2008 contract situation could spiral out of control in the New York media. Additionally, the designated hitters could tell the tale as well: Travis Hafner is finally doing well at the end of a disappointing season, while Hideki Matsui is being forced into the DH role right now because he is not 100% physically. Ultimately, timely hitting, which has been the forte of the 2007 Indians, should carry over at least into this series as Cleveland moves on to the ALCS. Indians in 5.

PHILLIES/ROCKIES: These are the poster children for hot teams going into the postseason, with Colorado’s win for the ages on Monday night solidifying the team’s emotional high. Unfortunately, the draining extra-innings extra game may have left them ill-suited to travel cross-country to battle another spirited young team in the Philadelphia with only a day’s rest. As such, the Phillies benefit right off the bat by not only having home field, but the luxury of having everything set up their way. Neither team has great starting or relief pitching, but a minor edge in both areas would go to Philly. Both lineups are fairly deep with explosive young talent, epitomized by MVP candidates Matt Holliday for Colorado and Jimmy Rollins for Philadelphia. They are further exemplified by Rockies Brad Hawpe, Rookie of the Year candidate Troy Tulowitzki, Garrett Atkins and crafty veteran Todd Helton for the Rockies and 2006 MVP Ryan Howard, sparkplug Aaron Rowand, slugger Pat Burrell and the best second baseman in the game, Chase Utley, for the Phils. Factor in the element that both teams play in hitters’ parks and the scoring should be quite lively. In the end, several key facts play in Philly’s favor: being battle-tested in one of America’s toughest media markets after having started the season in disgraceful fashion, the slight edge in veteran leadership, a more rested bullpen and their ownership of the best pitcher in this series, Cole Hamels. Phillies in 4.

DIAMONDBACKS/CUBS: As has been widely chronicled, Bob Melvin should win Manager of the Century for the job that he has done in shepherding the BabyBacks to the playoffs. Bursting with awesome young talent, Arizona could legitimately become the best team in the National League in a year or two, but they have without question overachieved en route to the National League #1 seed for the demonstrable reason that their young core is simply not productive enough yet. With one legitimate superstar in the lineup (Eric Byrnes), the defending Cy Young award winner (Brandon Webb) and an admittedly great bullpen, the D-Backs have thrived by flying under the radar – but the harsh glare of October doesn’t allow for this method of success to continue. The Cubs survived a tough start with good-not-great starting and relief pitching and timely hitting that disguised a disappointing power output. For Arizona to have any chance whatsoever, they must win both of Webb’s starts and give their stellar bullpen an opportunity to steal one more game. This seems quite unlikely. Chicago, like Philadelphia, was given up for dead after a brutal start to the season. Now, they are the frontrunners to meet in the National League Championship Series. Cubs in 4.

Projections for the next rounds of playoffs: American League Championship Series (Red Sox over Indians in 6), National League Championship Series (Phillies over Cubs in 6), World Series (Red Sox over Phillies in 5).

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