Wednesday, October 1, 2008

2008 ALDS/NLDS preview

By Rick Morris

October baseball has returned and not a moment too soon! It’s always fun to see players who have established themselves as the game’s biggest stars on this stage for the first time. We had a bumper crop last year (including, but not limited to, Matt Holliday, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley) and this year many more of the new rulers of the game play in the autumn for the first time. Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Ben Sheets, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Alexei Ramirez, Chad Billingsley, Geovany Soto, Jason Bay, John Danks and Scott Kazmir will all be carving their first October memories (as will Carlos Quentin and Carl Crawford if they heal in enough time). Additionally, some faces who haven’t been on the postseason stage in years will be returning: Jim Thome, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Ray Durham.

Some hugely intriguing World Series matchups could be formed by these eight teams. Here’s a look at the top ten possibilities:

1. Red Sox-Cubs: Needs no elaboration.

2. White Sox-Cubs: The Battle of Chicago would put the intensity of any other sporting event this decade to shame.

3. Red Sox-Dodgers: Two historic franchises, Joe Torre vs. the Red Sox in the World Series, Manny vs. Beantown.

4. Angels-Dodgers: The Battle of SoCal would be pretty intense as the upstart Dodgers try to work their way out of the Angels’ shadow – and try to restore the status quo ante from the Angels’ first four decades of existence.

5. Angels-Cubs: The best team in each league on paper matching up, two teams that used to play at a Wrigley Field, Mike Scioscia vs. Lou Pinella playing chess with their very deep squads – this is the best pure baseball matchup of the bunch.

6. Rays-Cubs: There is no purer new school/old school potential clash between franchises. How bitter would Cubs fans be to blow a World Series title on the 100th anniversary of their last title against a team with the most apathetic fanbase in the game? And how bitter would Pinella be to have his old team get over on him?

7. White Sox-Brewers: It’s not exactly a Subway Series, but the close proximity of these teams – and their past American League battles – would add plenty of spice.

8. Red Sox-Phillies: Two historic franchises, two hard-core sports cities that despise each other.

9. White Sox-Dodgers: Just a year shy of the golden anniversary of their 1959 World Series tilt involving two large-market cities.

10. Rays-Phillies: Similar to Rays-Cubs, Phillies fans would be very bitter to see their long-suffering franchise lose to a newcomer.

One additional note: as we noted last year at this time, the Red Sox took a gigantic leap towards Team of the Decade status with their second world title in this span. But this October features two other teams who could match that feat, the Angels and the White Sox.

On with the series previews:

RAYS-WHITE SOX: Tampa has to be a bit disappointed not to draw the Twins, who would have been an extremely favorable matchup with their lack of pop. It will be a long winter in the Twin Cities as fans wonder what might have been had their ace Francisco Liriano been activated by the team even a week earlier. Ron Gardenhire should get Manager of the Decade for getting that crew within even sniffing distance of the postseason. Nevertheless, they fell short in an outstanding play-in game and now the South Siders make it back in for the first time since their world title in ’05. Minus Quentin, their lineup is excessively streaky, but still potentially imposing. Their frontline starters compare favorably with the Rays in terms of experience if not present production. Tampa comes in as a team mistakenly labeled a “Cinderella Story” by many – it’s a wonderfully talented young team that has been gelling (although underachieving) for the last few years. Think 1991 Atlanta Braves, a team that had also finished in last place the previous season but was on the verge of a wondrous run. The team may well have missed an opportunity at the trading deadline, however, when they passed up the chance to add the additional bat that they really need. Sans Crawford, they are vulnerable, but the White Sox are counting too much on the emotional lift of the victories of the past few days heading into this series. The well-rested Rays, augmented by the veteran presence this year of Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival, should advance. Rays in 4.

ANGELS-RED SOX: This is the marquee series in terms of two perennial postseason contenders going head-to-head. The Angels got the better of Boston in the regular season, but the Sox rolled the SoCals in the ’04 and ’07 playoffs. The Angels were the preseason World Series pick here and frankly, they did nothing to dispel the notion that they were the best team in baseball as they rolled, machine-like, to the best record in the game. They’re deep, they’re experienced and they’re well-managed. John Lackey heads up a darn good 1-2-3 punch in the rotation and he’s probably the least-appreciated ace in the game. His counterpart, Josh Beckett, is this generation’s best big-game pitcher, but he’s battled through one injury after another all year long and isn’t 100% right now. Dice-K and Jon Lester took big steps forward, so Curt Schilling isn’t missed as much as he otherwise would have been. The lineup looks more human with a banged-up David Ortiz and without Manny (although the trade was a necessity due to the need to get the rampant unprofessionalism out of the clubhouse and Bay is as good of a replacement as they were going to get). The left side of the infield is about as good as it gets and the bullpen is almost as good as LA’s – but not quite. In the end, the hungrier team with more key players presently at 100% is likely to get by, albeit in what shapes up as an absolutely great series. Angels in 5.

PHILLIES-BREWERS: Here’s hoping that this series is more competitive than the NL’s two battles between young squads last October (Phillies-Rockies and Diamondbacks-Rockies). There’s a lot of mirroring here with each team having an outstanding lefty ace, an elite first baseman and an exciting talent at shortstop. The Brewers definitely don’t have a counter for Brad Lidge, though, as he has turned back the hands of time to just before his infamous gopher ball to Albert Pujols a few years back. Combine that with the fact that Sheets isn’t 100% and the Brewers look very vulnerable. Ace-in-the-making Yovani Gallardo could be an equalizer, though, and he’ll probably have to be if Dale Sveum’s improbable managerial ride is to continue through another series. This year, we should see the NLCS matchup I had predicted for a year ago. Phillies in 4.

CUBS-DODGERS: Even with LA’s late-season hitting acquisitions, the previous failed signings of General Manager Ned Colletti still render this as a team that will need its pitching to really step up in order to have a chance. But as they face the Cubs’ most-playoff tested team in the franchise’s last several decades, Dodger arms probably won’t be enough. The Cubs have rolled all year long, displaying a bravado not often seen on the North Side. They will match up favorably with anyone they meet the rest of the way with the exception of the Angels and perhaps the Red Sox, but the uncharacteristic ease that has accompanied them does raise the question about whether the collars will get a bit tight when adversity inevitably hits them at some point. Aside from the hole in right field caused by the lack of production from rookie Kosuke Fukudome (a player undeservedly voted in as an All-Star Game starter by ballot-stuffing Japanese nationalists – and a player whose name could be unfortunately and crudely mispronounced by the Bleacher Bums with a poor October) and some possible middle-relief issues, the Cubs look impregnable against the National League field. Normally, that would be the cue to run the other way on a prediction with this team, but not this year. We will get one step closer to finding out what the ivy looks like with the changing of the seasons during fall games at Wrigley. Cubs in 4.

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