Living in San Diego, we get used to spectacular weather. So it sounds a bit odd to say this, but I probably enjoy the fall out here more than any season. The warmth dies down just a bit, and I can wear my hoodie and/or leather jacket around for a few months. It's just cool enough to make things cozy, but never cold enough that you're freezing. So I trade in my shorts for jeans, drive around with the top down a bit less, and most importantly, enjoy postseason baseball.
Following yesterday's Game 163 between the Tigers and Twins, it's hard not to get excited. If you weren't tuned in you missed an absolute classic, a game that showcased baseball at its best: everything on the line, a passionate and loud stadium, and a back-and-forth battle that went extra innings. Hopefully the rest of the fall can live up to that one game: given the outlook, I think we're in for some great baseball over the next few weeks.
Here's a overview of what we have lined up, and of course, my predictions.
NLDS: Rockies vs. Phillies
The Rockies started the season looking like not much of a threat at all, especially when you consider how the Dodgers came screaming out the gate. So go figure, you trade in Clint Hurdle for Jim Tracy, and suddenly it's 2007 all over again: not quite the same ridiculous run, but enough of a sharp turnaround to warrant attention.
Comparing this year's version to the 2007 National League pennant winners, I'd say they've made some major upgrades where position players are concerned. Chris Ianetta brings some slugging to the table (and a decent OBP for his position), Carlos Gonzalez is realizing his potential, and Dexter Fowler brings an added dynamic of speed to the team. You really have to give the Rockies credit: they scout and develop players exceptionally well. Troy Tulowitzki in particular may be the most underrated player in the game today, as he plays spectacular defense at shortstop, takes walks, and hits for plenty of power.
The Phillies are improved from last year's World Championship version, with the exception of the bullpen. Their lineup offers very little breathing room, and is the only offense out of the four National League teams that can really match up with the American League juggernauts where slugging is concerned. But most importantly, the deadline acquisition of Cliff Lee gives the team a bonafide ace to put in front of Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton.
This series will really come down to two elements: the Rockies rotation, and the Phillies bullpen. Ubaldo Jimenez continues to evolve into a front line starter, and has the strikeout rate you want to see from a Game 1 playoff pitcher. Jorge De La Rosa would be the other strikeout specialist on the Rockies, but he's out for the series with a groin injury. This is a huge blow to the Rockies' chances, as they'll probably need to slot Jason Marquis and Jason Hammel for games two and three.
Compared to Hamels, Happ and Blanton, you absolutely have to give the edge to the Phillies. Marquis and Hammel do not strike out a lot of batters, and their WHIPs are well in the 1.37 range. The Phillies will take their walks and hit the ball, which means that often enough, it's heading out of the park to put some numbers on the board.
Yes, Brad Lidge has had his issues this year, but the rest of the Phillies bullpen is capable of picking up the slack. The Phillies are actually in the enviable position of having too many starters, so the bullpen will have plenty of guys who can throw multiple innings. Specifically, it looks like J.A. Happ and Pedro Martinez will come on in relief for this five game series. Ryan Madson may not have the closer reputation necessarily, but he's capable of shutting the door, at least for this series.
Prediction: Phillies in four.NLDS: Cardinals vs. Dodgers
If not for some risky moves by the Cardinals front office to shore up the offense, this series would look much different. Luckily for St. Louis fans, Holliday is now backing up Pujols, providing some much needed protection. On paper, the lineup for the red birds should be solid, but recent production tells a different story. Julio Lugo hit .242 in September, and in the last twenty games Ludwick has hit .229, DeRosa .189, and Holliday only has one home run.
Compare to the Dodgers bats, and I think you need to give Los Angeles the edge. Yes, they don't have Albert Pujols (no one else does, to be fair), but they scored 50 more runs this season. Pujols and Holliday are both better hitters than anyone the Dodgers have (save Manny, if he gets going), but the Dodgers have a more capable 1-through-8 batting order.
Of course, the key to this series isn't the bats, but the Cardinals' monster 1-2 punch of Cy Young candidates Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. They represent two of the National League's best pitchers, and both already have a championship ring from 2006: so don't expect either to be intimidated. In a short series, while I do think the Dodgers offense is better, it's just going to be too difficult to put up three victories against this rotation.
Given the daunting task ahead of them, the Dodgers' chance for success rests on Clayton Kershaw's shoulders. The 21 year old has the strikeout talent to dominate in the postseason, but he's had some poor starts as the regular season came to a close. He's thrown 60+ innings more than last year, so you're left to wonder how much he'll have left in the tank at his age.
But if the endurance is there, he could potentially outduel Wainwright in Game 2, giving the Dodgers a chance to go after groundball specialist Joel Pinero in Game 3. And who knows, maybe the Cardinals bats will be stagnant for Game 1 against Randy Wolf. I still have to give the edge to the Cardinals, but Dodgers fans have some hope here.
Prediction: Cardinals in four.ALDS: Yankees vs. Twins
Last night's game was one of the best I've ever seen, and was a prime example of why baseball is such a great sport.
That being said, count me in with the rest of North America when I say there's no way the Twins can beat the Yankees after that. They're exhausted after playing 12 innings, and will get very little sleep before heading to the Bronx. The new Yankee Stadium is a friendly place for home run hitters, which is bad news for a team like the Twins with very little power. Even if the stadium plays short, I don't expect the likes of Matt Tolbert, Nick Punto, Brendan Harris or Denard Span to be able to take advantage of this environment. If the Twins had Justin Morneau in the lineup I'd give them a chance, but they'll be forced to play a different brand of baseball in New York, one they can't compete at.
The Yankees however, will eat up the Twins starting rotation, hit plenty of home runs, and their bullpen will protect the leads. It's been a great, inspiring run by Minnesota, but they are clearly overmatched here.
Prediction: Yankees in three.ALDS: Angels vs. Red Sox
This series is becoming a rivalry of its own, with the Sox seemingly always getting the best of the Angels. Both teams have changed a bit in terms of strengths and weaknesses over the last few years, but the Sox have retained their dominant pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen. As has become standard under the Theo regime, this will be what Red Sox Nation hangs its hopes on.
And to be fair, when you're gunning for your third World Series championship of the decade, there are worse places to put your bets than on the arms of Lester, Beckett, Buccholz, Dice-K and Papelbon. The talent is still there but health is a bit of a question mark, with Beckett and Dice-K struggling through their share this year. But then again, both have earned a reputation as "big game" pitchers, and most fans expect they'll ramp it up now that October is here.
The weakness of the Red Sox in this series has been highly publicized: the running game. Mike Scioscia loves to push aggression on the basepaths, and with Varitek and V-Mart tasked with throwing them out, the green light will be on like never before. Look for Figgins, Abreu and Hunter to steal early and often, while middle infielders Kendrick and Aybar will swipe their share as needed. But unlike Angels lineups of years past, this one has more than one dimension, and can hit home runs and take walks to go with the speed.
Lackey, Weaver and Kazmir are lined up to pitch for the Angels. Aside from Lackey's age 23 run with the 2002 World Championship team, none of these Angels have the intimidating championship pedigree Lester and Beckett bring to the table. The Angels rotation actually comes into this series healthier and with less question marks, while the Sox come in with the potential for their guys to dominate. But, there's also more potential for the Sox rotation to put up a bad start, especially with Beckett's back issues. His Game 2 start will really be the key in this series. I expect all three Angels pitchers will give their team a chance to win, while there's a lot more variance with what can happen to the Sox rotation, between good and bad extremes.
The big difference in this series will likely turn out to be the bullpen. This is not the lockdown Angels bullpen you've grown to fear, with leads confidently handed off to capable middle relievers, before the ball gets to Scot Shields and K-Rod. Brian Fuentes has 48 saves on the year, but also has a 1.40 WHIP. These late innings will be crucial, and if I'm an Angels fan, I'm biting my nails until that last out. In contrast, the Sox bullpen continues to be a major strength, and should be able to put away the game if given a lead.
It'll be a very entertaining series, especially with the new dynamic of the Angels offense. Game 2 is going to be absolutely crucial, as a victory against Beckett will be needed to at least keep the series even headed back to Boston. If that happens, the Halos have a chance. But a strong bullpen is so important if you want to win a championship, and the difference between the teams is huge in that regard.
Prediction: Red Sox in four.NLCS: Phillies vs. Cardinals
Once we expand to a seven game series, the 1-2 punch at the top of the Cardinals rotation becomes less dominant, as St. Louis will need to rely on their other starters. You still need to give the Cardinals the edge where the front of the rotation is concerned, but really, with Cliff Lee in the mix, it's not a huge gap between the two teams. Speaking to the offense, again, Pujols and Holliday are great, but the rest leaves something to be desired. The Phillies leave very little room to breathe, and Cardinals pitchers will have their hands full.
The Cardinals need to win every game that Carpenter and Wainwright pitch. If the Phillies can win at least one of those, they'll be headed to the World Series with a chance to repeat. Given a 1-in-4 chance, I like those odds.
Prediction: Phillies in seven.ALCS: Yankees vs. Red Sox
Here we go again! Honestly, all I care about this postseason is seeing this rivalry once more to close out the decade: this time around, it'll be spectacular. Yes, the drama of The Curse is gone, but that evens the playing field a bit, and actually puts a bit more pressure on the Yankees. After all the spending in the winter and the dominance in the regular season, it's up to them to get the job done and even out the decade a bit following 2004 and 2007. It won't be about curses or grandpappy seeing the Sox win it all just once, but rather, which team is better at baseball. Period. The level of talent on the field and the battle that'll take place between both teams is all the drama I'll need, personally.
I know, I'm sounding like an ESPN or FOX executive, or some of the mainstream press who seem to think baseball doesn't exist outside New York and Boston. But I just love how these teams line up in 2009. The Sox probably have a better rotation, but who knows what Beckett will bring to the table? Will the back spasms do him in, or does he continue to be a Yankee killer? Can Dice-K return to form, or can Buccholz handle the pressure of the big stage? And it's not like Sabathia, Burnett or even Pettitte are a sure thing on any given night. I honestly think it's safe to say that in a 2009 Sox vs. Yankees ALCS, the rotations are structured in a way where any team can win on any given night: there's no one dominant performer (say, Pedro of years gone by, or Schilling at his peak), and most of these starters are equally likely to craft a gem, or succumb to the opposing team's offense.
Where bats are concerned, the Yankees obviously have the edge. With Teixeira at first, Abreu's terrible range out of right field, Cano's continued improvements and even Jeter doing much better with the glove, the Yankees are well equipped to play both sides of the field for a change. Both teams have good bullpens this year, but you still have to give the edge there to the Red Sox.
It'll be an entertaining series if it happens, one that'll slow down work productivity in the Northeast for a week or two. In the end, I think the Yankees offense is too much to handle, and for once, their pitching can hold up their end of things. Sure, Sabathia, Burnett, Joba and Pettitte are all capable of having a terrible start, but I don't expect it'll happen to all of them. And even in case of disaster, the Yankees are capable of digging themselves out of an early hole with their power, especially at home.
Prediction: Yankees in six.World Series: Phillies vs. Yankees
Most Mets fans (myself included) will likely cheer for the Yankees in this scenario, and that's saying something.
More seriously, both teams mirror each other a bit. They both have incredibly strong lineups, play in bandboxes, and have rotations that are strong, but can still be knocked around on a bad night. The Phillies would probably have the best starter in the series in Cliff Lee, who also has plenty of experience pitching against American League teams. For the Phillies to have a chance, they'd need to win both of Lee's starts.
Rotations and defense are fairly comparable, but the Yankees have a better offense and a better bullpen. The Phillies are used to being able to bring the thunder and outslug their opponents when all else fails, but that's a game the Yankees would be happy to play. Given the nature of both stadiums, you'd expect lots of home runs and big scoring games.
In the end, the Yankees are just too good. They could probably benefit from a bit more reliability in the rotation, but that's really nitpicking considering their other strengths. If it comes down to Yankees and Phillies, the American League team will overmatch their National League counterpart, and beat them in a slugfest.
Prediction: Yankees in six.
What are your predictions? Comment here, or post yours to our Facebook page! I'm eager to hear your thoughts, as this is just one man's opinion.