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Seeing Red

 

The Insider playoff predictions

 

By Adam Hoff

 

Last year, for the first time in recent memory, I actually correctly tabbed the World Series winner by picking the Boston Red Sox to defeat the Houston Astros.  Obviously, the ‘Stros let me down by blowing a 3-2 series lead against the Cardinals, but the whole experience left me feeling pretty confident about my crystal ball for 2005.  Yeah, right.

 

The important thing to remember when it comes to the baseball postseason is that there is no rhyme or reason to what might happen.  In 2001 the Diamondbacks rode two ace pitchers in Johnson and Schilling to a title.  In 2002 the Angels used the “small ball” strategy to hoist a banner.  In 2003 it was the Marlins and “get hot at the right time.”  Last year the Red Sox relied on starting pitching and offensive firepower.  As you can see, there is almost nothing to be learned from past winners.  Not only that, baseball isn’t like other sports in which teams become “due” to win it all.  In the NBA, nearly every champion from the past 20 years worked through a progression before taking home the hardware.  The Pistons overcame the Celtics of the 80’s, Jordan’s Bulls overcame the Pistons, the Rockets took advantage of Jordan’s absence, the Lakers toppled the Spurs, then the Spurs toppled the Lakers, and so on.  Teams rarely come out of nowhere to win it all in the NBA, but in baseball, it happens all the time.  If the national pastime worked like basketball, the Giants would have won in 2002, the Red Sox in 2003, the Cardinals last year, and the Braves about three or four times in the last 15 years.  The A’s would at least have won a postseason series.  Instead, baseball is about the spontaneous and the unpredictable.  It’s about getting hot at the right time, getting the right pitching matchup, even getting the right weather.  It’s what makes baseball so hard to predict, but so enjoyable to watch. 

 

That said, here is how I think the playoffs will go, starting with the first team to get eliminated and finishing with the World Series champ.

 

Atlanta Braves (losing to the Houston Astros in four games).  This kind of freaks me out, because it is the same pick as last year, but then again, the situation is pretty much the same as well.  Once again Houston is the hot wild card team with insane starting pitching and a dominant closer.  And once again Atlanta feels like a team that is getting it all done with smoke and mirrors.  They lost The Manchurian Candidate (JD Drew, who’s sudden health last year demands an investigation), but rookies like Jeff Francoeur and Ryan Langerhans have filled the void as only Braves youngsters know how to do.  Chipper Jones rebounded after an awful start and Andruw Jones is an MVP candidate (or so they say), so once again the middle of the order is good to go.  As always, they have a potentially devastating double-play combo in Marcus Giles and Rafael “Dog Years” Furcal, but for once Giles seems to be healthy.  If anything, Dog Years might be the key difference.  Last year he was battling DUI charges as the season came to a close, this year he is coming off his best ever second half.  Additionally, the Braves have improved starting pitching this time around with Smoltz and Hudson.  However, the bullpen is a train wreck.  The middle relief is like a patchwork quilt with the thread falling out of it, Danny Kolb resembles a human pitching machine set at 78 mph, and Kyle Farnsworth is much better at body slamming hitters than he at getting them out.  I know that Houston is the chic pick here and that worries me a little, and I also feel that both the Braves’ starting rotation and lineup are being underrated; however, playoff games are often decided in the bullpen and Lidge gives Houston a huge advantage. 

 

San Diego Padres (losing to the Cardinals in five).  The Padres are a running joke right now thanks to their 82-80 record and their NL Mediocrity Division title; however, they could give the Cards a run for their money in the NLDS.  I mean, I thought “Lord of War” was going to be an action-packed movie of intrigue ala “Enemy of the State” or “Spy Games” and instead, I got a politically motivated pseudo documentary about little Third World children getting hacked with machetes.  The point is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  Or maybe it’s that you should never assume anything.  Either way, don’t underestimate the Padres.  For starters, they have a true ace in Jake Peavy that gives them a legit shot at making some noise.  If he can win the duel with Carpenter in Game One, this should be a very interesting series.  The Dads have a horrendous offense with virtually no power hitters, but they play good defense and make enough contact that I could see them getting a few four-run innings here and there with a break or two.  Mark Loretta and Brian Giles, in particular, are consummate pros that won’t give away an at bat, while the likes of Ben Johnson and Khalil Greene are too young to know any better.  St. Louis still has the better staff, bullpen, offense, and defense, but sometimes in a wacky five game series, that is not enough.  That said, I think the Cardinals are the hungriest team in the playoffs this year and that will be enough to survive the San Diego upset bid. 

 

Chicago White Sox (losing to the Red Sox in four games).  While I think the Pale Hose is a bit underrated heading into the playoffs, I still think that the Red Sox are the better of the two Sox squads in a five game series.  Chicago played well in the final weeks after nearly crumbling, so believe it or not, they actually have some momentum on their side.  Mark Buehrle and Freddie Garcia were both terrific in their last starts of the season and together with Jose Contreras, they actually give the South Siders a strong trio of arms.  I’d take those guys over Schilling, Wakefield, and Wells right now.  Of course, that is only if the two groups were pitching to the same lineup, which is where this analysis shifts.  There is always the chance that Boston could go into a collective slump the way they did for two games against Oakland in the 2003 ALDS (before dramatically winning three straight), but as long as they hit even remotely close to their norm, they should just have too much offense for Chicago.  Big Papi is the best clutch hitter in the game, Johnny Damon is one of the best leadoff hitters, Manny Ramirez is a “Hitting Savant” (credit to Jim Rome on that brilliant nickname) coming off a nine home runs in 12 games stretch run, and guys like Jason Varitek, Edgar Renteria, and Trot Nixon have proven track records for hitting in the postseason.  This Boston team is far from perfect and yes, they look tired, and yes, their bullpen is a nightmare, but I think they have enough to get back to their third straight ALCS.  The question is: will it be a third straight matchup with the Yankees?

 

New York Yankees (losing to the Anaheim Angels in five games).  My answer to that previous question is no.  There are reasons not to go this way, but I just think this Yankees team is too flawed to beat an underrated Angels squad.  Anaheim doesn’t hit they like they did in 2002 and they don’t have quite the same bullpen that they had in 2003-04, but they feel more cohesive this time around.  Plus, there is no question that this is the best starting pitching Anaheim has enjoyed in the Mike Scioscia era.  Bartolo Colon gives them a guy that can go toe-to-toe with Randy Johnson and reasonably expect to get a split.  After that, I like all of Anaheim’s pitchers better than anything New York has to offer.  The Angels have the wildly underrated (and often dominant) John Lackey who came into his own this year and has a history of postseason heroics (see: Game Seven of the 2002 World Series), and they’ve got the proven Jarred Washburn who can’t necessarily be counted on for two-hit shutouts but should be able to keep the score down while his mates push across runs.  Granted, Paul Byrd and Erwin Santana are more or less wild cards, but that makes two unknowns on the Angels staff, compared to four for the Yanks (Wang, Wright/Small, Mussina, and Chacon).  The Yankees have more power throughout their lineup, but the Angels have speed at the top of the order and Vlad Guerrero in the middle of it, so I think they can score runs.  The biggest reason I’m going with the Angels is that they are one of the few teams that can match the Mariano Factor.  Like Rivera, Anaheim can bring Francisco Rodriguez out of the bullpen to absolutely shut down the opposition.  He too is nearly unhittable and can pitching in the eighth inning if necessary.  Not only that, but I’d take Scott Shields and Kelvim Escobar over anyone the Yanks have in middle relief.  Here come the Rally Monkeys.

 

(LCS Round)

 

Houston Astros (losing to the Cardinals in six games).  I wrestled with this one for what seemed like hours.  On one hand, the Astros look like the perfect World Series champion.  They have the starting pitching, the closer, the Wild Card precedent, Lance Berkman, and the potential magic of Bagwell hitting a pinch-hit home run to win it all.  Then there is St. Louis, who has Carpenter and Mulder, a great bullpen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds anchoring a solid lineup, and the feeling that they just want it more this year.  It’s almost too close to call, so I’m going with St. Louis for the simple reason that I picked them at the beginning of the year (granted, with the line “they will be happy not to see Brad Lidge in the postseason this year”).  I’m sticking with them.  That said, here are the things that will decide this series:

 

The Pujols Factor.  Not to put too much pressure on Albert Pujols, but the Cardinals will follow his lead.  If he can rake against guys like Clemens and Pettitte, it will instill confidence in the other Cardinals’ hitters and allow the pitchers to breathe a little easier.  If he is stifled early and often, the whole team could tense up and crumble.  It’s kind of like the way Shady/Aftermath records needs a dominant album from Dr. Dre right now.  Some people are just counted on to set the tone, that’s all. 

 

Battle of the Grizzled Vets.  I’m not talking about Clemens, he’s going to be terrific.  All of the pitchers will come as advertised, I think.  I’m referring to the battle between Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds against Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.  All of these guys have been around seemingly forever, yet none have claimed a World Series title.  They have the experience, the desire, and the opportunity.  Bagwell will see the most limited action, but I have a feeling that these four will go a long way to determining the series winner. 

 

Streaky Outfielders.  I think Ensberg is a big key for the Astros, but not as big as Jason Lane.  If he has one of those “deer in the headlights” 1-for-24 kind of series, Houston is done.  If he hits .300, jacks a few home runs, and drives in a run per game, their meager offense becomes decent all of a sudden.  Likewise, the Cardinals need big things from Reggie Sanders.  He’s probably their third biggest threat at the plate and needs to drive the ball, get on base, score runs, and so on.  If he’s flailing at high fastballs like he was as a Giant in 2002, it could get ugly. 

 

There are plenty of other things to watch here, but those appear to be big keys from where I am sitting. 

 

Boston Red Sox (losing to the Angels in seven games).  One of the overlooked things about the Sox triumphs last year was the impressive first round win over the Angels.  I thought Anaheim was a dangerous team and if it wasn’t for some heroics from Johnny Damon and Big Papi, the Sox might never have even had the chance to come back from 0-3 against the hated Yankees.  This year I think the Angels are: A) lurking in the AL picture as the quiet giant in the playoff picture and B) eager to get revenge.  Those two factors combined with the fact that I also picked them at the beginning of the year (I’m feeling loyal) give rise to taking the Halos all the way to the Series.  I think Figgins’ speed plays a big role, Vlad hits some big home runs, Lackey makes two brilliant starts, and the Angels dominate the battle of the bullpens.  (By the way, as Lackey defeats Wells in 72-degree weather to clinch, the Red Sox will really, really miss Pedro.)

 

Anaheim Angels (losing to the Cardinals in six).  I’ve got the winner of the Cardinals-Astros series winning it all, so there you go.  No offense to Anaheim, but their starting rotation, which gives them such an advantage in the AL, just doesn’t compare to these two NL Central teams.  Throw in home field advantage for the Cardinals, the “we want the ring” factor, and the whole DH thing (which I think is always an advantage for NL teams, since they either play without one which they are used to, or they suddenly get to add an extra bat), and I like St. Louis here.  Plus, they have real fans that have loved this team and handed down that passion through generations, as opposed to the Rally Monkey wielding, bandwagon fans in Southern California (I’m generalizing, obviously). 

 

St. Louis Cardinals (World Series Champs).  They were robbed in 1985, denied in 1987, and shunned in favor of destiny last year, but now is the St. Louis Cardinals time.  I know that in the intro I said that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in baseball, but that’s the whole point.  You never know what can happen.  It usually doesn’t work out this way, where the team that came close the year before finally breaks through, but there’s no rule that they can’t.  Throw in the solid offense, good defense, outstanding pitching, great attitudes, and competent coaching and you’ve got a winning combination.

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.  He can be reached at adam.hoff@pepperdine.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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