Wednesday, October 23, 2013

2013 Fall Classic: Parting of the “Red Sea”

Add another chapter to this baseball royalty rivalry as for the fourth time in their illustrious histories, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox meet in the World Series. In until 2004, when the Red Sox ended 88 years of championship futility among other things, the Cardinals had sung sweet music against Boston winning the previous two match-ups in 1946 and 1967. The Red Sox of course 11 years ago, capped off their magical comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS after trailing 0-3 with a sweep of the Red Birds in the Fall Classic. That leads us to the present where both teams won the most games during the regular season in their respective leagues with identical records of 97-65. Despite the small differences in the shades of red on the uniforms and starting rotations where St. Louis has a slight edge, these teams are so evenly matched you’d have to be Moses blessed by the power of God to see the future of how this series is going to turn out! Adam Wainwright falls back into his number one slot in the Red Birds pitching rotation as the series opener starter against John Lester of the Sox. The right-hander was solid in his only start against the Dodgers in the NLCS despite a 3-0 loss in game three of the series. He pitched seven innings giving up six hits with two earned runs and five strike outs. Lester was equally impressive in his only ALCS start a 4-3 win in game five in Detroit. He tossed 5&1/3rd, allowing seven hits with just two earned runs. The game two starters are Michael Wacha for the Cards and John Lackey of the Sox. Here is where St. Louis gets the first edge in the series. Wacha to date is the story of the post-season so far. The 22-year –old rookie baffled the Dodgers line-up twice allowing no runs and clinching the NLCS for St. Louis in a 9-0 victory earning him most valuable player honors. With that said, Lackey is a much better pitcher at Fenway Park (game two site) then on the road. In two post-season starts, Lackey has produced two wins with one quality start. He’s tossed 12 innings, giving up 11 hits but only four earned runs while striking out 14. Wacha may be as hot as a pitcher can be this time of year but Lackey is a veteran and knows how to battle through an inning. The three and four men in each rotation are where some question marks maybe creep in. Game three matches up another rookie in the Card’s Joe Kelly against veteran Clay Buchholz. Kelly pitched to mix results in the NLCS, winning a close game one against the Dodgers that Los Angeles should have taken, only to lose in the re-match in Los Angeles in game five getting hit hard in the 6-4 defeat. The return of Buchholz from injury pushed the Sox onto another level for the post-season. While not picking up a win three post-season starts, he did give Boston a quality start and wasn’t the losing pitcher in any of his games, throwing 16.2 innings overall, allowing 19 hits and ten earned runs against a beastly Detroit Tigers line-up. Lance Lynn starts game four for St. Louis at Busch Stadium against Jake Peavy. Lynn picked up the series swing game for the Cards with a solid 4-2 victory at Dodgers Stadium giving up six hits in 5&1/3rd innings with two earned runs. Peavy on the other hand will need to be a lot better than his disastrous ALCS start in Detroit where he lasted just three innings giving up five hits and seven earned runs with just one strike out, an epic fail the Red Sox can’t afford to try and withstand with the World Series trophy at stake. As far as the starters go, we have to give a small edge to the Cardinals. Wainwright has the most post-season experience of any pitcher in the series and Wacha has shown the most over-power stuff so far. The game three and four matches appear to be a total toss-up as far as which pitcher will show up and not let the moment engulf him on the mound. Defensively and at the plate this teams are a splitting image of each other but of course in the different leagues. Behind the plate Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been solid for the Sox hitting .273 with 14 homers and 40 doubles during the regular season. He produced the walk-off hit in game two of the ALCS during the Red Sox comeback win. However, Yadier Molina is the best catcher in the game, calling pitches, throwing out runners and coming up with big hits. The Cards get a solid edge in the catcher spot. At first base it will be interesting to see of the Red Sox gamble and play David Ortiz on the road where he’ll have to play in the field as opposed to just the DH spot at home, keeping his bat in the line-up but also taking Mike Napoli’s out as well as Napoli’s glove. Whoever is in the Boston line-up at first has more experience and just as much power as St. Louis rookie Matt Adams who didn’t produce much in the NLCS but did homer in the divisional series win over Pittsburgh. The edge here to come up big in the clutch has to go the Red Sox way at 1B. Arguably the two best hitters from each club play at second base. Matt Carpenter hit .318 with 55 doubles and 78 RBI, while scoring 126 runs in the regular season for St. Louis. Who could forget his epic plate battle with Clayton Kershaw in the Cards clinching game six win of the NLCS where he forced the lefty into 11 pitches before lacing a rally starting double down the right field line that led to the deciding three-run inning? Those are the type of at bats he’s capable of. The heart and soul of the Red Sox however is Dustin Pedroia. He is a master with the glove, while also hitting .301 with 42 doubles, driving in 84 runs and scoring 91runs himself. He is by far the superior fielder but their base running skills are both dangerous so we’ll call this match-up a draw. At shortstop both the Cards Pete Kozma and Boston’s Stephen Drew are awesome flashing the leather. However at the plate Drew has a solid on base percentage and good power, so he wins the battle here. Moving to third base, this isn’t 2011 and we’re not seeing the MVP David Freese at all. He’s hitting just .189 with nine strikeouts and four runs batted in for the entire post-season. But Boston’s answer is a bit of a question mark as rookie Xander Bogaerts appears to be now getting the nod in place of Will Middlebrooks. He does have tremendous speed on the bases and is a contact hitter with a good eye as well but it’s hard to say how he’ll hold up under the pressure of a World Series game. We’re going to call this match-up a draw as well. On to the outfield and in left it’s Matt Holiday against the Red Sox Daniel Nava or Johnny Gomes. Nava is solid but Gomes seems to be getting the post-season nod. Gomes has made some nice plays in the field but overall Nava is a much better defensive player. Holiday on the other hand like Gomes could be a liability in the outfield. At the plate however Holiday is a much more clutch hitter and a more experienced post-season player. Holiday gets a nice edge in this category. Like all centerfielders both Jon Jay of St. Louis and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Sox can fly on the bases and run down balls in the allies. Jay though seems to be out of sync altogether compared to what we’ve seen from him in the post-season before. Ellsbury is hitting .400 in the post-season with 21 total bases with six steals. Jay is hitting eighth for the Cards while Ellsbury is leading off for the Sox which tells you all you need to know. Big advantage for Boston with Ellsbury’s entire post-season performance to date. Maybe the best match-up all over the field is in right where Carlos Beltran goes head to head with Shane Victorino. Victorino is a proven post-season performer and winner, grabbing a ring with the Phillies in 2008. He came up with the game winning grand slam to put Boston into the World Series in game six of the ALCS. He also is roadrunner on the bases and can play the outfield with the best of them. Beltran continues to make a name for himself as one of the best post-season hitters of this generation. His arm in the outfield is deadly as the Dodgers found out with him gunning down Los Angeles’ potential winning run in Mark Ellis on a tag-up in game one of the NLCS, which really turned the series in the direction of the Cardinals. But before you can throw someone out, you have to be able to get to balls and Beltran’s foot speed is nowhere near Victorino’s ability to cover ground. We’ll have to give a slight edge here to the flying Hawaiian. Of course when games 1, 2 and possibly 6 and 7 are played, they’ll be at Fenway Park with a designated hitter. So you match up Allen Craig and Ortiz. Craig was the Cards overall best hitter with RISP (59 for 130) during the regular season. But he’s missed all post-season play up this point with a Lisfranc injury. If can return as the productive .315 hitter overall along with his clutch gene in play, this is a big positive for the Cards who’s bench is not good. Big Papi handles the DH role for Boston at home and we all know how that story usually plays out. Advantage here goes to the Red Sox. In the intangibles category, one stat really sticks out in general. No team in baseball in the regular season hit right-handed pitcher better than the Red Sox. Their .818 team OPS against righties was the best in the majors by 30 points. Of course all four St. Louis starters are right-handed with just two exceptions coming out of the bullpen in Kevin Siegrist and Randy Choate so the Red Sox get the check mark here. Speaking of the bullpen, both teams bring the heat. St. Louis throws multiple flame-throwers like Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Siegrist and closer Trevor Rosenthal. Boston brings to the table Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, Ryan Dempster and closer Koji Uehara. Both of these bullpens have been completely reliable in the post-season with neither team suspect heading into the seventh inning holding onto a lead so this category is called even. With all that information examined closely there is just one more stat that says plenty about the Red Sox. Boston of course finished in last place during the 2012 season causing the removal of manager Terry Francona. With John Farrell taking over the Red Sox have not only responded but also have come together as the most unified team in the majors this season. In other words, setting aside the entire beard thing they’ve attached themselves to, the Sox simply have the look of ‘it’s our year”. We like Boston to beat St. Louis in six games for their third title of the new millennium.

Friday, October 11, 2013

2013 League Championship Series: Battle of Baseball Royalty

And then there were four. Not just any four though! These league championship series aren’t inviting any Cinderella’s to the ball it’s all about the big boys of baseball history. Four old school franchises each rich in the Great American pastime’s pedigree, popularity and post-season history. The Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox and Tigers, four icons of Major League Baseball, four organizations that pre-date the sport’s golden age, all sharing the October stage together for the first time since the league championship series format began in 1969. On the eve of game one of the NLCS, one could argue this is the most evenly matched foursome in league championship series history, period. Dodgers vs. Cardinals At the season’s start many prognosticators picked both the Dodgers and Cardinals to battle for a trip to the World Series, so this match-up is not much of a surprise especially considering the starting pitching staffs, both clubs have put together. With Clayton Kershaw working on short rest to dispose of the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, Los Angeles number two man Zack Greinke gets the ball in game one for L.A. He’ll face St. Louis youngster Joe Kelly, as Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright worked game five for the Red Birds in their ousting of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since recovering from a broken collarbone early in the season, Greinke has been just as good as Kershaw in the Dodgers rotation, basically giving the Blue Crew essentially two aces on the mound. Together they allowed the Braves to score just three earned runs in 19 innings with no long balls against baseball’s best home run hitting team this season. So the Cards will see Greinke’s 2.63 ERA, followed by Kershaw’s 1.83 ERA in games one and two in St. Louis. The game three starter for L.A. will be South Korean sensation Hyan-Jin Ryu. The rookie was spectacular in the regular season before appearing to tire down the stretch in his first full campaign in the United States. Ryu was shaky in his only NLDS performance against the Braves giving up two first inning runs and two more before getting the hook in the fourth after 68 pitches. During his post-game presser he admitted to feeling a little more anxious compared to his regular season starts, so the jury is still out on just how effective he’ll be in game three when the series shifts to Dodger Stadium. For game four, no decision has been made on whether Ricky Nolasco gets the nod or not. The fourth Los Angeles starter struggled so much over the last three weeks of the regular season; manager Don Mattingly skipped his start in the clinching game against Atlanta using Kershaw. If Nolasco is passed over again, the Dodgers could throw either Edinson Volquez who made five starts for LA in September and posted a 4.18 ERA or even Chris Capuano, who made several starts earlier in the season before battling injuries late in the year and being moved to the bullpen. Capuano did toss three innings of scoreless relief in the Dodgers win over Atlanta in game three of the NLDS. All three are crafty veterans but don’t have the same stuff as Greinke, Kershaw and Ryu. For the Red Birds on the hill, they are both accomplished and young. Kelly sports a gaudy ERA of just 2.69 in the regular season. He started one game of the Cards-Bucs series, going 5.1 innings, allowing five hits and two earned runs with four walks and five k’s. The question surrounding this rookie in such a big game at home is whether or not the moment will be too much for the 25-year-old? From there the Cards hand the ball over to a 22-year-old, in Michael Wacha. So far Wacha has been flawless for St. Louis since being called up late in the season due to injuries. The right-hander, like Kelly has been on fire so far this post-season allowing just two hits in 16 innings against Pittsburgh, so pressure doesn’t seem to be much of an anxiety trigger for him. The ace Wainwright takes the ball in game three on the road, which could be the pivotal game of the series should the teams split in St. Louis. He’s already shown his post-season toughness, picking up two of the Cards wins in their five game series against the Bucs. The fourth starter for St. Louis will be Shelby Miller who didn’t start a game in the NLDS but did pitch one inning giving up one earned run in a relief performance. At just 23-years-old, some believe his arm is tired after throwing 173 innings during his first full big league season but he did pitch in last season’s post-season, so he does have some experience on the big stage. We give the Dodgers a slight edge in the pitching match-up because of the experience and age of the starters compared to the Cardinal youth with the exception of Wainwright. When you start talking about the offense and line-ups, once again these teams are about as even as two can be. The Dodger bats exploded after the All-Star break ranking third in runs scored, when Los Angeles put together one of the most remarkable records (42-8) in modern baseball history for a 50 game stretch. It all starts with rookie Yasiel Puig. Since his June call-up the Dodgers fortunes took a 180 degree turn. Not only is he still a .319 hitter and home run threat but his base running ability puts pressure on the defense like no other player in the majors. Leadoff hitter Carl Crawford has seemed to find his stroke hitting three home runs in the NLDS and is also a base stealing threat. Following the steady contact hitter Mark Ellis in the two-hole the Cards will then have to deal with Adrian Gonzalez (.293, 22 HR), MVP candidate Hanley Ramirez (.345, 20 HR) and then Puig. Andre Ethier is still not ready to start in centerfield in place of Skip Schumaker but does bring the Dodgers a huge left-handed bat off the bench for now. One must not forget Juan Uribe’s experience and knack for the big post-season hit (just ask Atlanta) or A.J. Ellis’ ability to put the ball in play in the eighth spot. Also, Dodger pitchers Greinke, Kershaw and Ryu all handle the bat extremely well for pitchers as far as making contact. St. Louis can flat out score runs as well. The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored during the first half of the season and the second half as well. They roll out seven hitters with an OBP of .335 or higher and four of the seven hit above .300. While they didn’t knock the cover off the ball over the wall in the regular season finishing 13th in home runs in the NL, they did hit a long ball in each game of the NLDS. They’ll need lead-off man Matt Carpenter to get his act together after going just 1-for-19 in the division series win over the Bucs. Carlos Beltran hitting second wasn’t much better going 4-for-18 but did rope two home runs in the series and is known for his playoff punch at the plate. Following Beltran comes the real power in Matt Holiday (.319), Mike Adams (17 HR) and catcher Yadier Molina (.300), all who hit a home run against Pittsburgh in the NLDS. At the end of the order David Freese was the Cards’ post-season hero in 2011 and jacked the winning home run in the game five win over Pittsburgh, while both Jon Jay and Pete Kozma are contact guys that can steal bases. However, with Ethier, veteran Michael Young and power man Scott Van Slyke coming off the bench in pinch-hit situations the Dodgers bench is stronger and so is the overall line-up by just a small margin. Like the starting staffs and line-ups, the bullpens of these teams match-up extremely well. Kenley Jansen (1.88 ERA) is arguably is the best closer in the NL at the time. Brian Wilson since joining the Dodgers has been a solid bridge to the 9th inning giving up nothing, while sporting a 0.66 ERA. Youngster Chris Withrow gives the Dodgers a power throwing righty that can toss long innings and J.P. Howell is a crafty veteran the Braves were able to get nothing off of. The concerns for Don Mattingly come from righty Ronald Belisario and lefty Paco Rodriguez. Both were lights out during the Dodgers historic run over the second half of the season but have struggled the last month. Rodriguez surrendered Jason Hayward’s game winning hit in game two of the NLDS and his home run in game three. Belisario gave up two hits and a run for a 3-2 deficit in the Dodgers eventual 4-3 win to clinch the series against the Braves. You have to wonder how much trust Mattingly has in either one of these relievers at the moment. St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal is a rookie and not yet in Jansen class of throwers but has been solid down the stretch. Carlos Martinez is a hard throwing right-hander with not a ton of big league experience but nasty stuff. Manager Mike Matheny will have to hope the moment doesn’t become too large for either of these guys. Lefties Kevin Siegrist and former Dodger Randy Choate will be ready for the Crawford, Gonzalez, Ethier part of the Los Angeles line-up, while Maness is a ground ball special from the right-side. Once again, the nod here goes to the Dodgers. Finally you have to add in what the managers bring to the table. Mike Matheny has watched Tony LaRussa do it but also watched the Cards blow a 3-1 lead to the Giants last year in the NLCS only to lose 4-3. Mattingly is riding through is first post-season rodeo as a manager and has already made some questionable decisions in the NLDS, one that maybe cost the Dodgers game two in Atlanta. Matheny with the experience holds a slight edge in this match-up. Overall however, we see the Dodgers with just a little more on the table than the Cardinals as well as the perfect combination of superstar power and blue collar grit to advance to the World Series beating the Cardinals in six games. Tigers vs. Red Sox It’s hard to believe that in the 112 years both the Tigers and Red Sox have been a part of Major League Baseball, they’ve never met in the post-season until now. Well the wait is over and this one appears to be well worth waiting for! For Motown, this is their third straight ALCS. While they reached the World Series last year, the trip ended in disaster with a sweep to the underdog San Francisco Giants so you know the motivation factor is sky high. Boston, under new manager John Farrell pulled off one of the biggest one-season turnarounds in baseball history! The Red Sox ended the year at 97-65, a 28 game turnaround, while the 97 victories were the second most regular season wins for a Boston team since 1978. Like the National League Championship Series the ALCS sports tremendous starting pitching on both sides. Detroit leads with the duel-ace combo of eventual AL CY Young winner Max Scherzer (21 wins, 2.90 ERA, 240 k’s) and the sudden reappearance of Justin Verlander the former CY Young winner. After just a 13-12 record this season, Verlander has found his “A+ stuff. He did not allow a run to the Oakland A’s in 15 innings of the Tigers ALDS win, while striking out 21 batters, improving to 7-4 lifetime in the postseason with a 3.48 ERA in 14 starts. Third starter Anibal Sanchez, who will pitch game one, led the AL in ERA this season at 2.57 but was rocked by Oakland in the divisional series to the tune of six runs (5 earned) in just 4& 1/3rd innings. Scherzer will pitch game two, followed by Verlander in game three when the series heads to Motown. Doug Fister gets the fourth start and depending on the situation like the Oakland series, could have a short hook from manager Jim Leland. The Red Sox bring to the mound not the same type of over-powering arms but starters that have proven to be equally effective from one thru four. Unlike Detroit, Boston’s rotation is set from the top with ace Jon Lester throwing in game one. He went 15-8 this past season with an ERA of 3.75. He surrendered just two runs in 7& 2/3rd innings in a win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS and in his career has held the opposition to a .199 batting average with 46 strikeouts in 49& 2/3rd postseason frames. The shakiest starter in the Boston rotation is now game three-starter, John Lackey. The Tigers will face him not at Fenway Park, where he has been solid in 2013 but at home. He beat the Rays in game two of the ALDS after going 6-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 13 home starts during the regular season. Overall this season he finished just 10-13, so the key is getting Lackey at Comerica Park where the odds of beating him go way up and for some reason that’s the position Farrell has put him in. At the number two spot the Sox have a wild-card in Clay Buchholz. He missed three months of the season with a shoulder issue but was solid in his return so far. His move to the game-two slot shows the confidence Farrell possesses in him, especially if Lester losses game one. Jake Peavy rounds out the Boston rotation and has proven to be a more than solid fourth starter. With Verlander appearing to regain his CY Young form over his last two playoffs starts the rotation edge has to go towards the Tigers but not by much. The tri-aces of Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez were responsible for setting an all-time record for highest strikeout rate in baseball history by averaging 8.79 k’s per nine innings. This group of Red Sox struck out 1,308 times this season, the AL’s fourth-highest total. When you talk about offense this is a match-up of titans in both dugouts. However the Detroit bats will have to make a lot more noise than in their ALDS victory over the A’s. Besides Victor Martinez (9 hits) and Jhonny Peralta(5 hits) the Tigers offense proved to be the worst of the four teams to advance and even under-hit the eliminated Pittsburgh Pirates, batting just .235 with 17 runs scored and three homers in five games. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera who of course is injured struggled against Oakland with the exception of Cabrera’s game-five winning homer and won’t beat Boston if the two-some remains quite. Tori Hunter, Alex Avila and Austin Jackson combined for just seven hits in 54 at bats which will not get it done. Boston on the other hand hit .286 as a team versus the Rays, scoring 26 runs despite only hitting two home runs total, both coming off the bat of David Ortiz. But what the Sox do well is get aboard and move at a rapid pace that is anything but station to station on the bases. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino combined for 15 hits in the ALCS and 17 total bases. Ellsbury stole four bags and Victorino one, which of course ignites the Boston offense and sets the table for sluggers like Ortiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Dustin Pedroia. Everyone is the Boston line-up seems to hit including Will Middlebrooks, Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, which is why the Sox produced the best road OBA and second-best OBA this season. We also can’t forget the fact the Red Sox are baseball’s best hitting team against right handed pitching and the Tigers start four righties in their rotation. The offensive edge goes to Boston. When it comes to the bullpens, Boston gets a big edge here. The Red Sox relievers were solid this year and dominant in the ALDS. They averaged 9.8 k’s per nine innings, a 0.81 WHIP and gave up just a 1.64 ERA. All their relievers pitched well with Craig Breslow giving up just two hits, Junichi Tazawa one hit, while closer Koji Uehara was just about unhittable with the exception of the game winning home run he gave up in game three in three total innings of work. Over the course of the season he’s arguably been the best closer in the American League. Detroit on the other hand can be a bit of an adventure after the starters come out. Against the A’s they didn’t see a lot of innings because of Scherzer and Verlander. They didn’t surrender any home runs and recorded a decent amount of strike outs but they did walk batters and allowed base runners. Phil Coke is back for Detroit which will help but both Al Albuquerque and closer Joaquin Benoit were suspect against Oakland and it will only be worse against the better hitting Red Sox. Big advantage here goes to the Sox. Finally, when it comes to managers this is a push. Jim Leland has been there many times and is one of the best strategists in the game. Farrell no doubt has the pulse of his team at his ear and is respected highly in his clubhouse. This series completely rides on the arms of Detroit’s aces. If either of them falters, Boston wins in seven. If both Scherzer and Verlander are as unhittable as in the ALDS, the Tigers take it on the rode in seven.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

MLB Hopes A Pair of Game 5s Can Match Monday's Drama

With the stage to themselves after a big football weekend Major League Baseball put on a day for the ages with four games, all competitive, and all with the stakes as big as they could be with someone’s season potentially ending in three of the four games. It started with game 3 between the A’s and Tigers, a series set up as “Power Ball vs. Money Ball” as the mighty Tigers, the defending American league champs, with a 3,4,5 lineup that’s the best in the AL and includes the two-time batting champion and near triple crown winner, a protégé slugger, and .301 DH, take on the crafty scrappers from No. Cal, still associated with the based on GM Billy Beane and made famous by Brad Pitt about a club held together by microchips and duct tape. In the book David lost in the end but this script isn’t in post-production yet and the AL West champs were trying to break a 1-1 series tie on the road. They got to the defending AL champs three consecutive times from the 3rd to the 5th then shut down a series of rallies for the rest of the game to take a 2-1 series lead, despite all of the big 3 afore mentioned hitters hitting .300 with an HR. The Tigers would come back the next day and even the series after trailing Billy’s boys 3-0 and looking like the money ballers were on their way to the ALCS, but that will have to wait for another nail-biter on Wednesday as we buckle up for a Game 5. After the appetizer it was on to Heinz Field for another emotionally filled contest as the ‘good guys from the PG movie’ try to get their first series victory since 1992 and pursue their first world title since 79’ were hosting the Cardinals, winners of 11 world titles, 3 since the Pirates won their last title in ’79, the last just two years ago in 2011, and with their backs against the wall. With PNC Park, the bridge, the escalators, and bars all filled to capacity hoping to see a celebration following the game, Cardinal pitcher Mike Wacha took a no-no into the 8th inning before losing it on a solo jack by Pedro Alvarez bringing the Bucs to within a single run. In the 9th the Pirates threatened again getting the tying run in scoring position with their MVP Andrew McCutchen at the plate to bring him home in dramatic fashion. It was set up for the Hollywood ending but the Pirates play in Pittsburgh and Brad Pitt isn’t in this film as McCutchen popped out right ending the rally and sending thousands home disappointed as haunted memories of decades of disappointment begin to rear their ugly heads even though there is still one more game to play. Unfortunately the harsh reality is that the Pirates may have missed their opportunity as the Cards are 7-1 in elimination games and had the 2nd best record in baseball at home with 54 wins and will bring back 19-game winner Adam Wainwright going against 23 year-old rookie Gerrit Cole (10-7), but if Hollywood does decide to re-write the ending they won’t have to do much work as this one is writing itself. From there we move to the sunshine state where the Rays were concluding a seven day stretch that could only be described as ‘survive and advance’. Over that week Tampa Bay played four elimination games where a loss sent them home for the Winter, starting in Toronto to end the regular season where the survived 7-6, then to Texas for the tie-breaker game and a 5-2 win where they managed to avoid Darvish, then to Cleveland and the Wild Card game where they may have posted their most impressive win of the season winning easily 4-0, and lastly after dropping games 1 and 2 in Boston found themselves in another must win scenario in game 3. Finally getting some fan support behind them with 33,000 strong at Tropicana Field who wouldn’t leave disappointed although it didn’t look good when the Rays closer Fernando Rodney couldn’t shut the Sox down in the9th and gave up the tying run. However in the bottom of the ninth the Rays got a walk off big-fly from Jose Lobaton to the deepest part of the park off Boston closer Koji Uehara and you could hear the Bee Gees in the background playing the “Staying Alive” theme. Providing unbelievable theater, you had to wonder if the Rays were a team of destiny but like good teams do the Sox realized game 5s were risky business even at home, particularly when former Cy-Young award winner David Price might be on the bump, so they handled their business in game 4 the next night when the Rays literally exhausted every pitcher they had available and still couldn’t get any relief as the Sox came from behind in the final 3 innings to win 3-1. It was a great story but after 167 games the Rays maybe should have been on the road for one more. Then we resurrect the Concord and take that and fly across the country to the other coast just in time to catch the Dodgers in the same scenario as the Pirates, close shop at home or risk going on the road and playing a game 5 in the other guy’s park when you’ve been in control of the series for the most part. And, like the Pirates, the Dodgers got out to a lead, then gave up and were down to the final two innings. However unlike Pittsburgh, LA seemed to be aware that despite being in control of the series, it could turn around faster than a tennis match if they don’t hold serve so they ran their ace Clayton Kershaw out to the bump to keep the braves down. Which is what he did for 6 innings until he had to leave and then the Dodger bullpen which was normally reliable all season gave up the lead and LA was down to their last five outs. The decision that the Braves will have to justify all Winter will by they elected not bring in Craig Kimbrel, in a game they had to win. Instead they left David Carpenter out there even after surrendering a lead-off double to Yasiel Puig to start the inning, and he went one pitch too many as Juan Uribe went deep-yard into the SoCal night and with it went the Braves season. It may not have been a walk-off but with Kenley Jansen coming in to close, for all intent and purposes it was. So of the three great script-worthy stories of the MLB post-season the Dodgers amazing turn around is still alive and will be the subject of folklore if they manage to get to the next level let alone win it, and if Pittsburgh can pull off the upset on Wednesday we’ve got a box office smash regardless of how the NLCS plays out, but MLB will have a hard time writing anything better than what we saw on Oct 8, 2013.

Friday, October 4, 2013

ALDS - Some Might Find This Offensive

Both American League divisional series have their share of top-line pitchers but other than Detroit’s one-two punch of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, it’s nothing like the hurlers in both NLDS. Where the American teams prosper over the National teams is at the plate. All four squads possess the ability to put crooked numbers on the board at any time, maybe the reason the American League representative is already the favorite to win the World Series in a few weeks. Tampa Bay vs. Boston While Boston might have pulled away from the rest of the A.L. East to win the division going away it seems all the Sox actually did is force the Rays to play a couple of win or go home games on the road in the wild-card and build momentum for their ALDS starting at Fenway Park. Tampa looks to win its fourth road game in six days in game one, a match-up of Matt Moore vs. Jon Lester (won last three decisions). Boston pretty much owned the Rays during the regular season winning 12 of the 19 match-ups, going 6-4 at Fenway and 6-3 at Tropicana Field. The Rays throw their best two at the Red Sox line-up in games one and two with Moore and David Price (combined ERA of 0.86 in four starts at Fenway Park this season). Tampa must get a split in order to have any shot and they’ll have a great chance against John Lackey in game two. Lackey put together a lack-luster season going (10-13 with a 3.52 ERA). In order for the Rays to pull off the upset, Evan Longoria will need to stay hot. In his last eight games the third baseman is hitting .393 with three homers and 11 RBIs. It seems when Longoria goes, so do the Rays. James Loney (75 RBI) and Ben Zobrist (71 RBI) are threats to produce as well. Delmon Young is capable of putting a ball in the seats at any time as is rookie sensation Wil Myers although the Rays hit just 165 long balls all year long, 11th in the majors. Boston meanwhile sports the most productive offense in the bigs this season. The Sox scored 853 runs, 57 more than their nearest competitor the Detroit Tigers. Big Papi, David Ortiz is the first name that comes to mind in the Boston bat heavy line-up. Ortiz roped 30 homers to go with 103 RBI, followed by Mike Napoli’s 23 homers and 92 runs batted in. Boston follows up power with average in Daniel Nava at .303 and Dustin Pedroia at .301. The Sox lead the majors in on-base percentage at .349, as the Red Sox capitalize on the opportunities when they present themselves. Neither team’s middle relief has been much to write home about but if the Red Sox get the ball to closer Koji Uehara (1.09 ERA and 21 saves) it’s usually lights out game over. As in most divisional series this two squads know each other well. The Red Sox will not intimidate the Rays and Tampa will not be in awe of Fenway Park. The Rays are hot and both Moore and Price have had success against Boston. However with the resurgence in the Red Sox rotation as of late with Clay Buchholtz now healthy the Sox can beat you with pitching or offense. They by far have the better bats so Tampa will need lights out pitching and no shaky bullpen outings to hang around. They should split in Boston but from there the Sox depth in all areas is simply too much. Boston in four is our call. Detroit vs. Oakland If you read just headlines, this match-up translates as all Detroit. The Tigers went to the World Series last year, sport the American League’s best one-two starting pitching punch in Scherzer and Verlander and bring huge experienced bats to the plate in Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter. But underneath the bold print you look a little closer and spot just how consistent the A’s have been all season long. Oakland is the only team in the majors that didn’t suffer one losing month. The Athletics played steady baseball from April through September, so there is no reason to think that will change all of a sudden. The moment won’t be too large for the Athletics either. Many forget they made it to the ALDS last season before falling to these same Tigers, which went the full five games. Oakland has the home field advantage this time around and also has ace Bartolo Colon to start game one. Colon missed the post-season in 2012 while serving a suspension for PED use. Backing him up in the rotation are Jerrod Parker, Sonny Gray and Dan Straily. The three and four starters for the Tigers appear stronger at least on paper with Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. Many don’t realize the A’s also having some long ball power as four players (Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp) with at least 22 homers. Injuries could play a role to sluggers on both teams as Cabrera has been saddled with numerous problems such as his groin, abs and hip injuries while Cespedes re-aggravated a right shoulder problem that could force him to become no more than a pinch-hitter in this series. This series could be won in the bullpen. Oakland ranks sixth this season in bullpen ERA with Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins and Dan Otero getting the ball to closer Grant Balfour who was lights out in 2013. Detroit’s pen improved as Joaquin Benoit has solidified the closer role along with Drew Smyly as relievable middle relief but the edge here goes to Oakland without a doubt. While Detroit could win 1-0 or 3-2 low scoring games behind Scherzer and Verlander in the early games, they’ll need to outscore the A’s in the rest of the series and that favors Oakland, especially with game five at the rowdy O.Com Coliseum. While the Tigers are favored, we like the consistency of the A’s all-around-game, to win a five game series and advance to the ALCS.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

NLDS: Pitching Will Be the Rule of the Day

When you attempt to predict the outcome of both National League Divisional playoff series, about the only simple observation is that all four team possess superior pitching which got them this far. Offensively the Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals and Pirates all have strengths and weaknesses so in the end; you figure the starting staff and relief core that stands the tallest will produce the winner in each of the best of five game match-ups. Dodgers vs. Braves While the boys in blue seemed to take their foot off the accelerator down the stretch finishing just 9-15, orders of manager Don Mattingly, the Dodgers still possess the best starting staff of any team in the post-season according to what took place over the 162 game regular season. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game today. His 1.83 ERA this year was the lowest by any ERA qualifier since Pedro Martinez in 2000 (1.74) and the lowest by an NL pitcher since Greg Maddux (1.63) in 1995. This means if the series goes five games the Braves would have to beat Kershaw most likely at least once, which of course is a daunting task. The Dodgers are able to follow up Kershaw with righty Zack Greinke. Greinke was arguably the Dodgers most consistent starter since recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in April during his first start against the San Diego Padres. He went 7-1 over his last 12 starts, sporting a 1.85 ERA in the second half of the season. Together they are the best 1-2 punch in the game. Even if Atlanta finds a way to split the first two games at Turner Field, the Dodgers then follow with rookie lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.00 ERA) and Ricky Nolasco (3.70 ERA) in games three and four. The Braves top starter Kris Medlen may not be considered an ace but has pitched like one over the second half of the year. In his last six starts Medlen boast a 5-0 record, allowing just four earned runs with no long balls over his last 43 frames. The rest of the rotation Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Paul Maholm each won at least ten games but don’t sport the gaudy numbers of the Dodgers starters. Los Angeles has the capability of landing a crippling 2-0 lead heading back to the west coast on the strength of just starting pitching which Atlanta doesn’t possess. Both bullpens have also been very strong with the Braves touted as the best in the majors. Craig Kimbrel is the game’s top closer with an ERA of 1.21, part of his 50 saves. If Atlanta gets to Kimbrel with the lead it’s basically its game over. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan are the bridges that connect Kimbrel to the game’s end for the A-T-L. The Dodgers bullpen has a consistent closer of its own in Kenley Jansen who’s compiled 28 saves in 32 chances, although one of those blown saves game against the Braves in Atlanta early in the year. The Los Angeles middle relief has been solid as well, with Ronald Belisario, Paco Rodriguez and the acquisition of Brian Wilson. The Dodgers don’t blow too many leads either but the bullpen nod still goes to Atlanta. Offensively is where you find question marks with both squads. The Dodgers will be missing Matt Kemp for the entire post-season with a sprained ankle and Andre Ethier will most likely just pinch hit in this series due to shin splints above his ankle, so the Los Angeles offense takes a hit there. They do still possess a monster combination of Carl Crawford, rookie Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez, who many consider the NL MVP of the regular season. Atlanta does have more home run power in Freddie Freeman (20 HR), Andrelton Simmons (17 HR), Brian McCann (20 HR), Evan Gattis (21 HR) and Justin Upton (27 HR) but as a team they strike out a lot. 1,384 fans account for the third most in baseball, while the Los Angeles pitching staff tossed 1,294 k’s which is the most of any NL playoff team. If the Dodgers staff can keep the Braves in the ballpark at Turner Field and Dodger Stadium, they hold a major advantage towards winning games. The bottom line on this series is the Dodgers bats won’t win this series but if their pitching holds serve like the regular season, they should move on in a 3-1 series victory. Pirates vs. Cardinals With their first post-season victory in 21 years last night, the Bucs are definitely the sentimental favorite in the National League playoffs. But warm and fuzzy feelings don’t help overcome a major experience gap which the Cardinals hold in this match-up. For the Red Birds it all starts behind the plate with Yadier Molina. Touted as the game’s all-around best catcher and a legit MVP candidate he gives the Cardinals a sizable defensive presence as well as a bat with both power and the ability to hit for average. This is all part of a St. Louis line-up that hit .330 with runners in scoring position during the regular season! That is a sick number that no other playoff team comes close to matching. Even though Pittsburgh won the season series 10-9, St. Louis still hit .313 with RISP against Bucs pitching. That would be more than enough in this series you’d think. Even without Allen Craig (out with a foot injury) the Cardinals line-up still led the league in runs scored during September. Matt Adams has filled in nicely in Craig’s clean-up spot hitting .326 with eight long balls last month. Both Matt Holiday and Matt Carpenter who lead the league in runs scored (126) and hits (199) boost the Cards attack even more, as they come into the post-season as the best offensive team in the National League. While the Bucs can land a few haymakers of their own from the box, Pedro Alvarez (36 HR) and Russell Martin, six of this 15 home runs this season came against St. Louis the offensive edge is way in favor of the Red Birds. Pittsburgh’s most important player Andrew McCutchen was held to an average of just .246 against the Cardinals staff this season. While Pittsburgh does have a slight edge on the mound in terms of the starting rotation, the Bucs lost it by having to use ace Francisco Liriano in their wild-card game victory. He owned the Cards this season going 3-0 and giving up just two runs in 24 innings. So rookie Garrett Cole becomes the Pirates number one in this series. He did not face St. Louis this season and finished the year by going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in September. This could be an edge for Pittsburgh as the Cards sometimes struggle against unfamiliar arms. A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton are wild-cards for Pittsburgh as the Cards know them both very well but when Burnett is on he’s like having another ace on the hill. Adam Wainwright again is the man for St. Louis but their five starters combined for a 2.36 ERA in September as they enter the post-season as the league’s hottest staff with Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly all capable of throwing eight quality innings on any night. The bullpens of both squads have new closers with Jason Grilli finishing for the Bucs and Trevor Rosenthal for the Cards. Grilli has more experience and appears to be back in his first half of the season form, when he led the league in saves. The Pittsburgh bullpen finished second in NL bullpen ERA at 2.85 so the nod goes to them. The late season additions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau give Pittsburgh experience and pop off the bench, not to mention they still can use Garrett Jones or Gaby Sanchez in pinch-hitting roles for Clint Hurdle. Don’t expect the Bucs to be wide-eyed and in awe of the Cards. As stated they won the season series and have that “special something” going on as a team this season. In the upset of the post-season we like Pittsburgh to outlast St. Louis in five games.
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