By TOM STAD
September 29, 2008
How ironic is it that the postseason has yet to begin, and both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium have already hosted their final baseball games? The Yankees’ fate has been sealed for a while, much to the dismay of owner Hank Steinbrenner, who, like his father, loves to make his opinion known loud and clear. Last week the cantankerous Steinbrenner voiced his displeasure at the fact the Dodgers were going to make the National League playoffs with a worse record than his Bombers.
Oddly enough - and no one saw this coming - both the White Sox and Twins are doing everything they can not to win the A.L. Central and, in the process, have given the Yankees’ owner a better argument. The White Sox had dropped five in a row before Sunday’s victory over Cleveland while the Twins dropped two straight to Kansas City before avoiding the sweep, so both teams are two games behind the Yankees in the loss column. No matter. Either Chicago or Minnesota will be heading to Tampa to battle the Rays in the first round of the playoffs while the Yankees watch from home.
Fair or not, the rules are the rules and division champions are awarded an automatic spot in the postseason. While Hank comes to grips with that, the borderline-suicidal fans of New York’s other team have to deal with yet another late-season collapse. In the season that followed one of the biggest choke jobs in MLB history, the Mets first let the division title slip away to the Phillies and then promptly lost two of three to the Marlins. They were officially bounced them from postseason contention when the Brewers’ CC Sabathia four-hit the Cubs on Sunday. At least the New York Football Giants are the reigning Super Bowl Champions and the J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets! just picked up some guy named Favre. It’s officially football season in the Big Apple.
All that aside, there is still some exciting baseball to be played before we even get to the playoffs. After all was said and done on Sunday, only one spot remained to be claimed in the 2008 MLB playoff bracket. The Angels, Rays and Red Sox all have spots at the American League table, while the contenders for the remaining spot, the White Sox and Twins, are separated by half a game. Chicago has a makeup game with the Tigers Monday afternoon. If the White Sox win, they would end the season deadlocked with the Twins, and the teams would go head-to-head in a one-game playoff on Tuesday with the winner representing the A.L. Central in the postseason. Should Ozzie Guillen’s crew lose Monday, their season would be over and the Twins would move on to play Tampa Bay on Thursday.
The other A.L. series, between the Red Sox and Angels, will kick off Wednesday. The Angels finished with the best record in baseball and dominated the Red Sox during the regular season. However, Boston has had the upper hand in recent playoff history against Mike Scioscia’s squad. The top of Boston’s rotation - Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka - has the edge on Los Angeles’, and the bullpens are fairly even. Whether the Angels’ offense can solve Boston’s starters and get to the bullpen early may decide this series. After that, the big question is whether the Red Sox can keep getting contributions at the plate from both the veterans - like Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz - and the youngsters, like Jed Lowrie and Dustin Pedroia. History says Boston finds a way.
Over in the National League, Ryan Braun and Milwaukee take on the N.L. East champion Phillies beginning on Wednesday. The Brewers fired manager Ned Yost late in the season when a sudden funk threatened their chances of making the postseason for the first time since 1982. Dale Sveum took over for Yost, but he wasn’t the reason this team clinched the Wild Card berth on Sunday; it was the two guys who have carried this team over the past couple months. Sabathia remained nearly unhittable despite starting on short rest for the third time in a row, hurling a four-hit complete game and giving up just one run. The Brewers needed every bit of it, too, as they found themselves and the Cubs deadlocked at one in the bottom of the eighth before sophomore sensation Braun launched a two-run blast off of Cubs reliever Bobby Howry to propel the them to a 3-1 win and postseason berth.
Braun’s mother works as a real-life brewer in Van Nuys, Calif., and her son has made the major league Brewers proud ever since he joined their family last season. All he did as a rookie was belt 34 homers, drive in 97 runs, score 91 runs and hit .324 in 113 games. He slowed a bit in 2008, but not much. It has taken him 611 at bats this season, but the second-year outfielder - whose transition from third base went more smoothly than anyone expected - has managed to surpass all those totals, with the exception of his still-very-respectable .285 average. His consistency and clutch hitting - coupled with the trade-deadline acquisition of Sabathia, who is 11-2 since coming over from the Indians - has managed to push the Brewers back to the playoffs for the first time in more than a quarter-century. With apologies to their division rival in the Windy City, the sentimental favorite in the N.L. just might be the Brewers.
The Phillies outlasted the Mets to win the N.L. East for the second year in a row, and have something to prove after their early postseason exit in 2007. Their own version of “The Big Three” - shortstop Jimmy Rollins, first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley - will have to bring the lumber against the Brewers if the Phillies are to make noise this time around. Brad Lidge has been stellar as the team’s closer, but the Phillies’ starters have been erratic all year. They have the arms in Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer, but none of them have been lights-out for long stretches this year. The Brewers are feeling good and should pull this one out. Regardless, this series should be a lot of fun to watch.
Sabathia isn’t the only late-season acquisition who managed to vault his squad into the postseason. The enigma that is Manny Ramirez proved a few things in 2008. Most recently he has hushed all the critics who thought his swing was no longer what it once was. Ramirez put those rumors to rest by feasting on N.L. pitching after shifting coasts from Boston to L.A. The left fielder hit .396 with 17 homers in just 187 at-bats with the Dodgers after coming over in a three-way deal at the deadline. It’s clear that one of the best right-handed hitters in history still has it, and if the Dodgers are going to go anywhere this postseason, they’ll need it.
Their opponent - holders of the best record in the National League - has some question marks on the mound. Rich Harden is never more than an awkward delivery away from another injury, and Carlos Zambrano has struggled in both of the starts he’s made since his Sept. 14 no-hitter. The bullpen isn’t exactly loaded, either, even though Kerry Wood has turned out to be a great option as a closer. The key to the Cubs’ championship dreams may be Alfonso Soriano. Chicago slumped during the six weeks the center fielder spent on the DL with a broken wrist. He has been the spark at the top of the lineup for the Cubs all year, and he needs to continue to produce runs with both his bat and his legs if this team is going to advance.
It may be football season in the Big Apple, but World Series dreams are still alive for fans of baseball’s surviving squads. Nobody knows what the coming weeks will bring, but one thing is for sure - it’ll be fun to watch it play out.
Photos by The Associated Press