National Pastime staff
October 1, 2008
Just about every sports fan secretly believes they’re Nostradamus. It’s why sportsbooks thrive, millions play in fantasy leagues and crinkled $20 bills reluctantly change hands at work every Monday during football season. The truth, however, is that we watch sports because of its unpredictability; with apologies to “The Hills,” sports are the closest thing to actual reality TV. The fact that nobody actually knows what’s going to happen is what makes sports thrilling. If we actually knew in advance what was going to go down, why would we watch?
So, if we’re all just making educated guesses, what’s the point of airing them out? Because it’s fun, that’s why. Below, each of National Pastime’s writers - Jay LeBlanc, Nick Leco, Sean Raposa and Tom Stad - will rely on the expertise they’ve spent years accumulating, lay it all on the line and give you their respective takes on what’s going to happen in the four Division Series. And just for kicks, so will Jay’s girlfriend Amanda, a 21-year-old cosmetology student. “I just say the first thing that pops into my head before I get a chance to think about it,” she said, when asked how she came to her conclusions. “Because when I think about it, it’s all wrong.”
ANGELS vs. RED SOX
Jay: The probable loss of Josh Beckett for this series brings an otherwise superior Red Sox rotation down to the Angels’ level - which is still pretty good, by the way - and the bullpens are similarly strong. The team that wins this series will do so on the strength of offensive production. The Angels improved their lineup by trading for Mark Teixeira at midseason, but still finished just ninth in the American League in the most basic and yet most important of all offensive categories: runs scored. Boston, on the other hand, ranked second in the league in runs, and, for good measure, second in batting average and slugging percentage as well. Both pitching staffs bring it, but Boston’s hitters win out. Red Sox in four.
Nick: The Red Sox come into this series against the Angels with some serious health issues. Josh Beckett, 6-0 in postseason play, suffered a strained oblique in a bullpen session on Friday and has been tentativaly pushed back to Game 3, Mike Lowell has been hampered by a sore left hip that has affected his fielding, and J.D. Drew has only played two games in September. The Sox will need to get at least some contributions from this group if they’re to advance to the next round. The Angels completely dominated the Red Sox this year, winning eight of nine and outscoring them 61-33, and ace John Lackey was 2-0 with 2.81 ERA against the Sox this year. If the Angels can get a healthy Joe Saunders (kidney stones) and Howie Kendrick back for this series, they will be tough to beat. Angels in five.
Sean: The best opening round series pits two teams who have combined to win three of the past six World Series titles. Boston won 95 in the regular season and Anahiem 100, but the slate is clean and the BoSox have a big psychological edge, having swept the Halos in the Division Series twice in the past four years. By all means I would love to say Boston will make it four in a row, but two of their biggest weapons from glory days past, Manny Ramirez and Josh Beckett, are playing for the Dodgers and hurt, respectively. I expect this one to go the full five with Lester, Santana, Saunders, Byrd and Lackey alternating wins. Angels in five.
Tom: Josh Beckett’s oblique strain changes the dynamic of this series just a bit. However, if the Red Sox can manage a split out west - which seems like a good bet with Lester going in Game 1 and Matsuzaka in Game 2 - and Beckett is at full strength when this series shifts back to Fenway, all the pressure will be squarely on the A.L. West champs. For the Angels to take the series back to Southern California they would have to find a way to beat Beckett, and I just can’t see it happening. It doesn’t matter whether it’s April or October - even good teams have a hard time winning at Fenway Park, no matter who is on the mound. Red Sox in four.
Amanda: Red Sox in five.
RAYS vs. WHITE SOX
Jay: Every time the critics wrote off the youthful, inexperienced Rays this year, they responded. Nobody gave them a shot in what is annually baseball’s toughest division, but Joe Maddon’s crew played hard night in and night out and finished the year with not only the best record in team history and a playoff berth, but the A.L. East title to boot. The White Sox enter the postseason with momentum on their side after extending their season not once but twice this week, but Tampa Bay’s green but talented rotation will prove too much for their all-or-nothing bats in this series and their scrappy offense will provide just enough run support to get the job done. The White Sox will put up a good fight but go down in the end. Rays in five.
Nick: The question is: Do the White Sox have anything left in the tank after already playing the equivelant of playoff baseball for the last week or so? The White Sox will only have one day off before kicking off their series against the Rays, who have been resting since Sunday and will have all of their pitchers on full rest. Alexei Ramirez has been the catalyst for this year’s White Sox, and he will need to continue his clutch hitting (four grand slams) for the White Sox to contend. The Rays hope to continue their maginificent run by supplementing their solid young pitching staff with production from their young stud slugger, Rookie of the Year lock Evan Longoria, and the speedy B.J. Upton. The only question marks for the Rays are how much of a contribution Carl Crawford can make and whether Troy Percival is healthy. Rays in three.
Sean: The Rays have seemingly toppled every obstacle this year. Whether it was injuries to stars like Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria or a lack of fan support or trying to stay ahead of the two mega-conglomerates in their division, they always fought through the mud and came out cleaner on the other side. While ace Scott Kazmir has been launching bombs as if he has been testing for NASA lately, I see him laying down the law in Game 1 at home and the rest of the team following his lead. The inevitable slip-up game in the Rays’ first postseason go-round just means this series goes four games instead of three. Rays in four.
Tom: All season long the pundits have been waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa … but it hasn’t. Everyone knows that. What most people might not know, however, is that Carl Crawford has been on a rehab assignment and should be in the Rays’ lineup for Game 1. The Tampa Bay bullpen is what worries me though. Troy Percival has had injury issues all year long. Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and the rest of the Ray’s relievers have never been in this type of atmosphere before, and I guarantee they make some bad pitches that cost this team. I certainly don’t think they go down without a fight, but this team hasn’t been to the postseason like Chicago. White Sox in four.
Amanda: Rays in three.
PHILLIES vs. BREWERS
Jay: Both of these teams bring a pair of aces to the table - Sabathia and Gallardo for Milwaukee, Hamels and Myers for the Phils - and offenses that rank among the most explosive in all of baseball. On paper, the Brew Crew is at a disadvantage because of its shaky bullpen. However, Milwaukee is riding high right now after clutch final-week performances by Sabathia and Braun propelled them to the postseason, while the Phillies’ regular season ended with them beating up on the lowly Nationals while the Mets choked another season away. The Brewers will ride its momentum to a pair of quick victories, but the Phillies will battle back to force a fifth game. CC then slams the door on Philly’s season. Brewers in five.
Nick: Despite having the biggest stud pitcher in the game right now in Sabathia, the Brewers have some serious question marks in their rotation. With Ben Sheets out for the Division Series and Sabathia having pitched two days prior, the Brewers will trot out young and inexperienced Yovani Gallardo (one start since May 1) for Game 1 and have yet to announce their Game 3 starter (Manny Parra or Dave Bush). The Phillies will counter with a well-rested and deep rotation. Cole Hamels is one of the game’s best young starters and veteran Jamie Moyer provides considerable playoff experience. Slugger Ryan Howard is hitting the ball better than anyone in the majors right now. The wild card will be how Sabathia fares in his fourth straight start on three days rest in Game 2 - and possibly his fifth straight if this series stretches to five games. My guess is he keeps mowing them down and doesn’t get hammered like he did in last year’s playoffs. Brewers in five.
Sean: As they say, all good things must come to an end. Unfortunately for the storybook Brewers, it will be quick and painful. Few expected them to be in the playoffs this season and for that accomplishment, they have CC Sabathia to thank. The problem is that he will provide the team’s only win in this series, rolling over Brett Myers and his punk attitude in Game 2. Hamels takes care of Game 1 and the Phils relentless lineup will make Milwaukee’s return home forgettable as both Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush will get lit up like a Christmas tree. CCs farewell will be somber, but at least the Brewers fans will have a half-season of memories to last a lifetime. Phillies in four.
Tom: While the other series may be dominated by pitching, I see this one as a shootout. Both teams have excellent power and decent speed. Each squad has potential aces in the rotation. I think the Brewers’ decision to keep throwing Sabathia out there on short rest will hurt though, and their bullpen is the weakest of all the teams still alive. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, a surging Jayson Werth … get the point? Phillies in three.
Amanda: Phillies in four.
CUBS vs. DODGERS
Jay: The Cubs are the best team in baseball entering the playoffs. The Dodgers are the most dangerous. On paper, the Cubs can’t lose; I’d take their top four starters over any other playoff team’s, and their lineup is dangerous from top to bottom. I hate to say it, Cubs fans - and really, I mean it, and I’m not being sarcastic - but your team is going to choke. The Cubbies are going to drop Game 1 at home, pushing the entire North Side of Chicago into panic mode and putting more pressure on the team that already bears the burden of being both the favorite and the sentimental favorite. The Dodgers are feeling good with Manny in the fold, and, with several dangerous hitters not named Manny, a good enough rotation and an underrated bullpen, they’re just good enough to capitalize. Dodgers in five.
Nick: In what figures to be a low-scoring, tightly contested series, good pitching and timely hitting will be the key factors. Each team trots out as good a top of the rotation as any team in the majors. The Dodgers led the league in with a 3.15 ERA and the presence of Manny Ramirez has certainly had a posisitve impact on the young, inexperienced Dodgers hitters. Joe Torre’s 14 consecutive playoff appearances can only be a positive for a Dodgers club that has won only one playoff game in the last 20 years. The Cubs have been the best team in the N.L. all year long and finished with the league’s best record. Carlos Zambrano has been erratic over the past couple weeks, throwing a no-hitter and getting lit up in consecuitive starts. Alfonso Soriano brings playoff experience from his days in New York and should fare well in this series. Cubs in four.
Sean: If the Dodgers matched up against any other N.L. foe I would have given them a fighting chance. Not in Wrigley, where the Cubs had the Senior Circuit’s best record at 55-26. Revelation Ryan Dempster has been slated to start Game 1 and will be followed by the maniac Carlos Zambrano and Rich “Glass Joe” Harden in games 2 and 3. If you can tell me with a straight face that L.A. can win more than one of those games, good for you. I can’t. The Dodgers youngsters need more seasoning, Manny will get avoided like the plague and the absence of Brad Penny and Jason Schmidt (is he still alive, or did he kick the bucket during shoulder surgery?) leave this L.A. team just short on talent. Cubs pitching shuts this one down early. Cubs in three.
Tom: This is the series that intrigues me the most. One the one hand, I want to see Chicago get to the World Series only because there will either be complete pandemonium over the Cubbies finally breaking the curse of the Billy Goat … or complete anarchy in Chicago after yet another year of championship futility. I’d like to see a Dodgers vs. Red Sox series just to see the fan reaction when Manny Ramirez, Derek Lowe and Nomar Garciaparra step foot on the diamond at Fenway in opposing colors. One scenario is definitely not going to happen, but first things first. Watch out for Chad Billingsley of the Dodgers. The Los Angeles ace - and make no mistake about it, Joe Torre, he is your ace and not the psychological mess that is Derek Lowe - could get two of the three wins they need to advance. Trouble is, I don’t see them being able to get a third one. Cubs in five.
Amanda: Dodgers in five.
Photos by The Associated Press