By SEAN RAPOSA
October 1, 2008
October is upon us at last, and, as promised, the fellas and I here at National Pastime are bringing it full-force to get you ready and carry you through the next few weeks. Grab a cup of coffee, tell Lumberg you’re on those TPS Reports and saddle up for a ride through the peaks and valleys of our Elite Eight. My friends already tackled the storylines in “It’s football season in New York” and sized up our combatants in “Raise your glasses …” - quite masterfully, I might add - so today I’m going a step further and breaking these teams down by role.
With the White Sox staking their claim to the A.L. Central crown in Game 163 and earning a date with Tampa Bay, our matchups are finally set. Boston will travel to Anaheim to renew their postseason acquaintances, the Dodgers drew the short stick and have to travel to Chicago to meet the mighty Cubs and the Milwaukee Sabathias - I mean Brewers - are off to Philadelphia to take on the red-hot Phillies. This postseason promises to put the finishing touches on what has been a glorious year for baseball, so make sure to finagle some couch allowance from the wife or get that DVR set up. You won’t want to miss the next 30 days of baseball, for “there’s only one October!” Who knew?
If you kept up with the “My Five” columns I authored this summer you know how much I value pitching, so that’s where I’ll start today. Big-game pitchers have always owned the game of baseball, but this fact seemed to get lost amongst all the crowd-pleasing longballs of the Fathead Era (as you can see, I made up a new name for the ever-depressing Steroid Era; maybe we can make it stick?). In today’s new and improved MLB the aces rule the stage once again. So who’s the best? Numero uno?
Gut reaction would say it’s CC Sabathia. The performance he put on over the last two-plus months, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and carrying the Brewers to their first postseason in 26 years, was ridiculous. It’s hard to put him head-to-head with any other hurler and take the alternative. The problem with CC is in shouldering all this weight (253 total innings, 10 complete games and his upcoming fourth straight start on three days’ rest) his left arm has taken more abuse than Pamela Anderson’s … well, never mind, you get it. Last year’s similar workload caught up to him in the ALCS (0-2, 10.45 ERA) and you know what they say about ignoring history.
Passing on the behemoth, I next would look to the bulldog in Boston, Josh Beckett. His postseason credentials (6-2, 1.73 ERA) put him light years ahead of his competition in this class, but an oblique injury might be more than even Beckett’s heart can overcome. Another Tasmanian Devil who is currently battling injury is Carlos Zambrano. After slam-dunking a no-hitter on the Astros in his return from a strained rotator cuff, Big Z failed to get past the fifth inning in his next two starts and logged an 18.47 ERA. “Paging Dr. Andrews … paging Dr. Andrews …”
Cole Hamels is going to be my guy. He gets to open at home backed by a streaking offense against a playoff virgin, Yovani Gallardo. Unlike most of the No. 1 starters, who have hit speed bumps down the stretch, Hamels is cruising. He’s 9-6 since the start of June with successive monthly ERAs of 2.61, 2.88, 2.61 and 2.84. His stuff is as filthy as anyone’s (1.08 WHIP, 196 K’s) and he likes to go deep into games (two complete games, five starts of eight-plus innings).
This one is tough because, by definition, these guys are the best each playoff team has to offer. Common sense would say the guy(s) with no post-season experience, Scott Kazmir is probably the least desirable front-man to enter October behind. Kazmir has gotten progressively worse this season, with ERAs just over four in July and August and a peak ERA of 5.19 in September. One might suggest that his failure to surpass six innings pitched in each of his last 12 starts is the result of an effort to save his arm, but his total workload in the regular season was a pedestrian 152-plus innings. Sparing him the distinction of worst ace is his 1-0 record and 2.08 ERA in two starts versus the White Sox this season, his home-field advantage and his top-drawer talent and confidence.
Derek Lowe of the Dodgers would most likely run away with the popular vote if we left this up to SportsNation but his four wins, one save and 3.34 ERA in 67-plus playoff innings point me elsewhere. Lowe is as hot as anyone - even CC - as he has gone 4-0 in his last six starts, including 3-0 with an 0.59 ERA and .162 opponents’ batting average in September. For full disclosure, those games were against the Giants, Padres, Pirates and Diamondbacks … but still. As the most hittable ace in the playoffs, Mark Buehrle would be the other popular choice. But like D-Lowe, he’s storming into October like a bat out of hell with a 4-1 record and 2.29 ERA in six straight quality starts to close out the year. The lefty also boasts a track record of postseason success, having gone 2-0 with a 3.47 ERA during Chicago’s 2005 championship run.
If you did the math that leaves, yup, John Lackey as my … well … lackey. He’s a great pitcher and I’d take him on my team any day, but if we’re talking aces? Not so much. In his last five starts he’s gone 1-3 and given up four, five, four, zero and 10 earned runs respectively. While he has gone 2-0 versus the Angels’ nemesis - Boston - this year, he is 0-2 with a 4.84 ERA in his last four playoff starts and the pressure cooker will be on full-blast for this home-grown hurler to break the postseason hold the Red Sox have over his squad.
What good is having an ace if you can’t close out a win? “No good” is the answer - just ask the Mets. Thanks to the absence of the other New York team and quite possibly the best postseason pitcher of any role for the first time in 14 seasons, this is actually a worthwhile discussion. Mariano Rivera has 34 saves, an 8-1 record and a 0.77 ERA in postseason play, but he’ll be under the knife while these guys are saving games this October. I know it’s hard, but fight back the tears. If only they had more resources.
When splitting hairs to try to determine the best of this year’s talent-laden crop of stoppers, the question becomes, Which characteristic is the most vital to success late in October games? Every one of these guys boasts an intimidating mound presence, devastating stuff and an impressive resume. For me, it comes down to the Tiger Woods factor: Disgusting, repulsive and unbridled self-confidence. Like a Jedi mind trick, he wills his opponents to accept their impending defeat through his lifeless eyes.
So, who’s got the eye of the tiger? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Jonathan Broxton simply hasn’t done it on the big stage yet. While Kerry Wood and Brad Lidge have been terrific this year, both guys have scarred pasts and we all know bad memories never fade - just ask Ray Finkle or Scott Norwood, or Bill Buckner (I just threw up in my mouth a little).
That leaves us with Bobby Jenks, Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez, all of whom have dominated a postseason en route to a title (2005, 2007 and 2002, respectively). Jenks has swooned in September, sporting a 6.35 ERA and .295 BAA - he’s out. It comes down to “the Papelbon face” or the “K-Rod kick.” Actually, for me, it comes down to the Papelbon kick - of the Gatorade cooler - which led me to believe he is just a little too crazy, and not that bright. Giving Rodriguez top honors coming off a record-setting 62 saves and one of the best contract years of all-time is hardly shocking but still worth mentioning.
Luckily those Mets choked their way out of the playoffs again so I wasn’t faced with the unenviable task of determining and publicly lambasting the foulest odor emanating from the closer-by-committee in Queens. With all due respect (or disrespect) to the Dan Wheeler/Troy Percival combo in Tampa, my knees would be shaking a little faster if I was praying for Salomon Torres to protect my one-run lead. His 3.49 ERA and 28 saves in 35 opportunities are respectable but the wheels have come off in his last 12 appearances, in which he’s gone 1-2 with an 8.53 ERA and .345 BAA.
Beyond Torres’ horrible run, the clincher for this one is actually the man behind the man. In this case it’s the newly crowned scariest face in October baseball history, Eric Gagne. The Rays have the two serviceable guys mentioned above plus Aussie fireballer Grant Balfour, and they could even play the David Price card if they were desperate - or smart; you can decide for yourself. Case closed.
Good pitching beats good hitting. Defense wins championships. We’ve all heard the clichés, but as Yogi Berra would put it, “The team that scores the most runs wins the game,” so I guess the offensive side of the ball deserves some airtime as well. Look at all the studs who are sure to be setting off some fireworks this postseason: the Ramirez family-Manny, Aramis and Alexei, Jermaine Dye, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, Vlad Guerrero and Mark Teixeira, and lastly Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Wow, those are some big bats!
I’m tempted to say the Phillies have the best lineup because of all the big names - Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Pat Burrell in addition to Utley and Howard - and big power - they’re second in homers and sixth in slugging percentage. However, their home park adds to their muscle, and their 23rd-ranked batting average can lead to long droughts in pushing guys across.
The Red Sox are a worthy selection both by the numbers and by star power; David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are all bona fide superstars. As a team the Sox finished third in the majors in runs scored, batting average and slugging percentage. The problem is the health of their lineup. Key cogs J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell are both ailing, and when you throw in batter’s box black hole Jason Varitek and rookie Jed Lowrie, too many Chihuahuas are present to be the top dogs.
The Cubs are the proud owners of this postseason’s most potent lineup. It starts with a bang - Alfonso Soriano - and doesn’t let up. When the weakest link in your chain is an aging Jim Edmonds, who still managed to slug 20 homers, I’d say you’re destined to score some runs. In fact, only the Rangers managed more than the Cubs’ 855. They also finished in the top five in the majors in both batting average and slugging percentage.
If you went strictly by the regular-season numbers, you’d say the Dodgers have the worst offense still playing, and you would be an idiot for saying so. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, I am not an idiot. L.A. finished in the bottom third of the majors in runs scored, home runs and slugging, but I realize that the Manny-factor drastically alters this team’s potential at the plate. Remember how smitten we all were with Chipper Jones hitting .400 in April? What about this clown doing it through August and September? Man that guy (or his agent) loves money!
The inconsistency of the Brewers offense is troublesome. Runs are always at a premium in the playoffs, and when you have guys like Mike Cameron, J.J. Hardy, Bill Hall and Rickie Weeks who go hot and cold like Robert Downey Jr. in cocaine rehab, things can get desperate. The team batting average of .253 was the sixth worst and they also finished in the bottom half of the league in runs scored. However, when you have two of the biggest mashers in the game - who also have shown a flare for the dramatic - in Fielder and Braun, I can’t put you in the cellar.
The reluctant owner of the Mini Cooper of offensive prowess is the Rays. Spearheaded by the magical managing of Joe Maddon, the Rays’ O was good enough to rake in 97 wins this year, but their lower-tier batting average (21st) and middling run production, combined with their youth and inexperience, may send them home early. The distance they’ve come while relying on guys like Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd and Gabe Gross is amazing - and probably portends a correction coming soon.
Accurately quantifying the soundness of a team’s defense has always been a challenge for those who follow baseball. The analysis has evolved to include range factors and zone ratings in addition to strict fielding percentages, but more than any other aspect of the game it requires the use of the eye test. The appearance of outfielders Torii Hunter and Gary Matthews Jr. on virtually every Best Damn Greatest 50 countdown show involving catches or amazing plays brings the Angels to mind first. They also have Big Daddy Vladdy’s crazy arm and a solid if unspectacular infield - Teixeira’s Gold Glove notwithstanding. The thing holding back the Halos is that their biggest deficiency is at shortstop - a crucial position - and their outfielders aren’t getting any younger at 30, 32, 33, 34 and 36 years old respectively.
The Red Sox might get my nod here if they were healthy. They are not, so big defensive pieces Lowell and Drew will be limited if they play at all, significantly lowering their ceiling for defensive wizardry or crippling their offense if they are forced to roll with a Sean Casey/Mark Kotsay-Coco Crisp pairing. Tampa Bay is an interesting study. At first, second, third and two outfield spots, their incumbents rank in the top five league-wide in fielding percentage. However, while Hinske is a nice role player, he is also a freefall from Carl Crawford - who may not be able to go - with the glove, and the youth and inexperience of the team is bound to cost them a run or two in the coming days.
It sounds and will look weird to see the Phillies in this spot since everyone talks about their offense, but with the exception of Howard’s rotting carcass at first, every other position is filled with a standout defender. The Utley-Rollins-Pedro Feliz infield combo is by far the most productive still playing and all their outfielders brings a power arm, solid play and decent range. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!
Now, on to the Homer Simpsons of the playoff world - D’oh! The Dodgers and the Brewers each have nice outfields composed of a solid veteran - Ramirez for L.A., Cameron for Milwaukee - and rising young stars - Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier; Braun and Corey Hart. As the plays get closer to the ground and closer to the plate however things deteriorate. As good as the outfields are, their infields are equally atrocious. Both squads topped the century-mark with 101 errors this season and often juggle their alignments, further complicating things.
The White Sox are the saving grace of the two previous teams. They tied for third in the A.L. and seventh in the majors with 108 errors and lack any real defensive stalwarts, with the exception of shortstop Orlando Cabrera. With a pitching staff that’s going to need all the help it can get moving forward the Sox need to step it up in the field.
Let’s wrap things up with a couple quick hitters:
Best Bench Weapon
Pinch hitting is quite possibly the hardest thing to do in baseball. And even when it works come playoff time, it tends to be one of the regular guys stuck in an unfamiliar position who comes through. So, while Nick Swisher, Ray Durham, Nomah Garciapopup, Reed Johnson, Juan Rivera and the immortal Matt Stairs are nice bench bats, I’m going with the legs. No baseball fan that watched the 2004 ALCS will ever forget “the steal” by Dave Roberts that propelled the Red Sox to the greatest comeback in sports history and their first title since 1918, and I believe that the Dodgers’ Juan Pierre could make a larger-than-expected impact this October. The fact that Pierre rides the pine on most days actually improves the value of his speed. To steal bases you first have to get on, something he only does at a .327 clip, so to have the ability to drop the speed demon directly into a potential steal situation is a gnarly card to have stashed up your sleeve.
Best Hitter Casual Fans Don’t Know
This category is my form of X-factor. None of these guys will be top conversation pieces in the pre-game shows or analysts’ predictions, but their teams’ success could depend more on their performance that most think.
The Cubs super-utility duo of Ryan Theriot and Mark DeRosa have gone virtually unmentioned as catalysts for the incredible summer on the North Side despite the fact that Theriot batted .307 with 22 steals and 85 runs scored while manning the shortstop gap and DeRosa hit 21 homers and drove in 87 while filling holes all over the diamond on defense. Akinori Iwamura has been a big factor for the Rays, slugging 30 doubles, scoring 91 runs and posting the second-best fielding percentage at his position. If Crawford can’t go, Iwamura’s production will be imperative.
My personal favorite and most crucial “no-namer” this postseason though is going to be Jayson Werth. The 6’ 5”, 225-pound corner outfielder was long a treasured prospect in the Blue Jays and Dodgers organizations before coming over to Philly. This year Werth got his best crack at a full-time gig and took full advantage. His 24 homers, 67 RBI, .498 slugging percentage and surprising 20 swipes in 418 at-bats were all career bests. Down the stretch he has been manning the Nos. 2 and 3 holes in the potent Phils’ lineup, so he projects to play a major role despite his minor recognition.
Best Bet to Emerge as the Next Pitching Hero
This year’s crop lines up three potentially off-the-charts arrivals for some serious young guns. The Brewers’ Yovani Gallardo, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Rays’ David Price have all logged time as their respective teams’ top prospect and figure to get some postseason run. Until Monday I figured that each of these pups would be emergency starters or bullpen relief, but then Ben Sheets decided he’s not that into the whole playoff thing and bowed out like a boxer ducking a fight. In steps Gallardo to start the all-important Game 1 for the beermakers, so the opportunity for a grand entrance is in place for him. Both Kershaw and Price appear to be scheduled to do damage from the bullpen and I expect each guy to do just that.
For me, the Price is right. Sorry, got those cheesy juices flowing today. He still has the luxury of being unseen by all potential opponents. Even Zach Duke had a good in his first go-round; imagine what this kid could do. I give Price the nod because I could easily see him starting the World Series-clinching game, making a miraculous long-relief effort or even closing out games for the Rays. Joe Maddon is very smart and Price is very talented; therefore, he will be used.
Best Home-Field Advantage
Despite the fact that the Rays finished the season with the best home record at 57-24, we’ve all seen the empty seats at Tropicana and if they do fill out the stadium, my guess is that it will be in the ALCS and the colors displayed will not be their own. For this reason - and the fact that the next best home records are in big cities with uber-passionate fan-bases - Tampa is not the coziest home. Come playoff time it’s more than just a game between the players, as the fans can swing outcomes as well. If you’ve ever pounded beers on Yawkey Way before entering a playoff game at Fenway, you know what I’m talking about. I can only assume the same goes down at Wrigley so I’ll coalesce with a tie.
Tune in tomorrow for some historical insight from our resident human almanac Nick Leco and make sure to check out our entire panel’s first round predictions. Play ball!
Photos by The Associated Press