In the National League, we had the best of baseball’s wild-card system, a weekend filled with excitement and uncertainty and the season extended by last night’s one-game playoff between the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres.
The American League, though, exposed one of the flaws of the wild-card system — the deflation of the division title.
There was a lot of intrigue about whether the Boston Red Sox would collapse in the final weeks and lose the American League East title to the surging New York Yankees. But both teams likely were to make the playoffs either way (unless the Detroit Tigers had come on to compete for the wild card), so what was at stake was not nearly as great as, let’s say, in 1978, when Bucky Dent hit the home run in the one-game playoff against the Red Sox — the last great collapse of the Boston baseball franchise.
The Yankees went on to the American League Championship Series, and the Red Sox went to whatever place they go whenever their hearts are broken.
If it were 2007, since the losing team would have had the second-best record in the AL, one would have been the division champion and the other the wild card. So while the wild card creates a lot of drama — and has proved to be a boost for baseball — even good ideas come with a price tag, and the cost of that was the value of a division title.
The Red Sox did get to choose the eight-day division series by winning the division title and having the best record in the league, and that is worth something now, of course. But when it comes to rest, their opponents, the Angels, rested for most of September after the Mariners fell out of the AL West race. And a rest for a team that plays with the energy and aggressiveness of the Angels only will help.
It is that style of play — aggressive at the plate and on the basepaths, the ability to manufacture runs — that often wins out in a short series, particularly a five-game series in which every run could be a difference-maker. It should be the difference-maker that propels the Angels past the Red Sox in this division series, which will disappoint those who want to see a Boston-New York ALCS.
The Angels’ bullpen started to look better in the final days of the regular season, and with Garrett Anderson coming on strong to complement Vladimir Guerrero, they should have enough offense to keep the runners moving on the basepaths. One big problem, though, is that the Angels’ ace, John Lackey, has been a disaster when facing the Red Sox, particularly at Fenway Park. Lackey is 1-6 with a 6.27 ERA in 11 career starts against Boston and 1-4 with a 7.46 ERA at Fenway Park. In a five-game series, Lackey likely would pitch Games 1 and 5, both at Fenway, unless manager Mike Scioscia makes a change.
Boston, of course, has the starting pitching and the lineup to go all the way to the World Series. Starters Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling have pitched well against the Angels, and with David Ortiz and now Manny Ramirez back in the lineup, Boston obviously has the lumber to pound its way to a series victory.
But the Angels seem to be built for playoff baseball, and I think they will finesse their way to the ALCS — to face the Yankees.
Cleveland may have a good team and the best pitching with 19-game winners C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. And they may be too young and full of themselves to be intimidated going into their first postseason. But generally, playoff experience means a lot, and no one has it more than the Yankees, who will be playing in their 13th straight postseason.
New York has veteran playoff pitching — Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina — plus its own 19-game starter in Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees have an explosive offense led by the best player in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, who has something to prove again in October. And no one was playing better baseball in the second half of the season than the Yankees, who went 51-25. This is their time, like it or not.
But in the ALCS, if it is the Yankees and the Angels, New York will face a playoff-tested team and again one perfectly suited for a short series. But that’s another time and another round in the mini-marathon that it now takes for a playoff team to reach the World Series.