- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Baseball has endured as the national pastime for more than a century in part because of how familiar the sport is to fans of all ages.

Every fan knows the best teams at the end of a 162-game season continue to play well in the playoffs. That wild-cards teams don’t stand much of chance. That the best players in the regular season produce in the playoffs. That the Yankees are the favorites every season. That the best league will produce the World Series champion. And that any postseason game involving the New York Yankees will last a minimum of 3½ hours (four hours if the Boston Red Sox are also involved).

But, truth be told, conventional wisdom often gets the shaft in the postseason. Logic? It has no place here.

If history — particularly recent history — is any clue, prepare to be shocked. All previous baseball knowledge doesn’t apply in the playoffs. Don’t believe it? Ask a Yankees fan when the team last won the World Series.

Thus, as the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Cubs and Rockies — yes, the Rockies are in the playoffs, even if Matt Holliday still hasn’t touched home plate — begin baseball’s best month, here are five common sense axioms that surely won’t be true by the time Bud Selig hands out the Commissioner’s Trophy in the next month. …

1. The hottest teams in September are the hottest teams in October.

Uh, not exactly. Remember last year’s Minnesota Twins? Didn’t think so. They went 16-7 down the stretch and overtook the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central title on the final day of season. Then, the Oakland Athletics swept them in the division series.

And the Tigers, who lost five straight to close the regular season? They cruised past the Yankees and Athletics en route to their first World Series berth in 22 years. Then they were manhandled by the St. Louis Cardinals, who went 12-17 in September to end the season with 83 wins but celebrated their first championship in 24 seasons.

Take heed, Phillies and Rockies. You may have been the talk of baseball the last two weeks, but that won’t count for much once the real show begins today.

2. The wild-card teams are at a distinct disadvantage.

Again, not even close to being true. If anything, the wild-card teams have been the most successful October teams since baseball expanded the playoffs in 1994.

Check this out: Of the 10 wild-card teams that have made the playoffs the last five years, eight won their first-round series. Six won the pennant. Three have won the World Series (the 2002 Angels, the 2003 Marlins and the 2004 Red Sox).

There’s no such thing as home-field advantage in the playoffs.

3. The best players during the season come up big in the playoffs.

Paging Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod to a white courtesy phone, please.

History is littered with regular-season MVPs who can’t handle the pressure of the postseason, and Rodriguez is only the latest example. The dynamic slugger may be a shoo-in for his third AL MVP, but Yankees fans will never praise him until he performs in October.

In four playoff series in pinstripes, Rodriguez has hit .240 with three homers and eight RBI. The last two years, he has hit .103 with no RBI. (Note to Indians manager Eric Wedge: Don’t pitch around the guy. Make him beat you.)

Rodriguez, of course, isn’t the only regular-season star who has crumbled in the playoffs. Barry Bonds’ career postseason average is .245. Throw out his remarkable 2002 run with the Giants and it plummets to .198.

Pitchers aren’t immune to playoff yips, either. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana is 1-4 in the postseason. Greg Maddux is 10-11. Tigers ace Justin Verlander transformed from rookie sensation to bust last fall, posting a 5.82 ERA in four playoff outings.

4. The Yankees will inevitably win.

Um, have you been paying attention for the last six seasons? The Bronx Bombers last won the World Series in 2000. Since then, they have been to only two World Series (2001 and 2003) and lost both.

5. The American League was far superior during the regular season, so the team that emerges from the AL will dominate the National League champion in the World Series.

This is what everyone said last season. The AL had five 90-win teams, including the White Sox, who finished third in their division. The NL had one 90-win team and a World Series representative (the Cardinals) that barely played .500 ball for the season.

It didn’t matter. The Cardinals got hot at the right time and took the Series from the Tigers in five games.

So as you hunker down in your La-Z-Boy for what promises to be another wild postseason, keep this in mind: Forget everything you know. Expect the unexpected. Believe in all possibilities.

But be prepared for the Yankees games to drag on until all hours of the night. Some things still are certain.


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