I guess in my dreams, I’m a real baseball writer. Check that — I am a real baseball writer, in that I write about the sport here; plus I have written about it in a professional outlet regularly before, have done so on occasion since, and figure I probably will again. So as “real” baseball writers do, I feel compelled to reveal my postseason predictions.
I did this last year too, though I never went back to see how my predictions matched up with the actual outcomes. Since we have at least one team in each series returning to the postseason again this year (and six out of eight overall, in fact), I’ll address last year’s results this year.
With the postseason starting today, I had to get this post up first. By tomorrow, I’ll go back and look at my preseason predictions for this season and see how they came out, plus I’ll figure out what I think about the individual awards — MVP, Cy Young, ROY — for this recently completed season. It’s the Cy Young races that have me stumped.
This is the first postseason since 2001 (Mariners, Indians, Yankees, A’s, Braves, Astros, Diamondbacks, Cardinals) in which all the games will be played on natural grass. Without going back to figure out which games in Seattle and Houston that year (and in Seattle in 2000) were played with the roofs open, I can’t say the last time all postseason games were truly played outdoors. But I can tell you that 1996 was the last time — and the only time in the wild card era — that all eight participants had open-air stadiums (Orioles, Indians, Yankees, Rangers, Braves, Dodgers, Cardinals, Padres).
Red Sox vs. White Sox
Do either of these teams feel good heading into the postseason? This is probably the best matchup for both, perhaps not in pitching vs. lineups, but at least as far as momentum and recent play go. Neither team finished the season on an up note. Sure, the Red Sox took two of three from the Yankees and, technically, tied for the AL East division crown, but they had a 3 1/2-game lead midway through September and couldn’t close it out. And we all know about Chicago — 15 games up in the beginning of August, down to as little as a game and a half a week before the season ended. They never relinquished first place, but they had to wait until the final series of the season to pop the champagne rather than putting away the division in mid-September.
Everyone says pitching wins in a short series, so while the BoSox are banged up, the Pale Hose will have Jose Contreras (15-7), Mark Buehrle (16-8) and Jon Garland (18-10) going in the first three games. Plus, Chicago’s bullpen is in better shape. Will it be enough to shut down Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz when it matters? I think so.
Last year, I had Boston downing Anaheim in four games; instead they swept. This year, I don’t know if the idiots have the mojo. Pick: White Sox in five.
Yankees vs. Angels
These two met in the Division Series in 2002 and the Angels, of course, pulled off the upset on their way to their first world championship. With the Yankees’ two best pitchers down the stretch — Randy Johnson and Shawn Chacon — not starting until Games 3 and 4, I’m not so sure an Angels victory this time would be an upset. Anaheim’s got their rotation set up with Bartolo Colon, John Lackey and Jarrod Washburn in that order and has a lineup that feels more cohesive to me through the bottom half.
Of course, the Yankees have the firepower, but the successful Bombers of recent years have had a solid, set lineup that’s not usually this fluid. For tonight’s opener, Robinson Cano has been moved up to sixth in the order, Bubba Crosby is in center and Bernie Williams is DHing. And that means Jason Giambi has to play first base. Yikes. I’m sure New York will slug one or two out, but they’re going to have to do it against Colon, Lackey or Washburn, because the Angels’ bullpen is the best among the four AL postseason teams and might just be the best of the remaining eight contenders.
Something tells me that, after this amazing run through September throughout baseball, we’re not going to be treated to yet another Yankees-Red Sox thriller. (Frankly, my own personal allegiances would prefer no matchup than a Yankee-dominated one.)
A year ago, when the Yanks played Minnesota, I expected two strong starts from Johan Santana, which they got, but he only went five innings in Game 4 (allowing one run) after a stellar Game 1 win and Minnesota lost in 11 innings to end its season. “[T]he bullpen will probably blow one, and it could be the clincher,” I said, and it was. Santana left with a 3-1 lead but Juan Rincon gave up four in the eighth and Kyle Lohse took the loss in extras. This time around … we don’t get that New York-Boston re-rematch. Pick: Angels in five.
Padres vs. Cardinals
At least the Padres saved face by finishing the season with a winning record. It was in the best interests of the game. The Phillies would have been able to give any of the three teams a better series than the Padres will give St. Louis.
Do I even need to go into further analysis? Even a weaker Cardinals lineup without Scott Rolen and a banged-up, aged Larry Walker will outperform the likes of Ryan Klesko, Dave Roberts and Xavier Nady. They still have Albert Pujols, who may end up having a Carlos Beltran-like postseason. For one series at least, Pujols should allow the St. Louis pitching staff to sort itself out — i.e., how will Chris Carpenter perform in the spotlight, which Jason Marquis and Matt Morris will show up? Will Mark Mulder prove to be the missing piece? Can the bullpen patch the hole left by Al Reyes’ absense?
I gave the Dodgers — who hadn’t won a playoff game since 1988 — one win last year and picked the winner of the Los Angeles-St. Louis matchup to go on to the World Series. Both happened then, and I think both can happen this time around too — so long as the winner of this series is St. Louis. With Jake Peavy, San Diego can take one game. Pick: Cardinals in four.
Astros vs. Braves
The only rematch from 2004 in the Division Series. Not too much has changed in Houston, with the exception of Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent leaving. But in their steads, Willy Taveras has played a solid centerfield and become an adept leadoff hitter while Craig Biggio moved to second base and Jason Lane picked up the offensive slack in the outfield. A lot has been made of the Astros’ rebound from 15-30 to win the wild card, but half of those first 45 games were played without Lance Berkman and the rest were played with a still-recovering slugger. The switch hitter was batting just .179 at that point, through which the Astros were 2-20 on the road. They won the final game in Chicago, starting a seven-game stretch in which Houston went 5-2 and Berkman hit .375 with two doubles and a homer. They also won two of three in Milwaukee and went 34-25 on the road the rest of the way.
I’m convinced the Astros we saw during the last two months is a more accurate indication of what this team is than the Astros we saw during the first two. I think their veteran experience will trump Atlanta’s youthfulness — Andruw Jones notwithstanding — and their bullpen will give them an edge on the mound. The first two pitching matchups — Tim Hudson vs. Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz vs. Roger Clemens — are a wash, and should be two stellar defensive battles. (I’m thinking 2-1 and 3-2 games.) But then the Braves have to turn to Jorge Sosa for Game 3 in Houston while the Astros get to throw Roy Oswalt out there. Neither team has revealed a tentative Game 4 starter because you figure the one that’s down 2-1 will go back to the Game 1 guy. If the Astros are up 2-1, they may still go with Pettitte to avoid a return to Atlanta for Game 5.
Last fall, I noted that Houston’s best weapon might have been its momentum, which was enough to carry it all the way to a Game 7 with St. Louis. (Well, momentum and Beltran.) This year, the only team that can match the Astros’ roll is the Angels. Both teams had to battle through September and managed to do so cooly and confidently and win going away. (In Houston’s case, it wasn’t “going away” in the sense that the team won the wild card by a comfortable four or five games, but it had to fight off the Phillies, who kept winning, and did so.) Last year, I tabbed Houston in three and it took five with each team winning alternate games. I think Andruw and either Hudson or Smoltz will be enough for Atlanta to win one … but that’s it. Pick: Astros in four.
White Sox vs. Angels
I could have picked both LCS to be a rematch of the 2004 contests, but I just don’t have a good feeling about the Red Sox and Yankees. I’m not sure where this series will go, but I do wonder if Chicago’s near-collapse will be a harbinger of things to come or a wake-up call. The White Sox could have coasted into the playoffs and gone soft; maybe the battle for the AL Central with the upstart Indians will prove to be a spark. I think the advantage in a Chicago-Anaheim series will go to the team that has an easier time in its Division Series victory, but since I pick both of those to go five games, both of which would be played on Sunday, the advantage might be to Chicago, which would get to stay at home awaiting the Angels’ flight. But since I’m picking through the postseason from the start, I’ve got to make a decision now. The edge, at this point, goes to experience.
In the 2004 ALCS, I said the Red Sox needed two wins from either Pedro or Schilling, one from the other, and one from Wakefield. They got one each from Wakefield and Schilling, plus one from Derek Lowe and reliever Curt Leskanic. I also said they needed a win against the Yankees’ bullpen and, well, Dave Roberts anyone? Only I had Yankees in seven. This time? Pick: Angels in six.
Astros vs. Cardinals
2004 redux. I like the Astros more this year, but the same goes for the Cardinals. Perhaps I’m putting too much stock in Chris Carpenter’s ability to pitch this postseason, but there were signs and predictions of an emergence — if not a breakout — last season. An arm injury kept him out of any postseason games and he then went through this year living up to the potential that many seemed to expect to see this season. I think he continues that roll and if St. Louis can get by using him only once vs. San Diego, he’ll be in line to make two starts and perhaps an emergency Game 7 appearance against Houston. It’ll be another heartbreaking end to the season for the Astros, but if they can’t put the Braves away as easily as the Cardinals do the Padres, Houston will again have to take its pitchers as they come in the NLCS. St. Louis won last year with inferior starters to Houston’s top three, and even with a rejuvenated Andy Pettitte on the Astros, the Cardinals can counter with their Cy Young candidate.
Last time, I took the Cards in six, but it went the distance. I expect a repeat. Pick: Cardinals in seven.
Angels vs. Cardinals
I’ll be rooting for whoever comes out of the NL — with the exception of the Braves — but I think this would be a stellar Series. Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero in the same World Series? Could they each win a game with a walk-off? Mike Scioscia vs. Tony LaRussa? Those two chess masters wouldn’t need Fox’s drawn-out intros and extended commercial breaks to make a baseball game take four hours to play, so if we get a St. Louis-Anaheim Fall Classic, I expect at least one nine-inning game to end after 12:30 p.m. on the East Coast. The Cardinals looked listless in last season’s sweep to the idiots of destiny, but LaRussa has had faux-dynasties in the past (see Oakland, 1988-1992). He’s made four of the past five postseasons and could get there — and to the Series — again in 2006. So let’s say he wins this one.
In picking St. Louis in six last year, I noted that since the wild card came along in 1995, only the 1998 Yankees have compiled the best record in baseball through the regular season and went on to win the World Series. I expected last year’s Cardinals to become the second. Not so. This year, because of the freefall in Chicago, the Cards’ 100-62 record was one better than the White Sox’ 99-63. So maybe I haven’t learned. Pick: Cardinals in six.