Welcome to October. Just as the leaves start to fall from the trees, the weakest among the teams have fallen from the tree of baseball and only a few leaves remain. Some leaves will turn a bright gold and brighten up the tree as we march toward winter. Other leaves will fall harmlessly to the ground with the rest of their brethren. However, at the end of October (anda few days of November), we will see which leaf remains golden, triumphant and atop the tree of baseball.
Yes, it is October. It is the crucible in which legends are cast and the furnace that melts those that can’t handle the heat. In name it is a month like any other, but just saying October brings a tsunami of images crashing down on us. It is truly a sacrament in the Church of Baseball. There is nothing like it.
But enough of the revelry, there will be more than enough of that as we move ahead, but for now, let’s take a look at the teams wiith a chance at immortality.
Goliath is back. Behind an offense more explosive than a crate of TNT inside a volcano, and the formidable arm of CC Sabathia, the Yankees worked their way to the second best record in baseball and the wild card spot. The “evil empire” is very much back. However, the Yankees have plenty to be worried about heading into the playoffs. AJ Burnett has been bad, Javy Vazquez was left off the roster, and there have been other starters struggling down the stretch. Even though Yankees fans would not like to admit it, even CC Sabathia remains a playoff question as last year he had time off before the playoffs. In years before that, he has imploded, and in one case, cost his team a shot at the World Series through his awful pitching. Want to guess what CC Sabathia’s playoff ERA was before being traded to the Brewers (where he also imploded after a heroic regular season)? 8.58. Yup. Yankees fans have got to be very worried bout this team, but at the same time, they still have the second best record in baseball and more talent that most teams have had in the past decade.
He has done it in the past, but a lot of the pressure is on Andy Pettitte to come up with a brilliant post season performance. I doubt they trust Ivan Nova to go to a 4 man rotation for the playoffs, so the importance of Sabathia and Pettitte cannot be overstated. It also seems almost blasphemous to say, but the effectiveness of Mariano Rivera has been very much in question recently and that would be something the Yankees have not dealt with for over a decade. However, despite these concerns, they still have a roster most could only dream of and are still probably the favorites to win it all.
Their opponent in the first round?
No one has been hotter since the break, not even Hansel from Zoolander (He’s so hot right now). They have had huge performances out of Delmon Young and Co. all year, but it has been necessary to make up for the concussed Justin Morneau. They are no longer the little fish in the big pond either, and their $90 million payroll is a sign of that. This team is for real and has the pieces it needs to make an impression in October. They have the veterans like Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson, the star in Joe Mauer, and the manager in Ron Gardenhire, to make it as far as they allow themselves to go.
However, There are many questions about this team’s pitching. I am not sure if I would really trust Francisco Liriano in a big game and the same goes for every pitcher on their roster. There is no Joe Nathan at the back, no real ace, and no one who really strikes fear. Fear plays a much bigger part in the post season than you would think and the Twins’ lack of a big arm is a big problem. Their large ballpark certainly helps guys like Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn, but it will take big performances out of them to win this series.
Verdict: Yankees in 4
The small market David to the Yankees Goliath sits atop the AL East. They have the best record in baseball, Enough clutchness in them to put Robert Horry to shame, and postseason experience. They wreak havoc on the basepaths too, and with that rowdy home crowd (assuming they show up), the Rays are a team that no one wants to play. Just looking at their stats, you would not be especially afraid of the Rays, but they find a way to win and seem to always come up with the big hit or big pitch when it counts.
However, the Rays struggled down the stretch and their struggles have left many wondering about their postseason rotation. David Price is an easy pick, but after that, James Shields and Matt Garza have been spotty over the last month and few pitchers have rally announced themselves as really reliable guys. There is no shortage of arms, such as Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, and Jeff Niemann, but who can Joe Maddon trust with the game? It remains to be seen, but there is still that prevailing feeling that the Rays will just find a way to win.
And their opponent?
The playoff newbies get the pleasure of facing the best team in baseball in the first round, but they are anything but intimidated. They have the best postseason pitcher in the AL in Cliff Lee, an explosive an talented offense, and the excitement of their first playoff trip to feed off of as they try to pull the upset. The Josh Hamilton injury has complicated things for them, and even if he plays he will likely not be able to hit for the type of power they have become accustomed to with him. There is plenty to like about the Rangers this postseason.
However, like always, there are some serious concerns with the Rangers, even apart from the Hamilton injury. Their starting pitching behind Cliff Lee is not as solid as they would like, and while the bullpen has been very good, and has experience, it remains to be seen if the hot summer has drained the Rangers like it seems to every year. Josh Hamilton’s health is of paramount importance to this series, and I think he is just not healthy enough to lead them to the promised land.
Verdict: Rays in 5
No one has been hotter in the NL entering October than the Phillies. They have been so hot that one of the big fears about them is that they have been too hot. However, with the Halladay-Hamels-Oswalt Chimera of a rotation, and all their hitters back and healthy for another World Series run, it is hard to call anyone but the Phillies the NL favorites. It will be tough to make it to a 3rd world series in as many years, but with the team looking like it does right now, it seems very possible that the Phillies will make it happen.
The biggest worry with the Phillies is how hot they have been. It seems counter-intuitive, but things rarely play out the way you would think in baseball. It just seems too clear that they are the best team for it to work out like you would think. This is actually a much bigger concern than you would think because even though it seems miniscule, it seems like most World Series have some supernatural factor on their side (the Yankees reclamation last year, the Phillies shaking off the Philly malaise the year before, etc.) and their lack of a storyline may pose a problem for them. I still think they are the best, but they are dealing with issues that they are not capable of correcting. Maybe they need Ben Francisco to be in a car accident or something so the team can rally around him…
And in the other corner...
I think this may be the only team I could not see winning the Series this year, but that alone may be a reason not to count them out. They have really struggled down the stretch, but they still have the MVP, a young, talented team, and the confidence that comes with leaving the Cardinals in the dust for the first time in a long time. They even have the storyline on their side of finally bringing the playoffs back to a storied franchise, and that may be enough in what is a very open year. They have the offense, it just depends on if the pitching is good enough.
However, that pitching is a serious concern. I am not sure if I really can trust any of those guys in a one-game-takes-all atmosphere. They are all fine pitchers, but it remains to be seen which guy has the playoffs chops required to send this team over the top.
I’m afraid this semi-Cinderella season ends here for the Reds. They really should not be seen as Cinderellas given their talent level, but that is how they are portrayed, so that is what they are to the public.
Verdict: Phillies in 3
It would seem all the supernatural factors line up with the Braves. They are playing for legendary manager Bobby Cox. They are playing for Chipper Jones. They are playing for a franchise that was tortured in the 90s and wants revenge. It just seems like everything that could be in their favor has been on a non-baseball level. However, they reallysort of backed into the playoffs, and were trashed by the Phillies down the stretch in whad to be a shot to their confidence. I love the postseason rotation of Hudson-Hanson-Lowe, and three arms can get you a long way in a series. It just seems like the right combination of experience, youth, and talent.
The Braves are really the opposites of the Phillies. They have all the non-baseball factors in their favor, but not really many of the baseball factors. The offense has been somewhat anemic lately, and there is no help on the way. They have been clutch all year, but who knows how many more four leaf clovers they can pull out of their…… ears. I like this team’s chances in the postseason, but a lot depends on in they can score runs.
The Giants are the survivors of the NL West, and the 2nd most storied franchise in the playoffs, though perhaps not for all the right reasons. They have plenty of pitching, enough bats (after their trade deadline and waiver acquisitions), and the underdog factor on their side. If Lincecum and Cain are both good, this team will be hard to beat even on a team’s best day, but the stumble of one could mean very bad news for the Giants.
The biggest thing to worry about with the Giants is their dependence on those two arms. They do have solid pitching throughout, but a stumble by Cain or Lincecum just seems to have a negative effect on the rest of the rotation. Their dependence on these guys is probably not healthy for a prolonged playoff run, but they have more offense than usual and it may be able to bail them out a few times.
Frankly, it is hard to pick against that classic uniform and beautiful field too. Just seems like teams with ugly stadiums (Rays) do not have the allure of a champ. This somehow gives them an edge over many other teams, but just not enough of one to put them over the top.
Verdict: Braves in 4
This column was written, but not published before the first games of the NLDS and ALDS, so any discrepancies between what was said and what is the current situation can be chalked up to that.