Archive for the 'Playoffs' Category

2005 NLDS: Breaking down the series

Much like in the American League, the National League Division Series sees three out of four teams returning to the October field. The perennial division winners/playoff chokers Atlanta Braves will once again play host to the Wild Card-winning Houston Astros. The Major League-best St. Louis Cardinals will play the San Diego Padres, the worst division leaders in baseball history.

It’s a good year in the National League for pitching. So how will these teams fare offensively?

St. Louis Cardinals (100-62) vs. San Diego Padres (82-80)

Season Series: Padres won 4 out of 7

The San Diego Padres were downright awful this year. They finished the year 82-80 and now own the distinction of being the worst team to win a division title. They were outscored by 42 runs and had the seventh best record in the National League. In fact, the Washington Nationals, while finishing at .500, allowed fewer runs and had a smaller run differential than the Padres.

Yet, for all of their struggles, the Padres have the young stud Jake Peavy and could, if they got lucky, pull out an upset. But it was not to be as Peavy was battered today in Game 1. After the game, he announced that he had broken his ribs while celebrating the Padres’ division title and would be unavailable for the rest of the playoffs. Was it really that jubilant of a celebration? The Padres won because no other GM in the NL West could put together a .500 team. And they lost their lone ace to a celebration. So much for the Cinderella story of the postseason.

With Peavy out, this series belongs to the Cardinals. While Tony LaRussa showed today what happens when you don’t just let one pitcher throw the 9th in an 8-2 game, it’s barely cause for concern. The Cardinals were second in the NL in runs scored and second in fewest runs allowed. There’s no need to highlight any keys to this series. It’s hardly a contest. Sorry, Padres fans.

Key Stat: With his home run today, Jim Edmonds has now launched 11 long balls in 37 postseason games.

Prediction: Cardinals in 3.

Atlanta Braves (90-72) vs. Houston Astros (89-73)

Season Series: Braves won 5 out of 6

When last the Braves faced the Astros, the boys from Houston were 11-19. The loss of Carlos Beltran loomed large, and it seemed as though 2004’s Astros, who were just a few innings away from the World Series, were a fluke. The Braves swept the Astros in a four-game series at Turner Field. Two and a half weeks later, the Astros hit rock bottom. They were 15 games under .500 at 16-31.

Since that day in late May, the Astros went 73-42. Led by one of the best pitching trifectas in the history of baseball and an age-defying 43-year-old pitching to an ERA under 2.00, the Astros proved that you don’t need an offense to win. They scored just 687 runs, good for 11th in the NL. Their team OBP of .322 tied them with the Pirates, Nationals and Mets for 13th in the NL and 22nd over all.

The Braves, meanwhile, were fourth in runs scored, eighth in OBP, and third in slugging in the National League. Leo Mazzone turned Jorge Sosa into a bona fide starter, and Atlanta edged the Phillies by two games. The stage is set for a rematch of the 2004 NLDS. Will the outcome be any different?

Keys to the Series:

1. While it has become a cliché, game one may truly be the most important game of this series as Roger Clemens faces John Smoltz in what many would call an Instant Classic before the first pitch is delivered. While Smoltz and Clemens both have stellar season numbers, the two aces both faced some tough times down the stretch. In September, Clemens pitched just 20 innings with an ERA of 5.40. More noticeable though were Clemens’ poor peripherals. In those 20 innings, he struck out just 13 and walked 10. On the season, he walked just 62 and struck out 185 in 211.1 innings. Smoltz, meanwhile, ran into a similar rough stretch and has been battling a sore shoulder. If the Braves can’t beat Clemens, then they will be facing Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt down 1-0. If the Astros can’t beat Smoltz, they will once again leave their ace out to dry.

2. Last year, the Astros in the playoffs did not have Andy Pettitte. This year, they have Andy Pettitte better than he’s ever been. Pettitte, a darkhorse NL Cy Young candidate, was 17-9 with a career-best 2.39 ERA. He threw 222.1 innings and struck out 171 while surrendering just 188 hits. In his other life on the Yankees, Pettitte in 30 postseason starts went 13-8 with a 4.05 ERA. He developed, rather incorrectly, a reputation as a big-game pitcher. If the Astros are to win with their limited offense, they’ll need Pettitte to stymie the Braves just as he did for 8 innings in game 5 of the 1996 World Series.

3. After an explosive debut, Jeff Francoeur faded badly down the stretch. In September, .247/.287/.452 with 21 strike outs. Andruw Jones underwent a similar dry spell. While blasting 8 home runs in September, he hit just .208/.294/.500. If the Braves are to succeed against the Astros’ stingy rotation and top-flight bullpen led by Brad Lidge, they will need their dragging offense to step up in October. Otherwise, it may be an early exit once again for Atlanta.

4. If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Astros have a decisive advantage. Led by closer Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls, the ‘Stros’ bullpen put up a 3.66 ERA while striking out 8.39 per 9 innings. The Braves, meanwhile, couldn’t find anyone to close until Kyle Farnsworth showed up. Their bullpen ERA was 4.66 and their K/9 IP was just 6.83. The Astros have killer pitching; the Braves sneaked into the playoffs without a clear answer in the bullpen.

Key Stat: With Clemens on the mound, the Astros were shut out nine times, including four 1-0 games. Clemens’ ERA in those nine starts was just 1.11.

Prediction: With superior pitching and a few timely hits from Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman, the Astros will move on to the NLCS in 4 games leaving the Braves to ponder yet another unsuccessful October.

2005 ALDS: Breaking Down the Series

For the last few years, parity has become the Major League Baseball buzzword. After all, every team in the NL East finished at or above .500, and even the Milwaukee Brewers, showing signs of life, reached the .500 plateau for the first time since they were in the American League East way back in 1992.

But for all of this winning, the 2005 Division Series match-ups look quite similar to those from 2004. Six of the eight teams to make the Division Series in 2004 are right back where they were last year. The only newcomers are the Chicago White Sox and the barely-above-.500 San Diego Padres. As five of the top 10 payrolls made it to the playoffs this year (Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Cardinals, Braves), money doesn’t ever guarantee a World Series trophy.

For now, I’ll leave the economics for next season. Let’s look at the match-ups instead.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (95-67) vs. New York Yankees of the Bronx (95-67)

Season Series: Angels won 6 out of 10 games.

In 2002, the relentless Anaheim Angles faced the Yankees in the ALDS. The wild-card Angels upset the team with a Major League-best 103 victories. That year, the Yankees had no problems scoring runs or hitting the Angels’ pitching staff. The Bombers blasted seven home runs in four games while hitting .281 as a team. But the Angels were better. Powered by Troy Glaus, they launched nine home runs while hitting .375 with a .624 slugging percentage. For all of the Yankee offense, their pitching couldn’t bring home a championship.

By this time next week, that paragraph may ring true for 2005 as well. The Yankees were second in the Majors with 886 runs scored; Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez became the first two Yankees to be one and two in the AL in runs scored since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961. But they had the tenth-worst ERA in the Majors at 4.48. The Angels were 11th in the Majors with 754 runs scored, but they limited opponents to just 3.67 earned runs per game. This will truly be a rematch of 2002.

Keys to the Series:
1. The Yankees’ pitchers are notoriously bad at holding runners; Yankee catchers caught just 29 percent of all would-be base stealers this year. Chone Figgins, the pesky Angels lead-off hitter with a .350 OBP and an AL-leading 62 stolen bases, is notoriously good at stealing bases. The combination could portend many runs for the Angels and many headaches for Jorge Posada.

2. Other than Figgins, the Yankees pitchers must figure out a way to neutralize the reigning AL MVP Vladimir Guerrero. Vlad is as big a threat as David Ortiz, but he lacks a hitter of Manny Ramirez’s caliber in the lineup. While Garret Anderson could potentially force the Yanks to throw to Vlad, with the way Anderson’s second half has gone, Yankee hurlers will probably intentionally walk Vlad to pitch to Anderson. Over the last few months, Anderson has hit just .252/.279/.389 with just 20 extra-base hits in 234 at-bats and 30 RBIs over that time. A long-time Yankee killer, more so in the Bronx than in Anaheim, Anderson could play a decisive role if the Angels are to score enough runs to overwhelm the Yankees’ fragile pitching staff.

3. For the Yanks, the key to any of their games these days has been to get the ball to Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera. Everyone else out of the bullpen from early-season hero Tanyon Sturtze to Alan Embree to Al Leiter has been unable to get any outs. That means the Yanks’ starters are going to have to pitch at least 6 innings. For some – Shawn Chacon and Randy Johnson – that hasn’t been a problem. Game One starter Mike Mussina, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched more than six innings in one start since Aug. 19. The Angels have a little more depth with Kelvim Escobar backing up Brandon Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez, but the Yanks have the edge if they can just get the ball to Gordon and Rivera.

4. Since the All Star break, Randy Johnson has gone 8-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 94 strike outs in 98 innings. He’s held opponents to a .208 average and has been everything the Yankees expected. Now, they’ll have to win a series relying on just one game started by their ace. This wasn’t how the Yanks ever envisioned running through the playoffs, but for now, they’ll just have to hope that Mussina and Chacon can hold the Angels before the dominating Unit shows up on Friday. On the flip side, the Angels’ ace has been anything but stellar against the Yankees. Combined, the Yanks have hit .299/.383/.536 off of Colon, with A-Rod leading the pack. Rodriguez has 7 home runs in 43 at-bats against the Angels pitcher and a .442/.458/1.093 slugging. While on paper the Angels have the pitching edge, the Yanks’ offense has never given the Angels much of a break.

Key Stat: Never known as a big-game pitcher, Mike Mussina has started in Game 1 for the Yanks’ last four playoff series. He’s won just once. Since he’ll be relied upon to start game 1 and 5, the Yanks better hope that Mike Mussina the ace shows up.

Prediction: Yankees in 5.

Chicago White Sox (99-63) vs. Boston Red Sox (95-67)

Season Series: Red Sox won 4 out of 7 games.

In 2004, the Red Sox shed 86 years of disappointment to bring home the World Series. Can the White Sox of 2005 break 88 years of bad luck? To do so, the old adage – good pitching beats good hitting – will be severely tested. The White Sox gave up just 645 runs; the Red Sox scored 910. Can the Sox pitching shut down the Red Sox machine?

Keys to the Series:

1. Both teams have to neutralize the offensive keys on the other team. This is never in doubt in any game. But these two teams have two totally different approaches to the game. For the Ozzie-ball oriented White Sox, Scott Podsednik is the table-setter. He’ll get on base; steal; score. For the Red Sox, David Ortiz is the big man. He’ll just mash the ball. Can the White Sox great pitchers shut down Ortiz? Can the Red Sox and Jason Varitek, who threw out just 24.4 percent of base stealers, shut down the White Sox running game?

2. Which Jose Contreras will show up? The Red Sox have long owned Jose Contreras. Prior to this year, he was 2-4 with an 11.67 ERA against the Red Sox in 27 innings. He had given up 40 hits and 9 home runs in seven games. This year, he pitched decently in the one game he pitched against the Red Sox. But more importantly, he’s 11-2 with a 2.96 ERA since the 2005 All Star break. If he can keep up his pitching run while shutting down Boston, the White Sox will win the series.

3. Which Curt Schilling will show up? Curt has been nothing but a big game pitcher recently. He’s shut down the Yankees twice while losing badly the rest of the time. There’s no need to analyze his numbers. Some days, his location is off; some days, his velocity is off; and some days, he faces the Yankees. If Schilling can step it up against the White Sox, he may turn the series in favor of Boston.

4. How will the young guns stand up in this series? The Red Sox bullpen, long in tatters, may be resting on the backs of Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Timlin. The White Sox are calling on Bobby Jenks to close. That means that two 24-year-olds with a grand total of 74 innings of Major League experience between them will be asked to step up and deliver. The White Sox with El Duque out of the bullpen have a major advantage, but these young players will be thrown into the fire. Can they repeat the success of 2002’s Francisco Rodriguez ?

Key Stat: Opponents hit just .249/.310/.396 against the White Sox this season. As a team, the Red Sox hit .280/.356/.453. Can good pitching trump great hitting?

Prediction: White Sox in four.


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