Here's the link to my fantasy football column for this week:
Fantasy Football: Play stars
Heading into Thursday's AL-only playoff action, the two Northeast teams involved in this year's postseason tournament found themselves in similarly unenviable situations. Both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees had lost the first game of their best-of-five series, and needed to win Thursday's game two in order to avoid giving their small-market opponents a chance to sweep the AL East out of the playoffs on Saturday.
Despite the similarity of their standing in the series -- trailing one game to nothing -- there were differences in their situations.
The Yankees had lost their first game at home, meaning that even if New York won on Thursday, the Twins would be able to run back to their domed home with a chance to home-field advantage their way into the ALCS. The Red Sox, on the other hand, had lost their first game on the road. If they could scrape out a win on Thursday, they would be able to move on with two wins in the park the team was constructed to excel in.
Aside from the difference of the location of the losses, there was also the difference of the timing of the losses.
The Yankees played their opener on Tuesday afternoon, dropping a game they were never really in but almost came back to win anyway. They then had more than 48 hours to think about how poorly they had played and prepare themselves to give a better effort in game two. The Red Sox, meanwhile, had to wait until Wednesday night to get started, and then they lost a torturous, 12-inning game that they had several chances to win but ended up on the wrong side of one of the most remarkable and shocking plays in postseason history. After that devastating loss, they had less than 14 hours to recover before they were supposed to go save their season with a win in game two.
So, how did Thursday's action turn out for the longtime rivals turned one-time empathizers?
Well, one hangover, one new life.
The A's defeated Boston on Wednesday thanks to quality pitching and stellar defense on their end and wild pitching and atrocious defense on Boston's end. On Thursday, it was more of the same.
Game two started off well enough for the Red Sox. Tim Wakefield had a relatively easy scoreless first inning and although the Red Sox didn't score off Barry Zito in the first two innings, they did make him throw 34 pitches. Considering how much the bullpens got stretched out Wednesday night, the Red Sox were taking small victories where they could get them.
Then, in the second inning, things took on a familiar note for the Red Sox as the wildness and bad defense of the previous game reared its ugly head again.
Wakefield quickly got the first out on two pitches, but he then walked Jose Guillen and a passed ball let him move up to second. Wednesday's hero, Ramon Hernandez, followed with a much less dramatic but equally effective single to right field to drive in Oakland's first run of the game.
Wakefield's next pitch fluttered into Jermaine Dye and Eric Byrnes followed with a two-run double to left field that a good left fielder might have caught but Manny Ramirez did not.
That 3-0 lead would be enough for the A's, but the Red Sox were willing to give them more. Mark Ellis walked and Erubiel Durazo grounded out to give the Red Sox an opportunity to get out of the inning with runners on second and third and two outs. Eric Chavez obliged with another ground ball, but he hit it to Boston's worst fielder.
Todd Walker stopped the grounder, but didn't quite get it into his glove. When he reached over to pick it up, he bobbled it and then started to fall down. As he was falling, he tried to throw Chavez out, but his throw sailed way over Kevin Millar's head and allowed two more runs to score.
So, after just two innings, the Red Sox found themselves up against the wall, trailing 5-0 in the second game and 1-0 in the series. They needed to make something happen and they needed to make something happen fast. So they did. Just not enough.
Gabe Kapler flied out to center to start the third inning and then Doug Mirabelli doubled down the line in left to get things started.
Johnny Damon then hit a ground rule double to put the Red Sox on the board and Nomar Garciaparra walked to put the tying run in the on-deck circle in the person of Ramirez. Walker, who was Boston's offensive MVP in the first game, came up and grounded out on the first pitch, moving the runners up to second and third. So, Ramirez came up, not as the tying run, but still with the ability to get the Red Sox right back in the game.
Ramirez went 0-for-5 and left five men on base in game one. Surely he would be better in the clutch in game two, right? Well, it appeared so, as Ramirez laced the first pitch from Zito into the left field gap where it looked like it might find grass and reach the wall to drive in two runs. But the ball stayed in the air long enough for Guillen to keep running toward center, reaching out at the last second and gloving the ball on a dead run to stop Boston's run dead.
From there, Zito was masterful. He struck out the next five batters he faced before Damon and Garciaparra put together consecutive singles in the fifth. Walker, who had even less business batting third in game two against a tough lefty than he did in game one when he surprisingly homered twice, then grounded out to end the rally.
Ramirez finally picked up his first hit of the series with a single to lead off the sixth, but Zito calmly retired the next six Red Sox hitters in order to finish his day with seven solid innings of work. He allowed just the one run on five hits and two walks, and he struck out nine. His curve ball dazzled the Boston hitters all day, and those Red Sox hitters let him stay in the game too long for them to mount a comeback against Oakland's bullpen.
While Zito was painting a masterpiece, Wakefield tried his best to salvage the unraveling tapestry that was the Red Sox season. After the dreadful second inning ended, Wakefield allowed just three more runners to reach base over the next four innings. He retired the final nine Oakland hitters he faced, and struck out the side in order in the sixth.
The beleaguered Boston bullpen then tried to atone for its errors of the previous day as Alan Embree and Scott Williamson each pitched a scoreless inning to give the Boston bombardiers their best shot at rallying for victory.
It was not to be, however, as Oakland's succoring stalwarts stood as tall as they had the day before. Chad Bradford was summoned first and he discharged the Red Sox easily and quickly in the eighth inning. Then, with a four-run lead in the final frame, the A's surprisingly turned to Keith Foulke, who had thrown 51 pitches over three innings the game before, to record the final three outs.
Foulke stumbled slightly when he allowed a two-out single to Bill Mueller, but he recovered to retire pinch-hitter Jason Varitek to end the game.
And with that, the baseball world turned it's attention from the afternoon on the West Coast to the evening on the East Coast to see if the second struggling squad from the East would fare better than the first.
The Twins won game one of their series against the Yankees thanks to good starting pitching and better relief pitching on their end and terrible defense and a lack of clutch hitting on New York's end. On Thursday, it looked like it might be more of the same.
Just as Mike Mussina did in game one, Andy Pettitte pitched a scoreless first inning in game two, allowing just Shannon Stewart to reach base on a walk. In the bottom of the inning, the Yankees had a chance to take a big lead early.
Alfonso Soriano led off with a single into left field and then Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi both dumped singles into shallow right field to load the bases with nobody out. Fortunately for the Twins, the Yankees were unable to come up with the big hit just like game one.
Brad Radke got Bernie Williams to fly out to center field for a sacrifice fly that gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead and then he struck out Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui to end the inning without any further damage done.
Having escaped from that potentially disastrous jam, Radke settled down nicely. He retired the side in order the next two innings and got the leadoff hitter out in the fourth to extend his streak of consecutive batters retired to 10 before Posada doubled. Radke left Posada at second thanks to two groundouts, worked out of a two on and two out jam in the fifth and allowed a harmless walk in the sixth.
Meanwhile, Pettitte cruised along through the first four innings, allowing just two baserunners while striking out seven batters. He finally faltered in the fifth when he let Torii Hunter tag him with a leadoff homer to tie the game at a run apiece. Then, the New York defense tried its best to sabotage Pettitte.
Pettitte got the next two batters out after Hunter's home run, but then Christian Guzman reached on an error by Jeter. Stewart came up next, and hit a ground ball slightly to the right of up the middle that Soriano could not quite get to. Pettitte bailed his defense out by getting Luis Rivas to ground out to Aaron Boone.
Pettitte walked Doug Mientkiewicz to lead off the sixth and then, after Pettitte got the next two batters out, the Yankee defense struck again as Hunter reached on an "infield single" to Jeter. Pettitte then decided to take matters into his own hands and struck out Corey Koskie. He then pitched a scoreless seventh inning to finish his night with one run allowed on four hits and three walks with 10 strikeouts.
So, the Yankees and Twins stretched with the score knotted at one, and then -- after they stretched too long for Ron Gardenhire's liking -- things fell apart for the Twins and the slate was wiped clean for the Yankees.
Radke hit Nick Johnson with his fourth pitch of the seventh. Juan Rivera then bunted Johnson to second and Radke's night was over after 98 pitches thrown. LaTroy Hawkins, who had shut the Yankees down in game one, was called upon to do so again in game two. Unfortunately, the script had changed for this game.
Soriano greeted Hawkins by patiently working the count to 3-1 and then ripping a single into left field to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead. Hawkins then got Jeter to hit a high chopper back toward the mound that he fielded in plenty of time and then threw into the stand to put the runners on second and third with one out.
This brought up an interesting decision for the Twins. Hawkins throws right-handed and Giambi, now batting, bats left-handed. First base was open, but Giambi had been struggling mightily in recent games. The Twins decided to pitch to Giambi. Giambi singled into center field, and that was the end of the game.
The Minnesota relievers didn't allow anymore runs, but it didn't matter. Mariano Rivera didn't pitch in game one, so he was certainly capable of pitching two innings in game two, and that's exactly what Joe Torre asked him to do.
Now, Rivera hasn't been quite as automatic this year as he had been in year's past, but he was still damn good. The Twins might have thought they had a chance if they had kept the Yankees lead to just 2-1, but there was no way Rivera was going to blow a three-run lead.
As it turned out, Rivera didn't even allow any of the six batters he faced to reach base. He threw 24 pitches, 17 for strikes, and the only reason the pitch count was that high is because Hunter worked him for an eight-pitch at-bat leading off the ninth that culminated with Hunter striking out swinging.
So, the two AL East team into the playoffs went into Thursday's games in the same situation and got different results.
The Red Sox played hung over and now they hang over the edge of a cliff, precariously close to slipping into the void of the offseason. The Yankees took two days to relax and reflect, got a new life and now would probably once again be considered the favorites to win the series.
However, just because the Red Sox are in position to lose and the Yankees are back in position to win doesn't mean both of those things will happen.
The recent history of both the A's and the Red Sox should give hope to Boston and fear to Oakland that the Red Sox could possibly still come back and win the series.
Two years ago, the A's won the first two games against the Yankees before losing the next three, including the infamous why-was-Derek-Jeter-there-to-make-that-play-and-why-didn't-Jeremy-Giambi-slide game three. Two years before that, the Red Sox lost the first two games to the Indians before rebounding to win the next three, including the legendary Pedro-Martinez-had-a-bad-back-but-he-came-in-to-pitch-six-hitless-innings-in-relief-anyway game five.
Furthermore, there's really no reason to think the Red Sox can't win the next three games. The next two games are in Fenway Park, where the Red Sox went 53-28 while scoring 6.57 runs per game and allowing just 4.88 runs per game. Away from their home park, the A's went just 39-42 this year while scoring 4.77 runs per game and allowing 4.54 runs per game.
The final game of the series would be back in Oakland, but the Red Sox would have Pedro Martinez back on the mound for that game. The Red Sox nearly won a game in Oakland with Pedro on the mound on Wednesday, and there's probably a 50-percent or better chance that they would do so again if it got to game five. If you assume that the Red Sox have a 65-percent chance of winning a home game against the A's, then Boston's got a 21-percent chance of winning the series.
That's not great, but it's something that can provide real hope to Red Sox fans. Even if the odds are worse than that, even if the Red Sox only have a 10-percent -- or even a 5-percent -- chance of winning this series, they've still got a chance.
Meanwhile, there's recent history for both the Twins and Yankees that suggests that the Yankees shouldn't make reservations for the ALCS yet.
Last year, the Twins stunned the A's by winning game one of their ALDS in Oakland, but the A's were able to come back and even the series in game two. The A's then took the first game in Minnesota and seemed to have the series all but wrapped up. Not so fast, as those pesky Twins evened the series in a game four blowout and then rode back into Oakland and shocked the A's in game five to advance to the ALCS.
While that was going on last year, the Yankees were splitting the first two games of their ALDS against the Angels at home, just like they did with the Twins this year. As you all know, the Angels and Yankees went back to Anaheim, and the Yankees went back to the Bronx alone two games later, having been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round.
In summation, the A's lead the Red Sox two games to none, the Yankees and the Twins are tied at a game apiece, and nothing in the AL has been decided yet.
Enjoy the games, and don't worry about your favorite team getting eliminated until it actually happens.
I went to sleep as miserable as possible, one of the best baseball games I have ever had the pleasure to watch being ruined by the fact that the team that I love did not win. Actually, that's not true. The game was not ruined for me at all. In fact, last night was one of my favorite baseball experiences in a long time.
First, there was the fact that I got to watch 12 straight innings of tense, dramatic baseball. Second, I was able to chronicle my thoughts of last night's game with 45 separate posts over five hours, starting at 9:50 p.m. and ending at 2:53 a.m. Third, I was able to follow along with fans of both teams on the 903-post thread over at Baseball Primer's game chatter. I probably contributed more than 30 of those posts, although most of them were pretty nonsensical.
Anyway, as I said in my final post last night (or early this morning, actually), I had lost faith in the Red Sox for the moment, but I hoped to get it back with a night of sleep. Well, I'm happy to report that I have found hope, and I'd like to share it with my fellow Red Sox fans. So, here are my reasons to have faith that the Red Sox can win game two, which starts in just over four hours.
1. The Red Sox issued 10 walks and hit a batter, and the A's were only able to score five runs. Oakland's offense is worse than I thought.
2. Tim Hudson only walked one batter, but the Red Sox touched him up for 10 hits. During the season, Hudson walked 2.29 batters per nine innings and gave up 0.82 hits per inning. Meanwhile, Barry Zito walked 3.42 batters per nine innings and allowed hits at about the same rate as Hudson (0.80 hits per inning). My point is that the Red Sox should be able to get more runners against Zito, which should lead to more runs.
3. Zito's only start against Boston this year came in Oakland, and he allowed three runs in 5.1 innings. If he fails to go at least six innings today, Oakland should be in big trouble.
4. Tim Wakefield was decent in two starts against Oakland this year, allowing six runs in 12 innings. The better of those two starts came in oakland, where he allowed two runs in six innings. If he can go seven or eight innings and allow 2-4 runs today, I feel confident the Red Sox can win.
5. Oakland's closer, Keith Foulke, pitched three innings and threw 51 pitches last night (mostly this morning for me) and I have to assume he's unavailable today. Meanwhile, none of Boston's best relievers -- such as they are -- pitched more than an inning and none of them threw more than 15 pitches. They should all be available today.
6. The Red Sox scored four runs with their fourth and fifth hitters combining to go 0-for-10 with two walks. I don't think either of them will go hitless again today, nevermind both of them.
7. The last time Wakefield started against a lefty in the playoffs was in the 1992 NLCS for Pittsburgh. He pitched two complete games in that series to beat Tom Glavine twice.
8. And finally, if any Red Sox fan out there can't imagine the Red Sox coming back to win game two tonight, just keep this in mind:
Who on earth could have imagined game one ending the way it did?
I just wanted to let you all know that I'll probably be posting my thoughts throughout tonight's Red Sox game against the A's. Also, I'll probably be on instant messenger (screen name: bj001h) if any Red Sox (or A's) fans want to chat. I'll probably be checking in on Baseball Primer's Game Chatter for the game as well.
In case you can't tell, I'm very excited for tonight. Four years is too long to wait for a playoff game.
The 2003 playoffs got underway yesterday, and boy was it a fun start. I've already talked in great detail about the game between the Twins and Yankees, so I won't bore you with any more about that except to say that it was about as good a game as you could have asked for to kick off the playoffs. I mean, it pretty much had everything you could ask for -- good defense and bad defense, good pitching, surprising pitchers stepping up, aggressive baserunning, and a late comeback attempt.
The next two games were also excellent, featuring three great performances by starting pitchers. Actually, of the four starting pitching performances yesterday in the NL, three of them were about what I expected and one of them surprised me.
Jason Schmidt pretty much singlehandedly won his game against the Marlins, allowing just three hits and no walks with five strikeouts to pitch a complete game shutout. I didn't get to watch all of the game, but from what I saw it looked like the Marlins couldn't have hit Schmidt yesterday if they played all day long.
Of course, Schmidt's performance yesterday shouldn't have been a surprise (and it wasn't a surprise to me). During the regular season, he had the lowest ERA in the NL and led all starters in the majors in Average Game Score (64.9). Schmidt's Game Score yesterday was 86. Schmidt had five complete games in the regular season, including three shutouts. He also had five regular season starts with a game score above 80.
Quite simply, he showed all year that he is capable of being dominant, and it should have been no shock that he was dominant in the first game of the playoffs against a good, but not great Florida offense. Schmidt is pretty much the reason I picked the Giants to win in five games. I think the Marlins will win two of the next three games and then Schmidt will win the series with another great start in game five.
Schmidt's mound opponent was also very impressive, and that also shouldn't have been a big surprise. Josh Beckett allowed just one run in seven innings. He only gave up two hits and he struck out nine, although he did walk five. However, two of those walks were to Barry Bonds -- one was intentional and one had some questionable calls from the umpire.
After the All-Star break, Beckett had a 2.55 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 93 strikeouts (9.48 K/9IP), 30 walks (3.06 BB/9IP) and five homers allowed (0.51 HR/9IP) in 88.1 innings. And that's exactly what you saw yesterday -- a lot of strikeouts and too many walks, not many hits and no home runs.
In Atlanta, Russ Ortiz's poor performance didn't surprise me. I thought he might give the Braves a quality start, but I didn't think he'd have a dominant outing. he had a nice record, but everybody knows that was mostly due to Atlanta's great offense. He's a good pitcher, but not anywhere near a great one.
The pitching performance that really surprised me yesterday was the one from Kerry Wood. He allowed one run in seven innings before his control problems surfaced (maybe because he was tired) in the eighth inning and his bullpen had to bail him out. His final line was two runs on two hits and five walks with 11 strikeouts in 7.1 innings.
I really thought the Braves hitters would be able to get to Wood, and that's why I predicted Atlanta would win this series in four games. Now I have to change my prediction already, because I don't think Atlanta can beat Mark Prior in game three. And if Wood pitches this well again in game five (if there is a game five), then Atlanta might be looking at another early exit.
So, I hope everybody enjoyed the first day, because it's almost time to do it all again. First, we've got the second game of both NL series and both games should feature more runs than yesterday's games did. After the Senior Circuit finishes up, it will be time for what may be the best game of the first round.
Pedro Martinez and Tim Hudson sqaure off as the Red Sox and A's play the first game of what many people are dubbing the "SABR Series."
Speaking of the A's, Billy Beane may have just irritated a bunch of people again, unless the likes of Joe Morgan have recently gotten a whole lot more tolerant of his cockiness. The story I'm referring to is Sean McAdam's story on ESPN.com this morning that says there is more pressure on the A's to win.
The quote I'm referring to as potentially aggrivating people is this one to end the story:
"There's two ways of looking at it,'' reflects Beane of past playoff disappointments. "No. 1, there's nothing I can do about it. No. 2, I thought the 2001 club was the best team we've had here and we didn't win it. So my mindset is, we're in. It doesn't matter who's on the roster and who's not. The whole thing gives me a sense of balance -- knowing that if I get us there enough times, we're going to win it. It allows me to know that every year, we have a chance.''
Let me highlight the part that I think will annoy people:
"[I]f I get us there enough times, we're going to win it."
I can hear Joe Morgan right now.
"Did Billy Beane play the games? No. He didn't get the A's to the playoffs, the players did. Billy Beane spent most of the season writing a book, how could he have gotten the A's to the playoffs? He should just keep his mouth shut and let the players get the credit they deserve."
Note - I again wanted to thank everybody who has been stopping by to read my blog. As you may have realized, yesterday was the final day of September. I had over 400 visitors yesterday to give me a final September total of 7,320 visitors.
That's almost 5,000 more visitors than I had in August, when I was very busy with work and considered discontinuing the blog. Needless to say, I'm glad I didn't. My next goal is a 10,000-visitor month. With 31 days in October and the playoffs going on, I'm thinking that I might not even have to wait that long for it.
Thanks again everybody.
If you've read this blog at all, then you probably know that I'm a die-hard Red Sox fan. By definition, that means that I hate the Yankees. However, if you've been reading recently, you know that I need to root for the Yankees to win their first series against the Twins. If you didn't read that post, it's because I have a free ticket to game two of the ALCS if the Yankees are in the ALCS.
Today, I went to watch game one of that series at my friend Rob's house (Rob is the friend whose family is giving me the free ticket). A lot of people have complained that today's game started at 1 p.m., but it was perfect for Rob and I because we both had things to do at night. Anyway, I decided to keep a running diary of the first game I've ever rooted for the Yankees to win. Here goes.
1:00 p.m. - I finally arrive at Rob's house as construction almost makes me late for the game. Rob is wearing the Tino Martinez jersey that he always wears when the Yankees are playing an important game or when he's attending the game in person. Our announcers for the day are Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. I wish I didn't have to listen to Morgan, but at least Chris Berman's not involved here.
1:02 - Joe Morgan takes just two minutes to say something stupid, noting the following about Shannon Stewart:
"He gets on base, he steals bases. Perfect leadoff hitter."
Stewart certainly does get on base (he's never had an OBP below .360 in his career), but he only stole four bases this season. And he was thrown out six times. He is not a good basestealer any more.
1:07 - The 2003 playoffs get under way as Mike Mussina throws strike one to Stewart.
Rob: "There it is. We're winning the World Series." He's joking. Stewart immediately doubles.
1:09 - Luis Rivas bunts Stewart over to third. Normally, I'd rip the Twins for giving up one of their valuable outs, but I'm not going to this time. The Twins have lost 13 straight games to the Yankees and they have a pitcher on the mound who has never made a postseason start. They won't say it, and they might not even think it, but I think it would ease the Twins nerves a lot if they get on the board first. Bunting decreases the chances of a big inning, but it increases the chances of scoring a single run in this instance.
The Yankees must think it would be a big advantage for the Twins to score first too, because they're playing the infield in. Although, this might not hurt them that much, because their infielders have no range anyway. Unfortunately for the Twins, they hit two harmless ground balls and strang Stewart at third base.
1:15 - Alfonso Soriano helps Johan Santana's nerves and pitch count by swinging at the first pitch and grounding out. I will never understand why the Yankees have Soriano batting first.
1:17 - Nice catch by Jayson Stark's choice for the AL MVP award. I just wanted to touch on the ridiculous support Stewart is getting for the AL MVP award. If you don't want to read a bunch of stats about this subject, feel free to skip ahead to the next entry. His case is helped by the fact that there is such a definitive split in the team he helped to reach the playoffs. The Twins traded for Stewart over the All-Star break and it's impossible to not notice that the Twins were 44-49 before the break and 46-23 after the break.
So, must be all because of Stewart, right? Well, no. After Stewart's arrival, the Twins offense improved from 4.63 runs scored per game to 5.38 runs scored per game, which certainly helped. But their pitching staff also improved from 5.01 runs allowed per game to 4.16 runs allowed per game. Let's assume that Stewart is entirely responsible for the Twins increase on offense and see how many wins he was worth.
Using their 366 runs scored and 283 runs allowed over their final 68 games, they should have gone 42.5-25.5. If they had kept scoring at the pre All-Star break level, they would have scored 315 runs after the All-Star break, which would have made their 68-game pythagorean record 37.6-30.4. So, even if you assume that Stewart's arrival is the only thing that made the offense score 0.75 more runs per game, he was only worth five wins over the second half. Of course, five wins is still pretty significant for any team, but Stewart obviously wasn't solely responsible for Minnesota's offensive increase.
Aaron Gleeman thinks using an adjusted OPS of (OBP*1.7)+SLG is a nice snapshot of a player's offensive production, and I happen to agree. Let's look at the percent change in adjusted OPS for each of the Minnesota's core player from before the All-Star break to after it. I'll list the player's name, the adjusted OPS before the break, the adjusted OPS after the break and the percent change. I'll list them in order of the best improvement to the worst decline.
Christian Guzman, .826, 1.004, +21.5
Doug Mientkiewicz, 1.070, 1.167, +9.1
A.J. Pierzynski, 1.043, 1.115, +6.9
Jacque Jones, 1.009, 1.057, +4.8
Luis Rivas, .914, .902, -1.3
Matthew LeCroy, 1.077, 1.046, -3
Torii Hunter, .995, .961, -3.4
Corey Koskie, 1.158, 1.059, -9.3
As you can see, the lineup as a whole improved after the All-Star break. Sure, four of the spots improved and four declined, but three of the four declines were insignificant while just one of the four improvements was insignificant. And none of the declines was nearly as big as Guzman's 21.5-percent improvement. If you were ranking the reasons for the Twins turnaround, Stewart might actually rank third behind the pitching staff improving and Guzman improving.
Bottom line - it's ridiculous to even think of voting for Stewart as the AL MVP. If he actually wins it, they may as well just stop giving out the award because it would cease to have any meaning whatsoever. OK, I'm done ranting now.
1:19 - Guess who gets New York's first hit of the 2003 playoffs?
1:22 - Santana gets out of the inning without further trouble and, despite the fact that I need the Yankees to win to be able to see a playoff game, I find myself pulling for the Twins a little. I guess I can't help it.
1:30 - Rob's dad calls for the first time during the game and he doesn't even want to talk to Rob. He wants to talk to me to tell me that the last set of downs in the Patriots game on Sunday was the worst set of downs he's ever seen.
I should explain what Rob's dad is like to all of you. He's a short, little, Jewish man who likes to make racist statements and says things that have absolutely no evidence backing them up. For example, after the Red Sox signed Manny Ramirez, Rob's dad told me that the Yankees didn't want to sign Ramirez because they were afraid that it would be too easy for him to feed his cocaine habit if he was living in the Bronx where he grew up.
You probably wouldn't want a young child to hear some of the things Rob's dad says, but if you're old enough to realize that the things he's saying are wrong, then it's funny to hear those things coming out of his mouth. In fact, I'm pretty sure he says most of them just to see what kind of reaction he gets from people.
Rob's dad is also a nut of a Yankees fan. He'll turn a game off and back on again multiple times depending on how the Yankees are doing. If he's in attendance at a game and the Yankees start doing badly, he'll threaten to make everybody leave even if it's just the first inning. I've been over Rob's parents house for dinner and had Rob's dad skip dinner because the Yankees lost or were in the process of losing. It can really be pretty funny.
1:41 - The Yankees' questionable defense rears its ugly head for the first time as Soriano tried to barehand a slow grounder from Guzman and it gets behind him.
1:45 - Maybe Stewart really is the MVP as he singles in his second at-bat (I'm kidding by the way). And Guzman tests Matsui's arm going to third on Stewart's grounder into shallow left field. It looked like the throw beat Guzman to third, but he's called safe. Rivas then hits a soft liner to shallow center, and Bernie Williams doesn't even come closing to throwing Guzman out at home. Heck, he doesn't even come close to making it close. Aggressiveness from the Twins and bad defense from the Yankees has Minnesota up early.
1:50 - They just showed a replay of the play at third. Guzman slid a bit too early, but he slid away from Aaron Boone. Matsui's throw was a little high, but it got to third in plenty of time for Boone to tag Guzman out. Boone just missed with the tag.
1:57 - After striking out Soriano, Santana shows his first sign of nervousness by walking Nick Johnson on four pitches.
2:03 - Santana comes back to strike out Jason Giambi on three pitches after walking Jeter. However, Santana's already thrown 52 pitches through three innings. The Twins bullpen will definitely be a factor in this game (when I wrote this, I obviously had no idea how true it would end up being).
2:08 - Rob and I have been flipping over to "Mike and the Mad Dog" on the YES Network on occassion, and Yankees fans are already starting to worry. And now Soriano is unable to get to another infielder groudner, giving the Twins a baserunner they maybe shouldn't have had.
2:18 - Mussina gets Guzman to pop up to Boone in foul territory after intentionally walking Pierzynski to load the bases with two outs. For the first time, I was really rooting for the Yankees here. I like seeing the Twins do well, but I would have felt uneasy with Minnesota taking a big lead in the first game of a series that I need the Yankees to win.
2:23 - Bernie cranks a ball to right field that Jones misplays, although he probably wouldn't have been able to catch it anyway. As the ball goes over Jones' head, however, Williams falls down rounding first base and has to settle for a single. Hideki Matsui then grounds into a double play to give Santana a nice, easy inning.
2:32 - Rick reed is warming up while the Twins bat in the top of the fifth. If something's wrong with Santana, the Twins are in big trouble (or maybe they're not...).
2:36 - Santana is out of the game after four shutout innings with just 59 pitches thrown. Reed is getting as many warmup pitches as he needs and Mad Dog just said that Santana has bad cramps. The Yankees just got a big break.
(Santana did indeed have cramps, but he should be able to go in game four. And it obviously wasn't that big a break for New York).
2:42 - Another nice defensive play by Guzman to help Reed get a second quick out. I've noticed this before, but they just showed the replays of the three plays where Guzman's hustle earned the Twins their run, and it struck me again -- Guzman is, well, husky (he's listed at 6-0, 195 pounds, but I'd guess he's a bit shorter and a bit heavier). He doesn't look like he should be fast, but the fact that he is makes me happy.
2:44 - Soriano doubles into the gap and that's it for Reed. Ron Gardenhire goes to his third pitcher of the game, J.C. Romero, in just the fifth inning. Rob's dad calls for the second time, apparently angry that the Yankees haven't scored yet.
The only reason Rob's dad hasn't called at least half a dozen times already is that he's at work and not listening to the game. He's a doctor and he thinks it might disturb his patients if he has the radio on and starts yelling when the Yankees mess up.
2:49 - After Soriano inexplicably steals third with two outs on a 3-0 count to a left-handed batter, Johnson grounds out to first to keep the Twins in front. Over on YES, Mike is as angry as he's been all game, but not about the score. Even though he was safe, Soriano stealing third in that situation was patently stupid.
2:55 - The Yankees defense hands the Twins two free runs. With LeCroy on first and one out, Hunter singles to center and the ball gets past Bernie and goes all the way to the wall, allowing LeCroy to score. Hunter's credited with a triple, but Bernie should have cut the ball off easily.
To make matters worse, Soriano takes the relay throw from Bernie and throws to third to try and get Hunter, but Soriano tosses it way over Boone's head to let Hunter score. Koskie follows with a sinking liner to left that Matsui slides to try to catch and misses, letting the ball past him and letting Koskie go to second. Koskie then helps the Yankees by trying to steal third, getting thrown out easily.
3:02 - Mussina walks Pierzynski, but strikes out Guzman to end the inning without further damage. Mussina's thrown 99 pitches through six innings.
Rob's starting to swear.
3:06 - Jeter singles to lead off the inning.
Rob: "Come on, Giambi. Do something, fucker. If he hits into a double play, I'm turning the TV off." (the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in some respects).
Giambi does ground out, but it's too soft to turn two.
3:12 - After Posada strikes out, Bernie grounds out and the Yankees still trail 3-0. Over on YES, Mad Dog says the game is over.
Mike: "Wait a minute. Can we play the final three innings? This game is not over yet."
Mad Dog cackles like a crazy man. He's enjoying the Yankees losing as much as I normally would be.
3:20 - Mussina finishes a 1-2-3 inning. This game has been like a recap of his season. He hasn't had his best stuff all the time in the game, but his numbers would look a lot better if he had a decent defense behind him.
3:30 - After Romero walks Matsui, LaTroy Hawkins comes in and give up a single to Boone. First and second, nobody out, Ruben Sierra's pinch-hitting and Rob's starting to pace.
3:33 - Sierra grounds right back to the mound, but Hawkins takes his time and can't turn two.
3:41 - It's at-bats like this that make postseason baseball great. With runners on the corners and two outs, Nick Johnson fouls off four straight two-strike pitches before Hawkins finally strikes him out on the ninth pitch of the at-bat. The Twins lead 3-0 going to the eighth inning and it looks like Jeff Nelson is coming in.
Rob is not happy.
3:45 - Rob's assessment of Nelson after he throws three straight balls to LeCroy to start the eighth: "Fucking hate him." Just so you know, Rob had been complaining about how much the Yankees need Nelson back ever since they let him go.
Nelson walks LeCroy and Joe Torre goes straight to Felix Heredia.
3:58 - The Yankees finally get a couple breaks. After Heredia failed to turn a double play on a Jacque Jones grounder back to the mound, he intentionally walks Hunter. He the gets ahead of Koskie 0-2, but Koskie hangs tough and singles into right field. LeCroy's lack of speed, however, prevents him from scoring (first break). With the bases loaded and one out, Heredia hits Pierzynski, but the umpire rules that he swung (second break, although it looks like he did swing). Finally, Pierzynski grounds into the 1-2-3 double play (third break).
So, with six outs left, the Yankees need three runs to tie the game.
4:05 - Hawkins gets Jeter to ground out and then strikes out Giambi and Posada. Three outs left for New York.
4:10 - Stewart strikes out, but reaches first on a wild pitch. Pretty typical of the Yankees today. Normally, I'd be reveling in this performance by the New Yorkers, but I can see my ticket to game two of the ALCS slipping away. The Yankees turn a double play and now they need a big comeback against Eddie Guardado in the ninth.
4:15 - Bernie leads off the ninth with a single to give the Yankees some life.
Rob: "I'm going to be sick."
Matsui crushes a ball to left and Stewart makes a sensational catch to save a double and probably a run.
4:17 - Boone smokes the ball into left. Second and third with one out and Guardado has not looked good at all. He's lucky the shutout's still in tact.
4:19 - Sierra swings at a pitch up around his eyes and pops out to right field. If Sierra was in Rob's house right now, I think there's a good chance Rob would do something that might land him in jail. He didn't like Sierra to begin with, and today's game isn't helping.
4:22 - Soriano hits a high chopper up the middle and beats it out for an infield single as the Yankees finally get on the board. It's 3-1 Twins with runners on the corners and two outs.
Rob can barely watch.
4:25 - Nick Johnson grounds out to third and the Yankees lose game one of the ALDS.
This is a disappointing feeling for me. The Yankees have just lost a playoff game, which normally makes me very happy. Now, however, I'm just two more Yankee losses away from not being able to see a playoff game in person when I've already gotten excited about my opportunity to go to a playoff game for the first time in my life.
After the end of this game, I was genuinely upset that the Yankees had lost. I had approximately the same feeling that I have when the Red Sox lose a regular season game that isn't more important than normal. It didn't ruin my night, but it annoyed me and now I'm somewhat anxious for Thursday to roll around so that the Yankees have a chance to even the series.
Two excellent games to start the 2003 playoffs. I hope most of you were able to watch at least some of the action. I'll have a running diary of my first day rooting for the Yankees later tonight and I'll give my thoughts on the other two games at some point either tonight or tomorrow.
Enjoy the primetime game on Fox everybody. If it's anywhere near as good as the first two games, it should be fun.
My fourth and final playoff preview details what seems to be the least interesting series in the playoffs. The Marlins seem to be getting the smallest chance of winning of all the eight teams and all the games in this series are scheduled to not be in prime time.
Really, these teams are very similar, but very different. Let me explain. The Giants rank sixth in the NL with 4.69 runs scored per game while the Marlins rank eighth in the NL with 4.64 runs scored per game. The Giants rank second in the NL with 3.96 runs allowed per game, while the Marlins rank sixth in the NL with 4.27 runs allowed per game. As you can see, the Giants only have slight advantages in both preventing and scoring runs. However, things get even closer if you only look at what the Marlins have done since Jeff Torborg was fired after Florida started the season 16-22. In their 124 games under Jack McKeon, the Marlins have scored 4.74 runs per game and allowed just 4.08 runs per game.
And with that in mind, let's take a look at the starting lineups.
C - Benito Santiago continues to defy old age, hitting .279/.329/.424 (.753) with 21 doubles, 11 home runs, 29 walks and 69 strikeouts in 108 games. His .265 EqA, 52.5 EqR and 18.4 RARP make him about the sixth-best catcher in the NL.
The Marlins went out and signed Ivan Rodriguez because they thought he could bounce back from three injury-plagued seasons to help them contend this year. Turns out they were right, as he hit .297/.369/.474 (.843) with 36 doubles, 16 homers, 55 walks, 92 strikeouts and 10 steals in 16 attempts (62.5-percent success rate) in 144 games. His .293 EqA, 84.8 EqR and 41.6 RARP make him the second-best catcher in the NL.
Rodriguez's offense will be tempered slightly by the fact that he hits much better this year against lefties and the Giants only have one left-handed starter, but the Marlins still have a significant advantage here.
1B - The Giants will likely platoon here, as J.T. Snow is hitting .284/.387/.450 (.837) in 282 at-bats against right-handers and Andres Galarraga is hitting .309/.369/.574 (.943) in 94 at-bats against left-handers. Between the two of them, they would probably rank sixth or seventh among NL first basemen.
Derrek Lee is one of the most underrated hitters in baseball as he hit .271/.380/.509 (.889) with 31 doubles, 31 homers, 88 walks, 131 strikeouts and 21 steals in 29 attempts (72.4-percent success rate) in 154 games. His .307 EqA, 104.3 EqR and 42.1 RARP make him the fourth-best offensive first baseman in the NL.
Like Rodriguez, Lee is a much better hitter against lefties than against righties, but even against righties he's just as good as whoever the Giants will have here. Overall, this is another significant advantage for the Marlins.
2B - Ray Durham has been hurt a lot of the season, but he has still been pretty good on offense this season. He hit .284/.364/.439 (.802) with 29 doubles, five triples, eight homers, 49 walks, 81 strikeouts and seven steals in 14 attempts (50-percent success rate) in 109 games. His .284 EqA, 64.3 EqR and 26.3 RARP put him about seventh among NL second basemen.
Luis Castillo has quietly been a key to Florida's offense at the top of the lineup, hitting .314/.381/.397 (.778) with 19 doubles, six triples, six homers, 63 walks, 60 strikeouts and 21 steals in 40 attempts (52.5-percent success rate) in 152 games. His base stealing abilities have mysteriously disappeared, but his .275 EqA, 84.9 EqR and 31.4 RARP make him about the sixth-best NL second baseman.
Both players hit much better against lefties, which favors Durham because the Marlins have to lefties in the rotation and the Giants only have one. Overall, though, I think this position is pretty even.
3B - This position is really one of the keys to the series. Mike Lowell should slide right back into the starting lineup and it will be huge for the Marlins if he could pick up right where he left off when he got hurt. For the season, Lowell hit .277/.351/.531 (.882) with 26 doubles, 32 homers, 56 walks and 77 strikeouts in 129 games. His .299 EqA, 87.0 EqR and 41.7 RARP make him the second-best offensive third baseman in the NL despite missing 33 games.
It sound like Edgardo Alfonzo will be batting fifth, which means the task of protecting Barry Bonds will fall to him. Alfonzo hit .258/.333/.385 (.718) this season, but he got better as the season went on. After the All-Star break, he hit .294/.368/.459 (.827) in 194 at-bats with a .977 OPS in September. If he can keep that up in the playoffs, then he should be able to make the Marlins pay if they walk Bonds too often.
Overall, I'll say this position is even because you don't know how well Lowell will come back and who knows which Alfonzo will show up in the playoffs.
SS - This position is pretty even because San Francisco's shortstop had a worse season than people expected and Florida's shortstop had a better season than people expected. Rich Aurilia hit .277/.325/.410 (735) with 26 doubles, 13 homers, 36 walks and 81 strikeouts in 128 games.
Alex Gonzalez hit .255/.313/.438 (.751) with 33 doubles, six triples, 17 home runs, 33 walks and 105 strikeouts in 149 games.
Both players had a .260 EqA, which makes them about the fifth-best shortstops in the NL offensively. Gonzalez is probably a better fielding shortstop, however, so I'll give the Marlins a slight edge here.
LF - You know the story here. Bonds is the best offensive player on a per game basis in the majors, and maybe in baseball history right now. This year, he hit .339/.528/.747 (1.275) with 21 doubles, 45 homers, 148 walks, 57 strikeoust and seven steals in seven attempts (100-percent success rate) in 129 games. His .420 EqA, 146.7 EqR and 106.5 RARP are simply ridiculous.
The big question, of course, is whether or not the Marlins will pitch to Bonds. I think you have to pitch to Bonds unless it's a situation where you simply can't let him beat you -- like late in a close game with a runner or two on base. As great a hitter as he is, he still makes outs if you pitch to him. If you simply put him on base every time, you are doing the Giants a favor. You probably know if you read this blog that OBP is much more important than SLG. I've seen a lot of numbers, but Aaron Gleeman thinks the best formula to use is (OBP*1.7)+SLG. Let's see how Bonds looks if you pitch to him versus if you just put him on every single time.
Using his regular season stats, his adjusted OPS would be 1.645 ((1.7*.528)+.747). If you walk him every time, his adjusted OPS would be 1.700 ((1.7*1.000)+0). Plus, he would be making an out 47.2-percent of the time while putting up the first of those ridiculous numbers while he would not use up a single one of his team's outs to put up the second ridiculous number. Bottom line is you have to pitch to him when you can.
It doesn't really matter who the Marlins put out in left field, the Giants have a tremendous advantage whether it's Jeff Conine or Miguel Cabrera opposite him.
CF - Both center fielders have been somewhat of a nice surprise for their teams. Marquis Grissom hit .300/.322/.468 (.790) with 33 doubles, 20 homers, 20 walks, 82 strikeouts and 11 steals in 14 attempts (78.6-percent success rate) in 149 games. His .276 EqA, 82.7 EqR and 26.2 RARP make him about the ninth-best offensive center fielder in the NL.
In his first season out of Coors field, Juan Pierre hit .305/.361/.373 (.734) with 28 doubles, seven triples, one home run, 55 walks, 34 strikeouts and 64 steals in 84 attempts (76.2-percent success rate) in 161 games. His .272 EqA, 93.8 EqR and 27.7 RARP make him about the seventh-best offensive center fielder in the NL.
Overall, this position is probably pretty even, although the Giants will have a big edge in the games where the Marlins start a lefty because Grissom hits lefties much better than he hits righties.
RF - This is a matchup of two continuously overrated players. Jose Cruz hit .250/.366/.414 (.780) with 26 doubles, 20 homers, 102 walks, 121 strikeouts and five steals in 13 attempts (38.5-percent success rate) in 157 games. His .279 EqA, 84.7 EqR and 23.0 RARP make him the 10th or 11th-best offensive right fielder in the NL.
Juan Encarnacion hit .270/.314/.447 (.760) with 37 doubles, six triples, 19 home runs, 37 walks, 82 strikeouts and 19 steals in 27 attempts (66.7-percent success rate) in 155 games. His .264 EqA, 80.4 EqR abd 13.2 RARP make him about the worst regular right fielder in the NL.
Overall, the Giants have the advantage here. The Marlins probably have a slight advantage at this position when both teams have a right-hander on the mound, as Encarnacion is slightly better against righties and Cruz is much better against lefties.
Overall, I'd say the Marlins have a better starting lineup. The Giants obviously win left field by a lot, and they probably win right field by a little, but there's not another position where I'd say they definitely have the edge, or even another position where I could say they're definitely even with the Marlins.
The Giants probably have a deeper bench, but both teams have a good pinch-hitter. For the Giants, it's whichever of Snow and Galarraga doesn't start. For the Marlins, it's whichever of Cabrera or Conine doesn't start.
I hate to do this, because I'd like to go into as much depth for this series as I have for the other series, but it's late and I need to get some sleep, so I'm just going to summarize the pitching.
I think the Giants have the advantage in game one with Jason Schmidt against Josh Beckett.
I think game two is prett even with Sidney Ponson going against Brad Penny and I think the Marlins have the advantage in game three with Mark Redman against Kirk Rueter, who amazingly has fewer strikeouts (41) than walks (47) this year.
Game four will probably come down to which rookie -- Jerome Williams or Dontrelle Willis -- can best keep his nerves under control in his first postseason start. I think pitching at home will help Willis in that regard, so I'll give the Marlins the edge here.
In game five, the Giants have the edge once again with Schmidt facing Beckett.
The Giants have a definite edge in the bullpen, although the Marlins do have two or three very dependable relievers, which is sometimes all you need in a playoff series.
For my prediction, I'll go with the Giants in five games. I thought long and hard about picking the Marlins because I think this series is a lot closer than most people seem to think, but in the end I think Schmidt and Bonds will be able to make the difference for the Giants.
Thanks for reading, and sorry this preview was a bit shorter than the others. If you haven't read my other three previews yet, feel free to take a look at them before the playoffs get underway today. Here are the links:
Yankees vs. Twins
A's vs. Red Sox
Braves vs. Cubs
Enjoy the playoffs, and may your favorite team do well (unless your favorite team is the A's...).
This is another matchup of opposites as the Braves bring the bats and the Cubs bring the arms. These two teams met in the NLDS five years ago. The Braves swept the Cubs out of the playoffs that year, but these two teams are obviously very different. Of the players who played in that series, only five remain for the Braves (Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez) while the Cubs have just two left (Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood).
The Braves lead the NL with 5.60 runs scored per game, while the Cubs rank ninth with 4.48 runs scored per game. The Cubs rank fifth in the NL with 4.22 runs allowed per game, while the Braves rank ninth with 4.58 runs allowed per game.
Now, let's take a look at the starting lineup, where the Braves have a big advantage at almost every position.
C - Lopez has been remarkable for the Braves this year as he's followed up two seasons as one of the worst-hitting catchers in the league with one of the best offensive seasons for a catcher in history. He's hitting .327/.377/.687 (1.063) with 28 doubles, three triples, 43 home runs, 33 walks and 89 strikeouts in 128 games. His .336 EqA, 100.2 EqR and 63.7 RARP easily lead all NL catchers.
The Cubs have two catchers who have seen significant playing time, but neither of them are any good. Damian Miller is hitting .233/.310/.369 (.680) with 19 doubles, nine homers, 39 walks and 91 strikeouts in 114 games. Paul Bako is hitting .230/.313/.332 (.644) with 13 doubles, three triples, no home runs, 22 walks and 46 strikeouts in 69 games. Miller has a .240 EqA and Bako is even worse with a .229 EqA.
The Braves have a huge advantage here, and it will help that Bobby Cox has said that Lopez will catch even when Maddux pitches this postseason.
1B - This is Atlanta's worst position, with Robert Fick hitting .266/.333/.414 (.747) with 25 doubles, 11 home runs, 42 walks and 47 strikeouts in 125 games. His .262 EqA and 52.5 EqR are about average for a hitter in general, which makes him pretty bad for a first baseman.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, their options aren't much better. Randall Simon is hitting .277/.315/.485 (.800) in 32 games since joining the Cubs. He's got decent power, but his complete and utter lack of plate discipline means that he uses up way too many outs to generate that power.
The best option for the Cubs would be to use Eric Karros against lefties and Hee Seop Choi against righties. Choi is hitting .234/.350/.451 (.801) in 158 at-bats against righties, while Karros is hitting .366/.441/.545 (.986) in 112 at-bats against lefties this year.
However, they won't do that, so they only have a slight advantage over the Braves here.
2B - This is a position where two players have been much better this season than anybody thought they would be. Marcus Giles won two MVP awards in the minor leagues, and this year he suddenly became the hitter that those awards indicated he might eventually become. He's hitting .318/.392/.530 (.922) with 49 doubles, 21 home runs, 58 walks, 79 strikeouts and 14 steals in 18 attempts (77.8-percent success rate) in 144 games. His .314 EqA, 103.8 EqR and 55.9 RARP are easily the best among NL second basemen.
Mark Grudzielanek has been just as big a surprise, hitting .315/.366/.417 (.783) with 38 doubles, three homers, 29 walks, 64 strikeouts and six steals in eight attempts (75-percent success rate) in 120 games. His .276 EqA, 66.4 EqR and 24.8 RARP put him in the middle of the pack among NL second basemen, which is better than he's been in the past.
So, both of these players are nice stories, but Giles is the better player and the Braves have a pretty big advantage here.
3B - Vinny Castilla is not a good hitter at all, but he hasn't been terrible this year. He's hitting .277/.310/.461 (.771) with 28 doubles, three triples, 22 home runs, 26 walks and 86 home runs in 147 games. His .262 EqA, 69.0 EqR and 19.0 RARP makes him about an average offensive third baseman.
The Cubs weren't getting much from their third basemen most of this year, but things have been better for them since acquiring Aramis Ramirez. He's hitting .272/.324/.465 (.790) in 158 games this year, but has shown more power and less plate discipline since joining the Cubs. Ramirez is hitting .260/.315/.494 (.809) in 62 games with Chicago. His .269 EqA, 83.1 EqR and 26.9 RARP make him about the fourth-best third baseman in the NL.
So, the Cubs have a slight advantage here, but it's really pretty even. Both players have some power and no plate discipline.
SS - Both team's shortstops started off hot before falling back to earth. Rafael Furcal was hitting .341/.406/.565 (.971) after May 28 before slumping badly in June and July. He finished the year hitting .294/.354/.445 (.799) with 35 doubles, 10 triples, 15 home runs, 60 walks, 74 strikeouts and 25 steals in 27 attempts (92.6-percent success rate) in 155 games. His .281 EqA, 98.6 EqR and 42.2 RARP ranked second among NL shortstops.
Alex S. Gonzalez was hitting .308/.391/.470 (.860) after May 4 before he remembered that he's not that good. He finished the season hitting .226/.294/.402 (.696) with 37 doubles, 19 home runs, 47 walks and 123 strikeouts in 151 games. His .243 EqA, 60.7 EqR and 10.7 RARP put him in the lower tier of NL shortstops offensively.
Gonzalez appears to be a better defensive shortstop as, according to Baseball Graphs, he has 9.11 fielding win shares and Furcal has 4.91, but the Braves still have the edge here thanks to Furcal's vastly superior offensive contributions.
LF - Chipper Jones is almost a forgotten man in Atlanta's offense, but he's still a great hitter. He finished this season hitting .303/.401/.514 (.916) with 32 doubles, 27 home runs, 94 walks and 83 strikeouts in 152 games. His .314 EqA, 107.3 EqR and 46.6 RARP rank fourth among NL left fielders behind the two MVP favorites and the guy the Padres stole from the Pirates.
Moises Alou was finally able to stay healthy for the Cubs, but he wasn't really that great a hitter. He finished the season hitting .280/.357/.462 (.819) with 35 doubles, 22 home runs, 63 walks and 67 strikeouts in 151 games. His .283 EqA, 87.2 EqR and 23.4 RARP make him about the ninth-best left fielder in the NL.
Left field is a fairly sizeable advantage for the Braves, especially since Jones is a much better hitter against righties and the Cubs only have right-handed starters. In 431 at-bats against righties this year, Jones hit .302/.394/.552 (.946) with 25 of his 27 home runs.
CF - Andrew Jones is often looked at as a disappointment, but he's a damn fine ballplayer. He finished the season hitting .275/.337/.512 (.849) with 28 doubles, 36 homers, 53 walks and 125 strikeouts in 155 games. His .286 EqA, 94.4 EqR and 35.3 RARP makes him about the third-best offensive center fielders in the NL. However, his defense probably makes him the best NL center fielder and one of the top 10 outfielders in the NL overall.
Kenny Lofton has had another solid season, hitting .296/.350/.450 (.800) in 139 games. He's been even better since joining the Cubs, hitting .327/.378/.471 (.849) with 13 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 17 walks, 22 strikeouts and 12 steals in 16 attempts (75-percent success rate) in 55 games. His defense has certainly declined over the years, but he can still get it done out in center field.
The Braves have an edge here, but it's not as tremendous an edge as some people might think.
RF - Most years, this position would have been even or an edge for the Cubs, but Gary Sheffield has been one of the five most valuable hitters in the NL this year. He finished the season hitting ..329/.419/.606 (1.025) with 37 doubles, 39 home runs, 86 walks, 55 strikeouts and 18 steals in 22 attempts (81.8-percent success rate) in 154 games. His .341 EqA, 132.5 EqR and 73.9 RARP are the best for any right fielder in the majors.
Sammy Sosa has rebounded nicely from the whole corked bat incident, but he still hasn't been Slammin' Sammy like he has in the past. He finished the season hitting .279/.358/.553 (.911) with 22 doubles, 40 homers, 62 walks and 143 strikeouts in 137 games. He was great in April and July, good in June and August, below average in September and awful in May. Overall, his .303 EqA, 94.5 EqR and 38.3 RARP make him about the fifth-best offensive right fielder in the NL.
Sosa is obviously capable of getting hot for a series, but you have to give the Braves a significant advantage here going into the series.
So, the Braves have a significant advantage in the starting lineup, and these two teams may have the worst combined benches of any postseason series in history. The Braves have never had a good bench in their playoff run and Bobby Cox usually makes it worse by bringing three catchers and a pinch-runner.
The Cubs will have two decent hitters on the bench if they bring all three of their first basemen (Simon, Choi and Karros), but they also have a terrible-hitting backup catcher, three terrible-hitting backup outfielders and two terrible-hitting backup infielders.
Now, let's take a look at those pitching matchups. A lot has been made of the Cubs postseason starting rotation and how dominant it can be, but the Braves postseason rotation isn't terrible. None of the starters the Braves will be using in the playoffs have an ERA above 4.00. None of them are great and none of them inspire a ton of confidence this year, but it's not a bad playoff rotation.
Game one pits Kerry Wood against Russ Ortiz. Ortiz has the pretty 21-7 record, but Wood has pretty clearly been the better pitcher this season.
Wood has a 3.20 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 266 strikeouts (11.35 K/9IP), 100 walks (4.27 BB/9IP) and 24 home runs allowed (1.02 HR/9IP) in 211 innings. Ortiz has a 3.81 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 149 strikeouts (6.32 K/9IP), 102 walks (4.32 BB/9IP) and 17 homers allowed (0.72 HR/9IP) in 212.3 innings.
Both pitchers walk a lot of hitters, but Wood can get away with it better by striking out a lot of batters. Wood clearly has an advantage here, but he does get smacked around every now and then as he's given up at least five runs seven times in 32 starts. Ortiz has given up at least five runs in a game six times in 34 starts, but he's facing a much less daunting offense than Wood is.
Game two is Carlos Zambrano against Mike Hampton. Zambrano and Hampton both walk a lot of guys and both give up a lot of baserunners, but both have pretty good ERAs.
Zambrano has a 3.11 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 168 strikeouts (7.07 K/9IP), 94 walks (3.95 BB/9IP) and nine homers allowed (0.38 HR/9IP) in 214 innings. Hampton has a 3.84 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 110 strikeouts (5.21 K/9IP), 78 walks (3.69 BB/9IP) and 14 homers allowed (0.66 HR/9IP) in 190 innings.
Both guys excel at keeping the ball in the park, which helps them avoid giving up a ton of runs because of their walks. I'd give Zambrano the edge here, but I again think it will be balanced by Atlanta's edge on offense.
Game three is the really intriguing matchup, with Mark Prior facing off against Greg Maddux. This one really is Cy Old versus Cy Young, because if Prior doesn't win the Cy Young award this year, he will definitely win it some year.
Prior had a 2.43 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 245 strikeouts (10.43 K/9IP), 50 walks (2.13 BB/9IP) and 15 homers allowed (0.64 HR/9IP) in 211.1 innings. Maddux has a 3.97 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 122 strikeouts (5.15 K/9IP), 33 walks (1.39 BB/9IP) and 24 homers allowed (1.01 HR/9IP) in 213.1 innings.
Basically, there isn't anything that Prior doesn't do well. Maddux still has great control, but he doesn't strike many batters out, he gives up more homers than he used to and he doesn't pitch deep into games anymore. This is the only game in this series where I think the advantage the Cubs have with their starting pitcher outweighs the advantage the Atlanta offense has over Chicago's offense.
Matt Clement will pitch game four for the Cubs and Horacio Ramirez will probably start for the Braves, but Cox has said it's possible that Ortiz will come back on short rest.
Clement had a 4.11 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 171 strikeouts (7.63 K/9IP), 79 walks (3.53 BB/9IP) and 22 homers allowed (0.98 HR/9IP) in 201.2 innings. Ramirez had a 4.00 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 100 strikeouts (4.94 K/9IP), 72 walks (3.55 BB/9IP) and 21 homers allowed (1.04 HR/9IP) in 182.1 innings.
I'm not sure how Ramirez has a lower ERA than Clement based on their other numbers, but it's clear that neither pitcher is great, or even really good. Since neither team has a good pitcher going in this game, you have to give the Braves the edge in this game because their offense is better.
Game five would probably be Wood against Ortiz again is it gets that far.
The Cubs bullpen has been pretty maligned at times this season, but I think they actually have an advantage there. The Braves have John Smoltz, who has been amazing this year, but they don't really have anybody else and you can't be sure that Smoltz is completely healthy either. I don't know if they can rely on him to pitch in every game in the series, so they better get some blowout wins.
Kent Mercker, Jaret Wright and Will Cunnane have all been very good for the Braves, but they've all pitched fewer than 20 innings for Atlanta, so you can't read too much into their stats.
Aside from Smoltz, the only reliever the Braves have with an ERA below 3.90 in significant playing time is Ray King, who has a 3.51 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 59 innings.
The Cubs, on the other hand, have four relievers with an ERA under 3.90 who have pitched at least 40 innings.
Joe Borowski has been sensational as the closer with a 2.63 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 66 strikeouts, 19 walks and five homers allowed in 68.1 innings. Mark Guthrie has a 2.81 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 24 strikeouts, 21 walks and six homers in 41.2 innings. Kyle Farnsworth has a 3.30 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 92 strikeouts, 36 walks and six homers in 76.1 innings. Mike Remlinger has a 3.65 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 83 strikeouts, 39 walks and 11 homers in 69 innings.
Guthrie's peripheral numbers make his ERA look a little fluky, but I would feel comfortable with Borowski, Farnsworth or Remlinger on the mound. So, I've got to give the Cubs the edge in the bullpen.
As for my official prediction, I'm going to go against the public opinion and pick the Braves to win in four games. I think Atlanta will win the two games in Atlanta and then split in Chicago, losing to Prior and beating Clement. If Dusty Baker decides at the last minute to bring Wood back for game four on short rest, then I could see the Cubs winning that game, but I still think the Braves would win the fifth game. So, the worst I see for the Braves is getting pushed to a fifth game.
Sorry this post is so late today, my final preview (of the Giants/Marlins series) will definitely be up before noon tomorrow.
Yesterday, something happened that gave me one of the highlights of my career as a writer, but also brought me great sadness. I was sitting at home watching the late afternoon football games before I had to go to work when my editor called and asked if I could come in early because a story just broke that they were going to need help with. That story ended up getting my byline on the front page of the entire newspaper for the first time in my career, but it also made me do a lot of thinking.
You see, the story was about a 38-year-old former Olympic medalist from the Rochester area who died on Saturday. Here's the link if you want to read it:
Local Olympic medalist dies
First of all, it was very difficult talking to the people for the story, because they were on the verge of crying most of the time. By the end of each call, I was pretty shaken up myself. It made me realize, as only tragedy can, that sports can be a great deal of fun and a tremendous source of pleasure, but it can never take the place of your loved ones.
I know most of the people who read this blog are diehard baseball fans and are planning on watching as much of the playoffs as possible, but don't ignore your family and friends while you do so. Make sure you spend some quality time with them over the next month and tell them you love them, even if it seems silly. As the story shows, you never know when you'll be giving somebody a hug for the last time.
Finally, on a note that seems much less important right now, I'm sorry I didn't get my third playoff matchup preview up this weekend. I'll post it later today and I'll have the preview of the Giants/Marlins series tomorrow.