By Andrew Fish Fain
If baseball’s exhibition season is the appetizer, and the regular season is the main course, then the one game playoff on Monday between the Rays and Rangers is the sorbet to cleanse the pallet before the real dessert of the post-season is served. If the regular season is any indication of these playoffs, this should be one orgasmic dessert.
For those of you who are just casual fans, or even the hardcore ones who only focus on your team (not that there’s anything wrong with that), here is a little capsule of each team in playoffs:
We will start in the AL:
Detroit Tigers (93-69; 1st place in the AL Central): When you think of the Tigers, two names come to mind, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Well, 2013 was no different for Miggy as the defending MVP put up numbers just as gaudy as last year, and may win back-to-back MVP’s. Add in Prince Fielder behind him and a healthy Victor Martinez, and the Tigers have a dangerous line-up. As for Verlander, while he was still good, he was nowhere near his usual dominant self. Instead, this season the Tigers rode Max Scherzer’s 21 wins and 240 K’s to the title. Of course having Verlander, Annibal Sanchez and Doug Fister to follow doesn’t hurt either. But there is some reason to be a bit nervous in Motown, as the team that was supposed to run away with the division only won it by one game.
Oakland A’s (96-66; 1st place in the AL West): Somehow the team that has no reason winning does just that. There is nobody on this team that will win the Cy Young or MVP Award. There is nobody that is really irreplaceable. But G.M. Billy Bean and Manager Bob Melvin somehow put together a team that does exactly what it is supposed to do, win. Between Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, Yeonis Cespedes and Brandon Moss there is enough offense here to scare people. Add in the pitching of Bartolo Colon and AJ Griffin and this team is also loaded for a deep playoff run. Their one bugaboo is at the back of their bullpen, where Grant Balfour (I know not the best name for a closer) has struggled a bit of late in his first full season as closer.
Boston Red Sox (97-65; 1st place in the AL East): This is the team that going into the season everyone thought would be no better than a 3rd place team. After all, they ditched a ton of their big name signings (Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett) and filled their spots not with the Superstars expected of a team like Boston, but with role players like Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli. All they did was join together to put together the best record in baseball, of course it helps to have David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia in your line-up. The other key to the Red Sox success was bringing back former pitching coach John Farrell to manage the team. He knew exactly how to get the most out of John Lester and Clay Bucholz, and it showed as they looked like they did just a couple of years ago, add in a rejuvenated John Lackey and mid-season addition Jake Peavy, and the Red Sox are a team to be reckoned with.
Cleveland Indians (92-70; 1st AL Wild Card): Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona worked his mastery in Cleveland this year, having the Indians make the playoffs for the first time since 2007. It helped that they made the smart off-season signings of Nick Swisher, Jason Giambi and Michael Bourne. Plus the reclamation project of Scott Kazmir in the rotation. Add in the growth of budding superstar Jason Kipnis the maturation of Justin Masterson, and the incredible second half of Ubaldo Jiminez, and the Indians look like they will give the Rays all they can handle. Of course, the rotation in Cleveland is not as deep as you would like, so they are starting rookie Danny Salazar in their biggest game of the year. But I never count out a Francona coached team.
Tampa Bay Rays (92-71; 2nd AL Wild Card): It may have taken game 163 for the Rays to finally make the playoffs, but by no means should this team be thought of as the weak link of the bunch. They are playoff savvy, have a tremendous rotation and play fundamental baseball better than maybe any other team in the post-season. They have who I consider the best manager in the game in Joe Maddon, and know what it takes to make it to the World Series. The only worry here is the fact that playing three must win games in four days in three different cities may very well take its toll. This is the one team that would not shock me if they lost in the Wild Card game or won the World Series.
Over in the Senior Circuit, the teams break down this way:
Atlanta Braves (96-66; 1st place NL East): This was the season the Braves were expecting, but not quite the way they expected it to happen. They made the big off-season splash of reuniting the Upton brothers, and that was a bust as Justin was brilliant in April before cooling off for most of the summer, and BJ has been a total disaster. Their most experienced starter, Tim Hudson was lost for the season on a freak play at first base, calling 2nd baseman Dan Uggla’s season poor would be an insult to all poor seasons ever had, and their best player Jason Heyward, missed almost 2 months with a broken jaw. But Freddie Freeman played MVP caliber 1st base, Chris Johnson was the leading hitter in the NL for most of the season, Andrelton Simmons proved to be the best defensive shortstop in baseball, the rest of their pitching staff was as good as advertised and they had Craig Kimbrel at the back of their bullpen being as nasty as ever. So while it was a great season for the Braves, they do have a tendency to go into prolonged offensive slumps and their young staff is unproven in the post-season, throw in going under .500 on the road, and it is anything but a given that this team will play deep into October.
St Louis Cardinals (97-65; 1st place in the NL Central): The Cardinals did again this year what they do every year, pitched well, hit when it was needed and had the best catcher in the game (apologies to Buster Posey) behind the plate. Things started off rocky when they found out they were going to be without Chris Carpenter for the year, but they overcame that with an incredible farm system of young arms, led by Rookie of the Year candidate Shelby Miller. With Adam Wainwright at the top of the rotation, these Cards know how to deal. On the offensive side, Prince Albert may be gone, but they are not void of talent. Nobody in baseball hit better with runners in scoring position than St Louis. With the veteran presence of Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday on offense, plus post season hero David Freese and the break-out season of Matt Carpenter and this is one team that is loaded and ready for bear.
Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70; 1st place in the NL West): Talk about a tale of two seasons!!! The Dodgers spent more money than anyone and got off to one of the worst possible starts. On June 22nd the Dodgers were 11 games under .500, in last place 9.5 games behind the first place Diamondbacks. They then went on a run that was almost unprecedented, winning 42 of their next 50 games and coasted into the post-season. Led by the 1-2 combination of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke at the top of their rotation, and Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and rookie Yasiel Puig in their line-up this is one of the most dangerous and talented teams in the post-season. Of course, they have lost all world outfielder Matt Kemp for the entire post-season, which may come back to bite them. But the Dodgers have been given the label of the team nobody wants to play this post-season.
Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68; 1st NL Wildcard): Without a doubt THE story of the 2013 season and the sentimental favorites, the Pirates have a winning season and are playing post-season baseball for the first time in 21 years. With a home game to start, it means the world will finally get to see what a crown jewel PNC Park is. Clint Hurdle has this team believing it can do anything, and there is no reason they can’t. They have a solid if not spectacular rotation, and a line-up that features MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. The lack of experience may be the biggest issue facing this squad, but you better believe that anyone without a dog in this fight is rooting for the Pirates this post-season.
Cincinnati Reds (90-72; 2nd NL Wildcard): The final playoff team is no stranger to the post-season. The Reds have been there now 3 of the last 4 years, losing in the Division Series both times (to the Phillies and Giants), and now they have the Herculean task of taking down a team that just swept them at home in the Pirates. But you better believe Dusty Baker will have his guys ready, with Johnny Cueto back and healthy to lead the rotation and a line-up stocked with sluggers like Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto there is no doubt they will not go gentle into that goodnight.
Now you know a little about the teams, how is it going to play out? Well I believe it will go a little like this:
AL Wildcard: The road weary Rays will put up a gallant effort, but it will not be enough against the well-rested Indians. Cleveland moves on.
NL Wildcard: The Reds have more talent, more experience and are just a better team, but the Pirates have that “it” factor this year, that plus home field advantage will be too much. Pittsburgh moves on.
AL Division Series #1: In a tough battle, the A’s finally get revenge on the team that has knocked them out of the post-season the last 2 times they faced off, winning the series in 5 games. Oakland moves on.
AL Division Series #2: The Indians play as well as they can, but it is nowhere near good enough to beat the Red Sox, this one is a sweep. Boston moves on.
NL Division Series #1: The top of the Dodgers rotation is just too tough for the Braves, and their lack of success on the road comes back to bite them in the butt as the Dodgers win it in 4. Los Angeles moves on.
NL Division Series #2: The Cardinals and Pirates are very familiar with each other having played 18 times this season, familiarity breeds more than contempt here, it makes a tough series, but the Cardinals are just too much for the Pirates, winning it in 4 games. St Louis moves on.
ALCS: The Red Sox machine keeps rolling, but the A’s are able to at least steal one game from the Bo-Sox. In the end it is too much Big Papi, Red Sox in 5. Boston moves on.
NLCS: As long as Jack Clark doesn’t walk out of the St Louis dugout, the Dodgers will be ok in this series. It won’t be easy, but their top notch staff is just too much, Dodgers in 6. Los Angeles moves on.
World Series: Do you really think this Dodger homer is really going to make this prediction? All I can say is, there will be some seriously interesting storylines when these two storied franchises meet for the title.