Monday, October 02, 2006

MLB Playoff Preview: AL Divisional Series

The playoffs are here, and baseball matters again for the first time since April (at least for Indians fans). I love playoff baseball. It’s probably my second favorite postseason tournament—behind March Madness, of course. Every inning, every at bat, every pitch matters. When someone hits a walk-off homer or pitches a 2-hit shutout, you can feel the history being made. The intensity and anxiety you feel while watching a tight playoff game cannot be matched by any sport, March Madness included. So to get you, and myself, ready for the playoffs, here’s how I see the Divisional round playing out. (Although many factors can determine a playoff series, none is more important than the starting pitching match-ups. Therefore, I will focus on these starter match-ups in making my predictions. Also, since it’s late, I’m only hitting up the AL today. Don’t worry, Mets fans, the NL will be here tomorrow.)

Detroit Tigers (95-67) vs. New York Yankees (97-65)

Detroit coming in: The Tigers limped down the stretch, going 12-16 in September and October and losing their last five to relinquish the AL Central crown on the last day of the season. More importantly, the Tigers showed a genuine fear of the Yankees, going all out in the last game of the season, even pitching Kenny Rogers out of the bullpen, in a futile attempt to clinch the division and draw the Oakland A’s in the first round. Are they going to be able to get over the late season funk and their obvious fear of New York?

New York coming in: The Yankees coasted down the stretch, going 8-9 in their last 17. The most important thing was getting confidence in Gary Sheffield at first base, and apparently they did, as he’s starting there now, making the Yankees’ lineup one of the deepest ever. The other concern was the bullpen in front of Mariano Rivera, which is still a concern as Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Myers blew leads in the last two games of the season. Will Sheffield be competent at first base, and will the bullpen step up and get leads to Rivera?

Game 1: DET: Nate Robertson (13-13 3.84) vs. NYY: Chien-Ming Wang (19-6, 3.63)

Robertson was moved up in the rotation so Rogers wouldn’t have to pitch at Yankees Stadium, where he’s terrible, which really says a lot about whether Rogers is an ace or not. Robertson is a battler, but hardly a Game 1 starter. While Wang hardly seems like ace material himself, his style matches up against the Tigers offense splendidly. The Tigers score all of their runs with home runs; Wang trails only Brandon Webb in his ability to get ground balls. Yankees take Game 1 (New York 1, Detroit 0).

Game 2: DET: Justin Verlander (17-9, 3.63) vs. NYY: Mike Mussina (15-7, 3.51)

It’s experience versus youth as the wily vet Mussina faces off against the likely AL Rookie of the Year Verlander. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Mussina—who has been battling injuries—struggles, but I don’t think Verlander’s going to do much better. Verlander has never thrown this many innings before, and fatigue may set in early. With fatigue comes a loss of control, and, against perhaps the most patient lineup ever, wildness leads to a lot of baserunners and, more importantly, a lot of pitches. Watch for Verlander to get knocked out after 5 innings and for the Yankees to come back on Detroit closer Todd Jones. Yankees steal Game 2 (New York 2, Detroit 0).

Game 3: NYY Randy Johnson (17-11, 5.00) vs. DET: Kenny Rogers (17-8, 3.84)

Exactly what Jim Leyland didn’t want: Kenny Rogers pitching a must-win game against the Yankees. Rogers will be defeated before he even throws a pitch, and the Yankees will simply outscore the Tigers, who should beat up Johnson and his herniated disc. Yankees clinch the series, 3-0.

Oakland Athletics (93-69) vs. Minnesota Twins (96-66)

Oakland coming in: The A’s rode their typical August push (21-6) into the playoffs, never really needing to worry about divisional competition. The A’s rotation is deep, with three starters winning at least 14 games (Barry Zito, Dan Haren, and Joe Blanton) and Esteban Loazia chipping in 11. With all of this depth, however, no one has stepped up as the ace. Zito has been that guy before, but if his curve ball isn’t working, watch out. The wild card could be Rich Harden, who has some of the best stuff in the league but is just rounding into shape after missing most of the year with injury. Also, the lineup has struggled to score runs despite Frank Thomas’s late season heroics. Will an ace emerge, and will someone other than Frank Thomas produce runs?

Minnesota coming in: No team is more feared than the Twins, who continued their furious last four months of the season with a 19-11 September and October, culminating in an improbable division title on the season’s final day. Johan Santana is the best pitcher alive, and with the maturation of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau the lineup finally has some punch. The rotation sharply drops off after Santana, however, making the Twins the anti-A’s. Will a pitcher besides Santana step up, and can the Twins keep up the focus that has gotten them here after a terrible start?

Game 1: OAK: Barry Zito (16-10, 3.83) vs. MIN: Johan Santana (19-6, 2.66)

The Metrodome is going to be rocking more than the Michigan-Minnesota game (but just barely), so the A’s are already going to be behind the 8-ball. Zito should keep the crowd at bay when the Twins are at bat, but the roof is going to come off as Santana buzzes through the Oakland lineup. Wanting to save Santana in case he’s needed for a Game 4 start, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will turn a tight lead over to Joe Nathan, who will shut the door on the A’s one, two, three. Minnesota takes Game 1 (Minnesota 1, Oakland 0).

Game 2: OAK: Estaban Loaiza (11-9, 4.89) vs. MIN: Boof Bosner (7-6, 4.22)

This game is a slugfest to start, as both lineups tee-off on Loaiza and the Man Named Boof. With the games in the hands of the bullpens, the Twins take control after Mauer and Morneau beat up on the all-righty Oakland pen. The Twins survive a wild one (Minnesota 2, Oakland 0).

Game 3: MIN: Brad Radke (12-9, 4.32) vs. OAK: Rich Harden (4-0, 4.24)

Facing a do-or-die, the A’s give Harden a chance to be an ace, and he doesn’t disappoint. Harden goes eight shutout innings, outlasting a courageous outing from the one-armed Brad Radke, and Huston Street deals out of trouble to get the save. The A’s stay alive (Minnesota 2, Oakland 1).

Game 4: MIN: Johan Santana vs. OAK: Dan Haren (14-13, 4.12)

Santana is dominant yet again, but the lineup can’t get it going, and the Twins lose by one. Oakland forces Game 5 (Minnesota 2, Oakland 2).

Game 5: OAK: Barry Zito vs. MIN: Carlos Silva (11-15, 5.94)

Zito can’t match Santana’s dominate effort in the previous game, while Silva is adequate. The Twins get an early lead and the bullpen squashes any chance of a comeback. Minnesota clinches the series, 3-2.

Early prediction for ALCS: New York Yankees over Minnesota Twins, 4-2.

NL preview tomorrow.

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