Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Priorities: the MLB Playofffs

Yes, the Major League Baseball Commissioner's Office has its priorities straight -- after all, the Yanks and Mets get all four pre-determined prime time slots for the League Divisional Series so that the networks (FOX, ESPN) can draw in maximum possible ratings. Thus, the Yanks play Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday night; the Mess get the primo slot on Thursday and the late afternoon slot Wednesday. It's a business, no matter what seamheads at ESPN would like to see (ooh, that intriguing Twins-A's matchup).

The Monk claims to know his baseball, so here's what to look for in the next week for the LDS.

Tigers-Yankees: The Yanks won the season series 5-2 and likely would have swept all seven if Torre hadn't rested Rivera in the two games the Yanks lost (Farnsworth and Proctor blew saves). In each of the seven, Detroit was in first place in the AL Central. Last weekend, the Tigers pulled a reverse 1987 -- needing to win only one game at home against the AL Central bottom-dwelling Royals to win the division, the Tigers honked all three, allowed 28 runs, blew five- (Friday) and six-run (Sunday) leads, and washed out of a divisional title. In 1987, Toronto went to Detroit needing only one win in three games to win the AL East, and lost them all. This season, the Tigers had a fall-back position -- the wild card.

The Monk is a Yankees fan and preferred facing the Tigers to a third tussle in four years with the Twins. But I know to be careful what I ask for. There are certain parallels to 2002, when the Yanks honked to the Angels: (1) young balanced team with solid pitching and nothing to lose as the opponent (and a better Pythagorean W-L than the Yanks); (2) Rivera coming off an arm problem and Torre limiting him to one inning per appearance; (3) Yanks with the fourth-best pitching staff in the AL playoffs; (4) Yanks with iffy defense -- especially if Torre declines to DH Matsui and play Cabrera in left. That said, the Yanks have tremendous hitting that far surpasses any other team in the playoffs not based in NYC, have Rivera, have Johnson basically ready and have the ability they lacked last year. They SHOULD sweep; should win; and should start the ALCS next Tuesday night in the Bronx (and it's really surprising how many pundits on ESPN think the Twins can beat the Yanks in a seven-game series -- I thought the Twinkies were better-equipped for a five-game set?). Whether they do is up to the defense, Chien-Ming Wang, and how Torre uses the bullpen.

Added note: Check how often the broadcasters tout the importance of game 1 in a best-of-five series tonight. The mantra will likely become ridiculous quickly. Remember that in the Torre Era, the Yanks are 5-5 in the first game of the ALDS. When they lost game 1, they're 5-0 in the series (1996, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004) and in three of those series, they've won games 2 through 4 ('96, '03, '04); when they've won game one, they're 2-3 -- winning only the 1998 and 1999 ALDS sweeps over Texas. Add in the 1995 loss to the Mariners, and the Yanks are 2-4 in the ALDS when winning game one. [UPDATE] But, as The Monk just figured out this afternoon, only 9 of 22 teams that won game 1 of the ALDS since that playoff level began in 1995 have won the series -- and six of those won in a 3-0 sweep. Thus, in 13 of 16 series that went more than three games, the game 1 winner lost the ALDS (exceptions: 1996 and 1997 Orioles; 2002 Twins); four teams came back from 0-2 to win; five teams went 0-1 down and won 3-1. In the NL, 10 of the 22 series have been sweeps; 9 of 12 game 1 winners have won the non-sweep NLDS. Thus, in the NL, the game 1 result has been a MUCH better predictor of the series winner.

The Twins-A's series should go five. If the Twins lead 2-1, Gardenhire should reserve Santana for game 5. But trust two things: (1) weird stuff to happen, as it usually does with the A's (2000 - Terence Long loses the Tino flyball; 2001 - the Jeter Flip, Tejada failing to run the bases properly; 2002 - the failure to contain the Twins in game 5, ninth inning; 2003 - choking to the RSawx); (2) mismanaging the pitching: (a) in 2002, Ken Macha had two ace lefties and Tim Hudson to pitch against the Twins, the Twins pounded righties and stank against lefties, Macha pitched Hudson in games 1 and 4 and got clobbered, the A's pitched Mulder and Zito in 2, 3 and 5 and received very good performances -- because they had all three top arms available and Macha ignored the Twins' strengths, he failed to pitch the lefty starters four times in five games and the A's lost; (b) Gardenhire honked the 2004 series against the Yanks by pulling Santana after 7 innings in game 4 with a 5-1 lead and Santana cruising -- the Yanks tied it in the 8th on Ruben Sierra's grand slam and won the game 7-5. The pick here is the Twins, who won 96 in the toughest division in baseball despite no #2 starter for the last two months. The fact is, however, that an A's win would not surprise.

Cards-Padres: The least important of the four LDS on paper because the Cards stink and the Pads do not seem capable of beating the Mets. This is a rematch of last season's yawner, which the Cards won in 3 easy pieces. Expect a reversal if Jake Peavy is healthy because the Cards are awful -- St. Louis would have had only the NINTH-best record if it played in the AL. Albert Pujols barely carried that team to the division crown, and only did so because the Astros dug themselves too big of a hole through the season's first 23 weeks. This season marks the second-straight that the NL has a division winner that is not among the top four teams in the league by record (i.e., worse than the wild card runner-up). Last year, that dishonor went to the Pads and they were properly swept out; this year, it's the Cards. Expect the Pads to play in the NLCS next Wednesday and to close this series out in no more than 4.

Dodgers-Mets: Ho hum, another tough matchup for the Mets. This has been a repetitive (if not redundant) theme over the past two months as the Mess ran away with the NL East and seamheads continually analyzed who could give them trouble in the LDS. Answer: Dodgers, Padres, Astros . . . basically anyone other than the Cards. So? The Mets romped over the NL all season (the league's only 90+ win team, compare that to the five in the AL) and only slowed down after they had run away with the NL East. The Dodgers were in a dogfight for the playoffs until the last weekend of the season. I don't buy the logic that the fight makes the Dodgers sharper. The Mets have AL-quality hitting (Reyes, Beltran, Delgado, Wright, Floyd), enough pitching even without Pedro, and the nutters at Shea. They'll host the NLCS starting next Wednesday.

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