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  THE VERY HUGE MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW.  
   
   
 

The way Major League Baseball decides its champion has been likened to breaking a World Cup soccer game tie with penalty kicks. You do everything you can right for an entire season, finding the right balance and depth, tweaking and adjusting all the way, and then you reach the playoffs and it's just a mad, depraved dash, feet flying and flopping all over the place like in a Warner Bros. cartoon, soles all worn down, ankles ground to a stump, to the finish line of the World Series. What comes before is meaningless; it's like playing a different game all together. The St. Louis Cardinals finished 13 games ahead of the Houston Astros during the regular season -- and once led them by more than 20 -- yet this week, they are exactly even. It almost doesn't seem fair.

The soccer analogy doesn't quite work, mainly because: a) soccer is really a stupid-ass game -- we repeat: Any game that requires you not use your hands is perverse, against human nature and likely the work of terrorist and/or terrorist sympathizers -- and b) even though the sample size of five or seven games is insanely smaller than a 162-game season, they still really are playing baseball, rather than trying to kick a dumb ball into a net past some guy who shaves his legs. But the sentiment is the same: Ever since baseball made moves in the NFL direction by expanding the playoffs from four teams to eight, predicting what will happen in the postseason has become the equivalent of trying to catch a water balloon between greasy thighs.

But watching the greatest players and teams in baseball slug it out, with every pitch defining the difference between legend and choker, holds an excitement unparalleled in sports. The storylines are endless. Can Roger Clemens lead the Astros to their first-ever postseason series victory? Can the Cardinals transform one of the best seasons in its history into its first World Series appearance in 17 years? And the biggest story of all: If the Yankees and Red Sox end up playing each other in the playoffs, will the fate of the human race be imperiled? Can we possibly survive?

Before we start previewing each Division Series matchup, here's a look at the three potentially most enticing World Series matchups:

1. Anaheim Angels vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Look for crazed, rabid fans fighting for civic pride … well, between the fourth and seventh innings, anyway.

2. Boston Red Sox vs. Houston Astros
Kerry throws out the first pitch at Fenway, Bush throws out the first pitch at Dick Cheney Field.

3. New York Yankees vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The two most storied franchises in baseball, still wearing the same uniforms they wore 60 years ago. (Presumably they have been laundered.)

And the three least:

1. Minnesota Twins vs. Atlanta Braves
Imagine Fox broadcaster Joe Buck: "Game 7, Joe Nathan stares down DeWayne Wise. Charles Thomas licks his chops from the on-deck circle."

2. New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves
These teams have matched up in the World Series twice in the last eight years. Both have been intensely boring.

3. Anaheim Angels vs. Houston Astros
In the future, all teams will have such gaudy uniforms … except they'll all have rocket packs.

Here's a preview of each division series matchup, with predictions and random rants/musings. Beware: These predictions are most certainly going to be wrong.

 

Johan Santana is unusual among dominant starting pitchers -- and dominant is the only word you can use to describe him, except for maybe "left-handed" "strangely facial-haired" and "Venezuelan in a non-Fernando type of way" -- in that he is short. He is listed in the Twins media guide as six feet tall, but this is similar to the way that publicists commonly list Tom Cruise as "not gay." When you think of the prototype starting pitcher, you imagine Randy Johnson, or Roger Clemens, or Mark Prior, a tall fellow with perfect mechanics, staring menacingly from the elevated mound. Johan Santana is not like this. It is highly unlikely that Johan Santana can dunk; if he drives a Humvee, he might sit on a telephone book.

He is also the main reason -- almost the only reason -- that prognosticators are all agog about the Twins' postseason chances this year. Santana's second half of the season was the type of season when you have when you play an entire season of Madden 2005 as the New England Patriots and you make your opponent -- a blind infant who was born lacking opposable thumbs -- play as the Rhein Fire. He was 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA, and he struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings. Santana was just plain wrong in the second half; you're totally not supposed to be able to do that.

Because of this, the likelihood that Santana will make two starts in a five-game series and the fact that, well, everybody hates the Yankees, the Twins are the hot pick in this series. But a legitimate question remains: Just how important is a dominant starter in the postseason? People always point to the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, which rode Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling all the way to a World Series victory (and, if you believe overwrought HBO documentaries, brought a grieving, terrified city to a point of Zen-like calm, peaceful understanding and ultimate acceptance; assuming, of course, no one was sending us anthrax in the mail that day.) But few point out that the next season, Johnson and Schilling -- who were just as dominant as they had been the season before -- were swept out of the first round by the Cardinals, who were dealing with grief of their own after the death of Darryl Kile (grief that wasn't exactly resolved by a silly baseball game).

Curious about the constant harping that his beloved Cardinals are wobbly in the postseason because they (all together now) lack a true ace starter, Brian Gunn, author of the Cardinals fan Web site Redbird Nation (and, in a cool twist, co-writer of that goofy old MTV series "2gether"), did a statistical breakdown of whether or not good teams that have an "ace starter" have an inherent advantage over equally good teams who don't. His findings? To quote:

Ace pitchers are no more important in the postseason than they are in the regular season. However your team adds or subtracts runs from the scoreboard -- be it relievers, defense, #3 starters, or simply outscoring your opponents to death -- that's the key, not whether they're embodied in one or two frontline starters. (Read the full report here.)

There's a lot of math in there that makes the average fan's head hurt real bad, but the underlying principle is nevertheless true: Johan Santana, no matter how great he is, is just one man … and he's facing a whole lineup of big strong men who hit the ball real far when it is pitched in their general direction.

For all the sturm und drang involving the Yankees this year -- What's wrong with the pitching staff? A-Rod isn't CLUTCH enough! Jason Giambi is wasting away like the guy in RoboCop after he falls in the toxic waste! Derek Jeter broke Mariah's heart! -- Joe Torre's boys did the same thing they do every year: Win, with deceptive ease. This is a team that dealt with a disorienting opening series in Japan, a self-destructing rotation, a withering slugger making $11.5 million (and going up!), a historic Jeter slump and a media horde gobbling up any power pellet and ghost it could dredge up. And yet they still notched their second-highest win total of the last 10 years.

This is a lineup that bats Alex Rodriguez second and got an MVP season from Gary Sheffield. And as much as people worry about the rotation, it still features potential Hall of Famer Mike Mussina, a revived Jon Lieber, a dangerous Kevin Brown and the still-fully functioning embalmed corpse of El Duque, who, if he were cut in half, you would discover by counting his rings is, in fact, 83 years old. And -- how could we forget? -- that bullpen, which, thanks to Tom Gordon's lead-in to the indomitable Mariano Rivera, shortens the game to six innings in the postseason … at least.

Johan Santana was the best pitcher in baseball this year, but he is facing one of the best lineups with an undermanned, intimidated team in the bowels of Yankee Stadium. He'll have to be near-perfect twice just for the Twins to even have a slight hope. These are the Yankees. Try as you might, you can't forget that. They will find a way; these guys aren't missing another shot to demoralize the Red Sox because of the Twins, that's for damn sure.

PREDICTION: YANKEES IN FOUR.

 

The Red Sox would never admit it -- surely a franchise such as this would never have the temerity to show confidence in anything -- but they had to be relieved to face Anaheim in the first round rather than the Oakland A's, who the Angels vanquished (good word, vanquished) in the season's final weekend. As many troubles as the A's Big Three starters had toward the end of the season, the Angels are the type of team the Red Sox eat for breakfast, if any of those scruffy Sox players ever got up before noon.

Gilbert Grape's Mom-esque Bartolo Colon, Kelvin Escobar and Jarrod Washburn scare no one in the rotation, and they're the type of pitchers that the patient Red Sox can feast on. The Angels' bullpen is potentially suffocating, but with that rotation and a feisty Red Sox lineup, they might have trouble getting that far.

That said, the Angels cannot be dismissed, if just because they might just be the most likable team in the postseason. It seems strange to think that many baseball fans still haven't witnessed the creature that is Vladimir Guerrero, but after spending his entire career in Montreal and on the Left Coast, it's possible. (With playoff games starting as late as they do, they might not see him much in October either, but that's another story.) Guerrero, an impatient hitter with poor command of the strike zone, is like that kid you went to college with who never went to class and still kicks your ass on the final. No matter what, or where, your pitch, he has the answer. You might have hated that kid in college, but you'll definitely love Guerrero. He's the best reason to watch the Angels.

But the most likable sort might be manager Mike Scioscia … for better or worse. With one week left in the season, Scioscia did the unthinkable: He suspended the team's second-best hitter, Jose Guillen, for the rest of the season after a clubhouse outburst. Now, by all accounts, Guillen was a huge pain in the ass all year, and his teammates didn't exactly seem to lament his departure. And the team went on a nice tear afterwards to end the season, and everyone was ready to bronze Scioscia, which, frankly, would take a lot of bronze. But you might hate that lady who fills out your expense reports at work -- the one with the fake smile, shit-orange tan and so much eye shadow the weight makes her head keep crashing down onto her desk with no warning -- but if you just fired her out of nowhere with no replacement, your expense reports aren't going to get done, and you're gonna lose some money. It's the same with Guillen. The relief upon his departure might make the players feel good, but not as good as, say, a three-run homer might. Scioscia might have been better off just suspending Guillen for the rest of the season but not the playoffs, like the Dodgers did with fellow miscreant Milton Bradley.

Most of the questions about the Red Sox involve Pedro Martinez, who has had an awfully strange fortnight. To wit:

-- After losing to the Yankees again, he said: "What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy. I can't find a way to beat them at this point. ... I wish they would fucking disappear and never come back. I'd like to face any other team right now. To pitch a good game, make good pitches and still can't beat them. It's frustrating." It is impossible to make a comment on this that doesn't make Martinez sound any more like one of Adebisi's bitches on OZ, so I won't try.

-- He implied anger that Curt Schilling -- clearly the superior pitcher this year -- was the Game 1 starter for the Red Sox instead of him.

-- In the best move of all, he brought an emaciated Latin midget named Nelson de la Rosa, dressed in a Red Sox uniform. (de la Rosa is actually an actor who starred in -- of course -- The Island of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando. Why did he do this? No one is quite sure, but Martinez did request that de la Rosa meet with manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein. That's not a joke. Francona even did meet with him and admitted "looking behind de la Rosa to see if he had batteries."

Is this the guy you can trust to be your second lights-out starter in the playoffs, particularly when he's just weeks away from becoming a free agent? Call me crazy, but I say yes. Pedro Martinez is one of the kookiest characters in baseball -- he has to be second to teammate Manny Ramirez, obviously -- and is guaranteed to do something amazing, one way or the other, this postseason. And it isn't going to all end against the freaking Anaheim Angels, that's for damn sure.

PREDICTION: RED SOX IN FOUR.

 

After some dramatic last-season heroics, most notable a not-as-dramatic-as-it-looked grand slam by Steve Finley to clinch the NL West against the Giants, the Dodgers are collecting "team of destiny" labels from buffet-addled sportswriters across the country. This is a vastly overused and misplaced moniker. No one was calling the Marlins a team of destiny before last year's playoffs. It's often used to describe teams that don't seem good enough to actually be in the playoffs. This describes the Dodgers well. The reason the Dodgers had the opportunity to seem like they had something "special" going on late in the season was because they weren't good enough to put the West away weeks before; they had to be special to make the playoffs. The Cardinals, meanwhile, having clinched their division earlier than any other team in baseball, spent the last two weeks getting healthy, cheering on Rick Ankiel and twiddling their thumbs.

The Dodgers rotation consists of Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver (right now, Yankees fans are laughing, loudly) and Jose Lima (right now, everyone else is laughing even louder). This is particularly ironic because last year's Dodgers were so superior on the mound than they were at bat that it seemed like a video game on the wrong setting. Adrian Beltre has spent the season making fantasy baseball owners who gave up on him after an immensely frustrating few years slit their wrists, and Finley, Bradley and Shaun Green certainly provide some pop in the lineup, if not much snap or crackle.

And they're certainly no match for the Cardinals' heart of the order, which is as good as any baseball has seen in years. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen have all had MVP seasons on planets other than the one that contains Barry Bonds, and Larry Walker has been their equal since coming over from Colorado in August. (Edgar Renteria has had a disappointing season by his standards, but if he can come close to matching what he did last year, he'd easily slide into that group as well.) Jason Isringhausen, the Cardinals closer, isn't quite in the league of Eric Gagne (who is battling his own injuries), but the St. Louis bullpen had the best ERA in the majors this year - and it is particularly tough on lefthanded hitters like Finley and Green, thanks to Zeppelin-esque Ray King and Ole' Stinkhat Steve Kline. (Mental image: After the Cardinals clinched the NL Central and did the whole spray-champagne-that-costs-more-than-your-rent thing, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that King hopped on manager Tony LaRussa's back and "rode him around the clubhouse." This must have looked like an ant carrying a Cocoa Puff.)

Much of the questions about the Cardinals revolve around the rotation, and they're legitimate, particularly after "ace" Chris Carpenter damaged a nerve in his bicep, forcing him to miss at least the first round. Woody Williams, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and the loop-de-loop that is Matt Morris don't scare anyone … but they don't have to. Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty put together a team that complements itself perfectly; the rotation doesn't strike people out, but it does (mostly) keep the ball down, allowing Gold Glovers like Rolen, Renteria, Walker and Edmonds to do their job.

St. Louis has stumbled into the postseason, missing a chance to become only the third National League team in 30 years to enter the playoffs with a .667 winning percentage (the 1975 Reds and 1986 Mets were the others; both won the World Series). But this is because LaRussa had that leeway. Rolen and Kline are now healthy, and everyone is rested, even Pujols, who hates to take days off.

This is the closest thing we have to a first-round mismatch; St. Louis is superior in just about every facet. The Dodgers have enough nifty mojo to win its first postseason game since winning the World Series in 1988 … but that one game will have to be enough.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN FOUR.

 

Before we get into this one, a note on the team everyone thought was going to win the wild-card: the Chicago Cubs.

To the rest of the country this season, the Cubs have remained a fuzzy-lovey story, those beloved Cubbies warming the hearts of America with their sun-drenched ballpark, partying fans and oh-so-wacky curses. But to the fans of Chicago, the ones who watch the team every day and have supported them harder than any Cubs team in a decade, they're a bunch of lazy, whiny scumbags.

A trip to Chicago last weekend confirmed this. One would expect, on the final weekend of the season, with the home team battling for a wild-card spot, that the entire city would be Cubbie Blue. Every radio station would be providing second-by-second updates. The flashing highway signs would blare "GO CUBS!" while reminding you to slow down so you don't run over some construction guy. But this wasn't the case at all. The talk on sports radio was not about the pitching matchups for the final series; it was about a pointless squabble between manager Dusty Baker and broadcaster Steve Stone. Lifelong Cub fans admitted that, deep down, they'd have a hard time even rooting for this particular Cubs team if they made the playoffs. "Honestly, if someone's gonna win the World Series for us, I don't want it to be this team," one said. "They don't deserve it." It was little surprise, then, when the most talented Cubs team in recent memory choked away a gimme wild-card spot. The whole exercise was a good case study for the statistically minded among baseball fans: Sometimes chemistry does count. Some teams, no matter how much skill they have, shit the bed when it matters most because they're just built all wrong. It will be a fascinating off-season in Cub land.

The beneficiary of the Cubs' flop was Houston, which soared into the postseason on a ridiculous 18-game home winning streak, 37 of 47 overall. The Astros are the type of team that freaks everybody out in the postseason because they have two top-shelf starters in the undead Roger Clemens and the bird-like Roy Oswalt. And their lineup, if it can keep everyone's arms and legs attached, is extremely dangerous, particularly with Carlos Beltran -- who was fortunately not traded by the Astros when pundits were begging the team to -- buoying the One More Run of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. This is a potentially frightening team, and closer Brad Lidge has been better than any closer in baseball since taking over for the traded Octavio Dotel.

There's something crazy about these Braves. This team has no business in the postseason; Bobby Cox should be in the Hall of Fame, like, tomorrow. The pitching staff is put together with duct tape and warm spit (who knew Jaret Wright was still alive, let alone worthy of serving as a Game One starter?). The lineup is a resurgent Chipper Jones, a walk-year J.D. Drew and a bunch of guys whose names are inappropriately capitalized (DeWayne, LaRoche, DeRosa). Their main setup man to John Smoltz has 12 fingers, for some reason. And yet here they come, winning again, trying to squeeze one more World Series out of a now-depleted group. (Right now, Tom Glavine is playing golf. Again.)

This is the last run for the Astros, no matter what. Sure, Clemens will be back, but Bagwell and Biggio likely won't be, and Beltran is DEFINITELY gone. When the team looked out of it in July, GM Gerry Hunsicker kind of threw up his hands and said, "Hey, we have to go with what we've got. What else are we going to do?" And here they are.

Houston cannot remain as hot as they have been, but the Braves, as inexplicable as they might be, don't match up well them at all. When pundits -- are they called pundits in sports, or is that just in politics? -- looked at the likely postseason entrants, the Cubs were the team everyone was afraid of. But Houston lurked the entire time and then exploded. They suddenly look like a team built for the postseason.

The Braves are fun and plucky, much more likable than Atlanta teams of the past. (Not that their fans have noticed.) But Houston doesn't look like they're stopping for anyone right now.

PREDICTION: ASTROS IN THREE.

 

You knew it was coming. This series is alternately impossible to predict and totally obvious. What kind of fool, consider the history of the whole bag, could ever predict the Red Sox to overtake the Yankees in the postseason? But there's something funny happening here. Boston is probably the wackiest team in baseball, with long haired freaks hanging around naked in the clubhouse, midgets advising general managers and, of course, The Being That Is Manny. The Yankees are the suits. The Yankees are the slimy stockbroker who used to date your girlfriend. The Yankees shop at Prada. The Yankees are the establishment. The Yankees are, ultimately, Dean Wormer. And it's time for Bluto. Finally.

PREDICTION: RED SOX IN SEVEN.

 

An almost perfectly even series. Since baseball went to the three-division format, no National League Central team has made the World Series. It ends this year. But whom? The Cardinals are professional and driven. The Astros are making one last lap. It might come down to home field; the Cardinals and their fans are perfectly suited for one another. Business-like (watch Scott Rolen when he hits a home run), smart, appreciative of all the little things that matter. This series could turn on a managerial decision, and for all his faults, you have to trust Tony LaRussa more than Phil Garner. But this would be a classic series, no matter what.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN SEVEN.

 

Fenway fans are denied the opportunity to boo Roger Clemens on the grandest stage of all, but indirectly, he might win them a World Series after all. His six-run first inning during the All-Star game handed the home-field advantage to the American League. The Cardinals have been the best team all year, but Game 7 at Fenway, with the whole city shaking, three days before Election Day, on Halloween, for crying out loud? Can you imagine? Only a fool would pick the Red Sox to win the World Series … but on All Hallow's Eve … it's just almost too perfect.

PREDICTION: RED SOX IN SEVEN.

 

Will Leitch is managing editor of The Black Table. He writes these enormous odysseys every year to make himself feel better about no longer working at The Sporting News. Buy his book, Life as a Loser, through Amazon.com.