11th and Washington

11th and Washington: October 2005

Friday, October 28, 2005

Counting down to pitchers and catchers

I know I've got a lot to catch up on. I still haven't finished the attendance comparison between the Nationals and Orioles and I have yet to go through my preseason predictions for each division to hold myself accountable for my rights and wrongs. That will come. For now, a few thoughts on the end of the season. And yes, the Yankees are still the last AL team to lose to an NL team in a game that "counts."

I hate Fox. I always will. They can give us crappy pregame blather, start the games at 8:30 and refuse to move up weekend games any earlier than 8 p.m. (after the pregame) and then they can take their horrendous ratings and deal with them. Fox has dumbed down baseball and it hasn't worked to draw in the viewers. Don't insult us with Scooter and over-the-top graphics and shameless promos of your own TV shows through the use of pointing out which stars who have no interest in the game were given prime seats and told to be in them in the fourth inning for the on-air shot and then allowed to go back to their hotels. It's bad enough that the network killed off the true game of the week and forces us to watch our own hometown teams on Saturday afternoons when we'd otherwise be able to do so when, sometimes, I'd just rather see Oakland and Anaheim rather than the Yankees and Blue Jays.

Bobby Valentine has a point, and I think it would drum up a lot of worldwide interest to see the champions of the two major international leagues face off in a true world series. I'd certainly watch, and I'd probably have more interest in seeing the White Sox and Marines than I did in seeing the White Sox and Astros in Games 3 and 4. A game between the Marines and White Sox that had more meaning than the untelevised exhibitions played by the Yankees and Mets on their respective trips to open the season in Japan recently would be more interesting than seeing the Mets and Cubs or Yankees and Devil Rays play games that count in the standings under the Tokyo Dome. Bob Klapisch is for it too, and he correctly posits that Bud Selig won't make an effort to at least explore the possibility. And yet, they think everyone wants to see a World Classic. It might be interesting, and I'll probably tune in, but if you were to give me the choice between an international competition every four years and a face-off between the champions of two nations every fall, I'd take the annual showdown.

Speaking of Selig, was there anything more revolting than seeing Jerry Reinsdorf fauning over his "Buddy" (Reinsdorf's term, not mine) after taking the World Series trophy during the awards presentation? Reinsdorf spewed some drivel about "the game" or whatever, and Selig stood there extending his lower lip over his upper, hands clasped behind his back, rocking on his no-doubt tassled loafers. (Speaking of the way this guy dresses, does he ever wear a suit, or does he always go with the khakis and contrasting sportcoat? No commissioner of the four major sports -- and I'm even including Gary Bettman here -- would present the championship trophy in anything other than a fine tailored suit, or at least something that looks like one.)

The owners put one of their own, Selig, into the commissioner's office the way George Bush nominates his cronies for political appointments. It's amazing how Bush runs the country so similarly to the way Selig runs baseball. Both chiefs come from the rich elite, protect their own, care more about the bottom line for themselves and their friends than the health and safety of the masses, and try their best to rule as a monarchy instead of a democracy. Between Fox and Selig, watching the All-Star Game and World Series can be as grating as it is enjoyable.

The free agents have begun to file. It's sad to see Mike Piazza on his way out of New York, but it's for the best. He was good, and maybe he'll do one of those one-day contracts, so popular in the NFL, to retire as a Met in a year or two.

Some random and not-so-thought-out predictions for free agent and other movements we'll see between now and late February:

Paul Konerko:Angels
Billy Wagner: Phillies (though I'd love to see him in blue and orange)
A.J. Burnett: Orioles (imagine him with Leo Mazzone?)
Jim Thome: Trade to White Sox
Ramon Hernandez: Mets
Manny Ramirez: Trade to Mets (something just tells me this one's going to happen this time)
B.J. Ryan: Mets or Phillies, depending on where Wagner ends up (I think he wants to close, not take closer money from the Yankees to set up Rivera)

Maybe I'll throw out more later.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sox it to me

So my postseason predictions were dead on ... until the end of each league's championship series. So much for the Angels and Cardinals.

I had picked the Cards in six, but we're now at seven straight World Series losses by the National League. (If you want to believe the All-Star Game counts for something, that's nine straight AL victories that don't count in the standings.) The last time an NL team won a game against the AL with postseason implications was the Marlins' Game 6 victory in 2003.

I choose to look at it as the last AL team to lose to the National League in a game of postseason importance was the Yankees. And now, four starting pitchers who have worn pinstripes within the last three seasons are playing for either Houston or Chicago in this year's World Series.


Anyway, I'd meant to write up a new World Series preview (since my teams weren't in it and therefore my previous "prediction" was obsolete), but after thinking about it a little last Thursday, the next time it occurred to me was Saturday night as I watched Jermaine Dye take Clemens deep and I didn't have a good feeling about it.

I suppose I was pulling a little more for the Astros, for the National League allegiance and the Roger Clemens factor too. I go back and forth on liking Clemens. He's been nice enough to me in the couple of brief encounters we've had. We've never talked or anything, but I've gotten a nod and a kind look.

[A brief sidebar, as Phil Garner just left Mike Lamb in to face Neil Cotts -- again. What is it with managers who get their team to the World Series, then, inexplicably, go against what got them there? I mean, it's not like they throw everything out the window, but why would you leave Lamb in to face a left-hander? At least he got a walk tonight. I remember the same thing happening in 2000 when Bobby Valentine said Al Leiter would be starting Game 1 of the Series against the Yankees, even though Mike Hampton had a full four days rest after the complete-game clincher in the NLCS because the Mets won in five. Valentine's reasoning was that Leiter had followed Hampton all year and he wasn't going to change that now. Well, start Hampton in Game 1 and Leiter in Game 2. My argument for Hampton in Game 1 was that he would come back to pitch Game 5 at Shea Stadium, where he'd hit and give the Mets an advantage over the Yankees.]

So no Series preview, but I don't know if I would've foreseen the White Sox' momentum continuing to this extent. Last year, you just had a feeling that the Red Sox would win those last four games after they'd finally slain the Yankees. This year, I know at least I wondered if there could be two such Cinderella stories in consecutive years. Two teams named for their hosiery doing away with their curses of 80-plus years in successive autumns.

Maybe it can all be attributed to Chicago's recent addition to the overhead compartment. The White Sox have taken to bringing a "Play Like A Champion Today" sign with them on the road. No wonder they're winning. The signs aren't hard to find: They sell posters at the bookstore on campus and the J.C. Penney at the mall. Still, the Sox got theirs from the home office.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Step right up and get your mud

The pitcher steps off the mound and holds the ball in his pitching hand, lifting it above his head and flicking his wrist toward home plate. He doesn't toss it, though. Instead, he holds onto it, signaling to his catcher and the umpire that he wants a new baseball. This one just doesn't feel right.

Once the umpire obliges him, they make the exchange -- sometimes with a simultaneous soft toss, two horsehide orbs on similar high arcs from pitcher to catcher, from umpire to pitcher. The hurler gets his new baseball, then tucks his glove under his arm, freeing the hand inside to join the other wrapped around the baseball. He gives the ball a few rubs and twists in his palms and he's ready to go.

In Little League, that new baseball would be pristine, as perfectly white as a sheet of paper. It'd be slick to the touch, making it all the more important to have a firm grip on the laces when making throws from the field or the mound. But in professional baseball, that "new" ball has already been soiled. It's been taken from its box and rubbed in mud, usually by the umpires before the game.

The most fascinating bit of this little-known aspect of the game is that not only are the baseballs themselves licensed and approved by Major League Baseball, but so is the mud.

And that mud comes from one place: New Jersey.

At the other end of the state from Hoboken, where the first professional game was played, somewhere on the banks of the Delaware River, Lena Blackburne stumbled upon some mud while fishing. He took it back across the river to Philadelphia, where he was a coach for the A's, and dirtied up some baseballs.

Now his name adornes the tubs of official mud in every major league equipment room: Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud. It sounds like something concocted by a barnstorming con man in the 1800s. "STEP RIGHT UP, FOLKS, AND GET THE SALVE THAT WILL RELIEVE ALL YOUR PAIN!! LENA BLACKBURNE'S RUBBING MUD!!"

New Jersey may not have any major league ballparks in the state, but every team has a bit of New Jersey in its ballpark.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

$203 million doesn't go as far as it used to

I may have figured out the Yankees' problem. It begins, of course, with George Steinbrenner. But I think the crux of the issue is that George gets his ideas from the wrong newspaper.

Note this 2003 article (apologize to the original site, which had trouble loading when I searched for this story today). I think George saw that and, instead of laughing, thought, "What a great idea!"

Trading for Alex Rodriguez may have worked for my buddy who won our fantasy league this year, but it hasn't done anything for the Yankees in two seasons. That's not totally fair, despite what the drunk Yankee fans were saying on the news last night, because this year's team still lacked solid pitching come the postseason. Granted, the Yankees' vaunted lineup couldn't hit much in the past five games -- but neither could the best lineup in the game, and those Red Sox were swept.

If Bernie Williams leaves for another team in the off-season, there goes another player who owns a World Series ring. Unless I'm forgetting someone, that will leave Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera as the only regulars on the roster who were there in 2000 -- nevermind 1996, when this run truly began (otherwise known as the Joe Torre Era). I guess Tino Martinez would deserve conditional recognition, having left and returned, but I doubt he'd be a regular next year anyway.

Since I love pointing out coincidences that don't really mean anything but are otherwise fun to note, the last time the Yankees beat a one-time New York team (that is, the last time they beat the Dodgers or Giants in the World Series, even after those two National League franchises had moved to California), they didn't win the Series again for 18 years. Yet, with the way the Yankees spend, I don't expect them to go until 2018 before their next title. Somewhere around 2009 would be about right, seeing as how they haven't won the Series while a Republican is president since 1958.

* * *

Angels in five.
White Sox in five.
Cardinals in four.
Astros in four.

Those were my predictions for the four Division Series matchups. I was 4-for-4 on winners, had two series pegged perfectly and another off by one game. For the LCS, I went with the Angels in six and the Cardinals in seven, but I'm a little worried about that ALCS choice. While in some cases, I'd wonder if the layoff will take Chicago off its game, but considering the Angels' New York-to-Anaheim-to-Chicago travel from Sunday through this morning, the fact that they lost Bartolo Colon in the second and that they had to go with two relievers on top of long man Ervin Santana -- I have to hope they can salvage one of these two games on the road to have a decent shot at this series. As for the Astros and Cardinals, I'm expecting a series just as exciting as last year's and Sunday's Game 4 win over the Braves. It will be intense.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

Handing out the hardware

I didn't make my awards picks until November last year, but my intentions this year were to get them done as early into the postseason, just as the sportswriters who vote on the awards actually do. Granted, the voters have about 44 hours from the end of Sunday's games until the start of the first Division Series games -- or perhaps less time -- to get their votes in.

Last year, I was pretty accurate. Eight-for-eight, though it wasn't too hard. The races weren't all that close, with the exception of NL ROY. I hedged, but went with Jason Bay in the end in the closest voting of all the players' awards, with Khalil Greene getting seven first-place votes and finishing 38 points behind Bay. Only AL Manager of the Year was a closer vote, with Ron Gardenhire getting 11 first-place votes and finishing 10 points behind Buck Showalter; and only Randy Johnson's eight first-place votes in the NL Cy Young race were more than Greene's among second-place players. But Roger Clemens still won the award by 43 points over Johnson.

This year, we've got a few clear winners, but certainly more close races sure to cause debate. Let's get the easy ones out of the way.

There was a bit of a late-season push for Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, but he might not even make the top three. It could be a close race among Cano (.297, 78 R, 34 2B, 14 HR, 62 RBI), Tampa Bay's Jonny Gomes (.282, 61 R, 13 2B, 6 3B, 21 HR, 54 RBI) and Chicago's Tadahito Iguchi (.278, 74 R, 25 2B, 6 3B, 15 HR, 71 RBI, 15 SB) -- for second place.

I think A's closer Huston Street (5-1, 1.72 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 23 SV, 72:26 SO:BB ratio, .194 BAA) continues Oakland's hold on AL ROY awards. Street stepped in and performed like a veteran closer -- something that even veteran relievers can have trouble doing. He blew just four saves (all before the All-Star break, and he got the win after one of them) and lost his only game way back on April 20. As the closer, he was out there on his own and came through. This one should be set, but something tells me that because I decided to list these in order of debate and put this one first, it will be the first to prove me wrong.

The winner of this one didn't even occur to me until a friend told me who his pick was. Then I looked at the numbers, and it became clear. First off, there are no pitchers who can win. Zach Duke's 14 starts (8-2, 1.81 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 58:23 K:BB ratio, .253 BAA) are probably about six short of what could have earned him serious attention. Among the hitters, third baseman Garret Atkins (.287, 61 R, 31 2B, 13 HR, 89 RBI) moved ahead of shortstop Clint Barmes (.289, 55 R, 19 2B, 10 HR, 46 RBI, 6 SB in just 81 G and 350 AB) as the Rockies' potential winner. Washington's Ryan Church (.287, 41 R, 15 2B, 9 HR, 42 RBI) was one of my preseason candidates, but injuries and then Preston Wilson ate into his playing time.

Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur (.300, 41 R, 20 2B, 14 HR, 45 RBI in 257 AB in 70 G, not to mention 13 assists) was getting a lot of press for the award in August and had a solid start to his career, but I think he comes in second. Houston leadoff hitter Willy Taveras (.291, 82 R, 13 2B, 4 3B, 3 HR, 29 RBI, 34 SB) will be up there, but it will be a mid-season callup who will take home the hardware. In just 310 at bats in 88 games, Philadelphia's Ryan Howard hit .288 with 52 R, 17 2B, 2 3B, 22 HR and 63 RBI. He led all rookies with those home runs, 10 of which came in September -- a rookie record for the month -- and brought the Phillies back into the race after losing slugging first baseman Jim Thome for the season.

It's not like Bobby Cox has won 14 straight division titles with the same team. Maybe those first four or five in the 90s all came with the nucleus of Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine-Chipper-Lopez, but there were often other key cogs that were changed (David Justice, Terry Pendleton, Kenny Lofton, Walt Weiss, etc.). And he certainly hasn't done it with the payrolls of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets or Dodgers.

So until some team knocks the Braves out of the top spot in the NL East -- or even out of the playoffs -- this award is probably his. And when the Braves are dethroned, that team's manager will probably inherit the hardware. The true test is picking second place, which should go to Phil Garner. Houston was dreadful the first 45 games (15-30) without Lance Berkman for 22 of them and with a still-hobbled, .179-hitting Berkman for the other half of them. But Garner guided the 'Stros back to the playoffs, the first back-to-back wild-card winners in the NL since the 1999-2000 Mets.

Well, that's that. So much for the "easy" ones. Now, in ascending order of debate, as I see them ...

I think despite Chicago's collapse from a 15-game lead on Aug. 1 to a 1 1/2-game lead in mid-September, Ozzie Guillen still wins it. He got the White Sox off to a fast start and the team never had to look back. They were in control the whole way, and despite some headwinds, forged on to finish the job. Cleveland's Eric Wedge -- whose team made the White Sox faithful sweat -- deserves it too, but there were a lot of people who predicted the Indians would make a run this year with their young nucleus. I can't go back and look at everyone's preseason predictions, but I'd guess there were even a few more pundits in favor of the Indians being competitive than there were calling for the White Sox to unseat the Twins. After 99 wins and being the frontrunner all season, Guillen wins it.

Well, your ERA leader was Kevin Millwood (2.86), but he went 9-11. Last year's winner, Johan Santana, was second (2.87, plus 0.97 WHIP, 16-7 record, 238:45 K:BB ratio, .210 BAA) followed by Mark Buehrle (3.12, 1.18 WHIP, 16-8, 149:40). At the All-Star break, it was Buehrle's to lose (10-3, 2.58 ERA), and I think he did. We know the voters are stat-heads, and this award isn't for most valuable pitcher (otherwise, Mariano Rivera's got a much stronger case; however, I'm sure some voters look at it as MVP, with the "p" standing for "pitcher"). So after ERA, if we turn to strikeouts, Santana led the league with only Randy Johnson (211) also breaking 200. But with a 3.79 ERA and 17-8 record, his case isn't stronger than Santana's.

Then there are wins, and in leading the league with 21, Bartolo Colon had three more than any other starter (Jon Garland and Cliff Lee). Three more wins over 33 starts is close to winning the 100-meter dash by a full second -- it's a runaway. Colon went 21-8 with a 3.48 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, .254 BAA and 157:43 SO:BB ratio.

For the first time since 1999, it won't be a San Francisco Giant winning this award. Before Barry Bonds and Victor Conte won the award from 2001-2004, Jeff Kent won it. In '99, Chipper Jones' stellar September clinched it for him as the Braves pulled away from the Mets. The same thing could happen, and Chipper could play a part, only September wasn't the month that Andruw Jones may have clinched the award. It was June.

First, let's look at the numbers between Jones and his only competition, Albert Pujols. Since 2001, when Pujols won Rookie of the Year and finished fourth in the MVP voting, he's finished second, second and third (to Bonds and Adrian Beltre) up through last year. With Bonds out of the picture, this looked like Albert's opportunity. The only thing I see keeping it from him this time is that the Cardinals were too good. Certainly better than the Braves. Head-to-head, the numbers look like this:
AVERAGE: Pujols .330-.263
HITS: Pujols 195-154
RUNS: Pujols 129-95
EXTRA-BASE HITS: Pujols 81-77
HOME RUNS: Jones 51-41
RBI: Jones 128-117
OPS: Pujols 1.039-.922

In my heart, I want Pujols to win it. He's been so good for four years and finished second twice to a big-headed freak and his team of trainers and crooks. With the injuries to Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders and especially Scott Rolen, the lineup in St. Louis wasn't as formidable as it was expected to be. This isn't Alex Rodriguez in the Yankees' lineup or David Ortiz in Boston. Take Pujols out of the Cardinals' lineup this year, and I don't know if they do win that division. But the Cardinals also had a strong pitching staff with a Cy Young candidate and built a big lead early in the summer. That wasn't the case in Atlanta, which lost Chipper Jones and three starting pitchers in June -- which also happened to be Andruw Jones' best month (.317, 18 R, 13 HR, 26 RBI, 1.151 OPS) as the Braves made their run. Three starters out, no Chipper, a host of rookies and Andruw carried Atlanta. It kills me to say it, but I think that's what the voters will remember. Andruw wins it.

Wooo, doggie. This debate has been raging since July, with each of three pitchers considered the front-runner. Two of them led their teams to the playoffs; the other led his to the brink. But how to sort them out? First, the overall stats:
CHRIS CARPENTER, STL: 21-5, 2.83 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, .231 BAA, 4.18 SO:BB
ROGER CLEMENS, HOU: 13-8, 1.87 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .198 BAA, 2.76 SO:BB
DONTRELLE WILLIS, FLA: 22-10, 2.63 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, .243 BAA, 2.93 SO:BB
But will the voters look at the overall numbers, or remember what happened more recently? Over the last month of the season, they looked like this:
CHRIS CARPENTER, STL: 1-1, 6.91 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, .328 BAA, 3.14 SO:BB in only 28 2/3 innings
ROGER CLEMENS, HOU: 2-2, 4.50 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, .303 BAA, 1.14 SO:BB in 22 innings
DONTRELLE WILLIS, FLA: 3-2, 3.00 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, .244 BAA, 3.00 SO:BB in a league-leading 42 innings
Well, Willis certainly had the best finish to the season, when his team needed him the most. The Astros needed Clemens too, and he faltered, first with a hamstring tweak, then -- and no one can fault him for this -- dealing with the death of his mother (though he pitched that night and pitched superbly). Carpenter had the benefit of pitching with the Cardinals comfortably ahead, and then after they'd clinched as a tune-up for the playoffs.

As good as Clemens' peripheral stats were, I think the writers will go with Carpenter. It's going to be a close one, a tough one, but that's my guess.

It's not just that this is a tight debate, a close race, a heated argument about two sluggers -- it's, yet again, Red Sox and Yankees. The numbers are tight, and those in the Alex Rodriguez camp say the fact that he plays defense puts him over the top, which is fine. It's hard to defend Ortiz's case when all he does is hit and sit on the bench. Again, we'll start with the season stats:
GAMES: A-Rod 162-159
AVERAGE: A-Rod .321-.300
HITS: A-Rod 194-180
RUNS: A-Rod 124-119
EXTRA-BASE HITS: Ortiz 88-78
HR: A-Rod 48-47
RBI: Ortiz 148-130
WALKS (Intentional): Ortiz 102 (9)-91 (8)
STRIKEOUTS: Ortiz 124-139
OPS: A-Rod 1.031-1.001
But let's look at some splits. A-Rod led the AL in at bats with runners in scoring position, with 186; Ortiz had 162. Ortiz hit .352 to A-Rod's .290, getting three more hits (57-54) and four more extra-base hits (22-18) in 24 fewer at bats. Big Papi drove in 92 runs to A-Rod's 77 and walked 40 times while striking out just 23 while A-Rod walked 34 times and whiffed 52.

Paring it down even more, we turn to each player's performance in the late innings of close games. Ortiz came to bat 56 such times to A-Rod's 47, which worked out well for Boston because he came through. He delivered 12 extra-base hits (3 2B, 9 HR) to A-Rod's 6 (4 2B, 2 HR) and 20 RBI to A-Rod's 7. Papi hit .286 to Rodriguez's .255 and had a decided OPS margin of 1.224-.814. Ortiz also evened out his walks and strikeouts (11 each) while Rodriguez fanned twice as often (14) as he tossed the bat and jogged to first (six).

[Some more numbers were just brought to my attention by the aforementioned -- though not named -- friend, Will, who happens to be a Yankee fan: A-Rod's OPS splits with the bases empty/ runners on/ RISP are 1.106/.957/.894. Ortiz's are .993/1.006/1.043. With runners in scoring position and two outs, A-Rod's OPS is .940; Ortiz's 1.226.]

As for self-promotion -- or at least "company" promotion -- Boston's game notes for Sunday's finale pointed out that: 19 of Papi's HR came in the seventh inning or later; he hit 22 HR in his last 50 (then 51, after the finale) games and 16 HR in his last 35 (36); and slugged a club-record 11 in September.

Finally, 20 of Ortiz's 47 home runs either tied the game or gave Boston the lead. That's clutch. That's valuable. Take Ortiz out of Boston's lineup, and it's significantly deflated despite Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek. Lose Rodriguez from the Yankees'? You've still got Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and, to a lesser extent, a resurgent Jason Giambi.

Some will say that A-Rod wasn't the most valuable player on his team (Mariano Rivera was more important) while others will counter with Ortiz's mere 10 games in the field. I think the voters will take into account Rodriguez's fielding -- and perhaps base stealing -- and name him the MVP. But because of the splits, my vote would go to Ortiz. It remains to be seen if the voters looked that deeply into the numbers.

* * *

Not that it will mean anything, but some may find this interesting: The last time three Yankees eclipsed 110 RBI in the same season was 1938 when Joe DiMaggio (140), Bill Dickey (115) and Lou Gehrig (114) did so. Following A-Rod's 130 this year were Sheffield's 123 and Matsui's 116. In 1938, none of those three Yankees won the MVP. Dickey finished second with three first-place votes and 196 points, 109 behind the winner. DiMaggio was sixth in the voting and Gehrig 19th.

The winner in '38? Boston's Jimmie Foxx.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

On to the postseason

I guess in my dreams, I'm a real baseball writer. Check that -- I am a real baseball writer, in that I write about the sport here; plus I have written about it in a professional outlet regularly before, have done so on occasion since, and figure I probably will again. So as "real" baseball writers do, I feel compelled to reveal my postseason predictions.

I did this last year too, though I never went back to see how my predictions matched up with the actual outcomes. Since we have at least one team in each series returning to the postseason again this year (and six out of eight overall, in fact), I'll address last year's results this year.

With the postseason starting today, I had to get this post up first. By tomorrow, I'll go back and look at my preseason predictions for this season and see how they came out, plus I'll figure out what I think about the individual awards -- MVP, Cy Young, ROY -- for this recently completed season. It's the Cy Young races that have me stumped.

This is the first postseason since 2001 (Mariners, Indians, Yankees, A's, Braves, Astros, Diamondbacks, Cardinals) in which all the games will be played on natural grass. Without going back to figure out which games in Seattle and Houston that year (and in Seattle in 2000) were played with the roofs open, I can't say the last time all postseason games were truly played outdoors. But I can tell you that 1996 was the last time -- and the only time in the wild card era -- that all eight participants had open-air stadiums (Orioles, Indians, Yankees, Rangers, Braves, Dodgers, Cardinals, Padres).

Red Sox vs. White Sox
Do either of these teams feel good heading into the postseason? This is probably the best matchup for both, perhaps not in pitching vs. lineups, but at least as far as momentum and recent play go. Neither team finished the season on an up note. Sure, the Red Sox took two of three from the Yankees and, technically, tied for the AL East division crown, but they had a 3 1/2-game lead midway through September and couldn't close it out. And we all know about Chicago -- 15 games up in the beginning of August, down to as little as a game and a half a week before the season ended. They never relinquished first place, but they had to wait until the final series of the season to pop the champagne rather than putting away the division in mid-September.

Everyone says pitching wins in a short series, so while the BoSox are banged up, the Pale Hose will have Jose Contreras (15-7), Mark Buehrle (16-8) and Jon Garland (18-10) going in the first three games. Plus, Chicago's bullpen is in better shape. Will it be enough to shut down Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz when it matters? I think so.

Last year, I had Boston downing Anaheim in four games; instead they swept. This year, I don't know if the idiots have the mojo. Pick: White Sox in five.

Yankees vs. Angels
These two met in the Division Series in 2002 and the Angels, of course, pulled off the upset on their way to their first world championship. With the Yankees' two best pitchers down the stretch -- Randy Johnson and Shawn Chacon -- not starting until Games 3 and 4, I'm not so sure an Angels victory this time would be an upset. Anaheim's got their rotation set up with Bartolo Colon, John Lackey and Jarrod Washburn in that order and has a lineup that feels more cohesive to me through the bottom half.

Of course, the Yankees have the firepower, but the successful Bombers of recent years have had a solid, set lineup that's not usually this fluid. For tonight's opener, Robinson Cano has been moved up to sixth in the order, Bubba Crosby is in center and Bernie Williams is DHing. And that means Jason Giambi has to play first base. Yikes. I'm sure New York will slug one or two out, but they're going to have to do it against Colon, Lackey or Washburn, because the Angels' bullpen is the best among the four AL postseason teams and might just be the best of the remaining eight contenders.

Something tells me that, after this amazing run through September throughout baseball, we're not going to be treated to yet another Yankees-Red Sox thriller. (Frankly, my own personal allegiances would prefer no matchup than a Yankee-dominated one.)

A year ago, when the Yanks played Minnesota, I expected two strong starts from Johan Santana, which they got, but he only went five innings in Game 4 (allowing one run) after a stellar Game 1 win and Minnesota lost in 11 innings to end its season. "[T]he bullpen will probably blow one, and it could be the clincher," I said, and it was. Santana left with a 3-1 lead but Juan Rincon gave up four in the eighth and Kyle Lohse took the loss in extras. This time around ... we don't get that New York-Boston re-rematch. Pick: Angels in five.

Padres vs. Cardinals
At least the Padres saved face by finishing the season with a winning record. It was in the best interests of the game. The Phillies would have been able to give any of the three teams a better series than the Padres will give St. Louis.

Do I even need to go into further analysis? Even a weaker Cardinals lineup without Scott Rolen and a banged-up, aged Larry Walker will outperform the likes of Ryan Klesko, Dave Roberts and Xavier Nady. They still have Albert Pujols, who may end up having a Carlos Beltran-like postseason. For one series at least, Pujols should allow the St. Louis pitching staff to sort itself out -- i.e., how will Chris Carpenter perform in the spotlight, which Jason Marquis and Matt Morris will show up? Will Mark Mulder prove to be the missing piece? Can the bullpen patch the hole left by Al Reyes' absense?

I gave the Dodgers -- who hadn't won a playoff game since 1988 -- one win last year and picked the winner of the Los Angeles-St. Louis matchup to go on to the World Series. Both happened then, and I think both can happen this time around too -- so long as the winner of this series is St. Louis. With Jake Peavy, San Diego can take one game. Pick: Cardinals in four.

Astros vs. Braves
The only rematch from 2004 in the Division Series. Not too much has changed in Houston, with the exception of Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent leaving. But in their steads, Willy Taveras has played a solid centerfield and become an adept leadoff hitter while Craig Biggio moved to second base and Jason Lane picked up the offensive slack in the outfield. A lot has been made of the Astros' rebound from 15-30 to win the wild card, but half of those first 45 games were played without Lance Berkman and the rest were played with a still-recovering slugger. The switch hitter was batting just .179 at that point, through which the Astros were 2-20 on the road. They won the final game in Chicago, starting a seven-game stretch in which Houston went 5-2 and Berkman hit .375 with two doubles and a homer. They also won two of three in Milwaukee and went 34-25 on the road the rest of the way.

I'm convinced the Astros we saw during the last two months is a more accurate indication of what this team is than the Astros we saw during the first two. I think their veteran experience will trump Atlanta's youthfulness -- Andruw Jones notwithstanding -- and their bullpen will give them an edge on the mound. The first two pitching matchups -- Tim Hudson vs. Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz vs. Roger Clemens -- are a wash, and should be two stellar defensive battles. (I'm thinking 2-1 and 3-2 games.) But then the Braves have to turn to Jorge Sosa for Game 3 in Houston while the Astros get to throw Roy Oswalt out there. Neither team has revealed a tentative Game 4 starter because you figure the one that's down 2-1 will go back to the Game 1 guy. If the Astros are up 2-1, they may still go with Pettitte to avoid a return to Atlanta for Game 5.

Last fall, I noted that Houston's best weapon might have been its momentum, which was enough to carry it all the way to a Game 7 with St. Louis. (Well, momentum and Beltran.) This year, the only team that can match the Astros' roll is the Angels. Both teams had to battle through September and managed to do so cooly and confidently and win going away. (In Houston's case, it wasn't "going away" in the sense that the team won the wild card by a comfortable four or five games, but it had to fight off the Phillies, who kept winning, and did so.) Last year, I tabbed Houston in three and it took five with each team winning alternate games. I think Andruw and either Hudson or Smoltz will be enough for Atlanta to win one ... but that's it. Pick: Astros in four.

White Sox vs. Angels
I could have picked both LCS to be a rematch of the 2004 contests, but I just don't have a good feeling about the Red Sox and Yankees. I'm not sure where this series will go, but I do wonder if Chicago's near-collapse will be a harbinger of things to come or a wake-up call. The White Sox could have coasted into the playoffs and gone soft; maybe the battle for the AL Central with the upstart Indians will prove to be a spark. I think the advantage in a Chicago-Anaheim series will go to the team that has an easier time in its Division Series victory, but since I pick both of those to go five games, both of which would be played on Sunday, the advantage might be to Chicago, which would get to stay at home awaiting the Angels' flight. But since I'm picking through the postseason from the start, I've got to make a decision now. The edge, at this point, goes to experience.

In the 2004 ALCS, I said the Red Sox needed two wins from either Pedro or Schilling, one from the other, and one from Wakefield. They got one each from Wakefield and Schilling, plus one from Derek Lowe and reliever Curt Leskanic. I also said they needed a win against the Yankees' bullpen and, well, Dave Roberts anyone? Only I had Yankees in seven. This time? Pick: Angels in six.

Astros vs. Cardinals
2004 redux. I like the Astros more this year, but the same goes for the Cardinals. Perhaps I'm putting too much stock in Chris Carpenter's ability to pitch this postseason, but there were signs and predictions of an emergence -- if not a breakout -- last season. An arm injury kept him out of any postseason games and he then went through this year living up to the potential that many seemed to expect to see this season. I think he continues that roll and if St. Louis can get by using him only once vs. San Diego, he'll be in line to make two starts and perhaps an emergency Game 7 appearance against Houston. It'll be another heartbreaking end to the season for the Astros, but if they can't put the Braves away as easily as the Cardinals do the Padres, Houston will again have to take its pitchers as they come in the NLCS. St. Louis won last year with inferior starters to Houston's top three, and even with a rejuvenated Andy Pettitte on the Astros, the Cardinals can counter with their Cy Young candidate.

Last time, I took the Cards in six, but it went the distance. I expect a repeat. Pick: Cardinals in seven.

Angels vs. Cardinals
I'll be rooting for whoever comes out of the NL -- with the exception of the Braves -- but I think this would be a stellar Series. Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero in the same World Series? Could they each win a game with a walk-off? Mike Scioscia vs. Tony LaRussa? Those two chess masters wouldn't need Fox's drawn-out intros and extended commercial breaks to make a baseball game take four hours to play, so if we get a St. Louis-Anaheim Fall Classic, I expect at least one nine-inning game to end after 12:30 p.m. on the East Coast. The Cardinals looked listless in last season's sweep to the idiots of destiny, but LaRussa has had faux-dynasties in the past (see Oakland, 1988-1992). He's made four of the past five postseasons and could get there -- and to the Series -- again in 2006. So let's say he wins this one.

In picking St. Louis in six last year, I noted that since the wild card came along in 1995, only the 1998 Yankees have compiled the best record in baseball through the regular season and went on to win the World Series. I expected last year's Cardinals to become the second. Not so. This year, because of the freefall in Chicago, the Cards' 100-62 record was one better than the White Sox' 99-63. So maybe I haven't learned. Pick: Cardinals in six.

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