11th and Washington

11th and Washington: October 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Another season done

Oy. So here we are, post-World Series. The Mets' injuries caught up to them and, despite pushing the Cardinals to a seventh game, their season ended five wins short of where it should have. The way the Tigers played in the World Series, that parade on Sunday would have been in New York.

My postseason predictions were blown up in the first round, so I didn't bother updating them, in part because it's not really fair to adjust on the fly, but also because work got so hectic -- and tiring -- that I was exhausted by the end of the NLCS. (The morning after which, I immediately got on a plane for Chicago, drove to South Bend, saw an amazing Notre Dame comeback victory over UCLA, flew back on Sunday and zipped to work for Game 2 of the World Series.) When we were throwing out our off-hand predictions at work, I did peg the Tigers to beat the A's, though in seven, not four. For the Series, however, considering the Tigers' tear through the Yankees and A's, their seemingly superior pitching and the rest it had, I questioned whether the Cardinals would even manage a lead for more than an inning or two in alluding to a four-game Tigers sweep. One guy at work went so far as to say, "Tigers in three."

But the Cardinals -- the worst World Series winner in history, if you go by win total (they had 83) -- proved, once again, that you don't have to be the best team to win, just the hottest team. That's no knock against them, either. Whatever it takes to get it done is fine by me. Had Game 7 in 1973 gone the other way, those '73 Mets would've owned the distinction -- even after this year -- of having the worst regular-season record of any Series champion.

The Cards got the Tigers to swing at everything and eeked out a few wins here and there, even getting Anthony Reyes -- who, in Game 4 against the Mets, looked like he belonged in the instructional league in Florida, not on a postseason roster -- to look like a Rookie of the Year candidate in Game 1. He faced, of course, the soon-to-be American League Rookie of the Year in Justin Verlander (my full predictions to come soon). Detroit managed one victory, but even that was stained -- literally -- by Kenny Rogers, a pitcher so reviled by fans of both New York teams that Tigers manager Jim Leyland was sure to set up his pitching rotation to make sure Rogers wouldn't pitch in Yankee Stadium in the ALDS or Shea Stadium in a potential Detroit-New York World Series. Even after Game 5 of the Series was pushed back a day because of rain, Leyland refused to pitch Rogers to try to get the Series back to Detroit for Game 6. Trying to explain it away by saying, "if it was one game left, I would pitch Kenny. But we've got to win three," Leyland also admitted that he didn't want to pitch Rogers in the environment of Busch Stadium, saying he felt Rogers responded better to the Comerica Park environment. Clearly, Rogers is such a narcisist that he prefers the adulations to the rush of quieting the jeers. Curt Schilling made no attempt to hide the joy he gets from shutting up 55,000 fans, as he did in New York in 2004.

So there goes 2006. It certainly turned out to have several surprises -- the Mets with the best record in baseball, the Tigers in the World Series, no 20-game winners, a catcher winning the American League batting title, the Marlins, Alfonso Soriano, Jonathan Papelbon and others. There'll be a lot coming up this offseason, but I'll get into that later.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Friday thoughts on the playoffs

Am I surprised at the Mets' 2-0 series lead? Not really. I am, however, suprised at just about every other outcome in the Division Series so far.

The one series at 1-1 was Tigers-Yankees? Wow.

Oakland owned the Metrodome, then completed the sweep? Woah.

San Diego dropped two at home, proving that St. Louis is their playoff nemesis? Crazy.

Speaking of crazy, what is Bruce Bochy doing not starting his best hitter, Mike Piazza, in Game 2? You carried three catchers all season and gave Piazza regular rest -- two, three days a week, or at least every day game after a night game -- for this specific reason, to have Piazza play everyday in the playoffs. Not starting him is ridiculous.

Should the Cards finish the job, and the Mets take care of things -- hopefully in L.A., hopefully on Saturday -- I don't think the St. Louis pitching will be much of a match for the Mets' hitting. New York is still five wins away from the World Series, but its loss of two starters no longer appears to be such a daunting obstacle to overcome.

Watching Yanks-Tigers right now, and Kenny Rogers is getting himself out of any jams he gets into; Randy Johnson is looking like a 42-year-old pitcher with a bad back. Say what you want about the Mets' signing of Pedro Martinez, but the Yankees' going after Johnson appears to have been the worse deal, and it has nothing to do with the players they gave up. Strictly regarding the money, the Pedro deal is, at worst, just as bad, but it's not any more debilitating than the Yankees' signing of Unit.

A sports lover's dream Saturday tomorrow. Three baseball playoff games, all spaced evenly -- 1 p.m. ET, 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m. -- and a so-so slate of college football games in which all the intriguing matchups will be available nationally. I'll be working, but I'll be watching. The only bad part is that I'll have to come into the office at some point in the afternoon, and that will be an hour of baseball and football that I'll miss.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Eyeing the rest of the postseason

Twins vs. Yankees

Whether or not the Twins need Johan Santana to close out the ALDS against the A's will have a lot of bearing on this series. If Santana can go in Game 1 -- and potentially give the Twins three starts, if they need them -- the Twins can have a better shot at knocking off the Yankees.

New York, of course, has that formidable lineup, but the problem in the postseason -- as Alex Rodriguez learned last year -- is that slumps are magnified, and for good reason. A player can overcome a bad week or a 1-for-15 stretch and still have a good season, still be an All-Star, still win the MVP. Do that in the postseason, and your team could be going home. I think the Yankees will. Jason Giambi's wrist injury will keep him from playing first base, meaning Gary Sheffield gets that assignment after playing about a week there in September. Giambi's wrist could affect his hitting, and Sheffield's defense will be a liability.

The Yankees are on the verge of becoming the Giants, a team of aging stars. GM Brian Cashman won't let that happen, of course, but it could catch up to the Yankees in the postseason. From Randy Johnson's back to Mike Mussina's groin to Mariano Rivera's forearm/elbow to the wrists on Giambi, Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, there are any number of potential injury time bombs.

If the Twins' rotation lines up right -- and I think it will -- the Rangers' Michael Young will have not only won the All-Star Game for the American League, but he'll have put Game 1 of the World Series at the Metrodome on Oct. 21.

Twins in seven.

Padres vs. Mets

The Shea Stadium fans will not cheer Mike Piazza as loudly this time around. And he certainly won't get a curtain call after a home run, unless it's a solo shot with two outs that cuts a Mets lead to 10-2 in the top of the ninth in Game 7.

Today's news about Orlando Hernandez's potential calf injury is a bigger blow than Pedro Martinez's because the Mets were already preparing themselves for a postseason without Pedro. El Duque was the primary reason, Exhibit A of Plan B. If Hernandez cannot pitch in Game 1 of the NLDS tomorrow, that puts Steve Trachsel in Game 1 -- Tom Glavine had already pitched his bullpen session and cannot take the spot -- and puts John Maine (unless he gets Game 1) as the Game 3 starter in Dodger Stadium. And what the heck is a 44-year-old Hernandez doing running sprints the day before he's to pitch in the postseason? He's a veteran; he should just be left to pitch.

When I sat down earlier this afternoon to run through my thoughts for the postseason, I was all set to tab the Mets for their third world championship. Yes, it's a bit of a homer call, a bit of a heart pick, but the Mets have the pieces and have had the good fortune -- and talent, ability and depth -- to get through the season with the best record in baseball (tied with the Yankees). Only the 1998 Yanks have won the World Series after compiling the best record in baseball during the regular season. A Subway Series would guarantee that one of the teams with this year's best record would become just the second one to do so. With Hernandez's injury muddling things, I'm going to have to amend my thoughts. I believe the Mets can overcome the loss of one starter, but I'm not sure about two.

I hope I'm wrong.

Padres in six.

World Series
Padres vs. Twins

The idiocy of awarding Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 of the World Series to the representative from the league that wins the All-Star Game is, as I've said, insane. It's no different from awarding home-field advantage to the team with the best spring-training record, because both are exhibition games largely decided by players who will not benefit from that which they helped to win. None of the American League's seven hits, three runs or three RBIs in the Midsummer Clunker came from a player in the postseason. At least Trevor Hoffman, who took the loss for the National League, may get to see what his ineffectiveness has wrought.

The Twins would've had home-field advantage anyway -- the American League team had it in even-numbered years under the old alternating system -- but their home crowds at the Metrodome surpass all but a few in baseball, and probably match up evenly with the likes of Boston and the two New York stadiums. In a Twins-Padres series, I see the Minnesota pitching edging out that of San Diego -- not a bad staff in itself -- and doing more to neutralize the opposing offense. If the Mets manage to find their way to the Series, I give them as good a chance as any team to win it. Without them representing the National League, I think the AL retains the crown ... for this year.

Twins in six.

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Division Series predictions

What a start to the postseason. Oakland-Minnesota starts off with a pair of Cy Young Award winners in left-handers Barry Zito and Johan Santana. That game starts in about 10 minutes, so I'm going to do my best to run through my postseason thoughts before turning on the game.

A's vs. Twins
No one wanted to face the Twins in the shorter best-of-five series when they knew they'd have to face Santana and Francisco Liriano in three of the five games. Now, Minnesota is without the phenom Liriano, but because it edged out Detroit for the American League Central title, it gets homefield advantage against Oakland. The Twins went 5-1 against the A's at the Metrodome this year, and Santana was 12-0 at home. He gets the Game 1 start, and could either take a potential Game 4 on the road on short rest, or be held for a winner-take-all Game 5 back at the dome. Add in the fact that the Twins had the third-best team ERA in baseball and the best bullpen ERA (not to mention the fewest losses by relievers), and that the A's had one of the worst offenses in baseball, and Oakland's dark Division Series history does not look like it will get any brighter.

Twins in three.

Tigers vs. Yankees
Many of the Yankee fans I know are thrilled that they don't have to face the Twins -- and Santana -- in the first round. Detroit, which seemed to be on a tear heading into August and was expected to coast to a division title, faltered down the stretch, with losing records in both August and September. No too many teams reach the postseason with a 25-32 record in the final two months.

But the Tigers made it, becoming the first AL Central team to win a wild card, but now they have to turn their rotation upside-down to face the Yankees. Veteran and Opening Day starter Kenny Rogers gets the start in Game 3, with likely AL Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander taking Game 2. That leaves Nate Robertson for Game 1, where he'll match up with Yankees 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang. Verlander gets Mike Mussina, and Rogers may be the healthy left-hander in an ancient pairing with Randy Johnson in the third game -- if the Big Unit is able to pitch despite his back problems. I think he will, but he won't be effective. Rogers leads the Tigers to a Game 3 win at home. Unfortunately, they'll have lost the first two and will fall in the next one.

Yankees in four.

Cardinals vs. Padres
Each league's Central Division nearly saw a monumental collapse, but the Cardinals managed to hold off the Astros despite losing seven in a row while Houston won seven straight in late September. In the end, the Braves got what they wanted, eliminating the Astros, who had taken them out of the previous two postseasons. So Atlanta didn't make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1990, but they still managed to end someone's season -- which they hadn't done since 2001. Yes, despite reaching the postseason in an unprecedented 14 straight seasons (1994 strike year not included), Atlanta hadn't advanced in their last four before the Mets ended the Braves' dynastic run this year.

Sorry, didn't mean to delve so deep into Atlanta's woes, as enjoyable as it is. Last year, the Cards swept the Pads in the first round, with NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter getting things rolling in Game 1 despite the best efforts of the St. Louis bullpen, which nearly blew an 8-0 lead. Today's Game 1 provides a rematch, with Carpenter again facing off against Jake Peavy, who revealed after last year's opener that he had sustained cracked ribs in the Padres' NL West-clinching celebration. I'm sure this year's party was a bit more subdued. But in addition to Peavy, San Diego's rotation has the stellar Chris Young and seasoned postseason veterans David Wells and Woody Williams. St. Louis has to go with Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis after Carpenter, in addition to a closer-by-committee after Jason Isringhausen had season-ending hip surgery. The Padres get revenge.

Padres in four.

Dodgers vs. Mets
Everyone wants to eliminate the Mets from the postseason because they don't have Pedro Martinez. While it's true that Martinez helped them jump out to an early lead by going 5-0 in April, the Mets won only six of his final 18 starts the rest of the way. They built upon their lead and coasted to the division crown essentially without their ace.

But they do have the most formidable lineup in the National League, one of the deepest benches in baseball, and a superb pitching staff -- particularly the bullpen -- even without Martinez.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, outpaced only the Pirates in the National League in home runs this season and went just 7-30 against this year's postseason field. They played the Mets close, winning three of the seven games between the teams and outscoring them by a slim 32-29 margin. However, two of those three wins were by rookies Hong-Chi Kuo and Eric Stults in a September series that meant much more to the Dodgers than it did the Mets.

Orlando Hernandez gets Game 1 for the Mets, who should have a pitching edge even in the rotation, considering Kuo's inexperience, Greg Maddux's mediocre postseason history (and the Mets' ability to score off him this season) and Brad Penny's back issues.

Mets in four.

Time to get these up before the games start. The rest of the postseason predictions to come shortly.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Teams acting fast to make changes

And it begins.

Not 24 hours after the final outs were recorded -- probably before some ballparks were completely cleaned up -- Dusty Baker is out in Chicago and Felipe Alou will not be renewed in San Francisco.

You could see the writing on the wall with Baker, but come on, it's not like he broke Derrek Lee's arm. And the Cubs have had issues with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood long before Baker arrived. With that track record, Jeff Samardzija will be better off playing wide receiver in the NFL than working his way through the Cubs' system as a pitcher.

Alou, like the Nationals' Frank Robinson, who also did not get a new contract, is 71 years old. Yet, like a lot of managers in baseball, Alou was only about 30 years older than most of his players. Only that wasn't a good thing.

The Red Sox dismissed pitching coach Dave Wallace and hitting coach Ron Jackson. Right, like Wallace was responsible for the Sox having no depth to their rotation -- their pitching staff as a whole, in fact -- and Jackson ... well, they had issues even with Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek healthy.

The Marlins will be idiots and fire Joe Girardi tomorrow, then watch him accept his Manager of the Year Award in November and speak to the media from Wrigley Field.

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Taking stock of my 2006 predictions

I don't even want to talk about how long it's been.

So I won't. Instead, I'll take a look at how my preseason predictions panned out. Pretty well, it seems.

2006 NL East predictions
Braves (wild card)

2006 NL East reality

What I wrote: I'm doing it. I'm not taking the easy way out and putting the Braves at the top and saying it's theirs until someone comes along and knocks them off. I'm going with my heart as much (if not more than) my mind and saying these Mets have not only the talent and the pieces, but the focus to fulfill the lofty expectations many have put on them. After the top two, I think the consensus is the bottom three will finish in this order unless one team plays way above its head or completely tanks.

*BANG! I called it! The Mets are your 2006 National League East champions and will forever be known as the team that snapped the Braves' run of 14 consecutive division titles. I couldn't get any other slots in this division right, and I give credit to my pal Brad, who on Opening Day at Shea Stadium predicted a third-place finish for Atlanta. (He had Philly as the wild card, which we all missed, but for him, just barely.)

At the end was my vague prediction that someone -- it turned out to be the Marlins and, to some extent, the Phillies -- would way overachieve and upset the order of finish. I'm not counting it as a win.

NL Central predictions

NL Central reality

What I wrote: The Cardinals are in a similar position to the Yankees -- they didn't get any worse, but no one in their division did enough in the offseason to overtake them. I struggled with second place. Sports Illustrated elevated Milwaukee to that spot, but I didn't consider it myself, so I didn't want to just rip it off from them. I do agree that they do have the deepest pitching in the division, at least as long as Sidney Ponson is part of St. Louis' rotation -- or until he proves he can be a contributing member of said rotation. The Cubs, as we've so often said these past few years, have the talent, but can they keep everyone healthy? It's been trendy to compare this year's Pirates to last year's Brewers, but Pittsburgh is going to need the young pitching to make great strides for that to happen. Cincinnati could finish last in the league in ERA, even with Colorado in the league.

The Cardinals almost blew it, but in the end it was true: No one in the division did enough to surpass St. Louis. The Cubs indeed did struggle with injuries. Washington and Milwaukee were last in the NL in ERA; Cincinnati was seventh.

NL West predictions

NL West reality
Dodgers (wild card)

What I wrote: At this point, Los Angeles appears to have the best pitching in the division, but San Diego is going to come close. The Dodgers, however, have a better offense -- assuming J.D. Drew and Nomar Garciaparra can stay in the lineup. But the Padres have issues of their own, with Mike Cameron and Ryan Klesko already disabled and Mike Piazza playing the part of a 36-year-old catcher. I'll forever be down on the Giants so long as half the roster meets the age requirement to live in a retirement community. Arizona made a great leap last year, but it's going to take a step or two back. The pitching's weaker and the lineup is younger. Colorado at least has a beautiful city to call home.

Technically, the Dodgers and Padres tied for first place, so I kinda got that, but because L.A. lost 13 of 18 to San Diego, the Pads won the division. San Diego's pitching led the NL, but the Dodgers led the league in batting average and were fourth -- but first in the division -- in runs scored. Cameron and Piazza turned in fine seasons, but Klesko didn't show up until September. Thankfully for the Padres, Adrian Gonzalez emerged as you might expect a former No. 1 overall draft pick to do. The Giants only got older as the season went on, Arizona looks strong for next year and Colorado showed some promise. Could be an interesting race in 2007.

AL East predictions
Blue Jays
Red Sox
Devil Rays

AL East reality
Blue Jays*
Red Sox*
Devil Rays

What I wrote: As I mentioned before, no one has done enough yet to overtake New York, unless Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi also picked up a set of pinstriped voodoo dolls. The Yankees' pitching is too old to take them too far, though. Pitching is why I put Toronto over Boston. I'll be impressed if the Sox get to October without a rash of injuries. I'm excited for the changes in Tampa Bay, and I think the team is excited too. I think that means something in the end. Though not without its stars, Baltimore is a mess.

I'd say I pretty much pegged everything except where Tampa Bay and Baltimore would finish. There were noticable and significant changes in Tampa, and Baltimore was such a mess the fans staged a walkout. Boston's pitching was a mess; only Tampa and Baltimore were worse in the AL, and injuries ravaged the Red Sox all season, almost from the beginning, when they had to move Jonathan Papelbon into the closer's role. They could've used him in the rotation, but considering that he had to be shut down because of arm soreness after pitching just 68 1/3 innings, he probably wouldn't have made it through August anyway.

AL Central predictions
White Sox

AL Central reality
White Sox

What I wrote: Doesn't seem too hard to peg this one, but in saying that, I've probably jinxed the Twins to a free-fall and elevated the Indians to the top. Or something like that. Chicago retooled and didn't lose any key components from its World Championship team, so you can't pick against them. Cleveland has to avoid the fallback that hit surprising young teams like Texas and Kansas City in previous seasons, when they each reverted to their familiar ways in the year after they made a surprise run. Minnesota's lineup just can't keep up with Chicago's or Cleveland's and Jim Leyland may just make enough of a difference in Detroit to make the Twins pay. I just feel bad for Kansas City. There aren't enough fountains in the city to wash away the pain and embarrassment.

I must've been tired when I wrote that -- or rushing -- because it seems I meant to say I'd jinxed the Twins to the top and the Indians to near the bottom. It was clear the White Sox couldn't get the pitching they got last year, and so they became the first defending AL champion to miss the playoffs since the 2003 Angels. Cleveland did indeed regress after an impressive run in 2005, and Leyland was the difference, nearly leading the Tigers to the division crown. Had they not won the Wild Card -- the AL Central's first since it came about in 1995 -- they'd have suffered one of the worst collapses ever. The Royals avoided the worst record in baseball only because the Devil Rays managed one more loss.

AL West predictions
Athletics (wild card)

AL West reality

What I wrote: I can't decide between Los Angeles and Oakland. I'm torn. It's close. But because the A's had more turnover in the offseason, I'm reading that as a slight edge for the Angels, who may get off to a better start because of the familiarity factor. Of course, Oakland will go on a 26-2 run in August that will make up any ground that sits between the two teams. Texas needs to find pitching and it didn't help when San Diego fleeced the Rangers in the Chris Young-for-Adam Eaton (and other pieces) trade. In Seattle, it's all about whether Felix Hernandez can reach his team-mandated max of 200 innings (spring training included) without getting hurt.

The Angels finished four games back, fighting the A's to within the last week. I did peg Oakland for the playoffs, and I was among those who could see that the wild card would not come out of the East. But that's about it. Hernandez threw 191 innings.

Not bad for the season. Not superb, but not horrible.

Some postseason thoughts to come by tomorrow's first pitch of the postseason. I'm sure my heart will win out.

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