The First Round

There are still games left to play in the first round, but today's events were so interesting I just wanted to jot down a few notes and thoughts.

First, from what looked like a team that was way over it's head at the beginning of September, I'd say the Marlins probably should be considered favorites to win it all at this point.  Their only weakness is that they don't really have a trusted lefty reliever except for Dontrelle Willis on his days off.  But other than that, they look like a very tough postseason opponent.  They don't really have any weak links in the rotation and their bullpen is deep enough to weather most storms.  They play very good defense, and on offense they are extremely versatile - they can steal, they have power throughout the line-up and they can manufacture runs.  And although Jack McKeon caught a lot of flack for not letting Bonds beat him, his strategy worked because the Giants had no real answer for it.  Alfonso hit like crazy, but taking out his contributions the Giants hit a combined .191. 

As for the Giants, there's a very real possibility that Barry Bonds will finish his career without a World Series title.  If the Giant's claims of budgetary restraints are to be believed, they will enter next season without the services of Rich Aurilia and Sidney Ponson.  It's probably a bit much to expect Marquis Grissom to follow up this year with another miracle season and a good portion of the rest of the offense is on the bad side of the age curve.  And as good as the pitching prospects have looked for the Giants, their offensive prospects have looked pretty mediocre at best.  Brian Sabean always seems to pull something out of his magic hat in the offseason to keep the Giants in contention, but this offseason will probably be his most challenging.

I still think the Twins will end up wining their series with the Yankees, although manager Rod Gardenhire will have a lot ot with it.  It looked like he panicked today against Roger Clemens.  He and the Twins went in with an excellent game plan - make Clemens throw lots of pitches in order to get an inning or two against the soft Yankee bullpen.  And in the 5th inning, the plan was beginning to work, when Cristian Guzman and Shannon Stewart both reached base via singles putting men on first and third with 2 outs.  But then he did something puzzling: he pinch hit for Luis Rivas with Mike Ryan.  I don't necessarily think it was a bad idea to pinch hit for Rivas who is still hitless in the series.  But with a rookie who hit .225 in AAA and had shown fairly poor strikezone judgment (38 walks vs 89 Ks), it just seemed like leading a lamb toward the slaughter.  And it was 4 pitches later: the at bat and the rally over with Ryan waving at strike three.  Yes, he had hit .393 in 61 at bats upon his call-up, but even including those into what he had done at AAA, his average this season is .247.  On the bench, he had Dustan Mohr (.250, but .667 lifetime vs Clemens) and Michael Cuddyer (.245, but .500 lifetime vs Clemens).  True, each only had a few at bats versus Clemens, but at least they had seen him before.  Ryan was being asked to face a Hall of Fame pitcher for the first time with the game possibly on the line.  Even had Gardenhire left Rivas in there was a chance that the speedy second baseman could have slapped the ball on the ground and at least put pressure on the defense.  Gardenhire was basically making a wish that Ryan's numbers in his brief appearance in the bigs were more telling than what he had done in his career.  Good teams get in trouble when their managers start making wishes rather than working with reality. 

David Wells goes in Game 4 versus Johan Santana, a match-up that favors the Twins.  Even though David Wells' perfect game came against the Twins in 1998, the Twins obviously have become a very different team since then.  David Wells isn't exactly the same pitcher he was in 1998 either.  Shannon Stewart, AJ Pierzinski, Doug Mientkiewicz and Chris Gomez all have hit Wells well in their careers, and Cristian Guzman has a .519 lifetime slugging percentage against him, despite a .222 average.  The Yanks still haven't figured out Santana so this series looks like a strong candidate to end with a Game 5 showdown.  That would be an interesting match-up, with Mussina, who has historically dominated the Twins, versus Radke who's pitched well down the stretch but is vulnerable.  What would make this interesting is that the Twins have Kenny Rogers and Eric Milton in the bullpen, both of whom can be very effective for an inning or two and lefties have given the Yankees a tough time this season.  That game would favor the Yanks slightly in regulation, but the Twins in extra innings.

I said before the Cubs/Braves series started that the manager who makes the most mistakes will be the deciding factor in who moves on to the NLCS.  Dusty Baker made his fair share today to cost the Cubs a win.  Once Matt Clement pulled up lame to end the 2nd inning, he should have had Clement on an extremely short leash.  It's one thing to let your starter gut out pitching through an injury when you don't have alternatives, but the Cubs are the one team in the playoffs who have an abundance of alternatives for the rotation.  Once it became clear in the 3rd inning or even by the 4th inning that Clement's groin was affecting his control, Baker should have gone to either Juan Cruz or Shawn Estes for a couple or three innings.  That blunder ended up costing the Cubs 3 runs.  His second mistake was then bringing in his late inning relievers in the 5th and 6th innings, which left him having to bring in Mark Guthrie to pitch a full inning, rather than having him available as a lefty specialist.  That one cost the Cubs 2 more and the win.  Still, Baker has tomorrow to seal the deal and Kerry Wood on the mound is a pretty good step in that direction.  And he still has the edge in the bullpen, despite what appeared to be a significant injury to Kyle Farnsworth.  Remlinger, Alfonseca, Cruz and Borowski are pitching well and if need be, I don't doubt that Mark Prior would be available for an inning or two.

Bobby Cox managed to keep his blunders to just one, leaving a struggling Russ Ortiz out for the 6th inning, giving up a homer to Eric Karros and walk to Alex Gonzales to keep the Cubs in the game.  Fortunately, he was able to get some breathing room in the 8th from Baker's second blunder.  However, the Braves look like a team that has little or nothing left.   Robert Fick's flailing attempt to knock the ball from Eric Karros glove on an infield grounder reveals their desperation.  His actions were reckless, dangerous, and borderline malicious.  Professional players rarely behave that way unless they are desperate.  Another sign that the Braves are desperate?   Cox brought in John Smoltz, who's elbow is hurting so badly that he can only throw his fastball and splitter.  There were several close-ups of his face as he was looking in to the plate that showed a man in such pain that he looked almost deranged.  After the game when the winning team goes out to the middle of the field to shake hands, Smoltz was hurting so badly that his teammates could only pat him on the back; he didn't even lift his arm to shake hands.  I would be very surprised if he comes in to tomorrow's final game.  If he does, I'd be even more surprised if he's at all effective.  The Cubs simply have more bullets right now and should be favored to move on despite Baker.

As expected, Ted Lilly and Derek Lowe pitched brilliant games in Game 3, each allowing only one unearned run.   I've taken Grady Little to task in this space for much of the season, but I have to give him credit for having the guts to stick with Mike Timlin in a tie game for 3 innings tonight.  Timlin has earned a reputation in his career as a firestarter when the game is on the line, but he's been pretty solid this year.  Little gets credit, however, for sticking with him despite a September era of 6.00.  It was also pretty nice to see some guy named Trot Nixon get an at bat.  From what I understand, he's a pretty decent hitter (near .400 on base, 28 homers this season) but has struggled against left handed pitching.  Fortunately for Red Sox fans, the A's pitching staff isn't comprised entirely of left-handers.  That said, this game will be talked about for a very long time as it featured great pitching, umpiring controversy and a sudden, exciting finish.  Tomorrow's game I expect to be somewhat of a slugfest with Burkett going for Boston and Hudson pitching on 3 days rest.  If it does turn out that way, the game favors the Red Sox.