The Playoff Match-ups: NL

I have to be honest - I still don't know how the NL West came down to the Dodgers versus the Giants.  If you look at the talent on those teams, it's hard to imagine either one winning 85 games.  Yet both finished the season with more than 90 wins.  Seriously, did any see the Dodgers winning the division if Jose Lima was their winningest pitcher?  OK, so he was tied for the team lead in wins, but the question still stands.  Odalis Perez is their one dependable starter.  Of the starters who have faced the Cardinals this year, only Lima has an ERA under 6.00 against them.  Adrian Beltre finally had the year that had been predicted of him when he first made a splash as a 19-year old major leaguer.  But if you compare the Dodgers to the Cardinals position by position, there are only 3 spots on the entire roster - third base, closer and set-up man - where the Dodgers might have an edge.  The Dodgers have had some late inning magic of late, but is that enough to overcome a team that is clearly superior in every aspect of the game, especially considering that their ace closer isn't 100% healthy?

The Cardinals are vulnerable in that their starting pitching has over-achieved all year and is due to revert to it's normal level of performance, which is slightly above average.  But that may work in their favor in the post-season as their bullpen is one of the least used in all of baseball.  Having a fresh bullpen and an offense capable of putting a lot of runs on the board can be just as useful as having a dominating starting staff, which no one on the NL side of the playoffs has.  Had the Padres or Cubs made the post-season, they would have had an excellent chance of beating the Cardinals.  As it is, perhaps the survivor of the Braves/Astros series will get hot enough to stop the Cards.  But it won't be the Dodgers.  Prediction: Cardinals 3-0

This is perhaps the most compelling series of the playoffs because you have the Astros' Killer B's (Biggio and Bagwell) in what is likely their last shot at a World Series ring, versus the team that always knocks them out of the playoffs.  They are joined on offense by two much more potent Killer B's (Berkman and Beltran) but the most important "B" on the Astros might be Brandon Backe, their third starter.  Clemens and Oswalt will no doubt pitch well, as will the bullpen headed by the most dominating closer in baseball since the All-Star Break, Brad Lidge.  But Backe will have to give the Astros a quality start in every series if the Astros hope to win it all. 

The Braves aren't the Braves without either Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine, but they still have some decent starting pitching.  Jaret Wright is probably the only starter they have capable of a dominating performance, but the rest of the staff is good enough to keep games close.  Three of the Braves starters - Hampton, Thompson and Byrd - enter the playoffs on a bit of a roll, each with a September ERA under 3.00 and their middle relief has been solid.  Of some concern is closer John Smoltz' 6.94 ERA over the last month, but he has a long history of coming up big in the post-season.  So unless his arm is literally falling off as it appeared to be in last year's NLDS against the Cubs, he will be OK.

The Astros have an edge with the first two starters, but the Braves' starting depth should even the score in Games 3 and 4.  The key to the series will be which team's offensive core comes up big late in the games.  Can the Braves steal a win against Clemens or Oswalt?  Can Bagwell and/or Biggio finally shake their post-season malaise the way Bonds did his in 2002?  These two teams are about as evenly matched as possible - both teams scored exactly the same number of runs this year - so the winner could be determined by something as minute as failing or succeeding to get down a bunt late in a game.  I'll give the Astros the edge simply because they have a little more team speed and because they are long overdue to win a post-season series.  Prediction: Astros 3-2 with the clincher coming in a 13-inning thriller.