The First Round and Beyond

On the surface, I didn't come out too badly with my picks for the first round - Marlins, Cubs, Red Sox and Twins.  The Twins were the only team to utterly fail.

I was surprised the Yanks did as well as they did against Santana.  It did appear to me that they got a little lucky; Matsui's run scoring double was millimeters inside the third baseline and Nick Johnson's double came on a face-high fastball outside that he was basically flailing at.  Still, it was obvious early in the game that the Twins were going to lose.  None of their hitters seemed comfortable at the plate.  It's unlikely that they were intimidated by the situation since they played in two rounds of the playoffs last year and faced elimination in a Game 5 in Oakland, only to come through in the clutch.

What is more likely is that the panic that Rod Gardenhire began showing in Game 3 rubbed off on the team and they played as though they were afraid they were going to lose, rather than playing relaxed and ready to win.  And unfortunately for a solid team, this might be the last time they will be in the postseason for a while as they will probably be losing several key players to free agency this offseason because of penurious ownership.

Going into the postseason, the Red Sox looked like they had finally settled their bullpen situation.  Five games later, they are in greater disarray than they have been at any point this season.  Byung-Hyun Kim has been left off the series roster and presumably will not pitch again this season, although that could change if the Red Sox make the World Series.  He has no such history of catastrophic failure against NL teams so they might consider bringing him back.  But for the time being, he will be left off the roster for "purely physical reasons".  It remains to be seen if by "physical" they mean "mental", or "psychological", especially after Kim's finger-pointing incident with Boston fans. 

So can the Red Sox win with a bullpen in disarray?  I think they can.  I don't believe the Red Sox hitters will suffer the same anxiety that the Twins did and should therefore be able to wear out the Yankees starters by the 5th or 6th inning in each game, except perhaps for the Mussina starts.  He's just too efficient so if the Red Sox hope to beat him, it will be because they smack him around early, not because he gets tired.  Even if the Yanks get the early lead, there's no way that Mariano Rivera can pitch two innings every night, so the Sox will get their chances.  Conversely, Scott Williamson, Mike Timlin and Alan Embree have all been pretty good lately, and Ramiro Mendoza was solid in September. 

The Sox will have a question mark replacing Johnny Damon at the top of the line-up, but his on base was pretty mediocre, so the speed will be the only real asset missing.  Bill Mueller or Damian Jackson should be able to fill in capably until he returns for Game 3.  The Series will turn on the Sox starting pitching.  They have to get at least 5 innings a game out of these guys; otherwise, the bullpen will be worn out by the time it gets to the later games in the series.  I do think this will be a long series and I don't believe there is any home field advantage, one way or the other as both teams have had good success smacking the other around in their home ballpark.  I picked the Sox for the Series at the beginning of the season, so I might as well stay with my pick.  Of course, there's still a decent chance that Grady Little may force me to change my mind.

The Marlins were simply a better team than the Giants.  There really wasn't any luck involved at all.  If you remove Barry Bonds from the equation, the Marlins had more power, more speed, better defense, deeper starting pitching and a more reliable bullpen.  Jack McKeon did the math and arrived at the same conclusion.  That said, it's less clear who the better team is in the NLCS.

The Cubs are scheduled to get two starts each from Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.  I have doubts that the Marlins' predominately right-handed line-up can beat either.  They might be able to steal one from the bullpen, but they simply don't match up well against either of the Cubs' two primary aces.  And if the Cubs get a solid start out of Matt Clement or Carlos Zambrano, the hill gets even steeper.  Still, the Marlins are a solid team in every aspect of the game so they can't be counted out.  On offense they scored more runs this season, but the Cubs, who underwent a dramatic overhaul in mid-season with the acquisitions of Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and Randall Simon, actually scored more after the break.  The two teams a relatively even in overall runs scored and bullpen ERA, with the Cubs enjoying an edge in starting pitching and the Marlins an edge in defense.  It's about as close a match up as one could hope for.  I'm still going with my preseason pick of the Cubs, but no result would surprise me.

What does surprise me is how incompetent major league baseball is when it comes to marketing it's sport.  Even by baseball's standards, playing both Championship Series games at the same time on the same network is a new level of stupidity.  Sell the broadcast rights of one of the games to ESPN or split the games into an afternoon affair and one in prime time.  Yes, playing both at the same time on the same network assures that you win the time slot, but it also assures that you alienate half your nationwide audience.  True, baseball is used to alienating their entire nationwide audience with incessant bouts of lunacy when it comes to the labor negotiations, so I guess I should be somewhat appreciative that they decided to broadcast the games at all, and at least will be doing so in English.