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September 30, 2003

The Games That Count
by Larry Mahnken

The Oakland A's won the American League West for the second straight season, and the third time in four years, locking up their fourth straight playoff appearance. But three years in a row, they've been knocked out in the first round, in five games. For some reason, people thinks this negates their dominance of baseball's best division, and somehow reflects poorly on A's General Manager Billy Beane.

The Braves have been in the last 12 postseasons, and were in position to win the NL Wildcard in the strike-shortened 1994 season. They've won five pennants, and even won a World Series, in 1995. But that hasn't been enough to erase the stigma placed on them as failures, because they only went all the way one time, against a team that has had just as much postseason futility as themselves--the Indians.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have the Yankees, who won five pennants in six seasons, and four World's Championships. To many, including Commissioner Bud Selig, this run of success was evidence of a severe imbalance in the level of competition in Major League Baseball, and the owners played it up in the media to enlist fan support in trying to force heavy concessions from the MLBPA. But while the Yankees had an impressive postseason run from 1996-2000, it's generally ignored that they, while always very good, have not dominated the regular season, and would have missed the postseason entirely in 1996 and 2000 under the old playoff format. That the Yankees have had a remarkable run is undeniable, but it's no more impressive than what the Braves have accomplished--perhaps less so, and there's no reason to believe that it will ruin, or even significantly damage baseball, so long as the powers that be don't continue to harp on it as a problem.

The fact is, the playoffs are, more or less, a crapshoot. Particularly in baseball, where the outcome of a game often is decided on a lucky break, a short series will be won by the inferior team quite often--and it's not unusual for that team to be significantly inferior. The team that wins the World Series is not necessarily the best team in baseball, it's the hottest team in baseball.

Truly, it's a fool's errand to go about making predictions about something as unpredicatable as the baseball playoffs, but since I'm a fool anyway (and it's pretty much expected of baseball writers), here we go.

Outside of the Yankees' series, of course, the series that interests me most is the Braves and Cubs. The Braves may have had a frustrating decade, but the Cubs have had a frustrating century, not having won a World Series--not having won any postseason series--in 95 years, their last title coming in 1908, after they won the pennant from the Giants on the last day of the season, in a makeup of the Merkle Boner game.

Before the season, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone to pick this series, and a lot of people wouldn't have picked either team to make the playoffs. The Cubs were coming off a 95-loss season, and while the Braves had won 101 games, they had replaced star pitchers Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood with Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd. Maybe they'd win the division again, but it seemed unlikely that they'd dominate the NL East anymore, not with the moves the Phillies had made.

But the Braves did dominate the division, but it was because of their offense, not their pitching, like it had always been. The Braves got a subpar season from Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones didn't turn into a superstar, but they got MVP hitting from Gary Sheffield, Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal turned into excellent offensive players, they got acceptable performances out of their corner infielders, and most shocking of all, catcher Javy Lopez, who had turned into one of the worst hitting catchers in baseball, suddenly became the best hitting one. Only the Red Sox had a superior offense, and their newfound slugging ways carried them to another 101 wins, despite mediocre pitching, from both the rotation and the bullpen.

As for the Cubs, their 95-loss season got rid of Don Baylor for them, and in the offseason they brought in Dusty Baker of the defending NL Champion Giants to captain the team. Baker will get a lot of credit for turning the team around, but much of it has to do with the Cubs' starting pitching, particularly Mark Prior, who may be the best pitcher in the game. Baker made many idiotic strategic and tactical moves during the season, notably burying Hee Seop Choi behind Eric Karros, Mark Bellhorn and Bobby Hill behind Lenny Harris and Mark Grudzielanek, and failing to take the health of his young arms into account when pushing them deep into ballgames. The Cubs may win it all, but their chances are small, and would be better in a couple of years if they allowed their young players to develop and kept their great young pitchers healthy. Baker does have an uncanny ability for getting veteran players to outperform their track records, but he relies too heavily on those veterans to try and win, and doesn't give younger, more talented players a chance, because they're not "proven" yet. On balance, Dusty Baker is a good manager--a very good one, but he's probably the wrong one for the Cubs. The fact that Baylor was even more wrong might make Baker look right, but it doesn't make him that.

But in this series, I think the Cubs have a legitimate chance. As the Diamondbacks proved in 2001, dominant starting pitching can carry you to a World's Championship, but as the Diamondbacks also proved in 2002, you can't count on it. The Cubbies will live and die with their starters, because as good as he is, Sammy Sosa isn't going to be able to carry this team on his back offensively. If the Cubs get dominant starts, particularly out of Wood and Prior, they'll win. If they don't, they'll lose. Badly.

I'd feel more confident if things had worked out so they could start Mark Prior in two games instead of one, but I stil have a feeling that the this series will go to the Cubs in Five.

The other National League Series matches the defending NL Champion Giants against the Florida Marlins, who Major League Baseball also considered contracting instead of the Twins before last season. But here they are, finally living up to the promise that many had seen in them over the past couple of seasons. They'd be a much better team, and much more of a threat, if Jeff Torborg had a brain in his head, and hadn't ridden ace A.J. Burnett into the ground, until he finally had to have elbow surgery and missed the entire season.

But they still have a good team, even without Burnett. Their rotation is deeper than the Giants', and their lineup is pretty similar, too--except for one position. The Giants probably aren't as good a team as they were a year ago, but that one man, and a deeper bullpen than Florida's, is why I think the Giants have the best chance of any NL team to win the pennant, and I predict them to handle the Marlins--Giants in Four.

Over in the good league, the Red Sox and A's are as intriguing a matchup as the Braves and Cubbies. The Red Sox have the best offense in baseball--regardless of what Javy Lopez thinks--and are capable of beating the living crap out of any team they face. They are certainly the scariest team in the playoffs. The A's, on the other hand, have the worst offense of any playoff team, but one of the best pitching staffs. They were hurt by the loss of Mark Mulder, that's for certain, but they still had the same record as the Red Sox after that game, depite having a more difficult schedule.

Oakland's offense isn't good, but it's mainly because of the wretched performances by their outfielders, particularly Chris Singleton and Terrance Long. They also have two players in Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez who are capable of becoming very very hot. If the drags on the offense play adequately for the duration of the series, and one or both of their stars explodes, they won't be able to run with the Red Sox, but they could put a good number of runs on the board.

Really, what the A's need is good pitching. The Red Sox have a way of deciding games very quickly, and the A's need to keep the ball in the park. They have two factors going for them: the first is their top two starters, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. Zito is the defending Cy Young Award winner, and Hudson is a legitimate top-five candidate this season. The other advantage is in having Home Field Advantage. The A's have dominated their opponents at home more than any other team, and that advantage is compounded by the fact that the Red Sox hitters have performed better--vastly better--at Fenway Park than anywhere else. At Fenway, they're Chipper Jones; on the road, they're Hideki Matsui. That's a lineup that can be beaten.

Of course, the A's home field advantage might be negated by having to face Pedro Martinez in Games One and Five. Mark Prior may be the best pitcher in baseball, but Pedro probably is. If he's on, you have no chance of scoring against him. If he's off, you might get a couple of runs. To knock him around, something has to be wrong with him physically, and if that's not the case, you can't expect to beat him.

The Yankees have made an art of working their way around that, by making Martinez throw pitches, getting him out of the game, and beating the bullpen. The A's have some hitters who can work the count, and a starter in Hudson who can match zeroes, or at least hold the Red Sox to one or two, and keep the A's in the game. The Red Sox bullpen has more talent than results this season, and while they may suddenly start performing well, it's got to be the most worrisome aspect of the team for Grady Little. The A's bullpen, on the other hand, isn't very deep, either, but has two dominant relievers in Chad Bradford and Keith Foulke.

The Red Sox are, in my opinion, the best team in baseball right now, and this is their best chance to win the World Series in the last 85 years. But they are a team with a fatal flaw, and the two teams they are likely to face on the road to the Series, the A's and Yankees, are well equipped to exploit that flaw--the bullpen. The A's need to win one of Pedro's starts to win this series--and I think they will, and I think they'll win the series. In a seven game series, I'd probably pick Boston, but in the Division Series, I think it'll go to the A's in Five.

The final series is, of course, the Yankees and Twins. I'd say the Yankees have the best chance of any playoff team to win the World Series, because they have the least difficult route to the League Championship Series. That doesn't mean that they'll win the World Series, and that doesn't even mean that they'll advance, but the Twins are probably the weakest team in the playoffs, and while they can beat the Yankees, they shoudn't beat them.

A lot of Yankee haters complained about the format of this series, which allows the Yankees to go with only three starters, starting Mussina in Game Four on full rest, and Pettitte in Game Five on short rest, skipping the questionable David Wells entirely. However, this format helps the Twins a lot more than it does the Yankees, because their rotation is much more shallow than the Yankees'. If Minnesota was forced to start Kenny Rogers against Wells in Game Four, they'd probably be in very bad shape, but Santana and Radke against Mussina and Pettitte matches up much better for them. The Yankees still have an advantage in every game, but there it's small, and not insurmountable. If the Twins took the risk of starting Eric Milton over Kyle Loshe in Game Three, the advantage might be almost non-existant.

Where the Yankees really have the edge is on the offensive side of the ball. Minnesota has several hitters with OPS's in the mid-.800's and a couple in the high .700's, but also has two anchors right in the middle of the infield, Luis Rivas and ex-Yankee farmhand Cristian Guzman. But they don't have anybody explosive in the lineup, just a bunch of good hitters. The Yankees, however, have several hitters who could carry the team through the series almost single handedly: Jason Giambi, Nick Johnson, Jorge Posada and Alfonso Soriano, while the supporting cast is as good as the best players in Minnesota's lineup.

If the Twins are going to win this series, they have to shut down the Yankees' offense--which has been done--and score off of the Yankees' starting pitching, whch has also been done. But you can't expect it to happen, you can't expect the Twins to get most of the breaks, like they almost have to. The Twins can win this series, and it shouldn't shock anybody if they do, but they probably won't. I think it will be the Yankees in Four, and they'll be able to set their rotation for the ALCS, which will be a huge advantage if the Sox/A's go five.

Next week, the League Championship Series: Braves vs. Marlins, Red Sox vs. Twins.