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October 7, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Apparently, Terrence Long can't do anything, except sit there and take a pitch right over the middle of the plate to end the A's season.

Last night we got treated to a wonderful baseball game (and a damn fine football game, too. For the 90% of you who turned it off--HA HA!). The Red Sox survived, and any Sox fan will tell you that they're thrilled about that, but for the fans who have waited 85 years in Boston, and 95 years in Chicago, this was only the first step towards the only goal that matters to them. They don't hang pennants for winning the division series, only the LCS and World Series. Chicago got to taste postseason champagne for the first time in 95 years, but if they don't advance, nobody will remember it a few years from now.

As for the Red Sox, this ALCS is a dream come true for promotions, but anyone who says that the Yankees fans are thrilled to be facing Boston, or vice-versa, has no idea what they're talking about. Only the most myopic illiterate Yankees fan is happy to face the surging and extremely dangerous Red Sox instead of the short-handed A's, and the Red Sox know that this is going to be a difficult series to win, especially how the pitching matchups line up.

But it is appropriate, that if this is the year for Boston, that they have to go through the Yankees first, the team that is more responsible than any other for Boston's 85 years of futility. Most of the Red Sox's best teams have been shut out of the postseason by superior Yankees teams, particularly in the Ted Williams era, late 70's, and late 90's. This Boston team is perhaps the best all-around since their last title, and once again, there are the Yankees standing in their way. I'd rather face the A's, but no matter who wins this series, the result will be appropriate.

With the Cubbies going for their first pennant in 58 years in one league, and the Yankees and Sox facing off in the other, you'd think this would be a ratings bonanza for FOX. Instead, on Wednesday, they're playing both games at the SAME TIME, and shifting the alternate game in every region to...wait for it...FX. Which is seen in, I believe, 42 homes nationwide. When someone tries to tell you that playoff ratings are down this year, and uses that as proof that baseball is in decline, use that as proof that they are an idiot. You can't watch what's not on TV.

Up here in Western New York, I'm certain we'll get to see Yankees/Sox, as there is a large fan base for both in Rochester. But I'll be switching back and forth between the two games, using the picture-in-picture feature.

* * *

So last season, under the old CBA, the League Championship Series featured two small-market teams, a mid-market team, and a large-market team. Under the new CBA, there are three large-market teams and a mid-market team. I guess that CBA was a bad thing. After all, MLB ignored regular season results when saying that baseball was having a serious competitive balance problem, and used only postseason results.

If you believe, as I do, that the regular season is a far greater indication of the quality of a ballclub than the postseason, then you have to admit that the National League Championship Series matches the weakest of the NL Playoff teams, the Cubs and Marlins. But in the postseason, where a single game has so much more impact on the outcome of a series, upsets are common. In baseball, where the pitcher has such a large impact on the outcome of a game, a great performance or a horrible performance can swing a series. The Cubs upset the Braves thanks to great pitching, the Marlins upset the Giants thanks to poor Giant pitching.

How do the teams match up? Rather than matching them up position by position--which isn't how they play--I'm evaluating their lineups, and then their pitching matchups:

Leadoff Batter:
Kenny Lofton (.296 AVG/.352 OBP/.450 SLG/.801 OPS/12 HR/30 SB-9 CS/.280 EqA)
FLA: Juan Pierre (.305 AVG/.361 OBP/.373 SLG/.734 OPS/1 HR/65 SB-20 CS/.272 EqA)

Neither of these teams has On-Base Gods in the leadoff spot, but neither team really posesses such a talent. The Marlins were put together with speed in mind, while the Cubs were put together with...I don't know, not getting on base much in mind. Dusty Baker is a strange manager--on one hand, he can get players to play over their heads, and on the other hand, he makes a lot of roster decisions and tactical decisions that seem foolhardy. Anyway, you end up having to rely heavily on stealing at a high-sucess rate, hitting home runs, and great pitching to win. For the Cubs and Marlins, so far, so good.

Though neither of the teams' leadoff batters get on base a lot, they do get on base enough, and both steal bases with around a 75% success rate--making those steals a positive asset. Lofton has a lot more power than Pierre, but batting leadoff in the National League, it's largely wasted. Lofton has also been getting on base at over a .380 rate since coming over from Pittsburgh, so maybe the Dusty Factor has made him a top leadoff man again.

EqA factors in steals, and parks, but it doesn't factor in context. Lofton rates superior to Pierre because of his power, but in the leadoff spot, it's not as big an advantage as it would be lower in the lineup. On balance, I'd rate this spot as even.

Second Batter:
Mark Grudzielanek (.314/.366/.416/.782/3/6-2/.276)
FLA: Luis Castillo (.314/.381/.397/.778/6/21-19/.275)

See, this is what I'm talking about with Dusty Baker. Entering the season, the Cubs had a good prospect in Bobby Hill, who could have given them a good leadoff hitter and glove man at second for years to come, but instead, Baker went with the proven veteran, Mark Grudzielanek. It didn't matter than Grudzielanek was proven as not being very good, Baker played him. And Baker worked his magic, getting as good as season out of Grudzielanek as he's really ever had, 1999. Of course, Hill might have put up similar numbers if he got a chance, but he didn't, and now he's off to Pittsburgh, where he'll finally get an opportunity to play, and maybe be a part of the next good Pirates team.

Luis Castillo, on the other hand, is a very good #2 hitter. He gets on base and he doesn't hit into double plays; he doesn't walk a lot, but he walks enough. He hasn't stolen bases at a very good rate this season, but he has done so in the past, so it's probably worth taking the risk in spots. Like Pierre, he doesn't strike out very much, either, and against the K'ing Kubs, that might be an asset--put the ball in play, and get things done with your speed.

Grudzielanek had a solid season, but he played over his head, and he still wasn't as good as Castillo. I'd rate this as a solid advantage Marlins.

Third Batter:
Sammy Sosa (.279/.358/.553/.911/40/0-1/.303)
FLA: Ivan Rodriguez (.297/.369/.474/.843/16/10-6/.293)

Sammy Sosa is a great player entering (said in low tones in case Roger Clemens is listening) the twilight of his career. That doesn't mean he's going to suck, but he'll never again have a season like the ones he had from 1998-2001. Maybe for a short series, he can blow up and carry the Cubbies' offense, a la Barry Bonds, and that would be an enormous help to the Cubs' World Series chances, but so far, he's been a zero in the playoffs.

Pudge Rodriguez was a curious sign for the Marlins, considering that the Marlins didn't seem ready to contend, and Rodriguez didn't have a reputation as being a good handler of pitchers, young pitching being the Marlins' greatest asset. But it worked out for both sides, as Rodriguez had a strong season, and was probably the MVP of the first round. Should he be the Marlins' #3 hitter? Probably not, but while he's not in the elite class that he was in during the late 90's, he's still a very good hitter. The Marlins can't offer Rodriguez arbitration this offseason, but it appears that he wants to come back, and the Marlins probably want him back. They should be able to work something out.

Still, Rodriguez isn't Sosa, and assuming that Sammy will break out of it eventually, this has got to be advantage Cubs.

Cleanup Batter:
Moises Alou (.280/.357/.462/.819/22/3-1/.283)
FLA: Derrek Lee (.271/.379/.508/.888/31/21-8/.307)

Moises Alou came to the Cubs before last season, and was heralded as a savior for the Cub offense. Instead, he sucked.

A little higher batting average this season, a few more walks, a few more homers, and Alou became useful again. He's not a great hitter, and he's not going to be useful much longer, but take a look at this lineup and ask yourself, is there anyone better to hit cleanup? Yeah, ugh.

On the other side, you've got one of the most underrated hitters in the National League. I read one preview this morning that gave the Cubs the advantage at first because Lee struggles agaisnt righties. Sure he does, but against righties, he's still better than Eric Karros and Randall Simon combined, and he's better than Moises Alou, too. Is he elite? No. Is he very good? Yes. And this is a big advantage for the Marlins

Fifth Batter:
Aramis Ramirez (.272/.324/.465/.788/27/2-2/.269)
FLA: Juan Encarnacion (.270/.313/.446/.759/19/19-8/.264)

In Dusty we trusty to play who's most sucky. Baker started the season with Mark Bellhorn available to fill either of the Cubs' two major holes: third base or second base. He had been coming off of a .374/.512/.886 season, but apparently, all Baker could see was the .254 Batting Average. Dusty doesn't like guys who walk, he thinks that it's something that the pitcher gives you, not something that you earn.

Bellhorn started the season in a slump, batting only .209, but he was still getting on base at a passable rate. If Baker had simply let Bellhorn be himself--look for pitches to drive, rather than look to put the ball in play--he might have worked out of it, and become a huge asset to the Cubs. Instead, the Cubs looked for something else, sent Bellhorn off to Colorado for Jose Hernandez, and ultimately sent Hernandez to Pittburgh to accquire Aramis Ramirez. Was Ramirez's production adequate? Absolutely, and like seemingly every other veteran mediocrity, he performed better under Baker. But if Dusty had been willing to let a good player do what made him good, instead of preaching an offensive theory that was totally unsupported by the evidence (the man managed BARRY BONDS, for Christ's sake!), they might have had something better.

This lineup is constructed under the assumption that Mike Lowell will continue to bat lower in the order in this series, otherwise Lee would bat here, and Lowell would bat fourth, with Encarnacion batting Sixth. Encarnacion is an average right fielder. He doesn't get on base, but he's got some pop, and a bit of speed. Yawn. Slight advantage Cubs.

Sixth Batter:
Eric Karros (.286/.340/.446/.786/12/1-1/.271)
FLA: Mike Lowell (.276/.350/.530/.881/32/3-1/.299)

In Dusty we trusty to play who's most sucky, Part Two. The Cubs have a prospect at first base, Hee Seop Choi, who has the potential to become an offensive force. Nick Johnson with more power. He started the year with the job, and was incredible, the Rookie of the Year award seemed a certainty. He slumped a bit in May, but the turning point game on a June Saturday in Wrigley, with the Yankees in town. Choi was knocked out cold chasing a popup, and later in the game Karros hit a game-winning three run HR. Karros kept up his hot hitting while Choi was out, and when the youngster came back, his playing time was cut back in favor of the veteran, and his slump continued. In August, the Cubs brought in another veteran mediocrity, Randall Simon, who essenitally eliminated all of Choi's playing time, and now he's off the postseason roster. Yes, Choi only batted .218, but he was just as good as Karros, and better than Simon. Hopefully, the Cubs will let the sausage assassin and Karros leave as free agents, but it's more likely that Baker will keep Karros on to platoon, and Choi's development will always be threatened by the possibilty of getting benched for the hot hand.

As for Karros, he's an average hitter playing at an offensive position, and thus a liability. Mike Lowell had a career year, and he's injured--but he's still better than Karros or Simon. Big advantage Marlins.

Seventh Batter:
Alex Gonzalez (.228/.295/.409/.704/20/3-3/.243)
FLA: Jeff Conine (.282/.338/.459/.797/20/5-0/.283)

This would be the bad Alex Gonzalez, which is really a pretty bad insult. He can field a bit, and has some pop, but he doesn't walk, and he doesn't hit for average. He's a liability offensively, and the fact that he's batting seventh tells you all you need to know about the Cubs' lineup.

Conine is a pretty good bottom of the lineup hitter, he doesn't get on base a lot, but he has some pop, and hits for a pretty good average. As a left fielder/first baseman, his overall value is limited, but the Marlins have a fairly deep lineup, and while a big bat in left would have an enormous impact on their offense, Conine will do just fine. He also does a great impression of an angry dog.

Big advantage Marlins.

Eighth Batter:
Damien Miller (.233/.310/.369/.680/9/1-0/.240) / Paul Bako (.229/.311/.330/.641/0/0-1/.228)
FLA: Alex Gonzalez (.256/.313/.443/.756/18/0-4/.260)

And now we reach the bottom. The Cubs have played Bako and Miller all season, and have gotten the same cruddy production all season. Batting behind Gonzalez and in front of the pitcher, these two basically make it a six-inning game for the Cubs. Any offensive production out of this spot is a huge bonus for them.

On the other side, you've got the good Alex Gonzalez, in the sense that if there's two Alex Gonzalez's, one's gotta be good, and one has to be bad. Well, maybe he's the good one. He really sucked before this season, so maybe he was the bad one, and now he's the good one. Either way, if your shortstop is named Alex Gonzalez, you can do better.

Still, Gonzalez put up average offensive production at a position where offensive production is below average. He's the #8 hitter, he's the worst in the lineup, and he's league average. That tells you a lot about the Marlins' lineup--they don't have a big hitter, but they don't have any major holes, and for the most part, that's what you want. Advantage Marlins.

So the lineup goes to the Marlins, and pretty lopsidedly, too. But we all know that hitting isn't how the Cubs got here, it's pitching. The Marlins have some good young starters--and if it wasn't for Jeff Torborg, they might still have A.J. Burnett, and be in great shape right now. But the Cubs have the Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling system in place, only a lot younger. The game-by-game matchups:

Games One and Five:
Carlos Zambrano (13-11, 3.11 ERA, 214.0 IP, 168 SO, 94 BB, 9 HR, 1.32 WHIP, 3.82 DIPS)
FLA: Josh Beckett (9-8, 3.04 ERA, 142.0 IP, 152 SO, 56 BB, 9 HR, 1.32 WHIP, 3.44 DIPS)

Two very young and very good starters meet up in Game One; Beckett strikes out more guys and walks fewer, and gives up homers at a slightly higher rate. Blister problems saved Beckett from having his arm pitched off by Torborg last season, and the elbow sprain he suffered in early May that kept him out nearly two months wasn't that bad, and it kept him fresh in the second half, where he was brilliant.

Zambrano was worked hard by Baker all season long, but he was brilliant for most of the second half. Unfortunately, he struggled in his last two regular season starts, and was not at his best in Game 2 of the NLDS. Still, he's capable of shutting down a good hitting team when he's on. The Marlins also struggle against righties, so Zambrano could have a great series.

I think Beckett's the hot pitcher right now, and that gives the Marlins a slight edge. The Marlins probably need to win both of these games, though.

Games Two and Six:
Mark Prior (18-6, 2.43, 211.1, 245, 50, 15, 1.10, 2.81)
FLA: Brad Penny (14-10, 4.13, 196.1, 138, 56, 21, 1.28, 4.36)

Penny's numbers are a bit misleading, as he struggled a bit in the first half, and was, on the whole, much more effective in the second half. If the Marlins can touch Prior for a few runs, Penny can make it hold.

That's a big if, though. Prior just 2-hit the best hitting team in the National League, and he might be the best pitcher on the planet not named Pedro (and could soon be the best, period). If Prior is on, Cubs win, period, and the fact that he's a righty makes it even more lopsided.

Huge edge for the Cubs.

Games Three and Seven:
Kerry Wood (14-11, 3.20, 211.0, 266, 100, 24, 1.19, 4.12)
FLA: Mark Redman (14-9, 3.59, 190.2, 151, 61, 16, 1.22, 4.12)

Kerry Wood's success largely depends on whether he's locating his curveball or not. If he's missing, he'll walk guys--and hit guys, he hit 21 this season--and be beatable. If that curve is getting over, then comparisons to Roger Clemens are apt. The Marlins need to hope that Wood can't find the plate, because they're unlikely to hit him.

After struggling in Minnesota and Detroit, Mark Redman found the National League much more inviting, and had a strong season. But the anemic Cubs offense has 4 regulars with an OPS over .900 against lefties this year, which combined with Wood's chances of dominance, and the Marlins' struggles against righties, and this is a big advantage Cubs.

Game Four:
Matt Clement (14-12, 4.11, 201.2, 171, 79, 22, 1.23, 4.52)
FLA: Dontrelle Willis (14-6, 3.30, 160.2, 142, 58, 13, 1.28, 4.07)

This is a matchup of two pitchers who were essentially traded for each other. Willis will probably get the NL Rookie of the Year, although he doesn't deserve it as much as Brandon Webb (but at least he deserves it more than Hideki Matsui). The fact is, Willis was largely a result of ballpark and luck, and while he should be a good pitcher for many years if he stays healthy, and could be an excellent pitcher if he continues to improve, we're not likely witnessing the arrival of a legend.

As for Clement, he's a solid pitcher with an ugly goatee, who finally figured out how to pitch last season. Clement can be untouchable and he can be streaky, it all depends on whether he's throwing strikes. If he's walking batters, and not striking out a lot more, he's not going to be very good. Fortunately, the Cubs are only throwing him out there for one game, and it's not likely one they'll NEED to win. It's a good thing, because this matchup is definitely an advantage for the Marlins.

The way the rotation sets up, and with the struggles of the Marlins against righties and the strength of the Cubs against lefties, the only thing that seems to be standing in the way of the Cubs making their first World Series in 58 years is a damn Billy Goat. And I don't believe in any stupid curses. Cubs in Six.

Tomorrow: Yankees vs. Red Sox. Hopefully up much earlier than this was.

Yes, I know I didn't do the benches or the bullpens. I'm not an NL guy anyway, this should be enough.