2009 MLB Divisional Playoffs Preview and Picks

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After enduring a football game centered on some guy named Favre, the Metrodome finally got to play host to the more important game – the AL Central one-game, win-or-go-home playoff game between the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers. And after the dust had settled in the larger of the twin cities, it was, indeed, the hometown team completing a spectacular comeback and stealing the AL Central. The Twins literally faced postseason elimination Thursday afternoon in Detroit, but haven’t lost since and now take their five-game winning streak to the Bronx to face the Yankees. The Tigers, meanwhile, look to sort out what went wrong in the final days of a season that looked so promising, and wonder how they couldn’t manage to finish off a division that was so close. The fans of Detroit have now watched their Pistons get blown off the court by the Cavs, their Lions endure an 0-16 season, their Wings watch a Penguins Stanley Cup ceremony at Joe Louis Arena, and now this mini-collapse, all in the last 10 months. The only bright side is that when you reach rock-bottom, there really is only one way to go. After all, the Lions DID win a game 10 days ago…

Meanwhile, the MLB postseason begins Wednesday, and with the new format adopted last season we should be done just in time for the Super Bowl. At least that’s how it seems with all of the built-in off days, implemented after the 2006 playoffs in which two different games between Mets and Cardinals were rained out during the NLCS, causing havoc with the schedule on FOX and completely screwing up the gameplans of both teams. Just a quick thought before we get into the matchups – in order to avoid inclement weather, usually it makes more sense to move games UP in the calendar, as opposed to BACK. Again, just a thought, and who am I to have one of those?

And now the analysis. I have included the “projected” starting rotations for each team as well. In some cases, it’s nothing more than an educated guess, in other cases it’s a process of elimination or basic logic, and in still others, they’ve actually been announced. With that said, let’s delve right into the AL and NL Division Series matchups.

Note: All games will air on TBS.

Minnesota Twins @ New York Yankees
1 – Duensing vs Sabathia
2 – Blackburn vs Burnett
3 – Baker vs Pettitte
4 – Pavano vs Sabathia
5 – Blackburn vs Burnett
If momentum was tangible, the Twins plane would still be grounded in Minneapolis, too heavy to take off. What other team could possibly match avoiding elimination by winning four straight games to simply force a one-game playoff before needing 12 innings to finally clinch a division they failed to secure only one year before? And did I mention they did it all without their former MVP-winning first baseman for the last two weeks? So after all of that, what’s the rewards for the Twins? Nothing more than a date with C.C., Tex, A-Rod, El Capitan, and the rest of the best team in baseball on the world’s biggest stage. Smartly, it does not appear that Ron Gardenhire will start former Yankee Carl Pavano in the Bronx, saving him two hours of pure vitriol and ridicule. Though no official word has come from Minnesota, it looks like Nick Blackburn will be the man called on to pitch twice at Yankee Stadium, including a potential decisive Game 5. Even with Joe Mauer setting the record for a full season average by a catcher, it’s not likely the Twins will have enough firepower to take down NY. Jeter, Damon, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Matsui, Posada, Cano, Swisher, Cabrera – likely the best lineup in the entire postseason, even if Jose Molina will catch A.J. Burnett. It won’t happen more than once this series.
New York 3, Minnesota 1

Boston Red Sox @ Los Angeles Angels
1 – Lester vs Lackey
2 – Beckett vs Weaver
3 – Buchholz vs Kazmir
4 – Matsuzaka vs Saunders
5 – Lester vs Lackey
Traditionally, the Angels have been Dr. Jekyll (good) against the Yankees and Mr. Hyde (bad) against the Red Sox. Unfortunately, the AL East is back to normal after one upside down year and Boston will once again take their Wild Card-winning team West to face the Angels. The difference this time, however, is that the Angels pitching might actually be able to match up with the Red Sox. Yes, Beckett and Lester are good, but neither has been the lights-out, dominant pitcher that they were expected to be. The key for LA is John Lackey, who MUST be able to at least pitch even with Lester in Game 1 to give the Angels a chance, and then the offense needs to score enough to win it. Putting Boston on its heels – unfamiliar territory for the Sox against LA – will be critical if the Angels want to reach the LCS for the first time since 2005. For the Red Sox, they need their middle-to-bottom-of-the-order hitters to produce. Guys like J.D. Drew, Jason Bay, Mike Lowell, and yes, even David Ortiz, will have to put fear into the LA pitching staff and knock in the top four of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Martinez, and Youkilis. The Sox bullpen is better, meaning they’ll have the advantage in the later innings of tight games, but there’s something missing from this year’s Boston club that was so prevalent in the 2004 and 2007 teams.
Los Angeles 3, Boston 2

St. Louis Cardinals @ Los Angeles Dodgers
1 – Carpenter vs Wolf
2 – Wainwright vs Kershaw
3 – Pineiro vs Padilla
4 – Smoltz vs Billingsley
5 – Carpenter vs Wolf
Taking nothing away from him as a starting pitcher, it’s probably not a good sign that Randy Wolf is the starter in Game 1 for the Dodgers. The team has been hurt by injuries and inconsistencies with the pitching staff, something the Cardinals are all too familiar with from years past. In 2009, however, the Redbirds have their ace back in Chris Carpenter, meaning they boast the best 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with Adam Wainwright behind Carp. Going down the Dodgers list, meanwhile, is much less intimidating, especially considering one of the players in the St. Louis lineup is named Albert Pujols. Manager Tony LaRussa has not officially named a fourth starter yet, but chances are the playoff experience of John Smoltz will win out over Kyle Lohse regardless of if the Cards are up 2-1 or down 2-1. LA just needs to hope that their offense re-discovers its potency before Game 1, because their bullpen – which I wrote about two weeks ago – is good enough to win tight games. That said, the “X” factor here is on the bench, where LaRussa has a distinct edge over Joe Torre. It might seem totally absurd to make such a claim, but Torre’s handling of a bullpen in the postseason has been a major concern in recent trips, none more glaring than last year’s NLCS Game 4 moves. He’ll be matching wits with the best mind currently managing in baseball, meaning the edge there goes to St. Louis. Oh, and did I mention that guy named Pujols?
St. Louis 3, Los Angeles 1

Colorado Rockies @ Philadelphia Phillies
1 – Jimenez vs Lee
2 – Cook vs Hamels
3 – Hammel vs Blanton
4 – Marquis vs Happ
5 – Jimenez vs Lee
Welcome back to 2007, except this time both teams have a World Series appearance under their belts and the Phillies have a championship. The experience of winning should certainly help the Phils, but unlike 2008 the pitching staff is much less settled (and healthy) this time around. Jamie Moyer, J.C. Romero, and Chan Ho Park are all out with injuries. Surprisingly, Clay Condrey was left off of the postseason roster in favor of Kyle Kendrick and Antonio Bastardo, two pitchers with a bit more length in their arms. Manager Charlie Manuel has not set his rotation yet, but the guess is that unless Happ or Blanton are needed in Games 1 or 2, they will likely get the starts in 3 and 4 with Pedro hanging around to fill-in whatever role is needed. Meanwhile the Rockies come in white-hot, just as they did in 2007, but they do so this time after changing managers mid-stream. Jim Tracy has pushed all of the right buttons, and he’ll need to do just that for another week in order to pilot Colorado into the LCS. The Phillies might have better hitters, but even they found out last year that good pitching is the key to playoff success. Couple their piecemeal staff with the most unsettled closer’s job of any of the eight postseason teams, and it’s not looking like a repeat for a still-championship-starved city.
Colorado 3, Philadelphia 1

Projecting further…

Based upon my predictions for this round, I have the Angels and Yankees in the ALCS and the Cardinals and Rockies in the NLCS. If that happens, look for New York to end their LA hex and knock off the Angels, while the Cardinals will finally cool off the Rockies, leaving a World Series between the two teams with more championships than any other. The Yankees may want 27, but when in doubt, default to starting pitching (STL) and the manager (STL), and there’s STILL that guy named Albert. The Bronx sees shadows of 2003 as Wainwright throws a complete game, tagging out Alex Rodriguez on a weak grounder with 2-on and 2-out to clinch a one-run win in Game 6 and give the Cardinals their second World Series victory in four years.

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