By Mike Ivcic
I was nearly right. I said three teams would wind up 91-71, and had San Diego been able to beat San Francisco on the final day of the regular season, that’s exactly what would have happened. Let’s pretend for a minute that I never said Colorado would be one of those three teams, and now it’s even MORE impressive. But hey, everyone gets to be wrong at least once in a while.
So now it’s time for the postseason, with no one-game, do-or-die playoff that I always love watching every year. For this postseason preview, I’m going to give you each team’s biggest strength, biggest weakness, three key players, and how far I think they’ll go. And this time I won’t be predicting any three-way ties.
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Tampa Bay Rays
Biggest Strength: The back-to-back-to-back of Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, and Carlos Pena. That trio might actually be the most dangerous heart of the order in the postseason – and that’s saying something when Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez don pinstripes and Ryan Howard and Chase Utley mash in Philly. But if the three Tampa bats above come alive, it could be a nightmare for the Yankees, Phillies, or any other pitching staff this postseason.
Biggest Weakness: Starting pitching depth. James Shields hasn’t been good and might not even get to make a postseason start. The Rays are going to need good outings from Matt Garza and Wade Davis behind David Price if they want to avoid facing Cliff Lee down two games to one in Arlington.
Three Key Players: B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, and David Price. Upton needs to return to 2008 form and give the lineup some balance in the back end. Zobrist needs to get on base in front of the big three to make them even more dangerous. And Price has to at least match Cliff Lee pitch for pitch – even if Price doesn’t win, he can’t get beaten in a such a way that takes the wind out of Tampa’s sails and gives Texas any momentum. Oh… and then he’ll need to do even more than that if they play the Yankees.
Biggest Strength: Target Field. I know it’s the first year of the stadium, and I know it’s not the Metrodome, and I know no Twins player has ever played a postseason game in that stadium. Still, if you’re Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter or Phil Hughes, how can you possibly be looking forward to playing games outside… in Minnesota… in October? How?
Biggest Weakness: Experience. The Twins don’t have a ton of playoff experience, from star Joe Mauer to Alexi Casilla to everyone in between. But it’s ok, they’re only playing the defending champions – it’s not THAT big of a deal.
Three Key Players: Francisco Liriano, Joe Mauer, and Matt Capps. The last two times the Twins played the Yankees in the playoffs, they won game one IN Yankee Stadium and then lost three straight. Back then, they had some guy named Santana pitching game one. Liriano will need a similar performance Wednesday night to get Minny out in front. Mauer is the homegrown stud who’s lived to lead the Twins into the playoffs. Now he must do just that. And Capps has to finish every opportunity. The Yankees won’t get rattled, and he never got here with the Pirates or Nationals, so Capps will need to slam the door and not give away a single game or the Twins are toast.
Biggest Strength: Cliff Lee. This one is a no-brainer. This week is the reason they traded for him in July. He needs to do what he did for the Phillies last year and dominate, preferably win game one, and ensure Texas goes back to Arlington with a split at the worst. Otherwise he might not get to pitch more than once this postseason.
Biggest Weakness: Josh Hamilton’s health. He needs to be at least close to 100% in order for the Rangers to have a shot. They do have help with guys like Ian Kinsler and Michael Young, but it’s Hamilton who makes this offense click and they’re going to need to fire on all cylinders to knock off Tampa.
Three Key Players: C.J. Wilson, Vladimir Guerrero, and Neftali Feliz. If you don’t know Feliz, you’re not alone – he’s the Rangers closer, and he’s only 21 years old. Tough task facing that dynamic Tampa lineup. Likewise with Wilson, who will be the Rangers’ second starter. That spot is the single biggest position for the entire AL postseason, because every team has an ace and a question mark after that. Finally, Vlad has maybe been the surprise of the season. This Rangers lineup is deep, but they don’t have anyone that makes opposing pitchers cringe outside of Josh Hamilton – except for Guerrero. If he’s smacking the ball around the yard, Tampa could be in for a quick stay in the postseason.
New York Yankees
Biggest Strength: Been there, done that. The defending champs are almost entirely the same team that won it all last year, with a few notable exceptions (see: Damon, Johnny and Matsui, Hideki). Granted, those are two big-time losses, but with Tex, Jeter, Jorge, C.C., and Mo, that’s still a pretty good crunch time core.
Biggest Weakness: Who’s pitching after C.C.? Hughes is likely the number two starter, but even he hasn’t been nearly as good down the stretch as he was in May and June. As for games three and four, it’s a rocky A.J. Burnett, an only-somewhat-healthy Andy Pettitte, or light-up-the-scoreboard Javy Vazquez. I definitely don’t envy manager Joe Girardi on this one.
Three Key Players: Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Joba Chamberlain. Pettitte needs, and I repeat NEEDS, to be the typical playoff version of Andy Pettitte in order for the Yankees to win. Without his left arm, this is simply an average rotation. With it, they have the most experienced postseason pitcher in baseball. Jeter also needs to do what he’s always done – be the sparkplug and catalyst when his team needs him, even if he’s had a dismal season by his standards. And Joba will have to do what Hughes did last year – get the ball from the starter to Rivera. Once that happens, as long as Dave Roberts stays retired the Yanks should be good.
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Biggest Strength: Charlie Manuel. Never thought I’d ever hear myself say that, but he’s been the ultimate motivator for this team. He makes some questionable decisions sometimes, but he’s rarely actually OUTmanaged, and the Phils always play hard for him. Oh, and they have three pretty good starters too.
Biggest Weakness: Believe it or not, offense. Yes they’ve come around in recent weeks, but the averages on this team are still extremely low. They’re going to need to continue to hit even more than they have been, because they’re no longer facing the Nationals and Mets of the world. The Giants, Reds, and Braves can all pitch, so the Phillies better be ready to hit.
Three Key Players: Roy Halladay, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth. Remember one thing if you’re betting on the Phils on Wednesday – Halladay has pitched a grand total of ZERO postseason innings. I’m just saying. Rollins needs to get on base and set the table for Utley and Howard – they are infinitely more dangerous when the pitcher has to worry about baserunners. And Werth needs to recapture his playoff form from 2008 and 2009, because teams won’t hesitate to trot out a southpaw for the three lefty hitters if Werth can’t provide some pop between Howard and Ibanez.
San Francisco Giants
Biggest Strength: Momentum. The claim is that the Phillies are the hottest team entering the postseason, but that division was decided two weeks ago. The Giants roared into first, nearly coughed it up, and then won it on the final day. There’s something to be said for playing all the way through (see: 2007 Rockies, 2008 Phillies). Oh, and they have three pretty good starters too.
Biggest Weakness: Offense. Buster Posey is a beast, but he’s the only .300 hitter on the team, and he’s only at .305. They’re going to have to rely on veterans like Pat Burrell, Edgar Renteria, and Aaron Rowand – all of whom are now part-timers but also have World Series rings – to come through in clutch situations late in ball games, and help the young kids along.
Three Key Players: Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, and Matt Cain. I’m taking the easy way out here, but read that weakness paragraph again. The Giants postseason success will unquestionably come down to how well those three pitch. The Phillies trio of Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt are getting all of the attention, but there’s no doubt the Giants can match that pitcher for pitcher, and Jonathan Sanchez is better than Joe Blanton as a fourth starter. That is, assuming the two teams meet in the NLCS.
Biggest Strength: Clutch. There’s no other word to describe this team this season. They win almost every close game, they’re never out of a game – I mean, they clinched the division on a walk-off homerun by lefthanded hitting Jay Bruce… off a lefty! This team doesn’t know the word pressure, probably because they just don’t know any better.
Biggest Weakness: Lineup depth. The flip side to Bruce is that he’s struggled the second half of the year, Drew Stubbs is playing center field, and the catchers are only serviceable. They’re going to rely a ton on MVP candidate Joey Votto, and eventually it might just be too much of a burden for one person to carry alone.
Three Key Players: Scott Rolen, Bronson Arroyo, Francisco Cordero. Votto will do his thing, but Rolen will need to be good enough that teams don’t take the Pujols approach and pitch around Votto no matter what. Arroyo is the only starter with any sort of postseason experience, and he’ll be expected to match up in game two with Oswalt, who made a living while in Houston of beating up on the Reds (14-1 career record). And Cordero… well let’s just say he’s easily the worst of the eight closers in the postseason. The rest of the bullpen is at least solid, but CoCo can be a walking nightmare for the Reds and their fans.
Biggest Strength: Umm… well they’re not ALL hurt. No Chipper Jones for the second half of the year, then Martin Prado goes down in the final week of the season, Tough luck for the Bravos in Bobby Cox’s swan song. But the duo of Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, along with catcher Brian McCann, have to at least gives Braves fans SOME hope.
Biggest Weakness: Outside of injuries, it’s the overworked bullpen. The pitchers themselves all had fantastic years, perhaps none better than closer Billy Wagner. But they have pitched a ton down the stretch, and will be needed even more so considering the series with the Giants should be a very low-scoring one that almost screams for extra innings. Atlanta’s pen will struggle with a 9-inning game, let alone anything beyond that, simply from a fatigue perspective.
Three Key Players: Billy Wagner, Omar Infante, Jayson Heyward. Wagner has a reputation for choking in big moments. It would be cool for him to have the lasting memory of him closing the door in style as he heads into retirement. Infante will now have to do even more at the top of the order without Prado to set the table for guys behind him, like Heyward, who should try his best to find Andruw Jones’ phone number. Just ask the 1996 Yankees how much fun it was to face Jones as a 19-year-old rookie that postseason. A similar one from the rookie Heyward, and the Braves are in business.
Rays 3, Rangers 1
Twins 3, Yankees 2
Phillies 3, Reds 2
Giants 3, Braves 2
Rays 4, Twins 2
Giants 4, Phillies 3
Rays 4, Giants 2
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