The Tenth Inning – Week 24

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The Tenth Inning – Week 24 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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Only two weeks left in the regular season, as the pennant races heat up. Well, not really. The only real “pennant race” that remains, barring some unforeseen collapse by the Phillies, Yankees, or either LA team, is in the AL Central, where the Twins have inserted themselves into the playoff race. Four games still remain between the two teams this weekend in Detroit, where Minnesota will likely have to win at least three of four from the Tigers to have a realistic hope of catching them. All of that said, we’ll examine that next week – if it indeed becomes a reality.

This week, we’re examining the four current NL teams and how they stack up for the postseason. No disrespect to Giants fans, but after a huge week where they had the WC lead down to just two games in the loss column, they gave it right back on Saturday and Sunday and now trail Colorado by 4.5 with no games remaining between the two teams. Despite a much easier schedule down the stretch, it doesn’t look good for San Fran.

With only one more column remaining before the postseason, we’ll use next week’s Monday edition to tackle the final details of the playoff picture, then right after the end of the regular season we’ll do another double-column, with Monday as a season-in-review and Tuesday as the Postseason Preview edition, so make sure you check back as October draws ever closer. And now, the NL breakdown:

Los Angeles Dodgers
Offense – While they might not have the boppers of Philadelphia’s stature, this lineup could be the best 1-8 in the entire NL. Manny, Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Rafael Furcal, and Casey Blake are all good hitters with power and solid OBP, and that doesn’t count whichever second baseman – Orlando Hudson or Ronnie Belliard – Joe Torre decides to play. Juan Pierre provides speed and both he and Doug Mientkiewicz provide defense off the bench, and then there’s that mid-season trade for Jim Thome. Overall, this is the deepest pool of position players in the league.

Rotation – Like the lineup, they might not be spectacular but they are at the very least solid. Chad Billingsley grew up last postseason, and despite falling a bit short of expectations this year, is still a solid top-tier pitcher. He’ll combine with Randy Wolf and, assuming he’s healthy, Clayton Kershaw to lead the team into the playoffs. There are plenty of candidates for the fourth (or third if Kershaw can’t go) spot, including Jon Garland, Jeff Weaver, and Vicente Padilla, but expect Torre to go with Hiroki Kuroda if he continues to progress from his injury as he has over his last 3 starts.

Bullpen – Jonathon Broxton is becoming as good a closer as there is in baseball, and the rest of the bullpen, while not well-known, could be the best in the entire postseason. Ronald Belisario, Ramon Troncoso, and mid-season acquisition George Sherrill from Baltimore provide a beautiful bridge through the middle to late innings, meaning starters can focus on throwing six strong and turning it over to a very good bullpen. Plus, Hong-Chih Kuo is perfect to get through that left-handed 3-4-5 punch of Philadelphia.

Intangibles – After a lackluster August, the Dodgers have once again staked themselves to a bit of a lead over Colorado and San Francisco in the NL West and over St. Louis and Philadelphia in the race for best overall record in the NL. That resiliency will be crucial for the Dodgers, who will likely have to get through both of the other division winners in order to reach the World Series. Joe Torre certainly has the postseason wins and World Series rings, but his handling of the bullpen in tight playoff games leaves something to be desired.

Philadelphia Phillies
Offense – When Jayson Werth is hitting 30 homeruns in a season, it should end all questions regarding how good this offense is. The balance is still a bit worrisome if Charlie Manuel elects to go with Utley-Howard-Ibanez as his middle of the order, but this lineup has speed (Victorino, Rollins, Utley, and Werth can all steal bases) and depth with Pedro Feliz as a dangerous number 7 hitter. Plus, there’s no other team in the NL that can match the continued clutch-hitting of this group.

Rotation – Pedro Martinez has been a huge acquisition for this club, proving much needed stability in the back end of a once-suspect starting staff. Clearly the 1-2 here will be Hamels and Lee, but the question becomes who fills in as the Nos. 3 and 4. For what it’s worth, I would probably go with a rotation of Lee-Martinez-Hamels-Blanton, leaving Lee to start a potential do-or-die Game 5 in the LDS and Hamels to start a do-or-die Game 7 in the LCS. As good as J.A. Happ has been, the Phils would be better served having him in the bullpen to provide some support and backup for Romero from the left hand side of the mound and for Martinez in case he can’t throw deep into a game.

Bullpen – No team has a single bigger question mark than the Phillies do with their bullpen. Brad Lidge has been downright brutal, a huge difference from his perfect ’08 season. Ryan Madson hasn’t been much better, and injuries to J.C. Romero, Scott Eyre, Chad Durbin, and Chan Ho Park have left the Phillies with Brett Myers as their only truly reliable option. Getting the aforementioned list healthy would be a big step for this club’s chances at repeating.

Intangibles – This one’s easy. They’re the defending champs with a perpetual habit of making late-game comebacks. Charlie Manuel might not seem like the brightest guy, but he’s pulled nearly all of the right strings over the last three years, and there’s no questioning his ability as a hitting coach. The entire team has a never-say-die attitude, but the only question remaining is if that attitude will be changed at all with the in ability of the back-end of the bullpen to finish games.

Saint Louis Cardinals
Offense – When you have Albert Pujols, life is good. When you have protection for Albert Pujols in the form of Matt Holliday, life is even better. And so it is that St. Louis enters postseason for the first time since 2006, which not surprisingly was the last time the Cardinals had any true protection behind Albert the Great. The rest of the lineup simply has to get on base and continue to hit singles and doubles, leaving the heavy lifting to the two boppers in the middle, and this team will score runs. Plus, there’s a certain catcher who shall not be named who has a tendency of hitting big-time, late-game homeruns in the postseason. Thank you, Aaron Heilman.

Rotation – Adam Wainwright is getting consideration for the Cy Young, and rightfully so, but the scary part is that he’s not the best pitcher on his team right now. That designation would belong to former Cy Young-winner Chris Carpenter, who has returned from injury better than ever – or at least nearly so. With Joel Pineiro and likely John Smoltz filling out the back-end of the rotation, the Cards have to feel comfortable that they’ll be able to outpitch whichever of the other three teams they might face in the first round from a starters standpoint.

Bullpen – All-Star Ryan Franklin is still posting a 2.02 ERA, meaning the Cardinals have continued the amazing tradition of turning starters into closers or, in the case of former Cardinal Braden Looper, closers into starters. Pitching Coach Dave Duncan is a certifiable genius when it comes to teaching the art of pitching, and Franklin is proof positive of that. He’s supported by Trevor Miller, Dennis Reyes, and Kyle McClellan – a group of no-names, to be sure, but a good group of no-names that have consistently gotten the job done in big spots.

Intangibles – They join the Phillies in the experience category, with a number of players still around from the 2006 champions and the addition of veterans Julio Lugo and Matt Holliday, who met each other in the 2007 World Series. Tony LaRussa is certainly no stranger to the event, either, having managed in five fall classics, winning two of them. And then there’s that almost-forgotten fourth starter by the name of John Smoltz. If you’d like to see postseason pitching at its absolute best, Google 1991 World Series Game 7. The best-pitched game by both starters of any playoff series ever, period.

Colorado Rockies
Offense – Despite a sub-par season from Garrett Atkins in a year where he was expected to do even MORE than he had in years past, the Rockies offense has still managed to put up runs in bunches. All they’ve done is put up more runs than any NL team outside the defending champs, and they’ve done it with longball and smallball both. Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe, and Troy Tulowitzki have been the main cogs, but contributions have come from players like Ian Stewart (24HR), Seth Smith (.299, 15HR), and even rookie Carlos Gonzalez (.277, 12HR, and 16SB). Adding Jason Giambi only adds to the depth for Jim Tracy’s club.

Rotation – Colorado has mainly used only five starters all season – Jason Marquis, Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jiminez, Jason Hammel, and Jorge de la Rosa. They added Jose Contreras from the White Sox when Cook went down, and it’s likely that if Cook is healthy enough to make the postseason roster, he’ll have to do so out of the bullpen. Hammel is also likely to wind up there as well, but a four-man crew of Jiminez, Marquis, Contreras, and de la Rosa is formidable enough to compete with any of the other playoff teams.

Bullpen – Adding Cook would provide even more depth to a unit that saw reinforcements added twice right before the deadline. The Rox traded for Rafael Betancourt from Cleveland and Joe Beimel from Washington to get the crucial 8th inning outs and turn the ball over to Huston Street, a formula that has worked fairly well so far. Not to be lost in the fray is Franklin Morales, who spent the early part of the season on the DL and then in the minors before being recalled, where he’s only saved 6 games while posting a 2.84 ERA. Not a bad group of four for the back end of a bullpen.

Intangibles – As they did in their World Series run of 2007, the Rockies enter the postseason on a hot streak, though this one a bit longer and a little less impressive than the 21-1 string that earned them the 2007 WC berth. Still, Tracy has brought the calming influence to the clubhouse that this team desperately needed, and barring a Met-like collapse, they’ll be playing October baseball (much to my disappointment – read below). The key for Colorado will be finding someone to step up and get the big hit in the clutch like the other 3 teams have in the past.


Trivia Question
As we close-in on another postseason, eight teams with very short gaps between their last appearance in the postseason look ready to reach the playoffs yet again, as every team has made the playoffs within the last three seasons. When was the last time, prior to this season, that every postseason team had 3 years or less year since their last postseason appearance?

Last week’s answer: Only two years ago, the 2007 Boston Red Sox had homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and won the World Series.

2009 Playoff “Dead List”
May 25 – Washington Nationals
June 1 – Colorado Rockies
June 8 – Baltimore Orioles
June 15 – Arizona Diamondbacks
June 22 – Kansas City Royals
June 29 – Cleveland Indians
July 6 – Oakland Athletics
July 15 – San Diego Padres
July 27 – Pittsburgh Pirates
August 3 – Cincinnati Reds
August 10 – Toronto Blue Jays
August 17 – New York Mets
August 24 – Milwaukee Brewers
August 31 – Houston Astros
September 7 – Chicago White Sox
September 14 – Tampa Bay Rays
September 21 – Seattle Mariners AND Chicago Cubs
Since the NL Wild Card race continue to be within striking distance for Florida and Atlanta, and it looks increasingly like I will eliminate a team and watch them make the playoffs for the first time, I will amend my mistake and eliminate both Seattle AND Chicago. The Cubs needed a sweep for any shot at catching St. Louis this past weekend and lost two of three, while the Mariners never managed to catch the hot streak they needed to make a move in the AL West. With the double elimination, it leaves 12 teams un-eliminated, plus Colorado, for the eight playoff spots. My guess? Minnesota, Atlanta, Florida, San Francisco, and Texas will be the five teams still alive that miss the postseason, and Colorado will end my streak and make the playoffs. Here’s hoping that the Braves, Marlins, or Giants can prove me wrong.

This week, watch for…
1) Last chance for Sox to catch Yanks (9/25-27)
2) Last chance for Fish to catch Phils (9/22-23)
3) Battle for playoff position in NL (STL@COL, 9/25-27)

Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper

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