Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pennant Picks

Baseball events often serve as a time marker for me. I can look back at past exciting or historic events happening in baseball games and recall where I was at the time, what was going on in my life or in the world at large.

I watched the first game of the Yankees-Mets Subway Series in 2000 on a little portable television in the back of a car while my dad drove me and some friends home from a Saturday evening hockey game in Long Island. When the Yanks and Red Sox started their marathon Game 7 in 2003 (eventually won by Aaron Boone's walkoff homer) I was playing a roller hockey game for my college team at an outdoor rink in Chelsea Piers. I saw the White Sox win the World Series in 2005 at Mickey Mantle's restaurant near Central Park while on a date with a girl from Italy. 

The last two Octobers I watched from the living room of my San Diego apartment and now I've witnessed the excitement of this year's pennant chase here in Austin. The classic deciding game Friday night between the Phillies and Cardinals will forever be etched in my memory as I watched it unfold in amazement while eating baked ziti and sipping beer at an overpriced bar/restaurant down the road. (I attempted to watch the first game of that series at another restaurant last week but once the Texas Longhorns game started, every television in the bar was switched to that crappy meaningless game against Iowa State and I was screwed. Will certainly always remember that, too.)

I wasn't alive in the late 1960s but from watching Ken Burns' baseball documentary over and over again, I've come to associate the baseball events going at that time with the social upheavals and global events going on at the same time. In that documentary series, each decade gets its own lengthy treatment and the 60s is by far my favorite. The Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the assassination of JFK (and RFK, Malcolm X, and MLK) aren't ignored, in fact they are perfectly weaved in to the baseball events in that decade as Bob Gibson's Cardinals dominated the era, Carl Yastrzemski carried the Sox in '67, the Orioles built a powerhouse and Washington DC nearly burnt to the ground after rioting in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Protesters burned their draft cards and choppers flew over the jungles of Saigon.

As incredible as the crescendo of this baseball season has been, it will always be associated in my mind with the movement springing up in downtown Manhattan (my former stomping grounds) and spreading across the nation, the peaceful uprising and dissent against oppressive oligarchy and austerity measures. I confess to being a severe baseball addict, but as exciting and engaging as it has all been this year, the Occupy Wall Street news has been competing for my attention since it began in mid-September. The baseball games have often absorbed me in transfixion but at the same time my thoughts are constantly with the people out sleeping on the cement in the cold New York autumn.

Now, on to the baseball...

It seemed like nothing could touch the melodrama and excitement of the regular season's conclusion, but then we witnessed a Divison Series that featured four tightly fought matchups, three of which went down to the final game, and two of which saw huge upsets. The Rays series only lasted four games but the last three of those were all nail-biters. Now the smoke has cleared and we're left with just four teams in matchups that look to be just as competitive and entertaining as anything we've seen all year. Here are some thoughts on the two series we will watch over the next week.

National League Championship Series
Cardinals (90-72) vs. Brewers (96-66)

The Brewers were a popular World Series pick but I don't think anybody imagined they would be in this position, facing their sworn enemies for the NL pennant. The Cardinals don't belong here. They lost their best pitcher before the season began, were written off as a contender in Spring Training, and were trailing the final playoff spot by 9 games in early September. When they managed to climb all the way back into it and win on the final day, that only guaranteed them a match against the best team in the major leagues, the 102-win Phillies. Well, they've slayed yet another dragon and here they are.

This looks to be an extremely close and exciting series. These two teams genuinely don't like each other, they had some bean ball incidents this summer, lots of trash talk, and they represent two different poles on the spectrum---the Cards are the gritty, scrappy veterans and the Brewers are young, loud-mouthed and here for the first time. The Cardinals have been doing this for a good 12 years now, this is their 6th appearance in an LCS during that span while the Brewers organization had not won a playoff series since 1982. At that time they were still in the American League, led by manager Harvey Keunn, they were known as "Harvey's Wallbangers" and they went all the way to the World Series where they lost to... the Cardinals! (Dan Okrent's great book 9 Innings covers those Brewers at length.)

On the field, the teams are closely matched in the rotation, bullpen, defense, and lineup. While the Brewers boast a superb top-three starting pitchers in Yovani Gallardo, Zack Grienke, and Shaun Marcum, the Cardinals' top-three are no slouches and perfectly capable of matching up against the much more heralded Milwaukee trio. Chris Carpenter leads the St. Louis bunch with his alliterative appellation and strike zone carving repertoire, young lefty Jaime Garcia put up basically the same numbers as Carpenter in fewer innings, and Edwin Jackson is capable of matching zeroes with anybody the Brewers have. Both teams run deep in the bullpen, too.

Both teams pack high-octane offenses mostly led, again, by superior trios. For Milwaukee it's Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Rickie Weeks in the heart of the lineup while St. Louis relies on Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman. Combined, those trios match up pretty well although maybe the Cards have a very slight edge. Outside of those, the role players seem to tilt in the Cardinals' favor. Third baseman David Freese would be a household name by now if he could ever stay healthy because the boy can hit. Yadier Molina emerged as one of the better hitting catchers in baseball this year, shortstop Rafael Furcal has looked like his old self in this postseason, and the Cardinals even boast a pretty strong bench (that micromanager Tony LaRussa loves to employ).

In comparison, the Brewers have a few more liabilities on offense. Guys like Casey McGehee, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Jonathan Lucroy can pop out a homerun every now and then but they had poor seasons overall. Neither team is any good defensively, although I think analysts are sometimes a bit too overzealous in dismissing the Brewers in that respect.

Really, the teams are so closely matched that there's no way to pinpoint a particular weakness that will decide the series. It should be one for the ages, perhaps the best LCS since the Red Sox and Yankees in 2004. I prefer to see the Brewers win and they are my pick because they have homefield advantage but I think it will go all 7 games and feature plenty of fireworks.

American League Championship Series
Tigers (95-67) vs. Rangers (96-66)

This matchup, to me, looks closer than it really is. The Rangers are a far superior team, in fact, they were probably the best team in all of baseball this year (Baseball Prospectus has a rather complicated extraction that bears this out). Jon Daniels deserves a lot of credit, he was the youngest general manager in baseball history when he stepped into the role for the Rangers in 2005 at the age of 28, and he has built this team into a well-rounded, deep powerhouse.

Let me get this out of the way: I live in Texas right now and the team Daniels has assembled is an admirable one, but I'm not a fan of this team at all. Eric over at Pitchers & Poets recently wrote a nice piece about why he's pulling for the Rangers despite their shady associations (George W. Bush being the most prominent one) but I'm not falling for it. I'd certainly like to root for this team because of a guy like Jon Daniels and what he's done here, but I've been to the ballpark, I've watched this team for years as an Oakland A's fan and I just don't like them.

As I wrote earlier this year, the Detroit Tigers are a team that I can root for. They represent a decrepit, broken down and demoralized city that has hosted baseball since the beginning of the American League. Detroit is a rich sports town with a great baseball history. Texas? I couldn't watch a Texas Rangers playoff game at a bar because a fucking Texas-Iowa State college football game was on. I can't root for that kind of stupidity. Anywho...

The Rangers are an all-around powerhouse that can beat up any team and their dad. Adrian Beltre blasted three homeruns in one game the other day and he's probably the third-best hitter on this team (behind Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton). The lineup is absolutely scary. If there's one thing that might be in the Tigers' favor here, it's that there are so many right-handed hitters in the lineup and Detroit has an all-righty pitching staff but the Rangers don't seem to care what hand the pitcher throws with. They'll blast off against anybody. The Detroit offense can put up runs too, most of them will come from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Jhonny Peralta is an interesting player not just because of the misplaced "h" in his name but because he seemingly resurrected his career in the Motor City and renewed his status as an offensive threat. Alex Avila, the rookie catcher, had a spectacular season at the plate but so far in the playoffs he hasn't shown up (just 1 hit in 16 at-bats).

Like every other part of this team, the Texas pitching staff runs deep. If five starters were needed in a playoff series, they could throw out five great ones, but they only need four so Alexi Ogando was put into the bullpen and we all saw what he's capable of last night (97 mph fastballs at the corners). This very interesting rotation boasts three tough lefties and a righty who remade himself after a stint in Japan. The Japanese league guy seems to be the only liability here as Colby Lewis followed up his superb 2010 campaign with an up-and-down season this year (he pitched fine, just gave up way too many homers). Detroit depends on their workhorse Justin Verlander, the easy Cy Young choice this season, but he seems to be losing steam this past month or so. They'll need him to pick it up and possibly pitch 3 times in this series if they hope to win. I predicted Max Scherzer would have a huge year for Detroit before the season, but he didn't. He pitched well with plenty of strikeouts but, like Colby Lewis, he surrendered a bunch of homeruns. I worried about that coming into the playoffs but Scherzer pitched great against the Yankees in two appearances so look for him to be a big part of this series.

Joaquin Benoit basically became a national hero with his heroic relief effort for Detroit against the Yankees to seal their demise in the previous round, and the Tigers do have a nice bullpen. But nothing comes close to this Rangers relief group. As I mentioned, they brought Alexi Ogando out of the pen in Game 1 yesterday and he was nearly untouchable. They also have two of the best relievers in baseball over the last few years, Mike Adams and Koeji Uehara, at their disposal and then flame-throwing Neftali Feliz as the final piece. Even their middle-relief or platoon pitching options are solid. It's gonna be really tough to score against the group late in the game.

I really don't like the Rangers but there's no denying how strong they are as a team. While I will be rooting hard for the underdog Detroit to knock them out, I don't realistically see it happening. My pick: Rangers in six.


  1. I've just found you very well written blog thanks to Seana Graham.

    Although I have next to no interest in sport, this makes for a very lively piece, informative and full of enthusiasm.
    Thank you for sharing it.

  2. What a great comment, thank you!

    I hope you'll check out the archives, I've got plenty of pieces outside the realm of sports.