“For the record, the author still believes Boston is the best team in the American League, in spite of everything.” — The Dilemma, on Monday
“However, two years later, the team and its fans know that this is the last year they’ll have a chance to win a World Series in the forseeable future.” — David Simon Cowell, on Tampa Bay in early 2010
So, yeah, maybe we’re not the most reliable blog out there for baseball expertise, but we’re gonna give this a whirl anyway.
The playoffs start today, you guys! Who’s excited? I’m excited. Hey Boston, are you excited?
OK, sorry, one more:
Now it’s out of my system and we can discuss the playoffs like gentlemen and gentleladies.
But first….holy shit. Wednesday night.
We are never going to see anything like that in our lives again. I hope you were watching. I hope you didn’t go to bed early. I hope you have the MLB package and could watch freed from the tyranny of ESPN. I only want the best for you.
On the last day of the season, two playoff spots were decided by three games in which the winning teams were all losing with two outs in the 9th inning. Two of those three teams were down to their final strike. Two of them were facing two of baseball’s most dominant closers. Two historic collapses were completed, aided by one of the most unlikely chain of events you’ll ever see. According to Nate Silver, the chances of the Rays knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs given their positions earlier in the month and their positions earlier in their respective Wednesday games was 1 in 278 million. And that doesn’t even factor in the Braves’ similarly unlikely collapse.
This was one of the greatest sports nights of all time, and certainly the best night in the history of baseball’s regular season. The unequivocal highlight? When moments after ESPN bozo Rick Sutcliffe declared that he could tell by Jonathan Papelbon’s eyes that the Red Sox were going to win, Papelbon blew the game to terrible hitters with two outs and no one on in the 9th.
And now we’re ready for the encore, as the playoffs begin today. Quick note: of the nine teams with the highest payrolls in baseball, seven of them missed the playoffs. And two of the seven teams with the lowest payrolls made it in. So much for payroll disparity. But fair warning: as Craig Calcaterra pointed out, if we get a Phillies/Yankees World Series, we’ll hear about how baseball’s system is broken anyway. And if we get a Rays/Dbacks World Series, we’ll hear about how baseball is in trouble because of low ratings. So, you know, that’ll be fun.
New York Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers
Key player: Justin Verlander. If the Tigers are going to win this series, Verlander is going to have be as dominant in the post-season as he was for most of the regular season. And he’s going to have to out-pitch C.C. Sabathia.
Most compelling storyline: Was the Tigers September run for real? After spending most of the season barely outscoring its opponents and barely outplaying its shitty A.L. Central competition, the Tigers looked like a legitimate contender for the past month. While it’s been proven that late-season surges don’t carry over into the playoffs, the underlying reasons for the Tigers’ improvement appear to be legitimate. Trade deadline acquisition Doug Fister has given them a reliable #2 starter behind Verlander. The back end of the bullpen has been spectacular. And the lineup has been much better than expected, thanks to the enigmatic Jhonny Peralta and the impressive Alex Avila.
The pick: Yankees in 5
Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Key player: Evan Longoria. The Rays’ offense is not good. Not good at all. Longoria needs to do exactly what he did in Game #162: put the offense on his back and slug like the stud that he is.
Most compelling storyline: How is Joe Maddon going to impact the series? he’s one of baseball’s best managers because he’s willing to pursue unorthodox tactics. Most managers care more about covering their asses and not taking risks than they do in figuring out how they can gain an edge. Maddon is different. He’s not necessarily a sabermetrics guy, but he is a Moneyball guy in that he’s willing to question the norm. And he seems like he’d be awesome to hang out with. I’d rather drink wine with Maddon than do coke with Ron Washington.
Second most compelling storyline: Will the Rangers’ awful claw and antlers routine finally drive an opponent over the edge? Will David Price drill Josh Hamilton in the face? Will Ben Zobrist stab Michael Young?
The pick: Rays in 3
Philadelphia Phillies vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Key player: Ryan Madson. This series is likely to feature well-pitched, low-scoring games. The Phillies bullpen, which has quietly been a strength for the team (five relievers with at least 57 innings pitched and an ERA+ over over 107), is going to need to lock down a lead or two.
Most compelling storyline: The Phillies’ rotation. They somehow pitched ever better than predicted this season. Now, they need the notoriously clutch Cliff Lee to help them avoid another flameout like they experienced in the NLCS last year. The Cardinals are banged up and, their recent run aside, just not very good. It would be shocking if they pulled off the upset.
The pick: Phillies in 3
Milwaukee Brewers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
Key player: Zack Greinke. The anxious one had an inconsistent season, one that featured great peripheral stats but which was hindered by a poor BABIP and a mediocre ERA. If Greinke can pitch like the ace he was acquired to be, it will give the Brewers a huge lift throughout the playoffs.
Most compelling storyline: The Prince Fielder Farewell tour. Like Albert Pujols, the Big Guy is about to become a free agent. Unlike Pujols, Fielder is almost definitely going to be changing teams. As such, this could be the Brewers last chance for a couple years. The N.L. Central is likely to improve as the Cubs wake up from their Jim Hendry slumber, and the Pirates inch toward respectability. In 2008, the Brewers faced a similar scenario when they had CC Sabathia, and they lost in the first round.
The pick: Brewers in 3
And finally, the most compelling storyline of the entire playoffs: will anyone come up with a better dugout celebration/handshake than this?