2009 Baseball Playoff Preview

I love baseball. I love everything about it. The sight of the green field, the sounds of a bat cracking, a ball hitting leather. It’s my favourite sport, by far, and one of my favourite things in the world.

I’ve learned a lot of things about baseball in over 20 years of following it, and the first one is this: I’m no good at making predictions. So this preview will not focus on why I think the Yankees will beat the Cardinals in the World Series – a rematch of the epic 1964 series that was so good that the late, great David Halberstam wrote a book about it. No, instead this preview is more of a viewers’ guide to the baseball playoffs that will be going on for the next 3-4 weeks.

Yankees Celebrate
To my chagrin, this will likely be a common sight over the next few weeks.

Who Are the Teams in the Playoffs This Year?
The New York Yankees have floundered, relative to their high expectations, the past few years. They haven’t won a World Series since 2000, or appeared in one since 2003. They missed the playoffs last year, and exited in the first round the previous three. They’ve rebounded this year, posting the best record in the bigs. Most will chalk this up to the signings of front of the rotation starting pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, and all-star 1B Mark Teixeira. They’re half-correct. The other key to success is the shoring up of the bullpen in front of Mariano Rivera, with youngsters Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, and Brian Bruney providing a solid bridge to The Sandman in innings 7 and 8.

Their first round opponent, the Minnesota Twins, won 17 of their final 21 to catch the Detroit Tigers, winning the division in an epic 12-inning tiebreaker game yesterday. Their catcher Joe Mauer is having a season for the ages after missing the first month due to injury, OF Denard Span is an emerging star, and young pitchers like Brian Duensing, Scott Baker, and Nick Blackburn are coming into their own. Unfortunately, they’re missing all-star 1B Justin Morneau, and are totally outmatched against the Yankees. They’ll be lucky to win one, but they might make the games interesting.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim survived a series of injuries to their starting pitchers early, and the tragic death of young starter Nick Adenhart. They have a solid rotation, a deep, balanced lineup, and something to prove after perennially underachieving since their 2002 World Series win. Despite winning the AL West most years, they are a shoo-in to go out quietly in the ALDS, or in a good year, the ALCS. Will this be the year they break out of their underachieving?

The Boston Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, took the Tampa Bay Rays to Game 7 of the ALCS in 2008, and somehow took the Wild Card in 2009 despite the early struggles of Jon Lester, and age catching up with stars such as David Ortiz and Mike Lowell.

This season was notable for the success of Jason Bay and Dustin Pedroia, and the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury as both a star player, and as my newest favourite Red Sox (I’ll be buying his jersey soon). As a Sox fan, I’m hoping for the best, but I have trouble seeing them get past the Yankees if they do win their ALDS matchup with the Angels. On the other hand, they have two aces in Beckett and Lester, which makes them dangerous in any series.

In the NL, the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies are back in. I always find the playoffs more exciting when the defending champs are a contender. You feel like the other teams have to earn it by going through them. The Phillies bring back most of their championship team, albeit having subbed Raul Ibanez for Pat Burrell in LF, and added a second ace in Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels, the star of ’08, has struggled, and their bullpen – a rock last year – is somewhat shaky.

The Colorado Rockies are attempting to replicate the 2003 Marlins’ run to the championship. They fired their manager early in the season, bringing in a veteran skipper (Jim Tracy). They have an emerging ace in Ubaldo Jimenez, and a deep, balanced lineup. They’re an underdog, but I wouldn’t discount them.

The Los Angeles Dodgers of Chavez Ravine won the West, despite losing Manny Ramirez to suspension for a couple of months. They have a number of talented young players in the field to complement veterans like ManRam and Casey Blake, and their rotation is serviceable at worst. They finally won a playoff series last year, their first since their World Series win in 1988, but bowed out to the Phillies in the NLCS. They’re back for another crack at it, but it’s hard to say if their team is much if any better this year than last.

The St. Louis Cardinals won the Central, powered by all-world 1B Albert Pujols and bolstered by the mid-season pickup of OF Matt Holliday. They also have two aces with Adam Wainwright and a resurgent Chris Carpenter leading the way. They appear to lack depth on paper, but could still be dangerous.

Who Should I Cheer For?
The Red Sox. Best franchise in baseball. But if you’re looking for sentimental favourites, I’d go with St. Louis. You have Matt Holliday, looking for his first ring, and the great comeback story of Chris Carpenter. Carpenter, the former ace, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, and looked to be finished, making a few unimpressive starts in 2008, and suffering additional injuries then and in his second start of 2009. He came back in late May and has been dominant. posting a 2.24 ERA and 1.01 WHIP while winning 17 games. I had him on my fantasy team this year, and it’s been such a pleasure to watch him bounce back. Seeing him win another World Series would be an amazing way to cap off the year.

Alternately, if you like underdogs, root for Minnesota and Colorado.

Now Why Do I Want to Watch, There’s So Much Else to Do. Can I Just Tune In For the Final Game or Two?
Because in every playoff, there is at least one game you will not want to miss:
– In 2008, it was the Red Sox’s epic Game 5 comeback in the ALCS.
– In 2007, Game 2 of the Indians-Yankees ALDS matchup featured a swarm of insects descending on Jacobs Field and wreaking havoc with the game. It was a surreal, incredible thing to watch.
– In 2006, Game 7 of the NLCS was an absolute classic, with Endy Chavez’s home run stealing catch in the 7th eventually negated by Yadier Molina’s 9th inning home run, and Adam Wainwright’s picture perfect curveball freezing Carlos Beltran to end the game.
– 2005 was the worst year for playoffs ever. Seriously, nothing exciting happened. There was even a 16 inning Astros-Braves game that featured Roger Clemens in relief, but it was so bad I actually turned it off. And I never turn a baseball game off unless it’s really, really bad.
– 2004 featured the incredible comebacks in Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS by the Boston Red Sox, and the subsequent “Bloody Sock” game.
– 2003 featured an epic ALCS, with the Game 3 brawl that saw Pedro and Don Zimmer throw down, and a Red Sox meltdown in Game 7. Let’s just say “Bartman Game”, and not speak further of that year’s NLCS.
– 2002 saw an inspired Angels comeback, down 5-0 late in Game 6, to win that game and then take Game 7 and the World Series trophy. It was a comeback marred only by the introduction of thundersticks by Angels fans.
– The 2001 World Series, of course, is famous for the Yankees back-to-back walkoff wins against the Diamondbacks and Byung-Hung Kim, and the Arizona side gaining revenge and the championship by winning Game 7 in walkoff fashion.

Aren’t the Games Longer than During the Regular Season?
Yes, but this can also work to your advantage. Once you get to the LCS round, the evening games generally start around 8:20 EST. For me, that’s 6:20 local time, which means I have a decent amount of time to get home, get dinner underway, and be relaxing and watching the game by the time the first pitch is thrown. While the extra commercial breaks and pitching changes mean the game could easily go 3 1/2-4 hours, you can turn this into a positive. For example, if you’re watching with friends, it provides ample time for conversation, baseball-related or not. You can also take breaks every few minutes. It becomes a relaxing way to spend the evening while also getting caught of work, email, laundry, etc.

Who Are Some Players to Watch?
Star Players Who Are Fun to Watch: Joe Mauer (Minnesota), Albert Pujols (St. Louis), Derek Jeter (NY Yankees), Dustin Pedroia and Victor Martinez (Boston), Chase Utley (Philadelphia), to name a few.

Potential Breakout Players: Ubaldo Jimenez and Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado), Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier (Los Angeles Dodgers), Kendry Morales (Los Angeles Angels), Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Bucholz (Boston), Phil Hughes (NY Yankees), Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth (Philadelphia)

Key Role Players Who Could Come Up Big: Mark DeRosa (St. Louis), Carlos Ruiz (Philadelphia), Casey Blake (Dodgers), Chone Figgins (Angels).

Isn’t the Team With the Best Record Going to Win?
Recent history says not necessarily. Check out this graph; the playoffs should be wide open.

Need more incentive: watch the ‘Beyond Baseball’ commercials, and try not to get excited and/or emotional, depending on the ad. And enjoy the playoffs; it’s one of the best times of year.

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