People who aren’t really baseball fans will tell you the season is too long. In reality, all sports seasons are too long and while the length of time of the baseball season is no longer than hockey or basketball, the sheer number of games baseball teams play gives the impression the season is longer than other sports.
This year, it’s a good job the season did last 162 games, because the Cardinals and Pirates needed that 162nd game to decide which team would win the NL Central and which would be the top Wild Card seed. Similarly, the Tigers and the Royals needed their 162nd games to decide which team would win the AL Central and which would be the top Wild Card seed. Even though they had the best record at the All-Star break, the Athletics needed their 162nd game to hold off the Mariners for the second AL Wild Card berth. Only a week ago, there were eleven different possibilities of ties between one or more teams for all post-season spots except the AL East, the AL West and the NL East. That means that seven of the ten post-season spots were still up for grabs, at least mathematically with a week to go in the regular season.
Now we can get into some serious baseball, where every team starts afresh in terms of losses and has to win eleven games (or twelve games for the four Wild Card teams) to hoist the World Series Trophy. There is no room for slumps, errors become more costly, there are no soft spots in the other teams’ rotations and strategy becomes even more important. Managers will have to decide when to take out a pitcher, when to use that “situational lefty” to get one hitter or maybe insert a pinch hitter or a pinch runner. There are “tomorrows”, but nowhere as many of them as there are throughout the regular season. A four game losing streak can’t be offset next week by a five game winning streak, no matter how good the team.
Predicting post-season baseball is always somewhat of a crap-shoot. A team can suddenly get four/five great starts from its pitchers and look like world beaters, regardless of the opposition. Conversely, a poor performance by the rotation can make the weakest of hitting teams look like the 1927 Yankees.
Looking at the Wild Card games first, the classic would appear to be the AL game between the visiting Athletics and the Royals in Kansas City on Tuesday. If you like pitching, this is your game to watch. Jon Lester is scheduled for the A’s and this is just the type of game he was picked up for when the A’s got him from the Red Sox at the August 31 deadline. The only downer for the A’s is that they have been playing sub .500 ball for over a month now and have to kick it into high gear and by starting Lester tomorrow, they take him out of the equation in terms of starting an ALDS game (providing they beat Kansas City) until game three in Oakland next Sunday. That could be costly. Lester’s opponent on Tuesday will be James Shields and they don’t call him “Big Game James” without reason. Look for a solidly pitched game which could turn on the smallest of great plays by either team or on a mistake by either team. I’ll go with the Royals simply because they are at home and have been playing with confidence the last month or so, showing that the Tigers are not as invincible as we have thought over the last few years.
Over in the NL, on Wednesday in Pittsburgh the Pirates host the Giants. Not quite as marquee a matchup as the AL game the night before as Madison Bumgarner goes for the Giants against Edinson Volquez. Two good pitchers, but not exactly Lester and Shields. Home field plus their recent steady play should allow the Pirates to advance.
By having to play the 162nd game to decide their division status probably hurt the Tigers more than any team as it meant they had to use David Price, forcing the Tigers to hold him back until the second game of the ALDS on Friday, rather than have him ready to start game one the day before. Fortunately for the Tigers, starting pitching is their strength, at least on paper. That starting pitching is what should carry them past Baltimore, who despite winning the AL East by a huge margin still don’t seem as settled rotation wise as the Tigers do. The off days between the end of the regular season and the start of the ALDS on Thursday gives the Tigers and Orioles time to re-set their rotations, removing only Sunday’s starters from consideration as candidates to start game one.
Looking at the other AL series a rested Angels team will face either Kansas City or Oakland. While the Angels have cruised home since the All-Star break, their pitching isn’t as solid as one would expect from a division winner and they were greatly aided by the A’s collapse. The bats of Albert Pujols and Mike Trout et al should be enough to carry the Angels who will also have had a chance to re-set their starting rotation, but both Kansas City and Oakland have enough rotation depth to push the Angels in a long series.
In the NL, the Wild Card winner takes on the Washington Nationals, who don’t appear to have too many weaknesses and enter the post-season on a high after Jordan Zimmerman threw a no-hitter in the final regular season game on Sunday. Pittsburgh would seem to give the Nationals a better challenge, but the Giants pitching has been very good the last month or so, so that could get interesting. The Giants also have the bats and the post-season experience, so look for that one to go six or even seven games.
In recent years, the Cardinals and the Dodgers always seem to meet somewhere in the post-season. The Cardinals originally announced that Adam Wainwright would start Sunday in their attempt to clinch their division but a last minute change to Nick Greenwood means that Wainwright will be a lock to start game one on Friday and the obvious choice for the Dodgers is ace Clayton Kershaw. The four full off-days between the regular season and the post-season gives both teams the opportunity to set-up their starting rotations exactly the way they would like. Another one we don’t want to miss and a game that will also likely be decided by the narrowest of margins. That looks like a six-seven game series to me as well.
No matter what, there are no teams in the post season that are far above the rest and there are no teams that just squeaked in. Obviously some teams are more favoured than others, but in reality there are 10 good teams in this post-season. Down the road, we still have the potential for a World Series between two keen rivals, as Angels-Dodgers, Giants-A’s, Nationals-Orioles, Royals-Cardinals are all possibilities, plus we still have the chance of a Los Angeles-Bay Area World Series.
A lot of baseball still to be played and a lot of GOOD baseball still to be played. I can’t wait. Let’s Play Ball!