Friday, September 30, 2011

Don't be surprised

Here I come again with my negative anxiety, so let me just be clear that the Phillies, their monster starting rotation and a pocket full of Pence should take care of the Cardinals in the Division Series, in three or four games.

Now that the should is out of the way, I simply want this post to be a reality check for all those fans who saw their team cruise through a 102-win season, and expect to see that parade through Center City. It's now October and a sample size of 42 years (since MLB did away with a single division in each league) tells us that every team that reaches the postseason has an equal chance of winning it all.

For the Phillies, the opening round might present a bigger challenge than any possible matchups further in. The Cardinals are a scary bunch.

Their offense produced better than any in the National League and got the best of Philly pitching more than once. St. Louis' 6-3 advantage in the regular-season series is also a cause for concern.

But what scares me most of all? The Phillies absolutely cannot hit Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, the projected starters for Games 2 and 3.

Since last season, the pair of hurlers have combined for 5-0 record and an unbelievable ERA of 0.88 in eight starts against the Phils. There wasn't a single poor or even mediocre outing in that stretch. I'm sorry to say that's the reason I was kind of hoping the Braves would win on Wednesday. We've proven on more than one occasion that we can beat Atlanta, in both blowouts and squeakers.

Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa must have also seen the numbers, explaining why he set up his rotation the way he did. However, it could work out in Philadelphia's favor.

Carpenter will pitch on Sunday on just three day's rest. I don't have any stats on his effectiveness in that situation because he's never done it before in his major league career. It's quite a gamble, but it's the smart move for the Cardinals. My guess is, an unflappable veteran like Carpenter will still throw his game.

If that's the case, the Phillies absolutely need to win Game 1 tonight. You know Doc will deliver his best, and though Kyle Lohse has enjoyed a solid year, he doesn't silence the Philly bats like Carpenter and Garcia. Losing to one of them won't be so bad if the Phillies are already up a game.

Then again, our guys could sweep, or they could get swept. That's the randomness of the playoffs. As always, I go in cautiously optimistic, and I can't wait for another awesome year of October baseball.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Holy Cow!

The final day of the 2011 regular season was shaping up to be an epic one, but I could not have scripted a better finish if I tried.

Here was the sequence of events:

The Orioles down to their last strike, Nolan Reimold clocks a Jonathan Papelbon heater into right center for a ground-rule RBI double to tie the game. Robert Andino follows with a line shot that falls just under the glove of a diving Carl Crawford, allowing Reimold to score the winning run.

After the celebration in Baltimore between first and second base, I switch over to the Yankees-Rays game in the bottom of the 12th inning. With the count even at 2-2, Evan Longoria shoots a laser that barely clears the left-field wall, punching Tampa Bay's ticket to the postseason.

Need we any greater examples of baseball's magnificence?

In both of the games mentioned above, the victor did not own a lead until the very last pitch, and each one was a strike away from defeat.

In the National League, the Phillies' 4-3, 13-inning win over the Braves knocked them out of the playoffs after the Cardinals' 8-0 win over the Astros earlier in the day.

Baseball is full of historic late-season collapses, but 2011 earned its distinction with a pair of breakdowns in the Wild Card race. Atlanta and Boston each entered the final month of the season with a lead of more than 8 games in the Wild Card standings, but by the 162nd game they fell into ties with St. Louis and Tampa Bay, respectively. Such an occurrence was crazy enough, and it seemed as if at least one of the two races would result in a 163rd contest.

The walk-off gods were having none of that.

In the end, the baseball universe righted itself. After all, a team that opens the season 2-10 isn't supposed to make the playoffs (only three teams ever have), and it's no surprise that Crawford, who was very un-Crawford-like during his first season in Beantown, failed to make the play that sealed the Red Sox' fate.

But hand it to the Cardinals and Rays for playing their butts off in September after wallowing in mediocrity for much of the year. These are the kind of late surges that lead to world championships.

Speaking of hot finishes, I need to give props to the O's, who I still consider my second favorite major league team. They closed out the season with 11 wins in their last 17 games, and turned Boston's mighty roar atop the AL East into a whimper in that final series. Say what you want about the 14 consecutive losing seasons, but there's no sweeter ending than a walk-off win over the Red Sox. Hero Andino put it best:

"End the season like this, [to] make Boston go home sad, crying, I'll take it all day."

Take it all winter, guys.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The numbers don't lie

In June and August, Cliff Lee has pitched better than anyone in baseball history.

What about the other three months of the year?

I admit I have seen no one else try to answer that question, because it's not a normal practice to search for flaws with the best team in baseball - particularly after Hunter Pence's arrival put the offense back on track.

However, I feel it's a very important question when it comes to the quest for a World Series title. No one would argue that the rotation of Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt/Vance Worley is easily the most intimidating of any playoff-bound team in the last dozen years, but if those guys aren't pitching up to their reputations, the road to the top gets murkier.

Here is why I'm concerned about Lee:

June 6-28, Aug. 4-Sept. 6 - 11-0 0.30 ERA, 1 HR

April, May & July - 5-7, 4.22 ERA, 14 HR (the Phillies went 8-9 in those 17 starts by Lee)

I present the above evidence for anyone saying that Lee is deserving of the Cy Young Award. He definitely deserved it in 2008 because he dominated throughout the entire season. I find it much harder to back someone who is only great 40 percent of the time.

While Halladay and Hamels have been consistently effective all season (the run differential between each of their best and worst months is less than two), Lee has been incredibly streaky. This isn't uncommon for him, but the problem is when he's not pitching his best, he's barely an average pitcher, and the rust takes a while to shake off. Don't get me wrong, Lee has carried his weight overall this season, but if he takes another dip in the playoffs and another starter has a bad outing, things could go wrong very quickly.

We all remember how stellar Lee was in the 2009 postseason, when he almost single-handedly pitched us into the World Series. He finished 4-0 in five playoff starts with a 1.56 ERA. He picked up the only two wins in the series against the New York Yankees.

Lee began the 2010 postseason much the same way with the Texas Rangers. He won his first three starts, allowing just two runs and striking out 34 in 24 innings. The wheels came off in the World Series, however. He lost Games 1 & 5 and coughed up 10 runs to a San Francisco Giants team that had averaged just three runs per game over the first two rounds of the playoffs.

That begs the question, which Lee are we going to get in October this season? With a 10.5-game lead over the Atlanta Braves, we can afford a bad Lee over the next few weeks. That way, he can recover in time to pitch like he did two years ago.