After a final two weeks of baseball so wild and crazy Nickelodeon would want to make a game show out of it, we’re finally down to eight teams. Structurally flawed teams like the Red Sox and Braves petered out, while teams built around strong starting pitching and consistent offense have survived. Starting Friday, four best-of-five divisional series will begin. On the line: the chance for an AL or NL pennant. Who’s moving on and who’s moving home? Here’s my take (home-field team first).
New York Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers
Justin Verlander will win the Cy Young and has won the AL’s pitching triple crown, but he won’t be starting at home: he’ll be starting at Yankee Stadium, where he’s 0-2 with a 4.00 ERA in three starts. Verlander’s never really dominated the Yankees. CC Sabathia, meanwhile, will make both his starts at home, where he’s 26-7. Sabathia beats Verlander in Game 1 in front of a fired-up Yankees stadium.
Sabathia will start Game 4 on short rest while Verlander would start Game 5 on regular rest. Sabathia can probably beat Rick Porcello – a B+ pitcher (14-9, 4.75 ERA) at best – in Game 4. The Yankees are a statistically stronger and much faster lineup (almost 100 more stolen bases than the Tigers). Combined with the better bullpen, the Yankees have the edge in close games.
With the Yankees’ three-man rotation, rookie Ivan Nova will have to pitch twice, including once on the road. Nova has proven he’s the real deal this season, but there’s no way Verlander loses twice. Which means that to beat the Yankees, the Tigers need Doug Fister (11-13, 2.58 ERA) to beat Nova in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. I don’t see it happening. Fister has a 6.00 ERA against the Yankees, and he’s never won at Yankee Stadium.
Max Scherzer could very easily beat slow-throwing, 34-year old Freddy Garcia in Game 3 at Comerica Park, but it’s won’t be enough. Verlander might be the best pitcher in the majors, but the Yankees’ rotation runs much deeper. Prediction: Yankees in 4.
Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays rotation’s 3.53 ERA is lowest in the AL, but the Rangers are close behind them at 3.65. And Texas can hit, outranking Tampa Bay in virtually every offensive category. Tampa Bay can outrun Texas a little, but they just don’t have the bats to compete with the Rangers.
The Rays are certainly amped after overcoming the Red Sox’s seemingly unconquerable wild card lead, but that momentum grinds to a halt in Arlington. The Rays beat the Rangers just once at Rangers Ballpark. Rangers ace C.J. Wilson is 2-0 against the Rays, and the Rays are going with rookie Matt Moore, who will make just his second start ever. Wilson shut down the Rays in the 2010 ALDS, and he’ll do it again this year.
The Rays will go with Jeremy Hellickson and David Price for their home games. Hellickson’s never beaten the Rangers, but Price has a 2.86 career ERA at Tropicana Field. Another split evens the series 2-2. Back in Texas, Wilson has a tougher time beating Shields on normal rest. Still, the Rangers won 52 games at home for a reason. Prediction: Rangers in 5.
Philadelphia Phillies vs. St. Louis Cardinals
This one is easy. The Rays may have the best pitching in the AL, but the Phillies have the best pitching in the majors. Their ERA? 2.86. And they have three of the best shut-down pitchers in the game: Roy Halladay (who last year pitched a no-hitter in the playoffs), 19-6, 2.35 ERA; Cliff Lee (who’s moved seamlessly to the NL), 17-8, 2.40 ERA; and Cole Hamels (as great a No. 3 pitcher as you could ask for), 14-9, 2.79 ERA. And with the mid-series travel day, the Phillies could pitch Halladay and Lee again on a regular four days’ rest.
It really doesn’t matter who the Cardinals pitch or how powerful their lineup is (best in the NL in most categories). Good hitting never trumps good pitching in the postseason. And the Phillies could easily ride their trio to the World Series. Prediction: Phillies in 3.
Milwaukee Brewers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Brewers are a loose, fun-loving bunch that captivates fans like the 2004 “Idiot” Red Sox. Their attitude means they’re unlikely to feel any postseason pressure. They’re also benefited by history: the Brewers have been so terrible for so long that fans have become numb to it. That these Brewers have been even this good, this entertaining, means they’re playing with house money. Like Boston’s “Impossible Dream” team in 1967, the Brewers have restored their fans’ faith. Anything beyond that is just icing.
Brewers fans: get ready for some icing. Though Arizona won their season series against Milwaukee 5-4, the Brewers hit better and pitch better. The Brewers’ rotation has both a lower ERA (3.78 vs. 3.84) and a lower opponent batting average (.249 vs. 2.61). Their lineup has more hits, hits more home runs, gets on base more and hits the ball harder than the Diamondbacks’.
Now, Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy beats Yovanni Gallardo in Game 1 at Miller Park. Kennedy’s six-decision winning streak is a big reason the Diamondbacks seized control of their divisional race in the final weeks of the season. But Brewer Shaun Marcum should beat Daniel Hudson in a close Game 2. Marcum’s better at keeping the bases clean, and the offense will probably pick him up. Milwaukee’s bullpen is better, too.
The teams split in Milwaukee, but Zack Greinke can beat whichever starter – Joe Saunders and rookie Josh Collmenter – the Diamondbacks throw at him. And with the opportunity to clinch on the road, Randy Wolf and his almost 3-to-1 strikeout-walk ratio on the road gets it done. Predictions: Brewers in 4.