Monday, October 27, 2008

Is This Series Over Already? Signs Point to YES

I have never been one to write off a team before a series is over, but the Philadelphia Phillies look to have taken control of their series with the Tampa Bay Rays. After "ageless wonder" Jamie Moyer pulled out the victory (or at least pitched well enough to get his team a win) in Game 3, the series took a turn for Philly. Head-to-head matchups would have favored any game for Philly with Cole Hamels (who won Game 1 convincingly), most for Tampa with James Shields (who held the Phillies scoreless in Game 2), and, at least going in, most for Tampa with Matt Garza. Garza did NOT fare well in Game 3, though. I would have called it a "toss-up" with Joe Blanton in Game 4, but Andy Sonnanstine is a roller-coaster variety starter who hit a low with his Sunday night start.

With Hamels again starting in tonight's critical Game 5, the Rays had better hope to get to him early. Scott Kazmir, the Game 1 opponent and tonight's rematch starter, shows little hope of being the tide-turner in this one. His Game 1 effort was respectable (three runs in six innings), but Hamels was better (two runs in seven innings). If Hamels turns over a lead to the Philly bullpen, I think this series is over tonight in five games. Kazmir needs an effort like the one he turned in in Game 5 of the ALCS, when he held the Sox scoreless over six innings ... but then better hope his bullpen returns to the form it had in the games OTHER than that one (when the Sox came back to win) or the one last night (where the Phillies torched Rays' pitching for 10 runs, eight earned, with five allowed in three innings by the 'pen).

If any team could pull off a miracle, it just might be these Rays. They weren't expected to win the AL East ... but they did. They weren't expected to beat the Red Sox in the ALCS (especially after the Sox forced a Game 7) ... but they did. Now, they aren't expected to win three straight, including tonight's game at Philadelphia followed by two at home, to pull out the series ... but can they?

Rays, your only chance to claim victory in this series starts tonight - simply put, you must beat Cole Hamels. IF you defeat Hamels in Game 5, you won't have to face him again in the series. Then, you will see Brett Myers again in a Game 6 (facing your new postseason "ace" in Shields) followed, likely, by Moyer (who, seriously, are you going to not figure out his soft-tossing style by a Game 7?) in a finale. The Phillies could throw you a curve by bringing Blanton back on short rest instead of Moyer in Game 7 (assuming you make it that far), but I like your chances with (presuming a return to form from) Garza. Those last two games are simply moot if Kazmir doesn't come out blazing tonight. For good measure, there is one *minor* element that you, the Rays, need to have a chance as well - OFFENSE.

What has happened to B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, and Carlos Pena, to name but a few key elements of the Rays' offense? If the middle of the lineup cannot produce, I cannot see Akinori Iwamura, Carl Crawford, Dioner Navarro, et. al. making up the difference. It's not to say that they can't, but those top three guys have got to produce and produce NOW.

Philadelphia - your only key to winning is to keep doing exactly what you're doing. Keep dominating with the starting pitching, stifling bullpen, and, oh yes, the high-powered offense that I expected to see this postseason. Ryan Howard picked a good time to "return" to the lineup in a productive manner.

Is this series over already? Yes, the signs do point to "yes", but stranger things have happened.

Postscript section for Fantasy followers out there... I was burned by my mostly Tampa offensive lineup for Game 4 (as well as Game 3, really), but I don't have the trades to hope to change things much for Game 5 or the rest of this series. For those in similar situtations, hope the Rays can survive this game to get back home, where the home field (and warmth of an indoor environment) will probably "heat up" those cold bats as well. If you're lucky enough to have (or have picked up) Ryan Howard by Game 3, you are finally paying dividends. Many probably jumped on Howard for Game 4 (after seeing the previous performance) and reaped the rewards. I think that Cole Hamels is a no-brainer starter pick in Game 5 (even though I have to hope for a no-decision if I hope to get more series points beyond tonight). Even though my own roster has Rays' bullpen members, they look best to avoid at least until proven once again reliable.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Let The Games Begin ... World Series Preview: Rays / Phillies

Today, Wednesday, October 22nd, is the first day of the 2008 World Series. I am truly excited about watching two teams with historically losing records (the Phillies for most of their long franchise history (most losses of any team) and the Rays in every year of their shorter existence until this one) battle it out for baseball supremacy this season. While I may be in the national viewing minority (likely the case with smaller market Tampa / St. Pete and shrinking market Philadelphia), the case could be made for a potentially balanced matchup of these two teams. It may not be the Red Sox / Dodgers matchup that TV executives likely wanted, but this could be a very watchable series.

My predictions leading up to this series have mostly been wrong, so I won't even attempt to tell you who I think is going to win and in how many games. I will guess that this one probably goes six or seven games, though, based on pitching balance of the squads. Cole Hamels is probably the hottest starting pitcher on either team, and Matt Garza is probably the next best after him (and both won their respective LCS MVP titles).

Hamels could pitch up to three games in this series, while Garza is not up until Game 3 (with staff "ace" Scott Kazmir the Rays starter for Game 1). I have liked Kazmir historically, but the second half of his season has not been pretty at all (including most of this postseason). Arguably, James Shields or Garza should be facing Hamels in Game 1 (imho), but Garza pitched on Sunday and isn't an option on only two days rest. Shields could be (having pitched Saturday), but three days rest is probably not as good as full four-day rest. All of the Phillies' players should be well-rested ... but may also be rusty with the week-long layoff since last Wednesday.

Offensively, the season stats would favor Philadelphia, one of the best offensive clubs in all of baseball. Philly scored the second-most runs in the NL (behind only the Cubs and tied with the Mets) and ranked in a tie for eigth in the ML. Tampa Bay was a steady producer as well but well behind most of the offense-driven AL (in ninth) and in 13th overall. Philly also was the majors' leader in HR.

What Tampa Bay may lack in offense (which isn't all that much, really) it offsets with the third-best pitching in baseball (3.82 ERA, ranking second in the AL behind only Toronto), which is very impressive, again, in the more offense-driven league. Philadelphia is no slouch here, either, with a robust 3.88 ERA, ranking close behind at sixth overall.

As those financial shows on TV often do, I will provide full disclosure here as well. I don't have any vested interest in either team, although my Postseason Fantasy Baseball squad (which I am playing here at TSN) is driven mostly by Tampa offense (such as Upton and Longoria) and Philly pitching (Hamels and Lidge) as well as some crossover on both teams (such as Shane Victorino and Matt Garza). I loaded one of my teams with almost the entire Tampa offensive lineup (from Navarro to Iwamura to Upton to Longoria to Aybar, etc.). It should be interesting, once again, no matter what happens. I would love to see the small-market Tampa squad (29th of 30 teams) make it all the way to give hope to all of our other small-market teams around the country.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cubs Going Down in Flames ... and Other 2008 Baseball Playoff Observations

I can now confirm what I subsconsciously knew when I wrote my "useless" predictions about the baseball playoffs only a short few days ago: most prognostications are just a random chance guess. An entry headline where "Cubs Going Down in Flames" doesn't begin to tell someone how painful it has been to watch the NL's best regular-season team failing to deliver by any measure so far in the postseason.

One may want to blame all of this on a "curse", but the manner in which the Chicago north side team played on Wednesday and Thursday can most certainly be called "ugly". There is no doubt about that. Their pitching has been poor (7+ runs in each game), they haven't shown any offensive muscle (2 and 3 runs, respectively), and the defense has been uncharacteristically bad (1 error in Game 1 followed by 4! in Game 2). When starter Carlos Zambrano, the "ace" of the staff", gives up seven runs but only three are earned thanks to two miscues in one half inning alone, you know the team is self-destructing. Realistically, the Cubs have dug themselves into a hole from which recovery is not probable. Possible, yes, but not likely. The next game will feature the Cubs' "next best" starter in Rich Harden, who gives them some hope, but then a Game 4, if there is one, would likely feature the Dodgers' Derek Lowe, who shut them down in Game 1. Of course, both games are being playing on the road, away from the "Friendly Confines" and in Chavez Ravine (i.e. Dodger Stadium). The sweep that I projected was not supposed to happen like this ... are the Dodgers really this good? Dodgers lead 2-0. Game 3 in LA on Saturday.

Around the rest of playoff action ...

How about those Rays? Evan Longoria, rookie extraordinaire, provided much of the offense (and possibly en route to a series MVP) with two homers and three RBI. The Rays bullpen, not suprisingly, was stellar in Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell, both notching two K in their appearances. Dan Wheeler made one mistake (homer to Paul Konerko) but was otherwise in control in recording the save. The White Sox offensively could have kept pace but stranded 11 runners on base. The top of the seventh inning was really the critical moment, as starter James Shields walked Alexi Ramirez and then hit A.J. Pierzynski with a pitch to load the bases (after Konerko had reached base earlier with a single). Balfour came in and struck out the only two batters he faced - Juan Uribe and Orlando Cabrera - to escape unscathed and preserve the lead. Keep an eye on Tampa the rest of the way. Rays lead 1-0. Game 2 Friday in Tampa.

CC Sabathia has officially run out of gas. The fatigue factor of pitching so many innings with so few days rest appears to have finally caught the big guy. Couple that with Philadelphia starter Brett Myers walking in a run in the first (avoiding more possible damage) but then settling down to work the next five scoreless innings before surrending only a second in the seventh, his last inning. Sabathia couldn't make it out of the fourth inning, leaving with the bases loaded but rescued by reliever Mitch Stetter. The real damage against CC happened in the bottom of the second, notably where five runs scored (all of the Philly offense for the game) in a sequence that saw him walk, unexpectedly, his counterpart Myers followed by Jimmy Rollins, both with two outs. That left the bases loaded, and Sabathia made a mistake to Shane Victorino that resulted in the centerfielder's first career grand slam. Phillies lead the series 2-0 and appear easily in control heading to Milwaukee for Game 3. Game 3 Saturday in Milwaukee.

No new games played in the only other series - Angels vs Red Sox - where the home team Angels must rebound tonight behind starter Ervin Santana, who reversed a trend this season by pitching better away from "The Big A" home field than on it. Hopefully, he pulls some of his 2006 and 2007 success of home dominance to the park in Game 2. His counterpart is Dice-K (Daisuke Matsuzaka), who had an outstanding season with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.90, to be exact) and a measly .211 BAA. He faced the Angels only once this season (his first time ever) and was shelled at Fenway for seven hits and six runs in only five innings of work, one of his few season losses. Santana did not face Boston this season, making him a bit of a wild card. His last appearance against Boston was late in 2007, where he won in Boston by allowing only one run in 6 1/3 innings. Red Sox lead 1-0. Game 2 Friday in Anaheim.