BY MIKE WOLVERTON SPORTS GUY It was an ingenious move by MLB to switch the end of the regular season to midweek instead of Sunday. Who wants the last day of games to collide with a full day of NFL football? By making the move, baseball had the spotlight all to itself Wednesday night, and gave us what is being called “one of” the best regular season days in the sport’s history (simply by saying “one of”, sportscasters avoid having to step out on a limb or defend their statement). The Phils and Braves went extra innings, so did the Rays, while the Red Sox game had a rain-delay, so everything synched up to end about the same time, in ultra-dramatic fashion. It sure was a shame to see Atlanta and Boston draw the short straws (if “shame” were synonymous with “awesome”). I had one major problem with the scheduling…MLB made the move and had Wednesday night all to themselves, and then scheduled 4 day games. What if the Red Sox and Rays games had been during the day? People would have gotten home to hear about these amazing outcomes and thought, “Too bad I was at work”. Next year, all night games on the final day of the year, please. On to the playoff preview. Three years ago I covered myself in glory by nailing 6 of the 7 series winners before the playoffs began, correctly predicting the Phillies over the Rays in the World Series and missing only one opening-round matchup. Since then…let’s just say 2008 is starting to look like a fluke. Nevertheless, I’m back, looking for the perfect 7-for-7 (also known as a “Reverse Chipper Jones”). Here’s how I see it:
Rays vs. Rangers
If there’s one thing we’ve learned since the beginning of the Wild Card Era, it is Beware the Hot Team. Baseball teams that have been in playoff mode at the end of the regular season, fighting to qualify (i.e. 2007 Rockies), often have an edge on teams that have been coasting to the finish (i.e. 2011 Phillies). From 2002-2007, a Wild Card team made the World Series every year. This year, the Rays are red hot, having made up a 9-game September deficit. Game 1 will be huge in this series, as Tampa Bay will use the top pitching prospect in baseball (Matt Moore) against Rangers’ ace C.J. Wilson. Moore was dominant in his first-ever MLB start last week, and if Wilson doesn’t get the Rangers off to a good start, their rotation behind him doesn’t inspire (Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison). The Rangers do have the better offense, led by Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, who had four home runs in his final two games to reach 30 on the year. This should be an excellent series. RANGERS IN FIVE
Tigers vs. Yankees
Detroit’s Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball, but he can only pitch two games. The Yankees have all these high-priced stars, but after C.C. Sabathia, their rotation looks like leftover chopped liver. A.J. Burnett ($82.5 million over 5 years) sucks so bad he’s been sent to the bullpen. The injured/ineffective Phil Hughes, too. Their Game 2 starter? Ivan Nova, in his first major-league season. Their Game 3 starter? Freddy Garcia, in his 27th big league season. Their Game 4 starter? Probably Larry Christenson. Meanwhile, Detroit traded for Seattle’s Doug Fister at the deadline, and he’s been sneaky-dominant in the second half. The Tigers’ offense is no slouch, with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and a bunch of guys who get the big hit at the right time. Do you think a banged-up ARod, who hit .276 with 16 HR this year, is ready to shine in the clutch? TIGERS IN FOUR
Diamondbacks vs. Brewers
Count me in on the “How Did The Diamondbacks Win Their Division?” brigade. Total ineptness of the other NL West teams? Maybe I don’t get it, as I didn’t watch the Diamondbacks once this year (what would have been the point?). Arizona has some nice players in Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy and, umm, I’m sure there are a few others. But what kind of playoff team has Joe Saunders as their 3rd starter? Well managed, good bullpen, overmatched in the playoffs. I’ll save my Milwaukee analysis for Round 2. BREWERS IN THREE
Cardinals vs. Phillies
Beware the Hot Team, right? I do believe in that theory, and I do believe baseball teams can’t coast to the end and then flip the “On” switch. But come on. Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt. St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter has been pretty hittable in 2011 and he just blew his wad on Wednesday in Houston (Carpenter will pitch Game 3). I like Edwin Jackson (Game 2), but the other Cardinals starters (Jamie Garcia and especially Kyle Lohse) leave me cold. The Cardinals can certainly hit, with a middle of the lineup that boasts Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. But the surprising secret…St. Louis can’t field. They improved an awful defense with the acquisition of Rafael Furcal, but his health is a question mark, as is Holliday’s. And don’t get me started on the shaky bullpen. Good job making the playoffs, St. Louis. NEXT! PHILLIES IN FOUR.
ALDS: Tigers vs. Rangers
I won’t waste your time with details of this hypothetical matchup, but here’s the pick: TIGERS IN SEVEN.
NLDS: Brewers vs. Phillies
This isn’t a hypothetical matchup…it’s a lock! The Brewers are clearly the biggest threat to a Phillies return to the World Series. Two ace-level hurlers (Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke) and two other solid starters (Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf). Milwaukee has an excellent bullpen and scary offense. The Phils catch a break as Rickie Weeks is still not 100% and has struggled since returning from a severely sprained ankle. But Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Weeks form a potent core and the Brewers have few week spots (aside from Yuniesky Betancourt). The Phillies won’t beat this team if they don’t hit (well, duh). PHLLIES IN SIX
World Series: Tigers vs. Phillies
Verlander vs. Halladay in the World Series? I like the sound of that. Lee vs. Fister doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Where the Phillies really have the advantage is in their 3rd and 4th starters, as Max Scherzer (inconsistent) and Rick Porcello (consistently mediocre) can’t match Hamels and Oswalt. And I’ve been waiting all year for Tigers’ closer Jose Valverde to implode (49-49 in converting saves despite less-than-dominant peripheral numbers). No way Valverde makes it though the playoffs without coughing up a big game. And your winner is: PHILLIES IN FIVE
Enjoy the ride, Phillies fans.