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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor



(Editor’s note: The MLB playoffs begin this week, and THE GOLD SHEET continues its daily releases online, which can purchased for $10 on TGS Top Choice or $25 for multiple picks on TGS MLB Top Choice Plus (+) at www.goldsheet.com.)

Following is a quick preview of how the postseason shapes up in both the American and National Leagues. Pennant win prices are included next to each team’s name.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

After 162 games, the wild card race still hasn’t been settled, with the Tampa Bay Rays (12/1) and Texas Rangers (14/1) due to square off on Monday in Arlington for the right to face the Cleveland Indians (12/1) on Wednesday...for the right to face the Boston Red Sox (7/4) in the ALDS. Got all of that?

Prices do not suggest that the wild card teams have much of a shot at the pennant, but we would beg to differ, especially in the case of a potentially-scary Rays side that has postseason experience and some potential dominators at the top of the rotation with southpaws Matt Moore (17-4) and David Price, who could match a one-two pitching punch from any team in the postseason. What makes Tampa Bay an intriguing playoff longshot is not just the starting pitching but also a lineup full of contact hitters led by 3B Evan Longoria and well-complemented by a couple of very useful 2013 additions, ex-Dodger 1B James Loney and rookie OF Wil Myers, the prize of the offseason trade with Kansas City involving James Shields. After needing Moore on Sunday in the must-win regular-season finale at Toronto, however, the young lefty is likely not going to be available in the wild card round. Tampa Bay will use its other portside ace, David Price, on Monday vs. the Rangers, meaning Alex Cobb (dominant in his last three regular-season starts) likely gets the Wednesday assignment in Cleveland if the Rays get past Texas on Monday. Should Tampa Bay qualify for the ALDS against Boston, the rotation likely cycles back through Moore and Price for games 1 & 2 at Fenway Park vs. the Bosox.

It is the potential problems for opponents caused by the Rays’ deep pitching staff, however, that probably makes them more of a threat than the Indians, who will not be facing the same diet of late-season opponents like the White Sox (perhaps due a playoff share from the Tribe after losing 14 in a row to Cleveland this season), Astros, and Twins that allowed the Indians to win ten straight to close the regular season with a rush. But having demoted your closer in the last weekend of September (as skipper Terry Francona did with Chris Perez) suggests the sort of Achilles heel that will be hard to camouflage in the playoffs. We think Texas, which unlike last season closed fast itself to qualify for the extra game, is potentially more dangerous in the playoffs than Cleveland, due to a well-balanced lineup. The late-season emergence of former reliever Alexi Ogando, plus midseason addition Matt Garza straightening out in his last few starts after slumping earlier in September, will help Yu Darvish give the Rangers some real potential menace in their rotation. Though it will be Martin Perez on the mound to oppose Price and the Rays in the Monday elimination game.

Of the three division winners, we suppose there are more questions about the low-budget Oakland A’s (7/2) and their ability to hit quality pitching, which they will surely face in the ALDS when confronting the Detroit Tigers (21/10), as they did a year ago when they also had home-field edge but failed against Justin Verlander in the decisive Game 5. Unlike the 2012 postseason when suspended, however, the A’s do have the services of vet starter Bartolo Colon, who was remarkably consistent this season, while the emergence of 3B Josh Donaldson as an MVP candidate has further upgraded the Oakland offense from a year ago. We think the A’s, who swung the bats extremely well in another hot September, have enough pitching to make a deep run and did rather dominate Detroit in an August series at Comerica Park, narrowly missing a 4-game sweep.

We suspect the winner of the Tigers-A’s series will be the team to get to the World Series from the AL. Detroit’s credentials seem even more solid than Oakland’s, with the Tigers also looking to make amends for last October’s World Series sweep administered by the Giants. So deep is the Detroit staff that Justin Verlander’s season-long struggles have been camouflaged by new ace Max Scherzer’s Cy Young-caliber numbers that include a 20-3 record. Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Verlander also make up the best four-deep rotation in the playoffs, but we have some concerns about a Tiger bullpen that has been inconsistent at times.

The Red Sox enjoyed a season-long joyride at Fenway Park under new skipper John Farrell after the Bobby Valentine misadventure of 2012. We like the ability the Bosox have to manufacture runs with the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Shane Victorino, while the emergence of Japanese import Koji Uehara as a deadly closer has solidified the bullpen. The recent return of starting pitcher Clay Buchholz from the DL is a boost, but in a head-to-head with the Tigers or A’s, we still prefer the starting pitching in Detroit and Oakland. And maybe Tampa Bay, too.

NATIONAL LEAGUE


Shades of the ‘70s, when the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates (both 8/1) were for many years the dominant teams in the N:L and often ran into one another in the NLCS (1970, ‘72, ‘75, and ‘79, to be exact). For the Bucs, it’s almost been that long since they made the postseason, but a weekend sweep of the Reds puts Pittsburgh at home in PNC Park for the Tuesday wild card game with ace Francisco Liriano on the mound. The Reds carry little momentum into the wild card game, having lost five straight to close the regular season, as their offense has once again gone on the blink. The Pirates, who added plenty of pop in August waivers deals that landed OF Marlon Byrd and 1B Justin Morneau, look like more serious threats in October.

Still, ever since the Los Angeles Dodgers (11/8) went on their breathless summer run that saw them win an astounding 42 of 50, and 53 of 66 games, they’ve been the consensus favorite for not only the NL pennant, but the World Series. But the Blue tailed off considerably over the last month of the season, below .500 for the past four weeks. And while the wondrous Cuban rookie OF Yasiel Puig indeed lit the fuse for the Dodger resurgence in the summer, he has become a recurring liability as the season progressed, with undisciplined baserunning and poor fielding habits. Now Matt Kemp has been declared out for the playoffs, and fellow OF Andre Ethier's health remains a concern. The fact is that the Dodgers’ summer hot streak had more to do with suffocating pitching than a lineup which slumped at times during the extended uptick, only to be bailed out by the staff in a succession of 2-1 and 3-2 scorelines which reminded more of the mid ‘60s Dodgers with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Claude Osteen keeping foes in check. The potentially-dominant Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo at the top of the rotation is admittedly frightening, but Ricky Nolasco’s recent struggles and closer Kenley Jansen losing a bit of steam from his fastball in September are red flags beyond the frequent blackouts from the batting order. Even with Kershaw and Greinke, some of those shortcominge might be hard for Don Mattingly to camouflage in October.

While the Atlanta Braves (16/5) might have the pitching to match the Dodgers in the NLDS, we remain disillusioned by so many free-swingers in their lineup. Though getting RF Jason Heyward, who had been posting monster numbers before going on the DL with a broken jaw last month, back to active duty is a plus. A more likely team to topple the Dodgers appears to be the St. Louis Cardinals (3/1), who not only have plenty of postseason experience but also a couple of World Series trophies in recent memory (2006 & ‘11). The edge for the Cardinals, at least over the Braves and most nights the Dodgers, is a lineup full of contact hitters that is less likely to slump than the many free-swingers in Atlanta and L.A. And the postseason has been a showcase in recent years for the likes of David Freese and Allen Craig (out at least the NLDS with a foot injury), while both C Yadier Molina and 2B Matt Carpenter have MVP credentials. Some might have concern about all of the young arms on the staff and in the rotation, but various players have been stepping up for the Redbirds in the playoffs for the past several years. No reason why this October should be any different.


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