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Before I start on the breakdowns, I have to admit that I hate the first round of the playoffs in the MLB with a passion. Baseball is a marathon, not a race; the season lasts 162 games, a true test of endurance, commitment, and perseverance. Teams must overcome a season full of slumps, injuries, and media scrutiny. Not only is their season significantly longer then any other major sports', but there are also fewer playoff spots up for grabs then the others as well. In the NBA and NHL, half of the league makes the playoffs. In the NFL there are 12 spots up for grabs. But in Major League Baseball, after a grueling 162 game season, only 8 teams remain.
Taking all this into account, tell me how it makes any sense at all that the first round is only a best-of-5 instead of a best-of-7? Are we really in that big of a hurry to get rid of half of the 8 playoff teams that we can’t give them an extra 2 games to decide their fate out on the field? This format annoys me to no end.
Great, I'm glad we got that out of the way. Now moving on to the 2008 playoffs, what bothers me a lot about these match-ups is the fact that I just don't see any upsets here. The best-of-5 usually lends itself to an upset or two, which makes it really hard for me to believe every favorite will escaped unscathed. Usually I can spot the live underdogs; this year, all of the favorites look pretty true. But because I'm giving you nothing but favorites, I'll give you the keys to potential upsets; and you can decide for yourself which ones are more likely then others.
I feel like I've seen this somewhere before… oh wait, I have... twice. And the last two times, Boston won this series easily. One major difference this year is Manny Ramirez. Yes, Boston's offense is still plenty potent, but there was an aura about Ramirez, especially come playoff time, as he is one of the all time great hitters in October. Also not on the mound for game one is Josh Beckett, still suffering from a strained oblique. Beckett has been un-hittable in the playoffs for his entire career, and taking nothing away from Jon Lester, this is the guy they needed on the mound more then once in this series. What else has changed? The Angels are still just as dominant in the starting pitching and bullpen department as they have been the past few years. But this year, they are actually a threat on offense for a change. They still play small ball as well as anybody, but add to that Torii Hunter and Mark Teixeira, and not to mention the emergence of Howie Kendrick, and this team has very real run scoring ability. The Angels aren't perfect, but they really don't have any flaws. They have to believe that this is their year, and despite the fact that Boston is no pushover, I simply do not see the Angels losing this series, especially with home field advantage. John Lackey should get things started right in game one, and in game two, Daisuke Matsuzaka's tendency to walk runners WILL hurt him on the road against a very smart base running team.
PREDICTION: Angels in 4
HOW COULD THEY BE UPSET?: Well, this is the defending World Champions we are talking about. They have a very potent offense as well as a shutdown bullpen late in the game. Also worth noting that this was Ervin Santana's and Joe Saunders' first real breakout years; could they fold under the pressure of these huge playoff games?
We can go on and on about what a great story the Rays are, but instead of focusing on the story, lets focus on how great this TEAM is. They are just like the Angels; they play great small ball, they have guys that can crush the ball, they have a great young pitching staff, and they have an outstanding bullpen. If these two teams can avoid upsets it should set up for an outstanding AL Championship. Losing Carlos Quentin was a huge loss for the White Sox, and while they still have lots of pop in their bats, they are also very prone to go cold. The starting pitching is all right, but not great. I just think Tampa Bay is the better team across the board, and they should be able to handle the White Sox without issue.
PREDICTION: Rays in 3
HOW COULD THEY BE UPSET?: Veterans VS. Youth. The White Sox have not only been here before, but they also have the added motivation of guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome knowing this is likely their last chance. The Rays are completely inexperienced in the playoffs, and the added pressure may get to them. All it takes is a few errors and an early home loss to mess with their psyche. It certainly wouldn't be the first time a hot young team lost to a bunch of wily old vets.
If C.C. Sabathia was pitching game one and Ben Sheets was healthy, we could definitely open the folder on the upset here. Instead, we are left with Yovani Gallardo coming back after spending virtually the entire season on the DL, against one of the best offenses in the game on the road in the playoffs? I just can't see this ending well for him. Both of these teams can absolutely crush the ball, so it is really going to come down to which team gets crushed less. Without Sheets (or a fairly-brought-up-to-speed Gallardo), Milwaukee just doesn't have the depth in their staff or bullpen to stop this juggernaut Phillies offense. Be it Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan, or Dave Bush, I don't see any of the above winning the pitching duel. Brett Myers started the season off terribly, but has looked good in the 2nd half, and the ageless Jamie Moyer has looked good all season. Not to mention that Cole Hamels VS. anyone not named Sabathia is a serious mismatch in Philly's favor. In an awfully fun to watch series, Philly should hit their way into the NL Championship.
PREDICTION: Phillies in 4
HOW COULD THEY BE UPSET?: Simply, they get outhit. But more specifically, this series could easily go to game 5. Assuming Cole Hamels and Philly win game 1, and Sabathia and the Brewers win game 2 (both seem very realistic), the series goes back to Milwaukee. Here is where the pitching situation gets ugly for Milwaukee; but this is the first playoff game this team has had in almost 3 decades. You think this crowd won't be crazy? If they can cheer their way to steal a game and head back to Philly, and put Sabathia back on the mound... it could get very, very interesting.
CONSIDER THIS: After the Phillies win game one (assuming they do), the series price for Milwaukee will be very high; this is the best series-upset value you will find in the divisional round I believe.
Acquiring Manny Ramirez (and less so, Casey Blake) helped the Dodgers outlast the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the NL West. The Dodgers aren't great in any aspect of the game, but they aren't really weak in any category, either. They play pretty sound baseball and let their opponent win or lose the game. I think in this instance, the Cubs will WIN these games. They have too many good bats in this lineup, and their 1-2-3 punch of Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Carlos Zambrano is just insanely good. Chicago has come too far to roll over to an inferior team here, and Lou Piniella will not let his team come out flat. Sorry for the short write-up here, but I feel Chicago dominates this series.
PREDICTION: Cubs in 3
HOW COULD THEY BE UPSET?: If they beat themselves. First of all, the mantra around Joe Torre in the playoffs is huge, and the mantra around what choke artists the Cubs are in the playoffs over the last oh, say, CENTURY is even huger. Each SP is also not without flaw; This is Dempster's first season being a SP in a while and his first season ever being so dominant... does fatigue over a long season or pressure in the playoffs cause him to falter? Harden strikes out so many batters that he sometimes throws so many pitches that he leaves the game after 5 innings. Zambrano is proven to be a hothead that when on is among the best in the game, but when rattled can be a complete disaster. And let's not forget Manny Ramirez's history in the playoffs. Will the Cubs find a way to self implode?