Friday, October 11, 2013

Playoffs Down to the Final Four

                 Molina and Wainwright Celebrate Division Series Clincher

This weekend, the Championship Series will begin in both leagues. The Dodgers will head to St. Louis Friday to kick off the NLCS, and the Tigers will head to Boston for the ALCS starting Saturday. The Dodgers dispatched the Braves in 4 games as did the Red Sox with the Rays, but it took the Tigers and Cardinals five games to knock off the Athletics and Pirates. Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright pitched gems to propel their teams to victory. This was the second year in a row that the Tigers defeated Oakland in Game 5 with Verlander winning. The Cardinals have also won three straight Game 5 Division Series clinchers. I'll preview both series below.

American League Championship Series

Tigers vs. Red Sox

Previous Playoff Meetings: None
Season Record: Det 4, Bos 3

I think it is pretty clear that the Tigers and the Red Sox were the two best teams in the American League this year. Nothing against the A's or Rays, but neither team was as talented or deep as Detroit or Boston. Oakland came close to upsetting the Tigers, but lost the final two games after being up 2-1. The Tigers have one of the best starting pitching staffs in the game and have a strong offense led by Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Torii Hunter. The Tigers are looking for another shot at a championship after being swept in last year's World Series. One concern for Detroit is their bullpen, which is the weakest of any of the four teams left playing.

Boston went worst to first this season after a couple of disappointing and embarrassing seasons. John Farrell became the third manager in the last three years after he replaced the unpopular Bobby Valentine. There is no more talk of chicken and beer, nor is there any distractions about their manager. The team added veterans Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara, and Ryan Dempster in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury and John Lackey had big seasons after being hurt last year. Team fixtures like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Jon Lester also had good years; helping the Red Sox turn it around this year. They finished the year with the American League's best record and led the league in runs scored.

There should be some good pitching matchups in this series. Game 1 will feature Lester vs. Anibal Sanchez(who led the AL in ERA this year). Game 2 will pit All Stars Max Scherzer and Clay Buchholz.  In Game 3, Lackey will face Verlander, and in Game 4 Doug Fister will face Jake Peavy.
It's tough to say who will win this series. Boston has homefield advantage, but lost the season series to Detroit. Cabrera has been banged up, and it's affected his hitting. The Cardinals have played a World Series against both teams in the last 10 years.

National League Championship Series

Dodgers vs. Cardinals

Previous Playoff Matchups: 1985, 2004, 2009
Season Record: LA 4, StL 3

The philosophy of building a team is vastly different with the Dodgers and Cardinals. The Cardinals have relied on home grown talent and have 10 rookies on their postseason roster. The Dodgers have acquired big name stars such as Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford. Dodgers ownership and team president Magic Johnson are committed to winning a championship. So is Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak, and the Redbirds brass. Mozeliak has prioritized the farm system and player development since he became the team's GM. This philosophy has allowed the Cardinals to continue winning after deciding not to match the Angels offer to Albert Pujols.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored, despite not hitting a lot of home runs and not stealing many bases. Clutch hitting, hitting good with runners in scoring position, and getting on base has been the recipe for run scoring for St. Louis. Leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter personifies this approach. He had one of the best seasons ever by a Cardinals leadoff hitter, and broke Stan Musial's single season record for doubles by a left handed hitter. The Cardinals also had big years from Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Allen Craig. Craig is still out for the NLCS, although he could be available for a pinch hitting and DH role if the Cardinals advance to the World Series. Matt Adams has filled in for Craig, and the Cardinals haven't missed a beat. Adams hit a monster home run in Game 5 of the Division Series off Mark Melancon.

The Dodgers started off very slow this year, and it nearly cost Don Mattingly his job. They were in last place entering June, but caught fire when summer hit. At one point, the Dodgers won 42 out of 50 games. Rookie phenom Yasiel Puig played a big role in this surge, filling in for injured outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Kemp will miss the entire postseason, while Ethier has been limited to a pinch hitting role. Dodgers management also went out and acquired Ricky Nolasco, Brian Wilson, and Michael Young for the playoff push. Pitching was also key to the Dodgers success. Clayton Kershaw will likely win his second Cy Young Award this year after finishing the season with a 1.83 ERA.

Mattingly has announced that Greinke will start Game 1, Kershaw will start Game 2, and Hyun-Jin Ryu Game 3. A starter hasn't been announced for Game 4, but it could be Nolasco, who has struggled lately. The Cardinals will counter with Joe Kelly in Game 1, Michael Wacha in Game 2, Adam Wainwright in Game 3, and Shelby Miller in Game 4. Miller has taken Lance Lynn's spot after Lynn imploded in Game 2 of the NLDS. Wacha was particularly impressive in Game 4, throwing 7 plus innings of no hit ball. Wacha has been a fast riser, starting postseason games a year after he was drafted. Mozeliak drafted Wacha in the first round with the Angels pick they forfeited for signing Pujols.

Wainwright and Kershaw both won 2 games during the Division Series, and both pitchers will have a big say in who wins the NLCS. The Cardinals actually beat Kershaw twice during the regular season. This should be an exciting matchup against two teams both seeking their 19th National League pennant. I think the Redbirds have a good chance in winning this series and have homefield advantage. They'll need big performances from their starting pitchers to win because the Dodgers have two of the best pitchers in the league going for them.

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