Thursday, October 2, 2014

Division Series Preview

Baltimore Orioles vs. Detroit Tigers

Start: Thursday, October 2nd
Homefield Advantage: Orioles
Previous Playoff Meetings: None
2014 Head to Head Record: 5-1 Det

On May 12th, the benches cleared after Bud Norris hit Torii Hunter with a pitch. Two hitters earlier, Ian Kinsler hit a home run, and Hunter thought he was intentionally hit. Words were exchanged, but cooler head prevailed. Over four months later, these two teams meet again in the postseason. Both teams have plenty of sluggers. Nelson Cruz led the majors with 40 home runs, and the Orioles led the AL with 212 home runs. The Tigers have plenty of sluggers as well, including Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

Buck Showalter has kept his team focused and winning baseball games. They have kept winning despite injuries to key players like Matt Wieters and Manny Machado. Slugging first baseman Chris Davis is in a middle of a suspension for amphetamines, which carries over throughout the Division Series. They still have plenty of firepower with Cruz, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and J.J. Hardy. Replacements like Jimmy Paredes, Caleb Joseph, and Stephen Pierce have filled in without the Orioles missing a beat. Baltimore is also a very solid defensive club, even without Machado.

The trade of Prince Fielder for Kinsler has worked out very well for the Tigers. Kinsler has greatly improved the team's infield defense. Allowing Cabrera to move from third to first, which opened up a spot for Nick Castellanos, helped as well. Rajai Davis has added an element of speed, but isn't quite the defender Austin Jackson was at center. J.D. Martinez has been the waiver wire pickup of the year, and has taken over left field for Detroit. Al Avila has recovered from concussion symptoms in time for the playoffs. The only weak spot is shortstop, which Eugenio Suarez and Andrew Romine split time at this year.

Pitching wise, the Orioles starters don't match up to Detroit's. The Tigers will run out Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price, and Rick Porcello for their postseason rotation. That is three different Cy Young Award winners, and a guy who is having a career year in Porcello. The Orioles will counter with Chris Tillman, Wei-Yei Chen, Kevin Gausman, and a choice between three different starters. Zack Britton has done an admirable job as the Orioles closer, and Baltimore has an advantage in the bullpen. Closer Joe Nathan and other relievers have been unreliable this year. Brad Ausmus has announced that starter Anibal Sanchez will pitch out of the bullpen during the playoffs. Sanchez and trading deadline pickup Joakim Soria are potential difference makers to a weak bullpen for Detroit.

Prediction: Tigers in a tough fought series

Kansas City Royals vs. Los Angeles Angels

Start: Thursday, October 2nd
Homefield Advantage: Angels
Previous Playoff Meetings: None
2014 Head to Head Record: 3-3 tie

The Royals won what might be the most exciting playoff game of the year on Tuesday night. Kansas City ran their way to a 9-8 12 inning victory. Their reward for that win will be facing off with the team who had the best record in baseball this year. The Angels went on a second half tear and cruised to the AL West crown. Albert Pujols had a rebound year, after missing the last two months last year. Mike Trout had another terrific all around year, and is the leading contender for AL MVP. This matchup will feature power vs. speed.

Kansas City will start lefty Jason Vargas in Game 1. Vargas will face his former college teammate (and last year's Angel teammate) Jered Weaver. Weaver was an 18 game winner this season. Ned Yost will start hard throwing rookie Yordano Ventura in Game 2. Ventura struggled in relief during the wild card game, but should be better in a more familiar role. Ventura will be matched up against Matt Shoemaker, who has battled an oblique injury. The Angels pitching staff has suffered a few other injuries, notably to young ace Garret Richards and lefty Tyler Skaggs. In Game 3, James Shields will get the ball against C.J. Wilson. Mike Scoiscia is going with a three man rotation for the Division Series, while Yost has yet to announce his Game 4 starter. He could go back to Vargas, or go with Danny Duffy or Jeremy Guthrie.

The Angels have one of the deepest lineups in the game. An X-factor for Los Angeles in Josh Hamilton, who has missed most of September battling various injuries. Hamilton has declared himself healthy for the postseason, and Scoiscia plans on batting him 7th Thursday. When Hamilton is right, the Angels have a trio of sluggers that no other team can match. The Halos also had strong seasons from Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick, and Kole Calhoun. Besides Pujols, the Angels have two other former Cardinals in David Freese and Fernando Salas.

Power hitting is not one of the Royals strengths, but they claw and fight out victories. The Royals led the American League in stolen bases, and tied a playoff record with 7 steals in the AL wild card game. Kansas City has a lot of players like Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki, and Jarred Dyson, who hit for a good average and steal bases. They have a few players with some modest power, like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Salvador Perez. While the Royals can't beat the Angels in a slugfest, they can pitch with them. Their starters are just as good, and KC has a dominant bullpen led by Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera. This should be an exciting series.

Prediction: Royals in a upset

San Francisco Giants vs. Washington Nationals

Start: Friday, October 3rd
Homefield Advantage: Nationals
Previous Playoff Meetings: None
2014 Head to Head Record: Wash 5-2

Matt Williams led the Nationals to the National League's best record in his first season as the team's manager. Williams will face off against a team that he used to play for in the 1990's. The Giants routed the Pirates in the NL wild card game, thanks to Madison Bumgarner's brilliant outing and Brandon Crawford's grand slam. The Giants are looking to make another run deep into the postseason, while the Nats want to put 2012's disappointing Game 5 Division Series loss to rest. The Nats have been predicted by many to win their first World Series. The Giants are under the radar, but have won two World Series since 2010.

The Giants have had to overcome numerous injuries to key players such as Matt Cain, Marco Scutaro, and Angel Pagan. Mike Morse has also missed all of September, the wild card game, and his status is uncertain for the Division Series. Brandon Belt missed time due to various injuries as well, but he is healthy just in time for October. The Giants have overcame this, trading for Jake Peavy, and bringing up Joe Panik to play second base. Bochy has also moved Tim Lincecum to the bullpen for the playoffs, and swapped Sergio Romo for Santiago Casilla in the ninth inning. San Francisco has many players who thrive in October, including Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, and Buster Posey.

The Nats do not have the postseason experience that the Giants have, but they have a deep roster with no holes. This isn't a team that relies on a star player or two, but it is one of the most talented teams in the league. Washington has had big years from Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, and Adam LaRoche. Ryan Zimmerman missed most of the year due to injury, but is healthy for the playoffs. This leads to a question on what the Nats should do with Zimmerman, shift Rendon to second and bench Asdrubal Cabrera, shift Bryce Harper to center and bench Denard Span, or have Zimmerman come off the bench. It seems like a good problem to have for Williams.

Bruce Bochy will start Peavy in Game 1. Peavy has been terrific since being re-united with his former Padres manager. Peavy will be countered by Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg will finally get to pitch in the postseason, after controversially being shut down late in the 2012 season. Tim Hudson will face off against Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2, a battle of 2014 All Stars. In Game 3, Doug Fister will start for the Nats, while Bochy hasn't named a Game 3 starter yet. Bochy could go with Bumgarner or perhaps Ryan Vogelsong. Williams also has Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark available to pitch. The Nats/Giants series pits a team that is considered to be one of the most talented in the league against a team full of playoff veterans. It will be an interesting series.

Prediction: I'm going with the postseason experience. Giants

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

Start: Friday, October 3rd
Homefield Advantage: Dodgers
Previous Playoff Meetings: 1985, 2004, 2009, 2013
2014 Head to Head Record: LAD 4-3

The Cardinals and Dodgers will face off for the second year in a row. Last year, the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in six games in the NLCS, with two dominant performances by NLCS MVP Micheal Wacha. Wacha beat Clayton Kershaw twice in that series. Wacha will pitch out of the bullpen this year, after missing several months due to shoulder problems. Kershaw is likely to win his third Cy Young this year, and had possibly the best season of his career. Good news for both teams as Yadier Molina is fully healthy, and Hyun-Jin Ryu is likely to start Game 3 after missing some time.

The Cardinals led the NL with 783 runs scored in 2013. This season, they only scored 619 runs, which was 9th in the NL. Run scoring has been hard to come by for the Redbirds, and runs will be at a premium against the Dodgers. The Cardinals defense has been much improved with Matt Carpenter shifting from second to third, Kolten Wong taking over second, Jon Jay's improved play, and the addition of Peter Bourjos. Matt Holliday has also improved his defense, and went on his usual second half surge offensively this year. A potential X-factor for St. Louis is Randall Grichuk. Grichuk has received increased playing time at right field over Oscar Taveras. With Grichuk being a righty, and Taveras a lefty, Grichuk figures to get some playing time when Kershaw and Ryu pitch.

The Dodgers will have Matt Kemp healthy for the postseason this year. Kemp had a second half tear that sent Andre Ethier to the bench and decreased Carl Crawford's playing time. Hanley Ramirez has battled some injuries, but is healthy for the postseason. He is hoping to avoid beanballs in the Division Series. LA has also had big years from Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig. Puig was in the MVP discussion during the first half, but fell off in the second half, especially in the power department. A big difference maker for the Dodgers this year has been the emergence of Dee Gordon. Gordon has taken over the second base job, gave the Dodgers a natural leadoff hitter, and led the NL in steals this year.

In Game 1, Kershaw will match up against Adam Wainwright, in a battle of 20 game winners. Game 2 will pit Zack Greinke against Lance Lynn. Lynn has the best season of his career in 2014, and made huge strides in avoiding the bad inning. Ryu has dealt with some injuries late in the year, but is penciled in for Game 3. Ryu will face former Angel and Red Sox pitcher John Lackey, who the Cardinals hope will live up to his big game reputation. Shelby Miller has been announced as the Game 4 starter, which would be in his comfort zone at Busch Stadium. The Dodgers haven't announced a Game 4 starter, but will have a choice of either Kershaw or Dan Haren.

The bullpen has been a concern for both teams. Trevor Rosenthal saved 45 games this year, but gave Mike Matheny many scary moments this year. Rosenthal is sometimes lights out, but has been hit harder this year than in the past. Walks have been a big culprit. Matheny will have Pat Neshek, Seth Maness, Sam Freeman, and Carlos Martinez to fill in the late innings. For Don Mattingly's club, closer Kenley Jansen hasn't been the problem. It has been the middle relief and setup roles. Former All Stars Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, and Brandon League have been inconsistent this year. If the Cardinals can knock out the Dodgers dominant starters, then they could have a chance against the Dodgers soft spot in the bullpen.

Prediction: The Dodgers will be tough to beat and should be considered the favorites, but I'm going with a hometown pick with St. Louis

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