100 reasons to be excited about playoffs
September, 30, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireAre you ready for the postseason? Roy Halladay is.1. Justin Verlander. It seems this could be Verlander's year, much like 1988 belonged to Orel Hershiser or 1965 to Sandy Koufax or 2001 to Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. Now, it doesn't always work out this way: Bob Gibson, with his 1.12 ERA, lost Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, and Pedro Martinez couldn't carry the Red Sox past the American League Championship Series in his dominant 1999 campaign. Verlander has thrown more innings and more pitches than any pitcher this year. Does he have five or six more 120-pitch outings in him?
2. Justin Verlander's 98 mph fastball. In the ninth inning.
3. Justin Verlander versus CC Sabathia, Game 1 of the National League Division Series. It's a rematch of Opening Day, when both pitchers went six innings and allowed three runs.
4. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. The Phillies' three aces led their team to a franchise-record 102 wins, combining to go 50-23 with a 2.51 ERA and an amazing strikeout-to-walk ratio of 652-to-121. It equals any season the famed Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz trio put together. But as those three can affirm ... it doesn't assure a World Series title.
5. Phillies fans ... love 'em or hate 'em, they support their team with intensity and enthusiasm.
6. Ryan Madson. Philadelphia's closer was underrated as Brad Lidge's setup guy and now he's underrated as the team's closer. He throws strikes, keeps the ball in the park (only two home runs allowed) and gets the job done (only two blown saves).
7. Albert Pujols. He missed a .300 average by one hit and fell one RBI short of 100. Not that he needs to be fired up, but he's focused and ready to rip.
8. The standing ovation Cardinals fans will give him. Will these be his final games in a Cardinals uniform?
9. Prince Fielder. He didn't miss a game this season. He'd like to play in the final one as well.
10. John Axford's fastball.
11. John Axford's 'stache.
12. Joe Maddon's mullet.
13. James Shields and David Price. In all the analysis over Boston's collapse and Tampa Bay's amazing comeback, I think one key point was missed: Shields and Price combined for 473.2 innings; Boston's aces, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, combined for 384.2 innings. While the overall abilities and results were similar, that 90-inning difference proved incredibly vital as we saw Daniel Bard wear down in September and Jonathan Papelbon wear down in Game 162.
14. Price on the big stage. Many view his 12-13 season as a big disappointment, but he actually pitched better than last season. His strikeout rate was up, his walk rate was down. What he needs to prove is that he can show up in a big game. His stuff was flat Wednesday against the Yankees, and he lost both starts against the Rangers in the ALDS a year ago, allowing eight runs and 17 hits in 12.2 innings.
15. Kyle Farnsworth on the big stage. Always an interesting scenario.
16. Austin Jackson playing center field.
17. Brett Gardner playing left field.
18. Raul Ibanez playing left field.
19. Ian Kennedy. There's nothing fancy about Kennedy, as his fastball isn't overpowering, but he throws it with great confidence and supreme location. He mixes in a changeup and an occasional cutter. A lot of fans have never seen him pitch, but he knows what he's doing, and I believe he'll pitch well.
20. Zack Greinke. He's regarded as Milwaukee's top pitcher, but manager Ron Roenicke elected not to start him in the team's opener, perhaps to take a little pressure off him. How he'll pitch remains one of the key questions of this October.
21. C.J. Wilson. His transformation from mediocre middle reliever to ace starter is one of the best stories of the past two seasons. And yes, he's a legitimate No. 1 -- he had a 2.31 ERA on the road in 2011 and 2.91 in 2010. He has allowed just two home runs to left-handed batters the past two seasons. Oh ... he's a free agent at season's end. (Theo Epstein is on the phone ...)
22. A.J. Burnett.
23. Taking a drink every time Kirk Gibson's home run from 1988 is shown during a Diamondbacks game.
24. Taking a drink every time Tony La Russa removes a pitcher mid-inning.
25. Taking a drink every time you suspect Jim Leyland has gone into the dugout tunnel to sneak a smoke. Just be careful when Max Scherzer is pitching.
26. Miguel Cabrera. He's back in the postseason for the first time since 2003, when he was a 20-year-old rookie for the Marlins. He hit four home runs and drove in 12 runs in 17 postseason games that year and he enters the playoffs hotter than any other hitter in the game after hitting .390 in August and .429 in September. He led the AL in batting average and on-base percentage, and for those who say he drove in "only" 105 runs, it wasn't from lack of clutch hitting: He hit .388 AVG/.518 OBP/.673 SLG with runners in scoring position and .341/.440/.576 in "late and close" situations. In other words: I can't wait for him to face CC Sabathia in Game 1.
27. Evan Longoria. How many strikes do you think he'll get to hit?
28. Josh Hamilton. Remember the big deal about Hamilton not hitting in day games? Well, it's true: He hit .220 with one home run in 123 at-bats in day games. The Rangers' first game starts at 4:07 p.m. local time and the second game at 6:07 p.m. So don't expect him to hit in the opener until the seventh inning or so.
29. Hunter Pence. The goofy batting stance. The choking up on the bat. The 1920s-style swing. The high socks. How can you not love watching this guy play?
30. Brad Lidge. Yes, we may see him in a big situation, especially considering the September struggles of Antonio Bastardo. And you have to admit: Lidge in a postseason game is a very exciting proposition. I mean, not Armando Benitez-level excitement, but pretty close.
31. J.J. Putz. Arizona's closer hasn't allowed a run since Aug. 12.
32. Jose Valverde. Papa Grande is 49-for-49 in save situations. He also averaged 4.2 walks per nine innings. Something doesn't add up here, and I wonder if it makes Tigers fans more than a little nervous. (OK, not as nervous as Todd Jones.)
33. Brewers fans. They drew over 3 million for the third time in four seasons. Their club has never won a World Series. They're passionate, they love baseball and this may be their time.
34. Every Robin Yount flashback will be cool.
35. Kyle Lohse starting Game 1 of the postseason for the Cardinals. A year ago, he had a 6.55 ERA. And before you write off the Cardinals: He allowed five runs in four September starts.
36. Ryan Howard swinging for the fences.
37. The inevitable reference to Michael Young as a "professional hitter."
38. Yadier Molina's neck tattoo.
39. Ryan Roberts' 30 tattoos. Ryan Roberts' clutch hitting. The inevitable reference to Ryan Roberts as one of Arizona's "unsung heroes."
40. Matt Moore. Joe Maddon has tabbed the rookie to start Game 1 for Tampa Bay. How awesome is this? He’s made one start in his major league career. He has one career victory. Only six pitchers have started the first game of a playoff series with fewer than five wins on the season (let alone a career):
- Edinson Volquez, Reds, 2010 NLDS (4 wins): Volquez was 4-3 with a 4.13 ERA but got it in September. Dusty Baker's gambit didn't work as he got knocked out in the second inning.
- Yovani Gallardo, Brewers, 2008 NLDS (0 wins): Gallardo had made four starts after missing most of the season following knee surgery and finished with four no-decisions. CC Sabathia had to start the final game of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot, so Gallardo drew the start. He gave up three unearned runs in four innings as the Brewers lost 3-1 to the Phillies.
- Joe Mays, Twins, 2002 ALCS (4 wins): Mays had been Minnesota's ace in 2001, but was just 4-8, with a 5.38 ERA in '02. He started Game 2 of the ALDS and after the Twins won in five, started the opener of the ALCS. Mays pitched eight innings and the Twins won 2-1, but the Angels won the next four games.
- Bob Wolcott, Mariners, 1995 (3 wins): A rookie who had made just six starts, Wolcott wasn't on the ALDS roster. But after Seattle burned through its staff in a grueling victory over the Yankees, he started against Cleveland in the ALCS opener -- and won 3-2 (despite allowing 13 baserunners in seven innings).
- Pascual Perez, Braves, 1982 NLCS (4 wins): Give this one an asterisk. Phil Niekro had started Game 1, but it was rained out in the fifth inning before becoming an official game.
- Larry Gura, Royals, 1976 ALCS (4 wins): Gura had started just twice all season, but one of those was a four-hit shutout on Sept. 29. In August, he had pitched 7 2/3 innings of one-hit relief against the Yankees -- Kansas City's ALCS opponent. Whitey Herzog could have lined up ace Dennis Leonard to start, so this appears to have been an instinct call. Gura pitched well, but lost 4-1 (surrendering the final two runs in the ninth).
42. Lance Berkman. He's playing in his fifth postseason, where he's hit .320/.419/.582 with 30 RBIs in 34 games.
43. Can the Phillies win it all after posting the best regular-season record? Since 1990, only three teams have pulled that off: the 1998 Yankees, 2007 Red Sox and 2009 Yankees.
44. Curtis Granderson. Posted an MVP-caliber campaign while leading the AL in runs scored and RBIs. But he did falter down the stretch, hitting .205 with just three home runs his last 21 games.
45. Derek Jeter. Can he add to his legend?
46. Carl Crawford.
47. David Robertson's curveball. Robertson had a phenomenal season as the Yankees' setup man, posting a 1.08 ERA, allowing one home run in 66.2 innings and striking out 100 batters.
48. Feeling good. Does it mean anything? Our Stats & Information Department passes along this nugget on teams that clinched a postseason berth on the scheduled final game of the regular season during the wild-card era:
2011 Rays -- ?
2011 Cardinals -- ?
2010 Giants -- Won World Series, 4-1
2010 Braves -- Lost NLDS, 3-1
2008 Brewers -- Lost NLDS, 3-1
2007 Phillies -- Lost NLDS, 3-0
2006 Cardinals -- Won World Series, 4-1
2005 Astros -- Lost World Series, 4-0
2005 Red Sox -- Lost ALDS, 3-0
2004 Astros -- Lost NLCS, 4-3
2000 Athletics -- Lost ALDS, 3-2
2000 Mariners -- Lost ALCS, 4-2
1999 Astros -- Lost NLDS, 3-1
1995 Rockies -- Lost NLDS, 3-1
1995 Yankees -- Lost ALDS, 3-2
49. The possibility of CC Sabathia pitching to Prince Fielder in a World Series game. It would definitely be the biggest matchup in World Series history.
50. Willie Bloomquist. I always knew he could be the shortstop on a playoff team. (OK, I didn't.)
51. Jhonny Peralta. Considering the Giants won last year with Juan Uribe playing shortstop, it could become the new market inefficiency: fat shortstops.
52. Charlie Manuel's postgame news conferences.
53. Scott Proctor. What, he's not the Yankees' closer?
54. A Rays-Phillies World Series. What, a rematch of the 2008 classic doesn't get you pumped up?
55. Roy Halladay. Because he's worth mentioning again.
56. Good-hitting catchers. Detroit's Alex Avila finished eighth in the AL in OPS. Yadier Molina hit .305 with a career-best 14 home runs and .814 OPS. Miguel Montero had a .820 OPS for Arizona and has settled in as the team's cleanup hitter.
57. Paul Goldschmidt. A year ago he was playing in Visalia. Now he's playing in the postseason. The rookie first baseman for Arizona began the year in Double-A, where he hit 30 home runs in 103 games, and played well in two months in the majors. When he connects, the ball goes far.
58. A Yankees-Cardinals World Series. Old-school flavor. Yogi Berra and Bob Gibson throwing out first pitches. Montages of Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial. The possibility of Joe Girardi and Tony La Russa using 10 pitchers in one inning.
59. Flashbacks to the 25th anniversary of the 1986 postseason. Especially if they include Charlie Kerfeld highlights.
60. The sweet swing of Robinson Cano. He hasn't hit well in his postseason career -- .248/.296/.461 in 37 games -- but he seems ready for a monster October.
61. Ryan Braun. The leading candidate alongside Matt Kemp for NL MVP, Braun hit .332 with 33 home runs and 33 steals. He hit .342 in late and close situations. He hit .351 and slugged .628 with runners in scoring position. He hits, period.
62. How will the Rangers hit on the road? The Rangers led the AL in runs scored at home, hitting .296/.353/.508. But they hit just .269/.326/.413 on the road.
63. How will the Brewers play on the road? They're the playoff team with a losing record away from home.
64. Doug Fister. Did I really go this long with mentioning him? He's allowed five walks in 70 innings since joining the Tigers. He has a 0.65 ERA over his last 55 innings. He could be a super-secret difference-maker this October.
65. Yuniesky Betancourt. Or it could be Yuniesky Betancourt. Hey, you never know.
66. Mariners and Royals fans watching in stunned disbelief as Yuniesky Betancourt plays in the postseason.
67. Mike Napoli. Love Mike Napoli. (Angels fans just stabbed themselves in the eye with their pencils.)
68. Justin Upton. Young and dangerous.
69. "M-V-P" chants from hometown fans for Granderson, Cano, Braun, Fielder, Pujols, Young, Upton and Yuniesky Betancourt.
70. Other rookie starting pitchers: Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson and Josh Collmenter.
71. The sweet defense of Ben Zobrist and Ian Kinsler at second base.
72. Joe West umpiring in the postseason.
73. The baseball gods giving us some 6- and 7-game series. Especially in the World Series: Six of the past seven World Series have been five games or shorter.
74. Favorites and underdogs. From our Stats gurus again: A "large" postseason favorite is a team that won five or more games than its opponent. The Rangers and Phillies are "large" favorites over the Rays and Cardinals. Since 1995, we've had 32 such matchups. The favorite went 20-12.
75. Going a little deeper, a team with a 10-win advantage is a huge favorite. That applies to the Phillies over the Cardinals this year. Huge favorite are 10-4 since 1995.
76. The pressure on the Phillies. By the way, the Cardinals won the season series, 6 to 3.
77. The pressure of Game 1. Since 1995, the winner of Game 1 of the Division Series has gone 47-17 -- amazingly, 29-3 in the NL.
78. The Texas bullpen. Trade acquisitions Mike Adams and Koji Uehara give Ron Washington two of the best setup guys in the business, in front of closer Neftali Feliz. Uehara, however, has allowed five home runs in 18 innings since joining the Rangers, so Washington may be reluctant to bring him in with guys on base.
79. The Milwaukee bullpen. The pen had a 1.14 ERA in September, with Axford, Francisco Rodriguez and Takashi Saito allowing just one earned run in 30 innings. As our Stats department points out, the Giants' pen also entered the postseason on a roll last year, posting a 0.90 ERA in September.
80. Yankee Stadium in October.
81. Mariano Rivera in October.
82. Small ball! With so much potentially dominant pitching, I expect to see a lot of bunts and hit and runs this postseason. For what it's worth, here's each team's record in one-run games:
Tampa Bay: 26-18
St. Louis: 26-23
New York: 21-24
83. Freddy Garcia. Now starting Game 3 of the Division Series for the Yankees. Just the way management drew it up back in spring training.
84. A walkoff home run, the player rounding third base, dropping his helmet as he enters the mob of teammates waiting at home plate.
85. Guest analyst: J.D. Drew!
86. Johnny Damon going for his third World Series ring with a different AL East team.
87. Can Arizona complete its turnaround? The D-backs became just the fifth team to make the playoffs after losing 97-plus games the season before. (None of the others won the World Series: 2008 Rays, 2007 Cubs, 1999 Diamondbacks, 1991 Braves.)
88. The Phillies versus left-handed pitching. In 2009, they hit .207 versus left-handers in the playoffs (.173 versus relievers); in 2010, they hit .212 (.157 versus relievers).
89. Defense. Here are the team totals in Defensive Runs Saved (above average) from Baseball Info Solutions:
Tampa Bay: +77
St. Louis: -13
New York: -15
90. Bench guys making big contributions.
91. Twitter going crazy after (A) a bad umpiring call; (B) a dramatic comeback; or (C) something Tim McCarver says.
92. Fans standing with two strikes. In the first inning.
93. The Rangers trying to win the World Series for the first time in franchise history. A year ago, they entered the postseason with one playoff win in franchise history. Now they have one win in the World Series. Can they get four more?
94. The possibility of Jorge Posada delivering a bit hit for the Yankees.
95. Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies' Mr. Clutch in October: He's hit .280 but with a .412 on-base percentage in his playoff career.
96. Nelson Cruz hitting bombs for the Rangers. He hit six home runs last year in the playoffs. But he hit just .190 with one home run in 42 at-bats in September after returning from a pulled hamstring.
97. The chance B.J. Upton explodes like he did in 2008.
98. The chance that the Rays beat the Yankees in the ALCS.
99. The chance that we get a Rays-Diamondbacks World Series, two teams with combined payrolls lower than any of the 12 highest payrolls in the sport.
100. Predictions! Here mine:
Tigers over Yankees in 5
Rangers over Rays in 4
Tigers over Rangers in 7
Phillies over Cardinals in 5
Brewers over Diamondbacks in 3
Phillies over Brewers in 6
Phillies over Tigers in 7