This article is part of our Painting the Black series.
PAINTING THE BLACK: CHASING THE PENNANT
My one and only playoff run came in 2007. We tied the Boston Red Sox on the last day of the regular season for the best record in the American League, but lost home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs due to losing the head-to-head season series against the Sox. Nevertheless, we liked our chances: the eventual AL Cy Young Award winner, CC Sabathia, would be getting the ball probably twice in the Division Series, LCS and World Series. Our bullpen featured the AL's highest save total with closer Joe Borowski, Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez and yours truly leading the way. Our offense featured a murderer's row of Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Johnny Peralta. Grady Sizemore led off and played a Gold Glove center field. And veterans Trot Nixon, Casey Blake, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd all would play key roles in our eventual championship run. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it all looks great on paper until you play the games.
We beat the hated New York Yankees 3 games to 1 in the Division Series, becoming the last team EVER to win a postseason series in old Yankee Stadium. The quietness of 62,000 fans as we dog-piled on the mound is something I'll never forget. The champagne bath that followed in the tiny visitor's clubhouse: epic. We were 4 games from putting the city of Cleveland back where it belonged - the World Series.
As fate may have it, Trot Nixon, former Boston Red Sox playoff hero and World Series champion, got one of the biggest hits in our postseason run in Game 2 of the League Championship Series, without playing much down the stretch during our regular season. He helped us earn a split in Beantown before heading back to the shores of Lake Erie. The infamous "split" every road team tries to achieve to get the advantage back to their home ballpark became reality that October night. We beat the likes of Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka and even the knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to come within one game of heading to the Fall Classic. History, however, did not shine brightly upon us as Boston used an inspired effort from Josh Beckett to force the series back to Beantown and then an offensive explosion to bury our championship aspirations in Game 7. You always hear this adage: "soak it up, you never know when or if you'll ever get the chance to be back here again." Those wise men certainly know what they're talking about.
Herein lies the ironic nature of the 2014 "Final Four" in the MLB playoffs.
- The Kansas City Royals are trying to do something they haven't done since 1985. No one gave them much of a chance, even at home hosting the AL Wild Card game against postseason legend Jon Lester of the Oakland A's. Yet, they persevered, in dramatic, extra-inning style, knocking off the Athletics then sweeping the AL's best team, the LA Angels.
- The Baltimore Orioles didn't get much credit, up against Scherzer, Verlander and Price: the last 3 Cy Young winners in the AL from the Detroit Tigers. Yet, they too persevered, using timely homeruns, excellent defense, and a vaunted bullpen. If there was ever a Division Series that didn't go AT ALL like the experts thought it might, it was certainly this one.
- The San Francisco Giants' locker room, and the Bay Area, might be the only groups that believed the Gigantes would be in this position right now. Considering the even-year pattern is alive and well, hindsight reminds us again that championship teams come in all different forms. A dominant defeat of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card game, and a resilient effort against the NL's best team in the Washington Nationals, Bruce Bochy and Co. proved once again that they're a force to be reckoned with.
- The St. Louis Cardinals are MLB's equivalent of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers - pencil them in for a deep postseason run each season for the past 3-4 years, regardless of who's on their squad. Ironically, it'll be the Cardinals facing the Bay Area's Giants after disposing of Clayton Kershaw TWICE and sending a LA Dodgers team back to the drawing board. There's no intimidating this Redbirds team and that's a dangerous attribute in October.
So who wins now? Are the best four teams playing for the right to represent their leagues in the World Series? I believe they are, and all you need to do is check the numbers to prove it.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES:
San Francisco Giants @ St. Louis Cardinals
2014 MLB Regular Season Rankings
Team Offense: SF (10th), STL (14th)
Team Pitching: SF (10th), STL (11th)
Team Defense: SF (14th), STL (7th)
Two franchises steeped in tradition and winners of 3 of the last 8 World Series titles. National League royalty at its finest. Veteran-laden teams that understand how to win close games. We talk about "having a good heartbeat" in baseball circles and you won't find two teams right now with better ones. The Giants, on paper, certainly didn't match up well against the Washington Nationals. Then again, they didn't match up well in any of their World Series winning years either. The Cardinals faced the possibility of having to win 3 games against Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, pitching 3 times in a 5 game series between them. Mission accomplished. From that standpoint, ultimately, neither of these teams are here by any fluke.
As with Kansas City and Baltimore, both the Giants and Cardinals roll out outstanding bullpens. Here's the tale of the tape:
SF relievers vs. WAS
20 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 8 BB, 17 K
STL relievers vs. LAD
12 IP, 11 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 7 K
The Cardinals 3-headed monster of Pat Neshek, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal against the Giants Hunter Strickland, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla will be another featured matchup to watch throughout the LCS. Between Martinez and Rosenthal running out 100 MPH heaters against Romo and Casilla throwing devastating sliders, there should be plenty of swings-and-misses past the sixth inning.
Finally, the offenses leave a little to be desired. I don't anticipate lots of runs by any stretch. Let's remember too - it's the National League. But more has to do with the fantastic rotations both these teams feature. The one hiccup could be with St. Louis possibly being without Adam Wainwright for the NLCS. A sure-fire runner-up to Clayton Kershaw for the NL Cy Young Award, Wainwright is the heart and soul of the Cardinal rotation. If he can't go, expect Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller to be counted on heavily to fill his shoes. On the flip side, veterans Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy and staff ace Madison Bumgarner pose a significant threat to Cardinal hitters. With multiple innings of postseason experience between them, the Giants starting staff has a slight edge.
It's an even year. So we should be picking the Giants without batting an eye. Then again, not many people thought the Cardinals should beat the Dodgers. Yet this is St. Louis's 4th consecutive trip to the NLCS. Both teams couldn't be more evenly matched on paper. If Wainwright is unable to pitch in this series, it's not only a detrimental blow to the Cardinals rotation, but to their entire team psyche as a whole. That being said, we've found that adversity brings out the very best in teams. Oh by the way, a guy named Matt Carpenter may have something to say about how this series ends. Cardinals in 6
AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES:
Kansas City Royals @ Baltimore Orioles
2014 MLB Regular Season Rankings
Team Offense: KC (4th), BAL (9th)
Team Pitching: KC (12th), BAL (7th)
Team Defense: KC (26th), BAL (6th)
A key component of any deep October postseason run is the ability to win late. Check that off the list of both these teams. KC played three consecutive extra inning contests if you group the Wild Card win over Oakland and first two victories in Anaheim. Baltimore scored 13 runs in three games from the 7th inning and on against Detroit's horrendous bullpen, but nevertheless, found the clutch hits they needed to extend and capitalize.
Another immense factor is the ability to run out "shut-down" bullpens. Here's the tale of the tape:
KC relievers vs. LAA
12 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 5 BB, 12 K
BAL relievers vs. DET
12 IP, 9 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 11 K
The Royals 3-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland against the Orioles Andrew Miller, Darren O'Day and Zach Britton will be one of the featured matchups to watch throughout the LCS. Runs will be at a premium for both teams, especially after the 6th inning.
Finally, "unsung heroes" always make an appearance in the most critical of times. Two players to watch from either side are Kansas City's Nori Aoki (.333 vs. LAA) and Baltimore's Steve Pearce (.300). No they aren't the household names of Hosmer, Gordon, Butler or Cruz, Jones, Markakis. But, they're contributions will be difference-makers in either team's quest for a trip to the promised land. Aoki's pesky approach and ability to go the other way in a very Ichiro-esque fashion make him a thorn in the side of any starting pitcher or late-inning reliever. Pearce's gargantuan hacks at the plate and power to all fields allow him to change the game with one swing, something the Orioles lineup is predicated on.
Kansas City's starting pitching of James Shields, Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas certainly edges Baltimore's Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. But don't discount the O's deep lineup. With double-digit regular season HR totals up 1-9, Baltimore will never be out of any of these games. I like Cinderella stories though, and Kansas City seems fit for the glass slipper with their late-inning heroics and 3-headed bullpen monster. Royals in 6