Perhaps no season in recent memory has come down to the final day of the regular schedule before the playoff picture became clear. Even with three American League teams clinching playoff spots almost a week or more before the season ended, every team that finally did make it spent the last few games trying to jockey for a more favorable position in the post-season, with Anaheim getting the edge over Minnesota to host one of two division series match-ups. Meanwhile, in the National League, Los Angeles needed until Saturday to claim the stake on its division and the Houston Astros, who seemed out of playoff contention at the All-Star break, enjoyed a late season surge and won the final seven games of the regular season to earn the National League wild card spot. Now that the marathon has passed the 26-mile mark, it’s time for the eight remaining teams to sprint to the finish, starting with the four division series.
New York (101-61) vs Minnesota (92-70)
Season series: New York won, 4-2
One of the biggest weaknesses of the Yankees this season was its starting pitching staff; despite winning 100-plus games for the third straight season, its starting rotation was not intimidating to opposing teams. In contrast, the Twins have Johan Santana, the likely AL Cy Young award winner (sorry, Curt Schilling and Mariano Rivera), who won 20 games, struck out a league-leading 265 batters, and posted a 2.61 ERA, Brad Radke (11-8, 3.48), and Carlos Silva (14-8, 4.21). However, what got the Yankees to 101 wins was the strength of its offense, led by MVP candidate Gary Sheffield; the team scored an eye-popping 897 runs this season and stroked 242 home runs, a team record. Last week, the Twins paid a visit to Yankee Stadium and got swept by the Bronx Bombers in three games; the results will be no different for Minnesota against New York this week. In other words, the division series is just a formality for the Yankees as they make their way to yet another ALCS.
Anaheim (92-70) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 5-4
Five weeks ago, the red-hot Angels strolled into Fenway Park and were swept in three games by the even more red-hot Red Sox as Boston continued its climb on top of the wild card standings and Anaheim fell four games behind the Oakland Athletics in the American League West division. While Boston spent the rest of the season trying to catch the Yankees, eventually finishing three games behind New York in the AL East, Anaheim won 17 of its remaining 29 games to win the division by just a game over Oakland. Anaheim hopes to demonstrate that World Series title they collected in 2002 against the San Francisco Giants in seven games was no fluke. Boston, which won 19 of its last 30 contests, is looking to win its first World Series in 86 years. The teams are evenly matched in most facets and this has all the makings of a fall classic, even if it is just the first round. However, Boston should win because they have 21-game winner and Cy Young candidate Curt Schilling, the Monsters of the Fenway, Manny Ramirez (43 HR, 130 RBI, .613 SLG) and David Ortiz (41 HR, 139 RBI, .603 SLG), and a supporting cast ready to finish what was started in 2003.
St. Louis (105-57) vs Los Angeles (93-69)
Season series: St. Louis won, 4-2
Unlike most of the playoff contenders this season, the chances for St. Louis were never in doubt, having surged well ahead of its fellow NL Central division opponents by mid-summer on its way to its fourth division crown in five years. Starter Chris Carpenter (15-5, 3.46) led the rotation this season but will miss the first round with an injured bicep; however, the remaining four starters all won 10 or more games, equaled only by Boston this season. At the end of the game, the Cardinals have Jason Isringhausen, who converted 47 saves while posting a respectable 2.87 ERA. On offense, Albert Pujols, were it not for a San Francisco Giant named Barry Bonds, would be the most prolific offensive force in not only the NL but all of baseball as well (my god, is he really just 24 years old?). The Dodger Blue were led by Adrian Beltre on offense, who clocked 48 home runs and posted a .334 batting average, a resurgent Jose Lima, who posted 13 wins and a 4.07 ERA, and a relentless Eric Gagne, who collected 45 saves this season. On paper, it appears that St. Louis has the better team, and on the field, the same is true; expect to be seeing the high-flying Red Birds cruise to the NLCS.
Atlanta (96-66) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Tied, 3-3
Give credit to Bobby Cox, the one constant in the Braves clubhouse, who led his team to a playoff appearance for the 13th straight year (not including the strike-shortened 1994 season). Very few people picked Atlanta to repeat and most had them finishing fourth; perhaps the lesson learned is, like the Yankees, they find a way. Likewise, Houston fired Jimy Williams at the All-Star break after a poor start and no one expected that they would see action in October. However, Houston had other plans and, with Phil Garner at the helm, went 49-25 the rest of the way to clinch the wild card spot in the National League. In other words, we have two teams that no one thought would be in the post-season, but here they are, warts and all. Neither team has impressive numbers on offense or defense, so who has the advantage? It’s a toss-up; Houston won left and right over the last six weeks of the season, going an amazing 31-8, while Atlanta was almost as hot, going 25-13. However, the edge goes to Houston for the reason that Atlanta went 51-25 this season against what proved to be relatively weak competition in the NL East, making it easier than expected to take the division. Houston, however, played almost evenly against St. Louis this season and had to battle Chicago in the standings in the final weeks; winning nine of the last ten also has them on a roll that will be tough to stop.