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TGS BASEBALL SPECIAL REPORT...2011 MLB PLAYOFF PREVIEW!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


With the MLB playoffs beginning a few days earlier on the calendar than last season, we correspondingly have accelerated our annual baseball postseason preview. And we also want to take this moment to remind our readers that THE GOLD SHEET’s recently-percolating MLB selection packs will be available for the playoffs; they can be accessed on our website homepage at www.goldsheet.com or by calling 1-800-798-GOLD (4653).

AMERICAN LEAGUE


Up until the past two weeks, we thought this analysis would be rather straight-forward, with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox battling each other for the East crown and the runner-up taking the wild card spot, with the Tigers and most-likely the Rangers representing the Central and West, respectively.

Well, that was until the Red Sox began to channel the 1964 Phillies and went into an epic collapse that has reminded old Bosox backers of the "Curse of the Bambino.” Although that myth was forever slain by the World Series wins in 2004 & ‘07, the recent meltdown has been even more pronounced than other notable Boston late-season fades, including 1978, when allowing Bob Lemon’s Yankees to make up a huge late-season deficit and win a one-game division playoff at Fenway Park, thanks to some unlikely heroics from SS Bucky Dent.

The numbers regarding Boston’s September collapse read like a horror novel for Beantown backers; the Bosox lost 18 of their first 24 this month. Moreover, it was pitching, or lack thereof, that fueled the demise, as Boston’s staff had an ERA tickling 7 for the month through weekend action, with only two quality outings from the starters since the beginning of the month. And the Yankees seemed to enjoy putting the Bosox through the wringer over the weekend when taking 2 of 3 vs. the Red Sox in the Bronx. Although we wonder if this was the best course of action for New York, which, practically speaking, might have helped open the door for a more-formidable (at least recently so) Tampa Bay Rays squad to qualify for the postseason.

The LA Angels are technically alive for a wild card slot as well after Sunday action, but barely, as they sit two games the Rays and three behind the Red Sox.

We believe the Yankees can still do themselves a favor by taking care of Tampa Bay in a 3-game regular-season ending set at The Trop this week. But such urgency is a bit artificial, as the Bronx Bombers have already sewn up home-field edge through the AL portion of the postseason, and in such positions, managers such as Girardi are usually more occupied with setting up their postseason pitching rotation and giving some key components a bit of extra rest before the playoffs commence.

As for Boston, it closes with three at loose and dangerous Baltimore, which has proven an effective spoiler in recent weeks. Not the walkover series this might have seemed a month ago. Regardless, the current state of the Red Sox staff makes us think their stay in the postseason will be a brief one if they do slip in ahead of Tampa Bay.

We also suspect that the Rays might have the best shot of the AL contenders to knock off the Yankees in the postseason. Tampa Bay has starting pitching to exceed the Yankees with portsider David Price, workhorse James Shields (MLB-best 11 complete games), lively Jeremy Hellickson, and intimidating Jeff Niemann making a formidable postseason rotation. By comparison, Girardi has some issues beyond CC Sabathia, likely relying upon young Ivan Nova and some question marks, with neither Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, nor A.J. Burnett likely to scare anyone at the back end of the rotation.

The Detroit Tigers can’t slug like the Yankees, but can’t be overlooked, either, especially if likely AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander is to get two starts in a short series. The Tigers also made perhaps the best trade deadline pickup when liberating underrated Doug Fister from Seattle; a strike-throwing machine, Fister has flourished at Comerica Park, with a 7-1 record and 2.02 ERA since being acquired. We’re not especially comfy with rotation depth beyond Verlander and Fister, however, and can the Tigers outslug the Yanks...or the Texas Rangers. But Verlander and Fister could be the story of the playoffs.

Oh, yes, the Rangers. Remember, they won the pennant last year and took out the Yankees to do so. Texas finished 52-29 at Arlington this season, so it’s important for them to stay ahead of the Tigers (one game in arrears as of Sunday night) to get home field in the first round, likely vs. the Rays or Red Sox. With four 25-homer bats (Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, and Josh Hamilton) in the lineup, this is one offense that can outscore the Yankees in a short series. We wonder, however, if not having a dominator in the rotation like Cliff Lee will spell the difference between an early exit and another World Series trip.

CONCLUSION...If Tampa Bay can sneak into the wild card, we like the Rays to ride the momentum to the Series for the first time since 2008. Otherwise, the combo of Verlander and Fister could prove the difference and get the Tigers and Jim Leyland back to the Fall Classic.

NATIONAL LEAGUE


The NL playoffs have seemed like nothing more than a coronation for the Philadelphia Phillies since the All-Star break...until the last week, that is. An 8-game losing streak on the heels of clinching the NL East revealed a few chinks in the Phils’ armor that could haunt in October.

It would seem as if the Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee-Cole Hamels-Roy Oswalt rotation was built to succeed in the playoffs. Providing all are on song, however. Each has endured a rocky outing or two in the last week, and even just one of those non-sharp efforts could prove costly in the postseason.

What we're not sure we see this year, however, is a clear threat to the Phils, such as the Giants and their pitching staff were last season. Philly’s recent domination of the Milwaukee Brewers in a set at Miller Park suggests the Brew Crew could be at a disadvantage vs. the Phils, as they were when being swept in the 2008 NLDS.

For a while we thought it might be the Atlanta Braves, who seemed to have the sort of pitching with Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens that might be able to trump the Phils in a short series. Jurrjens, however, has been out since late August with a bone bruise in his knee, and without him at full strength we doubt the Braves pull the upset. Or even make it to the postseason, as their late fade and recent surge by the St. Louis Cardinals has the Redbirds within a game of the wild card as of Sunday night. St. Louis, off of a recent sweep of the Phils at CBP, will also fancy its chances if it gets another shot at Charlie Manuel’s crew, but we have our doubts about the St. Louis staff carrying the Cards deep into October, especially with onetime ace Chris Carpenter far from his old dominant form this season.

Maybe the team to watch is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are too precocious to realize this might be a step too far for them this season. But they remember what can happen when you dream big in the desert (remember 2001?), and manager Kirk Gibson, who knows a thing or two about October, has his team believing it can beat anybody...Phils included.

We like the Arizona mix, which puts pressure on opposing pitchers and defenses with aggressive baserunning, another Gibson staple. The D-backs are also a far more selective bunch at the plate this season, working counts much better than past years when wind machines such as Mark Reynolds killed so many rallies. Recently the worst strikeout team in MLB history, Gibson turned around that dynamic this season, with the Reynolds trade to Baltimore a signal that it wouldn’t be business as usual. The staff is underrated, with ex-Yankee Ian Kennedy on a short list of Cy Young hopefuls and ex-Chisox Daniel Hudson also stepping up. Maybe the magic is back in Phoenix, as it was ten years ago. The manager certainly knows what it takes to win at this time of year.

CONCLUSION: We’re not usually overcome by the best story aspect of the postseason, but we really think the D-backs are brash enough to pull a shocker and return to the Series a decade after their classic in 2001 vs. the Yankees. Stay tuned...


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