Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 9, 2011

An Unlikely Final Four Play On

Just like that, the glamour teams from the big markets were gone. Months ago, as spring approached and teams broke training camps in Florida and Arizona, the general consensus among the pundits was that the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies would meet in the World Series. Both teams had been active during the off-season; with Boston signing Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to complete a powerhouse offense, and Philadelphia emerging triumphant in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes to round out perhaps the most dominant starting rotation ever. If the Red Sox and Phillies faltered, surely the Yankees or Angels would contend in the AL; and perhaps the Giants could duplicate their unlikely run to a championship.

But the teams from the big west coast markets were largely non-factors all year long. The Angels spent the season looking up at the Rangers in the AL West standings, and a late push for the Wild Card came up short. As for the Giants, their hopes of defending their crown foundered at home plate in late May, when the Marlins’ Scott Cousins crashed into catcher Buster Posey, breaking the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year’s left leg.

To be sure, the experts weren’t entirely wrong. From the third week of the season up until the beginning of September, the Red Sox went 81-42. But a 2-10 start along with a 7-20 September swoon kept Boston from advancing to the playoffs for the second straight year. Already manager Terry Francona has been made the fall guy, with GM Theo Epstein likely not far behind. Meanwhile the members of Red Sox Nation are left to grumble about the many years and many dollars still owed to the underperforming likes of Crawford and pitcher John Lackey.

Several hours down I-95 in Philadelphia, the starting pitching largely performed as advertised. Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels won 17, 19, and 14 games respectively, all with ERA’s under 3.00. Only Roy Oswalt had something of an off-year, distracted by devastating tornadoes in his native Mississippi early in the season and a trip to the DL later on. The Phillies led the majors with 102 wins, and appeared poised to make good on the experts predictions as the playoffs began.

Between Philadelphia and Boston, the 2011 fate of the Yankees was largely sealed last winter when their 7-year offer failed to entice Lee, and GM Brian Cashman’s backup plan was to pin his pitching hopes on a couple of reclamation projects named Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. To be sure, the oft-injured veterans gave the Yankees a good return on the team’s modest investment, but Colon in particular seemed to run out of gas as the season wound down. Still, with a surprisingly strong contribution from rookie Ivan Nova, the patchwork Yankees rotation, backed by the always dangerous lineup, ran up an AL best 97 wins.

But the 162 game regular season, the longest in sports, allows time for ebb and flow. The playoffs are another matter entirely; a sequence of short series in which a hot team can overcome superior talent and external factors can play an outsized role in the outcome. Rains in New York caused the opening game of the Yankees’ Division Series with the Tigers to be suspended after just an inning and a half. The result was that New York had to use both of their reliable starters, CC Sabathia and Nova, to record a single victory in a game ultimately played over two days. When Sabathia was outpitched by Tigers ace Justin Verlander in Game Three, every New York fan knew their team’s season was in deep trouble.

Ultimately, Detroit’s elimination of New York in five games, capped by Alex Rodriguez striking out to end the Yankees season for the second year in a row, may have been for the best. Ivan Nova was forced to leave the final game with a strain in his right forearm after just two innings. With Nova almost certainly unavailable for the ALCS, Joe Girardi’s options for starters against the Texas Rangers would likely have brought smiles to the faces of Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre.

If New York’s defeat was not entirely surprising, there was more than enough shock to go around in Philadelphia. In the Division Series against the Wild Card St. Louis Cardinals, the unthinkable happened to the Phillies not once, not twice, but three times. Given a 4-0 lead in Game Two, Cliff Lee surrendered 5 runs and a season-high 12 hits as the Cardinals rallied for a 5-4 victory. Three days later, Roy Oswalt was staked to a 2-0 lead before he set foot on the mound. But he too faltered, as St. Louis roared back to win 5-3. Then on Friday at home, where he had thrown a no-hitter in his first post-season start last year, Roy Halladay was outpitched by the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter. The 36-year old New Hampshire native reminded Phillies fans that their team doesn’t hold all the aces as he limited Philadelphia to just three hits while throwing a complete game 1-0 shutout to end the season for the favorites.

So just like that, the glamour teams from the big markets were gone. To the certain dismay of executives at Fox Sports, the four survivors moving on to the two League Championship Series are all from cities in the flyover states; Detroit, St. Louis, Arlington, Texas, and Milwaukee. With the 10th largest payroll in the game, the Tigers are the big spenders of this group. The other three teams check in at 11th, 13th, and 17th, respectively.

But while the television ratings will probably be down, that doesn’t mean the quality of play will be in any way lacking. All four finalists earned their way to this point. In addition to the likely AL Cy Young Award winner in Verlander the Tigers have the AL batting champ in first baseman Miguel Cabrera, and a closer who has yet to blow a save in 2011, Jose Valverde. The Rangers counter with plenty of power of their own in Hamilton and Beltre, who helped close out the Rays with three home runs in Game Four of the Division Series. Texas also has the experience of having made it to the World Series last season.

Over in the senior circuit the Brewers have the incentive of knowing that this is likely the last season Prince Fielder will be wearing a Milwaukee uniform, making time of the essence. They also have the home field advantage and the best home record in the game. Against that the Cardinals come to the NLCS with the momentum of a late season rush that allowed them to snatch the Wild Card away from the free-falling Braves and then oust the Phillies. The heart of the St. Louis batting order features back to back to back to back danger for opposing pitchers. Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina all hit right around .300 and between them slugged 104 home runs.

A survey by the New York Times of more than 100 sportswriters’ spring training prognostications found that not a single one picked any of these four teams to win the World Series. Just two picked the Brewers to at least make it to the Series, and but one each picked Texas and Detroit, while the experts showed the Cardinals no love at all. But here they all are, reminding us yet again of two eternal truths. Championships are about more than the size of a team’s payroll; and experts aside, there really is a reason why they actually play the games.

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Responses

  1. Very nice summary of the playoff situation. I love it that four mid-market teams made the play-offs. Perhaps this will teach the big spending teams a thing or two. More likely, though, it probably won’t.
    I’m rooting for a Tigers vs. Brewers World Series, and I hope the Brew-Crew wins.
    Bill


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