Playoff Pulse: Let's play nine

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Nine observations as we head into October, which, contrary to what Andy Williams believes, really is the most wonderful time of the year.

1) The Chicago Cubs are the favorites

Before Saturday's game, Mark Grace summed up the Cubs rather well.

"When I was there," he said, "a few years we were close to the best hitting team in the league. But this year? They've got the best hitting, the best pitching, the best bullpen, the best defense. This is a phenomenal team."

Grace thinks the Cubs are going to win the World Series, and it's not just because he spent 13 years in the organization. Even if the starting pitching becomes an issue – Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, in Games 2 and 3 against the Dodgers, remain question marks – the Cubs have enough hitting and strong enough relief to work around it.

2) Wait, shouldn't the Los Angeles Angels be the favorites?

Probably, especially now that Boston Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett strained an oblique and will be ready for Game 3 at earliest (if at all; oblique injuries are notorious monsters for pitchers). The Angels showed tremendous faith in their ace, John Lackey, by choosing the more drawn-out AL series, which allows them to go with a three-man rotation.

A healthy Beckett would have turned the series into a toss-up, and Jon Lester, the World Series clincher last year and Red Sox stopper for much of this season, is an able replacement.

Still, Los Angeles won 100 games because of its top-to-bottom strength – and their ability to win on the road. The Angels put up identical 50-31 records at Angels Stadium and away from it, a promising scenario for when they head to Fenway Park

3) The Milwaukee Brewers could be in trouble

First, congratulations are due the Brewers. They earned their postseason spot. Pretty much.

In doing so, though, they set themselves up with a disastrous situation. They have all kinds of choices to start Game 1 at Philadelphia. Is it Yovani Gallardo, who earlier in the week made his first start since May 1? Or Jeff Suppan, who has gotten knocked around in September? Perhaps Dave Bush, the epitome of a six-innings-at-best pitcher, who would then turn the game over to a scary bullpen.

Gallardo and Bush are distinct fly-ball pitchers, and Suppan's groundout-to-flyout ratio is 1.36-to-1, so he's not much better. That does not play in Citizens Bank Park, not at all. And when compounding that with the prospect of CC Sabathia needing to start on three days' rest for the fourth consecutive time to get him in Game 2 and, well, this is not going to be easy.

4) The Chicago White Sox won't be in awful shape if they make it

Which is something of a shocker, considering that if they beat Detroit on Monday afternoon and Minnesota on Tuesday night, the White Sox will have played 17 games in 17 days.

Still, if Ozzie Guillen wanted to go with a rotation of Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, each would be pitching on a full four days' rest. Certainly Buehrle in a potential Game 1 against James Shields is more desirable, but, hey, he'd still be there twice in a five-game series.

Carlos Quentin, on the other hand, doesn't look likely to return. He's swinging an exercise stick in his rehab from a broken wrist. Which means left field remains a platoon between the struggling Nick Swisher and less-than-.300-on-base maven DeWayne Wise.

5) Joe Torre trusts Derek Lowe – a lot

While Chad Billingsley matured into a 200-inning horse and Hiroki Kuroda threw more innings than countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Dodgers thrived off the sublime performance of Lowe down the stretch.

Since Aug. 11, Lowe has been the best pitcher in baseball – better than Sabathia, Harden, even Johan Santana. Lowe is 6-1 with a 1.27 ERA, has allowed one home run in 64 innings and earned that first stop in the Dodgers' rotation.

Torre thinks so much of Lowe that he intimated starting him on short rest in Game 4 ahead of Greg Maddux, who is only his generation's best pitcher. Adding Maddux and rookie left-hander Clayton Kershaw to the best bullpen in the NL is downright scary, and with shortstop Rafael Furcal probably joining Manny Ramirez in the lineup, the Dodgers are one Lowe win at Wrigley Field away from scaring up a big upset.

6) The Red Sox are missing … something

Possibly Beckett. Definitely Manny. And maybe a little of the aura that surrounded them.

Last year, winning seemed an inevitability for the Red Sox. Now, they're entering the postseason having lost out in the division to Tampa Bay – Tampa Bay? – and minus J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell, whom injuries have felled.

Boston still has Lester and Matsuzaka, which is more than most, and it has Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz and Jason Bay, which makes for a nasty gauntlet. Problem is, winning demands more. Like a healthy Beckett and Drew and Lowell.

7) Minnesota is fine, rest-wise, without Kevin Slowey

Unquestionably the Twins aren't as good a team without him in their rotation. Slowey is a burgeoning star, something between a poor man's Greg Maddux and rich man's Brad Radke, and the wrist injury suffered after a Juan Uribe line drive hit him hasn't fleshed itself out yet.

That said, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn are all primed to go on four days' rest, and if Slowey's arm is ready in a week, he'll be good for Game 4.

8) Um, did you forget about the Tampa Bay Rays, dummy?

Well, no, not exactly. It's just tough to assess where they're at because even they don't know who they're playing, and might not until a day before their first game.

James Shields will start Game 1, followed, in all likelihood, by Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza. And with outfielder Carl Crawford back – limited, for now – and Evan Longoria at full strength, the Rays are almost their full-strength selves.

9) The Philadelphia Phillies are a legitimate dark horse

Granted, I said the same thing last season, and the Phillies got swept by Colorado. Milwaukee, though, isn't carrying the momentum the Rockies were last season, and the Phillies are significantly better.

Brett Myers is back in their rotation, starting Game 2 behind Cole Hamels, and with Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton ready for the next two games, they've got depth. Their bullpen, along with the Dodgers', is the best in the NL. Closer Brad Lidge didn't blow a save in 41 chances this season.

And then there's the lineup. Ryan Howard. Chase Utley. Jimmy Rollins. Pat Burrell. Jayson Werth. Shane Victorino. It's strong, fast, balanced and, at home, liable to launch five home runs.

THREE UP (plus five bonus ones)

One man's award ballot …

AL MVP: Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota – Playing the game's toughest position, he won his second batting title, drew 84 walks to 48 strikeouts and stabilized the youngest starting rotation in the league. Teammate Justin Morneau would be a fine choice, too.

NL MVP: Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis – Though Ryan Howard was his usual dominant self in September, Pujols carried the Cardinals for the year's first five months. To forget that would be insulting to his and St. Louis' seasons.

AL Cy Young: Cliff Lee, SP, Cleveland – This one doesn't need much explanation.

NL Cy Young: Santana, SP, New York Mets – A month ago, I was totally on the Tim Lincecum train. After Santana's tour de force down the stretch, though, and a comparison with his numbers vs. Lincecum's, the disparity isn't big enough to overcome what Santana brought over the season's final two months.

AL Rookie of the Year: Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay – Not much of an argument here, either.

NL Rookie of the Year: Geovany Soto, C, Chicago Cubs – Nor here.

AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay – Ditto.

NL Manager of the Year: Fredi Gonzalez, Florida – OK, finally, a chance to stump for an underdog. Lou Piniella seems to be the favorite. He has done wonderful things with the Cubs. Who have a $120 million payroll. With a $21 million team – less than half the salary of the second-lowest team – Gonzalez had the Marlins in contention almost all year. And they could be the division favorite heading into next season if Jeffrey Loria and David Samson don't blow things up.

THREE DOWN (plus bonus one)

New York Mets: There is no worse reputation than choker and no worse city for a choker to live in than New York. So it will be interesting to see if the grand wall built around David Wright starts to chip. Because though he was so integral for the Mets all season, and he did put up nearly an 1.100 OPS in the season's final week, his team lost. And individual accomplishments, no matter how grand, can only do so much for a player's standing. This is Wright's team

New York Mets: Just because it bears repeating.

Other assorted losers: Such as Cleveland, my World Series pick along with the Mets, and Seattle, my AL West preseason winner. Though, as the kind folks at Vegas Watch pointed out, this season was quite difficult to predict.

Syracuse football: By this time next year, when coach Lane Kiffin has the Orange out to a 5-0 start, this will be under Three Up. Or something.


"It would have been better if we would have won today, but I don't think it spoils the celebration." – Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who, having just received a curious four-year contract extension, was the only one in the mood to party.

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