Here’s my first round musings on the NLCS…. some of which were spot on. I love hindsight (20/20, yadda yadda). It’s almost as good as my eyesight normally (which is borderline superhuman). Hop over to the Sports Business Blog to read it there and check out some interesting articles on Tigerless golf and sports swag (the merchandise, not this) and here comes the writing…. which I swear on the lives of my unborn children (Seamus McLovin McMahon and Dustin Lasershow McMahon) I wrote AS THE FIRST ROUND WAS BEGINNING.
It is easy to toss all of the blame on Bud Selig for much of what is wrong with baseball today. I have had both the good fortune of having attended the MLB All-Star game that gave both Selig and modern day baseball every shred of respect they deserve and the all start game a deceptively short time later which shredded any and all goodwill toward the game. I’m referring to, of course, the game in Boston in 1999, which honestly is the coolest sports moment, in my mind, of the last 50 years. The PA announcer had to beg these grown-men millionaires to clear the field and stop trying to talk to Ted Williams whilst trying to hold back giggles. It was truly surreal and a reminder of why kids play the game. The other side of the coin was 2003, the game that ended in a tie where the MVP was supposed to win, you guessed it, the Ted Williams award. Truly embarrassing.
This digression actually helps me fuel my larger point- it is time to fear the NL (for this year, at least). With all the ups and downs of the All-Star game in his tenure, Selig turned desperate, leading to the always regrettable notion/declaration of ‘this time it counts.’ Thus defeating the purpose of an All-Starexhibition game, but that is another rant for another time. Selig’s desperate move has unexpectedly coincided with a rise in the National League, which was for years the inferior contender, of legitimately scary teams. Add to that their ability to host more games in the World Series thanks to the regrettable All-Star set-up and you have a mixture for some real potency in the NL.
It is my contention that the DH, or lack of DH (regardless of where you fall on the issue) favors the NL when it comes to World Series. This seems like common logic to me– NL pitchers spend all year batting (poorly, but still) and NL managers spend all year crafting bullpens and late-game strategy to each team batting 8 legitimate players and a lame duck (though Micah Owings gets a showing this year, and that boy can rake). How hard is it, really, for an NL team to juggle the lineup and stick someone useful into the DH spot? Even if it is merely a speedy utility infielder or their best pinch hitter, isn’t he more suited to help a team than an AL pitcher who likely hasn’t had more than 20 AB’s in a season since high school (if that)?
My point is this, the rules, in my mind, already should help a good NL team. The fact that the elder league now has some truly intimidating forces means I’m rooting hard for a good old fashioned NL bludgeoning this postseason (mostly because the Red Sox failed so epically I feel dirty rooting for the AL at all… ). So without further ado, let’s go through the National League contenders and look at why they could be your 2011 World Series Champs.
Why they can win it all: Pitching, duh.
I could not call myself a baseball fan if I did not point out the very obvious reason the Phillies were a favorite to start the year and a favorite to end the year to win it all- pitching. Everyone knew the combination of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels would be an incredibly intimidating rotation in both the regular season and postseason. With the emergence of Vance Worley as not only a great number 5 starter but a damn good pitcher overall, the Phillies have arms for mile- and that’s not even including their bullpen which was also excellent, even with Brad Lidge out or ineffective most of the year. It is true across sport-defense wins championships. Baseball has the added wrinkle of the defense on the offensive with pitchers, but that doesn’t make the notion any less true. If you can stop another team’s best offensive blows, you put yourself in the position to win regardless of who you have trying to score. As luck and some clever trading would have it, the Phil’s not only have the pitching and defense to stop you, but the lineup to mash you into oblivion. When clicking, their offense is astounding, otherwise it is simply good. But with the staff they have throwing the ball, they will rarely need too many runs to win a game.
X factor: Hunter Pence
Pence came over to the Phils at the deadline and has played great baseball (even though according to some, the Reds made the best offer for the outfielder). He is a fun player to watch, as he does just about everything unconventionally, but he may prove to be the most important factor on a stacked Phillies team. If Pence is hitting well, he changes the dynamic of that entire lineup and bench, providing the generally great Ryan Howard protection and making the first 6 spots of that lineup legitimately scary.
Why they can win it all: Balance
The Brewers boast two starters that potentially could be genuine aces. Gallardo and Greinke each have the potential to shut any team down on any given night. Add to that Shaun Marcum, a reliable starter in any league, and Randy Wolf, the consummate wily veteran, and the Brew Crew has a pretty formidable starting set. They also boast a deep bullpen (even if K-Rod is whining) and have a strikeout closer, always helpful in the postseason. These facts alone would make them an interesting team. However the Brewers also have two “don’t-pitch-to-them-if-they’re-hot” guys, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Either one is capable of a 5 hit game or a 500 foot homer at a key moment. Both are patient, powerful hitters. They anchor the middle of the lineup. Still, though, the Brewers have more assets. With Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan at the top, and with Braun’s ability to steal a key base, the Brewers not only have the power, but the speed to put pressure on the opponent. I see them as the legitimate threat to the Phillies in the NL.
X-Factor: Corey Hart
Hart can turn a formidable offense into a truly dangerous one. At his best, he is a 30-30 threat with power to all fields and the ability to steal any base. At his worst, he is a strikeout machine with a lack of plate discipline who can’t steal a base because he can’t get ON base. With Corey Hart clicking, pitchers will have a very difficult time pitching to the maulers in the middle. With Hart and/or Morgan on base, pitching to Weeks, Braun and Fielder becomes all the more daunting.
Why they can win it all: Chemistry
Here’s an interesting and completely unrelated to anything note: the Diamondbacks are the only NL team to not have a former Blue Jay as one of their top playoff starters, weird right? (thanks to MLBTradeRumors for that one, a great blog all fans should keep track of, for the record). However, this August they did start the Blue Jays infield from May 27th, 2007 as their infield (John McDonald (shortstop), Aaron Hill (second base), Lyle Overbay (first base) and Ryan Roberts (third base). Just one of those weird things you only see in baseball. Fun for dorks like me, adding that to the disk space in my brain relegated to useless baseball knowledge and not, say, relatives’ birthdays.
Moving on, the D-Backs are a really fun team. If for no other reason than they are managed by Kirk Gibson who, for anyone familiar with recent baseball history, is responsible for one of the most epic, Hollywood-esque moments in recent baseball memory (here). But what leads me to think the team has the right amount of gelling is how his own team honors him. A remarkably resilient team all year, the D-Backs put the icing on the cake when Ryan Roberts (former Blue Jay great) hit a walk-off grand slam with his team down three in extra innings late in September (video). Look closely at that video again. Do you see what Roberts is doing as he rounds the bases? He’s imitating his coach, fist-pumping with the same dogged jog/limp around the bases as Gibson had done some 20+ years ago. Pretty cool moment if you were watching closely, though it is understandable if you weren’t, I mean, someone has to win the NL West every year but that doesn’t mean the nation has to care.
The Diamondbacks seem like a legitimately fun team to play for, full of guys you didn’t quite expect to get this far. You’ve got Roberts, a utility infielder for his career and nicknamed ‘the Tat Man’ because he is quite literally covered in tattoos, hitting a gargantuan homer and being an overall productive power hitter. You’ve got Justin Upton, the quietest MVP candidate ever, who not only has a rocket launcher for an arm , but had a stretch of games where he hit a couple of balls I am pretty sure are still rolling somewhere in the desert. And you have Willie Bloomquist, who one of my personal favorite players. A standard ‘glue’ player, Bloomquist plays everywhere, knows how to handle the bat, and steals bases. He also has the coolest nickname any utility man has ever had: ‘the Silent Assassin.” Fun stuff.
The Diamondbacks are young, hungry and led by an incredibly playoff experienced managerial team (check it out). They are just the right mix with just the right moxie to surprise people. And Ian Kennedy has turned out to be a stud (much to the Yankees’ disappointment and my delight). Heads up for the D-Backs going forward.
X-Factor: Daniel Hudson
Can he show something? Kennedy stepped up this year and figures to be a solid starter, but Hudson is interesting. At times this year he has been a tremendous starter and innings eater. For the D-Backs to go anywhere, they’re going to need Hudson to compliment Kennedy as two anchors in the rotation.
St. Louis Cardinals
Why they can win it all: The best player and the best manager for the job.
Albert Pujols started off terribly and still ended up with 37 homers, 99 RBIs and a .906 OPS. This was a ‘down’ season for the big man. He is unquestionably the most dangerous hitter on the team if not the league. He is a game-altering talent at all times. With Lance Berkman’s unexpected resurgence and solid-if-boring players like Yadier Molina and Jon Jay, the Cardinals are a very good lineup by National League standards. But here’s where a bit of ill-logic comes in. Their lack of distinct talent like the Phillies or Brewers actual works because of Tony LaRussa. Say what you will about the man, but he seems to put players in the right place all the time. So while others may see players like Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot as but parts, LaRussa has an incredible knack for making the most of matchups and hot streaks. This is not to be discounted. Look back on the 2006 Champion Cardinals. Look closely. Not an impressive team on paper. But they played well at the right time and rode a hot streak all the way to the World Series and played their butts off to beat the Tigers. David Eckstein, yes, that David Eckstein, was the MVP. LaRussa has to receive some credit for managing the team properly. As we unfortunately saw (twice) this September, no matter what the lead or talent your team has, mis-management can strike at any time.
X-Factor: The bullpen
Whether or not the Cardinals advance will likely have a lot to do with their unproven bullpen. Edwin Jackson and Chris Carpenter could go 7 innings with the lead against the Phillies and that won’t matter one bit if Mitchell Boggs, Octavio Dotel, Jason Motte or Fernando Salas implodes. Or if they pitch Arthur Rhodes, who has to be 60 at this point (ok, that was mean, he’s actually only 55). All the pitchers in the Cardinals bullpen either struggled this year or have shaky histories. The rest of the team can play as well as they want, but if the bullpen plays heartbreaker the Cardinals will not advance.