Baseball Playoff Primer 2009

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It’s business time for the great American game. A season that began among the octogenarian havens of Florida and Arizona in Spring Training, spanned 2430 Major League games across 30 teams (who play 162 games per season, or about six per week), has come down to eight teams vying for World Series glory.

Why its a ‘World Series’ when all but one team – Toronto – hails from the US is a testament to both the power and arrogance of American marketing. But oh well, get over it and enjoy the spectacle.

That odyssey has ended for all but eight teams, most recently for Detroit, where the Tigers have just completed one of the greatest meltdowns of recent history by losing a one-game playoff decider to rivals the Minnesota Twins.

The high-octane oilheads tonight turn their eyes to the Lions (suckers! possibly the worst team in football history at present) and hockey Redwings (certainly a mercy for Mo’Town). Yesterday their team lost a most captivating game to the Twins – I mean, what on earth is so special about Minnesota? – 6 to 5 after 12 scintillating innings. Detroit loaded the bases with one out in the top of the 12th – had a man thrown out at home – before losing it on a garden-variety single to Alexi Casilla. He’s got of a .202 average (ie, he hits the ball only 2 out of every ten times he’s at bat).

So the Twins, who stunned Detroit by winning 16 of their last 20 games to even force a tie in the American League Central that lead to the one-game tiebreaker, are off to New York where the mighty Yankees await.

So it’s time to pull some sickies, grab a six pack of bud, and tune in to ESPN (or grab the online radio via mlb.com) ‘cos it’s Play Off time baby!

So who’s in? Today: the American League.

American League

New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers are the odds-on favourites to win the title that has eluded them for nine long years. But with a payroll north of US$200 million annually, they’re always the favourites. But money don’t buy love, and traditionally there hasn’t been a lot of it in the grotesquely over-paid clubhouse. Except this year. Keyed by the energetic Johnny Damon (or Judas, to Boston Red Sox fans) and hit king Derek Jeter, New York has been astonishingly dominant since mid-season to run away with the AL East.

Oh, they’ve bought their way in too. The Yankees committed nearly half a billion US dollars to just three players in the past offseason: first baseman Mark Teixiera ($180m over eight years), and pitchers CC Sabathia (seven years, $161m) and AJ Burnett (five years, $82m) but the unheralded acquisition of Nick Swisher could be the one that makes this team in the playoffs. He’s bopped 29 homers and seems to be the guy with the big hit at the right time, as the Yankees have won more walk-off games than any of the contenders this year. First up for them: the Twins, should wipe the floor with them.

Boston Red Sox
The Yankees hated rivals in the AL East – you just can’t watch ESPN these days without being reminded of it – are back in the playoffs by virtue of the Wildcard. IE the best team that didn’t win their division.

Supposedly the poor cousin to the Yankees’ ‘Evil Empire’, the Sawx (to use the New England vernacular) have traditionally had one of the highest payrolls to match their foes from down the Interstate. But what cannot be matched from Beantown is the fervour of its fans. The Calvanistic attitude that smothers the New England personality is no better found than in its attitude to its beloved Red Sox. With 162 games, you’re gonna lose a few, right? Well, each loss in Boston is received by a chorus of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing simply unheard of in sports.

The big story this year was the ups and downs of the Sox’ biggest star, ‘Big Papi’ David Ortiz. The homer-happy slugger was homerless for aaaaages to start the season, battled to keep his average above .200, got stung by a steroids scandal, battled another slump, but managed to right the big ship and batted in 99 runs.

Key storyline for the Sox these playoffs is the effectiveness of the starting rotation. Stud Josh Beckett was a total stinkbuzz on the mound in August before recovering to finish with a record of 17-6. He’s volatile, to say the least. Lefty Jon Lester has been dependable, but young’un Clay Bucholz has been shades of both brilliant and utter shite. Next up for them: Angels. Boston have owned the Angels in the playoffs since 1986, compiling a record of 9 and 1 in three series against them this decade.

Minnesota Twins
The Cinderellas this season looked totally dead at the beginning of the month, a full seven games behind the big money Detroit Tigers. But they stormed back to win 80 percent of their games in the final weeks to tie Detroit and win by one run in the 12th inning in a remarkable tie breaker game. What was extra impressive was that the Twins did it without their superstar first baseman Justin Morneau, out injured much of the final month.

The key for the Twins is in its MLB-Best catcher Joe Mauer. Dude can hit for average and power, plus he calls a good game behind the plate. Good defensive catchers often are crap hitters, so this guy is a total bonus. Like Adam Gilchrist.

Other than Morneau, Mauer and dependable closer pitcher Joe Nathan, there ain’t a lot of star power on this team. Their total payroll was $65m in 2009, so their wins will come through team spirit and the astute management of Ron Gardenhire. If you want a team to follow, these guys are the true underdogs with plenty of character. Next up: Yankees. Little chance, but stranger things have happened.

Anaheim Angels of Disneyland
Last winning the big one in 2002, the Angels have been the perennial powerhouse in the West – at least when they can settle on a name. In about a decade they’ve been the California Angels, The Anaheim Angels, The LA Angels of Anaheim, and Mickey Mouse’s Boyfriend.

Key Angel player is Chone Figgens, a whippet at the top of their batting order with a high on-base percentage and speed to burn. With an inability to stop the running game the biggest weakness of the Red Sox, Figgens could be a thorny proposition every time he gets on base.

Otherwise, the team is a collection of aging stars like Valdimir Guerrero, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Gary Anderson Jr. Look out for young first baseman Kendry Morales, he can rake and has matched the performance of the departed Mark Teixiera who chased Yankee last year. And he’s signed at $1.1m. Bargain.

Pitching-wise, starters are a bunch of over-achieving journeymen, and closer Brian Fuentes has been woefully erratic. Their first round opponent the Red Sox has killed the Angels in the post-season, eliminating the team from Disneyland in 2004, 2007 and 2008 – and a total of 12-1 play-offs games between the two since 1986.

So that’s the state of play as I see it. Later: The National League.

– Phil Reed

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