Sunday, October 7, 2012

MAMBINO's MLB Playoff Preview, Part 2: Yankees/Orioles and Nationals/Cardinals

National League Division Series: St. Louis Cardinals over the Washington Nationals in 4 Games

KOBEsh: Let's get this out of the way: St. Louis' controversial win over the Atlanta Braves has zero bearing on this game. The Cardinals, having faced elimination five times in the past 12 months, didn't go into this game thinking that they could possibly lose, even though most people (even here on MAMBINO) picked Atlanta to come of this game tonight. A younger, more inexperienced team could have been rattled, thinking that they could have, or even should have, lost that game. The defending champions aren't giving a second thought to a call that in honesty was only the second worst sports referring job in the past two weeks.

That being said, the reason the St. Louis Cardinals will go on to defeat a team with almost 10 more regular season wins than them isn't just for all the reasons they've survived every comeback before this one. Yes, STL has a mountain more postseason familiarity than their opponents from the District who have only one regular player with any substantive playoff experience (Jayson Werth). But that can't account for everything. What will get them three wins is patience.

Just like in their matchup with Atlanta, St. Louis has a slight offensive advantage against Washington, with Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Pete Mothereffin' Kozma swinging hot sticks right now. The Cards have a knack for taking every advantage they can, serving up long at-bats and wearing out opposing pitchers. On the flipside, the Nats have a bunch of high strikeout hitters like Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper, whose groan-inducing whiffs will play right into the hands of patient pitchers like Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia. I can't expect that the Washington 's lineup will be shut down completely, but they certainly won't be one of the league's leading offenses for the next week or so.

The Nationals have a couple of horses in Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, both of which are ready to  go the distance in every start. To answer, the Cards are throwing Adam Wainwright (twice) and Chris Carpenter, who aren't only just as good as the two youngsters, but are battle-tested and won't panic or press at the sight of a Bryce Harper homer or any man in scoring position.

I want to make this clear: I'm not putting too much of a premium on experience, even though the advantages it gives STL as well as takes away from DC is just too much to overcome. The fact is that in every facet except for the bullpen, the Cardinals are just a much more superior team right now.

How could the Nationals pull it out?

: The beauty of Nationals' season all year long (and I've been to over 30 of their games this year now) is that the goal of a successful campaign was set at merely qualifying for the postseason. Finishing with the best record in baseball was simply gravy in addition to a season in DC that saw Teddy Roosevelt winning a President's race AND the Nat's overtaking the Phils in the standings.

A crew of ragtag starting pitching (Gio Gonzalez anybody?) has led them throughout the injured valleys of the major league season. When Jayson Werth went down, it wasn't an issue. The same goes for Drew Storen and Henry Rodriguez in the pen: Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Craig Stammen stepped in and didn't just serve as placeholders: they dominated. Most importantly, the rotation put the team on their back and carried the Nat's through the doldrums of the year. All the way down the rotation from Stephen Strasburg to Ross Detwiler, DC might not have had the most powerful five guys around, but they certainly were the most consistent. This team didn't flinch when they got hit by the injury bug, and guys constantly contributed in their stead without missing a beat.

I mentioned that this team expected to make the playoffs. That's happened. What emboldens me to make this pick is that the young Nats seemingly every month stepped up again and again, showing no fear in replacing another person on a first place team. I don't see why in the playoffs this will be different. The Cards, though an experienced and hot squad, will not be able to match the juggernaut that is the Davey-led-train. The offenses are relatively well matched, seeing as both teams can manufacture runs, as well as just rely on the home run ball. The edge in Washington's favor? There's two. The Nationals might not have a dominating bulldog in the mold of Wainwright or Carpenter, but from top to bottom the rotation is filled with flamethrowers who are capable of throwing a shut-out at any time. On the whole, the aggregate talent of the Nats' four guys are just better than a St. Louis rotation that has soft-tossers like Garcia and Lohse. Washington pitchers don't serve up walks very often, which will force the Cardinals to put the ball in play to one of the best fielding teams in the league.

The other factor that destines this team beyond round one and barreling toward the World Series? Their manager. Davey has failed in several roles (yes, I remember his crap time as a Dodgers skipper), and yet, he has done the best job in the National League and eeking out every ounce of talent from his players. Davey has gotten his guys to believe that they're the best, not just a team in first place. They simply don't care who's the defending champion and seem to be completely unafraid of the big moment. All in all, an onslaught of pitching (even without Strasburg), and a lineup from top to bottom that can produce, combined with Davey's young corps of believers will lead the Nat's beyond St. Louis and one step closer to the World Series.

American League Division Series: New York Yankees over the Baltimore Orioles in 4 games

KOBEsh: Why? There shouldn't be much of a question. The Yankees have the experience and the track record. They have confident postseason heroes - we're looking at a team with two ALCS MVPs (Sabathia and Pettitte) and a World Series MVP (Jeter). They have a slightly better lineup, and when operating at full power? It's not even comparable. New York has a far superior starting rotation, beginning with CC Sabathia, Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda, who threw cold-blooded aces in the postseason with the Dodgers. Basically, they're the goddamn New York Yankees. They're better. Right?

But that's all just cliches and giving the team much more credit simply because they have that "NY" on the front of their jerseys. Baltimore finished just two games behind the Yanks and defeated the defending two-time AL champs IN Texas. As much as fans of the 27-time champions want to immediately dismiss the star-less Orioles, that's the exact reason why Baltimore's been able to win this year.

The biggest advantage the Yanks have are the two left-handed horses in Sabathia and Petttitte pitching to a O's lineup with four regular lefties. Baltimore is notoriously free swinging, and the veteran starters in the Bronx are absolutely going to take advantage of that. I'd worry about the young Orioles being overeager in trying to defeat "older brother", whereas the Yankees are simply going to go about their business, play unemotionally and methodically hammer away. New York are a team that's not afraid to strike out, but just because of their high strikeout numbers, they shouldn't be mistaken for impatient hitters. They led the AL in walks this year, and should be able to take advantage of some middling Baltimore starters.

I'd expect the Yankees to get out to big leads for most of their games, relying on Sabathia and Kuroda to go seven or eight innings to spare a surprisingly thin bullpen.

Why the Orioles could pull it out

KOBEsh: Mirrored by the division series on the other side of the bracket, this should be a pretty cut and dry case, shouldn't it? The Yanks have better names, stronger starters and the division title. It took 161 games, but New York fended off Baltimore the final week in a pennant race that no one thought ever should have happened.

But as easy as it is to dismiss the Orioles, it's similarly easy to dismiss their swath of similarities: they're both home run hitting teams that don't manufacture runs and aren't afraid to strikeout. The O's and Yanks are both towards the top of the standings in home runs and towards the bottom in steals. New York definitely has the better lineup of the two, but adjusted for A-Rod and Granderson hitting major slumps, while Baltimore outfielders continue to smoke the ball, I'd say entering the game today, they're about even. 

In terms of pitching, the teams are two sides of the same coin. While New York stays in the game with three quality starters, they then hand it off to a bullpen that outside of Rafael Soriano has been extremely shaky. Baltimore is the opposite; top heavy in their downright dominant pen (for further proof, see Darren O'Day's destruction of the Rangers in the Wild Card game), whereas they have a set of unspectacular, but solid starters that will keep them in the game. Whereas the Yankees could jump out to an early lead and never score after that, Baltimore could (and has) won games in the late innings game after game. 

The key for the Orioles will be trying to put pressure on the Yankees early, which is going to be extremely difficult with four lefties in the lineup and both CC and Pettitte rounding into postseason form early. "Patience" isn't typically a word associated with the Baltimore offense, so they're going to have to wear out the Yankees starters by smoking the ball. Other than that, if the Orioles' starters can keep the Yankees in check for four or five innings, the bats can overtake a vulnerable New York pen. It's not going to be easy, but if the Orioles can maintain some sort of hitting discipline, they can win this series in five games.

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