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SPORTS

DIAMOND MUSINGS
Freelance sports journalist Jay B. Webster delivers some chin music from the world of Major League Baseball


Buckle Up – October Baseball Is Here
October 1, 2013

So it's time to put another baseball season in the rear view mirror. In some ways it's the saddest of times for a baseball fan. It means summer is over. It means no checking stats and standings, box scores and web gems. It means the long cold winter is approaching, and spring seems a long ways away.

But at least we get the chance to send the season off with an October bang. There may be a chill in the air, but at least we get to savor playoff baseball before we close the book on another season.

And a great season it's been, overall. Aside from the steroid stumbles, the season has been high on entertainment value. The Pirates finally finished a season above .500 for the first time since 1992, and even reached the playoffs. We got to watch the Dodgers swoon and then surge. The "Moneyball" A's and Rays kept proving you can win without a huge payroll, while the Angels and Blue Jays proved that buckets of money can't buy success. We got to see Yasiel Puig and Chris 'Crush' Davis burst onto the scene, and we even got a cherry on top with the Marlins Henderson Alverez's no-hitter – completed by a bottom-of-the-ninth walkoff with Alvarez in the on-deck circle in Miami, no less – on the season's final day.

In fact, the season was so good that they needed a 163rd game to decide who would snap up the second American League wild card slot. The Tamp Bay Rays held off the Blue Jays 7-6 on the final day of the regular season, hopped on a plane to Texas and got a complete-game gem from David Price in a 5-2 win over the Rangers the following night. Then it was back on the plane and straight on to Cleveland where it was Alex Cobb's turn to shine in a 4-0 victory over the Indians, who had won 10 in a row to finish the regular season. That sent the Rays on to Boston to take on their AL East Division rival Boston Red Sox in the proper playoffs. Now that's doing it the hard way.

In principal I'm a fan of the MLB adding a second wild card to each league. It makes the final weeks of the season more exciting with more teams having a chance to reach the post season. The final weeks in Kansas City would have been meaningless, for example, without the second wild card to shoot for. Even though they fell short, the fact that there was relevant baseball played in KC in September for the first time in decades is a good thing.

I also like the fact that teams are rewarded for winning their divisions. The Pirates, Red and Cardinals had playoff spots pretty much wrapped up in early September and could have cruised through the final weeks of the season. But the massive reward of not being subjected to the wild card crap shoot kept the division race interesting until the season's final days.

What I'm not completely sold on is the one-and-done setup of the showdown between the two wild card teams. It hardly even feels like the playoffs. The problem is that there just isn't enough time to squeeze in any more playoff games after the end of the regular season without pushing the World Series into November, which is no time to be playing baseball.

What they really should do is trim the regular season to 160 games and play best-of-three wild card series. I realize this penalized the teams who don't make the playoffs by taking two regular season games away from them, but aren't 160 baseball games enough? It's a nice round number and would give us a proper playoff 'series' in the wild card round. I'd gladly trade two meaningless regular season games in April for more electric playoff baseball at the end of September.

So now that the wild card gimmick games are over (the Pirates beat the Reds in the other one) it's time for the playoffs proper. Here's a quick rundown of the four Divisional Playoff Series.

Pittsburgh Pirates vs St. Louis Cardinals

If anyone saw the wild card game between the Reds and Pirates in PNC Park the other night, you know how fired up the fans in Pittsburgh are to see playoff baseball for the first time in over two decades. The Cards, on the other hand, are playing postseason baseball for the 10th time in 14 years, making this a series of high passions versus experience.

The Cardinals have the top pitcher in Adam Wainwright, who returned from Tommy John surgery to lead the league in wins, complete games and shutouts. After that, things are pretty even on the mound, with the Pirates actually deeper than the Redbirds.

However the Cardinals led the NL in runs, while the Pirates finished just 9th, and St. Louis hit for the highest average with runners in scoring position since play-by-play data started being kept in the late 1940s. The combination of the Cards' superior firepower and post season experience means the Pirates could have their work cut out for them if they are to keep the fairy tale alive.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves

The Dodgers didn't start the season off like the team with the highest payroll in baseball history, going 30-42 over the first 2+ months of the season and falling 9 games off the pace in the NL West. But manager Don Mattingley found the right buttons to push as the Dodgers went 62-28 the rest of the way to run away with things.

The real problem for the Braves is that they may well have to beat Clayton Kershaw twice – he of the 1.83 ERA – if they are to win the series, and that is a big ask. Not only that, Kershaw will be followed by to the mound by Zack Greinke (2.63 ERA) and Korean import Hyun-jin Ryu (3.00 ERA).

Offensively, the Braves are deeper than the Dodgers, but combined with the pitching, the Dodgers should have enough to get the job done.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox

While Joe Maddon and the Rays seem to do so much with so little every year, the Red Sox put the Bobby Valentine debacle behind them and pulled off the old 'worst to first' act this year. These teams know each other well after butting heads 19 times in the regular season. The Sox took 12 of those, but of course all that goes out the window this time of year.

On paper the Red Sox look like the better team, and will be favoured to come out on top. But after slumping badly in early September, the Rays have been playing one must-win game after the other for the past two or three weeks, and they keep finding guys to step up under pressure and, more importantly, ways to win. Don't count the Rays out of this one.

Detroit Tigers v Oakland A's

These two teams met a year ago with the series going to a deciding fifth game. The Tigers have the best rotation in baseball with Cy Young-winner-to-be Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister, while the A's have one of the deepest and most versatile bullpens.

Home-field advantage could be huge for the A's, who went 52-29 on the home turf. Miguel Cabrera has battled a nagging groin injury over the past month, and has just two extra-base hits and one home run in 72 at-bats coming into the playoffs. Even with the Tigers' best player hobbled, the A's will find it tough going against the Tigers' superior pitching.

Hold on baseball fans, here we go. It's time to sit back and enjoy some red-hot October baseball. I know I will.


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