MAMBINO’s MLB Playoff Preview, Part 1: Wildcard and (a couple) Divisional Series

The second Wild Card slot has added in another dramatic cadence to what has been in recent years an extremely exciting last week of the season. In four out of the past five seasons, playoff spots weren’t settled until Game 162 out of 162, with the Rockies, Phillies, White Sox, Twins, Rays and Cardinals all eeking out monumental, last-second comebacks. The drama has been so fantastically unreal that the Commissioner Bud Selig, who miraculously looks like the best out of the four major sports right this moment, decided to heighten it starting in 2012 by adding another contender to the mix.

More teams than ever before were in the postseason hunt up until the final series of the year, including the freshly eliminated Dodgers, Brewers, Angels, Rays and White Sox. For the uninitiated, the playoffs begin today, when the two American League Wild Cards, the AL West deposed Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles and the two National League Wild Cards, the reigning champion St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, face off in a sudden death game to see who goes on to play the two teams with the best records in their respective leagues. As opposed to years past, the margin of benefit between being a division titlist and a Wild Card team just became canyon-like. If you’re a divisonal winner, you’re at least guaranteed a five-game series. A Wild Card winner? All you get is a one-game playoff to play the best team in your league, and a giant choco-taco full of crap. Needless to say, it’s infinitely advantageous to win the division. But even as tenuous as this sounds for the teams playing, you know who this sucks most for? THE GREAT MAMBINO.

That’s right. US. Since the Divisional Series matchups aren’t set yet, here we are previewing two one-game playoffs and only two out of the four divisional series. What about us, Bud? Your loyal bloggers? Who do this for nothing but the love of the game and the mountains of women that come with being an amateur writer? C’mon, man. Think about us, for once. Ass.  

Regardless of my personal vendettas, we here at MAMBINO would never intentionally deprive our dozens….AND DOZENS of followers. From the hearts and minds of MAMBINO HQ are our picks for tomorrow’s playoff games and the two Divisional Series that are set:

American League Wild Card Game: Texas Rangers over Baltimore Orioles


El Miz:
The Texas Rangers have limped into the postseason, fading down the back stretch before getting swept by the Oakland A’s and losing what looked like a certain third-straight AL West crown on the last day of the season.  All is not lost, however, as the Rangers and Baltimore Orioles will square off thanks to the new one-game play-in for the Wild Card (actually, we would have had the same result even if MLB didn’t change the rules, as the Rangers and Orioles finished with the exact same 93 wins).

So how does Texas have any chance?  They are playing arguably the hottest team in baseball and the dreaded “team of destiny” thanks to Baltimore’s incredible 29-9 record in 1-run games, the best winning percentage since the Brooklyn Bridegrooms way back when President Benjamin Harrison was in the White House…you know, 1890. 

First, Texas is at home, which has got to help since Camden Yards would have been an absolute madhouse with their first taste of the postseason since 1997. Second, Texas is throwing Yu Darvish.

Texas paid $51.7 million dollars to Darvish’s former team just to be able to negotiate with him (the total deal cost $111 million).  That is one heck of a tab to run up on the first date.  But Darvish has been worth the price, and with a 16-9 record and 221 strikeouts, he has arguably been the Rangers best pitcher.  Darvish also had a lights-out September, with 5 quality starts in as many chances, 39 K’s in 36.2 innings, a 2.21 ERA and only allowing one home run.  The Orioles have not faced Darvish yet this year, so they will have to adjust quickly to his unique mechanics and bevy of pitches.  Finally, Darvish has a history of big game performances in Japan, so he will presumably not be afraid of the higher leverage now that the postseason is upon us.  If Darvish is on, expect Texas to advance.

But why could the O’s pull it off?
Que-Ese: Having seen a few B’more game this season in person, they are a team that sweats the small stuff. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. They have bought in to skipper Buck Showalter’s longtime reputation of being able to play small ball when needed while maintaining a solid bullpen to secure small leads. Led by closer Jim Johnson, the relief corps of Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and Troy Patton are one of the best pens outside of Cincy, and throw with a steely coldness. Since we’re talking about only one game, the inferior offense of the Orioles (though not by much) only needs to squeak out a slim lead. Texas is coming off a 2-7 stretch in which they blew a five game division lead against an Athletics team that’s pretty similar to the O’s: a great bullpen, young pitchers who don’t dominate but keep their team in the game, and a solid offense that seems to have a knack for clutch hits. On paper, it’s completely unlikely that the O’s win. But the playoffs are about who’s hot and who’s not. Baltimore is an insanely hot team riding a wave of momentum and though Joe Saunders isn’t fantastic, he’ll keep them within striking distance. That’s proven to be enough for the Orioles so far…why think any different now? Another sidenote: if the Rangers want to win, they better not let this go into extras. I find it crazy that Baltimore DOES NOT LOSE in extra innings. They set a record with 14 straight extra inning victories this season. 

National League Wild Card Game: Atlanta Braves over St. Louis Cardinals
Mr. Marquez: Going by the numbers the Cardinals are at a complete disadvantage in starting pitching. Their starting pitcher Kyle Lohse had an ERA that was a run worse on the road than it was at home. He will be pitching in Turner Field where his 9.00 ERA was worse than any other ballpark this year. The Braves are countering with Kris Medlin who has been quite simply the best pitcher in baseball over the last two months. His ERA in that time has been 0.92.
Then there’s the bullpen. The Braves as a team had the second best ERA in baseball this year while the Cardinals’ pen was ranked 20th. Look at the teams 7th, 8th, and 9th inning options:
Inning
7th
8th
9th
Braves Player
Cory Gearrin
Eric O’Flaherty
Craig Kimbrel
ERA/WHIP
1.80/1.10
1.73/1.05
1.01/0.65
Cardinals Player
Edward Mujica
Mitchell Boggs
Jason Motte
ERA/WHIP
3.03/1.04
2.21/1.05
2.75/0.92

And of course then there’s the bats. Beyond the numbers, Chipper Jones will be the story that the media climbs all over. He can handle it and will handle it, and that will take off any pressure from the likes Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward. Looking at the numbers, the Cardinals did finish with 65 more runs than the Braves in the regular season, but we all know that good pitching beats good hitting.

But why could STL pull it off? 
KOBEsh: Two reasons that Mr. Marquez just touched on: experience and hitting. There’s zero doubt in my mind that the Braves have better pitching than the Cards. Though he defending champs certainly aren’t slouches with a fantastic 7-8-9 combination of Edward Mujica, the flame-throwing Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte, the pitching match-up tomorrow specifically tilts in Atlanta’s favor. Much has been made of how unbelievable Kris Medlin has been this summer and to make matters worse for STL, the 16-win Kyle Lohse has been very mortal in September (2-1, 3.89 ERA). Just based on the numbers alone, there’s no way the Cards should have a chance. 
But if numbers and figures were the pathway the world walked on, baseball-reference.com would be the most popular website on the planet, not ESPN.com. The truth is that this Cardinals team is completely unafraid in any situation, versus any opponent at any time of year. Since last season, they’ve lost their manager in Tony LaRussa, two of their three best hitters in Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman and their Game 7 pitcher in Chris Carpenter, and yet, they’re still headed to the playoffs in the same fashion they were 12 months ago. Somehow, the Cardinals have come back with a fearsome starting rotation including Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia and Lohse, while patching together a string of bats including a resurgent Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, late-game murderer Allen Craig and hero of the last week, Peter Motherfuckin’ Kozma. This lineup has averaged around five runs a game in the past few series, right when the Dodgers heated up and they need to score the most. 
Meanwhile, they look across the diamond and see a Braves team full of playoff novices who face the team that bounced them from the postseason last September. Yes, I just threw around enough cliches to make Tim McCarver throw up in protest, but there’s no escaping the fact that October baseball is about intangibles, streaking teams and playing in the heat of competition. The Cardinals have had the Dodgers and Brewers hot on their heels for the past three weeks and went 13-6 in that stretch, so in many ways, STL is already primed and ready to go. On the flipside, the Braves spot has been sewn up for a few weeks now, so one has to imagine that they’re competitive juices aren’t flowing nearly as hot as in Eastern Missouri.
American League Divisional Series: Detroit Tigers in Oakland Athletics in 4 Games

KOBEsh: Why? Because it makes perfect sense. The Tigers have the prospective AL Cy Young winner who will be able to pitch twice in this series, including Game 1 at home and a potential closeout Game 4 on the road on Oakland Colliseum, where he owns a sub-2.00 ERA lifetime. The Tigers have the first triple-crown winner in over 40 years and a far superior lineup just on the virtue of the aforementioned Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson. The Tigers have a much more seasoned and tested offense, with a veteran-laden team that beat the Yankees in the ALDS just one year ago. The only place where the A’s are superior to the Tigers are in the bullpen, though even there, Oakland is looking at Ryan Cook, Grant Balfour and Sean Doolittle having pitched as many as five games in a row, ending just on Wednesday. Right there, it should be simply checkmate, Tigers. Bob Melvin’s squad’s strongest component could be irreparably gassed, and though youthful exuberance could make up some performance, over the next week all those appearances could take it’s toll. 

Also, though much is going to be made regarding how Oakland’s is moving like a ball of flame out of Ryu’s hands into the postseason, it’s not like the Tigers have been any less hot. Detroit’s gone 15-7 since winning two of three against the White Sox on September 10th, pulling out a slim division title win after being down for much of the season. The Tigers are certainly a flawed team, notably in that outside of Jackson, Cabrera and Fielder the lineup is average and occasionally awful, as well as a sometimes suspect bullpen, but on paper? There’s no way Detroit should lose this series.

But how could Oakland keep it going?  
KOBEsh: Because the Oakland A’s laugh at paper. They don’t recycle. They just use tablets. They hate paper. 
I love baseball. I watch it all the time. I pay attention to obscure teams and players that some people, even from those towns, don’t give a crap about. For example, I have a strange infatuation with Brad Boxberger in San Diego. He’s amazing and his last name sounds like it’s out of a Hardy Boys novel. 
But I just don’t know how Oakland’s doing it. Except for their pen, who at this point might not be able to throw an inning on XBOX, much less in a real game, they are really…unexceptional. They have three above-average hitters in Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and DH Jonny Gomes. They have a few good, but not dominant (yet) pitchers in Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and AJ Griffin. In fact, their best two starters all season include 1) a fat guy who resembled a melting popsicle, currently suspended for steroid use that I can’t yet understand because of said fatness and 2) another guy who almost DIED after getting beaned on the head while pitching. That’s…it. What am I missing here? This team somehow scored the 8th most runs in the league but had the 4th best run differential? It seems that the ironclad laws of mathematics aren’t enough to stop the A’s right now. How are they doing this?

Timely hits: Only the 6th highest batting average, but the 2nd highest OPS with runners in scoring position – so hitting when it counts. Winning close games: 3rd most runs in the league when the score is tied, 2nd most in late/close games. Beating the bad teams. Not caring how bad they were “supposed” to be. This Oakland A’s team beats you by playing best when it matters, if that’s even a skill and not just luck.

This team still makes no sense. But they are hot, with a lineup that’s scoring runs and a pen that’s not allowing any. They are playing with confidence and they believe they can beat anyone. And in the playoffs, those are the things that count most.
National League Divisional Series: Cincinnati Reds over the San Francisco Gigantes in 4 Games

BockerKnocker: Because Melky Cabrera cheated.

Los Gigantes were starting to look like a fun team to watch (assuming you can stomach nine straight innings of a baseball game in which the Yankees aren’t playing) with the unhittable Matt Cain, the emerging superstar Buster Posey, and Cabrera, the young outfielder on track to win a batting title in the same year that he won All-Star Game MVP. Cabrera was caught playing with needles, however, and suddenly San Francisco’s baseball team is as appealing as the homeless bums that line many of its streets. 

Karma always comes back around, and even though the Giants have taken a hard line stance by not inviting the Melkman back to the team after his suspension clears, there is no way the Giants will win, period. Cain will give them some hope, but ultimately we’re looking at 3 saves from all-world talent Aroldis Chapman to close the books on Frisco’s year. Jay Bruce has finally looked like the outstanding prospect he was a few years ago, slugging 34 home runs, Brandon Phillips is the rock of the defensive infield, and Johnny Cueto has been so good that I Googled “Johnny Cueto steroids” at one point this year. Add the return of first baseman extraordinaire Joey Votto, and even Dusty Baker can’t pull the plug on the Big Red Machine. Cincy is going to the World Series.
 
But how could the Giants win in 5? 

KOBEsh: Quite simply, because they have the best three of the best five starters in this series, and that could be the difference. The two teams are remarkably similar, especially the past few weeks. The Giants have always been known as a lighter hitting team that got by with their starting pitching an bullpen–which is how they won the 2010 World Se

Sorry, I just punched myself in the face. Instantaneous reaction. Weird how science works. 

However, lately San Francisco has done more than cobble together runs, with import Marco Scutaro hitting nearly .400 in the past few weeks, Angel Pagan playing like it was 2010 and Buster Posey playing like he wants that MVP trophy. Their bullpen, even with the loss of Brian Wilson, has bounced back behind Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo’s stellar work and remains a strength of the team. Of course Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are doing more than their fair share, and Tim Lincecum has shaken a shocking start to pitch at least a bit better than league average, though nothing near his two-time Cy Young apex. 

Cincy on the other hand has always been a hitting-rich team that had just enough arms to finish with between 75-85 wins. Not anymore. Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto have dragged the Reds to the top of the NL Central, and the best relievers in the Majors have kept them there. Strangely, the team’s bats have gone cold, scoring four runs or less in each game of their previous four series. Perhaps this has to do with Joey Votto coming back slowly from a knee injury, but the result remains that the Reds are struggling offensively right now.
These teams are fairly evenly matched on the pitching side, so it’s going to come down to the offense. 3 of the 5 games are going to be played at AT&T Park in the Bay, which isn’t going to help Cincy’s declining offensive shortcomings as of late. It’s going to be a five game struggle, but the Gigantes should pull this out. They may go into a posteason series with a better lineup than their opposition for the first time since Barry Bonds left town. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dry heave.

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