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MLB 2011 Playoff Preview

This Major League Baseball season has been a fun one. And Wednesday night was probably the most epic night for the last day of games in a regular season.

In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals jumped out to an early lead against the Astros and never looked back, as Chris Carpenter threw a complete game shutout.

Down in Atlanta, the Braves rode a Dan Uggla two-run homer and a Chipper Jones sacrifice fly all the way to the bottom of the ninth, where rookie closer Craig Kimbrel was given a 3-2 lead to protect. Unfortunately for the Bravos, the pressure of the postseason was more than Kimbrel could take, blowing the save and the chance of a playoff game with the St. Louis Cardinals. The game was extended into extra innings and in the 13th, Phillies right fielder Hunter Pence gave Philadelphia a one run lead off of a 100-foot broken bat blooper. Atlanta could not come back, and their season was over.

So to follow one crazy game in the National League, the American League decided to give us two!

The Yankees took a commanding lead early on, and many disappointed Rays fans left the building. The Red Sox built a 3-2 lead against the Orioles in Baltimore. And in the bottom of the 7th, Boston got a chance to head to the clubhouse during a rain delay and watch the Yankees finish off the Rays… or so they thought.

The score was 7-0 in favor of New York going into the bottom of the eighth. But this is when it got wild. The Rays scored six, capped by an Evan Longoria three-run homer.

And in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, Dan Johnson launched just his fourth homer of the year to tie the game.

By this time, the Red Sox and Orioles game was back in action. And in the bottom of the ninth, the Sox sent their closer Jonathan Papelbon to the hill. Papelbon quickly got the first two outs, and all looked good in Red Sox Nation. Until more madness ensued. Papelbon gave up back-to-back doubles, tying the game 3-3. Orioles second baseman Robert Andino then hit a liner to left that Sox left fielder Carl Crawford dropped, allowing the Orioles to score the winning run.

News traveled fast to Tampa as fans went ballistic once the final score of the Red Sox game was posted up on the scoreboard. A couple of pitches later, Evan Longoria hit a low liner that just barely sailed over the left field fence for a walk-off game-winning, wild card clinching home run.

The Red Sox and Braves collapse, and the Cardinals and Rays clinch the wild card.

A simply incredible night of baseball.

Now the playoffs are here and hopefully the drama is just getting started for Major League Baseball.

Let’s take a look at all of the match ups.

Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees

                                   First pitch Friday 8:37 ET

Staff Aces

After Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia, the Tigers and Yankees pitching staffs are average at best. The two are lined up to face each other in the series, and the winner of the game figures to have the advantage in the series. Verlander will be the Cy Young winner this season as he went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA, and he threw a no-hitter. Could we see another postseason no-hitter this year? (Roy Halladay threw one last year).

Yankees Offense

Curtis Granderson had an MVP caliber year, with 41 homers and 119 RBIs.

Mark Teixeira hit 39 home runs and had 111 RBIs.

Robinson Cano hit 28 home runs and had 118 RBIs.

Most teams only have one player of that caliber. The Yankees have three.

The Yankees also did something this year that no other team has ever done in baseball. They hit three grand slams in one game.

The Yankees offense is obviously built on power, and the Tigers will have to figure out how to either hit with them, or shut them down.

Prediction

I like the Tigers. I think Detroit will win both of the games Justin Verlander pitches in and will find a way to win another game somewhere in the series. It may even be Game 2, where Tigers starter Doug Fister (2.83 ERA) faces off against Ivan Nova (3.70 ERA). The Tigers will win it in five.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. Texas Rangers

                                 First pitch Friday 5:07 ET

Rematch

Last season, the Rays and Rangers faced each other in the ALDS, and the visiting team won every game. This year, the Rangers have home field advantage, so if that trend continues, the Rays will win this season’s series.

The New Ace 

Last season, Cliff Lee led the way for the Rangers in last year’s postseason. With Lee now on the Phillies, C.J. Wilson is the new ace on the Rangers. Lee went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA this season and will match up against Matt Moore, who has made exactly one career start. Somehow I think that trend of the visiting team winning will not continue.

Momentum

Tampa will have all of the confidence in the world coming into this series. If you can win a game against the Yankees after trailing 7-0 going into the bottom of the eighth, you probably feel like you can win in any situation.

Prediction

The Rangers won a team-record 96 games this season, but I feel like the way the Rays got into the playoffs will fuel a lot of confidence going into this series. Both teams have good pitching, and the Rangers have the better line-up and bullpen, but I just feel like the Rays will have too much momentum going into this. Rays win in four.

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Phillies

                                     First pitch Saturday 5:07 ET

Four Horsemen

I’m not sure if the Phillies rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt have been nicknamed yet (I’ve heard the the Big Four), but an appropriate name might come from pro wrestling.

Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard and Ole Anderson combined to form a professional wrestling stable in the National Wrestling Alliance and World Championship Wrestling called the Four Horsemen. The Horsemen were known for brutal tactics, numerous championships and domination of the 1980’s pro wrestling scene. The moniker stuck while, during an interview, Arn Anderson said something to the effect of, “The only time this much havoc had been wreaked by this few a number of people, you need to go all the way back to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!”

Sound familiar?

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt have formed one of the most dominant pitching rotations ever seen. All of these guys have either won a Cy Young Award or have been in the running. This season the “Four Horsemen” accounted for 59 of the Phillies 102 wins. Lee and Halladay recorded over 200 strikeouts, had ERAs under 2.5, and Hamels had 194 strikeouts and a 2.79 ERA. Hamels, Lee and Halladay combined to throw 17 complete games! Unheard of in this era of baseball. Oswalt battled injuries throughout the year but down the stretch pitched well and helped keep the division rival Braves out of the postseason by dominating.

The Four Horsemen fueled a dominant Phillies regular season, and the only thing left to do is to win a World Series.

Murderer’s Row

The Cardinals will counter the Horsemen with their version of Murderer’s Row (The 1927 Yankees were known as Murderer’s Row): Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. The Cardinals trio hit 90 homeruns and drove in 268 runs.

For the Cardinals to have a chance of winning, the rest of the lineup needs to get on base in order for one of these guys to drive in runs. Raphael Furcal is battling a strained hamstring, but St. Louis really needs him to play. The Cardinals GM John Mozeliak traded for Furcal at the trade deadline to be the leadoff guy who can get on base and score runs.

Prediction

The Phillies will win the series in four games. St. Louis managed to reach the postseason on a hot streak but will run into the buzz of the Phillies starting rotation. With Chris Carpenter having pitched Wednesday night, the Cardinals ace probably won’t be available until Game 3 of the series. And that is simply too late.

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Milwaukee Brewers

                                   First pitch Saturday 2:07 ET

Worst to First

It’s amazing to think that the Arizona Diamondbacks lost 97 games last year could win 94 games this season. A large part of that is the improved pitching staff.

The bullpen was awful last season with an ERA we probably should not show. Adding JJ Putz to anchor the bullpen is a big reason why they were so good this year. He saved 45 of 49 chances this season. Bullpen pitchers often talk about how they like to know what their role is. When you have a definite closer, everyone can know their role from there.

Another key cog in the pitching staff is Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy, who went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA.

With the pitching being much improved, another interresting stat is that the Diamondbacks had 48 come from behind wins this season. That’s incredible! Don’t count them out if they get down.

You Complete Me

The Milwaukee Brewers may have the most complete team in the playoffs this year.

Let’s start with the lineup, which is anchored by sluggers Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.

Braun hit 33 home runs and recorded 111 RBIs, and Fielder hit 38 home runs and drove in 120 RBIs. The rest of the Brewers lineup is also pretty good, its power coming from Corey Hart, Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt, and some speed and average coming from Nyjer Morgan.

The pitching rotation is also pretty good. Zach Grienke and Yovani Gallardo led the way and both recorded 200-strikeout seasons.

Another great strength is the Brewers bullpen. John Axford is the closer, and he saved 46 games in 48 chances this season. Even if Axford falters, the Brew Crew can call on a guy with 291 career saves in Francisco Rodriguez. That’s a pretty good backup.

Prediction

The Brewers will win this series in four games. Arizona has had a great turnaround, but it stops here. The Brewers have too much good hitting and pitching for the D-Backs to overcome in this series. Milwaukee fans will be dreaming of Harvey’s Wallbangers Part II this October.

Contact staff writer Aaron May by emailing him at aaron@sportsspectrum.com.