I'll readily admit to ravenously consuming all things football while simply scoreboard watching in baseball. Football season gives us all an excuse to channel our inner-undergrad, even if your arm now gets sore from slinging the pigskin and you can't shotgun like you used to. But watching Baseball Tonight last night - yes, it's still on with the venerable Karl Ravech - I realized that there's plenty of gripping drama that's all been buried by football. Even though my fantasy squad, appropriately named Underachieving, fell short of the playoffs, reasons abound to be 2-sport viewers right now, the Bo Jackson of armchair remote handlers. A short handicap on how I think things will shakedown.
At least the winner of the worst division in baseball will have a winning record. The Diamondbacks strong pitching has faded, while the Dodgers did what most Los Angeleans (Los-Angelese? I haven't a clue what's the correct nomenclature) do in times of need - makeover. Enter Manny Ramirez, who's added enough pop to lead the Dodgers surge to the division crown. Come playoffs, I would imagine he'll get the Bonds treatment, routinely walked without hesitation to let a cast of no-names keep them playing in October. I don't see it happening.
The Cubs got exactly the boost they needed with Carlos Zambrano returning from his injury with a no-hitter. If the pitchers hold up, they are certainly the favorites to make the World Series and put 100 years of heartbreak and disappointment behind them. The plucky Astros somehow crawled back into the wild card race with their impersonation as the '07 Rockies. The hot team has certainly made waves in the NL the last three years, amde easier this year when the other contenders are folding like lawnchairs. The Brewers meltdown is curious, and firing their manager with two weeks left is even more curious. Though I think the Brewers' sum of their parts is better than Houston, the confusion caused by the move will work against them in the clubhouse. Playoff baseball is all about chemistry.
Gotta love the Mets knack for end of season collapses. When they lose, they curl up like a roly-poly and lay down to anyone, including the worst team in the NL in back-to-back contests. The Phillies have mojo on their side and should ride it to another division title. Ryan Howard has clubbed his way into the MVP discussion with his late-game long ball heroics. Has there been an MVP with a comparable lowly .249 batting average? I like the Phillies to hold onto the division lead and giving the Cubs their stiffest competition.
As for the Wild Card, the Mets lead the Brewers by 1/2 a game with the Astros 3 games back. Looking at each team's remaining schedule and potential "ace" starts, it's going to come down to the wire.
NEW YORK: 2 @ WAS; 3 @ ATL; 4 CHI; 3 FLA --- 3 probable Santana starts
MILWAUKEE: 2 @ CHI; 3 @ CIN; 3 PIT; 3 CHI --- 5 probable CC/Sheets starts
HOUSTON: 2 @ FLA; 3 @ PIT; 3 CIN; 3 ATL --- 2 probable Oswalt starts
Though the Astros schedule looks the easiest, they still have ground to make up and don't have the horses in the pitching stable like the other two. The Brewers have 5 with the best team in the NL at the same time they are answering too many questions in their own clubhouse. As bad as the Mets have looked, I think they'll come away with the Wild Card. Santana's big game experience will pay dividends. Those four games with the Cubs will likely be a prelude to a first round matchup in Wrigley Field.
The Angels wrapped this puppy up during the NBA season. The only question is whether the lack of pressure-packed games will prepare them adequately for October baseball. It's kind of tough to turn it on and off, but I truly believe the Angels have the most talent both in hitting and pitching in the AL. Mike Sciosia might be the best manager in the game and K-Rod is unquestionably the best closer in the game - two requisites to win the World Series.
What has befallen my beloved Twins? Their calling card over the years has been a lights out bullpen, which has become their Achilles heel in the last few weeks. Joe Nathan has uncharacteristically blown a handful of saves. Each loss more devastating as the White Sox are starting to pull away with a 2.5 game lead. The White Sox have weathered injuries and are benefiting from their power hitting lineup. Since the wild card is coming out of the East, these two are clawing for one spot. Their remaining schedules:
CHICAGO: 2 @ NYY; 3 @ KC; 3 @ MIN; 3 CLE
MINNESOTA: 1 @ CLE; 4 @ TB; 3 CHI; 3 KC
As long as the Twins are within 2 games when they square off in the Metrodome, they have a fighter's chance. I'm very worried about the Tampa Bay series (that sentence has never been written or uttered before). They'll need to at least split to keep pace. I'm withholding a prediction until that pivotal series, at which point you'll hear from me again.
Bar none the best story in baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays are as likeable a team as you can find. How can you not root for them, especially now that they've adopted the team mohawk, skipper Joe Maddon included! I'm ecstatic that they've guaranteed themselves a spot in the playoffs. We might have to get used to this Tampa Bay playoff phenomenon since they have one of the youngest teams in baseball. The fact that they're still battling the defending champ Red Sox for the division title implies that they may not be a flash in the pan - think Florida Marlins in '97. I think the Rays outduel the BoSox for the division and depending how they respond to the pressure of the postseason, have a great chance of making waves in the playoffs. The Red Sox as a wild card team would have a huge chip on their shoulder and would be the last team the Angels would want to play. What a fantastic matchup that would be!