By Matt Straub
The 2014 baseball playoffs don’t include anyone from the local area. The Red Sox failed miserably in their attempt to defend their 2013 title, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, and the Mets are the Mets, though they do seem to be improving and could be in the mix for a spot in the 2015 postseason.
While the New York and Boston teams are sitting this one out, it doesn’t mean the dance is canceled. And the party still has a chance to be a good one. If Monday night’s AL Wild Card game showed us anything, it’s that great baseball can be played by teams outside of the Northeast. The Royals and A’s engaged in an all-time classic, and that was just one game between the fourth and fifth-best team in the AL. Now we get into the meat of the playoffs, with five and then seven-game series deciding an eventual champion.
While I’d still prefer the old format of two divisions and one series in each league, I can’t deny the excitement of the postseason as it is now. While the one-game wild card still feels forced as an attempt to recreate the magic of the final night of 2011, it does make the regular season matter again, as teams fight to avoid having to play one-game showdowns for their season.
For now, we can put the debate about the second wild card aside, as we’ve reached the “real” playoffs, or at least as real as they’ve been since 1995. And while it’s been since 1993 that the Red Sox and Yankees were both spectators in October, the next month is going to be riveting.
Let’s break down the series and give some predictions while we convince you why you should still be watching the postseason.
American League Division Series
Detroit Tigers (90-72, AL Central champs)
vs. Baltimore Orioles (96-66, AL East Champs)
Detroit, a team which makes a tradition out of making the playoffs these days, takes on a team which has been the whipping boy for the Yankees and Red Sox over the years. The Tigers’ pitching staff is so good they even considered putting Justin Verlander in the bullpen. Verlander isn’t what he once was, but got better late in the year and has been dominant at times in the playoffs (as long as he’s playing Oakland). Throw in Max Scherzer in the opener and David Price in Game 3 along with Verlander and Rick Porcello, who won 15 games this year in Game 4.
The Orioles have a number of good pitchers, even if they aren’t as big a set of names. Chris Tillman has a 3.34 ERA heading into tonight’s opener. Miguel Gonzalez’s is 3.23, and Wei-Yen Chen sports an ERA just over 3.5. The teams’ rotations are much closer than people think, but the Tigers still have an advantage because they’ve pitched in big games. If the Orioles rotation keeps the games close, the momentum could swing back to Baltimore thanks to their strong bullpen. Baltimore will have a better chance to hold leads in the series.
The problem for Baltimore will be getting leads. If one team in this series will see its offense explode it’s Detroit. The Orioles have a solid, deep lineup, but Detroit has stars. Victor Martinez should be getting MVP votes after going .335-35-103, and the Tigers have Miguel Cabrera, who while injured, is beyond motivated, having just given up his playoff share because he “just wants the ring.”
Baltimore is better than people think, but it’s not as good or as battle-tested as Detroit.
Matt’s Prediction: Detroit in 4
Kansas City Royals (89-73, AL Wild Card)
vs. Anaheim Angels (98-64, AL West Champs)
This is another big clash of styles. The Royals are the quintessential small-ball team. No one on the Royals hit 20 home runs this year and only one regular hit .300. The Royals win with speed and execution. They stole seven bases in the wild card game and will take every extra base imaginable, putting heavy pressure on the defense. The Angels are often known for their fundamentals under Mike Scioscia, however, so it’s hard to see them making a ton of mistakes because of the pressure.
Even more important, the Royals have a number of young pitchers in the bullpen, which is not what you want against Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and company. The rotation behind Shields is a veteran group, but in the big spots late in games, you have to like the Angels.
Matt’s Prediction: Angels in 4
American League Championship Series
Angels vs. Tigers
We were all hoping for Detroit against another California squad, Oakland, in what would have been one of the best pitching matchups in playoff history. The A’s, however, didn’t have enough offense to make it happen.
Anaheim’s pitching is solid, but the Tigers are staggeringly deep. For the Angels to hang in this series, their offense will have to be exceptional, and there’s a much better chance of Detroit’s offense getting to the Angels’ pitchers than vice versa.
Matt’s Prediction: Detroit in 6
National League Division Series
San Francisco Giants (88-74 NL Wild Card)
vs. Washington Nationals (96-66, NL East Champs)
The Giants don’t have Matt Cain this time around, but they’re still plenty deep. Madison Bumgarner is a full-grown ace now, though he won’t be ready until later in the series. Jake Peavy goes in Game 1 for the Giants, and despite his lousy record in Boston in 2014 before he was traded to the Giants, he was better than his record showed and he has always been a tough competitor. Tim Hudson’s resume speaks for itself and gives the Giants another stud in Game 2.
Washington, like Baltimore, has a ton of talented pitchers you probably haven’t heard much about. You know Stephen Strasburg, but Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister are also fantastic. This series will come down to the offenses, where Washington is very deep. The Nats had four players with more than 80 runs driven in, so they didn’t rely on one player. Neither do the Giants, despite names like Posey, Sandoval and Pence.
These are two teams who don’t wow you, but win because they have enough good players to find someone different to step up every day. This will be the best first-round series, but the Giants’ experience can’t be ignored.
Matt’s Prediction: Giants in 5
St. Louis Cardinals (90-72 NL Central champs)
vs. L.A. Dodgers (94-68 NL West Champs)
If Giants-Nationals is the best first-round series, this is the most interesting. Two titans of baseball going at it in a short series will be fun to watch. There’s no doubt as to the key to this series, and it’s Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers’ superstar just got done with one of the best regular seasons ever and will likely win the MVP and Cy Young in the NL, but he wasn’t great against the Cardinals in last year’s NLCS. After a strong but relative short outing in Game 1 he was hammered in the decisive Game 6. Kershaw is 1-3 with a 4.23 ERA in nine postseason starts, and can’t be truly considered among the game’s greats without two or three more playoff gems at least.
The Dodgers lineup is incredible, but the Cardinals have Wainwright, Wacha, Lackey, and a good bullpen. Zack Greinke was great against the Cardinals last year, but behind Greinke and Kershaw are just a ton of questions for the pitching staff. In a pressure playoff moment, I trust the Cardinals to get the big out more than I trust the Dodgers to get a big hit.
Matt’s Prediction: Cardinals in 5
National League Championship Series
Giants vs. Cardinals
I’m not terribly confident in this scenario since I picked some upsets in the NL, but this would be a fantastic series. These two teams have a ton of championship experience between them, have great organizations, winning cultures and depth on the roster.
The Cardinals have the better pitching, at least more of it, while the Giants haven’t lost a series under Bruce Bochy (though they failed to reach the playoffs in the other years). Neither team will be able to make the other one blink, so there won’t be momentum. Every game will be its own battle, and I am really hoping to see it.
The Cardinals will have home field and more depth on both sides of the ball, which will be the reason they find a way to pull out what could be an all-time classic.
Matt’s Prediction: Cardinals in 7
Cardinals vs. Tigers
The Tigers have been close a number of times in the last four years. This is the year they get over the top. That starting rotation is great, but I’ve always believed pitching get you to the playoffs but hitting gets you through the playoffs. Ask the 1990s Braves, the Rays in recent years, or the A’s this season. When the pitching staffs are a wash this late in the postseason, pick the better offense. Victory, Miggy and company get the final champagne bath of the year.
Matt’s Prediction: Tigers in 6