Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals, and especially to their stable of ex-Angels! Not only are they the 2006 World Series Champions, they are the first NL team in this era of American League dominance to win a World Series in five games or less since the 1990 sweep by the Reds. I am not sure which of 1990 or 2006 is a bigger upset, but they are both up there with the 1954 Giants (surely the biggest World Series upset of all time).

The Tigers really fell apart. An objectively better team that won 95 games, despite a bad last two months, in an objectively better league. But they spent one week of October playing like the team that almost squandered its playoff spot, while the Cardinals spent three weeks looking nothing like the team that nearly blew a seven game lead with barely over a week to play.

Baseball is strange. When do pitchers and catchers report?

World Series forecast

UPDATE: Well, they got the game in, without any significant rain, though an obviously slick field. The Tigers suddenly find themselves in need of a three-game winning streak.

Oh, no, I am not forecasting who is going to win the World Series. This postseason has confounded forecasting. I am just wondering when they will be able to play the World Series. With the Cardinals leading the Series, 2-1, and Game 4 having been rained out last night in St. Louis, when might they be able to play again? Continue reading

The Spirit of ’68, or ’34

Dean and Greenberg, Lolich and Brock. Party like it’s 1968. Or 1934, depending on your team/league peferences. For only the third time in baseball history, the two teams from Detroit and St. Louis, cities with great baseball tradition, will match up in the World Series.* The Series will treat the baseball fan to two of the most beautiful new stadiums in the current renaissance of ballpark construction.

The Tigers should be favored, having come out of a much stronger division and the dominant league. On the other hand, the last two teams that limped into the postseason with 85 wins or less, yet made it to the World Series, played seven against a superior opponent (the 1973 Mets, who lost, and the 1987 Twins, who won).

That game last night was outstanding. I would say it was the third best Game 7 in LCS history, after 1992 (NL) and 2003 (AL). It did not match up to the great seventh games in even recent World Series history (2001, 1997, 1975), but maybe the Cardinals and Tigers will yet have one of those in store.

And that catch and double play by Endy Chavez–where does that rate in alltime postseason defensive gems? Quite high! When he came up to bat in the half-inning after his tie-preserving catch, with the bases loaded and two out, the script seemed set. But, alas for Mets fans, Chavez did not hit a grand slam or even draw a tiebraking walk.

* Fans of numbers (and isn’t that what all baseball fans are?) will note that this third match-up comes four years too late. But there was a mission to be accomplished in 2002.

Reform of first round of MLB playoffs?

Various news media reports in the past week have hinted at a possible reform of the first round of the Major League Baseball playoff system (the Division Series).

A change to a best-of-7 is evidently not being contemplated; however, a change intended to limit the prospects of a wild-card team advancing beyond the Division Series is being considered.* Presumably, a desirable side effect would be to enhance the incentive to play for the division title when two teams in one division are both assured of advancing, rather than play as if the wild card is just as good. In other words, the existing incentive structure is being deemed insufficuent. Under the current structure, the only incentive for winning the division rather than the wild card is denying the wild-card team home-field advantage in the Division Series and, if it advances, the League Championship Series.

The idea being broached is to give the wild card no more than one home game in the Division Series (instead of the current two, in a series that goes four or five games). In other words, make the home-field advantage bigger than just opening the series with two at home and being assured of being home again for a possible fifth game.

The basic idea–to maximize the integrity of the division races–is a good one. But as I have alluded to in some past discussions of the wild card, the assumption on which the idea is based is flawed. That flawed assumption is that the wild card is an inherently less deserving team than any of the three division winners in the league.

However, the wild card never can have worse than the fourth best record in its league. It can be (and has been) as high as second. A division winner, on the other hand, could be a .500 team or even a sub-.500 team. The last two years have seen one of the NL division winners barely finish above .500. Several times, a division winner has had only the fifth best record in its league, and last year’s Padres advanced to the playoffs with only the seventh best record (and barely avoided being only the ninth–yes, 9th–best).

So, why penalize the wild card when it is not the worst of the playoff-qualifying teams? The assumption is that a division winner is inherently superior because, well, it finished first! That’s a plurality bias (I had to get electoral systems into this planting somehow!), but as soon as MLB went to an odd number of divisions, it had implicitly already abandoned a purely plurality defnition of team success.

I do not necessarily oppose the penalty for being the wild card that is currently under consideration. However, I would suggest that the same penalty be applied to any division winner that finishes with a worse record than the league’s wild card team (provided it is playing a division winner with a better record that the wild card, as will usually be the case).

Further reforms could also be considered. For instance, a division winner that fails to have a record above .500 or ranks worse than fifth in its league’s overall standings could be barred from the postseason in favor of a second wild card. (I suppose MLB would not go for this one, but as an anti-mediocrity, or anti-embarrassment, provision, it makes sense.)

Within the Division Series itself, an alternative to giving the wild card (or, under my addendum, a lower-ranked division winner) a maximum of one home game would be to establish asymmertic criteria for advancement. That is, the higher-seeded team might need one less win than the lower-seeded team to advance (three wins for the higher, but four for the lower seed, or two and three).

I believe any combination of these additional proposals is better than the one MLB is reportedly considering. Whether any are better than the status quo is another matter. I am not convinced MLB is tackling a real problem. But if the problem is real, I am even less convinced of its specific proposal, because the premise that the wild card is inherently inferior is dubious.

* Arguably, lengthening the Division Series would be the most straightforward approach, on the gounds that the inferior team is less likely to beat the superior team four times than it is to beat it three times. However, I rather like the current format of a best-of-5 followed by a best-of-7, and apparently so do MLB and its broadcast partners. Moreover, the underlying problem with a change in the series length is that the assumption that the wild card is, in fact, inferior, may be flawed, as I argue in this discussion.

How dominant is the American League?

11 July, 2007: Well, since the drafting of the following, the NL actually managed to win a World Series of five games or less, but the AL has won two more (close) All Star Games.

Continuing on the theme from yesterday, prompted by the White Sox sweep of the World Series, it is worth noting that the White Sox are the third different team to sweep a World Series in the last seven years—all from the AL. In fact, the AL has swept four Series since the NL swept its last one (1990, Cincinnati), and before 1990, the last NL sweep was in 1976 (the Series that gave Bob Hope the great line about how he could see the headline in Pravda: “Reds murder Yanks”).

On the other hand, the only NL teams to have won a World Series since 1990 have all required six or seven games to do so. The length of a Series that a league’s champion requires to win is at least as good a measure of a league’s dominance as is the number of series it wins. So, that suggest that the American League has been pretty dominant in the last 15 years or so.

To look at this more fully, it makes sense to bring All Star Games into the analysis. Whereas the World Series features (in theory) the best team each league can offer in a given year, the All Star Game (in theory) features the best players of each league, regardless of the teams they happen to play for.

In the 1960s and 1970s it was routinely said that the NL was dominant, and the usual evidence was its total dominance of the All Star Game (winning 11 in a row at one point, few of them close). But I distinctly remember AL partisans (like myself) being consoled by the fact that their league was doing pretty well in World Series during the same period. Since the mid-eighties, no one has tried to claim that the NL remains dominant. In fact, the AL has won over three quarters of the All Star Games in the last 20 years while also winning most of the World Series, many of them by sweeping.

But is the AL more dominant now than the NL used to be?
Continue reading

World Series sweeps

First, congratulations to the White Sox on winning the 2005 World Series!

On October 26, David Pinto at Baseball Musings mused that the odds of a team with a 0-3 deficit in a series taking it to a fifth game only three times in 21 tries was 0.0007. Of course, as David noted, this is on the assumption that the two teams are evenly matched.

As David said:

But given the propensity of sweeps after a 3-0 start, I wonder if this start isn’t telling us something about the superiority of the sweeper.

That is, sweeps happen when the teams are not evenly matched. One way to approach this question is to look at run differentials in sweeps over time. There have been 17 four-game sweeps if we disregard the two in which a team won 4-0 but there was also a tie (1907 and 1922).

In those series, the sweeping teams have combined for 369 runs and the swept teams for 160. That is an average score per game of 5.43-2.35 and an average differential of 12.3 runs per series.

In other words, sweeps tend not to happen the way this 2005 sweep did: with four straight close games going the same way. Continue reading

Roof will be open in Houston: Home-field DIS-advantage

Major League Baseball has decreed that the roof will be open in Houston for the first World Series game ever played in that city.

I am surprised that the decision of whether to open or close a retractable dome is in the discretion of MLB and not the home team. The Astros openly favored having the roof closed, as it was during this year’s NL playoffs. However, those games were played when the weather was much warmer and less pleasant than it is today.

It is often said that the high noise level of a domed stadium provides an additional advantage to the home team. There is some evidence to support that contention, small sample-size issues aside:

During the regular season, the Astros were 36-17 at home when the roof was closed, 15-11 when it was rolled back and 2-0 in games that began indoors and finished in fresh air.

However, as the story notes, the roof was open only twice after May. It does not note, as it should, that the Astros team did not get hot until well after the weather did, and so the correlation between the team’s record and the closure of the roof may well be spurious.

I am pleased at MLB’s decision not only because I am rooting against the Astros and thus am happy to see any potential advantage taken away from them—as if starting Roy Oswalt were not enough!—but also because I will admit to being something of a purist when it comes to baseball. The game was meant to be played in the open air. Having visited Houston in some less-than-nice weather, I understand why they have a dome, but the new dome, unlike the old Astrodome, has the capability of being opened, and so it should, weather permitting. “It is a gorgeous day,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.

Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations in Selig’s office says MLB:

followed the Astros’ regular-season guidelines, which he said call for the roof to be open when the temperature is under 80 degrees and there is no rain.

Apparently, there is some dispute about this:

Astros spokeswoman Lisa Ramsperger said there are no specific guidelines.

Good. A little World Series controversy!

If the Astros do not win tonight, they are in rather deep trouble. Only one team has ever come back from being down 0-3 to win a best-of-7 baseball series, and I have to believe it probably will not happen for a second year in a row.

(I will consider this my most important post of the day.)

More World Series preview

This started out as a comment in my earlier World Series post. In fact, it is a comment to Christian Johnson’s comment at that post. But I decided to elevate it to a new post and expand the ideas because, well, I am the administrator and I can do that!

I agree with what I take to be Christian’s point that the White Sox pitching consists of a staff of starters having career years.

Pitcher, career ERA, 2005 ERA
Contreras, 4.28, 3.61 (lowest of career in a season of >75 IP)
Buehrle, 3.63, 3.12 (lowest of career)
Garcia, 3.93, 3.87 (was .06 lower in 2004 and otherwise most recent year below 4.00 was 2001)
Garland, 4.42, 3.50 (career low)

So, only about Garcia can you say it was not a “career year” by ERA, and even for him 2005 was one of his few really good years. Some years, everything “clicks” and this was that year for the White Sox four main starters. And they have a pretty good no. 5 who will be in the bullpen: El Duque. And they have flame-thrower Angel castoff Bobby Jenks. In fact, they have quite a good bullpen, or at least they are alleged to. We never saw it in the ALCS after 2/3 of an inning in game 1.

As for the Astros, Roy Oswalt is better than any pitcher on the White Sox, and one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Roger Clemens is one of the best old pitchers in baseball, though he is no longer more than a 6 or 7 inning pitcher for the most part and the old joints could have trouble with the cold weather in Chicago. But the man can pitch, and especially if he overcomes the cold conditions in game 1 and pitches well, Chicago should consider itself in trouble.

With Andy Pettitte we have a similar case to the entire White Sox staff: A pitcher who is not nearly as good as his reputation (especially his postseason reputation) but had a career year for the Astros. His ERA was a gaudy 2.39, easily the lowest of his career (yes, it was the NL, but it’s also a great hitter’s park and the leagues are not as different as they once were). His career ERA is 3.78. In the postseason (30 games) it is 4.05, which is probably not a significant difference, but is not at all consistent with his reputation for “stepping it up” in the postseason.

All of the White Sox pitchers looked like Cy Young against the Angels last week. But all had better years than could reasonably have been expected, so it is not as though their stellar pitching was a surprise, based on what they did all year. Can they keep it up for another week? If they can, the White Sox will win this, possibly in six games or fewer. If they tire out (or their luck finally runs out, as the case may be), and revert to pre-2005 form, then the Astros could pull off an upset. But I do think it would be an upset, as they just do not have much offense to take advantage of any small cracks that might open up in the White Sox’ pitching.

The White Sox should win this.

Side note: On Steve Finley and whether the Angels could unload him, we can hope that there is truth to the rumored (in Sports Weekly) Finley-for-Klesko deal with the Padres. Klesko is still a decent hitter who walks a lot–something the Angels sorely lack–and his continued hitting ability is masked by the Padres’ pitcher-friendly ballpark. Finley is toast. The Padres probably know that, so I do not put much stock in the rumor. But we need a good hot-stove league for the lull between the LCS and the World Series just as much as wee need one to fill the void to come.

Astros vs. Cardinals thriller

While the White Sox/Angels series turned out to be something of a dud after those first two close games that they split in Chicago, the Cardinals/Astros NLCS has been a thriller. And it is getting better as the series goes on. Game 4 on Sunday had a dramatic finish, but nothing compared to what was to come.

Last night’s game 5 is sure to be long remembered as one of the best playoff games of this era—even more so if the Cardinals, who were down 3 games to 1 with two strikes and two out and nobody on in the ninth before making up a 2-run deficit—go on to win the final two games in St. Louis.

I did not want either of my ex-Angels to make the final out and hand the state of Texas its first World Series ever. And they complied with my wishes. David Eckstein, with two strikes, punched a single through the left side off Brad Lidge, who suddenly seemed not to trust his 97-MPH heat. Jim Edmonds worked a walk. Up stepped Albert Pujols. He looked silly on the first slider from Lidge. Fool Albert once, but never twice. Lidge tried to get another slider past him and Pujols absolutely crushed it. It would have gone out of the building if not for the high wall deep behind the seats in left. The noisiest baseball stadium on the planet suddenly went quiet. The Astros went quietly in the bottom of the 9th, and now the series goes back to St. Louis.

The game reminded me so much of a certain game I attended nineteen years ago. Only this time, I was on the other side. How cathartic! Even though the Astros’ record of almost getting there and then finding ways to blow it is very much like the Angels’ prior to 2002, I just can’t feel bad. I don’t like the Astros. Just don’t. But I did feel a little bad when the TV cut to a rather despondent Nolan Ryan. Of course, in addition to making his mark as a dominant starter with the Angels in the 1970s, Ryan was on the mound for an earlier Astros meltdown when he took a 5-2 lead into the 8th inning of game 5 of the 1980 NLCS (when it was still a best of 5) and lost. And he was also on the 1986 Astros team that lost a dramatic and heartbreaking game 6 to the Mets. Sorry, Nolie. Really sorry. But go Cards!

Needing to win game 6 on Wednesday, the Cards will face one of the best pitchers in the league, Roy Oswalt. If they can win that, they draw Roger Clemens in game 7. This should be interesting!

Angels vs. White Sox and THE PLAY

By popular demand…

(Another blogger and one of my currrent students—the latter approaching me while wearing his Angels cap—asked yesterday why I had not had anything to say about the controversial call in game 2 of the series. Well, my excuse was a highly urgent matter that required attention away from blogging, but here you go. Never say that F&V does not respond to reader requests.)

As I have said before—in two of my earliest posts here at one of the the subdomains of this blog,—one of the really great things about baseball is that no matter how many games you watch, there is always a good chance you will see something you have never seen before. The first of these “never seen that before” posts was about “dropping the ball,” when the winning run scored against the Angels when their closer, Francisco Rodriguez, dropped the return throw from his catcher with a runner on third. The second was on Vlad Guerrero’s turning what looked like a routine line-drive single to right into a fielder’s choice.

Well, raise your hand if you have ever seen the defensive team run off the field after strike three for the (apparently) third out, while the batter charges to first. Yes, you have seen dropped third strikes before. But this one was not dropped, and the umpire’s call was, at best, ambiguous. The 9th inning of a tie game thus continued, and the next bater drove in the winning run for the White Sox, and the series now goes back to Angel Stadium tied, 1-1. (I will be going to game 4, Saturday.) The best thing about the play?: People are taking about baseball, which is cearly in the national public good.

Before getting into THE PLAY, I want to look at the series more broadly.

This series after two games is turning out just as I expected, in the bigger picture. You have the two best pitching staffs in the AL and the two most offensively challenged lineups (though the White Sox did hit many more homers than the Angels during the regular season). And so, not surprisingly, the two games have been decided by one run and the total run scoring is low (8 runs combined for the two teams in two games). So much for the AL style of play; this is good old-fashioned NL style! Either of the first two games could have gone either way, and the loser each night squandered numerous opportunities. The White Sox played a rather ragged game the first night, despite (or because of?) not having played in four days. The Angels played a tightly organized, inspired game in game 1 despite (or beacuse of?) having played solely on adrenaline, having taken overnight flights without days off on each of the three preivous nights. The roles of who played well and who played as if tired were reversed in game 2, and so was the outcome.

Going into the series, with their (alleged) ace pitcher out and their only available no. 2 with strep throat, the Angels were going to be challenged to win even one before taking the series back home for a rested John Lackey to start game 3 and Ervin Santana ready for game 4. But the Angels split. I am happy about that. Nonetheless, after getting game 1, of course, I was greedy, and the way they lost game 2 hurts.

But THE PLAY, when the umpire made an ambiguous non-call on an allegedly dropped third strike, allowing a runner who had been struck out to reach first, and subsequently score the winning run, was not what cost the Angels the game. It was a bad call, Josh Paul caught the ball, but it was close, and even with many replays it was not 100% certain that he caught the pitch cleanly (though it was probably in the 90% certainty range).

The two things that can not be blamed on the umpire are third-string catcher Paul’s assuming the third out had been recorded. I always thought the unwritten rule for players was always assume the ball is in play unless you have seen or heard a clear call from the umpire to the contrary. Paul dropped—or rather, rolled—the ball here. How hard is it, given you have just caught a third strike in the dirt—to tag the runner or toss the ball down to first instead of rolling it back towards the mound and scampering off the field?

The second thing that can’t be balmed on the umpire is Kelvim Escobar’s hanging a pitch to the next batter. Sure, he would have been out of the inning had the out call been made. But it wasn’t, and he threw a game-losing pitch.

Also worth keeping in perspective is that the best outcome of the inning for the Angels would have been that the game was tied and going to extra innings. They had already used up their best relievers, because starter Jarrod Washburn could not go deep into the game. The guy pitched his heart out; remember, three days before he was running a 102-degree fever. Escobar was not coming back out for the 10th, for sure. The White Sox were going to stay with their starter, Mark Buehrle, who had been brilliant, and they had their entire bullpen—which is excellent—rested and ready. In other words, the Angels were going to wear out their pen first, and they might still have lost with Esteban Yan or some other lower-tier reliever on the mound.

They have the series tied, 1-1, three games with their best starters at home. They can win the series with a sweep, or they can win it by winning two of the three and then taking one back in Chicago. They are in good position.

NL Mediocrity watch—final edition

So, the San Diego Padres have now ended their slightly extended season with an 82-83 record, having been not just swept, but swept mercilessly, by the vastly superior St. Louis Cardinals in the greatest postseason baseball mis-match of all time.

At no point in this series did the Padres ever take a lead. In fact, all their scoring was late in games, which suggests that the Cardinals’ bullpen could be a concern going forward, but confirms what we already knew about the NL’s team in red: They have a super-powered offense that will exploit any opening the other team offers, as well as very strong starting pitching. Of course, even more than that, it confirmed what we knew about the Padres: They simply did not deserve to play in the postseason. They were there only by quirk of a very weak division. In fact, the Padres had a much better team in 2004, when they could not sustain a wild-card bid, than in 2005, when they, the Dodgers, and the Giants (as well as the dreadful Rockies) all had worse years.

Thanks to ex-Angels David Eckstein (singled and scored first run, and hit a 2-run homer) and Jim Edmonds (great catch at the wall, though ho-hum by his standards) for more star-power heroics in Game 3.

The Cards now await the outcome of the Braves–Astros series to see who is coming to town for the start of the NLCS.

Angels-Yanks: Rained out a day after Angels shell the Unit

The Angels are one win away from advancing to the ALCS to face the Chicago White Sox for the pennant, a series scheduled to open Tuesday in Chicago. However, the schedule is in flux now that Game 4 has been postponed due to the heavy rain that is falling throughout the northeast.

The Angels lead the series, 2 games to 1, having shelled Randy Johnson (a.k.a. The Big Unit) last night in a steady rain at Yankee Stadium.

When alleged Angels ace and probable (though undeserved) Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon could not hold off the Yankees in Game 1 in Anaheim, I feared the Angels had squandered the home-field advantage that they had secured on the final day of the regular season. The “formula” for the team lacking the home-field advantage in one of these best of five series is to split the two on the road. Then you go home and it becomes essentially a best of three in which you now hold the home-field advantage (two in your place and then one back on the road). This was how the Angels did it against the Yankees in 2002, splitting in NY and sweeping the two back in Anaheim. And the Yankees looked well positioned to implement that formula with Randy Johnson on the mound for game 3 in Yankee Stadium (where the home team was 53-28 during the regular season).

But Johnson just could not locate his pitches. He looked awful. With two out in the first, he gave up singles to Vlad Guerrero and Bengie Molina. Up stepped Garret Anderson, who has been playing for months like a man with a bad back (which he is). Some Angels fan-bloggers were calling for GA to sit out against the toughest of all tough lefties, the Unit. GA put those calls to rest by hammering a pitch well above the wall in right. Then in the second Johnosn gave up a 2-run homer to Bengie, and he was down 5-0. The Yankees came back on a poor night for pitchers, but the Angels pulled away and won, 11-7.

The Angels are hardly underdogs in this series, though I felt going in that they might not have the offense to hold off the Yankees. They do not have the same consistently relentless attack they had in 2002, when they were perceived by the media as underdogs, but should not have been. The Angels have precisely the kind of offensive approach that the Yankees are most vulnerable to: They put the ball in play a lot (i.e. they do not walk much, nor do they strike out), and the Yankees have pretty weak fielding at most positions, especially up the middle. Of course, there is nothing even the best defense can do when the pitcher is serving up the gopher ball, but after Johnson left, the Angels approach was very much in the style of the way they beat the Yankees in 2002 and in several years worth of regular-season play. The Angels have a winning record against the Yankees over the past decade and they have played the Yanks better in NY than in Anaheim. But Johnson has had his way with the Angels over many years going back to his days as a Mariner. He was just off—way off—last night, and he knew it, saying after the game:

To the Angels’ credit, they are a relentless team and when you don’t make your pitches, regardless of who you are, they’re going to make you pay.

Yes, for at least one rainy night, the relentness Angels hitters were back and they made The Big Unit—and several relievers—pay big time.

With an unscheduled off day today, Joe Torre could bring back Mike Mussina for tomorrow’s game-4 make-up instead of starting Shawn Chacon. Mussina was dominant in game 1. The Angels were ready with Jarrod Washburn for today and could start him tomorrow, or they could bring back Colon, who had been scheduled to face Mussina in game 5, if necessary, in Anaheim.

The only twist on all that is Mussina stayed behind after starting game 1 in order to get his rest for the possible game 5. If he is summoned to start game 4, he has to make a cross-country flight. They will probably stick with Chacon, who was surprisingly effective (7-3, 2.85) after being rescued from the Rockies, but is hardly the sort of pitcher you want to rely on with your entire season on the line (career ERA of 4.30 prior to this season, and that’s away from hitter-friendly Coors Field).

If the Yankees win game 4, the series will be pushed back a day with game 5 at Angel Stadium Monday. Then again, they may not be able to play tomorrow, either, judging by the forecast. If rain washes out play Sunday, too, the series would be delayed another day if it goes five and the ALCS would start a day late. Meanwhile, the White Sox are ready in Chicago, getting their rest while waiting to find out who will come to town and when.

The playofffs begin!

I will be distracted for a while. The playoffs are beginning!

[UPDATE, 11:40 a.m. PDT: So much for the Padres-could-win scenario (described below): 8 runs off Peavy. What a statement by the Redbirds!]

This was one of the most exciting final weekends of baseball’s regular season in many years—especially in the American League. We did not get the 3-way tie that I was rooting for (on the principle that more baseball is always better than less, and also because the competition being worn out while the Angels clinched early is a self-evidently good thing). But we did get three 95-win teams (and one with 99) in the AL, so the playoffs should be tense. The Indians, who came from far behind and just over a week ago led the wild card race and threatened the White Sox for the Central lead, suddenly in the last week forgot how to score, but still wound up with 93 wins and just missed out.

But before the AL gets underway, first up is the NL West winner, the Padres, with their 82-80 record, facing the St. Louis Cardinals, 100-62. Six teams in the NL finished with a better record than the Padres, and three of them (the Phillies, who were eliminated from the wild card race on the final day, and the Marlins and Mets) are not going to the playoffs. On the last day of the season, the Brewers (19 games behind St. Louis in the Central) and the Nationals (9 out in the East) lost their games to finish at .500, while the Padres won to finish with a bare-winning record. The .500 was quite an achievement for the perennially bad Brerwers and ex-Expos.

Despite finishing with 18 fewer wins that the Cardinals, the Padres actually have a chance. They got the luck of the draw in the playoff schedule. Every year there is one series that has two days off in the first five days. And this year that is the Padres. That means they can start Jake Peavy, one of the best pitchers in the league, in Games 1 and 4—if they can get a win out of one other pitcher’s start in Game 2 or 3. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ number 1 pitcher, Chris Carpenter, had a terrible finish (0-1 with a 9.14 ERA in his last four starts). If Peavy is on, the Padres could steal this. If not, they can probably forget it.

During the regular season, the Cardinals won 6 and lost 4 of their head-to-head match-ups with the Padres. However, three of the Padres’ 4 wins came in May, the one month when the Padres actually looked like a team that would belong in the playoffs. The Cardinals actually outscored the Padres in those ten games by a combined 43-11. Yes, 43-11. But two of those games were blowouts, 15-5 and 11-3, in games started by pitchers who are not currently with the Padres. The other games were quite close, including three decided by one run.

I like the Cardinals. They start their lineup with two of my favorite (ex-) Angels: David Eckstein and Jim Edmonds. And Edmonds gave the Cardinals a quick 1-0 lead by hitting a home run off Peavy in the first. (Right on Jim E.!)

Speaking of the Angels, by sweeping their season-ending series, and thanks to the Red Sox winning 2 of 3 against the Yankees, the team from Los Angeles/Anaheim won the home-field advantage in the first round against the Yankees. This could be important: The Yankees were a whopping 53-28 at The House that Ruth Built, but a pedestrian 42-39 on the road. That series starts at 5:00 PDT today. Keeping the fingers crossed. This Angels team is not as good as the 2002 team, and it could really go either way.

In between, we get the battle of the Sox starting this afternoon. I’m torn on that one. I have always liked the Red Sox, but would like to see someone new advance. More importantly, if the Angels should advance to the next round, I think they match up better against the White Sox than the Red ones. But that is getting way too far ahead of ourselves. But I will say that I really, really hope not to have another rematch of the Yankees and Red Sox in the ALCS, notwithstanding how spectacular that match-up was the last two years.

Tomorrow begins the rematch of the Astros and Braves, who should be quite evenly matched. The Astros were 89-73 and thus deserving wild card winners despite being 11 games behind their division winner, St. Louis. The Braves were 90-72 and have won 14 straight titles (though not in 14 straight years, as one hears said sometimes: in 1994, due the players’ strike, there was no champion and the Braves were actually trailing the Expos when the season was suspended in August).