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October 5, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Phillies (92-70) at Brewers (90-72), 12:07 p.m. CT, TBS
Probable Starters: Joe Blanton (197 2/3 IP, 5.01 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 111 K) vs. Jeff Suppan (177 2/3, 5.57, 1.54, 90)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA); Milwaukee, 87-75 (750 RS, 689 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #5; Milwaukee, #9
Series Favorite: Phillies, 69.3% (Up 2-1)
Prospectus: The Brewers got their first postseason win since 1982 yesterday, extending the series and forcing each team to throw its weakest starting pitcher this afternoon in what could end up being a Miller Park slugfest. Suppan was dreadful in September, giving up 16 runs in 16 innings over four starts, which included a six-run, 3 2/3-inning beating at the hands of the Phillies on September 14. The veteran right-hander has struggled more against the Phils than any other NL squad over the years, with a RA near 7.50 in 12 career starts, and has had particular difficulty with Pat Burrell (9-for-21 lifetime with three homers) and Chase Utley (9-for-19 with one bomb). Suppan will try to channel his success from the 2006 NLCS, when he was named the series MVP after giving up just a lone run in 15 innings. His last elimination-game start was in Game Seven of that NLCS, when he turned in the outing of his life, holding the Mets to one run in seven innings to help St. Louis pull out a 3-1 pennant-clinching win. Blanton meanwhile will be making his first-ever postseason start. He pitched effectively in his only career start versus Milwaukee this year, giving up three runs in seven innings at home in mid-September.

The Brewers bullpen threw up another batch of zeros in yesterday's win, with the help of an interference call on Pedro Feliz's ninth-inning double play that took a Phillies run off the board. Seven Milwaukee relievers have now combined to toss 12 shutout innings in the first three games of the series, and the Crew's relief corps sports a 1.27 RA in its last 10 games, dating back to the regular season (six runs in 42 2/3 innings). Chipping in to help produce that unit-wide quality work has been Eric Gagne, who after pitching his way out of first the closer and then the set-up roles earlier in the season, has gone about moving back up the depth chart in the last month. Gagne has thrown two clean innings against Philly, and has not given up a run in his last 11 outings. He mostly pitched the seventh inning during September, but is back working the eighth in the playoffs thanks to his recent run of effectiveness. Gagne's strong stretch has been matched in the enemy camp by Philly's own eighth-inning man, Ryan Madson, who has also thrown two shutout innings in the series. In the process, Madson ran his K/BB ratio to 20/1 over the past 16 1/3 innings, a period in which just two runs have been plated against him.

Matchup: Rays (97-65) at White Sox (89-74), 3:07 p.m. CT, TBS
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (184 2/3 IP, 4.05 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 128 K) vs. John Danks (195, 3.42, 1.23, 159)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA); Chicago, 89-74 (811 RS, 729 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Chicago, #10
Series Favorite: Rays, 89.5% (Up 2-0)
Prospectus: The White Sox have been exposed in the first two games of this series as a slow team unable to produce runs except via the long ball. Now they face elimination, and will have to "fight like a cat," as manager Ozzie Guillen put it, if they want to have a shot at spoiling the Rays' storybook season. Chicago does get to come back to US Cellular Field this afternoon, where it posted the fourth-best home winning percentage in baseball during the regular season. The Sox will also have Danks on the hill, who is coming off a superb performance in Chicago's one-game divisional playoff win over Minnesota, and who pitched very well versus the lefty-vulnerable Rays this year: a 1.86 RA and 20/3 K/BB in 19 1/3 innings over three starts. Garza, on the other hand, has scuffled a bit down the stretch of the season, failing to throw more than five innings in any of his final three starts, and his road RA this year (4.83) was over a run and a half higher than his home mark (3.28).

The Rays could get Carlos Pena back in the lineup today, as the slugging first baseman expects to play after missing most of Game One and all of Game Two due to blurred vision resulting from a scratched cornea he suffered while at home. If Pena does play, there is a good chance that Tampa Bay could put forth a batting order featuring its full complement of offensive talents for the first time all season: the Rays have not played a single game this year with Pena, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and Rocco Baldelli all in the lineup at the same time, but that might happen tonight. Baldelli missed most of the season due to his mitochondrial myopathy, returning in mid-August just a game after Crawford had been felled with a torn tendon in his finger, and three games after Longoria went down with a fractured wrist. Crawford didn't get back into the batter's box until this series, but has fallen right into his swing with a 3-for-8 showing and two RBI, while Longoria's two blasts in Game One removed any lingering worries about his wrist. Anyone watching Baldelli race around the bases to score from first on Dioner Navarro's pop-fly double in the eighth inning of Game Two had to be impressed with the progress that the outfielder has made in battling against his rare fatigue-inducing disease. It's remarkable that the Rays were able to win 97 games while having their top batsmen miss so much time, and frightening for the rest of the playoff contenders that all of their offensive talent is finally healthy.

Matchup: Angels (100-62) at Red Sox (95-67), 7:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: Joe Saunders (198 IP, 3.73 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 103 K) vs. Josh Beckett (174 1/3, 4.13, 1.19, 172)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 88-74 (765 RS, 697 RA); Boston, 95-67 (845 RS, 694 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #8; Boston, #1
Series Favorite: Red Sox, 90.4% (Up 2-0)
Prospectus: The Sox and Angels rank one-two in the majors in the Secret Sauce formula for playoff success, with Boston holding the edge in defense and strikeout rate, and the Angels ahead in closer WXRL. That latter advantage has not been made manifest for Los Angeles thus far, as Francisco Rodriguez gave up a monster two-run shot by J.D. Drew that provided the winning margin on Friday night, while Jonathan Papelbon picked up a save and a win in the first two games. Offensively, the Angels have been outclassed as well-they have hit plenty of singles in the two games, 19 of them in all, but just one extra-base hit, Chone Figgins' triple. The Sox already have nine extra-base hits, including three home runs. Los Angeles of Anaheim left nine runners on base in the first game, and then 11 in Game Two. The biggest culprit has been Howie Kendrick, who was 0-for-4 with six left on in Wednesday's Game One, and then 0-for-5 with four strikeouts and five left on base Friday night. Kendrick walked just 12 times in 361 plate appearances during the regular season, and his impatience was exploited in a big bases-loaded eighth-inning spot in Game Two, when he swung at offerings outside the strike zone from Justin Masterson in the course of fanning on three straight pitches.

The 7-5 Red Sox victory in Game Two was the 11th in a row by Boston over the Angels, a record stretch of postseason domination by any one team over another. Now the Sox will try for their third straight division series sweep of Anaheim with one of the greatest pitchers in postseason history on the mound. Beckett's October ERA is a stunning 1.73 in 72 2/3 innings, and last year he gave up just four runs in 30 postseason innings, taking home the ALCS MVP award in the process and burnishing his legacy as the era's greatest big-game pitcher. Part of last year's sublime October work was a complete-game shutout of the Angels in Game One of the ALDS, one of three gems he has thrown that rank among the best 64 playoff performances of all time by Game Score. His career WHIP in the playoffs is 0.74, which is the fourth best in history, and best for any hurler with more than 50 innings, while his H/9 of 4.95 is also tops among all pitchers with at least 50 playoff innings. Saunders, meanwhile, has not yet thrown a pitch in postseason play.

While last year Beckett entered the postseason at the very peak of his powers, having just completed a 20-win season that would earn him second place in the Cy Young voting, this year he comes in off a slightly less effective campaign marked by an elbow issue in late August, and is now dealing with another injury, an oblique strain that pushed him back from his scheduled Game One start. Beckett also pitched poorly against the Halos during the regular season, losing to them twice while giving up 20 hits and 12 runs in 13 1/3 innings. Saunders had a health issue in September too, as the passing of kidney stones forced him to miss a start, but he ended the year by striking out a season-high nine batters in six shutout innings against the Rangers.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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