Can the Reds hold off the Cards' Big Four to repeat as division champs?
To say that the NL Central has been weak lately is a bit of an understatement. Over the last five years, the six-team division had more 99-loss clubs (two) than 92-win teams (one, the 2008 Cubs, who won 97 games).
Will the Phillies' four horsemen ride right over the other four clubs?
For the past four seasons, the NL East has been the Phillies' personal playground, serving as a six-month warm-up for a run of post-season success that has yielded two pennants and a championship. The presumptive favorite hasn't changed in 2011, but the division's other occupants won't surrender without a fight. Prior to last season, the NL Wild Card hadn't come out of the East since 2003, when the Marlins claimed it and went on to win the World Series, but the Braves' 2010 post-season appearance proved that the division's playoff-caliber contenders weren't confined to Philly, and four younger, potentially hungrier rosters will be gunning for the division's defending champs come Opening Day.
Someone has to win the AL West, and because it contains only four teams, that means each of them has to like their chances a little bit more than teams in most divisions. But who will come out on top—the defending champs? The resurgent A’s? Or the once-dominant Angels?
Can the Twins repeat despite off-season defections?
The American League Central has not produced a World Series champion since the White Sox in 2005 and is responsible for only two pennant winners in the 13 seasons since the last expansion. A Central team has not won a playoff series since the Indians took the Red Sox to the limit in 2007. The most post-season success the Central has witnessed lately is in divisional tiebreakers.
Early handicapping of the AL East with PECOTA's projected standings.
For the past three seasons, the ultra-competitive AL East has been contested among the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. That won’t change in 2011, although the plucky, small-market Rays will have a harder task than ever before due to an offseason in which their roster suffered great losses to free agency. The Orioles will be less of a pushover opponent than they have in years and the Blue Jays will continue to be solid if unspectacular, but given the capabilities of the teams at the top of the standings, their progress will be difficult to see with the naked eye.
The Tampa Bay Rays try to stop an outbreak of viral bedlam in Philly.
Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Phillies (92-70), 8:29 p.m. ET, FOX Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (152 1/3IP, 3.60 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 166 K) vs. Cole Hamels (227 1/3, 3.52, 1.08, 196) Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA); Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA) Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Philadelphia, #6 Series Favorite: Phillies, 89.6% (Up 3-1) Prospectus: Back in 1980, the Phillies closed out their inaugural world title at Veterans Stadium with ace Steve Carlton pitching seven innings of one-run ball to earn the Game Six victory. That performance provides a fitting parallel to tonight's home start by Hamels, who is Philadelphia's left-handed heir to the legacy of "Lefty." The 24-year-old Hamels has already thrown 66 1/3 more innings than he did all of last year, but far from showing any signs of fatigue, he actually appears to be getting stronger. This postseason, the ace left-hander has pitched his way to superstardom, winning all four of his starts while allowing just five runs on 18 hits in 29 innings, with a 27/8 K/BB ratio. Hamels has gone at least seven innings in each of his October tilts, and has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of his past seven outings dating back to the regular season. He closed out the Dodgers in Game Five of the NLCS with a seven-inning, one-run performance in Los Angeles, and now will have the chance to serve up a similar outing while at Citizens Bank Park to clinch Philadelphia's second World Series Championship.
The Phils are in control, and the Rays must fight the power outage to avoid a dark tomorrow.
Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Phillies (92-70), 8:29 p.m. ET, FOX Probable Starters: Andy Sonnanstine (193 1/3IP, 4.89 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 124 K) vs. Joe Blanton (197 2/3, 5.01, 1.40, 111) Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA); Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA) Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Philadelphia, #6 Series Favorite: Phillies, 69.4% (Up 2-1) Prospectus: Despite having collected just two hits in 33 at-bats with runners in scoring position through the first three games of the series-both of them dribblers to third base-the Phillies hold a 2-1 advantage heading into Game Four, largely because the second of those infield singles came with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth last night. All of the games in the series thus far have been true Fall Classics, low-scoring and decided by a combined total of four runs. Things could be a good deal more offensive tonight however, with each team's fourth starter on the hill at Citizen's Bank Park, which despite playing as less of a hitter's haven this season is still a favorable run-scoring environment. The Phillies might come out hacking early on, for Sonnanstine works the strike zone more than any other pitcher on either side of the field-he ranked eighth among ERA title qualifiers this season with 67 percent of his pitches tossed for strikes, one spot ahead of Cole Hamels. A self-described behind-the-scenes strike thrower, Sonnanstine blends five pitches in healthy proportion to keep hitters off-kilter. His straight fastball averages a pedestrian 87 mph, but as mentioned yesterday, Sonnanstine mixes in more cutters than all but Jesse Litsch and Roy Halladay. One would expect a pitcher who does not throw hard and is constantly around the zone to give up a good amount of hits, and Sonnanstine did lead the Rays staff with 212 allowed in the regular season, but he walked less than two per nine innings and managed to keep his home-run rate below the one-per-nine benchmark as well.
In tonight's tie-breaker, it's the craft of a Philly veteran versus the power of a Rays youngster.
Matchup: Rays (97-65) at Phillies (92-70), 8:29 p.m. ET, FOX Probable Starters: Matt Garza (184 2/3IP, 4.05 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 128 K) vs. Jamie Moyer (196 1/3, 3.90, 1.33, 123) Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA); Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA) Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Philadelphia, #6 Series Favorite: Phillies, 55.6% (Tied 1-1) Prospectus: The Rays and Phillies head to the City of Brotherly Love on track to bring the nation a World Series lasting longer than five games for the first time since 2003. Tonight (or tomorrow night, if the forecasted rain delays proceedings) is the proverbial swing game: after a 1-1 tie, the team that won Game Three went on to take the World Series in 34 out of 51 years, exactly two-thirds of the time. One of those teams that won the critical Game Three and then the series was the 1969 Mets, who claimed four in a row from the heavily-favored Orioles after losing the opener. This year's Rays have often been compared with the Miracle Mets due to their stunning rise from the depths, but Tampa Bay is actually trying to do something that no other team in history has accomplished, including their historical forebear: win the World Series a year after having the worst record in the majors. The 1991 Braves came close, but lost to the Twins in seven games; the Twins themselves had finished last in the AL West the season before. The only other team that made it to the title tilt a year after posting the worst record was the 1890 Louisville Colonels of the American Association, who came back to win 88 games after a horrendous 27-111 finish in '89, and then played the National League champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms to a 3-3-1 tie (though back then the championship series was nothing more than an exhibition).
Defense and hustle were themes from the regular season that cropped up in last night's action. Will we see more tonight?
Matchup: Phillies (92-70) at Rays (97-65), 8:29 p.m. ET, FOX Probable Starters: Brett Myers (190 IP, 4.88 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 163 K) vs. James Shields (215, 3.93, 1.15, 160) Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA); Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA) Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; Tampa Bay, #3 Series Favorite: Phillies, 66.0% (Up 1-0) Prospectus: B.J. Upton didn't hit a home run in Game One last night, a rarity for this postseason, but he did showcase another aspect of his all-around talent, gunning down speedster Shane Victorino at the plate with a pretty one-hop peg to complete a double play and end the second inning. Upton has one of the best arms in the majors, and probably the top arm at his position. He led all center fielders with 16 assists in the regular season, and was out in front by a wide margin, as Matt Kemp and Alex Rios checked in second with 10 each. Last season, his first playing the outfield, Upton finished second among center fielders with 11 assists to Melky Cabrera's 14, despite playing only 78 games at the position (Cabrera played 131). This year's total was unusually high for a center fielder-you have to go back to 1999 to find the last player who gunned down that many from the middle pasture, when Carlos Beltran also had 16 for the Royals. The days when center fielders racked up big assist totals seemed to be a thing of the past before Upton came along: there were five center fielders in the 1970s to register a season of 16 or more assists (Amos Otis, Elliott Maddox, Juan Beniquez, Rick Bosetti, and Andre Dawson), four in the '80s (Mickey Rivers, Kirby Puckett, Brett Butler, and Gerald Young), and five in the '90s (Darrin Jackson, Rich Becker, Kenny Lofton, Andruw Jones, and Beltran).
The Rays will need to get the kinks out in order to derail the Beantown Express.
Matchup: Red Sox (95-67) at Rays (97-65), 8:07 p.m. ET, TBS Probable Starters: Jon Lester (210 1/3IP, 3.34 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 152 K) vs. Matt Garza (184 2/3, 4.05, 1.24, 128) Pythagorean Record: Boston, 95-67 (845 RS, 694 RA); Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA) Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Tampa Bay, #3 Series Favorite: Boston, 55.6% (Tied 3-3) Prospectus: With two outs and a seven-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday night, the odds that Boston would go on to win the series were around two-tenths of one percent, or one in 500, according to Clay Davenport's calculation (0.7 percent chance to win the game times a 27.5 percent chance to win both of the next two). Now, after the huge comeback in Game Five and last night's 4-2 victory, those chances are actually better than one in two, with an essentially toss-up Game Seven to decide whether the upstart Rays will knock off the resident bully and complete their fantastic breakthrough season with a pennant, or Boston will advance to its third World Series in five seasons. With the victory in Game Six, the Red Sox improved to 9-0 in ALCS elimination games under Terry Francona, and 26-11 in elimination games all-time.