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Before we jump into the first two days of the Division Series, a plea to
Fox, which now has the rights to the entire baseball postseason through
2006: while it’s probable that they will push some of the games off to
their cable network, I hope they give some serious thought to having the
whole first round on the broadcast network.

The model? The NCAA basketball tournament. Two of the best days on the
sports calendar are the first Thursday and Friday of "March
Madness". CBS blows out its schedule and runs basketball games from
noon ’til midnight (with a break for local news in the evening). Fox can
take the first three days of the playoffs and do much the same, showing
three games the first two days and two the third and fourth days.

They’d be blowing out a couple days of daytime television–not a
significant loss for a network with no soap operas–and possibly creating
an "October Madness" to rival the NCAA’s.

It’s just a thought. Baseball needs to generate excitement to compete in
the entertainment marketplace. This kind of effort could be, should be, a
centerpiece of Fox’s new relationship with baseball.

On to the games:


Seattle/Chicago

The story of the first round is the Mariners’ bullpen, which has
tossed ten shutout innings against one of the best offenses in the league,
and almost single-handedly won the first game of the series. While you
could have expected quality pitching from Arthur Rhodes and
Kazuhiro Sasaki, the two shutout innings from Jose Mesa have
been a critical surprise.

Mesa, with a 5.36 ERA this season and a career on a slide since his big
1997, got Magglio Ordonez to pop out to right field with two outs
and the winning run on third Tuesday. He then came into a two-on, one-out
situation in the sixth inning Wednesday and retired Frank Thomas and
Ordonez.

Not to be lost in the shuffle is the performance of Brett Tomko, who
came into a Game One that the White Sox were threatening to blow open and
stopped the Sox cold, getting Jose Valentin and Thomas in the fourth
inning with the bases loaded.

Notice another story in the paragraphs above? Frank Thomas and Maggio
Ordonez are 1-for-14 with four walks, one intentional. The Sox #3 and #4
hitters have been ciphers in the first two games, and that’s a big part of
the reason the Pale Hose find themselves one bad James Baldwin start
from oblivion.

Before everyone jumps on me, let me clear this up: I’m not calling Thomas
and Ordonez "chokers" or putting all of the blame for Seattle 2,
Chicago 0 on their shoulders. Having two bad games against a good pitching
staff happens. However, the impact of that performance, and of Jose
Mesa’s two days from 1997, is the same.

The Sox are in some serious trouble, because they now have to toss a
questionable Baldwin at the Mariners, who counter with their nominal ace,
Aaron Sele. If they survive that matchup, they run reliever Sean
Lowe
out in Game Four. For the Sox to win this series, they’re going to
have to find their offense and put up a whole bunch of runs to support a
patchwork staff Friday and Saturday.

This team hasn’t been challenged since their amazing road trip to Cleveland
and New York in May. Back then, they responded with a seven-game sweep that
launched a thousand headlines and propelled them to a division title. They
need a weekend like that, right now.


Oakland/New York

The Yankees
finally snapped their 132-game losing streak
behind 7 1/3
shutout innings by Andy Pettitte. As always seems to be the case
with the Yankees, their second baseman embarrassed himself defensively. Of
course, this time it was Luis Sojo tripping over his own feet on a
routine ground ball in the eighth inning, and the gaffe didn’t do anything
but get Mariano Rivera into the game one out earlier.

The Yankees appear to have straightened out their pitching, having allowed
just five runs in the two games. Their offense hasn’t been as impressive,
however, and given that they were hitting of the A’s #3 and #4 starters,
it’s hard to be optimistic about their chances in Games Three and Four
against Tim Hudson and Barry Zito.

The good news for the Yankees is that they have Orlando Hernandez
pitching in Game Three at the Stadium on Friday. Now, in general, I believe
that putting a lot of emphasis on postseason performance is a bad idea. But
El Duque has two seasons’ worth of pitching like Bob Gibson‘s older
brother in October: a 1.02 ERA in 44 innings over six starts.

Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t. But it’s certainly something to
consider, and it’s enough to make me a little less confident about the A’s
chances than I should be.


St. Louis/Atlanta

The series that most needed a day off after Game One got it, as the Braves
and Cardinals took Wednesday to digest a bizarre game Tuesday. Just like
the Mariners’ pen, the Cardinals’ bullpen came up big, with 6 1/3 quality
innings after Rick Ankiel went Steve Dalkowski in the third
inning.

Lost in the shuffle was that the Braves’ bullpen pitched just as well after
Greg Maddux left, tossing four shutout innings, and that the Braves
came pretty close to winning a game in which they trailed 6-0 after just
two outs.

Much has been made of Tony La Russa’s decision to start Ankiel in Game One,
so I’ll just toss out one other thought. Having used a bunch of relievers
on Tuesday he now has his best innings sponge, Darryl Kile pitching
in Game Two. It’s not as a big a deal as it would have been had the games
been played on consecutive days, but it is a nice bonus, and another point
in La Russa’s favor.


New York/San Francisco

The Giants really don’t have any chance as long as they continue to carry
choking dog Barry Bonds. Bonds, with a chance to give the Giants an
early lead Wednesday, managed only a single that moved Bill Mueller
to third base. Clutch monster Jeff Kent showed true leadership by
grounding out, scoring the big run.

Later in the game, Bonds hit a weak triple to right field to score just one
run, and was once again shown up by a subsequent batter. Ellis Burks
followed just a bit later with a three-run home run, the kind of thing
truly great players do in October.

Mildly amusing sarcasm aside, we saw the real problem the Mets will have in
this series in Game One, and that’s putting runs on the board. Livan
Hernandez
did a good job of shutting down the Mets’ overly right-handed
lineup.

Al Leiter carries a season with him to the mound on Thursday. This
pitching matchup will be the best one the Mets get in the series, facing
the Giants’ Shawn Estes. If they can win this game, they’re in this
thing. If they can’t, I don’t see them taking three straight from a Giants
team that looks more and more dangerous every day.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.