Predictions for this puzzling postseason

BY foxsports • September 30, 2011

Minutes after his team’s demise Wednesday night, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was asked to offer some perspective on one of the biggest flops in the history of North American professional sports.

Inadvertently, he responded with a helpful caveat for any of us who wish to handicap the dizzying postseason to come.

“That’s baseball — it’s totally unpredictable,” Epstein explained, standing in his team’s quiet clubhouse. “That’s why it’s the greatest game in the world. That’s why it’s the most painful game in the world.”

In a testament to that delightful volatility, not a single Division Series matchup — in either league — was established as of 10:30 p.m. ET Wednesday. At that moment, two relevant games were tied and two others (the classics-in-progress at Tropicana Field and Camden Yards) were one-run games.

Had Red Sox third baseman Mike Aviles not botched a potential double play just before J.J. Hardy’s two-run homer in Baltimore, had Phillies utility man Michael Martinez not denied Chipper Jones with an at-the-wall catch in Atlanta, the postseason field could look entirely different right now.

Instead, Atlanta and Boston players already are scattering to their homes around the world. And here’s what we have: Yankees vs. Tigers and Rangers vs. Rays in the American League; Phillies vs. Cardinals and Brewers vs. Diamondbacks in the National League. Both the AL series start Friday, with first pitch of Rays-Rangers slated for 5:07 p.m. ET and Tigers-Yankees to follow at 8:37 p.m. The NL series both start Saturday.

The Red Sox began the season with the third-highest payroll in the major leagues. On Wednesday, they needed one more strike in two games to clinch a playoff spot.

In Tampa Bay, Cory Wade was ahead of Dan Johnson 1-2 (and 2-2) before his epic tying home run in the ninth inning. In Baltimore, Jonathan Papelbon had Nolan Reimold in a 2-2 count before allowing his tying double.

So let that be a lesson to all of the prognosticators who are busy scrutinizing Albert Pujols’ lifetime numbers against Roy Halladay. (He’s just 2-for-11, by the way.) The biggest games aren’t always decided by the biggest names.

As Freddy Garcia, the battle-tested Yankees right-hander, told me recently: “The postseason is a bunch of moments.”

And postseason success is a matter of winning the most important of those moments.

If anything, Boston’s fallibility proved that anointing a clear front-runner — as many analysts did in spring training — is a risky endeavor.

For that reason, I’m going to make the opposite declaration: In this postseason, there is no clear favorite.

The Phillies, of course, are the closest thing to it. They have Halladay. They have Cliff Lee. They have Cole Hamels. They have, with Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson, a postseason-tested bullpen.

But they also lost eight games in a row before finishing the season with a four-game winning streak. They aren’t perfect. Chase Utley and Shane Victorino didn’t have good Septembers. Hunter Pence is playing through a knee injury. The pitching, we presume, will be there. But what if the lineup falls into a collective slump, as it did against the Giants last year?

Also, beware the inspired team: The Cardinals are on an emotional high, having finished the season with 23 wins in their final 32 games. They have a manager (Tony La Russa) and franchise player (Pujols) who could leave the team after the season. Their popular pitching coach, Dave Duncan, just returned from a personal leave to care for his wife, Jeanine, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

They are supposed to lose to the Phillies, of course. But much like the Giants last year, they’re enjoying this too much to admit that.

Similarly, the Brewers are built to surprise. This is the time of year when Milwaukee’s off-season rotation upgrades — Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum — are supposed to matter most. But Game 1 starter Yovani Gallardo actually had the lowest ERA of the group this year. In the 2008 playoffs, the Brewers had a more dominant ace, CC Sabathia, but now they have a deeper overall team. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun should be too much for the Diamondbacks, even if 21-game winner Ian Kennedy is fully capable of stealing a game or two. 

Meanwhile, the American League draw is so fraught with parity that one could argue each team is a strong contender to win the World Series . . . or just as likely to be bounced in the first round.

In fact, I’ll give you my honest opinion right here: Both AL teams with home-field advantage in the Division Series — the Yankees and Rangers — will lose. We’re going to have a Tigers-Rays ALCS. Naturally, Detroit closer Jose Valverde will face Johnson with the pennant on the line.

As I like to remind my editors from time to time, I correctly predicted on the eve of last year’s postseason that the Giants would defeat the Rangers in the World Series. (OK, I didn’t get it exactly right — I called a seven-game series, not five.)

I will be the first to admit that a fair amount of luck was involved. In reality, I have no better idea about this year’s World Series champion than I do the number of teams the SEC will have in the year 2075.

But since I have to defend my soothsaying title, here it goes:

The Phillies will beat the Tigers in seven games, with Halladay and Justin Verlander matching up twice.

And if I’m wrong, I’ll remember Epstein’s words: It’s the unpredictability that makes this game, and this month, so undeniably great.

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