Billy-Ball Daily: 2006-10-3

Billy-Ball Daily
Bill Chuck (Billy-Ball his own self)

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Happy birthday, Dennis Eckersley

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Top of the 1st
It’s that time…every game counts…a lot.

The playoffs begin today and there three opening games on the docket. We will stake a look at these series and preview the Mets/Dodgers tomorrow. This, my friends, is fun.

“They’re a lot like us,” said right fielder Michael Cuddyer, one of only four players remaining in Minnesota from the 2002 playoffs. “They’re built around starting pitching and defense. They’ve got great team chemistry. They play the game the right way.” What Cuddyer is actually saying is that these two teams are built are money restraints and building from within. There is a constant turnover with these teams because of the financial inevitabilities; Barry Zito, Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis are the only A’s left on Oakland’s roster from four years ago.

Looking for another common factor between these two Moneyball teams? Both teams also feature all-star Canadians. Right-handed starter Rich Harden of Victoria will be counted on to give the Athletics quality innings, while New Westminster, B.C., Justin Morneau leads the Twins’ offensive assault after posting career highs with 34 home runs and 130 RBIs.

Oakland’s big bat is the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas, who missed much of the fun last year sitting on the sidelines injured as his White Sox swept to the championship. Thomas totaled 39 homers and 114 runs as the designated hitter. In obvious dig to that team last year Thomas said, “This is the first time in a long time I have been with a team that guys look forward to coming to the clubhouse every day and being around each other throughout the day,” Thomas said. “So we got a great mix.”

The Twins are led by Cy Young Award winner (in waiting) Johan Santana. The Twins have not lost a game started by Johan Santana at the Metrodome since Aug. 1, 2005. That’s a remarkable 23-game winning streak. Santana could make two starts at home, if the series goes five games. In his past 23 starts at the Dome, his personal record is 16-0 with a 1.93 ERA. This season, Santana was 12-0 with a 2.19 earned run average in 17 starts in the Hefty Bag. Santana won his only start against Oakland this year, holding the Athletics to two hits and one run over eight innings on June 2 at Oakland. “I think a team portrays the characteristics of their starting pitcher,” outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. “And when Johan goes on the mound, he has so much confidence, and exudes so much confidence, that we kind of feed off that, and we go out there and portray that same confidence.” For good reason, Santana (19-6) won the so-called pitcher’s triple crown, leading the American League in E.R.A. (2.77) and strikeouts (245) while tying the Yankees’ Chien-Ming Wang for the lead in victories.

Frank Thomas (6 for 16, .375, 2 homers) is the only Oakland right-handed batter with any significant success against Santana.

The A’s will try to end Santana’s streak behind Barry Zito, who went 10-3 with a 2.97 ERA on the road this year. Zito, despite the fact that the A’s scored three runs or fewer in more than half his starts, finished 16-10 with a 3.83 E.R.A.

Following Santana in the rotation is rookie Boof Bonser, Brad Radke and Carlos Silva. Oakland will counter with Esteban Loaiza, with the rest yet to be announced by manager Ken Macha – who is choosing between Danny Haren, Harden and Joe Blanton for two spots. Harden was injured most of the season and had a shaky start on Sunday, walking six and surrendering six runs while throwing 91 pitches in only 3 2-3 innings. Harden will throw on the side Tuesday, and Macha will make a decision after that depending on how the right-hander is feeling.

Harden’s health is the key for the A’s who many people feel are best suited to go deep in the post-season this year after being first-round failures for four straight years, from 2000 to 2003. One thing is certain; one streak of postseason futility will end. The A’s have lost in the first round of the playoffs in their past five appearances; the Twins have bowed out in the opening round in their past two.

The Twins’ 1991 title was the last World Series appearance for either franchise. From 1993 through ’99, neither team made the postseason. The streak ended for Oakland in 2000, and for the Twins two years later. But although each team has reached the postseason with regularity since 2000 — the A’s are making their fifth appearance in seven years, the Twins their fourth in five — neither team can boast of playoff success. In fact, the only time either team has made it past the first round was in 2002, when the Twins beat the A’s, then lost to the Angels in the ALCS.

Macha is in either his first or second tenure with the A’s depending on how you look at it. Ousted a year ago when he failed to reach an agreement to renew his contract with the team, Macha was rehired about a week later and helped lead the A’s to a season ending 48-26; the best record in baseball after the all-star break – mere percentage points better than the Twins who went 71-33 after bottoming out at 25-33 in early June. Playing in the strongest division in the majors, the Twins overcame a standings deficit that was as big as 12 1/2 games and still 10 1/2 games on Aug. 7. Minnesota had the best home record in the big leagues at 54-27. Santana, the major league leader in wins, strikeouts and ERA, has been just about unbeatable at the Metrodome.

Ron Gardenhire’s team is blessed with some potent bats led by Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer (24 homers, 109 RBIs), Morneau (34, 130) and Torii Hunter (31, 98), the Twins have their best heart-of-the-order since their first World Series title team in 1987. Michael Cuddyer is the Twins’ all-time postseason batting leader with a .378 average (14-for-37) from 2002-2004. “You don’t know how many times in your career you’re going to experience extra baseball,” Cuddyer said. “That’s how I treat it. I don’t treat it as being pressure because it’s extra baseball.”

Another key strength for both of these teams is their bullpens. But keep this in mind, Since Joe Nathan took over as the Twins’ closer in 2004, Oakland is 1-for-39 against him.

The Twins are 8-0 in Game 1 since losing the first game of the 1970 American League Championship Series. They took Game 1 in Oakland in 2002 and won that first-round series in five games. But they also won Game 1 vs. the Yankees in 2003 and ’04 before bowing out over the next three games.

The bottom line – “I’ve done it for a while now,” Santana said. “I know what to do. I know what it takes to win games, so I’m good to go.” So am I, Billy-Ball picks the Twins in four.

This is a very different Cardinals team than we have seen in awhile. It’s different because it’s not particularly good. The key here is the Friars home field advantage. Besides the 1984 World Series, the Padres have never started a post-season series at home and they realize how important this opportunity is. “You know, we need to get the series off to a good start these first two games and hopefully get into St. Louis with a chance to clinch it,” said opening game starter Jake Peavy.

“You start the playoffs with a team like St. Louis last year, and you walk into the ballpark to a sea of red, and already right there it’s an advantage for the home team,” said Dave Roberts, the Padres’ leadoff hitter and left fielder. “We expect the same for us this year.”

San Diego won four of six this year against the Cardinals, including taking two of three in St. Louis last week. The Padres are 20-9 after Aug. 31, the best record of any playoff team. San Diego is in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time. It’s also trying to win a game in October for the first time since winning the 1998 NL pennant. San Diego was swept by the New York Yankees in the 1998 World Series, missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, then was swept by St. Louis last year.

The Cardinals still have Albert Pujols, the best hitter in baseball. He has power to all fields and can hit just about anything at any time. The Cards also have Scott Rolen, although these days, Cards fans feel they could live without him. They can’t. he needs to come back in October to give this team a shot. They also have Jim Edmonds but what his role will be remains to be seen.

The rotation is shaky, the bullpen is worse. The Cardinals were 83-78, losing nine of their last 12 as they barely dodged one of the worst September collapses ever and backed into their third straight division title.

Surprisingly, the Padres will start Chris Young tomorrow at home against Jeff Suppan/ I would save Young for Game 3 in St. Louis since he hasn’t lost in his last 24 road games. He is 9-0 in those starts. Today, Peavy will face Chris Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner. He’ll be well-rested, and would pitch again on regular rest if the series goes to a Game 4. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m going with the Padres and I’ll take them in 5.

The Tigers were the best story in baseball for a long time, but boy, is the bloom off the rose. They are 19-31 since Aug. 7, and gave up 43 runs and 76 hits in their final five games, all losses, including a three-game sweep by the 100-loss Kansas City Royals that knocked Detroit into the wild card. “As we were walking in (to the clubhouse following the Royals sweep), they were handing us wild-card hats and wild-card shirts,” Tigers closer Todd Jones said yesterday at Yankee Stadium. “It was worse than kissing your sister — it was like making out with your mom. There was no enjoyment, nothing. It was horrible.”

The Tigers (95-67) are in the playoffs for the first time since 1987 following their first winning season since 1993. The key was a combination of manager Jim Leyland’s leadership and the Tigers’ pitching staff, which had the best earned run average in the majors (3.84). The Tigers were 59-29 at the All-Star Game break, and on Aug. 7, they led the Central by 10 games. They also had the best record in the majors that day, by eight games.

But don’t underestimate the effect that Leyland has on this young team, “I will make this real simple; everybody thinks that we blew the division. I guess if you want to look at it that way, you can. I look at it like we’re a team that won 71 games a year ago and won 95 games this year, and we’re in the playoffs. We’re going forward and we are here to play.” The Yankees’ Gary Sheffield played for Leyland on the Florida Marlins in 1997 and recalled yesterday the way Leyland motivated the team during the World Series with speeches about Muhammad Ali. “We thought we could beat the world,” Sheffield said. “We went out and did it.”

On the other hand, the Yankees had the best on-base percentage in the majors, at .363, and their hitters saw about 1,500 more pitches than Detroit’s hitters this season. The Tigers’ offense ranked second in the league in strikeouts and second-to-last in walks. I don’t need to tell how potent the Yankees offense is other than to tell you that the additions of Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu make the Yankees faster, stronger in the field and more patient at the plate.

“It’s been an exciting run, just in the fact that we have seen a revival in Detroit,” said Game 1 starter Nate Robertson, who will face 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang. “There’s some pride restored here. We are proud of that.” In two starts against the Yankees this season, Nate Robertson, over 15 2/3 innings, Robertson allowed just four walks. The problem was, he gave up 20 hits and lost twice.

The Yankees, meanwhile, boast one of the most potent lineups in recent memory. They led the majors with 930 runs scored and that was without Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui who are back and healthy. Hall of Famer Al Kaline, now a special assistant to the Tigers’ president, was asked if he had ever seen a deeper lineup. Kaline considered the Yankees’ lineup in the early to mid-1950’s, “But I’d have to put this lineup ahead of them, ahead of anything I’ve seen,” Kaline said. “The pitcher doesn’t have an off hitter.”
Last year’s most valuable player, Alex Rodriguez, will bat sixth, the lowest spot he has hit from in more than 10 years. A-Rod has struggled in his past eight postseason games, going 3 for 27 (.111) with no runs batted in. Asked if he would feel less pressure batting sixth, Rodriguez said, “I’ll tell you after the series is over.” Robinson Can