Major League Baseball playoffs preview
Think of the 2010 MLB postseason field as an NCAA tournament-style bracket, with teams seeded 1 through 8, by virtue of regular season records. This year, the Philadelphia Phillies, with a record of 97-65, would be the No. 1 seed, with the Texas Rangers (90-72) in the lowly No. 8 spot. But fear not, Rangers fans. Since the dawn of the wild-card era in 1995, the eighth seed has won baseball's Big Dance just as many times (two) as the No. 1 seed. In this tournament, at least, East Tennessee State always has a chance. This year's tournament -- er, playoff field -- may be the most competitive in years. From 1995 to 2009, an average of 15.6 games, in terms of regular season records, separated the No. 1 seeds from the No. 8s (topped by a whopping 28-win differential in 2001 between the 116-win Seattle Mariners and the 88-win Atlanta Braves). But this year, only seven games separate the top the team (the Phillies, with 97 wins) from the bottom (the Rangers, with 90). That's the smallest differential since 1992, back when only four teams made the playoffs, and just two games separated them. Here, then, is a March Madness-style look at your eight tourney teams, with starting fives (two top starting pitchers, two essential hitters, and closer):
-- Dave Sheinin
(97-65), NL East champions
NCAA tourney equivalent: Florida Gators -- a late-vintage mini-dynasty springing from a program not previously known as a powerhouse.
Tournament resume: In the big dance for the fourth straight year, the champions of the NL East won their half of the bracket in both 2008 and 2009, with a World Series title in 2008.
Starting five: RHP Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44 ERA), RHP Roy Oswalt (7-1, 1.74), RF Jayson Werth (.296 BA-27 HR-85 RBI), 1B Ryan Howard (.276-31-108), CL Brad Lidge (2.96 ERA, 27 saves).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if Halladay, Oswalt and LHP Cole Hamels dominate the way they should . . . if SS Jimmy Rollins and 3B Placido Polanco, both of whom have nursed injuries down the stretch, are healthy and productive atop the lineup . . . if Lidge and top set-up man Ryan Madson, both of whom are prone to bouts of spectacular ineffectiveness, pitch the way they have over the past couple of months.
They'll be leaving the dance early . . . if the offense goes into one of its curious funks, like the stretch this season in which they were shut out five times in an eight-game span . . . if LHP J.C. Romero (strained lower back) is sidelined, robbing the Phillies of their only dependable LH reliever to face Reds LH sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.
Prediction: The Phillies crush the Reds in the first round and ride their three rotation horses all the way to the title.
(91-71), NL Central champions
NCAA tourney equivalent: Indiana Hoosiers -- a borderline dynasty several generations ago, with a still-loyal fan base starved for another run.
Tournament resume: Despite widespread skepticism about their legitimacy, they led the Central for most of the year and were not threatened from late August on.
Starting five: RHP Edinson Volquez (4-3, 4.31), RHP Bronson Arroyo (17-10, 3.88), 1B Joey Votto (.324-37-113), 3B Scott Rolen (.285-20-83), CL Francisco Cordero (3.84 ERA, 40 saves).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if their league-leading offense can hold its own against a parade of No. 1-type starters . . . if rookie Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman gets a chance to impact games with his 103-mph heat out of the bullpen.
They'll be leaving the dance early . . . if Cordero (eight blown saves, 1.43 WHIP) can't shut the door in the ninth inning. . . . if Volquez, a surprise pick to start Game 1, doesn't reward Dusty Baker's faith.
Prediction: They'll steal a game off the Phillies in Cincy, but will bow out in four.
San Francisco Giants
(92-70), NL West champions
NCAA tourney equivalent: Michigan Wolverines -- a once-proud, star-driven program making a long-awaited return to the Big Dance.
Tournament resume: Trailed San Diego for most of season in West, before catching them for good a week before end of season, and held them off on season's final weekend.
Starting five: RHP Tim Lincecum (16-10, 3.43), RHP Matt Cain (13-11, 3.14), 1B Aubrey Huff (.290-26-86), C Buster Posey (.305-18-67), CL Brian Wilson (1.81 ERA, 48 saves).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if their feast-or-famine offense gorges itself for a few weeks . . . if their games turn into a battle of bullpens, because theirs is one of the best . . . if they can avoid hitting into double plays, a year-long problem.
They'll be leaving the dance early . . . if their lack of infield range is exploited . . . if Posey, who carried the offense for much of the summer, is running out of gas, as appeared to be the case down the stretch.
Prediction: They won't have much trouble sweeping the staggering Braves, and they'll take the Phillies to a seventh game before bowing out in the NLCS.
(91-71), NL wild card
NCAA tourney equivalent: UCLA Bruins Ð had an unprecedented run of glory under a legendary coach many years ago, and is back for another go.
Tournament resume: Led the East all summer but got crushed by injuries and passed by the Phillies in August, needing a win on final day of season to sneak in.
Starting five: RHP Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83), RHP Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00), RF Jason Heyward (.277-18-72), C Brian McCann (.269-21-77), CL Billy Wagner (1.43 ERA, 37 saves).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if they can consistently deliver a lead to their lock-down bullpen . . . if they can manufacture runs with an offense that lost its two best hitters (Chipper Jones and Martin Prado) . . . if Hudson regains his first-half, Cy Young-caliber form.
They'll be leaving the dance early . . . if the rookie Heyward, who frequently carries the offense, struggles in his first postseason . . . if streaky slugger Derrek Lee's September power burst doesn't continue.
Prediction: Bobby Cox's memorable final season will end in a sweep at the hands of the pitching-rich Giants.
New York Yankees
(95-67), AL wild card
NCAA tourney equivalent: Duke -- of course.
Tournament resume: Spent most of the summer leading the treacherous AL East, before coasting at the end and settling for the wild card.
Starting five: LHP CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18), LHP Andy Pettitte (11-3, 3.28), 2B Robinson Cano (319-29-109), 3B Alex Rodriguez (.270-30-125), CL Mariano Rivera (1.80 ERA, 33 saves).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if Sabathia gives his typical October workhorse performance, which likely will include pitching on short rest at least once . . .Pettitte and RHP Phil Hughes pitch credibly behind Sabathia in Games 2 and 3. . . . if Rodriguez carries his hot September bat into October.
They'll be leaving the dance early . . . if Rivera's uncharacteristic late-season stumble was anything more than that. . . . if exiled RHP A.J. Burnett pitches any meaningful innings.
Prediction: The Yankees get past the Twins in five and the Rays in seven in the ALCS, but can't overcome the Phillies' starting pitching superiority, losing the World Series in six.
(94-68), AL Central champions
NCAA tourney equivalent: Cornell Big Red -- the smartest guys in the room are no longer content just to get into the Big Dance.
Tournament resume: With a new stadium and big bump in payroll, they spent all but about one month of the season in first and were the first playoff team to clinch.
Starting five: LHP Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62), RHP Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75), C Joe Mauer (.327-9-75), LF Delmon Young (.298-21-112), CL Matt Capps (2.00 ERA, 16 saves).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if they can establish the same home-field advantage at Target Field as they had at the old Metrodome . . . if their remade bullpen continues to make people forget about the injured Joe Nathan . . . if the back half of their rotation, LHP Brian Duensing and RHP Nick Blackburn, can steal a game or two.
They'll be leaving the dance early . . .if their 3-8 finish after securing the division crown was more than just a post-clinch letdown . . . if Mauer (left knee) and DH Jim Thome (back) are forced out of a lineup already missing 1B Justin Morneau.
Prediction: Target Field won't have the same intimidating effect as the Metrodome, and the Twins bow out in five.
Tampa Bay Rays
(96-66), AL East champions
NCAA tourney equivalent: West Virginia Mountaineers -- emerging out of the shadows of its storied conference rivals to become a consistent contender.
Tournament resume: Won baseball's toughest division for the second time in three years, in part by posting the best road record (47-34) in the majors.
Starting five: LHP David Price (19-6, 2.72), RHP Matt Garza (15-10, 3.91), 3B Evan Longoria (.294-22-104), LF Carl Crawford (.307-19-90), CL Rafael Soriano (45 saves, 1.73).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if their vaunted bullpen, led by Soriano and set-up ace Joaquin Benoit have their normal shut-down stuff. . . . if their vaunted running game (ML-best 172 steals) gets untracked. . . . if CF B.J. Upton raises his game in October the way he did in 2008.
They'll be leaving the dance early. . . if their starting pitchers behind Price (Garza, James Shields and Wade Davis) are no better than the 3-8 record and 5.53 ERA for which they combined in September. . . . their aggressive run-manufacturing efforts lead to too many outs on the bases.
Prediction: The Rays get to the Final Four by vanquishing the Rangers in four, but fall to the rival Yankees in an epic ALCS.
(90-72), AL West champions
First-round opponent: Tampa Bay Rays
NCAA tourney equivalent: Butler Bulldogs -- on the rise for a few years now, if you were paying attention (and didn't let their mid-major affiliation turn you off).
Tournament resume: Were never seriously threatened after a 21-6 June, despite playing just one game over .500 since then.
Starting five: LHP Cliff Lee (12-9, 3.18), LHP C.J. Wilson (15-8, 3.35), LF Josh Hamilton (.359-32-100), DH Vladimir Guerrero (.300-29-115), CL Neftali Feliz (40 saves, 2.73 ERA).
They'll be cutting down the nets . . . if they show up on the road, after going 0-12 at New York, Tampa Bay and Minnesota this year. . . . if Lee, a trade-deadline acquisition, reprises his 2009 postseason run with the Phillies.
They'll be leaving the dance early . . . if Feliz, a strong rookie-of-the-year candidate, withers under October pressure. . . . if Hamilton (broken rib) can't stay on the field. . . . if their slumping bats (namely Michael Young, Elvis Andrus and Jorge Cantu) don't awaken.
Prediction: They'll prove a formidable opponent for the mighty Rays, but still bow out in four.