Let the games begin

Set to throw out first pitch, playoffs are mix of big bats, big arms


It didn't take the country's most astute baseball minds to accurately predict the final field of eight for this year's baseball postseason. Although it was a treacherous journey for some, ultimately the 2005 playoff roll call is a familiar one.

The Chicago White Sox, a club that won 83 games last year, may be the season's biggest surprise playoff team - and they're not exactly the 1969 Amazin' Mets.

The final four of last year's Championship Series return. So do the Atlanta Braves, who've been invited to this soiree 14 straight years, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who, with the exception of an awkward new name, strongly resemble the group that won the 2002 World Series.

The only true pretender is San Diego, a club that won its finale to guarantee an above .500 record. Still, the Padres were a trendy preseason pick to win the weak National League West.

The St. Louis Cardinals, last year's World Series losers, are the favorites to win it all. Division rival Houston, which has three aces up its pitching sleeve, could be their toughest test. The American League is much more muddied. The Boston Red Sox are defending champions; the White Sox won a league-best 99 games; the New York Yankees have the most stars and the Angels may have the fewest holes.

"All four teams in the American League are dangerous," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "It's up for grabs every year, but this year there is no one dominant team you can point to."

Here's a look at the four division series:

San Diego at St. Louis

At first blush, this is the most lopsided match. The Cardinals won 100 games this year; the Padres, 82. St. Louis has a roster laden with stars and solid veterans. The Padres have Jake Peavy, Trevor Hoffman, Brian Giles and mediocrity.

The Cardinals were sixth overall in the majors in runs scored (805) and tops in ERA (3.49). The Padres were middle of the pack in ERA (4.13) and 27th in runs scored (684) and toward the bottom in fielding.

San Diego, though, is one of only three NL teams to post a winning record against the Cardinals this year - winning four of seven, three of four at Busch Stadium.

The Padres have a chance if they can win today's opener at Busch with 24-year-old ace Jake Peavy on the mound. In his only start against the Cardinals this year, he allowed one run and struck out 10 in eight innings. He likely will get two starts in the series.

Bottom line: The Cardinals are too tough. St. Louis wins in four.

Houston at Atlanta

Of the four matchups, this is the only one in which the season series was one-sided. The Braves won five of six and outscored the Astros, 42-13.

But that was between April 22 and May 8, before the Astros decided to play baseball. They began the year 15-30 (.333 winning percentage) and then went 74-43 (.632) to make the postseason.

Despite winning their 14th straight division crown, the Braves drew the short straw here. No one wants to face Houston's big three - Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt - in a short series.

The Braves won't be pushovers, however. They won all three games against Houston's aces (though only Oswalt was hit hard). And they have a great mix of energizing rookies and quality veterans, including Andruw Jones, a Most Valuable Player candidate who batted .526 against the Astros in last year's Division Series.

Bottom line: Astros win in a nail-biting five games.

New York at Los Angeles

If pitching and defense win titles, the Yankees should leave this party early.

The Angels have the fifth-best ERA in the majors (3.68) thanks to an intimidating bullpen and an underrated rotation led by 21-game winner Bartolo Colon. Boasting a splendid, up-the-middle defense, the Angels lead all surviving AL teams in fielding percentage. Their offense, though, is 21st in homers and 19th in on-base percentage.

In contrast, the legitimate Bronx Bombers are ranked second in those two categories. Their lineup features seven players who hit 17 or more homers, including league leader and MVP candidate Alex Rodriguez. Plus, they are peaking at the right time, winning 16 of their past 21.

The Yankees' pitching, though, has ranged from mediocre to disastrous, ranking 22nd overall in team ERA (4.52). They have shaky middle relief and their regular-season saviors, Aaron Small, Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang, aren't playoff-tested.

Bottom line: It's never smart to pick against the Yankees, but Los Angeles wins in five.

Boston at Chicago

The White Sox were the league's best team with 99 wins. They faltered late but showed heart by sweeping Cleveland over the weekend.

With few recognizable stars, the White Sox have won with solid defense, great pitching and the only offense to hit 200 homers and steal more than 130 bases. Yet they are stuck playing the defending World Series champions in Round 1.

Boston is the anti-finesse team. The team stole just 45 bases, 14 fewer than White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik. The Red Sox also had the third-highest number of runners left on base. And no contender posted a worse ERA (4.74).

But, paced by David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, they flat-out crush the ball, leading the majors in runs scored (910) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.811). And they have playoff veterans everywhere.

Bottom line: No respect for the White Sox. Boston wins in four.


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