There used to be a solid formula for figuring out which playoff teams had the best chance to get to the World Series. It wasn't foolproof, but it was as good as any.
The teams that got hot in September were penciled in for the October Classic. And if there were several playing well down the stretch, go with the clubs with the best pitching and defense.
Then 2006 came, and convention was scrapped.
The Detroit Tigers, who lost their final five regular-season games and had to settle for the wild card, won the American League crown. At least the Tigers had one thing going for them: the majors' best regular-season ERA that year.
The St. Louis Cardinals won just 83 regular-season games and were losers of nine of their final 12 in 2006. The Cardinals had a seven-game lead in the National League Central with 12 to play last season, and ended up winning by just 1 1/2 games. They backed into the postseason and became world champions.
The bottom line: Playoff baseball is tough to predict. But it won't stop us from trying.
New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians
Both are hot. The Yankees were 19-8 last month; the Indians were 19-9. At first glance, it looks like offense vs. pitching. The Yankees led the majors in runs and on-base percentage, and were second in homers. The Indians were fifth in the majors in ERA, second in starters ERA and sixth in bullpen ERA.
But the Indians can score (eighth) and get on base (seventh). And the Yankees' starting three, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and, if healthy, Roger Clemens, are formidable. The Yankees were 6-0 in the season series, but, inexplicably, they haven't faced Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia (1-7 against the Yankees) since 2004.
One Internet betting site, bodoglife.com, has made the Yankees a 2-1 World Series favorite. That's a stretch. They've been counted out once already this season; might as well do it again until we get it right.
Prediction: Indians in five.
Los Angeles Angels vs. Boston Red Sox
Two pretty similar teams. Both veteran-laden clubs with experienced managers, excellent starting pitching and a lockdown closer. The difference is Boston's offense is significantly better, especially in the power department.
The Red Sox hit 43 more homers, and that was with Manny Ramirez missing a chunk of the second half. Los Angeles' 123 homers were the fourth fewest in the majors.
The only way the Angels win this is if their bullpen, which has been a big disappointment, bounces back. It certainly is capable. Ultimately, the Red Sox, who won the season series 6-4, are the most balanced team standing.
Prediction: Red Sox in four.
Chicago Cubs vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
The young Diamondbacks seemed to be a couple of years away from making noise. Their offense was among the worst in the majors - 26th in runs scored and 29th in batting average and on-base percentage. And no playoff team had committed more errors. Yet somehow they won the most regular-season games (90) in the NL.
The Cubs, based on their payroll and talent, were supposed to be good. It just took a while. Led by a starting staff that had the third-lowest ERA in the majors, their pitching is strong enough to get them deep into the playoffs.
Chicago should be a lock, but the Diamondbacks, who won the season series 4-2, are too green to know they shouldn't be here. And that can be dangerous.
Prediction: Cubs in five.
Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies
Two great stories. They both were 44-44 at the end of the first half. The Rockies won 13 of their final 14 regular-season games and then beat the San Diego Padres in a thrilling, 13-inning tiebreaker to earn the wild card. The Phillies were a preseason favorite, but early injuries hurt them. They won 16 of their final 22 and took advantage of the New York Mets' historic collapse.
Of the postseason teams, the Phillies have the worst overall ERA, bullpen ERA and starters ERA. But no team in either league hit more home runs, and only the Yankees scored more runs.
Colorado's pitching was middle of the pack, but the Rockies led the league in batting average. It could be a shootout every night. The Rockies won the season series 4-3, but it's tough to go against the Phillies right now.
Prediction: Phillies in four.