Catching Fire

Without a doubt, October is the best sports month of the year. The baseball playoffs are in fully swing, the NFL is well underway, and the NBA is getting ready to start–er… college basketball is right around the corner. The temperature is turning noticeably crisper, and outside every grocery store is an immense herd of wild pumpkins, waiting to be captured and transfigured into jack-o-lanterns. Really, just an unruly amount of pumpkins.

Nearly every October, though, intriguing, innovative thoughts creep into the minds of baseball fans. Should there be an extra wild card team? Maybe league-wide interleague record should determine  home field advantage instead of an exhibition. It’s good thing the Cubs aren’t in the playoffs, because a pack of pumpkins has be spotted near the ivy walls.

But in the end, all is well for the baseball playoffs. If a 2nd wild card team was added, the last-second drama of Day 162 would have been all for naught. The way the playoffs are currently assembled is the best for the league, and if Major League Baseball has been this slow to add the blatantly necessary instant replay to umpiring crew’s repetoire, it’s highly unlikely they’ll make massive changes to the playoffs without serious deliberation.

But like all playoff systems, there’s an incurable flaw: oftentimes, the champion is not the best team, but rather the hottest team. This doesn’t just apply to baseball, it fits in with nearly every sport. March Madness is the pinnacle of this problem–the entire tournaments is based on who can catch fire and win 6 games in a row. In 2011, was Duke the best team in the nation? No! Was Butler even the second best team? Of course not. Both teams just got hot at the right time and rode their way to the National Champnionship Game.

Even last year in the NFL, the same issue showed again. On the last day of the regular season, Green Bay squeaked their way into the playoffs on the back of the best player in the game. With momentum on their side, despite being banged up on both sides of the ball, they won three big games and made their way to the Super Bowl. Sound familiar, St. Louis fans?

Ask anyone who watched football last year, and they could tell you the Patriots were simply the most dominant team in the regular season. They put up 77 more points than any other team, turned the ball over a league-low 10 times, and had the first-ever unanimous league MVP. But after going 14-2 in remarkable fashion, they were out-played one day in January by a shockingly competent Mark Sanchez and hyped up Jets defense.

For the Packers, despite losing Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Nick Barnett, and several other key lynchpins, they starting clicking on all cylinders. Aaron Rodgers couldn’t–and still, for the most part, can’t–be stopped, and he was able to pair his championship belt with a shiny football-shaped trophy: The Lombardi Trophy. Now were the Packers the best team last season? It’s possible. Then again, they were one loss away from heading home after Week 17, contemplating if Mike McCarthey even deserved his job back. But were they the hottest team? Without a doubt.

Before Spring Training, I was having a tough time deciding who my favorite for the NL Central would be. I loved the Reds’ young talent, and they were, after all, the 2010 champs. The Brewers, who I eventually went with, had a ton of new acquisitions with some serious pop in the middle of their order. And then there was the Cardinals. The boring old Cardinals. They had two ace pitchers, two absolute mashers, and a bunch of replacement-level players as far as I was concerned. But when Adam Wainwright was deemed out for the season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery, I completely ruled them out of the playoffs.

Are the Cardinals really this good, or just very hot?

But thanks to a short-sighted deal, a largely unnoticed Braves’ collapse, and a bit of restraint on Tony La Russa’s part to not over-manage too many games, the Cardinals found themselves in post-season play. Although over-matched on paper by the Phillies, the hitters heated up just at the right time. Even more amazingly, what had been the team’s soft-spot all year (the bullpen) suddenly became the strongest part of the team. The rag-tag group of pitchers that finished 14th in the NL with a 3.73 ERA suddenly became a group of super-subs with a playoff ERA of  2.49, including a miniscule 1.88 ERA in the NLCS.

In the end, the hottest team doesn’t necessarily always win. The ’07 Rockies won 21 of 22 games before being swept out of the World Series. But in that case, they were clearly out-classed by the Red Sox, and their 8 days between games couldn’t have helped. But the point is that “hot streaks” only help so far–until the talent really becomes unbalanced.

To be honest, the talent is not very balanced in this series. The Rangers have the best offense in the playoffs, an ace pitcher, and a very deep bullpen. Hell, their seventh hitter set a record with six home runs and 13 RBI in one series. After Pujols, the Rangers have six of the next seven best hitters in the series (Hamilton, Cruz, Beltre, Napoli, Young and Kinsler are all better than Lance Berkman, the Cards’ 3rd best hitter). St. Louis has had a nice breakout series for Allen Craig and David Freese, but they’re just around the level of Mitch Moreland, who can only crack Texas’ starting lineup half the games.

The key to the series, like most postseason series will be the starting pitching. The Cardinals are going with Chris Carpenter followed by Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Edwin Jackson, while the Rangers have penciled in C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison. When it comes to pitching, the Rangers are no Brewers, who I liked just a bit more than the Cards’ pitching, but they’ll hold their own in this series.

We all know how well Chris Carpenter has cleaned up in the regular season, but in the post-season he’s been much more human. He owns a solid-but-not-great ERA of 3.76, but averages just 5 2/3 innings per start. Historically, he only averages going  just over six innings per playoff start. C.J. Wilson, on the other hand, is getting hot at the right time. Since August, his ERA is down to 2.00 and his WHIP down to 1.08. Not only that, but he’s tougher on righties than he is on lefties, and the majority of the Cardinals’ big bats–Pujols, Holliday, Freese, and Molina–all swing from the right side.

Like the Tigers in the ALCS, the Cardinals will run into a lot of trouble if they can’t win with their ace. Excluding starts made by Justin Verlander, the Tigers were just treading above .500. Consequently, when they lost his first start of the series, they ended up losing the series in six games. For the Cardinals, they don’t have a Doug Fister, they don’t have a Max Scherzer. Garcia and Jackson have been wildly inconsistent all year, while Lohse has just been consistently bad. Holland, Lewis, and Harrison are no Big Three, but at least they can go six somewhat-strong innings.

Both the Rangers and Cardinals have had record setting playoffs. This time, though, this isn’t a good thing. Neither teams’ starters averaged even five innings per outing. Not only is that inauspicious because teams would like to see their best pitchers go deep into games, it also means that their bullpens will be extremely taxed if they have to go at least four innings every game for a month. And in the end, the Rangers have a deeper, stronger ‘pen, so they get one last advantage here.

Before I give out my predictions, I think both teams deserve huge props. Back in January, I thought aloud that neither the Rangers nor the Giants may end up going to the 2011 playoffs. Well, I was half-right at the time. But the incorrect half was the Rangers going to back-to-back World Series, and possibly winning for the first time ever. But I saw the error in my thoughts, and changed back to the Rangers taking the AL West crown. I just didn’t see them being so dominant offensively. And I couldn’t see them heading back to the Fall Classic. But like the Cardinals, they proved me wrong.

Ultimately it comes down to this: the pitching is very close, but the hitting is not. I think Chris Carpenter notches a Game 1 win at home, but the Rangers take the rest in a five-game romp.

Rangers over Cardinals in 5.

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