Besides signaling the start of a baseball game those two words also confirm that springtime has arrived. And with it the hopes of the fans of major league baseball’s 30 franchises. Well, for most of them anyway.
Some teams have much less of a chance than others when it comes to advancing to the Playoffs and winning the World Series.
With a 162-game regular season schedule baseball may be the truest sport in terms of the best teams making it to the postseason.
Whether advancing to the Playoffs by winning a Division championship or earning a Wild Card, teams that play in October have generally shown themselves to be the most complete in the game. There is generally good balance between offense, pitching and defense plus a lack of key injuries that cost star players significant playing time.
Last season’s World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, made the Playoffs by clinching the Wild Card on the final night of the regular season.
Beginning this season there will be two Wild Card winners in each league. The two Wild Card teams will meet in a one game Playoff with the winner advancing to the League Divisional Series.
The change is intended to make winning a Division a priority for teams that have already clinched a Playoff berth and thus not just play out the final games of the season once a trip to the Playoffs is guaranteed.
Unfortunately a one game Playoff is an unsatisfactory means to accomplish that goal. The Wild Card is considered a vehicle to enable an otherwise worthy team to make the Playoffs but for the misfortune of playing in a Division with another strong team.
Think American League East 2010. Tampa Bay won the Division with 96 wins, one more than the second place Yankees who won 95. Minnesota won the AL Central with 94 wins and Texas won the West with just 90 wins.
If the newly adopted Playoff format were in effect in 2010 the second Wild Card would have gone to Boston with a record of 89-73.
This would have meant that the Red Sox would face the Yankees in a one game Playoff with the winner advancing to the best of five ALDS. Thus the Yankees, who finished with more wins than two Division winners, could have seen their season end in just a single game.
Although the option of seeding the five Playoff teams 1-5 based on best record is unappealing to many long time, hard core baseball fans, it would make more sense in that it would not penalize teams that play in strong Divisions at the expense of teams that play in and win weaker Divisions even when they win those weaker Divisions with inferior records.
Perhaps a more fair solution would be at least to make the Wild Card teams meet in a best two of three series.
But the world is far from fair and the playing field is far from even and as such some franchises have built in advantages. But all teams do start out even and thus the long journey to October, which began with Seattle and Oakland splitting a two game series last week in Japan, gives hope to fans of all 30 teams as a season begins anew.
Visitors to GamingToday.com last week were treated to this columnist’s Division by Division preview of the 2012 season and thus print readers are encouraged to visit the website to read that preview.
However, here is a recap of the teams predicted to make the Playoffs and how the post season might unfold.
In the NL the calls are for Philadelphia, Cincinnati and San Francisco to be Division winners. The LA Dodgers and Miami are predicted to earn the two Wild Cards with the Dodgers surviving the one game Playoff. In a rematch of the 2010 NLCS look for a different result as Philadelphia gets by San Francisco to advance to the World Series
The AL winners are predicted to be Tampa Bay, Detroit and the L A Angels. The New York Yankees and Texas earning Wild Cards.
• Yankees to win the one game Wild Card matchup with the Rangers and advance to the ALDS.
• Angels defeating Tampa Bay and advancing to face Philadelphia in the 2012 World Series.
Champion: Angels in 6.
The ultimate forecast is for Albert Pujols to be a member of back to back World Series winners in 6 low scoring games to win the 2012 World Series 10 seasons after capturing their first such Title.
But those events are six months away. Of more immediate interest and opportunity will be games that shape the beginning the long 162 game regular season.
Here’s a look at four series this weekend.
Cards at Brewers: Starts Friday.The Cardinals have a much different look with star Albert Pujols gone. Long time manager Tony LaRussa has retired and a key member of his staff, pitching coach Dave Duncan, is also gone.
The Brewers also lost a key offensive force as Prince Fielder has joined Pujols in the American League. Milwaukee does have the more stable starting rotation and still a pretty decent lineup with MVP Ryan Braun avoiding that 50 game suspension.John Axford also gives the Brewers a solid edge at closer.
• Brewers -150 or less in starts by Yovani Gallardo or Zach Greinke against any St Louis starter.
• Brewers -125 or less in any matchup;.
• Cardinals +160 or more in any matchup.
• UNDER 8 or higher if Gallardo or Greinke oppose Wainwright or s Carpenter.
• OVER 9 or less if none of these four are involved.
Giants at D’backs: The 3-game series begins Friday. Both teams have solid pitching at the front of the rotation with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain rating the edge over Arizona’s Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson.
Arizona does have the more potent offense although the Giants should be much more productive this season then they were in 2011. Arizona’s Justin Upton is the best offensive player on either team and could contend for MVP honors at age 24. Arizona improved by 25 wins from 2010 to 2011 and some retrenchment this season would not be a surprise.
• Giants at pick’em or underdogs in starts by Lincecum or Cain.
• D’backs -140 or less with any starter not facing Lincecum or Cain.
• UNDER 9 or higher in starts by Lincecum or Cain.
• OVER 9 or lower against anyone other than Lincecum or Cain
Red Sox at Tigers: The well traveled and volatile Bobby Valentine is the new Boston manager and there is some concern as to how well he will deal with a team loaded with veterans as opposed to taking over a team building with youth. Detroit is favored to easily win the AL Central.
The Tigers have Justin Verlander anchoring a decent but not outstanding starting rotation and the offense will be bolstered with Prince Fielder coming over from the NL to toil in front of the same fans who cheered his father Cecil a couple of decades ago. Boston will again have one of baseball’s top offenses, when healthy, although last season’s free agent bust, Carl Crawford, will start the season on the DL.
• Tigers -140 or less in a start by Justin Verlander against any Boston starter.
• Red Sox -120 or less in starts by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz not facing Verlander.
• UNDER 8 or higher in Verlander’s start.
• OVER 9 if Verlander not pitching.
Yankees at Rays: New York bolstered what was considered its weakness last season, its starting pitching, although Michael Pineda, acquired in a trade with Seattle, starts the season on the DL. CC Sabathia remains the Yankees’ ace with solid Hiroki Kuroda coming over from the Dodgers and Phil Hughes on the verge of a breakout season.
Tampa’s strength has been its starting pitching and the Rays’ rotation is as strong as any in baseball, led by James Shields and David Price. The Yankees have the more potent and deeper lineup but injuries will be a concern throughout the season;
• Either team at +115 or more in matchups involving New York’s Sabathia, Kuroda or Hughes against Shields or Price.
• Rays -130 or less against any other Yankees starter.
• UNDER 9 or higher in any matchup;