Chicago and Boston. The Red Sox starters have been so bad that they haven't had to use Mike Timlin at all, and both Chad Bradford and Jonathan Papelbon went unscored-upon in their brief appearances in Chicago. Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield still need to be good, but assuming Boston can score more runs (which at Fenway, they usually do) I think their chances of evening the series at home are pretty good. However, after the first two games, I'm not at all sure they can come back and win a Game Five in Chicago. Ozzie Guillen said Tadahito Iguchi was the best player on his team, and who am I to argue? In the Irish-Catholic suburban enclave my parents live in, the success of the White Sox is the distant third biggest story in baseball. The second biggest story is the collapse of the Red Sox. The biggest news is the Cubs resigning Ryan Dempster, and possibly moving Nomar Garciaparra to left.
Anaheim and New York. I had my father read all my series previews, and like a lot of midwesterners it was the first time he'd thought about the Angels at all. "This Ben Molina had a good year," he said. "He's one of the better clutch hitters in the league, if you believe in that sort of thing," said I. Mr. Molina, thank you for making me look smart in the eyes of my dad. Now if you could just explain to him why it took me five years to finish college when I entered with two years' worth of AP credit. I don't think A-Rod's ugly error in the game Wednesday night "proves" he's not an MVP candidate any more than Tony Graffanino's miscue means the Red Sox never should have let go of Mark Bellhorn (or heck, Pokey Reese). The playoffs are obviously of a different level of importance, but a guy can only play in 19 playoff games a year (tops), and making wild generalizations based on so small a sample size is asinine. Bill Buckner won a batting title, you know. And twice led the league in doubles.
Atlanta and Houston. Do you know how many times Roger Clemens gave up five earned runs in a start during the regular season? Twice. Both times to Milwaukee. Go figure. There were in fact two months when the Rocket gave up five runs or less total -- April (4) and July (5). There was only one month when he gave up double-digit earned runs (September, 12). Don't just give this man another Cy Young. Rename the award after him. Do you think Bobby Cox is regretting his decision to use Tim Hudson in Game 1 after John Smoltz's performance last night? Game 5 would be on Monday, which would mean three days' rest for Smoltz. But if they'd run him out for the first game, they could have seized the momentum from the start and had their best guy go on his regular day in the fifth day. Of course the Braves dealt for Hudson so they wouldn't have to deal with these kinds of questions. Sure, they didn't make the playoffs this year, but I still think the A's kept the right guy from the Big Three.
St. Louis and San Diego. I'm so ready for this series to be over. The Padres' offense is just awful. They're starting Woody Williams and not Adam Eaton on Saturday so the sweep is nearly a foregone conclusion. Luis Gonzalez (the elder) is in the booth for this series on ESPN Radio and if he ever decides he wants to, he could be a great broadcaster. He's direct and he reacts to the action rather than making up his mind about things before they happen. Mark Mulder said he wasn't surprised that Joe Randa nailed him with a screamer because Randa's hit him well all year. He wasn't kidding: Randa, who started the season with St. Louis's division rivals in Cincinnati, had 40 at-bats against Mulder this year. He hit .375/.409/.625 with two homers, four doubles, and eight RBIs. That's good for an OPS of 1.034. All of this is of little consolation to the Padres, who won't last long enough in the series to see Mulder again.
Meanwhile, the teams who didn't make it to the dance have not been standing still. Oakland is letting manager Ken Macha go, which doesn't come as much of a shock. Billy Beane took the same tack as he did a few years ago with Art Howe, which is if someone else wants to pay you more, then go ahead and get paid. There's plenty of managers out there who will follow my instructions more closely. Frankly, were I Macha I'd be willing to sacrifice a few bucks for the security the A's offer. How difficult can it be to manage a team that doesn't bunt, doesn't run, and has five potentially dominant starters and an airtight bullpen?
On the other end of the competitive spectrum, we have the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who fired pretty much their entire senior management team this week. I'm kind of sad about this. Whenever I get into conversations with people who follow baseball casually or not at all, I like to bring up how the histories, movements, and tendencies of off-field personnel are just as fascinating (if not more so) than the batting averages and on-base percentages of the players. Folks invariably ask who the worst general manager in the game is, and for nearly ten years, Chuck LaMar has been the slam-dunk answer to this question. Not only was he obviously the worst to those of us in the know, but it was easy to explain why he was the worst to neophytes. His team never got any better, first and foremost, but it went beyond that. Like having nine guys who could play, all of whom were leftfielders. Pretty much anybody born in the Western Hemisphere understands that only one person can play left field at any given time. Except LaMar. Then there was his whole thing about setting outrageously high trade demands and refusing to negotiate downwards. It doesn't take a business degree to determine that if you set a price for something that no one can pay, it's not worth that price to anyone but you. But wait! Players eventually gain free agency, leave, and you get nothing for them! Hope you and your principles enjoy retirement, Chuck!
OK, but now who's the worst GM in baseball? Jim Bowden? Well, he's living on borrowed time in D.C. anyway. Dan O'Brien? Well, he has the same problem with leftfielders, and he did sign Eric Milton, but it's not his fault that Ken Griffey breaks every year. Baltimore has that whole two-headed monster thing going on. I'm not really clear on who's in charge in Phoenix these days. You know, we have a whole offseason ahead for someone to rise up to the challenge. This new kid in Arlington could be a comer. All that Chan Ho and A-Rod money off the books and a lean free-agent pitching market? Could be tasty.
It's an all-AL Friday in the playoffs with Freddy Garcia facing off against Tim Wakefield at Fenway and Paul Byrd meeting Randy Johnson in New York. Did you know that Wakefield (16) had more wins than Garcia (14)? Or that Byrd had a lower ERA (3.74) than Johnson (3.79)? Well, you do now. That first stat doesn't really mean much of anything -- I think we all know by now that wins are not exactly the best indicator of a starting pitcher's ability, thank you, Mr. Clemens -- but Angel Stadium is a mild hitters' park and Yankee Stadium is kinder to pitchers, particularly lefthanders. And Johnson was the big hit among the Yankees' various offseason veteran pitching acquisitions.