Rivals in Exile: Playoff Time

Ben Jacobs: Well, here we are six months later. It may not have unfolded the way either of us expected, but the Red Sox and Yankees are in the playoffs with the top two records in the American League.

The Yankees won 100 games in a third consecutive season for the first time in team history. The Red Sox won their most games in a season since 1978, when they didn’t even make the playoffs. None of that matters now.

What matters is the next three weeks. We know our teams are in, but as of Friday night, we don’t know for sure who they’re facing.

The Yankees will host the Twins, unless the Twins win their last two games against the Indians and the Angels don’t win both weekend games against the A’s. If the Twins lose a game, the Red Sox will play the AL West winner, whoever that might be.

So, at the risk of getting what you wish for, who would you rather have the Yankees play? I’ve been saying for a while that I’d rather not have the Red Sox face the Twins because of Johan Santana, but the neat thing about this postseason is that any team can beat any other team because they all have flaws.

The Red Sox have questions in the rotation after Curt Schilling and they probably don’t have as good a bullpen as some of the other teams.

With Orlando Hernandez’s recent problems, the Yankees may only have four reliable pitchers — Mike Mussina, Jon Lieber, Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon.

The Twins have Santana and Brad Radke’s been good, but Carlos Silva is merely decent as a third starter and they don’t even have close to a decent fourth starter. They’ll also have the worst offense of the four playoff teams no matter who wins the AL West.

The Angels have Vlad Guerrero and a great bullpen, but not much else, especially with Jose Guillen suspended. Their rotation has been better recently, but it may be stretched thin for the playoffs after having everybody go on three days rest their last time or two out.

The A’s have a struggling rotation, an unimpressive offense and a spotty bullpen. Still, I wouldn’t count them out in any playoff series

All season, we’ve been talking about how the Red Sox and Yankees are probably going to end up meeting in the ALCS, because it just feels like that’s what should happen. However, it’s not necessarily really likely.

Let’s be generous and say that both the Red Sox and Yankees will have a 70-percent chance of winning their series. I don’t think either team’s odds of winning will be quite that high, but let’s say they are. There would still only be a 49-percent chance that they meet in the ALCS.

So, even if they’re both prohibitive favorites, it’s less than 50-50 that they’ll meet in the ALCS. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have no idea what will happen. I think the Red Sox are the best team in the AL playoffs, but even if they are, that doesn’t give them a free pass into the World Series.

The only thing I do know for sure is that Tuesday can’t come fast enough.

Larry Mahnken: The Yanks are back in the playoffs for the tenth straight season, but to me at least, this isn’t old hat. Perhaps the difference between a Yankees fan and fans of all other teams (except perhaps the Braves), is that there’s the feeling that this is where the season really begins. In April and May, if the Yankees are struggling, you know there’s several months left to go, and that these boys are more than good enough to finish ahead in the marathon. But October is a comically short sprint, where how you start will almost always determine if you win or lose. In a five game series, if you screw up and lose one game, you’re already a third of the way towards elimination, and you know you’ve got to turn it around right quick.

People place too much emphasis on your starting pitching in the playoffs, while Johan Santana is a great pitcher who should win the Cy Young Award easily, I don’t expect that he’ll beat the Yankees twice all on his own in this series. Yeah, he could win two games, and he will almost certainly be great in both games. But I don’t expect the Yankees’ starters to roll over in his starts, and I don’t think he’ll go all the way in both of them, either. The Yankees may have lucked out in getting only 5 innings of Santana on Wednesday, but they did open up on Minnesota’s best relievers in the series last week. They won’t go down quietly in those two games, and they’ll have a good shot at winning the other three even if they do drop those two.

The Yankees’ pitching isn’t perfect going into the playoffs, Mike Mussina has been awesome lately and Jon Lieber’s been consistently solid. El Duque has become questionable with an apparent tired arm, and while Kevin Brown was very good Saturday and Javy Vazquez was solid Thursday night against the Twinkies, they’ve also been downright terrible in other, slightly less recent starts. The Yankees can’t have any confidence in what type of start they’ll get from them.

But they don’t need great starts, they just need solid ones. Six innings, only three or four runs. If their lineup can’t score more than that, they probably weren’t going to win anyway. If they can get to the seventh or later with a lead, they’ve got a one-two punch in Gordon and Rivera that can put away the wins needed to win the series. Bizarrely enough, Tanyon Sturtze has apparently morphed into a major league pitcher after several years of being a mediocre batting practice pitcher, and has earned himself a role in the playoffs. He could end up turning back into a pumpkin and killing the team in a big game, or he could do what Jose Contreras did in a few games last year, or what David Weathers did in ’96, and give them solid, crucial outs in the middle innings. Joe Torre apparently never figured out that, whether he likes it or not, Paul Quantrill shouldn’t pitch every other game (more than that, actually!), and his performance has subsequently suffered in the last part of the season. But if the Yankees can get those six solid innings, they’ll be fine.

Am I worried? Hell yeah I’m worried, but that’s nothing new. Worry is my natural state in October; if I’m not worried I’m probably lacking a pulse. I was worried in ’98, and not just when they were down 2-1 in Cleveland. I was worried before Game 1 with Texas, because this thing is so random that anything can happen. The Angels may be going at less than full strength, but they should give the Red Sox a challenge. Curt Schilling’s been as good as Santana, but Pedro has been very poor lately, and after that you’ve got Arroyo and Wakefield, which shouldn’t be bad, but might very well be.

I think the Yankees and Red Sox will meet again next week, and I think I’m going to be even more nervous then than I am now. But while for us analysts the playoffs are frustratingly random, that’s half the fun for us as fans. We really have no idea what’s going to happen. I can’t wait, either.

BJ: I’m sure I’ll be checking plenty of websites Monday and Tuesday and reading plenty of breakdowns of all of the playoff series. And when I’m done absorbing all of that information, I won’t know one thing more about what’s going to happen the next three weeks than I know now, which is nothing.

The only thing I know is that while I’m nervously confident about the Red Sox, the ratio of confidence to nerves is higher than it’s ever been. This is pretty clearly the best Red Sox team I’ve had the opportunity to root for (I was too young in 1986), and I’m expecting big things from them.

Of course, they could also get swept right out of the playoffs, as they almost did the last two times they made the postseason. That they not only didn’t get swept either time, but won their first series both times is why I love the playoffs. There’s hope for every team that’s still alive, right up to the moment they’re officially eliminated.

You mentioned that Pedro has been struggling recently, and I can’t dispute that fact. But I still think he’s better than Bartolo Colon, and Boston’s offense is clearly better than Anaheim’s. And if it gets to a Game 5, you can bet I’ll feel more confident with Schilling on the mound than Angels fans will with Jarrod Washburn.

Of course, while I want the Red Sox to win no matter how they have to do it, it would be ideal if they could wrap things up in four games and have Schilling available to start the ALCS. It didn’t end up making a difference last year, but you can bet that one of the keys to the 1999 ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees was that Pedro couldn’t go until the third game, when the Red Sox already trailed 2-0.

Like yours, my gut tells me the Red Sox and Yankees will meet again this year. A Red Sox-Yankees ALCS is probably even the most likely possible matchup, but I don’t think it’s a more-than-likely outcome. And if the Red Sox make it but the Yankees don’t, I won’t be shedding any tears.

In my ideal world, the Red Sox would beat the Yankees on the way to their first World Series. But if Boston wins the whole thing this year and they miss the Yankees on the way, I highly doubt it will dampen the experience for me.

On a completely unrelated note, I really wanted the Astros to lose today. Not necessarily because I don’t want them in the playoffs — I’d actually be happy to see Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio finally win a playoff series — but because I wanted there to be a game on Monday. It’s just past midnight, and the next 37 hours until the first playoff game are going to seem like an eternity.

So, I’ll be reading playoff previews and breakdowns more to pass the time than to gain any insight. Because I guarantee we’re going to see something in these playoffs that no analyst ever thought of. I just can’t wait to find out what it is.

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