With just over a month left in the regular season, pennant races are heating up, and in a hurry.
Almost half of baseball seems to be in the postseason hunt, which is making this season one of the most competitive that baseball has ever seen.
Parity is the name of the game right now. Anytime the Rays are in first, the Cubs are among the best teams in baseball, and the Mets are holding onto a first place lead, something other than skill is a determining factor.
Normalcy has to come back into baseball in time for the postseason though, right? The Red Sox have to play the team that has the least holes in the National League (whether it is the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, Mets, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, or possibly even the Astros, among an influx of contenders, still remains to be seen), correct?
Don’t jump to that conclusion so fast…
The American League, as usual, is the better league, but there are some not so usual suspects atop the standings. Tampa Bay, currently in first, is here to stay, even with Carl Crawford, and Evan Longoria out due to injuries. The pitching, led by Scott Kazmir, and an incredible bullpen, combined with just enough offense while the top two guns are out, will keep the Rays in the race.
Their inexperience will be a factor, won't it? Not necessarily. In fact, it may work out to the Rays advantage. Home games in front of crowds that have never seen playoff baseball will lead to an atmosphere that will be hard to beat. In addition, with half the players never being in the playoffs before, the pressure will not be understood, and they will just go out there and play.
The Angels did it in 2002, the Marlins did it in 2003, and the Cardinals, even though some veterans did lead that team, along with manager Tony La Russa as well, did it in 2006.
Will the Rays win the World Series though? Not this year. While it would be a great story, they would have to beat two out of three teams from the likely combination of the Red Sox, the Angels, and the White Sox (the nod goes to them over the Twins because of the veterans, the manager, and the fact that most of their players have been in multiple pennant races, which will help them down the line).
This can’t happen, not this year anyway. The Red Sox have too much experience, the Angels too much heart, and the White Sox too much power, with just enough of everything else as well. The Rays may win one playoff series, but two will not happen this year. If it does, then crown them World Series champions now!
Looking now into the NL a little deeper, as usual, it is a mess. In the East, the Mets, Phillies, and Marlins could all conceivably end up on top of the division after 162 games. The smart bet seems to be the Mets though at this point. The Phillies offense has been struggling mightily, the pitching does not seem to be there, and the Marlins seem to be falling back in the race.
As long as the bullpen can fix itself in New York, there will probably be playoff baseball at Shea in its final season.
Now, the Central Division is where things get even cloudier. This is a division where the top three teams, if you put them in the other two divisions of the NL, they would be at least four games up in first place currently. The Cubs are being chased by the Brewers and the Cardinals as of now, and the Astros, who nobody had doing anything this season, could conceivably make a wild card push with a winning streak or two.
Who takes this division? While some people want to say the Brewers, the Cubs will not be beat this year in the Central Division (yes, I know, it does seem odd to say this). The race may come down to the final couple of games with the Brewers giving them all that they can handle, but the Cubs will hold off the Brewers, who will win the wild card in a walk, along with the pesky Cardinals and Astros, who do not have the pitching to stay in the race for that much longer.
Finally, looking at the Western Division, this is where mediocrity reigns supreme. The Diamondbacks and Dodgers are tied for first and are not even five games over .500. We could honestly be looking at another team like the Cardinals of 2006 here, where one team gets in because of a weak division while other more deserving teams that did not finish in first in tough divisions sit at home watching the playoffs instead of playing in them.
However, it's any team's game once the playoffs start, because those were the same "mediocre" Cardinals that won the World Series that year.
Who is going to win it though? The Dodgers seem to be the logical pick, considering their recent pickups of Manny Ramirez and Greg Maddux, but the Diamondbacks have been the team that has been in front most of the season in the division. They will hold on, even if it comes down to the last game of the season, and will get into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.
This leaves the NL looking like this, with the following teams, the Mets, the Cubs, the Brewers, and the Diamondbacks, in the playoffs.
How will it all play out in the end?
The Cubs and Diamondbacks will have a classic series due to the fact that the Cubs have to always make things interesting, but the Cubs will end up beating them in the last game of the series to move onto the NLCS. The Brewers will also get past the Mets because of the sheer fact that the Mets do not have enough pitching to slow down the incredible Brewers lineup.
The Brewers though will be beaten by the Cubs in another classic seven game series due to better pitching from the Cubs with their bullpen leading the way.
What’s next, stigmata? The Cubs in the World Series? As of right now, yes.
Looking now at the AL, the Angels will beat the Red Sox, who will end up losing the division title to the Rays because of the Rays young pitching carrying them through, and the Rays will beat the White Sox due to holding their offense in check for just enough of time.
This leaves us with an Angels-Rays ALCS. The Rays will give the Angels a fight, but the Angels will win the series in six games because of the fact that they have been in the big game situations in the past.
That leaves the World Series as the Angels against the Cubs. Who will win this series? Somehow, someway, the Cubs will end up winning the series in seven close games because of their better power numbers against the Angels, and because of clutch bullpen pitching that does not put any runners on base regularly, something that Francisco Rodriquez can never claim he does, along with most of the rest of the Angels bullpen at this point.
The Cubs will knock in more of these runners on base with their big bats throughout their lineup, and will beat the Angels in their own stadium in the seventh and final game of the series, leaving the Chicago Cubs as the 2008 World Series champions, which will officially break one of the longest championship droughts in sports history.