After a thrilling LDS round of play, the League Championship Series are set to begin this weekend. I know baseball takes its lumps these days for several issues: pace of game, length of season, the residual disenchantment with the steroid era. But I think this early round of postseason action has been powerful to remind even the casual fan of the excitement of October baseball. Lots of close games being decided late so far; here’s hoping for a few more weeks of it.
I love the matchup over in the American League: the HR-prolific Orioles and the punch-and-judy Royals. These are proud franchises with rich history…and not much recent success. But it’s refreshing to see some fresh faces over in the Junior Circuit’s Championship Series. Buck Showalter deserves a ton of credit for the way he’s managed this club this season. Injuries are a threat to every club, but the O’s have lost more than their fair share of premium talent this season. Yet, Buck’s expectation for these players has never changed. He brought a level of professionalism to the Baltimore clubhouse that has now become part of the culture. The O’s are going to play the game the right way, they’re going to play hard, and for second time in three years, they’re playing in October.
Then there’s Kansas City. Two years ago, GM Dayton Moore went for it, dealing away super prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for Tampa ace James Shields and young starter Wade Davis. Shields immediately gave the Royals a legitimate #1 starter and the thought was that Davis could emerge as another viable rotation option. Two years later, Shields is the starter Ned Yost turns to when the Royals need a win and Davis has become the American League’s premier 8th inning setup man. Elite speed, defense, and contact hitting carried the Royals through the regular season and they’ve replicated the recipe here in October.
I’m expecting a great ALCS from these two clubs. The best part is that one of these teams will represent the AL in the World Series after years of languishing in mediocrity. If you had a mind to argue that revenue sharing has led to a new era of parity in baseball — with more clubs locking up their young stars at an earlier age — this ALCS could be Exhibit A.
Of course, the counter to all of that would be the matchup in the National League, where the Cardinals are headed to their fourth straight LCS and the Giants find themselves here for the third time in the last five years. Either this parity stuff is a bunch of malarkey or these are two extremely well run franchises. I vote for the latter. Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy give the Giants steady leadership in the front office and the dugout. Sabean consistently brings in veteran help (Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, Hunter Pence, Marco Scutaro) to augment the young homegrown core of Posey, Sandoval, Bumgarner, Cain, and Lincecum. And Bochy is as sharp a tactician as you’re likely to find in the game today. It’s hard to pick against them in a short series, given their recent success.
But the St. Louis Cardinals are the only team in the major leagues that can match San Fransisco’s run the last few years. Manager Mike Matheny has seamlessly filled the void left by Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa’s retirement after the 2011 title run. Matheny once again has his club playing in the League Championship Series; in fact, he’s a perfect three for three in this regard. Although this iteration of the Cardinals may not be the best club in recent history, the Redbirds are playing their best baseball when it counts the most. After playing inconsistent baseball for the season’s first five months, St. Louis put it all together in September. Coincidentally, the Cards hot streak aligned with the healthy return of C Yadier Molina, the heart and soul of the club.
As with the AL, I’m expecting an exciting Championship Series over in the NL as well. Predictions to come tomorrow.