Justin Verlander leads the AL with 245 Ks this year. Will it be enough to hold off the surging Twins?

Justin Verlander leads the AL with 245 K's this year. Will it be enough to hold off the surging Twins?

After 150 games, there is only one race in Major League Baseball that really has any major storyline down the stretch.  The Detroit Tigers looked like they had the AL Central all but wrapped up about three weeks ago after dismissing the slumping Chicago White Sox.  The Minnesota Twins were floating around in 3rd place, right around .500 and not looking very dangerous.  Entering today, the Twins stand at only 2.5 games back of a Detroit team that has come back to Earth at a bad time to do just that.  Starting Monday, these two teams will get a chance to determine the final outcome of their race in a four-game set in Comerica Park.  However, the other 7-8 games on the schedule could play just as big of an impact.  Let’s take a look at how each team finishes up:

Minnesota (11 games remaining): Tonight at White Sox; Fri-Sun. at Royals; Mon-Thurs. Oct. 1 at Tigers; Fri. Oct. 2-Sun. Oct. 4 vs. Royals

Detroit (12 games remaining): Tonight & Fri. at Indians; Fri-Sun. at White Sox; Mon-Thurs. Oct. 1 vs. Twins; Fri. Oct. 2-Sun. Oct. 4

Assuming the Tigers win against the Indians tomorrow and pick up the half game, that leaves them 3 games up with 10 to go for both teams.  The weekend series should be interesting for both teams.  Both are on the road, so that isn’t an issue and both are playing teams that are out of the race.  To make it even more fair, both teams are 7-5 against their respective opponents, and both finish their seasons with 3 game homestands against these same teams. So much for analyzing the remaining schedule.

That leaves it up to the four game series in Detroit.  So far this year, the Twinkies have taken 9 of 14 meetings from the Tigers, but they are an even 4-4 in games at Comerica Park.  The pitching matchups could very well determine the outcome of the series, with the Tigers holding a big advantage in the first two games of the series, sending out rookie Rick Porcello and flamethrower Justin Verlander against Chase Blackburn and Brian Duensing.  It’s hard to say that it gets any better for Minnesota with Carl Pavano taking the ball in the next game before their best pitcher in the second half in Scott Baker gets the ball in the series finale.  However, Detroit looks like they will have Nate Robertson and inexperienced Eddie Bonine for the next two games, unless the ineffective Jarrod Washburn can make the start in Bonine’s place, or if the Jim Leyland sees the opportunity of finish off the Twins and sends Edwin Jackson on three days rest, but that would be risky considering that they need to be thinking about the playoffs and matching up with the Yankees in the ALDS.

From an offensive standpoint, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the Twins have been far more productive recently, outscoring the Tigers 54-36 over the last 10 games.  It’s also hard to argue against a lineup that’s anchored by Joe Mauer, who’s hitting .372 with 28 homers and 89 RBIs heading into tonight, and doesn’t appear to have been all that affected by the injury to his partner-in-crime Justin Morneau.

Outside of measuring the tangibles of this race, it’s hugely important not to underestimate the power of momentum.  Right now, the Twins have a lot of Mo’ going into the final stretch, while the Tigers are playing just to hang on.  The Tigers have struggled in September and there always seems to be a team that gets hot just in time to make the postseason.  Will this be enough for Minnesota, or will Detroit keep it together for long enough the grab the AL Central crown?  I personally think the Twins have come too far to fall short now and are poised to go into Detroit and take 3 out of 4 to complete their comeback.  If not, the Tigers are going to have to hope that they’re this year’s version of the ’06 Cardinals, who backed into the playoffs and ended up winning the World Series, ironically enough over the Tigers.

 

MLB: At least we dont have Michael Vick!!!

MLB: "At least we don't have Michael Vick!!!"

Since the advent of the wild card berths into the Major League Baseball playoffs in 1995, many baseball fans have had reason to cry foul as their team was denied the wild card while a team with a worse record got into the playoffs by virtue of playing in a weaker division.  Most would argue that this is a sign of parity in the league and that these teams are few and far between.  However, if the season were to end today, both the Texas Rangers and the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays would finish with better records than the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers, quite conceivably as a result of having to play teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Mariners more often than the Tigers.  There is a simple solution to this: Eliminate one division from each league and have 2 wild card teams, that would be determined by best overall record, regardless of what place a team finished in their respective division.  

The basic setup for the 4 division system is simple enough, in fact, this is what it would probably look like:

AL East: New York, Boston, Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit

AL West: Los Angeles, Texas, Seattle, Oakland, Minnesota, Kansas City, Milwaukee (Note: The Brewers would be moved back to the American League in order to have 15 teams in each league, which is the way it should be anyway, but that’s another topic entirely)

NL East: New York, Philadelphia, Florida, Washington, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati

NL West: Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Los Angeles, Colorado, San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego

See? That wasn’t that hard.  Now obviously we run into 3 key issues under this system. Fortunately, there are simple solutions to all of these problems.

Problem #1: The West divisions are spread out a LOT more than the East.  Is that fair?
Solution: No, it’s not. That’s why MLB will redraft its schedule and create a balanced schedule where every team in both leagues play each other 11-12 times every year and interleague play, which has really lost its novelty anyway, will be eliminated from the schedule, because how many extra fans really were going to that Nationals-Royals series in the middle of a week, anyway?

Yeah, you better be listening! Now if only anyone could find you...

Yeah, you better be listening! Now if only anyone could find you...

Problem #2: Two of the divisions have 8 teams, but the other two divisions only have 7, what gives?!?
Solution: This isn’t a new problem, just look at the standings today, where you have a four-team AL West and a six-team NL Central.  This creates a unique opportunity for Major League Baseball to expand to 32 teams, though.  I would suggest Charlotte or Nashville for one team and Las Vegas or Portland for the other.  These are all cities that have showed interest in having pro sports in a greater capacity.  Also, by adding the two Western teams to the league, you can shift a team (I would suggest the Brewers since they played in the AL East before division realignment) back into a division that would be less difficult on them with respect to travel.

Problem #3: The balanced schedule is economically unfair to small-market teams who will have to place more money into travel costs that could otherwise be used on acquiring players. Isn’t this just a way for the bigger clubs to push the smaller ones around?
Solution: Yes, this is why two things would need to be put in place in order to preserve the competitive balance of the game. First would be an increase in the amount of revenue sharing between clubs, so as to offset the slight increase in travel expenses.  Second would be the institution of a salary cap system that operates like the NFL’s, one that increases on a yearly basis and has probably been one of the major reason that the NFL is by far the most balanced league out of the major American sports.  This will put teams in position to be more competitive and will lead to increased attendance for teams that are struggling, thus creating record revenues for MLB.  (Note: Of course, I say this without doing any true research, but fundamental economics would suggest #2 and #3 as true. This is also one of the first times I have actually applied my major to something, so now I can’t say I’ll never use that economics degree.)

So there you have it, in a nutshell.  Of course I say this all while assuming that baseball will not kill itself via syringes and tainted records, but until that happens, MLB and its commissioner-in-hiding Bud Selig should seriously consider division realignment, lest we run into another 2006, where a team that played about .500 all year wins the World Series and gives great merit to the argument that the the MLB regular season doesn’t matter.

Before I get into dissecting this matchup, I just wanted to give some brief thoughts about last nights game between the Pistons and Celtics.

1- How bad did Chauncey Billups look? He was extremely tentative and was outclassed by Rajon Rondo, who Billups should own night in and night out. If he plays this in game two, I’m changing my prediction to Celtics in five. Likewise if Billups is healthy and Rondo is keeps outplaying him.

2- Where is Ray Allen’s shot? Why is he in this slump? Has he been hitting the gym and taking extra shooting practice? I believe something is going on in his head that is distracting him during the game. What it is , I can’t figure it out but I have an idea: He knows he can’t live up to the expectations set by the fans and teammates and is faltering when it matters. Pressure is something he can’t handle. Every year besides 2000-2001 and 2004-2005, none of his teams, when he was the first option, made it out of the first round (both of those years he made it to the Conference Finals). Even now as the third banana, he can not handle the expectations set upon himself and his team.

3- The Pistons need to get the ball into the paint. John Hollinger of ESPN wrote a great article explaining this (His article is point 8 on the Daily Dime). He can articulate this thought much better than I can.

Now, onto the Lakers and Spurs…

While this isn’t the matchup everyone wanted to see here, I believe that this is going to be the best series of the playoffs. All of the ingredients are there: The reigning MVP, a top-3 greatest Power Forward of all time, two of the greatest coaches, Los Angeles, and a heated rivalry that has been waiting to be reestablished.

Guards: Advantage Lakers

That should really say Advantage Kobe. Kobe Bryant is the best player in the world right now. Defenses can’t stop him, they can only hope to contain him to 30 points. So far he is averaging 33 points a game in the playoffs and has led the Lakers to an 8-2 record during that time as well (the best in the league). I wish I could say more but then I have to snap back into reality. Derek Fisher showed last year on the Jazz how valuable he is and he is proving it even more so this year. Its not that he is a stat stuffer, its more like he understands how to play the game correctly and will always put his team in a position to win. Couldn’t say that about the Laker’s starting point guard last year. Additionally, Fisher is a veteran of the Triangle Offense and runs it better than anyone else in the league.

This is not to say that Spurs back court is weak. Tony Parker has become a top-5 point guard this year and is only getting better. He can abuse opposing guards with his quickness or knock down the long range J. In my humble opinion, he is the toughest matchup for the Lakers. For the two-guard spot, its tough to say who starts. I’m putting Manu Ginobilli as the starter just for the simple reason that he was the Spurs leading scorer this year. And he plays too much to be a sixth man. He is just as quick as Parker, deadlier from long distance, and capable of handling the point guard duties. However, like most European players (Yes, I know he’s from Argentina), his defense is suspect and I don’t know who he is going to match up with defensively (Radmonovic I guess?).

Forwards: Advantage Spurs

This should really say Advantage Tim Duncan. As much as Kobe means to the Lakers, Timmy D means that much to the Spurs. He is their anchor on defense in the paint and he has the ability to take over games with out even touching the ball. Not to be forgotten is Bruce Bowen who is considered to be the best on ball defender in the league (I believe he is a dirty no good cheater, but thats just my opinion). He is going to have the glorious responsibility to shadow Kobe wherever he goes and attempt to stop him. While he does have little value on offense, he does have the ability to spread the floor for the Spurs and knock down the open three.

The Laker’s front court presents difficult match-up problems for the Spurs. Both Vladimir Radmanovic and Lamar Odom are 6-10 and extremely athletic. This alone should cause nightmares for the Spurs. However, Radmanovic is the worst starting player left in the playoffs and is completely useless on the defensive end of the floor. His only use will be to shoot open jumpers and subsequently miss them. Lamar Odom on the other hand is perhaps one of the best third options in the league. He rebound, drive, defend, and handle the point guard duties. His only weakness is that he can not handle pressure situations. If I am the Spurs, I am fouling him at the end of the game and putting him on the line and force him to win the game for the Lakers.

Center: Advantage Lakers

Pau Gasol has made the Lakers into the best team in the NBA. He gives them the high post presence that they have lacked for awhile. Moreover, his passing ability affords the Lakers to run their offense through him. He can dominate games with his scoring, passing, and rebounding. He is a complete player and has made this team almost impossible to beat.

Whoever the Spurs put at center (whether its Kurt Thomas or Frabicio Oberto) won’t really matter because like Bowen, their main assignment will be to play hard defense, rebound, and score second chance points. Thats it.

Bench: Advantage Neither

Both of these teams have strong benches that are well coached and well used. The Lakers go four deep with Jordan Farmar (PG), Sasha Vujacic (SG), Luke Walton (F), and Ronny Turiaf (F/C). Each of these players has a specific role and fills it well. Farmar is going to be leading this team very soon and is doing an effective job running the second unit. Vujacic add toughness and a Eurotrash aspect that is fun. Turiaf provides the energy, defense, and rebounding off the bench. However, Walton is the real wildcard here. I believe he is the fourth best player on this team and should be starting. He is like a whiter, smaller Lamar Odom because they have the same skill set. He can pass, run the offense, and do the little things that teams need in order to win. I would look to him to making a difference in a couple of games.

The Spurs on the other hand utilize most of their bench players with Michael Finley (G), Jacque Vaughn (PG), Ime Udoka (SF), Robert Horry (PF), and Kurt Thomas (F/C) all seeing minutes. Finley, Horry, and Thomas all provide even more playoff tested veteran leadership and intangibles that always seem to put the Spurs on top. The real wild card here is Udoka though. He is a more athletic version of Bowen and will be relied upon to provide valuable minutes as the Kobe Bryant defender du jour. He is also dangerous as a three-point shooter.

Coaching: Advantage Neither

At least in the West, neither coach will make a mistake that will put the other team in position to win. We saw that multiple times out East with Flip Saunders and Doc Rivers. Both of these coaches have multiple rings and know what it takes to get the most out of their players. I think the mind games they play off the court will be just as entertaining to watch as what happens on the court.

FUN FACT: Dating back to 1999, the Lakers (2000-2002) and Spurs (1999, 03, 05, 07) have accounted for 7 of the 9 NBA Champions (Detroit won in 2004 and Miami won in 2006).

Key Match-Up: Spurs Forwards vs. Lakers Forwards

If the Lakers front court can keep the Spurs less athletic big men out of their comfort zone, this series will not be as close as I believe it will be. But, as much as Odom, Gasol, and Radmanovic provide trouble, Tim Duncan is just as tough to match-up with for the Lakers. Who do the Lakers put on him? Gasol and risk foul trouble for their best post guy? Odom and watch him get abused by Duncan? If Tim Duncan can get Odom and/or Gasol into early foul trouble, the Lakers will be up a certain creek without a paddle.

X-Factor: Vladimir Radmanovic, PF, LA Lakers

If he can force the Spurs to guard him on the three point line, this will open up the lane for KB24. If puts up a 1-6 stinker like he did in Game Four of the Jazz series, then the Spurs will be able to pack it in and allow his defender to sag into the middle of floor and help with Gasol or Kobe.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

I want to pick against the Spurs…but I can’t. The big three of Duncan, Ginobilli, and Parker will be too much for the Lakers to over come. Also, look for the Spurs to take two road games (Game 2 and Game 7). However, it would not surprise me either if the Lakers took this series in five as well. But, I’m going to stick with the Spurs.

BEARD