The 2008 Major League Baseball (MLB) regular season has finally drawn to a close. This season, which began 162 games (163 for some) ago in Japan, has certainly been an unforgettable one, filled with history, records, and milestones.
Both New York teams — the Yankees and the Mets — played the final games at their current stadiums, while the Washington Nationals christened their new ballpark with a Ryan Zimmerman walk-off home run. Ichiro reached 3,000 career hits, while John Smoltz recorded his 3,000th strikeout. Chipper Jones hit his 400th career home run, Manny Ramirez his 500th, and, not to be outdone, Ken Griffey, Jr. became only the 6th player in history to reach 600. The All-Star game in July, held as a final tribute to Yankee Stadium, provided a spectacle as well, with Josh Hamilton’s superhuman showing in the Home Run Derby preceding the American League’s epic 15-inning win over the National League.
This year’s playoff races were also filled with excitement, with three of the eight playoff spots clinched in the final weekend of play. Especially dramatic were the races for the American League (AL) Central title, where the Chicago White Sox beat the Minnesota Twins in a one-game playoff, and the National League (NL) Wild Card, where both the Brewers and Mets blew multi-game leads in the closing weeks of the season. The eight teams who earned a postseason berth are:
• Los Angeles Angels (100-62): Winners of the AL West. The first team to clinch, the L.A. Angels (of Anaheim) finished with the majors’ best record.
• Chicago White Sox (89-74): Winners of the AL Central. 162 games weren’t enough to determine the division champion. Tied with Minnesota at the conclusion of the regular season, they defeated the Twins 1-0 in a one-game playoff to win the Central.
• Tampa Bay Rays (97-65): Winners of the AL East. Unquestionably the biggest surprise of the season, the (non-Devil) Rays will play in October for the first time in franchise history.
• Boston Red Sox (95-67): AL Wild Card. The defending champions will try to win their third World Series in five years.
• Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78): Winners of the NL West. With new acquisitions Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez, the Dodgers ended up on top of the mess known as the NL West.
• Chicago Cubs (97-64): Winners of the NL Central: Now in the 100th year of their “curse,” the Cubbies finished with the NL’s best record and are the favorites to win the pennant.
• Philadelphia Phillies (92-70): Winners of the NL East. A strong finish, along with another Mets meltdown, earns them a second straight division title.
• Milwaukee Brewers (90-72): NL Wild Card. Clinched their first playoff berth since 1982 on the last day of the season, behind the dominance of mid-season acquisition C.C. Sabathia.
Just as exciting, perhaps, was the anticipation of seeing which teams would fail to make the playoffs (or just fail in general). The New York Yankees are missing the playoffs for the first time in fifteen years, their usual spot atop the AL East taken over by Tampa Bay. (How anticlimactic that the final game played at Yankee Stadium — the “cathedral of baseball” — was a meaningless September matchup against the lowly Orioles …) The Seattle Mariners, who had high expectations and an even higher payroll, were expected to be contenders but instead finished worst in the AL — 39.0 games back — and became the first team in history to spend $100 million and still lose a hundred games. Similarly, the Detroit Tigers were expected to contend but finished last in the AL Central. And, of course, the New York Mets, with their absolutely atrocious bullpen, completed another historic collapse and were eliminated on the last day of the season (at home, against the Marlins, for the second straight year).
But that’s enough about the losers. Here are the matchups (and analyses) of the Divisional Series matchups (best-of-five):
• Red Sox vs. Angels: This series features arguably the two best teams in baseball right now. Both teams have formidable offenses and starting pitching, but Boston is coping with injuries to Josh Beckett, their ace, Mike Lowell, and J.D. Drew. During the regular season, the Angels won eight out of nine games against the Red Sox, including a three-game sweep in Boston. In addition, the Angels have demonstrated an ability to win on the road — where they are 50-31 — whereas the Red Sox are 39-42 away from Fenway. Prediction: Angels in 4.
• White Sox vs. Rays: The White Sox enter the playoffs having played 17 games in the past 17 days, but they have momentum from their late playoff push. Tampa Bay has Carl Crawford back in the lineup and Evan Longoria healthy again. The Rays have little playoff experience, but they have proved they can win under pressure and have home-field advantage, where they have the best record in the majors. Prediction: Rays in 5.
• Brewers vs. Phillies: There are two reasons Milwaukee is in the playoffs: the Mets’ collapse, and C.C. Sabathia. Since being traded to the Brewers on July 7, he has gone 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. In that same span, however, the Brewers have a losing record in games he did not start. In addition, Philadelphia swept Milwaukee in a 4-game series last month, outscoring them 26-10 in those games. The Brewers can’t pitch Sabathia every day, and will be overwhelmed by the Phillies’ offensive firepower. Prediction: Phillies in 4.
• Dodgers vs. Cubs: Manny Ramirez has been a one-man show for the Dodgers in the past two months, leading the majors in RBIs, batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. Chicago’s offense, on the other hand, did not rely on a single player but still led the NL in runs, on-base percentage, and slugging. The Cubs have not been successful in the playoffs in recent years, but they do have home-field advantage, where they are a NL best 55-26. Prediction: Cubs in 5.