Ladies and Gentlemen, let me first tell you how much I respect the Gods of Baseball. I truly, truly do. They are fearsome, vengeful, old testament sorts who will reach down and quite mightily smite any foolish enough to spit in their faces. Disrespect them, friends, and your sorrow shall multiply. Rather, you must always fear the Gods of Baseball; revere them by showing proper deference to thine enemies even when presented with a seemingly insurmountable lead. Revere them by never speaking of perfect games or no-hitters or World Series matchups before the playoffs begin. Fear always the Gods of Baseball, gentle readers, and you just may find the path to October.
That's me, flying right into the heart of this playoff preview. Like the loincloth?
With all that being said, the division race in the NL Central is over. That's right, it's over. Has been for awhile now, in fact. Sure, there's quite a bit of baseball left, but the Cardinals are going to the playoffs. GOBs be damned.
Thus, in order to play Icarus to the very hilt this fine holiday morning, I would like to lead you through the possible matchups the Cardinals may see when it comes playoff time. Even I'm not quite foolish enough to suggest yet the Birds are Series bound, so I'll keep it strictly to the National League. So join me, won't you, as I take a look at just what sort of threat each of the likely opponents might pose to our boys in red. I'm only going to review the four most likely, as anyone further back is going to have a very difficult climb to make the postseason. We'll begin with the least threatening, and move onward to those black thunderheads in the sky, out in the East, shall we?
Division: NL West, possible division winner or wild card
Currently leading Wild Card, 3.5 games back of division lead
Threat Level: Kitten
Oh, look! It's a cute little kitten! Isn't it cute? Oh, it's rolling around, wants you to rub its belly. That's so cute!
You should probably be a little careful if you do reach down to pet said kitten, though, as it just might be in a playful mood and grab hold of your hand. And let me tell you something, kitten claws are wicked sharp, and the scratches itch like crazy. They bite, too. Of course, if it pisses you off, you could always just pick the kitten up and hold it so it can't scratch you. After all, it's still a kitten, and you're way bigger than it is.
Vegas is currently giving 5-1 odds on this kitten making the playoffs.
That's the Colorado Rockies. They're cute, making another one of those charming, against-all-odds, sports movie runs to the playoffs this year. Kind of like Major League 2, come to think of it. Sure, they were good before, but somehow we're all still surprised they're good again, and it's kind of a novelty. The claws, though? Well, they are pretty sharp, with an offense that's gone absolutely berserk for a pretty good portion of this season. Reach down to pet them, and there's a very good chance you're going to get scratched.
Still, the Rockies' rotation features Jason Marquis in a very prominent role, and no matter how good the offense, I just can't work up much fear of such a team. After all, this is the same man who earned the nickname Bipolar Betty 'round these parts, a man who I honestly believe thinks a hanger is an actual pitch that will surprise the batter into making an out.
Ubaldo Jimenez is wicked good, but beyond that, there just isn't enough pitching here to make them a really frightening team. If Huston Street can come back, the bullpen is quite nice. If not, it has a couple good arms, but is maybe a little thin on depth. I'll take either Carpenter or Wainwright against Jimenez, and then let the chips fall where they may with the rest of the pitching.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Division: NL West, likely division winner
Currently leading NL West over Rockies (3.5 gb) and Giants (5.5 gb)
Threat Level: Puppy with a Gun
Well, yeah, sure, it's a puppy. But it has a gun. So honestly, how do you feel about that puppy now? Obviously, it doesn't really know how to use that gun, nor does it have the proper opposable digits to operate it, but still. It has a gun. What if that puppy decides to frolic around a bit, drops the gun, and it goes off? Boom! Suddenly, you're the guy shot to death by a puppy. And you don't really want to be that guy, do you?
The question you have to ask yourself is if you feel lucky. Well, do you, punk?
Early in the year, the Dodgers looked like the runaway pick to win the NL West, bash in the brains of whatever pathetic pretenders the National League threw at them, and then confront the mighty Yankees in a 1950s throwback series which would likely break the hearts of the few remaining fans of Dem Bums. Unfortunately for lazy sportswriters such as myself, the Dodgers got lost somewhere along the way to Storyville and now find themselves in a dogfight to maintain their division lead. Personally, I think they'll win the division, and by a decent margin, but they certainly no longer look much like the juggernaut which cut such a swath of destruction through April.
Fact is, the Dodgers looked entirely beatable right now, with their offense going all Emperor's New Clothes on us and the fact the Cardinals beat them like a dusty rug this year. But therein lies the danger. Sure, they look like a mediocre team, built to win a division but just lacking the firepower to make a real run in October, but if you sleep on the Dodgers, they might just do some real damage. They have two of the most dangerous young pitchers in baseball at the top of their rotation in Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw, and a guy with a pretty decent resume in the postseason. Goes by the name of Manny something or other. You might have heard of him. He hasn't been good since returning from his maternity leave, but if he's coming up with the bases loaded, LA down two, bottom of the ninth in game five of the LDS, I'm turning the television off.
Am I afraid of the Dodgers? Nah, not really. The Cards seem to have had LA's number in recent years, and the Dodgers are looking like a team experiencing a real crisis of confidence right now. Then again, I'll bet not many people expect to be killed by a puppy, either.
San Francisco Giants
Division: NL West, likely Wild Card
Currently trailing LA by 5.5 games in division, trailing Colorado by 2 for WC
Threat Level: Best friend's Hot Younger Sister
Oh, sure. You think everything's cool. You show up at your best friend's house, hang out with him for awhile, and then, when he's out of the room, you make out with his younger sister. Seems like an ideal arrangement. She's hot, she likes you, you don't have to drive two different places to hang out with your friend and the girl you're trying to get in bed, everything seems just awesome. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, yeah, that's right, she has a trump card. Sure, things seem like they're all good right now, but if you fuck up, she will totally tell her brother. And he will kick your ass until you look like that one dude at the end of Akira. Remember that guy? Yeah, that one.
No, that's not really what I was thinking when I said hot sister either. But you know what? Fuck it.
The San Francisco Giants really have very little business being in this race. Not to be disrespectful or anything, but they aren't a good enough team to be here. This is a team still firmly entrenched in rebuilding mode, and the overall talent level, while improving, just isn't as high as most of the other playoff-contending teams.
So how is it the Giants find themselves smack dab in the middle of the wild card race, battling it out with the Rockies and the Marlins and the Braves and (until fairly recently), the Cubbies for the elusive playoff berth?
The Giants, you see, have a trump card. Two of them, actually. And they will absolutely fuck you up if you aren't very, very careful.
Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are the Giants' twin trump cards, sitting atop the San Francisco rotation like Zuul and Vinz Clortho, just waiting to ruin your day. Lincecum is probably going to win his second consecutive Cy Young award this year, and Cain would be a superstar in pretty much any rotation but this one. Add in the resurgent Barry Zito and the no-hit kid, Jonathan Sanchez, and you have an utterly terrifying rotation.
And that's really the story of the Giants. Their bullpen is pretty good, with Brian Wilson an emerging elite closer (though it's very disappointing to me he doesn't come out from the bullpen in a bathrobe to the strains of "God Only Knows"), and it seems like everyone on this team throws really hard. The offense, well, it kind of sucks, though everybody seems to love Pablo Sandoval and Fred Lewis hits about .700 against the Cardinals.
Bottom line, I'm not real excited about the prospect of the Cardinals facing the Giants. If you were to stack the two teams up against one another, the overall talent level isn't really all that close. Top to bottom, the Cards are a much better team; the Giants are, as I said earlier, a team still in the process of rebuilding. But oh, those trump cards. If you can avoid that shit ever being an issue, it's probably best you do.
Division: NL East, likely division winner
Currently leading Florida by 6.5 games, Atlanta by 8.5
Just picture it. You're running through the forested hills of Branson, running for your life from the zombie hordes that have taken over America's favorite hillbilly party. Andy Williams, flesh sloughing off his bones, lunges out at you from behind a tree, but you're too fast for him. You zig, then zag to the side and watch as he tumbles out of sight down the hillside. Minnie Pearl is gaining on you from behind, but you grab the tag on her hat and toss her into a ravine without ever breaking stride. Somewhere off in the distance, you can hear Dolly Parton and the cast of her Dixie Stampede clamoring for the blood of the living, but you're too far ahead. They'll never catch you.
You duck into an old abandoned cabin on a hillside, confident your undead pursuers are far behind, and sit down to take stock of your predicament. The Ozarks are now home to the living dead, and you have to find some way to get back to civilization. You reject an automobile; that would draw the attention of the zombies. Maybe one of those amphibious boat things? You rack your brain, trying to recall just how zombies feel about water. There was that one movie you saw on the USA network years ago about zombies water-skiing, but that might have been a comedy. Yes, a boat just might be the best way to-
And that's when you hear it.
A soft rustling outside your cabin, a shuffling of feet. A scratching sound on the boards of the porch, and then comes another sound, freezing your blood in your very veins. A low, moaning growl, accent intact, moving ever closer to the door of your sanctuary.
"In Soviet Russia, brain eats yooooouuuuuuu..."
I'm going to be completely honest with you, folks: I am deathly afraid of the Cardinals meeting the Philadelphia Phillies in the playoffs. The Phillie offense is scary. The Phillie rotation is scary. The defense, you ask? Why, it's scary as well! (Though not as scary, truth be told.) In fact, the only thing about the Phillies I'm not afraid of is the Phillie closer. Brad Lidge may be our sole salvation if this series comes to pass.
The thing is, I'm not really convinced the Phillies are actually any better than the Cardinals. I think their lineup is a little better, though it's very close, and the Cardinal rotation is probably better at the top, with Carp and Wainwright being superior to Cliff Lee and any of the other options the Phils have. So why am I so afraid of the Phillies?
Honestly, I don't know. But I am. I know the Cards should have the lineup to bash any lefty any team can throw at them, with Holliday and Pujols and Ludwick and DeRosa ready to pounce on sinister pitchers, but I don't feel at all comfortable with the prospect of trying to hit Cliff Lee. Or J.A. Happ. Or Cole Hamels, for that matter, even though he's pretty much sucked this year. I saw what the Cards looked like against Joe-Fucking-Blanton earlier this year, and it wasn't pretty. Joe Blanton throws crappy, batting-practice fastballs, and somehow you just can't hit them. I think he may be magic.
So no, I don't want any part of the Phillies come October. Give me Colorado, or Los Angeles, or San Fran, or any other team you want to throw out there, but just keep Philadelphia away from me and my team. Just like the Cardinals seem to have the Dodgers' number the last few years, it feels like the Phillies have our number. Maybe it has something to do with Ryan Howard being angry the Cardinals didn't draft him, I don't know. What I do know is he kills the Cards, and the rest of his team seems to do the same.
So that's my rundown of the threats the Cardinals face on their road to the World Series. I would love to see the Rockies or Dodgers, the Giants make me mighty nervous, and I fear the Phillies are going to eat my brain while espousing the virtues of capitalism.
Now watch Florida catch fire and make me look like an ass.