Battle for the Playoffs & Peek at the Picks

Hello again everybody...

For those of you wondering, I don't have a new Rocky story. Sorry about that. But as near as I can tell, the little rascal hasn't made his way back into my humble abode. And in the mean time, I've got two new screens sans "Rocky entrance flaps". Thank heavens.

So on to today's column. There are 3 critical series being played in the world of baseball right now. All of which have direct impact on who'll be playing next week and who won't. I'll discuss each of them. Then it's the penultimate version of the Peek at the Picks segment! Let's get to it...

"Don't worry about the world coming to an end today. It's already tomorrow in Australia."
- Charles M. Schulz (1922 - 2000), American cartoonist

Leave it to Charlie Brown to offer a little perspective!

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Three big series continue tonight in Major League Baseball...

Minnesota Twins vs. Chicago White Sox: The Twins defeated the White Sox last night 9-3 to shrink Chicago's lead in the AL Central to 1.5 games. P Scott Baker went 7 solid innings for the Twins surrendering only 1 earned run. DH Jason Kubel was the offensive star, going 3 for 4 with 2 home runs and a triple.

Chicago's starting pitcher, Javier Vasquez was cooked before he ever threw a pitch. In that style that only he can pull off, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen referred to Vasquez as "not a big game pitcher".

Let's see. You're going into the biggest series of the season with your playoff hopes on the line. And you, as the manager, decide to call the guy who you started last week on short rest just so he could start this very game, "not a big game pitcher"? Really Ozzie? I mean I've heard of reverse psychology and all, but this is just ridiculous.

And even more ridiculous is the fact that when Vasquez was asked about the quote, he basically agreed that he didn't have a history of coming through in the clutch.

How in the name of all that's holy is a team this dysfunctional in first place? Good god.

Game 2 is tonight and it's just as much of a "must-win" situation for the Twins as last night's game was. Minnesota needs to sweep this series to have any real shot at the playoffs. A sweep would put the Twins in first place by a half-game. Winning 2 out of 3 would leave the Twins 1.5 games behind with 3 to go. That wouldn't eliminate them, but would require the White Sox to lose 2 out of 3 over the weekend for the Twins to have any shot.

So clearly the Twins are in "must win" mode. Nick Blackburn (10-10, 4.15) takes the hill for the Twins against Chicago's Mark Beuhrle (14-11, 3.87). There was a long stretch of time a few years ago where the Twins had no shot against Beuhrle. But this year he's only 1-2 against the Twins with a 5.79 ERA. So the Twins certainly have a shot.

To win they'll need Blackburn to step up his performance. He has an ERA over 10 in his last 3 starts. Another outing like that would be costly.

Thursday's outing might be the best match-up of the three games as Minnesota sends Kevin Slowey (12-11, 3.85) to the hill to counter Chicago's Gavin Floyd (16-8, 3.84).

Milwaukee Brewers vs. Pittsburgh Pirates: The bad karma of firing your manager with 12 games to go aside, the Brewers are still in the race for the NL Wildcard.

The Crew beat the Pirates last night 7-5 to stay within a game of the Mets, who hold the Wildcard lead.

Tonight, Milwaukee comes back with CC Sabathia (9-2, 1.81) on short rest against the Pirates Paul Maholm (9-8, 3.68). Sabathia is clearly Milwaukee's best shot down the stretch, since Ben Sheets is out with an injury. But in his last 3 starts Sabathia is 0-2 with a 3.66 ERA.

And then there's the short rest bit. For better or for worse, modern starting pitchers are used to four days of rest between their starts. And being creatures of habit, it can seriously screw with their performance if you start them with less than those four days of rest. But big time pitchers perform in big time games regardless of the rest. And I expect one of those style performances from CC tonight.

Milwuakee hasn't announced a starter for Thursday's series ender as they're still hoping Ben Sheets could be available.

It's not as critical for the Brewers to sweep the Pirates. But Pittsburgh's a bottom-feeder. And if you're going to be a playoff team, you're supposed to clean up on the bottom-feeders. With only 5 games left, maybe a sweep is critical!

New York Mets vs. Chicago Cubs: The Cubs have their playoff spot sewn up. The question remains, will the Mets be joining them? In fact, if the Mets do win the Wildcard, they'd open up in Chicago, so we could be seeing a Division Series preview!

The Mets won the opener over the Cubs last night 6-2. Johan Santana stepped up and showed why the Mets gave him the richest contract for a pitcher in baseball history by throwing 8 innings, surrendering 2 earned runs and striking out 10 batters. That's an ace. That's a stopper. That's Johan in the clutch.

The Cubs counter tonight by sending their ace, Carlos Zambrano (14-6, 3.77) to the mound against Odalis Perez (10-7, 4.10). It's hard to know what to expect in this game. Zambrano followed up his no-hitter against the Astros by getting shelled by the Cardinals and lasting only 1 2/3 innings. I'd imagine it's hard to get psyched up for games now that Chicago has clinched their division and has all but sewn-up homefield advantage through out the NL playoffs.

Thursday's game pits the Cubs' Rich Harden (5-1, 1.66) versus New York's Pedro Martinez (5-6, 5.50).

Chicago manager Lou Pinella says he's not going to wholesale rest his players because he feels it'd be unfair to the teams still battling for playoff spots. But it's still got to be tough for his guys to be giving 100% when they're not playing for anything. Meanwhile, these games are critical for the Mets who still have a shot at the NL East.

Finally today, it's the penultimate Peek at the Picks segment, where I compare my preseason picks to the current MLB standings, and you all make fun of how poorly I did! Don't ever say I don't entertain you!

NL East: Philadelphia Phillies, 89-69 (Dan's Pick: NY Mets, 1.5 Games Back)
I still haven't given up the ghost on this one. If the Mets win the division, that just about ensures that Milwaukee won't make the playoffs, so my Wisconsin friends aren't going to like me pulling for the Mets. But as poorly as I'm doing in the picks, I've got to cling to what I can!
Philadelphia's Magic Number: 4

NL Central: Chicago Cubs, 95-61 (DP: Cubs)
The Cubbies clinched over the weekend, so this is the first - and possibly only - pick I've officially gotten right. Milwaukee's still hanging around the Wildcard race. The rest of the Central teams are dusting off the golf clubs.

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers, 82-75 (DP: Arizona Diamondbacks, 3 GB)
This one's very near to over. The D'backs aren't eliminated yet, but their loss last night with the LA win was a killer. If they could've kept that deficit at 2 games, they'd still be right in it, but being 3 games behind with 5 to go is almost impossible to overcome. Never say die Arizona! Right? Oof.
L.A.'s Magic Number: 3

NL Wildcard: New York Mets, 87-70 (DP: LA Dodgers, 5 GB)
Crew fans you're still in this. But that Magic Number is starting to dwindle. The killer part of the Magic Number when you're behind is that even if you win, it can shrink. It goes down a game every time the Mets win. And if you combine a Mets win with a Milwaukee loss, that would about end it. I always get nervous depending on a starter who's going on short rest, but this is CC Sabathia, and this is why you traded for him.
Mets Magic Number: 5

AL East: Tampa Bay Rays, 95-62 (DP: Boston, whom I hate, 3 GB)
This one's just about over and I've never been happier to be wrong. No one and I mean no one saw this coming out of Tampa. It's by far the best story in baseball this year and some hardware will be coming Tampa's way because of it (manager of the year trophy, division pennant, etc.). Boston (whom I hate) won last night to seal up their entry into the playoffs. Normally this would annoy me to a great degree, but by eliminating the Yankees, I won $10 from a guy in the news room. So I'm not quite as peeved. I do however still hate the Red Sox.
Tampa's Magic Number: 3

AL Central: Chicago White Sox, 86-70 (DP: Detroit, 15 GB)
The only real race left is between the White Sox and the Twins. I discussed it ad nauseum earlier, so I won't belabor the point. The Tigers meanwhile are tied for last place in the division. Unreal. Tampa's a bigger surprise, but there's no way anyone saw this train wreck coming either.
Chicago's Magic Number: 5

AL West: Los Angeles Angels, 97-60 (DP: Seattle, 39 GB)
This one's been sewn up forever. All the Angels are trying to do now is make sure everyone's healthy and prepare for either the Red Sox (whom I hate) or the Rays. Unfortunately for those of you who entered the "How far back will Seattle finish" contest, they've outdone all the guesses at this point. One of you still has a mathematical shot, but it's not looking good!

AL Wildcard: Boston Red Sox (whom I hate), 92-65 (DP: Cleveland, 13 GB)
Boston (whom I hate) is in the playoffs, the only question is whether it's as the Wildcard or the AL East division champ. Odds are it'll be as the Wildcard. But it's not a mortal lock just yet.

So I've got 1 pick right. And I'm alive in 3 others, though one of them is on serious life-support. But the odds are this is going to be a "less than .500" season for the Picks. Oh well, I'm still kicking tail at college football right?!

That's all for today. I'm back tomorrow with the Week 5 College Football picks. Until then, thanks for reading!

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