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The Baseball Notebook

November 3, 2011 3:56 PM

National League Season Recap

NationalLeague.jpgThe Notebook's two-day wrap-up of the baseball season concludes today with a brief look at each National League team and their season gone by...

NL EAST

Philadelphia: The 102-win season seems hollow after the playoff disappointment against St. Louis in the Division Series. That's harsh, and normally I would protest the need to look at the team's entire body of work. But the Phils went very heavy to win now and over the last couple years they've invested top prospects for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hunter Pence, along with breaking the bank for Lee to get him back in free agency. The window for a championship is still open, but this year is a bitter pill to swallow.

Atlanta: Another team that's dealing with disappointment, having come up with a collapse, that for a few minutes on the last day of the season was the biggest in baseball history, when they let St. Louis pass them for the National League wild-card (the Red Sox stole the honor from them almost immediately). The Braves' future is bright though, with young pitching on the way up, and talent like Fredi Freeman taking their spots in the everyday lineup. If you get a bounceback year from Jason Heyward, all can be well in Atlanta again.

Washington:
There's a lot of justified optimism in the nation's capital right now. The fact the Nats couldn't produce the first winning season since coming to D.C. in 2004 was a disappointment, but with a full season of Davey Johnson and Stephen Strasburg ahead of them, that's an omission that should be rectified. Maybe more, if Jayson Werth relaxes a little more in the second year of his monster free-agent deal.

NY Mets: They put up more fight than a lot us thought they had in them, and they got a nice return for Carlos Beltran. Overall, I thought the Mets showed a lot of heart in the way they played for Terry Collins, and if they can upgrade their pitching and get Jason Bay's bat to come out of retirement (note sarcasm), they have a chance to move up the ladder quickly, given the resources this organization has behind them and the acumen of GM Sandy Alderson.

Florida:
A very disappointing year for the Marlins, who looked playoff-caliber in April and May, but then bottomed out after Josh Johnson hit the DL with shoulder problems for the second straight year. With Johnson's problems in staying healthy and Hanley Ramirez's problems staying focused, Ozzie Guillen's got his hands full as he takes his talents to South Beach.

NL CENTRAL

St. Louis: A lot of teams in baseball are looking to add a #1-caliber starter. How you like to be coming off a World Series title and have your own #1 starter, Adam Wainwright, coming back from an injury that kept him out all year. That's the equivalent of a big free-agent signing for the Cards. Now if they can ink Albert Pujols to a deal, whomever the new manager is will be well-poised to keep this proud franchise in contention.

Milwaukee: Brewer GM Doug Melvin went all-in on 2011 to make the playoffs and he got it. Milwaukee does have some re-tooling to do, presuming the loss of Prince Fielder in free agency and the rapid decline of Shawn Marcum in the second half, but with 96 wins and an epic Division Series triumph over Arizona, it was a year to remember for my the town I lived in until I was 29.

Cincinnati: They're on the short list for most disappointing team in baseball, as the Reds always seemed on the verge of turning the corner until the bottom finally fell out in August. It's natural to look at the pitching, but Dusty Baker also has to be concerned that the lineup is a little too dependent on Joey Votto and has too many dead spots in it. The September call-up on Yonder Alonso could provide this team a nice spark next spring.

Pittsburgh: It might have been tough for Pirate fans to watch the team fade so badly in August and September, but the four months of contending baseball that Clint Hurdle's team produced, even with serious holes throughout the lineup, give reason to hope that maybe this struggling franchise is finally turning the corner. The emergence of Joel Hanrahan as an elite closer was one of baseball's top transformations.

ChiCubs: The perils of being a big-budget team that doesn't know what they're doing are evident on the North Side, as the Cubs are buried under big contracts from underachieving players, namely Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano. One top-dollar player who did perform was third baseman Aramis Ramirez, but he's opted out of his deal and will hit the open market with a publicly stated intention to go elsewhere. Even this is no disaster for the Cubbies, as Theo Epstein needs wiggle room in the budget to start the rebuilding process.

Houston: Can't there be a limit on the number of teams within a divison who are facing huge rebuilding projects? The Astros are a long way from the halycon days of the 2005 pennant winning team and need a fresh infusion of talent. They also need to develop more stars, if nothing else, so Philadelphia has someone to trade for at the July 31 deadline next year.

NL WEST

Arizona: The Diamondbacks look poised to be the team to beat in this division for a few more years, as they brought along young pitchers like Josh Collmenter, young hitters like Ryan Roberts and have a true star talent in Justin Upton. They've also got a true star in the dugout with Kirk Gibson. Arizona was only a run away from the NLCS this time around and World Series hopes in the desert are legitimate again for the first time since Schilling and the Big Unit were manning the mound in the early part of the 21st century.

San Francisco: After adding Carlos Beltran at the deadline, the prospect of a second straight World Series title was dancing in the city of San Francisco's head. No one was cavalier about taking on Philadelphia in the NL playoffs, but surely no one expected that a terrible two months and missing the playoffs entirely were in the cards. A long offseason ahead for GM Brian Sabean as they try and figure out how to get some runs.

LA Dodgers: Tremendous late-season push to a winning season and a great year from Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, who could pick up MVP and Cy Young Awards in a couple weeks. Ultimately this year is a vindication for Don Mattingly as he kept his team focused amidst all the turmoil surrounding the ownership situation and the problems of aging and injuries on the field. The ownership situation is settling down and this team should be able to start investing some of its huge financial potential into the baseball team rather than the legal system.

Colorado: An ugly year for the Rockies that went downhill after Jorge de la Rosa was lost for the year with a rotator cuff injury. Though they didn't play well beyond that, I liked the way the front office handled things, dealing Ubaldo Jiminez while his value was high and getting a nice chunk of the Cleveland farm system in return. The Rockies are the NL's equivalent of the Twins--no denying the darkness that was this season, but don't overreact when it comes to evaluating their 2012 chances.

San Diego: After the Padres shipped out Adrian Gonzalez to clear their payroll, you knew 2011 was going to be a lost season. The pitching declined from its strong showing of the previous year, particularly Mat Latos who might have been given to big a workload. The next big question is whether they'll hold on to Heath Bell in the free-agent sweepstakes, but even if they do, until ownership gets the ability or inclination to spend some money, the Padres will be in a perpetual state of rebuilding and targeted one-year shots.
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November 1, 2011 10:42 PM

American League Final Recap

ALRecap.jpgIt's time to officially wrap up the 2011 baseball season at the Notebook, and we'll do it in two parts, one focused on each league. Today we'll start it off with the American League...

AL EAST

NY Yanks: This organization finally paid the price for its failure to develop quality in-house pitching, as losing out in Cliff Lee in last year's free agency and having Andy Pettite retire left them short-staffed. But the Yanks still won a second AL East title in four years because Joe Girardi did a fine job working with the arms he had, and at least one in-house prosect, Ian Nova, was able to come up big.

Tampa Bay: What an extraordinary vindication for the organization in making the playoffs after losing Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena off the previous year's division winner. That's three playoff appearances in four years and the arrival of young talent like Desmond Jennings in the everyday lineup and Jeremy Hellickson in the rotation suggests the Rays aren't going anywhere quietly.

Boston: I've seen it pointed out that if you just throw out the Red Sox 2-10 start and their awful September, they were 81-42, which is the best record in baseball. Yes, and if you just throw out the last 17 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a powerhouse in the game. The bottom line is the Red Sox spent heavy in free agency to win 90 games overall--hardly a bad record, but a decided display of underachievment. And when you're passed in the standings by the very team you looted in free agency the humilation is even more abject.

Toronto: The Blue Jays fought competitively again in the AL East, and a summer trade for talented centerfielder Colby Rasmus could yield some big dividends, along with the addition of young third baseman Brett Lawrie. Toronto started to get some help in place for Jose Bautista in the regular lineup. Now they need to add depth to the rotation and the bullpen, and they can be a viable contender in the AL East--a status they would already hold if they competed in the AL Central.

Baltimore: It was a season that started with great hope and ended on an up note, as the Orioles played September spoiler in winning key late-season series against the Angels, Yankees, Rays and most notably, twice against the Red Sox. But prior to that, 2011 was one long disappointment as pitchers shuttled back and forth from the minors, Brian Roberts spent the year on the disabled list and Nick Markakis was missing his power stroke for the second straight year. With team president Andy MacPhail having stepped down, one wonders if this team can ever compete as long as Peter Angelos is in charge.

AL CENTRAL

Detroit: What a great year for Tiger fans to store in their memories. It may not have produced the franchise's first World Series title since 1984, but Justin Verlander delivered one of the most dominating pitching performances of recent seasons, the team made a solid addition at the trade deadline in Doug Fister and the offense top-to-bottom was as dynamic as any in baseball. Then you throw in Jose Valverde's celebratory antics after every closed save--something he did to perfection--plus a hold-your-breath win in the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series at Yankee Stadium, and you have plenty for a year to remember.

Cleveland: After the strong start where Cleveland jumped out to a seven-game lead and the excitement over picking up Ubaldo Jiminez in July, the late season fade seems disappointing. But in the bigger picture, no one thought this was the Tribe's year and they made tremendous progress, gaining some playoff race experience in the process. The front office clearly feels the same way and they've already struck first in the offseason sweepstakes, acquiring Derek Lowe from Atlanta and signaling their intention to come strong after Detroit in 2012.

Chicago White Sox: The curtain comes down on the Ozzie Guillen era. As Michael Corleone told the Commission in Godfather III, "we have prospered, and now it is time to dissolve the business relationship." The White Sox and Guillen both prospered together, winning a World Series in 2005, along with a division title in 2008 to go with other contending seasons, including this one. But the inability to play consistently and the constant drama surrounding Guillen's relationship with GM Kenny Williams made it clear that it was time to end this business relationship together. Guillen's now managing the Florida Marlins. The White Sox have turned to former star third baseman Robin Ventura. A footnote to this is the Godfather III scene referenced ends with a massive helicopter attack leaving most of the Commission dead. I suspect both Ozzie and the Sox might fill that role in this analogy.

Kansas City: The progress isn't showing up in the win-loss record yet, but it's real. The Royals have the makings of an honest-to-goodness major-league caliber everyday lineup, and Alex Gordon finally fulfilled his immense potential. The team also brought up Mike Moutsakas at third and first baseman Eric Hosmer. Now they need starting pitching to start translating all this into wins--and a good batch of arms isn't far behind on the minor league trail.

Minnesota: If it's possible to take a season, throw it into the dishwasher and just rinse everything out and wait till next year, this is it. The Twins had a train wreck of a year from the start, and while they do have some serious issues to address--the long-term health of Justin Morneau, and to a lesser extent, Joe Mauer, they do have a sound organization in place and should be able to get back playing winning baseball in 2012 if they don't overreact to the nightmarish 2011.

AL WEST

Texas: I know the last thing Texas fans want to hear is that they had a great season anyway. I know they don't want to hear it, but that doesn't make it any less true. Nolan Ryan, John Daniels and Ron Washington have built an organization that's beaten financial heavyweights Los Angeles in the division and Boston and New York in the American League at-large to win two straight pennants. And they did it this time without Cliff Lee. This is a team that should be remembered for what it achieved, not for what it just missed.

LA Angels: In spite of losing Kendry Morales for almost the entire season again, the Angels did an admirable job in hanging in this race until September. They established Jered Weaver and Dan Haren as the best 1-2 punch in the American League, and moved Jordan Walden into the closer's role. Mike Scoscia's got the foundation for a team that can continue to contend, but this big-budget team has to act like it now and make some moves to get another bat for the lineup.

Oakland: A team that had big expectations for 2011 and was a popular pick by some (like the Notebook) to win the AL West. As it turned out the highlight of the year was the release of Moneyball in the theatres this past September. Oakland's still got starting pitching depth to burn, as they show in churning out starters in spite of injuries, but this lineup is absolutely desperate for a lot of help.

Seattle: The Mariners made some nice progress as the year unfolded, with young players like Dustin Ackley stepping into greater roles, Michael Pineda providing a quality young arm and making the decision not to trade Felix Hernandez. If that latter decision holds through the winter, the M's can at least make a run at 85 wins or so next year.

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October 28, 2011 7:37 AM

A Game 6 For The Ages

Game6.jpgIf St. Louis takes Game 7 tonight, books will be written and movies made about last night's Game 6--and actually as the 1975 Series proved, those books and movies might still be written even if Texas wins the Series anyway. What this boils down is that trying to sum this game up in a blog post is impossible. But here's a few thoughts...

*This game was extraordinary theatre, but lousy fundamental baseball. There were five errors combined, along with an infield hit by Daniel Delcasco of St. Louis in the 8th, where it looked like Elvis Andrus was a little too casual. Most importantly, I thought David Freese's game-tying hit in the 9th should have been caught by Nelson Cruz for the final out. I know it's easy for a non-athletic guy sitting in his living room to critique the difficulty of a guy running straight back on a line drive, but that just seemed to me like a makeable play.

*I sympathize with Ron Washington's dilemma in the 10th when he played the outfield back even though a single by Lance Berkman could tie the game--which it did. A double by Berkman would have ended it right there and Berkman's hot. I sympathize, but I would have done it differently. It boils down to playing for a tie and on the road you have to play to win--as the concluding events of the 11th made clear.

*Related to the point above, credit to Tony LaRussa for the subtle lineup switch of moving Berkman, rather than Holliday behind Albert Pujols. Holliday had been hitless in his six chances after a Pujols intentional walk, and Berkman's game-tying hit was in the same circumstance. And it forced the outfield back to prevent Pujols from scoring the winning run on a double, yet another reason I don't like the intentional pass, even to Albert Pujols.

I won't be the only one to say it, but it is fitting that this best World Series in at least ten years go to a seventh game. St. Louis has fought back all year. Texas has fought from under the perpetual New York-Boston radar in the American League and fought back several times last night when they could have folded their tents quicker. One game to win it all. I feel, however, that this finale will be anticlimactic, unless you're a St. Louis fan. Chris Carpenter's on the mound, and if momentum is the next day's starting pitcher Texas' Matt Harrison got lit up in Game 3. I expect a Cardinal rout to wrap it all up

October 25, 2011 7:48 AM

St. Louis Runs Itself Out Of Game 5

Tcx4Stl2.jpgIf St. Louis can't rally and win the last two games of this World Series on Wednesday and Thursday, it's going to be a long winter looking back on their 4-2 loss to Texas in Game 5. The missed opportunities alone will be enough for sleepless nights, as the Cards couldn't get the big two-out hit with the bases loaded in both the fifth and the seventh, nor could they come up with an extra run(s) in the sixth when they had second and third with two outs. Then you come to the mind-boggling tactical questions.

Why was Allen Craig stealing second with Albert Pujols at the plate in the seventh and nobody out in a tie game? Fox announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver seemed to think that it was a play put on by Pujols, but whosever idea it was should have his head examined. Not only is Pujols at the plate, but Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and David Freese are right behind him. This is not a time to get cute. Then, showing that the Cards are like what has been said about the Irish people--"they remember everything and learn nothing," St. Louis bungled again in the ninth. After Craig was hit by Neftali Feliz as the leadoff man in a 4-2 game, the Cards did the same thing. This time Pujols struck out on a pitch well outside the strike zone on a full count and Craig was gunned down, ending the Cardinal rally as quickly as it started.

Feliz was erratic for Texas, as the fact he hit a batter and brought up Pujols as the tying run indicates. He also walked Matt Holliday and gave Lance Berkman a chance to tie the game. The Ranger closer is getting the job done, but it's still reason for Ranger fans to be nervous as the series heads back to St. Louis.

Cardinal fans can take heart in this--going back home down 3-2 is not a bad thing. The World Series of 2001, 1991, 1987, 1986, 1985 and 1982 all were won by home teams taking the final two games. In that same timeframe, only the 1993 Blue Jays and the 2003 Florida Marlins were able to clinch on the road in a Game 6 or 7. Homefield advantage means something at this point in the series.

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October 24, 2011 7:45 AM

Holland's Heroics Even Series

Tex4Stl0.jpgIt was a long-drawn out moment in the sixth inning when Mike Napoli came to the plate to face Edwin Jackson with two on and Texas holding a 1-0 lead. A visit to the mound from Yadier Molina bought time for Mitchell Boggs to get warm in the pen. With the reliever still not ready, Napoli stepped in. Jackson stepped off the mound after feigning a pickoff throw. Finally the charade ended and Tony LaRussa came out to get the ball. Boggs came in and after all that, it took precisely one pitch for Napoli to send one rocketing somewhere toward the Oklahoma border and gave the Rangers a 4-0 lead they would not relinquish in tying up the game.

Derek Holland is rightfully the hero this morning, working 8.1 IP of shutout baseball. Neftali Feliz seemed determined to make things interesting, walking one man and then going 3-0 on Matt Holliday with the tying run on deck. Finally Feliz battled back and struck out Holliday to tie the game.

Game 5 goes tonight with the final game of the year in Arlington, a rematch of the opener, as C.J. Wilson faces Chris Carpenter. Both teams will feel the heat, as Texas doesn't want to go back to St. Louis needing a sweep, but St. Louis will feel the urgency of needing to win the one game their best pitcher throws.

Personally, I feel the pressure is far more on Texas--no team since the '79 Pirates has won the final two Series games on the road, and even looking at the bigger picture of the Series, you would have to think that Wilson could split his two starts with Carpenter if Texas was going to win. The Rangers need tonight's game more and I think they'll get it.

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October 23, 2011 6:14 AM

St. Louis Offense Explodes In Game 3

Stl16Tex7.jpegToday marks the second straight week the city of St. Louis plays two sports in the same city. Last week the Rams followed the Cardinals into the Milwaukee/Green Bay market. This week, as the World Series continues tonight with Game 4 in Texas, the Rams will be in Dallas. And from what we saw in Game 3, it's going to be a challenge for the football team to match the baseball team in offensive output. The Cardinals set the bar high with a 16-run outburst last night against the Rangers to grab a 2-1 series lead.

Albert Pujols hit three home runs as part of a five-hit night. Every home run came in the sixth inning or later, the decisive point in the game. The offenses were trading blows early and St. Louis' lead was 8-6 after five. This was a spot where the deeper Texas bullpen had an opportunity to step and win their team a game, but it was St. Louis' pen that stabilized and held Texas to one run in the final four innings, while their own offense tacked on eight more.

The struggles of Josh Hamilton continue, as he went 1-for-5 with a lone single. By no means is any offensive player at fault for a loss when you score seven runs, but the fact Hamilton indicated he may have a sports hernia would explain his loss of power in October.

Texas realistically needs to win tonight and tomorrow. Not since 1979 has a team trailed 3-2 in the Series and won two straight on the road to wrap it up. As for St. Louis, Pujols' heroics means he at least gets one more game in front of the home crowd--or goes home Monday night to a cheering crowd with a World Series ring.

Game 4 is tonight with Derek Holland and Edwin Jackson on the mound. With Ram quarterback Sam Bradford out for the afternoon game in Dallas, the people of St. Louis are surely giving thanks for baseball right now. And with Indianapolis-New Orleans as the Sunday Night NFL game, the rest of America should be as well.

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October 21, 2011 7:59 AM

Texas Stuns St. Louis In 9th

Tex2Stl1.jpgJust when Allen Craig was all set to be the story of the Series, Texas rallies in the ninth to win 2-1 and tie up this World Series at a game apiece. Craig had given the Cardinals the lead in the seventh by coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter and for the second straight night beating Alexi Ogando with an RBI single to right. In both instances Ogando had been brought in to get this particular hitter, and in both instances it was the right decision by Ron Washington. Ogando is a better pitcher than Craig is a hitter and it defied the odds that he would get beat two straight nights. Credit to Washington for not overmanaging the spot and keeping confidence in his pitcher.

Confidence in a pitcher is something Tony LaRussa is going to have to figure out. He decided to pull closer Jason Motte in ninth with nobody out and runners on second and third. If Motte were an ordinary guy out of the pen, there would be no issue with this. But he seemed to be the pitcher LaRussa had settled on as his main man in the ninth. A true closer is given the chance to get out of the jam, or at least keep the score tied. Can you imagine Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Valverde, John Axford or Neftali Feliz being yanked in a similar spot. (Of course you can't imagine Mariano Rivera getting pulled, but he's in a different world altogether)? One wonders if that affects Motte's confidence the rest of the way in the Series.

The Series resumes Saturday with three straight games in Texas going through Monday.

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October 20, 2011 7:21 AM

St. Louis Holds Serve

Stl3Tex2.jpgThis was the game St. Louis had to win, with the series opening in Busch Stadium and Chris Carpenter getting the ball and they got it done with a 3-2 win that shifts the pressure to Texas for tonight's Game 2.

Sometimes winning is about your stars stepping up and meeting the moment. Other times it's about the unlikely role player who makes the most of his own time on the biggest stage. And other times it's both. Last night the Cardinals got their first two runs through the conventional way of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman producing a quick pair, after Pujols was hit by a pitch, Holliday doubled and Berkman singled both home. The decisive blow came in the sixth when Allen Craig stepped in to face Alexi Ogando with two on and two out. Craig produced a sinking line drive that Nelson Cruz couldn't get to and gave the Cards the 3-2 lead they would never relinquish.

A common theme for St. Louis' hitters was going the other way. Holliday, Berkman and Craig's hits, the ones that defined this game, were all hit down the rightfield line, so some solid disciplined hitting helped give this team the early lead. On the flip side, Texas did contain the leadoff men of Rafael Furcal and John Jay. Furcal drew a couple walks, but on one was wiped out immediately in a double play. As noted here in yesterday's preview, if the Rangers contain these two, they'll be able to have an effective series. That was the case last night, as you can't ask a pitching staff to hold this powerful offense to less than three runs in their own park.

Texas needs Josh Hamilton to step it up now and answer back. He hasn't hit a home run in the postseason yet, and while he hasn't been quiet, stroking several singles, the Rangers could use the kind of power outburst from him that Cruz gave them in the ALCS.

Game 2 goes tonight at 8:05 ET on Fox, with Colby Lewis pitching for Texas against Jaime Garcia for St. Louis.

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October 19, 2011 7:25 AM

The World Series: Everything You Need To Know

Thumbnail image for 2011WorldSeries.jpg

Today the Notebook introduces the key players on both Texas & St. Louis, as well as doing a complete preview, as the World Series begins tonight at Busch Stadium (8 PM ET, Fox).

INTRODUCING THE TEXAS RANGERS

Thumbnail image for 2011Rangers.jpgC: Mike Napoli--With 30 home runs he's the power threat you can't ignore in this lineup. With a sparkling .414 on-base percentage, he does more than hit home runs. What a deal it was for Texas to get him from division rival Los Angeles in the offseason.

1B: Mitch Moreland--I really like this kid, but there's no denying he tailed off badly at the end of the season and hits at the bottom of the lineup or is sat down. If the Rangers were to get a surprise contribution from someone who's got the talent, this 26-year old is it.

2B: Ian Kinsler--One of the game's underrated offensive second baseman, although with two straight World Series appearances, he's at last getting the exposure. He hit 32 home runs this season and got on base consistently. His role as leadoff hitter will be vital for getting the Texas offense rolling.

3B: Adrian Beltre--If you haven't watched him play before you won't see too many swings that are harder, to the point that Beltre ends up down on one knee. Fittingly, he's got power and as his 3-home run game in the clincher against Tampa Bay showed, they can come on bursts. The problem is that when he's not going deep he tends to disappear from the offense.

SS: Elvis Andrus--The 23-year old who admired Derek Jeter coming up has now usurped Jeter as the one who's consistently on the World Series stage. Andrus' primary attribute is his glove, but he does have a .347 on-base percentage, did his best offensive work after the All-Star break and is a serious threat to steal if he gets on.

LF: David Murphy--A very promising lefthanded hitter, but like Moreland, his bat did tail off in the second half of the season. The stats aren't great, but Murphy's ability makes him a good candidate to do damage against St. Louis' righthanded pitching.

CF: Josh Hamilton--The 2009 MVP had another big year this year. A complete package of hitting for power, getting on base and defense.

RF: Nelson Cruz--The hero of the LCS win over Detroit, he's the same complete package as Hamilton and he showed his defensive ability when he gunned down Detroit's Miguel Cabrera at the plate to win Game 4. He made every big play in the last series and has shown that kind of talent and production throughout his career.

DH: Michael Young--He'll be at first base during the DH-less games played in St. Louis and the veteran hitter still does everything well, from hitting for contact, being patient and driving the ball for power.

SP: C.J. Wilson--He's the ace of the staff, although he's not a #1 in the same sense we would think of Justin Verlander. Wilson is more a solidly consistent lefthander, who pitched very well in the second half of the season, but has been a little rocky in three playoff starts this year.

SP: Colby Lewis--A reliable horse who's averaged 13 wins a year the last two seasons and has an average ERA in the high 3's in that same timeframe. That's a good number for pitching in Texas' hitters ballpark and he's had good postseason success over the last two years.

SP: Derek Holland--He got the chance to be a full-time starter this year and made the most of it with 16 wins and a sub-4.00 ERA. His last outing was rocky, as he was the starter in the clinching game against Detroit, but didn't make it through five, even after being staked to a 9-2 lead. On the flip side, he got the team's biggest postseason win when he quelled Tampa Bay's momentum in Game 2 of the Division Series.

SP: Matt Harrison--Like Holland, this is his first year getting full-fledged starter innings and like Holland he cashed in his opportunity with 14 wins. The depth of the Texas rotation is this team's biggest strength and that points directly to the #4 man right here.

RP: Alexi Ogando--A starter during the regular season, he got off to a blazing start and looked like the replacement for Cliff Lee, so good is his stuff. He really struggled after that and was the odd man out for the postseason, but he's been dynamite in the bullpen so far in the playoffs and has become an X factor for Ron Washington, a reason the manager has been so quick with the hook for his starters.

RP: Mike Adams: The veteran setup man was acquired from San Diego at the trade deadline and with a 1.47 ERA he's one of the best in the business.

CL: Neftali Feliz: A young closer with electric stuff, Feliz is another X factor for the Rangers. With 32 saves and a 2.74 ERA he's a reliable finisher, but he has had some very rough stretches during the year. Obviously if he has another one, it doesn't matter what the rest of the team does the first eight innings.

INTRODUCING THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

2011Cardinals.jpgC: Yadier Molina--The youngest in the Molina Family of catchers, the 29-year old has become one of the game's best. He hit over .300 this year and has good power to the alleys with a .465 slugging percentage. A first-rate handler of pitchers and defender to go with it.

1B: Albert Pujols--What else I am going to write here that hasn't been said a thousand times before? The game's best player and one of the best ever. A clutch postseason performer, good defender and class act all the way around.

2B: Ryan Theriot--A pesky hitter who gets on base, this is the kind of hitter who drives an opposing team crazy in a big series. He didn't have a good year in 2011, but has a .350 on-base percentage in the postseason.

3B: David Freese--An immensely talented young hitter, he showed the nation what he can do in the NLCS against Milwaukee when he won series MVP. He's been doing that consistently for his two years in the big leagues and injuries are the only thing that's ever slowed him up.

SS: Rafael Furcal--He was hurt most of the year and then got healthy at the trade deadline and the Cardinals picked him up from Los Angeles. The numbers aren't good, but it does seem like that every time I watch him he gets a big hit or makes a big play. I'm still trying to figure out if he's really that good, or if this some kind of retribution for me criticizing his acquisition back in July.

LF: Matt Holliday--A complete hitter in every way, and after a late-season finger injury that resulted him missing most of the Division Series win over Philadelphia, Holliday seems to be regaining his strength just in time.

CF: John Jay--The #2 hitter in the lineup behind Furcal, he has good speed and is a good defender. It's imperative that Texas keep him off the bases before the big guns in the lineup come up.

RF: Lance Berkman--He won Comeback Player of the Year, by posting MVP numbers and defying those of us who thought he wouldn't last running around in right field all year after spending most of his career at first base. Another hitter with plenty of October experience, having played on Houston's best teams, including a 2005 NL pennant winner.

SP: Chris Carpenter--The ace of the staff, a Cy Young winner (2005) and author of the memorable 1-0 win over Roy Halladay and Philadelphia to clinch the Division Series. Don't forget though, he's had some shaky stretches this season, his elbow may be flaring up again, and his numbers are not appreciably better than any of the Texas starters when you factor in that Carpenter doesn't deal with DH-filled lineups.

SP: Jaime Garcia--He's capable of being an ace, but has gone through some struggles. He's going to pitch two home games in Game 2 and a possible Game 6 and if the dominant Garcia appears in the Series, he's good MVP candidate.

SP: Kyle Lohse--For the first two months of the season he pitched some of the baseball of his career. Lohse tapered off after that, but still stabilized enough to become a reliable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. With 14 wins and a 3.38 ERA he's in line for Game 3 and perhaps for a Game 7.

SP: Edwin Jackson--A nice acquisition at the deadline, Jackson can be very up and down, but he's been steady for Tony LaRussa. He came up with huge starts in Game 4 against Philadelphia when the season was on the line, and Game 2 against Milwaukee when the Cards had lost the opener. Conversely, he got an early hook in Sunday night's home-run fest where St. Louis wrapped up the pennant.

RP: Fernando Salas--He spent much of the year in the closer's role and saved 24 games with a 2.28 ERA. The six blown saves were too much for LaRussa to stomach and he's been moved out of the job, but he's still a solid arm in a very deep pen.

RP: Octavio Dotel--A veteran pickup at the deadline, Dotel has been a big part of the postseason run. He's won two games and has a 1.35 ERA in seven appearances. Bullpens in the playoffs are a lot about who gets hot, and Dotel is hot right now.

CL: Jason Motte--He just got the closer's job late in the season and has melded right into the role, with a 2.25 ERA and he's 4-for-4 in closing his save opportunities in the playoffs.

WORLD SERIES PREVIEW

Now let's take these individual pieces and see how it comes together to form a complete team, based on ability to get on base, hitting for power, starting pitching and bullpen.

GETTING ON BASE: Each team's power hitters are also patient, so the basepaths should never be truly empty, but certainly both teams would prefer to be in spots where the opposing pitcher has to come in to their big guns and that only happens if the table-setters are doing their job. A slight edge to Texas here because of Kinsler, and I think what happens with Rafael Furcal and John Jay at the top of the St. Louis lineup will go a long way to settling this Series.

HITTING FOR POWER: There's just a ton of muscle on hand in this Series, and a lot's going to depend on who's hot. I lean St. Louis with the edge though. The Pujols-Berkman-Holliday trifecta has one more bat than the Hamilton-Cruz dynamic duo, and Freese gives the Cards another hot bat. And in the end it's tough to deny a power edge to any team that has Pujols in its lineup.

STARTING PITCHING: This Series gets its drama right here, because I see these rotations as pretty well dead even. Carpenter has more of an ace quality to him than anyone Texas has, but the Rangers #3 and #4 spots have been more consistent than St. Louis. And in neither case is even that small distinction really clear.

BULLPEN: Both teams go very deep and both managers made extensive use of their relief corps during the playoff run. We can expect to see quick hooks unless a starter is absolutely on their game. The presence of Ogando, a pitcher with starters' durability and closer's stuff, makes Texas the stronger side here.

PREDICTION: I was originally going to pick Texas without a second thought, but the more I thought about it, the less sure I became. I'm still going to stick with the Rangers in a very closely fought six-game series. And if St. Louis can extend it to a seventh game, the Cards would win it home. But the official Notebook call is Texas in 6 thanks to a deeper pen and I think they'll handle the St. Louis leadoff hitters.

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October 17, 2011 7:26 AM

St. Louis Wins NL Pennant

2011NLCSFinish.jpgThe unlikely run of St. Louis to the National League pennant hit the finish line last night in Milwaukee as the Cardinals beat the Brewers 12-6, and the question remains "How?" Forget all the stuff about the 10.5 game deficit in August that St. Louis rallied from. Let's trace it all the way back to March. The Cardinals are a team that lost its best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, to a season-ending elbow injury and the consensus among virtually everyone, the Notebook included, was that this was going to usher in a long year for Tony LaRussa's team. They did it all year the same way they won the pennant last night--by bashing the ball all over the yard.

It was an epic home run display last night by both teams, with a home run in each half inning, and that was the norm for both teams all year. St. Louis also did it by some moves at the trade deadline--all of which were criticized in this space--that gave them some needed depth in the rotation and bullpen, along with some extra hitting. I didn't think Rafael Furcal could still be a viable leadoff hitter. I felt Edwin Jackson was just a pedestrian pickup for the starting rotation, and while I had no particular beef with adding players like Marc Repczynski for the pen, I also didn't feel it was a difference making move. Wrong on all counts. Furcal swung a good bat, including being part of the home run derby last night. Jackson, in spite of not pitching well last night, was a solid arm down the stretch and won a Game 4 against Philadelphia when his team faced elimination. Repcyznski was one piece in a long line of bullpen arms that Tony LaRussa can mix and match with better than anyone in baseball and something he did to excellent effect throughout the NLCS.

I think it's important to note that St. Louis' win was not just another part of a playoff "crapshoot" that Oakland GM Billy Beane of Moneyball fame, where anything can happen in a display of name out of a hat randomness. The Cardinals really needed only one unlikely occurrence in this run through the NL playoffs--they needed to rally from 4-0 down in Game 2 of the Division Series against Philadelphia against Cliff Lee. Once that happened, they were in an even series against the Phils and once the Phils were gone, the Cards have more veteran hitters in their lineup than either Milwaukee or Arizona, the other playoff team out of the NL. A stacked lineup of hitters with postseason experience and a manager who can squeeze every inch out of a pitching staff gives you a chance to win and St. Louis made the most of their chance.

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