Powerful pitch

The Baltimore Sun

It's hard to imagine this fall being better scripted for TV executives and Major League Baseball.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston are all involved as baseball kicks off its postseason with three games today.

New York teams failed to join the high-powered mix, but it was the Milwaukee Brewers, a pretty good story and baseball commissioner Bud Selig's hometown club, that ruined things for the Mets last weekend. So MLB can't be too upset with that.

Besides, there are plenty of story lines worth following.

Can the Chicago Cubs, the best team in the National League, win a World Series for the first time in 100 years?

Can the Boston Red Sox repeat without Manny Ramirez? Can Joe Torre get back to the Fall Classic, this time with Manny and the Los Angeles Dodgers?

And, perhaps most intriguing, can the butt of baseball's jokes for their first decade of existence, the Tampa Bay Rays, reach baseball's heavenly heights in their first season without the "Devil" in their nickname?

Here's a quick preview of each best-of-five Division Series and the best guess as to who will advance.

Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78) vs. Chicago Cubs (97-64)

This is a battle of two pretty strong pitching staffs and two of baseball's best managers. The Dodgers had the top ERA in the National League (3.68) and second-lowest opponents' batting average (.251). The Cubs had the third-best ERA (3.87) and lowest OBA (.242). Statistically, the Cubs have a slightly better rotation, but the Dodgers get the nod in the bullpen.

Offensively, there is a significant difference. The Cubs outscored the Dodgers by 155 runs and hit nearly 50 more homers. Chicago beat Los Angeles in five of seven games this season. Pitching might win championships, but in this series, the Cubs get the advantage because of offense.

Prediction: : Cubs in four

Milwaukee Brewers (90-72) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (92-70)

There seemingly is a team every year that looks like it doesn't belong with the rest of the playoff teams and then makes its mark once it gets in. The Brewers could be that team after collapsing and firing their manager and then rebounding just enough to slip into the playoffs. However, the Brewers' biggest strength has been their rotation (the NL's second-best starters' ERA at 3.86), and it is now without Ben Sheets and his balky elbow. CC Sabathia can't pitch every day, right?

That should help the bashing boys from Broad Street. Powered by the NL's best hitting trio, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies led the league in homers (214), were second in runs scored (799) and had the highest stolen-base success percentage in the league (84 percent). The experienced offense should turn leads over to the bullpen, which led the league in relievers' ERA (3.19). Philadelphia won five of six in the regular season against Milwaukee.

Prediction: : Phillies in five

Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Los Angeles Angels (100-62)

This is the first round's marquee matchup: The defending champions versus baseball's best and most balanced team. It's tough to count out the Red Sox with an offense that scored the second-most runs (845) in the American League, a 4.01 ERA that was the league's fourth best and a defense that made fewer errors than any other postseason team. But they have health questions - Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew - and are without postseason monster Ramirez. Plus, they lost eight of nine to the Angels this year.

How ridiculously balanced are the Angels? They had 50-31 records at home and on the road this year. They do nothing fancy but do everything fairly well and are managed by perhaps the best in baseball, Mike Scioscia. If they have a weakness, it's that they were 10th in the AL in runs scored, 11th in on-base percentage and 12th in drawing walks. But they don't strike out much and seemingly make the most of their runs. Their starters won more games than any other AL group, and closer Francisco Rodriguez set a big league record for most saves in a season with 62.

Prediction: : Angels in four

Chicago White Sox (89-74) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (97-65)

The Rays have been waiting for this for 11 years. They even had to wait until last night to figure out tomorrow's opponent. But it didn't matter because these Rays think they can beat anyone. And that makes them the most dangerous club in the postseason. Like the 2007 Colorado Rockies, they are too naive to realize they shouldn't be here yet.

The Rays do have some issues. Their young hitters swing and miss too much (second-highest strikeout total in the AL), and they were the league's worst team when it came to hitting with runners in scoring position (a dreadful .246 average). But they pitch, catch and have a knack for the dramatic. The weary White Sox crush the ball, leading the majors in home runs. But their bullpen and defense can be erratic.

Prediction: : Rays in three

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