October surprises unlikely

Enjoy the undercard.

There is an abundance of intriguing storylines in baseball these days, and most of them will be like Matt Kemp's run at the Triple Crown — over and out of sight by the time the World Series rolls around.


Justin Verlander could win 25 games. The Rays and Cardinals could force their way into the playoffs with dramatic victories down the stretch, and the Red Sox and Braves both could survive alarming collapses. Kirk Gibson could put himself on the playoff roster as a one-legged pinch hitter. Whatever.

But the only personalities, feats and maneuvers that will hold up into late October are those that relate to the Yankees, Phillies and, maybe, Rangers. This is going to be an autumn for the heavyweights.


Some years you can see surprise teams coming, like last year's Giants and the 2007 Rockies. But with the start of the playoffs only days away, it takes a lot of imagination to picture upsets.

The Brewers seem a good bet to win their first playoff series since 1982, but only if they finish ahead of the Diamondbacks to get home-field advantage and avoid starting against the Phillies.

While Verlander gives the Tigers an X-factor, there's little chance they will last long. The Rangers are the only American League team that seems capable of beating the Yankees, no matter how shaky the Yankees' rotation seems beyond CC Sabathia. Their lineup is loaded and their pitching staff is better than most think.

Confidence matters in October. Only three teams are really going to have it — the Rangers, who have a shot to get to the World Series in consecutive years, and the Phillies and Yankees, who pretty much have October figured out.

The Phillies (25-13), Yankees (16-8) and Rangers (8-8) have gone a combined 49-29 in the playoffs the last three years. Excluding head-to-head meetings, they have won 10 of 12 series. It will take consistently good pitching to bring their deep lineups down, and none of this year's staffs pose a threat like the Giants did a year ago.

Pitching is a huge edge for the Phillies. They took Cliff Lee away from the Rangers, who rode him last October, and have him sandwiched between Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels in a postseason rotation that also includes Roy Oswalt (5-0 in 10 playoff starts).

The Yankees are counting on Ivan Nova and either A.J. Burnett or Bartolo Colon behind Sabathia. That's not a great situation, but Sabathia has shown himself capable of carrying a huge load in the playoffs. He has started eight of the Yankees' 24 playoff games the last two years and that ratio will continue.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux and a great group of advance scouts helped the Rangers' pitchers overperform a year ago, with Colby Lewis turning into a Yankee killer. Left-handers C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison will surround Lewis in Ron Washington's playoff rotation, with Alexi Ogando becoming a bullpen weapon.


Don't bet against any of these teams this October, unless they're playing one of the other powers. This year, the surprises will end in September.

Help from above: Mariano Rivera has the simplest outlook on his success. He believes the pitch that he rode to a spot as baseball's all-time save leader was literally a gift from God.

Rivera told the New York Post he was playing catch one day with former teammate Ramiro Mendoza and all of a sudden "the ball was moving." He insists mechanics have nothing to do with it.

"The Good Lord knew that I needed something other than a regular fastball,'' Rivera said. "In '96, I was just throwing fastballs in the bullpen. The ball was just kind of rising. All of a sudden I became the closer and He gave me the cutter."

Homebody: Pedro Alvarez has been a major flop this season, but he's in the process of disappointing the Pirates more with his attitude than his bat — a good trick given that he entered the final weekend of the season hitting .194 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 94 games.

General manager Neal Huntington wanted Alvarez to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but he told the club he needs his rest.

"For at least the beginning part of the winter, I need to get my feet under myself and get ready for next year," said Alvarez, who received a $6.3 million contract after being selected with the second pick overall in 2008. "If the situation presents itself that winter ball might be something later on, we'll tackle it then."

Ten-run formation: After platooning Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry in center field for most of the season, the Rangers are shifting Josh Hamilton back there for the playoffs. That allows them to play David Murphy in left field and put their best hitters on the field. Murphy is hitting .365 with four homers and a .635 slugging percentage in September.

Washington isn't worried about sacrificing fielding. He expects Hamilton to be fine in center.


"He can be one of the best in the game when he plays out there," Washington said.

The last word: "Everybody comes to the park every day thinking this is the day we're going to turn it around.'' — Chipper Jones on the Braves, who lost much of their wild-card lead during a 7-13 stretch.

Twitter @ChiTribPhil