Oct 22, 2008, 06:31AM

All Bets Are Off in the Postseason

As the Tampa Bay Rays attest, playoff success depends on more than just statistics and odds.

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There’s nothing spookier or kookier during this Halloween time than the MLB playoffs. Once the air starts to turn, weird things start happening—pitchers so young they could be Jamie Moyer’s children become seasoned masters before our eyes. Forgotten, broken-down old horses once relegated to the scrap heap rise from the ashes to become big game heroes. Players that simply don’t hit home runs start clocking game-winners.

Did anyone watch, mouth-agape, as laughably light-hitting White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik did his best Babe Ruth impression in the 2005 playoffs? The slender base-stealer had zero home runs during the whole year in 568 at bats as the White Sox regular leadoff man. And then came the playoffs. The White Sox had not won a World Series since 1917—that’s when my great-grandmother was tooling around as a teenager and Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. The White Sox faced the defending champ Red Sox in game one. For seemingly no reason, Scotty gets a nice pitch to hit, pulls it to right field and it goes yard. The Cell on the South Side goes nuts. The players look at each other in the dugout and go, “Huh?” And then comes game two of the World Series against the Astros. The game is tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth. Rain is coming down. Nobody is on base. Looks like it’s gonna go into extra innings. But then Scotty comes up. He goes yard again to win the game. Closer Brad Lidge shakes his head in disbelief. “He’s not a home run guy,” he would dejectedly tell reporters later. ESPN beat-writer Jason Stark’s breathless headline about the game basically explains it all: “PODSEDNIK’S HOMER CAN’T BE EXPLAINED.”

But that is just the tip of the wacky playoff hijinks iceberg. Did anyone see oft-injured Phillies pitcher Brett Myers swinging a golden bat in game two against the Dodgers on October 10? The man had four hits in 58 chances during the whole season. But against nasty Dodgers righty Chad Billingsley, (16-10, 3.14 ERA) the burly guy couldn’t miss—bang, bang, bang—knocking in three rather stunned Philly runners. It was the beginning of the end for the Dodgers. How do you fight fate? Sometimes you’re just not that special. No major league-pitcher had three RBIs in a game since Dutch Ruether on October 1, 1919 for the Cincinnati Reds.

Or what about chronically underachieving veteran pitcher Jeff Weaver becoming the reincarnation of Cy Young for the 2006 playoffs for the Cardinals? Earlier in the season the guy went 3-10 with a 6.29 ERA for a pretty good L.A. Angels team that won 89 games. He was traded to St. Louis for a minor league player and as ESPN reported, to add insult to injury,  “the Angels had [actually] designated Weaver for assignment specifically to make roster room for his little brother, Jered.” When the playoffs came, Weaver managed to impress (or bribe) manager Tony LaRussa enough to earn a spot in the starting rotation. Many in St. Louis thought Weaver was a liability. Then he shut out San Diego 2-0 in the first round. In the NLDS the former playoff choker (see 2003 Yankees vs. Marlins) outdueled longtime playoff ace Tom Glavine and the Mets in game five. In game five of the World Series he shut down the powerful Tigers lineup to win the game 4-2. On short rest. The Cardinals, who had the pedestrian record of 83-78 at the end of the regular season were somehow the world champs and this guy was somehow their salvation. While Weaver soaked his teammates with champagne in the clubhouse as the hero of heroes, his baby brother Jered was sitting home with the Angels watching it all on TV.

Team-wise, just the last few years have been chock full of what-the-heck surprises that defy explanation: how about the aforementioned 2006 Tigers who lost a near-record 119 games in 2003 and then 91 games in 2005 only to win 95 games in 2006 (in a division with three good 90-win teams), riding the wave of love all the way to the World Series on the back of a strangely youthful Kenny Rogers (going 17-8 in his 17th season). Or what about the hapless 2007 Rockies who, after not even sniffing October baseball air for 13 years were in third place in their division and fourth place in the Wild Card in late August. All they did was win an impossible twenty games in a row in September, keep winning in the playoffs and euphorically make it to the Series behind a gaggle of young pitchers and hitters that no one had ever heard of.

Then there’s the Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps the greatest sports story in some time. A simple question should be asked: who the hell are these guys? A joke of a franchise less than a year ago, with no fan base, a minuscule payroll and a stadium that could be someone’s large carpeted rumpus room (lovingly called “The Pit”), they were dead last in both leagues last year, going 66-96 and finishing 30 games behind the mighty Red Sox. And yet, if you look at the top of their line-up in September last year, it’s mostly the same guys as this year—Imawura, Crawford, Pena, Upton. Somehow their stable of stud pitchers this year was mostly the same chain-of-fools last year too—Sonastine, Kazmir, Shields, Jackson. In March their odds to win the World Series were 150-1. According to Gambling911.com, if you put just 100 bucks on the Rays reaching the Series you’d have $6500 in cash right now. That’s a lot of season tickets at the Trop.

Then they changed their name. Goodbye Devil, hello heaven in St. Pete? Apparently. Their team ERA in devilish 2007? A league-worst 5.53. 2008—second in the A.L. at an exemplary 3.82. In one year. This can’t be right. Somehow they go from losing 96 to winning 97 games with barely any big payroll moves in the toughest division in sports? And these jokers have the gall to beat the crap out of the magic-factory-defending-champion Red Sox, in Fenway, then come back to Tampa to win the American league pennant? Come on. The Rays? Who had 10 straight losing seasons? Who never won more than 70 games?

Things got weird along the way. The Red Sox came back to tie the ALCS at 3-3 with more of their late-inning heroics. People start questioning the Rays’ resolve. Do they have the experience? Is their bullpen weak? Perhaps they rode this lucky donkey as far as it can go. Then they get another super-cojones pitching performance by Matt Garza and are leading 3-1 in the eighth. But then the Red Sox get two men on. Then three. Who does Spencer Tracey look-alike manager Joe Maddon bring in to close game seven with the bases loaded facing Boston’s murderers row? A 23-year-old rookie. Never recorded a victory or a save in his life. Was taking college classes last year. All David Price did was strike out Red Sox hero J.D. Drew (who already had game-winning hits in the series) to finish the eighth and then punch out the rest of the Red Sox in the ninth. A month ago this kid was sitting on the bench collecting dust as a long, long relief guy. Yesterday he was the introducing his hero Barack Obama to speak at a packed Tampa stadium.

There’s no way this could be happening. There must be something going on here. But that’s the beauty of it. It happens all the time. Remember when skinny 22-year old Cuban rookie Livan Hernandez won four times to propel the ‘97 Marlins to an unlikely championship? Remember that wide-eyed nobody kid who came up from the minors to flawlessly pitch the Angels into their first World Series victory in 2002? That was Francisco Rodriguez, alias K-Rod, who just broke the all-time saves record this year. As a free agent, he’ll be one the highest paid pitchers of all time when he signs a new contract this coming year. Careers are born in the white-hot moments of October baseball. Just ask Bobby Jenks, the portly kid who several teams gave up on because of past substance abuse (the Angels actually) who went from freaking double-A to dominating hitters in the postseason and closing the 2005 World Series for the White Sox. Nobody to somebody, just like that. Now he’s one of the best closers in the league, year in, year out. What would have happened if Price had come in, served up a meatball to Drew and blown the game? His life might be pretty different.

Seems to me, in baseball it’s not reality that rules, it’s magic—unless of course, you’re the other team who gets in the way. That means you, 2004 Yankees.  With a $200 million payroll (A-Rod makes nearly as much as the Rays entire team) you watched an insurmountable 3-0 lead evaporate in front of your gold-plated eyes. Look, there’s Red Sox’s Johnny Damon and his greasy caveman beard hitting that nail-to-the-heart grand slam over the right field short porch.

And sometimes it just ain’t your year. That means you, 2008 Chicago Cubs. Broken curses and destiny? Best record in decades? “This year it’s gonna happen” bumper stickers? Tell that to Manny Ramirez in his rented Dodgers uniform who hit a ball off of his shoelaces into the stunned Wrigley field bleacher bums. That means you, Cleveland Indians, who were one out away in 1997 from winning the World Series over the Marlins, and then went up 3-1 in the ALCS last year, only to blow it to those darn Red Sox just like the Yankees did before them.

The beautiful thing is, one team can’t keep the magic long. That means you, San Diego Padres, who led the wild card in 2007 for nearly 100 straight days before Rocktober began its world tour and Matt Holiday slid with his face in the dirt to break your hearts. That means you, 2008 Boston Red Sox. You had your magic. The Rays stole it. It’s their show now. Hell with the odds.

What a year. What a game.  Now it’s the World Series. The Rays have never been there. The Phillies have existed as an organization since 1883 (when they started as the Quakers) and they’ve won the whole thing once. One ring. While Tampa has enjoyed championships by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002 and Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, no major sports team in Philly has won a damn thing since the 1983 Sixers with Dr. J.

Useless as they may be, it’s time to place your bets.

  • I'm bitter about this season, with my Angels folding again, and the prospect of losing K-Rod and Tex in the post-season. Still, I'm an American League guy, so I'll go Cinderella on you and say the Rays sweep the Philly Dogs.

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  • The Rays are a terrific team, but I'm a Red Sox fan and have the memory of an elephant. In other words, when the Rays piled on Coco Crisp after he went head to head with James "Big Game" Shields, and pulled his hair like little girls, they were chicken littles to me. Go Phillies!

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  • yah, go phillies!

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