My picks for the key players in each of the Division Series. ...
There, I said it. It wasn't easy, but I said it.
It wasn't easy because almost every year I think Mussina's going to win the Cy Young Award, but of course he never has. And now -- let's be honest here -- it's pretty unlikely that he ever will. Mussina's still in great shape and he's still a handsome devil, but he's also 34 years old. While he should remain a good pitcher for years to come, we've probably seen his best.
Mussina's combined ERA for the last two seasons: 3.72.
Santana's combined ERA for the last two seasons: 3.04.
Yes, I know that Santana's spent some of those two seasons in the bullpen, and relievers have an ERA advantage. I also know that Mussina's generally been facing tougher competition than Santana. But if you look at their ERA's, along with their hits and strikeouts per nine innings, it's hard to deny that Santana is, at this particular moment in the history of the universe, at least Mussina's equal.
And the Twins badly need Santana to out-pitch Mussina in Game 1 because after Santana it gets pretty ugly. Guess what two things these two ERA's have in common:
If you guessed that 1) they're right around the American League average, and 2) they both belong to the Twins' non-Santana Division Series starters, then you win a No-Prize.
Prediction: The Twins do have a chance against the Yankees, but only if Santana pitches exceptionally well ... and does it twice.
Red Sox vs. Athletics: Scott Hatteberg
Well, not literally. Scott Hatteberg's a decent enough fellow and of course he's the Pickin' Machine, but he's something like the eighth most important player in the Oakland lineup. No, what's important is the spirit of Scott Hatteberg. The A's like Hatteberg because he works the count -- something they'd like to see everybody do -- and in fact the A's are No. 1 in the American League in pitches per plate appearance.
Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher in the major leagues. The A's finished ninth in the American League in runs scored. Take those two facts and toss them in a blender, and you wind up with a bunch of zeroes on the board for the Athletics.
Martinez has extended himself lately. Not including a three-inning tune-up last week, he averaged eight innings and 116 pitches in his last three starts, all wins, in which he allowed the grand total of two runs.
The A's can't let him off that easy. If Martinez is "allowed" to pitch eight innings against the A's twice, he's going to beat them twice. But if the A's can drive up Martinez's pitch counts, they've got at least a decent shot of beating him once.
Giants vs. Marlins: Whoever's batting behind Bonds
Actually, the Giants don't need great production from their No. 5 hitter. For one thing, you can't walk Barry Bonds every time up. For another, unless there are two outs when you walk Bonds, the No. 6 hitter is going to get a shot, too. And thirdly, the Giants won their Division Series in 2002 without much production from their No. 5 hitter (Benito Santiago batted .238 with two doubles, though it's true he did knock in five runs).
So they can beat the Marlins even if their No. 5 hitter -- whether it's Santiago, or Edgardo Alfonzo, or Marquis Grissom doesn't excel. But they can't win the World Series if they don't get some real production from that spot.
Runner-up: Jerome Williams. He entered this season as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, and he did pitch well after reaching the majors. He didn't pitch as well as his Game 4 opponent, though; Dontrelle Willis, a relative unknown before the season, went 14-6 with 3.30 ERA, and if Williams can't keep the Giants close for six innings, this series will go the distance.
Braves vs. Cubs: Kerry Wood
Kerry Wood might be the Cubs' third-best starter ... but he's the only Cubs starter who might pitch twice against the Braves. Which isn't to say he has to win twice. But if he loses twice, the Cubs have big problems. Wood's got two weaknesses: walks and home runs. The Braves aren't likely to exploit the first (they finished 10th in the National League in walks this season), but they're quite well-positioned to take advantage of the second (they led the NL in homers).
But while the walks are a real weakness -- Wood walked 100 batters this season -- he's gopher-prone only compared to his teammates. Wood gave up 24 taters this season, which really isn't a lot. But Prior allowed only 15 in 211 innings, and somehow Zambrano allowed only nine in 214 innings (actually, there's no "somehow" about it; Zambrano throws one of the best sinkers in the business).
I don't buy the proposition that the Cubs are particularly "scary" because their top three starters have such great stuff. As good as they are, they still need a little help from their teammates in the lineup, which is the Braves deserve to be the favorites in this series. But the key is Wood; the series may hinge on how many sliders he hangs.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.