From the Windup is FanHouse's daily, extended look at a particular portion of America's pastime.
Heading into last week, there were two teams in all of baseball with nothing to play for. Sure, the Rays had clinched their first ever playoff appearance, but they still had to hold off the Red Sox for the AL East crown. Four divisions and both wild cards were still unsettled. The Cubs and Angels, however, were on cruise control.
While I'm sure it's nice to not have any pressure to win a major league game, too much of this can be a bad thing because guys can get rusty if it's extended. Rest is good, rust is not.
Let's examine the rest some players on each team have received, and whether or not this has surpassed the threshold of being productive in terms of a prediction of playoff success.
The Cubs essentially had one week off, though they did help the Brewers make the postseason by winning two of four in New York against the choking Mets. Lou Pinella played this past week beautifully. He gave the big guns -- Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, etc. -- a few days off, while also playing them in more than half the games. This way the players can all stay in a bit of a groove while not overexerting themselves and resting sufficiently for the playoffs. Unlike the team I'll talk about next, the Cubs did have to play the overwhelming majority of the regular season under durress because the Brewers were hot on their tail.
I'll even argue that the bad stretch (eight losses in nine games) helped the team. Had they won, say, five of those nine games, the division would have been well in hand a week earlier than it was. A quick look at recent playoff history will reveal that the Cubs are in good shape. The '07 Red Sox had to contend with the Yankees all season, the '06 Cardinals nearly choked away the division to Houston, and the '05 White Sox had to hold off a furious Indians rally in the last week. Those three teams all won the World Series. Last year's Rockies proved that you can carry over "heat" into the postseason, but it doesn't necessarily mean you can ride it all the way to a title.
The key really seems to be a good mix. Find a team that is arguably the best in their league, who had to fight for a playoff spot, yet is moving into the postseason a little rested and totally healthy. The Cubs qualify, as the injuries to Geovany Soto and Mark DeRosa aren't anything to worry about. Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden are both ready to go, after suffering setbacks in September. They were able to set their rotation how they wanted it, so Ryan Dempster will get two starts at home should it be necessary -- he's 14-3 at Wrigley.
The proverbial batteries were charged last week for the Cubs, and they move into the playoffs with everything on their side. Expect to see them in the World Series, and people that argue otherwise are fooling themselves with falsifications like curses, goats, or uniforms ("they're the Cubs, they'll blow it," which is just lame and misguided).
On the other hand ...Los Angeles Angels
You could argue that not much has changed. Mark Teixeira, for example, has only sat once since the clincher, and that was the next day. The starting rotation -- while mixing in a total of six guys to give the occasional rest to the five important guys -- has largely remained intact and not missed starts. Mike Scioscia has still been running Francisco Rodriguez into the ground with 76 appearances and 62 saves. So even though they did clinch the division on September 10, they have been playing normally.
The starting rotation was properly handled them down the stretch, the defense as always is superb, and the offense is strong with Teixeira in the middle. Oh yeah, and the bullpen has Scot Shields and K-Rod at the back end. Still, does this really look like the best team in the majors, as their record suggests? Other than Tex, the infield sports Erick Aybar, Robb Quinlan, Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez, Chone Figgins, Freddy Sandoval, and Howie Kendrick ... not one of whom is even an average hitter (using OPS+). The 2B, SS, and 3B positions have been completely unsettled for all of September, and, really, the entire season.
It hasn't mattered to this point.
The problem, though, is that this team hasn't endured any pressure this season. It's hardly their fault, as the pathetic division was not their doing. They won this thing by 21 freaking games, and it was never in doubt once we concluded April. Now you go to the playoffs and every play is packed with pressure. Oh, and they draw the defending champion Boston Red Sox in the first round.
The Rays, Twins, or White Sox may have been a good draw for the Angels, but not the Red Sox. With Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and playoff superhero Josh Beckett going in the first three games against them, the Angels have a tall order.
We're gonna see the Red Sox close this thing at home, probably in Game 4 ... though I wouldn't be shocked to see a sweep. Unfortunately for the Angels, they have played a ridiculously easy divisional schedule and haven't had to work hard all season.
They just aren't battle-tested. And the Red Sox are.
There is a big difference between rest and rust, and we're about to see the results when the Angels bow out after round one and the Cubs cruise through the NL.