A's are sleeper pick entering the postseason

Originally Published: October 1, 2006
ESPN.com

BASEBALL TONIGHT EXTRA

There is a very interesting mix of teams in the 2006 postseason.

On one hand, the Dodgers, Padres, Twins and A's have been as hot as anybody in recent weeks -- or months, as Oakland's best-in-baseball record since the All-Star break and Minnesota's ridiculous stretch since early June would attest.

On the other hand, there are two teams entering October on rather dreadful notes: the Cardinals and Tigers. Both clubs are trying to figure out how to fix what went wrong.

Lastly, there are the Mets and Yankees. All they did during the regular season was win 97 games each to finish tied for the best record in baseball.

The beauty of October is that everyone gets a clean slate once the playoffs begin. This portion of the season comes down to who plays the best against baseball's best over a one-month stretch. It requires skill -- but also plenty of good fortune. A brand new ball game starts on Tuesday afternoon, and any of these eight squads could walk away as a champion.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

NEW YORK METS
Who's hot: David Wright hit .371 since Sept. 1 and closed the year with a 12-game hitting streak. Orlando Hernandez closed strong with a 2.01 ERA in his last five starts. Though Billy Wagner was a little bit shaky in September, he has converted his last 18 save opportunities.
Who's not: Carlos Beltran, who says he's playing at about 80 percent due to injury, is hitting .190 since Sept. 1 with two home runs and four RBI in 63 at-bats.
Outlook: The Mets have a history of postseason magic, with each of their six previous appearances in the playoffs producing multiple memorable moments. Their best shot at winning the World Series is to get one of those kinds of wins and ride it all the way through October. Players to watch include Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca, both of whom have had lengthy careers without any postseason experience.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Who's hot: The Dodgers, as a whole, are scorching hot, with seven straight wins. Kenny Lofton hit .324 with 11 runs scored and five stolen bases in his last 10 games. Unheralded acquisition Marlon Anderson hit .375 with seven home runs and 15 RBI in 25 games. Derek Lowe has won his last seven decisions and has a 2.41 ERA in his last 10 appearances (nine starts).
Who's not: After hitting .308 with 12 home runs for the Devil Rays, midseason acquisition Julio Lugo has been a big disappointment, hitting just .219 with 10 RBI in 145 at-bats.
Outlook: The Dodgers enter the postseason as arguably the hottest team in baseball, and it will be interesting to see if two days off cools them down a bit. Two players to watch are veterans Greg Maddux and Jeff Kent, who have both been through this before many times with mixed success. Kent is a .267 career hitter in the postseason but has just seven RBI in 21 games. Maddux is 11-14 with a 3.22 ERA in postseason play.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Who's hot: Adrian Gonzalez had a fantastic September and carried that over into the final game of the season. Over the final month, he hit .365 with 18 RBI in his last 28 games. Josh Bard was so good in his last nine games that he might get a look in the postseason ahead of Mike Piazza. Bard hit .467 with two home runs and six RBI in that span. Jake Peavy enters the postseason pitching as well as he has all season. He's 3-0 with a 2.52 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 25 innings pitched in his last four starts.
Who's not: The Padres have been playing very well, with 20 wins in their last 29 games, but Brian Giles might want to shake off the effects of an 0-for-11 against the Diamondbacks over the final three days of the season.
Outlook: The Padres need great pitching to get through this postseason because they might not be able to count on big offensive outputs in these kinds of games. If the right David Wells shows up (10-4, 3.15 ERA in postseason), if Peavy continues his hot streak and if Chris Young keeps up his road success (unbeaten away from Petco Park in 2006) -- San Diego may reap major benefits.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Who's hot: The Cardinals would be hard-pressed to ask Albert Pujols to do anything more for them. Besides carrying the team for basically the entire season, Pujols raised his game in the season's final week. His push for the NL MVP was a .391 batting average, three home runs and seven very important RBI in his last six games.
Who's not: Just about everyone else is struggling. In a few at-bats down the stretch, it looked like Scott Rolen was pressing. Though he closed out by going 7-for-21, Rolen hit only .225 from Sept. 1 to the end of the season. Chris Carpenter allowed 12 runs in 15 innings in his last two starts -- part of a pitching staff that posted a 5.30 ERA in its last 12 games.
Outlook: To win the World Series, the Cardinals have to forget that the last 12 games ever happened. St. Louis was 59-41 at the 100-game mark and looked as formidable as any team in baseball. The Cardinals' best hope is that Carpenter wins every game he pitches and is available to close out any series, because the St. Louis bullpen is unreliable. And if Chris Duncan can hit like he did after the All-Star break (20 home runs), that would help Pujols a lot.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

NEW YORK YANKEES
Who's hot: Surprise, surprise. Derek Jeter ended the season playing at his best. He finished with an 11-game hitting streak, batting .378 with 11 runs scored in that stretch. Despite enduring an 0-for-12 slump over four games, Alex Rodriguez played MVP-caliber baseball in September with a .358 batting average, eight home runs and 25 RBI in 25 games. On the mound, Chien-Ming Wang ended by winning six of his last seven decisions with a 2.96 ERA.
Who's not: Bothered by injuries recently, Jason Giambi and Randy Johnson sputtered at season's end. Giambi hit just .208 from Sept. 1 to the end of the season with one home run. Johnson had a 7.64 ERA in his last three starts with 24 hits allowed in 17 2/3 innings.
Outlook: Even with the injury issues to Johnson, the Yankees enter this postseason as the favorite. An offense that led the majors in runs scored with 930 is capable of bombarding teams that may not have many answers. If the Yankees score runs at the rate at which they did in their last 30 games (6.2 per game), they will be almost impossible to beat.
DETROIT TIGERS
Who's hot: Carlos Guillen is going into the postseason with a good frame of mind after going 8-for-16 with five RBI in his last three games. Ivan Rodriguez is hitting .444 in his last seven games. They need some of that to rub off on teammates, particularly their struggling pitchers.
Who's not: The last two efforts of Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers have to make Tigers fans nervous. Jones blew his second straight save chance Sunday, and Rogers took the loss. Rogers doesn't have a particularly good postseason history and has scared Tigers fans by allowing nine runs and 11 hits in his last 5 2/3 innings of work.
Outlook: The Tigers, like the Cardinals, would do well to forget the end of the season ever happened. Detroit's best chance to advance in the postseason rests on its starting pitching, which was as good as any in baseball before the All-Star break. Jim Leyland said as much after Sunday's loss. Detroit had a 3.46 team ERA before the break and needs that kind of performance to have any chance.
MINNESOTA TWINS
Who's hot: Though it's easy to say Justin Morneau and Johan Santana were the Twins' MVPs, Torii Hunter had just about every big hit for them in the last three weeks (Joe Mauer had a couple, as well). Hunter hit .333 with eight home runs and 26 RBI in his last 23 games.
Who's not: Nick Punto, who has been a tremendous surprise all season, closed out a little cold. He finished 1-for-16 in his last four games.
Outlook: Minnesota is going to have to ride Santana a long way and hope that Brad Radke can match his 3.19 career postseason ERA. The Twins would do well to take care of their home-field advantage. Minnesota had the best home record in baseball this year, but in recent postseasons the team hasn't had the same magic at the Metrodome that it had in 1987 and '91 when it was virtually unbeatable (8-0 at home in World Series games).
OAKLAND A'S
Who's hot: After hitting .188 in July and .237 in August, Nick Swisher did quite nicely to raise his batting average, hitting .281 from Sept. 1 through the end of the season. Of course, Frank Thomas has been hot all season, but he's been particularly sharp in the last month with 35 RBI in his last 27 games.
Who's not: In Jay Payton's last nine games, he's gone hitless in six, so he's in a little bit of a funk. Oakland likely will move Joe Blanton into the bullpen for the postseason. He had a 6.18 ERA in his last seven appearances.
Outlook: Oakland seems to be the consensus sleeper pick among our crew. The A's will need to get something from Rich Harden, who struggled in his final appearance on Sunday. Psychologically speaking, getting through the first round would be huge for Oakland, which failed to do so in four consecutive seasons (2000-03).

ELIAS SAYS
• The Twins will be the first team ever to participate in the postseason after taking sole possession of first place for the first time all season on the final day.

• John Smoltz won his 16th game of the season to tie Aaron Harang, Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Carlos Zambrano and Brandon Webb for the league lead in victories. Webb lost to the Padres on Sunday in a last-gasp effort to break the logjam. Prior to this year, no more than four pitchers had ever finished a season tied for either the AL or NL lead in wins.

• Carlos Zambrano became the third pitcher in major-league history to lead his league in wins (either tied or outright) in a season in which his team lost at least 90 games (the Cubs had a 66-96 mark). The others were Phil Niekro, 21-20 for the 1979 Braves (66-94) and Steve Carlton, 27-10 for the 1972 Phillies (59-97).

More from Elias Says

FIRST CLASS
Twins take the AL Central.
NOTEWORTHY PERFORMANCES
GOOD
Freddy Sanchez Freddy Sanchez became the Pirates' first National League batting champion in 23 years. Sanchez went 2-for-4 in Pittsburgh's 1-0 win over the Reds to finish with 200 hits and a .344 average, five points better than Florida's Miguel Cabrera, who went 0-for-2 against Philadelphia. Sanchez's average was the highest by a Pirates everyday player since Roberto Clemente hit .345 in 1969.
BAD
The Astros fell short of the playoffs after losing 3-1 to the Braves. Houston outhit Atlanta 9-3, but left 11 on base and committed two errors that led to two unearned runs. The loss clinched the NL Central title for the Cardinals.
UGLY
Needing one more victory to clinch the division, the sagging Tigers lost their final five games of the season. They wound up with the wild card after wasting a six-run lead and then watching All-Star starter Kenny Rogers lose in relief 10-8 to the last-place Royals in 12 innings. It was the first time Detroit had been swept three games at home by Kansas City since 1980.
NEWS AND NOTES
Roger Clemens • Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada were among the players that ex-pitcher Jason Grimsley accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, according to a federal agent's affidavit, the Los Angeles Times reported. Baltimore teammates Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons, along with Andy Pettitte of the Astros also were mentioned in the sworn statement. All three Baltimore players denied using performance-enhancing drugs and the team stood by its players in a statement Sunday. Also Sunday, Clemens and Pettitte defended themselves in separate interviews.

• Joe Mauer became the first catcher to win the American League batting title, going 2-for-4 for the Twins on the final day of the regular season to hold off the Yankees' Derek Jeter. Mauer doubled and singled against the White Sox, leaving his average at .347, down from a high of .392 on July 1 but good enough to best Jeter, who went 1-for-5 against Toronto and wound up at .343.

• Despite a season that far exceeded expectations, the Marlins will move quickly this week to dismiss manager Joe Girardi and name a successor, a source familiar with the Marlins situation told ESPN Insider's Jerry Crasnick. According to the source, the chances are "99 out of 100" that Girardi's replacement will be Braves third-base coach Fredi Gonzalez. Girardi's firing could come at a Tuesday morning meeting with Marlins management, according to a report on MLB.com.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
The Padres beat the Diamondbacks 7-6 and won their second straight NL West title.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"I don't think anybody on this club wanted to be associated with mugging that lead. That's one of those historic things that you'll never forget. We wanted to some way, somehow, get into the playoffs, and we did it."
-- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on winning the NL Central and averting perhaps the biggest September collapse in MLB history. St. Louis lost nine of its last 12 and nearly squandered a seven-game lead.
WILD THINGS
Dodgers win, fall short of NL West title.
RUMOR CENTRAL
Ronnie Belliard Second helping?
The Indians will pursue second baseman Ronnie Belliard during the offseason, a player they traded to St. Louis in July for Hector Luna, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. Belliard is eligible for free agency after the season. "He'll definitely be in the mix of second basemen we'll look at," manager Eric Wedge told the newspaper. "We all feel strongly about Ronnie."

More from Rumor Central Insider

COMING OUT SWINGING
Tejada and Clemens respond to allegations.
FORWARD THINKING: TUESDAY
Johan SantanaA's at Twins, 1:00 ET (ESPN): Minnesota won the season series (6-4) and took five of six from Oakland at the Metrodome. Barry Zito (16-10, 3.83) ranked 10th in the AL in wins, but he had an average strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.52 (151 K's/99 BBs). Johan Santana (19-6, 2.77) was 12-0 with a 2.19 ERA in 17 home starts, and the Twins were 27-7 when he pitched this season.

Cardinals at Padres, 4:00 ET (ESPN): St. Louis (2-4 vs. San Diego this year) has a new lease on life after backing into the playoffs. Chris Carpenter (15-8, 3.09) has been the most consistent pitcher on the Cards, but he got torched in his last two starts, allowing 12 earned runs in 15 innings. Jake Peavy (11-14, 4.09) was 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in September.

Chien-Ming WangTigers at Yankees, 8:00 ET (FOX): Detroit lost the season series (2-5) and was 1-2 at Yankee Stadium. Nate Robertson (13-13, 3.84) was 0-2 with a 4.60 ERA in two starts against the pinstripes this season. Chien-Ming Wang (19-6, 3.63) went 6-1 with a 2.97 ERA over his last eight starts.

Wednesday's probable starters