- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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The 10 most intriguing matchups of the Division Series:
1. The Bodies vs. The Bruises
Many, many players will be battling injuries as the playoffs open, and those aches and pulls and nags will inevitably impact the Division Series. Eric Gagne, the Dodgers' closer and best player, has a sore shoulder and has pitched only once since Sept. 26 (and pitched badly, requiring a cortisone shot). And just in case anyone doubts the impact of the July 30 Guillermo Mota trade on Gagne and its effect on his arm, consider Gagne's month-by-month pitch count: 170 in April, 153 in May, 156 in June, 227 in July, 276 in August and 286 in September.
Among the others who will go into the playoffs with more than minor ailments: Atlanta's Chipper Jones and John Thomson; the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter, Scott Rolen and Steve Kline; Houston's Jeff Bagwell, whose shoulder trouble always affects how he throws; and Anaheim's Vladimir Guerrero -- who is playing through knee trouble -- and Garret Anderson.
And then there are the Yankees. Joe Torre does not know who he will pitch in Game 3 because Orlando Hernandez has a tired arm and Kevin Brown is still recovering from a broken left hand. Gary Sheffield provides more news on his bad left shoulder than the National Weather Service gives about forthcoming hurricanes.
2. The Yankees against Santana
The Twins' left-hander could be the great equalizer. Sure, the Yankees have an Alex Rodriguez for each of Minnesota's Lew Fords among the starting lineups, but Johan Santana has been so dominant that he has the chance to single-handedly push New York to the edge of elimination. If Santana shuts down the Yankees like he has the entire AL since the All-Star break -- 13-0, 1.18 ERA -- then he could effectively put New York in a position where it must win every game that Santana doesn't pitch. He could impact this postseason the same way that Mike Scott affected 1986, the same way Orel Hershiser was a factor in 1988.
The Yankees have the worst starting pitching of any team since Joe Torre took over as manager in 1996, a significant deficit. But if the Yankees neutralize Santana as they have Pedro Martinez over recent years, then Minnesota probably has no chance to win.
3. The Cardinals against high expectations
They won more games than any other team during the regular season, clinched their division quickly, had more time to rest and heal. But St. Louis lagged at the finish, losing five of its last seven and three straight to Houston, amid mounting questions about its starting pitching. The Cardinals will face the same pressure as the Yankees did in 1998, as Seattle did in 2001, as the Braves did almost every season: All that they accomplished during the long summer could be wiped away by a quick exit in October. That tension will become a factor if the Dodgers snag a win in the first or second game of the series.
4. The Red Sox against Anaheim's starting pitchers
Nobody wanted to face the Angels because of their exceptional bullpen; you better beat Anaheim in the first 16 or 17 outs of the game, because after that, the Angels have Francisco Rodriguez and Brendan Donnelly (who is throwing well again) and Troy Percival.
The Angels' fight to the finish dragged on so long that Jarrod Washburn will open the playoffs against Boston's Curt Schilling, a tough matchup -- and Washburn was pounded for five runs on nine hits in four innings in his last start. Bartolo Colon is usually very good or much less than that, winning 18 games while posting a 5.01 ERA, and in 14 2/3 innings over three starts against Boston this season, he allowed 21 hits, 11 walks and nine runs. John Lackey, the possible Game 4 starter, threw well in September (2-1, 1.67 ERA), but he fared very badly against elite teams this year, like the Yankees (0-2, 6.75), Minnesota (1-1, 5.68) and Boston (0-2, 8.68).
The Red Sox led the majors in runs by a wide margin, plating 53 more runs than the second-place Yankees (947 to 894). They must do their damage early against Anaheim, because hits will be much harder to come by late in games.
5. Houston vs. its pitching depth
The Astros have the best tandem of starters in the NL, in Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, and the best closer in Brad Lidge. They won the division with the likes of Brandon Backe, Chad Qualls, Pete Munro and Chad Harville, and they need to get more from their ranks of the pitchers unproven in the postseason. Setup man Dan Miceli, who does have postseason experience, will play a critical role.
6. Martinez and Lowe against their psyches
Three weeks ago, you could have made a strong case for the Red Sox to blow through the playoffs and win the World Series. Their offense was clicking, their defense was remarkable, their starting pitchers were rolling. But Pedro Martinez finished very badly, losing his last four decisions, allowing 21 runs in his last 23 1/3 innings, oozing frustration, speaking submissively. Martinez clearly has a problem getting loose in cooler weather, and while he gets to pitch Game 2 in Anaheim, nights in Southern Cal can be chilly.
Derek Lowe managed just 8 1/3 innings in his last three starts and surrendered 17 runs, throwing so poorly that he was switched to the bullpen; Bronson Arroyo will be the No. 3 starter for Boston, Wakefield No. 4. Inevitably, Lowe will be needed. For someone who seems easily distracted on the mound, there will be this reality screaming someplace in his head: How he pitches in the playoffs could have a significant impact on how much money he gets as a free agent in the offseason.
The Red Sox can't win without them -- Martinez, particularly.
7. The Braves' middle relievers against the Astros
Chris Reitsma and Antonio Alfonseca are aggressive, they throw strikes. But none of the Braves' middle men, except Juan Cruz, can overpower hitters; Reitsma averaged 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings and opponents hit .284, and Alfonseca averaged just 5.5 strikeouts per nine (in contrast to the Anaheim bullpen, which collectively averages better than a strikeout per inning). You will get good swings against the Atlanta middle men, and you probably will put the ball in play. That could be a big factor for Houston.
8. Ray King and Steve Kline vs. the Dodgers' lefties.
Besides Adrian Beltre, the Dodgers have a very left-handed roster, with Steve Finley, Shawn Green, Alex Cora, Brent Mayne, Hee Seop Choi and Robin Ventura; even switch-hitting shortstop Cesar Izturis is much better as a left-handed hitter. And King and Kline are probably the two best matchup left-handed relievers in the playoffs, stifling lefty hitters in the late innings.
Lefties hit just .145 against both King and Kline during the regular season. And there is this: Beltre's right-handed presence won't discourage Tony La Russa from using the lefties, because Beltre actually hit 57 points higher against right-handers during the regular season -- .348 to .291.
The Dodgers need to get their runs early against the St. Louis right-handers.
9. Anaheim's baserunners against the Red Sox fielders
The Angels are going to run. They're going to try to steal bases, hit-and-run, go first-to-third on a single, score from first base on doubles. They led the AL in stolen bases, they made a lot of contact, finishing next-to-last in the league in strikeouts -- and they had more runners thrown out on the bases than any other AL team. This is who they are, this is what they do.
They will exploit the poor throwing arm of center fielder Johnny Damon, try to get Manny Ramirez to airmail throws over the cutoff men, try to force first baseman Kevin Millar to throw the ball. They will try to distract Pedro (who, as the Yankees have learned over the years, sometimes becomes obsessed with potential base-stealers), and will run and take chances against Schilling because hitting against him is so difficult.
10. A-Rod, Vazquez and other new Yankees against the pressure of being a Yankee in October
Rodriguez hit 36 homers, drove in 105 runs, and scored 112 runs during the regular season. What he will learn first-hand, starting Tuesday, is that none of that means anything once the playoffs start. If he goes hitless in his first playoff games as a Yankee, he will get booed, the pressure will mount. Some players haven't handled that (hello, Jason Giambi), and it may be that A-Rod will need some time to settle into October.
At each early juncture of heightened pressure in the regular season, A-Rod struggled -- at the outset of the season, in the first games against the Red Sox, in the Subway Series games against the Mets. Rodriguez could use a big hit early in the postseason to earn his pinstripes.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.
Johan Santana against the Yankees is just one of the more intriguing clashes ahead in the Division Series.