WASHINGTON, October 1, 2011 – It’s unsure whether the Milwaukee Brewers or Arizona Diamondbacks are making the more surprising postseason appearance. The Brewers came out of the NL Central ahead of the favored St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, while Arizona ran away with the NL West crown over the defending champions from San Francisco. But thanks to Atlanta’s collapse, the two surprises of the National League are matched up in the first round, in the treasured 2:07 afternoon time slot, to boot.
(2) Milwaukee Brewers; 96-66; 1st place NL Central vs. (3) Arizona Diamondbacks; 94-68; 1st place NL West
Take a look at Arizona’s starting lineup, and you’d be sorely tempted to discount their division title as a product of division imbalance. Right fielder Justin Upton is a superstar in his own right, but the only other top player on the D-backs, shortstop Stephen Drew, suffered a broken ankle back in July and will be out through the playoffs. Getting on base was not one of Arizona’s strengths for most of the season.
But a lot of that poor mark was tied up in the performance of first baseman Juan Miranda and second baseman Kelly Johnson, both since departed, the former to Triple-A Reno, and the latter to Toronto. In fact, the playoff lineup will feature only one hitter with an OBP below .330, utility man Willie Bloomquist, who drew the unappreciated job of serving as Drew’s replacement. Third baseman Ryan Roberts hit 19 homeruns and stole 18 bases during the regular season; he should be another name to watch.
The Brewers boast two of baseball’s best hitters in Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, but first-year manager Ron Roenicke has had to work around some rough patches in an uneven lineup. On one end there are stars like Fielder, Braun, and Corey Hart; meanwhile, the other side weighs down the team with guys like Jonathan Lucroy, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Casey McGehee. After the playoffs, Fielder will be headed of to free agency on a high note after a 38 homerun, 120 RBI season.
Braun will remain to carry the Brewers, a task that he’s proven he’s up to after four 30-homer seasons since his MLB debut and a 30-30 season this year. Second baseman Rickie Weeks again missed time thanks to injury, but still managed to hit 20 homeruns in 118 games. Milwaukee has the firepower to go far as long as Betancourt and McGehee don’t drag their team down with their bats and gloves.
The Diamondbacks will want this series to be pitching-dominated, hoping to decide the series with their front three of Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, and Joe Saunders, plus their one-two relief punch of David Hernandez and J.J. Putz. Kennedy will start Game 1 after a breakout season during which he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and set himself up as a Cy Young contender. Hudson, a former White Sox prospect who came over in the Edwin Jackson trade last year threw a career-high 222 innings en route to 16 wins of his own. Saunders will always pale in comparison to Dan Haren, whom he replaced in the Arizona rotation, but he remains a capable playoff starter, especially if can keep the ball on the ground consistently.
Where Arizona really shines, though, is in the bullpen. Putz stepped back into a closing role and saved 45 games in 49 chances. Hernandez was cast off by Baltimore in the Mark Reynolds trade, but got his K/BB rate under control with the D-backs, and has evolved into one of the better setup men in the National League.
Still, the Brewers are in a just as good, if not better situation. They’ll turn out a front four of Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum. Don’t let ERA fool you here.
The Brewers have an average defense, something just short of the kiss of death for groundball pitchers like Greinke and Gallardo. In fact, going by xFIP, Greinke’s 3.83 ERA should have been more like 2.56, and Gallardo’s slightly lower 3.52 ERA should have been closer to 3.19. Wolf and Marcum are fly-ball pitchers, which won’t help them at Chase Field, but they still match up favorably with Saunders and Josh Collmenter.
The one weak spot may be first-year closer John Axford, who has yet to try to close out a game in a high-pressure situation.
In the end, this series, like the Tigers-Yankees matchup, is one that will see the tone set from the very first game. The Brewers have the on-paper advantage, but a strong showing from Kennedy in Game 1 could disrupt all that. An implosion by Axford could do the same. Right now, the advantage is in Milwaukee’s court, and that’s how the series should end.
Prediction: Brewers in 5.
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