Sports

Remaining Baseball Teams Feel October's Pressure

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Major League Baseball's playoff rounds start Wednesday afternoon. The American League New York Yankees and the National League Philadelphia Phillies look like the teams to beat. But they will have some stiff competition as they push toward the World Series.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

They took it down to the wire. The San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves needed all 162 regular season games to win spots in the playoffs. But they are there, along with the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins.

Baseball's post-season gets started this afternoon. And with us to talk about that is NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca.

Morning.

MIKE PESCA: Hi.

MONTAGNE: So let's start with the American League. Who's the team, in your opinion, to beat?

PESCA: Well, the wild-card team is supposed to be, I guess, the least qualified team; they didnt win their division. But the wild-card team is the Yankees, the defending championship Yankees. The spends-more-than-the-economy-of-certain-Third-World-countries Yankees.

So of course the Yankees are the favorites. And the other thing that argues for the Yankees being the team to watch out for is that they're playing the Minnesota Twins, a team that has done well. Theyve made the post-season four of their last eight years, but theyve lost in the first round in all those appearances. They lost to the Yankees twice.

And another interesting thing going on with that series is that this year the Twins moved from their Metrodome Stadium to an outdoor stadium. And I looked it up: The average low temperature in October at night is 38.9 degrees. So we could be playing baseball mixed with snowball there.

MONTAGNE: What about the Tampa Bay Rays? They did win their division this year.

PESCA: Thats right.

MONTAGNE: So why are they getting overlooked?

PESCA: Yeah, baseball cognoscente knows that the Tampa Bay Rays are a really interesting and really good team. But apparently the cognoscente doesnt include people from the St. Petersburg and Tampa region, because this team has just had an enormous amount of difficulty drawing fans to their game. Even though the team was excellent and beat the Yankees and won the division, very few fans - for a lot of reasons, and the economy is chief among them - weren't showing up to games.

So Tampa management actually gave away 20,000 free tickets to the Rays last regular season game, trying to prime the pump for the playoffs. And the Rays have sold out. Theyll have home field advantage through the entire American League playoffs. Theyll play the Rangers, and if it works out that the Rays play the Yankees, that will be the last two teams to win the American League. That should be a great series.

If that happens, theyll also be playing meaningful games, cause these two teams played a lot during the regular season. But with the safety net of the wildcard, those games didnt have maybe a lot of urgency to them.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to the National League, where the Philadelphia Phillies have been the overwhelming favorites to make it back to the World Series, now for the third year in a row.

PESCA: They won the World Series two years ago. They played the Yankees last year. And the Phillies are good in a slightly different way than theyve usually been good. The last couple of years they had an excellent offense. And they had a very good offense this year, but some of their players' production fell off. To make up for that, they added pitcher Roy Oswalt and they add him to a rotation that includes Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay. And they have just an excellent starting pitching rotation.

Everyone always says pitching wins baseball games, and thats because hitting comes and goes and guys get streaky, but usually a good pitcher is solid and you can count on a good pitcher. And the Phillies have a fearsome trio, and even some of the pitchers lower down in the rotation, guys like Joe Blanton, they're pretty good too.

MONTAGNE: How about the San Francisco Giants' opponent in the first round, the Atlanta Braves?

PESCA: Love the Giants. We want to see Tim Lincecum, the great pitcher who has won a couple of Cy Young Awards, pitch. And the Braves are the wildcard team. Their manager, Bobby Cox, is fourth overall in win totals in baseball, 2,504 wins. It's Bobby Cox's last year, so the last game he plays in the playoffs will be his last game.

They're a young team. They are full of rookies. And Bobby Cox has won a lot before, he could win again.

MONTAGNE: Thanks.

PESCA: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Mike Pesca.

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