College Football Power Rankings for Week Nine

1. Mississippi State (7-0, Last Week: 1st)
Mississippi State faced a road test on Saturday that was closer than many expected, in a game that the Bulldogs only led by seven before returning an onside kick for a touchdown (that’s not a misprint) to seal the 45-31 win.  CBS’s Gary Danielson pointed out that every team the Bulldogs had defeated up to Kentucky had been undefeated, and the Wildcats were undefeated at home.  This week that trend ends, as the Bulldogs host Arkansas, a team that has been competitive but is still looking for their first SEC win under Bret Bielema.  The Bulldogs are ranked first in the AP Poll, and more importantly in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings that were released Tuesday Night.

2. Florida State (7-0, 3rd)
The Seminoles, fresh off their win over Notre Dame last week, had a bye in order to prepare for a short week this week when they head to Louisville for a Thursday night game.  The Seminoles will be favored against the Cardinals, but crazy things often seem to happen on Thursday nights.  The Seminoles pass Ole Miss in these rankings, and remain second in the AP Poll, also ranking second in the CFP rankings.

3. Alabama (7-1, 4th)
The Crimson Tide went to Tennessee in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s first trip back to Knoxville since his one-year stint as head coach there, and defeated the Volunteers by a 34-20 score.  The Tide have been markedly better at home, where they will host Mississippi State and Auburn in the month of November, but first they have to travel to LSU on November 8 after a bye this weekend.  Surprisingly, the Tide are sixth in the CFP rankings, although they can certainly play their way into a playoff spot.

4. Notre Dame (6-1, 5th)
The Irish had a bye Saturday after their tough loss to Florida State in Tallahassee.  This week, they head to the Washington D.C. area to play Navy at FedEx Field.  While some have complained of Notre Dame’s relatively light schedule, with their only win over a good team coming against Stanford, they do have games remaining with Arizona State, USC, and Louisville.  Apparently the CFP Committee doesn’t like the Irish schedule, as they ranked Notre Dame all the way down at 10th.

5. Auburn (6-1, 5th)
The Tigers struggled at times on defense in a 42-35 win over South Carolina, but the offense seemingly ran the ball at will all over the Gamecocks.  The Tigers take their one-loss record to Oxford on Saturday, where they face Ole Miss.  Despite their position in these rankings, both the Tigers and Rebels are in the top 4 in the CFP rankings, with the Tigers ranking third.

6. Oregon (7-1, 7th)
Oregon’s offense fired on all cylinders in a 59-41 win at Cal, led by Heisman-contending QB Marcus Mariota who threw for 326 yards and five touchdowns.  The CFP committee ranked the Ducks fifth, as they host Stanford in a game that always seems to help determine the winner in the Pac-12 North, although this year the Cardinal are struggling just a bit.

7. Ole Miss (7-1, 2nd)
The Rebels lost their first game of the season Saturday, losing to LSU in a 10-7 defensive slugfest on the road.  However, despite the loss, the CFP committee ranked the Rebels in fourth, so if the playoff started today the Rebels would be in it.  While that rating will likely be considered the most controversial, at least of the top four, it can be solidified this week, as they host third-ranked Auburn in a primetime showdown.

8. Georgia (6-1, 8th)
The Bulldogs enjoyed a bye Saturday, a week after their win over Arkansas, in preparation for “The World’s Biggest Outdoor Cocktail Party” when they face Florida in Jacksonville.  The CFP rankings don’t necessarily agree with these, as the Bulldogs are ranked 11th, showing the price they paid for their early season loss to South Carolina.  They received good news Wednesday when it was announced RB Todd Gurley will be eligible to return against Auburn on November 15.

9. Michigan State (7-1, 9th)
The Spartans continued their strong Big Ten play with a 35-11 win over rival Michigan on Saturday, allowing the Wolverines to hang around for a while but putting them away in the second half.  The Spartans have a bye week Saturday to prepare for a big showdown next week against Ohio State, in what will likely be a de facto Big Ten East Division title game.  The CFP rankings rewarded Michigan State’s only loss being on the road to top five team Oregon, and ranked them eighth.

10. TCU (6-1, 10th)
TCU showed Saturday they have one of the strongest offensive units in the country, with an 82-27 win over Texas Tech.  The offensive explosion gives them the lead in points per game, as they now average 50.4 per contest.  This week, they head to a hostile environment as they face 20th-ranked West Virginia in Morgantown, The CFP committee appears to be impressed with the Horned Frogs, with their lone loss to Baylor, ranking them seventh.

11. Kansas State (6-1, 11th), 12. Arizona State (6-1, 12th), 13. Ohio State (6-1, 13th), 14. Baylor (6-1, 14th), 15. LSU (7-2, 25th)
16. Oklahoma (5-2, 16th) , 17. Clemson (6-2, 17th), 18. East Carolina (6-1, 18th), 19. Arizona (6-1, 19th), 20. West Virginia (6-2, 21st)
21. Utah (6-1, unranked), 22. UCLA (6-2, 20th) 23. Marshall (8-0, 22nd), 24. Nebraska (7-1, 23rd), 25. Stanford (5-3, 24th)

Fell from Rankings: USC (5-3, 15th)

Taveras: Taken Too Soon

On October 12, Oscar Taveras was being hailed as a hero in St. Louis, along with teammates Matt Adams and Kolten Wong, after a dramatic 5-4 win for the Cardinals to tie the NLCS at a game a piece.

Two weeks later, Taveras is gone.

The 22-year old outfielder with as bright a future as anyone in the game died Sunday in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic, just 10 days after the Cardinals season ended with an NLCS loss to the Giants.  His 18-year old girlfriend was also killed in the accident.

Taveras had been signed by the Cardinals in 2008 as a 16-year old out of the Dominican; a left-handed hitter full of promise and potential.  Once he came to the US to begin his ascension through the minor leagues, those who watched him took notice, and some even said he was the best Cardinals prospect since Albert Pujols.  Before the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he was rated the 3rd-best prospect in all of baseball.

He made his major league debut on May 31 of this year, and promptly homered in his second at-bat against the Giants.  While Taveras only hit .239 this year with 4 HR and 22 RBI in 80 regular season games, there were still glimpses of the greatness expected of him.  He even played well enough that the Cardinals traded away veteran OF Allen Craig, clearing the way for Taveras’ future spot in the everyday lineup.

When the Cardinals reached the postseason, Taveras played well, mostly appearing as a pinch hitter, going 3-for-7, including a 2-for-3 NLCS.  His biggest at-bat came in Game 2 of the NLCS, when he hit a game-tying pinch-hit homer off the Giants’ Jean Machi in the bottom of the 7th.  The game was eventually won by a Kolten Wong walk-off homer, and would be the only Cardinals win of a very competitive series (close games, even if the series was 4-1).

The home run would be his final at-bat at Busch Stadium, as he would go 1-for-2 the rest of the series in San Francisco.

The news of his death broke during the early innings of Game 5 of the World Series, and was shared with viewers on the FOX broadcast by reporter Ken Rosenthal as the game headed into the fourth inning, who profiled his night in a Monday column, reporting the horrific news while still performing his professional obligation to cover the World Series (worth the five-minute read).

Word also spread to some of the players in the dugouts during the game.  According to Erin Andrews of FOX, Giants utility man Juan Perez was in tears.  As it turns out, Perez had been teammates with Taveras in the Dominican winter leagues the last two years, and had become close friends.

What happened next was amazing.  Perez was called upon in the sixth by manager Bruce Bochy to pinch run for Travis Ishikawa, and he would stay in the game and played left field.  In the eighth, his spot in the order came back up with men at first and second with one out, with the Giants leading 2-0.  Wade Davis, one of the best relief pitchers in the game, was pitching for the Royals, and with Perez coming in as a .170 hitter in 2014, and a .212 lifetime average, it looked like a certain mismatch.

But on a 3-2 pitch, Perez doubled off the wall, nearly hitting the ball out of AT&T Park, allowing two runs to score, stretching the 2-0 lead to a much more comfortable 4-0 margin.  Brandon Crawford singled following Perez, and Perez scored.  The inning gave Perez his third career postseason run and his second and third career postseason RBIs; all of the RBIs have come in this series.  All with a heavy heart after the loss of a friend, as he helped lead his team to a 3-2 series lead, and within a win of a world championship.

Cardinals officials traveled Monday to the Dominican to visit with Taveras’s family, and attend a memorial service on Tuesday.

From a baseball perspective, the organization has lost the future face of its franchise.  From a human perspective, they’ve lost a teammate who, from several accounts, had a contiguously positive attitude, and an infectious smile.

On that note, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny released the a powerful statement on Monday, his first public comments since Taveras’s death:

I was asked last night to give some words regarding the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, but I just simply couldn’t.

First of all, it felt like a bad dream that could not be real, and when reality kicked in, my words didn’t even seem to make sense. To say this is a horrible loss of a life ended too soon would be an understatement. To talk about the potential of his abilities seemed to be untimely. All I wanted to do was get the guys together and be with our baseball family. I know the hurt that comes along with buying into the brotherhood of a baseball team. That hurt is just as powerful as the joys that come with this life. Not to say it is even close to the depth of pain his true family is going through, but the pain itself is just as real. The ache is deep because the relationships were deep, and forged through time and trials.

To the many fans who have already reached out with condolences, and to the many more who are in mourning, thank you for taking these players in, like they are one of your own. This level of care is what sets our fans apart.

In my opinion, the word “love” is the most misused, and misunderstood word in the English language. It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does. You will be missed, Oscar.”

College Football Picks for Week Nine

Game of the Week:  #3 Ole Miss (7-0) at #24 LSU (6-2)
This game is a basic example of strength on strength, as the Ole Miss defense faces off with the LSU offense.  The Rebel defense has allowed only 10.6 points per game, which leads the nation, and they also lead the nation in interceptions with 15.  The defense has scored four touchdowns, and has only allowed six.  LSU’s offensive attack is responsible for 35.6 points per game, which includes last week’s 41-3 win over Kentucky.  LSU’s two losses came to Mississippi State and Auburn, with both coming convincingly (although the Mississippi State score was closer than the two teams were).  Ole Miss is coming off a 34-3 win over Tennessee which backed up back-to-back wins over ranked opponents, including a 23-17 win over Alabama.  While this game will be at Death Valley in Baton Rouge, Ole Miss dominated Texas A&M in a tough environment on the road, so they are more than capable of a win, and they are a 4-point favorite here in a renewal of one of the SEC’s more underrated rivalries.  One stat to the contrary is that LSU is 43-3 in home night games under Les Miles, and all three losses came to teams who would eventually become #1 in the nation that year (which is possible here).
Ole Miss 27, LSU 20.

Big Game Guarantee:  #20 USC (5-2) at #19 Utah (5-1)
If it’s possible for a game between two ranked teams to fly under the radar, this one has, but two top 20 teams will meet Saturday night in Salt Lake City, with the Utes favored by three at home.  Both teams aren’t that far from being undefeated, with Utah’s only loss coming by a point to Washington State, and USC losing by 6 to Boston College and by 4 on a hail mary pass to Arizona State.  Utah also has a big win over UCLA, who had been the favorites in the Pac-12 South, while USC has a win over Stanford, who sits second in the Pac-12 North, with both of the marquee wins coming on the road (oddly, the road team has won a vast majority of Pac-12 games this season).  There are five ranked teams in the Pac-12 South, so the loser of this game will be in a very tough spot if they want to win the division.  The X-factor in this game is the running game, with both teams having workhorse backs, with Javorius Allen of USC and Devontae Booker of Utah both playing impressively through the season so far.  Utah isn’t generally mentioned among the toughest environments in college football, but it is a very tough place to play, and has even been a hostile environment in the team’s down years, with them being much more competitive at home.  With this game so big in the Pac-12 race, home field advantage may be the difference.
Utah 27, USC 23.

Upset of the Week: #22 West Virginia (5-2) at Oklahoma State (5-2)
Oklahoma State is a 1-point home favorite in this game as the Mountaineers come to Stillwater.  West Virginia is coming off of their upset win at home over Baylor, while Oklahoma State was demolished by TCU last week, 42-9.  Some may say West Virginia will have a letdown game after the big win, particularly as they have to go on the road, and others may say that Oklahoma State will respond after their loss to find a way at home.  Last year, a 4-8 West Virginia team beat the Cowboys in Morgantown, 30-21, a loss that eventually cost Oklahoma State a shot at a conference title, so the Cowboys will likely want payback.  The difference in this game is Clint Trickett, the Florida State transfer under center for the Mountaineers, who has thrown for over 2,500 yards in the season’s first seven games, including 322 yards and three touchdowns last week against Baylor.  Trickett is one of the most underrated QBs in the nation, and he is capable of tearing apart any defense, so he is certainly capable of a big game against the Cowboys, who are 70th in defensive points per game.  This is one of those times that I just don’t agree with the spread, as in this case the better team (and clearly so in my mind) is an underdog.
West Virginia 42, Oklahoma State 28.

Closer Than the Experts Think:  South Carolina (4-3) at #5 Auburn (5-1)
Auburn is a 19-point favorite as they host the Gamecocks in a series where they haven’t lost a game since 1933, as the Tigers lead the series 9-1-1.  The teams last met in the 2010 SEC Championship, which Cam Newton and Auburn won 56-17, although they had played a much closer 35-27 game at Auburn.  On paper, this game shouldn’t be that close, since Auburn is a top five team with wins over LSU and Kansas State, with their only loss to top-ranked Mississippi State, while South Carolina is just over .500, with a bad loss to Texas A&M, and close losses to Missouri and Kentucky.  However, the Gamecocks do have a quality win over Georgia, and have seemed to play to the level of their opponent.  Steve Spurrier always seems to have something up his sleeve for games like these, at least offensively.  Defensively, the Gamecocks won’t be able to stop the Auburn rushing attack, so they won’t have a great shot to win, but they could beat the spread and keep the game from being an afterthought before halftime like many think it will be.
Auburn 45, South Carolina 30.

NFL Game of the Week:  Philadelphia Eagles (5-1) at Arizona Cardinals (5-1)
This matchup sees a pair of teams who both went 10-6 last year and are off to hot starts this year go at it, with the winner keeping pace with Dallas and Denver for best record in the NFL.  The Cardinals are a two-point home favorite, led by QB Carson Palmer, who has had a career rebirth playing for the team.  On the other side, Chip Kelly’s offense is led by Nick Foles, who isn’t having the same season statistically that he did a year ago, but is leading his team to wins.  Statistically speaking, the Eagles come into this game ranking better in passing and rushing yards, and passing yards allowed, while the Cardinals are better only in rushing yards allowed.  Additionally, while the teams had identical records last year, the Cardinals missed the playoffs while the Eagles went as the NFC East winner, so they have had better big game experiences.  The Cardinals are an excellent team, but the Eagles will get the job done.
Eagles 27, Cardinals 24.

College Football Power Rankings for Week Eight

1. Mississippi State (6-0, Last Week: 1st)
Fresh off their 38-23 win over then-2nd ranked Auburn, the Bulldogs had a bye Saturday.  This week, led by Heisman contending QB Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs travel to Kentucky, where the Wildcats will try to improve on their 3-11 record against top ranked teams, and an stretches of 0-15 and 1-26 against ranked opponents.  With the bye last week, the game will be the first the program has ever played as the #1 team.

2. Ole Miss (7-0, 2nd)
Ole Miss avoided the potential trap in their home game against Tennessee, winning convincingly by a 34-3 margin.  While Ole Miss’s offense has been strong, scoring 35.4 points per game, their defense is their strength, as they lead the nation, allowing 10.6 points per game, and never allowing more than 20 in a game thus far.  The Rebels’ undefeated record will be tested Saturday when they take a trip to Baton Rouge to take on 24th-ranked LSU, after which they host Auburn.

3. Florida State (7-0, 3rd)
The Seminoles survived a test from previously unbeaten Notre Dame in primetime on Saturday, and many will say they were outplayed by the Irish in a 31-27 win (and others will say they were aided by the officials).  Nevertheless, they have now won 23 straight, which is easily the nation’s longest winning streak (Mississippi State’s 9-game streak is the next longest).  After a bye the ‘Noles go to Louisville next Thursday, and while they don’t have a particularly tough schedule the rest of the way in the ACC, every team left on the docket could potentially sneak up on Florida State and, if nothing else, give them a scare.

4. Alabama (6-1, 8th)
A week after the team was criticized for beating Arkansas by “only” a 14-13 margin, the Crimson Tide silenced their critics Saturday with a resounding 59-0 win over Texas A&M, a surprise considering the series has recently produced some very competitive games.  After the win, the Tide jump back into the top four in these rankings (important because the top four make the new playoff), and currently lead the one-loss teams in these rankings.  Alabama heads to Tennessee (offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s first return to Tennessee since leaving there to coach at USC), and then has a bye week before a rough November when they play three ranked teams, including two of the top five.

5. Notre Dame (6-1. 4th)
In many ways, the Irish outplayed Florida State in their showdown Friday night, falling just short after the potential winning touchdown was reversed by penalty, losing 31-27.  The Irish certainly proved they belong in the title conversation, even with one loss, as it was on the road against the 2nd-ranked team (according to the AP Poll), against the defending Heisman winner, and they were still one play away from a win.  They only dropped a spot here due to the impressiveness of Alabama’s win against Texas A&M.  Many have said the Irish schedule has been too soft, and while they have only played two teams with winning records thus far, it does get tougher down the stretch.  While they do play Navy next after a bye this week, they have an upcoming home game with Louisville and road games with Arizona State and USC.  If they can run the table to finish 11-1, they will have earned it.

6. Auburn (5-1, 6th)
Like Mississippi State, the Tigers had the week off after the top three showdown between the teams, which gave Auburn its only loss of the season.  While at one time the schedule looked like the Tigers would play seven ranked teams in eight games, a couple of the teams on their schedule have dropped out of the polls due to struggles, including South Carolina, who comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night.  That being said, Auburn still has games left with three of the current top 10, all on the road, as they play Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama between now and the end of November.

7. Oregon (6-1, 7th)
The Ducks defeated Washington, 45-20, to take the outright lead in the Pac-12 North division race, although the division may come down, as usual, to their game with Stanford.  Oregon hasn’t played the toughest schedule, but they have had a couple of tough games, and despite the loss to Arizona, they have one of the season’s signature wins from September 6 when they beat Michigan State.  This week, the Ducks play at Cal on Friday night, before they head back home for the aforementioned game with Stanford, on November 1.

8. Georgia (6-1, 10th)
The Bulldogs beat Arkansas 45-32, in a game that was pretty even for about a quarter and a half, before Georgia went up 38-6 by halftime, only to let the Hogs get back within 13 in the fourth quarter.  Georgia has thrived in the running game, even without suspended RB Todd Gurley, as Nick Chubb has led the attack, with a 203-yard performance, joining Herschel Walker and Rodney Hampton as Georgia freshman to rush for over 200 in a game.  This week the Bulldogs get a bye, just as they apply for Gurley’s reinstatement, before playing their annual neutral site rivalry with Florida in Jacksonville at “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”  Looming down the road is a home date with Auburn.

9. Michigan State (6-1, 9th)
The Spartans struggled briefly in the first half at Indiana, before pulling away to win 56-17.  Their only blemish remains a road loss to Oregon in early September, but life as a one-loss playoff contender is tough, as every week becomes a must-win if they want to win a national title.  This week they host rival Michigan, before they play a de facto playoff elimination game against Ohio State.  QB Connor Cook has been very solid for the Spartans, throwing for over 1600 yards for 16 touchdowns against 5 interceptions,

10. TCU (5-1, 14th)
TCU jumps into this top 10 for the first time this season after a very interesting three-week stretch.  First the Horned Frogs pulled a 37-33 upset win at home over Oklahoma.  Then they led Baylor on the road 58-37 in the fourth quarter before collapsing defensively to lose 61-58 on a last second field goal.  Then, in another home game with ranked team, the Frogs blew out Oklahoma State, 42-9.  This week, TCU gets a small reprieve from a tough stretch in the schedule, as they host Texas Tech, before going to West Virginia and hosting Kansas State.

11. Kansas State (5-1, 17th), 12. Arizona State (5-1, 13th), 13. Ohio State (5-1, 12th), 14. Baylor (6-1, 5th), 15. USC (5-2, 18th)
16. Oklahoma (5-2, 11th), 17. Clemson (5-2, 16th), 18. East Carolina (5-1, 19th), 19. Arizona (5-1, 20th), 20. UCLA (5-2, 22nd)
21. West Virginia (5-2, unranked), 22. Marshall (7-0, 24th), 23. Nebraska (6-1, 25th), 24. Stanford (4-3, 15th), 25. LSU (6-2, unranked)

Fell from rankings: Texas A&M (5-3, 21st), Oklahoma State (5-2, 23rd)

World Series Preview: Kansas City Royals vs. San Francisco Giants

Three weeks ago, I certainly did not think I would be typing that headline into a post profiling the upcoming World Series, but sure enough, both teams have made incredible runs through the first two rounds of series play, after both teams won the Wild Card Game in their respective leagues, setting up the first all-wild card World Series since these Giants lost to the Angels in 2002, the second ever, and the first in the era of the Wild Card Game (since 2012).

When the Royals were six outs away from elimination, down by four runs against Jon Lester exactly three weeks ago, all this sure didn’t seem very likely.  Since then, they’ve sounded like a DJ Khaled song, as all they’ve done is win.  They’ve become the first team in baseball history to win the first eight games of a postseason, beating the previous record of 7-0 held by the 2007 Colorado Rockies (who swept their way to the World Series then got swept in it), and the 1976 Cincinnati Reds (who won the World Series in that 7-0 run in a different playoff format with no LDS and a best-of-5 LCS).  Dating back to Royals wins in the last three games of the 1985 World Series, the franchise has won 11 straight playoff games, which is one short of the all-time record, shared by a couple of Yankees dynasties.  And all of this has been done for a hungry city, as the Royals are making their first playoff appearance since 1985, and the other major sports team in the city, the Chiefs, have not won a playoff game since 1993.

The Royals unbeaten streak has overshadowed the impressive run of the Giants on their way to the World Series.  They sit at 8-2 in the playoffs, after a blowout win in the NL Wild Card Game, a 3-1 NLDS win over Washington, and a 4-1 NLCS win over San Francisco, culminating with Travis Ishikawa’s walk-off homer to clinch the pennant.  The Giants, much like the Royals, have been underdogs all postseason, but it’s an even year, so after World Series titles by Bruce Bochy’s team in 2010 and 2012, we shouldn’t be surprised.  They become the first team since the Yankees in 1999-2003 to advance to at least three World Series in five seasons, and the first NL team to do it since the Braves in 1992-96.

Here is how the teams match up against each other in each facet of the game:

Rotation: One definite advantage the Giants have is the series best individual pitcher, as Madison Bumgarner has been exceptionally good in this postseason, and is currently working a 26.2 inning scoreless streak in road playoff games, an MLB record.  He is joined in the Giants rotation by Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, and Ryan Vogelsong, all of whom have pitched very well in the playoffs.  Hudson is scheduled to pitch in Game 3, which will be his first World Series appearance after 457 regular season starts and 11 postseason starts in a 16 year career.  The Royals counter the Giants rotation with “Big Game James” Shields, who will pitch Game 1 after missing Game 4 of the ALCS while passing a kidney stone.  Following the Royals ace is rookie Yordano Ventura, and veterans Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas, all of whom have certainly pitched up to their potential in the playoff run.  On paper, the Giants rotation is a touch better, but both teams’ starters are pitching lights out right now, so it’s hard to give an edge either way.  I certainly don’t expect either rotation to lose their team the series.
Advantage: Even

Bullpen: The Giants bullpen has traditionally been a strength in their playoff runs in the last few years.  This year, while it’s not a weakness, there have been times the pen has shown its vulnerability, and they can’t match up with the Royals.  The Giants are led by closer Santiago Casilla, who last gave up a run on September 11, but ex-closer Sergio Romo, Jean Machi, and particularly Hunter Strickland have shown they can be hit off of at times in these playoffs.  Lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez will be a big factor against the Royals’ left-handed bats.  On the other side, the Royals are unstoppable, particularly from the 7th inning on, with setup men Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland all having ERAs at 1.44 or lower in the regular season, and they have each allowed just one run in the playoffs (none of them were overwhelmingly costly).
Advantage: Royals

Lineup:  The Giants lineup is full of guys who have been there before, like former NL MVP Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, nnd Pablo Sandoval, in addition to postseason heroes Brandon Crawford and Travis Ishikawa.  But throughout the postseason, the clutch hitting of the Royals lineup has been incredible to watch, led by Eric Hosmer, Mitch Moustakas, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon.  Both lineups come in very hot, but I like the Royals to continue the trend.
Advantage: Royals

Bench:  The Giants bench is led by Michael Morse, who came off the bench in Game 5 on the NLCS to tie the game in the 8th, although Morse will play DH in the games under AL rules in Kansas City.  Beyond that, the Giants don’t have a bench full of well-known or accomplished players, although they have, at times, been effective when called upon.  For the Royals, Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore have continuously come off the bench for pinch-running and defense, and their speed has made a huge difference, resulting in big stolen bases and key defensive plays.  
Advantage: Royals

Defense:  The Giants come in ranked 5th in the NL in fielding percentage, with a .984 clip, while the Royals rank 9th in the AL, at .983.  The difference of .001 is certainly made up for the Royals with the eye test, as they have made outstanding play after outstanding play throughout the postseason.  The Giants have also made some great plays throughout their run to the Fall Classic, and I certainly don’t see defense becoming a liability for either team in the series.
Advantage: Even 

Manager:  Royals manager Ned Yost will be one of the top candidates for the AL Manager of the Year award after leading his team to the postseason for the first time in a generation.  The longtime Braves assistant and former Brewers manager has improved the Royals every year since becoming manager in 2010.  However, the resume of Yost can’t compare with that of Bruce Bochy, who has led the Giants to World Series titles in 2010 and 2012, and has never lost a playoff series during his Giants tenure.  Bochy finds a way to get the most out of his players in October, and will likely be a Hall of Fame manager when all is said and done.
Advantage: Giants

Home field/crowd:  The Royals crowd has been loud and overwhelmingly supportive throughout the entire postseason, as they are hungry for history.  While the Giants crowd has also been great throughout the playoffs, as they have throughout their other postseason runs in recent years, and while they aren’t complacent by any means having success, I have to give the edge here to the Royals, who also have home field advantage due to the AL’s victory in the All-Star Game in Minneapolis.  This criteria really may not matter, as both teams have been great on the road in the postseason (Royals 4-0 home, 4-0 away, Giants 4-1 home, 4-1 away).
Advantage: Royals

The Royals have the advantage in four of the seven criteria, while the Giants have the advantage in one, and two are even.  That being said, I think the Royals have enough momentum and have the strong enough roster to win it all.  Game 1 tonight will be very important, as 22 of the last 26 World Series winners have won Game 1.

The Royals will win the series, 4 games to 2.



111th World Series
Game 1:  Tuesday, October 27 at Kansas City
Game 2:  Wednesday, October 28 at Kansas City

Game 3:  Friday, October 30 at New York
Game 4:  Saturday, October 31 at New York
Game 5 (if nec):  Sunday, November 1 at New York
Game 6 (if nec):  Tuesday, November 3 at Kansas City
Game 7 (if nec):  Wednesday, November 4 at Kansas City

Column: Sometimes dreams are closer to reality

Last week I was right in the middle of two things: one of my toughest weeks of college so far, and the baseball postseason.  I paid attention to the playoff games as much as I could while I studied for a test or two, wrote a major paper, and even edited and produced a video project on a friend and suitemate’s musical talents (he did his for the same class on my sports writing).

One night while I tried to relax my mind, which was tired from the day’s studies, I began thinking about the baseball playoffs, as both League Championship Series were in full swing.  One thought led to another, and eventually I was thinking about my team of choice, the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves didn’t necessarily have a bad team, as they were in contention for the postseason for most of the year, but missed the playoffs after an abysmal September, eventually leading to a 79-83 record and the firing of GM Frank Wren.

Some of my friends have heard me say the only sporting event that would ever bring me to the point of tears would not be a loss of any kind–with the teams I pull for, I’ve seen games lost about every way possible–but if the Braves win a World Series.  I’ve thought that for a while, but I now know that for a fact after I was near tears after a big, close, tense playoff win for the Florence RedWolves, the collegiate summer baseball team I interned for this summer in the Coastal Plain League, as they reached the Petitt Cup Finals (which they eventually fell just short in).  If I got that emotional for a team I followed for three months, imagine what it would be like if a team I’ve followed all my life (19 years and counting) achieves the ultimate goal.

So, on this night, my imaginative thoughts as I lay in bed centered around the future possibility of a Braves World Series title.  I thought about this for a minute, and it became the last thing I remember before falling asleep.

Then came my dream.

I’m watching a Braves playoff game on TV, against the Washington Nationals, who are currently considered by most the Braves biggest rival (this changes periodically based on who is good in the NL East).  I look up at the score.  The Nationals are ahead 11-0, and the game is in the ninth inning.  It is Game 4 of the best-of-5 NLDS, and the Nationals are about to clinch a 3-1 series win in the first round series.  Disappointed, I take a deep breath.

Then I realize I’m crying.  It’s not because my team has lost in the playoffs.  It’s not because they’ve lost to the Nationals.  But it’s as if the combination of all of the above, combined with the blowout score of the season-ending game, has me overwhelmed and heartbroken to the point of tears.

I wake up.

Obviously, I realize this was just a dream.  Believe me, after the awful September my conscience knows the Braves missed the playoffs, so this wasn’t one of those situations where you believe for a minute the dream was real before realizing it was in another dimension.

But I am somewhat startled at the fact that my brain was able to have that particular dream after I fell asleep thinking positive thoughts about the future possibility of a championship.

But as it turned out, my dream was closer to reality than my conscious, awake thoughts.

Consider the Braves recent playoff history:  Since losing the 2001 NLCS to the eventual world champion Diamondbacks, the Braves have not won a playoff series, losing in the first round in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, and 2013, and losing the one-off Wild Card Game in 2012 (known in Atlanta as “The Infield Fly Game”).

Before that, in five World Series appearances in the 1990s, the Braves won it all exactly once, in the year I was born, 1995, meaning that they were successful in the early rounds but, in four cases, fell short on the final step to baseball immortality.

While I joked about the dream with some friends in the day or two afterward, the thought crossed my mind wondering if my psyche has been affected by the futility of my team in the postseason.

It’s also worth noting that in the dream the Braves were losing the NLDS in four games.  Losing the NLDS by a 3-1 margin was the norm of my childhood and adolescence for the Braves, as they have lost in exactly 4 games in their last four NLDS appearances (2004, 2005, 2010, 2013).

In their last few playoff appearances, the team’s luck hasn’t been good.  In 2005, it was a homer by seldom-used utility player Chris Burke of the Astros.  In 2012, it was the controversial infield fly call against the Cardinals and three Braves errors.  In 2013, it was Juan Uribe of the Dodgers hitting a homer after getting two strikes trying to put down a sacrifice bunt.

Over time, or at least in the course of my memory, the team hasn’t seemed to get the good breaks to balance out the offbeat plays that always seem to happen.  And similar things happened in the World Series losses of the 1990’s, as I’ve seen in the video and heard in the stories of yesteryear.

But in the case of my dream, there was no such bad luck.  It was a beatdown, at least in the clinching game.  I could almost hear the fan base complaining about another loss in the playoffs, and particularly one where they didn’t have much of a chance in the finale.

Part of me wondered if this was a premonition, perhaps of next season, or one further down the road.  But I don’t claim to have any kind of ESP or precognition of future events, as there is no evidence I’ve ever had anything like that happen to me.  Besides, the only being that knows the future is God, and I think He’s got more important things to do than feed the future of a college student’s sports team to him during a dream.

In this case, it was almost as if my conscience had to remind me, through my dreams, that the Braves haven’t won anything in the playoffs in 13 years, and haven’t won a World Series in 19 years.  While my thoughts before bed were just wishful thinking for the future, I was, in a way, daydreaming.

Yes, it seems the dream I could consciously control was just that, a dream for the future, while the dream concocted by my resting brain during the night seemed like a dose of truth.

In this case, sometimes dreams are closer to reality.


(And by the way, 168 days to Opening Day…)

MLB Playoffs: LCS Recap: Royals and Giants Reach World Series

ALCS: Kansas City Royals def. Baltimore Orioles, 4 games to 0
Game 1 in Baltimore:  Royals 8, Orioles 6
Game 2 in Baltimore:  Royals 6, Orioles 4
Game 3 in Kansas City:  Royals 2, Orioles 1
Game 4 in Kansas City:  Royals 2, Orioles 1

The Kansas City Royals swept their way into the World Series, continuing their magical run in their first playoff appearance since their 1985 World Series title.  Kansas City has still not lost a game in these playoffs, matching the 2007 Colorado Rockies as teams who have gone to the World Series unbeaten in October.  Here’s how they did it:

Starting Point:  10th inning homers by Alex Gordon and Mitch Moustakas in Game 1
As the series began in Baltimore, after the Royals had been in extra innings in three of their previous four playoff games, Game 1 went 10 innings as well, although it would be the only extra inning game of the series.  After the Orioles came back from a 5-1 deficit to tie the game at 5-5 in the 6th, Alex Gordon hit a solo homer and Mitch Moustakas followed with a 2-run homer in the top of the 10th, giving the Royals an 8-5 lead, and after three outs, a 1-0 series lead.

Turning Point:  9th inning heroics for Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain in Game 2
While Game 2 didn’t go extra innings, it was settled in favor of the Royals by clutch hitting in the 9th.  In a game that had been tied 4-4 since the 5th, an RBI double by Alcides Escobar in the top of the 9th gave the Royals a 5-4 lead, and a Lorenzo Cain RBI single to score Escobar stretched the lead to 6-4.  Once again, when Greg Holland got three outs for the save, the Royals had secured the win, and they took a 2-0 series lead back to Kansas City.

Ending Point:  A pair of 2-1 Royals wins in front of a loud Kansas City crowd
After Game 3 was delayed a night by rain, it was worth the wait for a crowd which had waited a whole generation for this series.  After a JJ Hardy double gave the O’s an early 1-0 lead, an Alex Gordon RBI groundout in the 4th and a Billy Butler RBI sacrifice fly in the 6th handed a 2-1 lead over to the vaunted Royals bullpen, which they turned into a 3-0 series lead.  In Game 4, as the Royals went for the sweep, they took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the 1st on unearned runs which scored on a fielder’s choice hit into by Eric Hosmer, that turned into two runs on an error.  Ryan Flaherty homered in the 3rd for Baltimore to cut the gap to 2-1, but the Royals pitching, consisting of starter Jason Vargas and their great bullpen, shut down the Orioles the rest of the way, and when Holland got the save in the 9th the Royals were off to the World Series for the first time since 1985.

NLCS: San Francisco Giants def. St. Louis Cardinals, 4 games to 1
Game 1 in St. Louis:  Giants 3, Cardinals, 0
Game 2 in St. Louis:  Cardinals 5, Giants 4
Game 3 in San Francisco:  Giants 5, Cardinals 4
Game 4 in San Francisco:  Giants 6, Cardinals 4
Game 5 in San Francisco:  Giants 6, Cardinals 3

It’s an even-numbered year, which seems to mean the Giants are unstoppable.  After World Series titles in 2010 and 2012, the Giants are back in the Fall Classic again in 2014, after beating the favored Cardinals in a five game series full of heroes on both sides from start to finish:

Starting Point:  Bumgarner and Wong’s heroics in St. Louis
In Game 1, Madison Bumgarner was simply masterful, throwing 7.2 innings of 4-hit, shutout baseball, and while Adam Wainwright didn’t necessarily pitch poorly, three early Giants runs were more than enough to hold up, as they won 3-0 to take a 1-0 series lead.  In Game 2, Oscar Taveras’s solo homer in the 7th tied the game 3-3, and Matt Adams gave the Cardinals a 4-3 lead with a solo homer in the 8th, but the Giants tied game in the 9th when Matt Duffy scored from second on a walk/wild pitch by Trevor Rosenthal.  That set the stage for Kolten Wong, who hit a walkoff homer in the 9th to give the Cardinals the 5-4 win and tie the series at 1-1.   Wong’s teammates literally ripped the jersey off his back as they celebrated the win.

Turning Point:  The Choate Choke in Game 3
In Game 3, after the Giants led 4-0 in the first and the Cardinals came back to tie it, including a Randal Grichuk game-tying homer in the 7th, nine innings wasn’t enough, and the game went to extra innings for the only time in the series.  In the bottom of the 10th, with Randy Choate pitching for the Cardinals, the Giants got men at first and second with no outs, and called on Gregor Blanco to bunt.  He bunted it back to the mound, where Choate would throw the ball away trying to get Blanco at first, and Brandon Crawford scored.  While Choate wouldn’t have necessarily gotten out of the inning without the error (it would’ve been 2nd and 3rd, with one out), the play is still the turning point of the series, as a very winnable game in a tied series turned into a 5-4 loss and a 2-1 series deficit for the Cardinals.

Ending Point:  Travis Ishikawa’s Shot Heard ‘Round the Bay
After the Cardinals blew a 4-1 lead in Game 4, as the Giants came back to win 6-4 on the strength of 3 RBI by Buster Posey, Game 5 was the Giants one and only chance to clinch the series at home.  Joe Panik’s homer gave the Giants an early 2-1 lead, but 4th inning solo shots by Matt Adams and Tony Cruz gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead, and they were six outs away from sending the series back to Busch Stadium.  Michael Morse then tied the game in the 8th with a pinch-hit solo homer, and after the Cardinals stranded the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, they turned to 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha, a young starter, to pitch out of the bullpen (see my opinion as it happened here).  After a leadoff hit by Pablo Sandoval and a one-out walk, Travis Ishikawa, who was released by the Pirates on April 23, came to the plate, and homered over the high right field wall, matching Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” as a Giants’ pennant-winning homer (Joe Buck’s call of the homer on FS1 was an homage to Russ Hodges call in 1951).  The Giants had clinched the series with a 6-3 win, becoming the first team since the 1999-2003 New York Yankees to reach three World Series in five years, and the first NL team to do it since the 1992-96 Atlanta Braves.

College Football Picks for Week Eight

Game of the Week:  #5 Notre Dame (6-0) at #2 Florida State (6-0)
Florida State is a nine-point home favorite as they face their toughest test yet, a top five opponent in Notre Dame.  A dark cloud hangs over Seminoles QB Jameis Winston, both for the upcoming student code of conduct hearing regarding the 2012 sexual assault case, and a potential scandal brewing over autographs.  On the field, however, Winston still has not lost as Florida State’s starter, winning 20 straight.  His Notre Dame counterpart, Everett Golson, is 16-1, with the only loss coming to Alabama in the 2012 BCS Championship Game.  Notre Dame has only beaten one team with a winning record, with their 17-14 win over Stanford.  Florida State hasn’t played an exceptionally tough schedule either, but they are one of four teams in the nation with multiple wins over the current top 25.  Since 1999, Notre Dame is 1-16 against top five teams, and have lost seven in a row by 13 or more.  While they should keep this game within that 13-point window, their history and their easy schedule, in addition to the fact this is their first road game, doesn’t suggest they find a way to pull the upset.
Florida State 24, Notre Dame 17.

Big Game Guarantee:  #14 Kansas State (4-1) at #11 Oklahoma (5-1)
Oklahoma is a seven-point home favorite as they host Kansas State, coming off of their 31-26 win in the Red River Rivalry over Texas.  The Sooners only loss was a 37-33 defeat at TCU, and they were able to beat West Virginia on the road, although this is their first conference home game, and their first since their win over Tennessee.  Kansas State’s only loss was a 20-14 home loss to Auburn, meaning both of these teams are undefeated against teams not in the top 12, but the Wildcats haven’t been tested otherwise, although they were impressive last week in a 45-13 win over Texas Tech.  K-State was able to beat Oklahoma the last time these two teams played in Norman, but the Sooners should have the home field advantage here, and they are the better team as well, as evidenced by being ranked three spots higher in the AP Poll and six spots higher in my power rankings.
Oklahoma 38, Kansas State 27.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  #15 Oklahoma State (5-1) at #12 TCU (4-1)
A week after blowing a 58-37 fourth quarter lead in a loss at Baylor, TCU returns home to face a top 15 opponent in Oklahoma State, and the Horned Frogs are favored by 10.  TCU’s defense certainly has question marks, after allowing 61 to Baylor, but the team will surely play like they have something to prove after the blown lead, even with the impressive win over Oklahoma the week before.  Oklahoma State’s only loss all season was to Florida State in the season opener, and they were fairly impressive in a 37-31 loss to the then-top ranked Seminoles, and while they have won all their games since, they haven’t played an overwhelming schedule, with their best win over Texas Tech.  TCU has played the tougher schedule, and has looked better doing it, and has the home field advantage as well.  This is both a “revenge game”, after Oklahoma State won a year ago, as well as the game after a heartbreaking loss, so TCU is going to be very tough to beat.
TCU 41 ,Oklahoma State 31.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  #23 Stanford (4-2) at #17 Arizona State (4-1)
Arizona State is coming off a bye week after an improbable, last second win over USC on a hail mary pass, and is ranked higher than their opponent, the Stanford Cardinal, but the Sun Devils are four-point home underdogs.  Stanford is coming off of a 34-17 win over a solid Washington State team, and their only losses this year are to ranked opponents Notre Dame and USC.  The Cardinal have only allowed 10.0 points per game, which leads the nation, and while their offense isn’t their strength, as they rank 89th in points scored, they have scored enough points to win in their victories and stay competitive in their defeats.  The Sun Devils’ win over USC came off a blowout loss to UCLA the week before, and the games against the Bruins and Trojans are the only tough games they’ve had so far.  Last year, Stanford beat Arizona State twice, including a 38-14 win in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  Expect the trend to continue.
Stanford 24, Arizona State 20.

Closer Than the Experts Think:  #21 Texas A&M (5-2) at #7 Alabama (5-1)
The Crimson Tide are 13-point home favorites against Texas A&M in a rematch of a series that, despite only seven all-time meetings, has become one of the more underrated rivalries in college football.  In 2012, Johnny Manziel had his “Heisman moment” in a 29-24 A&M win in Tuscaloosa, and in the rematch last year in College Station, billed in the weeks before as the “Game of the Century”, Alabama won 49-42.  The home team has lost the last three meetings, with Alabama’s 1985 win being the last by a home team, and some believe that trend will continue, as the Tide are coming off of a closer than expected, 14-13 win against Arkansas, the week after a 23-17 loss to Ole Miss.  However, Texas A&M has lost back-to-back games to Mississippi State and Ole Miss, with both teams seeming to have figured out the Aggies high-powered offensive attack.  While some (including me) have questioned Alabama’s defense, the defense was fine in last week’s game, with the offense struggling to put points on the board.  Alabama’s defense will stop the Aggies just enough, stopping A&M similar to how the Bulldogs and Rebels have done it, and Blake Sims and Amari Cooper will make just enough plays to survive.
Alabama 31, Texas A&M 28.

NFL Game of the Week:  San Francisco 49ers (4-2) at Denver Broncos (4-1)
The Broncos are a seven-point home favorite in a game that could have been played in last year’s Super Bowl, had the Seahawks not held on to win the NFC Championship over San Francisco.  The big storyline of this game is the possibility of history, as Broncos QB Peyton Manning can break the all-time NFL record for passing touchdowns in a career.  Manning needs two scores to tie and three to beat the Brett Favre record, and while that would be a near guarantee for a game’s work against some defenses in the league, it is not certain the record will come against a defense as good as the 49ers.  The two QBs in this game have very differing styles, with Manning being the prototypical pocket passer, and Kaepernick making his living as a dual-threat playmaker who can throw on the move or run for a big gain when necessary.  At the end of the day, all Manning is really focused on is beating the 49ers and not the Favre record, and while I think the Broncos will win, the record chase will have to wait one more week, as Manning will throw two touchdowns to tie the mark.
Broncos 24, 49ers 20.

College Football Power Rankings for Week Seven

1. Mississippi State (6-0, Last Week: 4th)
The Bulldogs move to the top spot in the AP Poll after their biggest win in school history, beating Auburn 38-23, becoming only the third team to beat top 10 teams in three straight games.  They have a bye this week to enjoy their first ever number one ranking, and they have earned it.

2. Ole Miss (6-0, 3rd)
In a hostile environment at Kyle Field, the Rebels defeated Texas A&M, 35-20, and join their in-state rivals as co-leaders in the loaded SEC West.  Ole Miss hosts Tennessee in a potential trap game this week ahead of a trip to LSU.

3. Florida State (6-0, 2nd)
The Seminoles beat Syracuse, but only 38-20, which was closer than most expected.  They will have to play well to win this week in a top five showdown against Notre Dame.

4. Notre Dame (6-0, 5th)
The Irish survived a high scoring upset bid from North Carolina, winning 50-43 at home over the Tar Heels.  That sets up a huge road test at Florida State as they try to stay undefeated.

5. Baylor (6-0, 6th)
The Bears have question marks on defense after allowing 58 points to TCU, but they overcame a 58-37 fourth quarter deficit to beat a top 10 opponent in TCU.  They will have a tough road test this week at West Virginia.

6. Auburn (5-1, 1st)
Auburn lost their first regular season game in over a year on the road at Mississippi State, falling 38-23 to the Bulldogs.  They still have the talent to win the SEC West, but they now need some help, and they face South Carolina next week after a bye this week.

7. Oregon (5-1, 8th)
The Ducks dominated UCLA in a top 20 matchup, leading 42-10 at one point on their way to a 42-30 win, enough to pass Alabama in these rankings.  This week Oregon hosts Washington, before a 6-day week as they host Cal next Friday.

8. Alabama (5-1, 7th)
The Crimson Tide really struggled against Arkansas, and escaped with a 14-13 win over the Hogs, who aren’t a bad team, but are probably the least of the wealthy (if you will) in the SEC West.  Alabama hosts Texas A&M Saturday in the renewal of a recently developed rivalry.

9. Michigan State (5-1, 9th)
The Spartans beat Purdue in a closer than expected, 45-31 game, but they did technically take care of business.  A relatively down year for the Big Ten allows a relatively easy schedule, which sees them travel to Indiana this week.

10. Georgia (5-1, 10th)
Georgia left no doubts who the best team is in the SEC East, beating division rival Missouri 34-0 on the road on Saturday without suspended RB Todd Gurley.  This week, they crossover to play an SEC West opponent, as they travel to Arkansas.

11. Oklahoma (5-1, 11th), 12. Ohio State (4-1, 14th), 13. Arizona State (4-1, 17th), 14. TCU (4-1, 12th), 15.  Stanford (4-2, 19th)
16. Clemson (4-2, 16th), 17.  Kansas State (5-1, 21st), 18. USC (4-2, 25th), 19. East Carolina (5-1, 20th), 20. Arizona (5-1, 13th)
21.  Texas A&M (5-2, 15th), 22. UCLA (4-2, 18th), 23. Oklahoma State (5-1, 22nd), 24. Marshall (6-0, unranked), 25. Nebraska (5-1, unranked)

Fell from rankings: Missouri (4-2, 23rd), Georgia Tech (5-1, 24th)

MLB Playoffs: NLCS Preview

San Francisco Giants vs St. Louis Cardinals

The NLCS is, in essence, a clash of the titans, as the last four NL championships are represented in these two franchises.  The Cardinals have now reached the NLCS for the fourth straight year, becoming the first team to do that since the Yankees from 1998-2001.  The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, and they are once again hot in the postseason in an even year.

Rotation:  The Giants have won a pair of rings based on the strength of their pitching, and this year is similar, yet different, to those two championship teams.  Madison Bumgarner has stepped up to become an ace, along with the rebirth of veterans Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy, and the unusual postseason brilliance of Ryan Vogelsong (1st pitcher in history to allow one run or less in the first five postseason starts of his career, despite a 4.00 regular season ERA).  And that’s with Matt Cain out with injury and Tim Lincecum in the bullpen after a loss of Cy Young form.  The Cardinals are also very pitching-based, led by ace Adam Wainwright, and his supporting cast of Lance Lynn, midseason acquisition John Lackey, and young gun Shelby Miller, and should have a slight edge in each of the head to head matchups with their Giants counterparts.
Advantage: Cardinals, but not by much

Bullpen:  The Cardinals bullpen is very young, with fireballers Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez set to pitch the late innings, and 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha available in long relief.  The most experienced player in the Cardinals pen is Pat Neshek, who with a 1.87 ERA had a career year at age 33.  The Giants bullpen is also full of power pitchers, but has more experience, and has been there before when it comes to closing out wins in the postseason, led by Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Jean Machi.  Neither bullpen should be a hindrance for their team.
Advantage: Giants, but not by much

Lineup:  While they aren’t the strengths of their respective teams, both lineups in this series are solid.  The Giants are led by former MVP Buster Posey, postseason clutch performer Pablo Sandoval, and the unorthodox Hunter Pence, and while they didn’t hit tremendously well in the NLDS win over Washington, they got enough hits at the right time.  The Cardinals seemed to be even better in the clutch, particularly in the 7th inning of games in their series win over the Dodgers.  Matt Carpenter had a down year after being an MVP candidate a year ago, but is hot in the postseason, as is Matt Adams, whose homer off of Clayton Kershaw propelled the Cardinals to the clinching win.  Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta are the anchors of the stellar unit.
Advantage: Cardinals

Bench:  The Cardinals have a solid bench unit, which includes catcher AJ Pierzynski, infielders Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, and outfielders Peter Bourjos and Oscar Taveras.  This is one area where there is a big difference from one team to the other, as the Giants can’t compete with St. Louis in this regard.  The broadcasting crew for the Giants NLDS against the Nationals said they do not have a “traditional NL bench”, as it is full of players good for defensive replacements or pinch-running appearances, and not necessarily for pinch-hitting.
Advantage: Cardinals

Defense:  These two teams both rank in the top five in the NL in fielding percentage, with the Cardinals ranking third and the Giants ranking fifth.  While the Cardinals rank higher, the Giants have an excellent set of defensive players, and may rank slightly better than the Cardinals in the so-called “eye test”.  It’s very difficult to give either side the edge in this category.
Advantage: Even

Manager:  Since taking over in St. Louis after the retirement of Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, Mike Matheny has done an outstanding job, taking his team to Game 7 of the NLCS against these Giants in 2012, and to the World Series last year.  However, Bruce Bochy has never lost a postseason series as Giants manager, and has won two World Series with the team.  He simply knows how to get the most out of his players at the right time of year, leading to that level of success.
Advantage: Giants

Home field/crowd:  The Giants have an excellent home field advantage when playing at home by the bay at AT&T Park.  The Cardinals fans are also known for being very loud, but also very respectful, and very knowledgeable of the game.  The Cardinals have four of the seven games in the series at home, which could make the difference in the series.
Advantage: Cardinals

This is the fifth NLCS meeting between these two teams, with the Giants winning the last three, including a seven-game series win in 2012 after trailing the series 3-1.  They, in fact, haven’t lost the NLCS to anyone since 1987.  That will change, although the teams are even enough that the series should go the distance.  The Cardinals have the edge in four of my criteria, with the Giants having the edge in two and one category even.

The Cardinals will win the series, 4 games to 3.