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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Soulful Second Season

Hard to believe that the Cubs were the first National League team to secure a spot in the National League Division Series. Harder still to believe that neither San Diego nor New York will be there. I'm past predictions.

Prince Fielder has rocket-launched his final moonshot of 2007. Curtis Granderson has chased down his final scorching line drive. Russell Martin is finally, hopefully, going to give his weary knees a rest. Brandon Phillips, Jose Reyes, and Barry Bonds are all headed home. Don't fret, this is an opportunity. Get to know best of the rest. Here's your guide to the most soulful players still in contention.

Mike Lowell - 3B - Boston Red Sox

Two years ago, after a season which has proved to be an utter aberration, the Marlins made Mike Lowell a throw-in, alongside Josh Beckett, in the trade that brought them Hanley Ramirez. One cannot fault them for this move, however, I doubt anybody in Florida (or Boston, for that matter) would have predicted that Lowell would finish any season with more RBIs (124) and a higher batting average (.324) than Miguel Cabrera. His RBIs set a Red Sox record. He made Manny Ramirez' late-season DL stint largely inconsequential.

Chris Young - CF - Arizona Diamondbacks

He finished only three stolen bases short of becoming the first rookie to ever join the 30/30 club. Even if he had made it, he probably wouldn't have won the Rookie of the Year because of Troy Tulowitski and Ryan Braun. He had five multi-homer games. He is the best bet to have a Prince Fielder-like sophomore season. He might start as early as Wednesday. Every facet of his game improved as the season progressed.

Livan Hernandez - SP - Arizona Diamondbacks

He's easily forgotten these days. Casual fans will be surprised to see him when he trots out to the mound in Game 3 of the NLDS between Chicago and Arizona. He's been "reduced" to nothing more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter on what was supposed to be a middle-of-the-division team, a team that failed to score as many runs as their opponents, but somehow won more games than anybody in the National League. But he's a middle-of-the-rotation starter who's logged 200 innings in ten consecutive seasons, and 11 or more wins for eight in a row. He is a middle-of-the-rotation starter who has a 4-0 record and a 1.99 ERA in the NLDS and NLCS, a NLCS MVP, and a World Series MVP. He was undefeated in the postseason (6-0) until the World Series in 2002. He is a middle-of-the-rotation starter with a career 2.96 ERA in 9 starts at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Livan has quietly become one of the most reliable pitchers of his generation. He never tires, and somehow he always seems to be able to reach back for something extra when it matters most.

Daisuke Matsuzaka - SP - Boston Red Sox

Nobody east of McCovey Cove has had more attention directed his way during the 2007 season than Dice-K. In addition to the media frenzy, Dice-K was introduced to a different theory of pitching, a different size of ball, and, let us not forget, a different level of hitter in the world's best baseball division, the AL East. His performance was very uneven during his rookie year, but he did achieve 15 wins, 200 Ks, and 200 innings (only six other pitchers managed as much), marks that would have been more than sufficient for any other rookie. During one six-start stretch in June and July, Dice-K had a 1.29 ERA with 51 K in 42 IP. When Dice-K stays in the strikezone, away from the big inning, he can be as dominant as any pitcher in the postseason. One thing is for certain, he is just as exciting as advertised.

Alfonso Soriano - LF - Chicago Cubs

Fonzi began the season in much the same way as fellow Hundred Million Dollar Men, Barry Zito and Vernon Wells. Unlike BZ and VW, Soriano followed his .270/0 HR April by batting .303 with 33 HR the rest of the way, including a historic September which carried the Cubbies into the postseason. If his quad injury hadn't cost him his speed and much of August, Soriano would be on pace to match most of the gaudy numbers from 2006 that gained him his massive contract.

Chone Figgins - Anywhere & Everywhere - Los Angeles Angels

On the morning of May 31, Chone was batting .133. His manager had been forced to sit him for two important games against Seattle in favor of a power-hitting utilityman, Robb Quinlan, and promising rookie infielder, Erick Aybar. The Angels won both games. If Chone wanted to start on a contending team, he was going to have to step it up. He had three hits on May 31 and three more on June 1. From that point until September 22, a span of 83 games, he hit .405, scored 69 runs, and stole 37 bases. He also started at four different positions. Despite playing only 115 games, he finished with some of the best overall numbers of his career. His play-anywhere, do-anything, take-whatever-they'll-give-you-and-more style epitomizes Scioscia's Angels.

Kenny Lofton - LF - Cleveland Indians

The active triples and stolen base leader, K-Lo, has played for nine different teams in the past six years, a stretch which inspired a DHL commercial and makes Reggie Sanders' career seem like the picture of stability. Like Sanders, Lofton's transience is inexplicable. During those six seasons he's batted .293, averaged 80 runs and 24 stolen bases per year, and made four trips to the postseason, all while playing solid defense and being an unmistakably positive veteran presence in the clubhouse. Now, he's finally back where he belongs, in Cleveland, where he was a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner between '93 and '99. No Indian will be more eager to break Cleveland's 59-year World Series drought. Lofton has 349 postseason at-bats. The rest of the Indians have combined for 61. Since acquiring Lofton, the Indians are 54-35. Kenny probably won't be making starts against tough lefties this October, but against righthanders this season Lofton is batting .313 with an 838 OPS, so you can bet he'll be the left-fielder against the likes of Clemens, Wang, and Mussina in the Division Series.

Derrek Lee - 1B - Chicago Cubs

Like Alfonso, D-Lee got hot at the right time. He followed his first-half power outage (6 HR) by hitting as many homers (17 HR) after the All-Star Break as Adam Dunn, Albert Pujols, or Miguel Cabrera. He hit .365 in September, which bodes well for October. D-Lee is the face of the Cubs, the "new look" Cubs. Ironically, as a Marlin, he was a big part of destroying the Cubs chances the last time they made it this far, in 2003. Hopefully he can impart that never-say-die attitude upon his new teammates, many of whom have little or no postseason experience.

C. C. Sabathia - SP - Cleveland Indians

Just don't miss his start on Thursday afternoon. Baseball's best pitcher facing baseball's best lineup in a playoff situation. This is when the soul rises.

Jimmy Rollins - SS - Philadelphia Phillies

On July 8th, at a time when neither team could really imagine themselves facing off in the postseason, the Phillies were playing the Rockies. In the third inning, with the Rockies leading 4-2, driving rain and gusty wind forced a delay. The Colorado grounds crew had trouble with the tarp, one member being tossed around and dragged by sudden bursts of powerful high-altitude winds. Jimmy Rollins led his entire team out onto the field and, rainsoaked, they helped the opposing grounds crew secure the tarp. At the end of the delay the Phillies mounted a comeback, led by Rollins going 3-for-3 with 2 RBI. Not enough can possible be said about Rollins' historic MVP season, in which, among other things, he will play upwards of 165 games at the sports' most demanding position. He has led the Phillies wire-to-wire and into the playoffs, just as he predicted. Don't expect this to be the last of his heroics.

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