|By Matt Kane|
The sparring match that broke out March 27 between Julian Tavarez of the Boston Red Sox and Joey Gathright of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays awoke the little hairs on the back of my neck.
The eighth inning raucous occurred after a play at the plate, when Gathright accused the pitcher, Tavarez, who was covering, of standing on his arm. After a few words were exchanged Tavarez connected on a combination right hook-jab to Gathright’s mug.
The Red Sox and Devil Rays have a history of ill-feelings towards each other. The best thing about last Monday’s episode is it occurred in Fort Myers during a spring training game. Just a day earlier Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett got in a jawing match with Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.
If preseason games are stirring this much emotion out of players, it must mean they are ready for the no-nonsense of the regular season.
And so am I.
So, in coinciding with the first week of the Major League Baseball season, I have weighed all 30 options and narrowed them down to eight teams I see playing in October.
In the American League, I see the Central Division as being the weakest, and, thus, will produce two teams headed for the postseason.
Although I hate to do it, I have to give the defending World Series champions their due. But I don’t see the White Sox repeating as division champions, that honor, sorry Twins, will go to Cleveland.
The Indians have a huge upside with youth, and will edge the South-siders for their first Central Division crown since 2001.
The White Sox will out-play the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays for the wild card.
The latter two teams will fall short of the New York Yankees in the east, as they have for the past eight seasons.
The Yankees will, ultimately, make it to the league championship game after beating the White Sox in the division series. The Bronx Bombers will face the Indians, who will easily get by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the other division series.
In the National League, the only shoo-in is the Atlanta Braves. So they lost Rafael Furcal and, more importantly, pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Two big losses, but there is no way I am going to exclude a team that has won 14 consecutive Eastern Division titles. They may be the bridesmaid when they get to October, but the Braves always seem to get there, nonetheless.
To the Braves’ immediate west, the Houston Astros will win the Central Division over a pesky Milwaukee Brewers team, which will bump the St. Louis Cardinals to third place in the division.
How the west is won, will be by default. The Los Angeles Dodgers will take the National League West, thanks to a comeback player of the year effort by now first baseman Nomar Garciaparra. And, surprisingly, they will upset the wild card New York Mets in the division series for a trip to the league championship round.
The Braves will get there too and further prove the brilliance of manager Bobby Cox first by sweeping the Astros and then by beating the Dodgers for a trip to the World Series.
The Braves will be Jonesing for a title after Andruw’s all-star MVP effort in Pittsburgh gives the National League and the Braves home field advantage in the Fall Classic.
They will need it, as they will find themselves in a true powwow against the Indians in a rematch from 1995. The Braves won that series in six games. This October, Atlanta will need Game 7 at Turner Field to send Cleveland home without the hardware.
Victor Martinez will become a household name as his bat carries the Indians through the playoffs, but 2005 rookie sensation Jeff Francour will brush off any sophomore jinx and slug his way to the World Series MVP award and the championship, the fifth in franchise history.
No more bridesmaid, Atlanta. This time the ring will be on your finger.