FEATURE
2035 Thunderdome Breakdown
Two men enter; one man leaves.
by CAVE DAMERON

Rotation

Future Hall of Famer Carlos Mateo is having another fantastic season, posting a 2.40 ERA since being traded in July. Mateo led the league in lowest walk rate, this year posting a ridiculous 0.5 BB/9. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against the Sky Pirates, who led the league in OBP. Danny Ibuado is probably one of the best #2s around. His 4.3 WAR this season had him tied for 12th-best in the league. He won’t pile up as many strikeouts as Mateo, and he’ll walk a few more, but he’ll keep the ball on the ground and limit the long ball as well as anyone in the league. Tom Chatwin has pitched well enough this season to be a lock as the #3 starter for the Stivali. He also keeps the ball on the ground, which is important against the 2nd-best HR-hitting team in the league in the Sky Pirates. Jose Villegas served as the #4 starter for the Stivali this postseason, but he will be an absolute liability against Cloud City. Look for Italia to move Villegas to the bullpen and roll with a three-man rotation. It’s now or never for the Stivali, and that should mean we see Mateo start in games 1, 4, and 7.

Cloud City has the best starting rotation in the league, hands down. Gan Bi and Luis Gonzalez put up 8.8 and 8.2 WAR this season, respectively. The next highest player (pitcher or hitter) was Luis Diaz with 7.4, who also just so happens to be a Sky Pirate. Unfortunately for Cloud City, Bi and Gonzalez had to pitch two and three days ago, respectively. That more than likely means the Stivali will only have to face them each twice. Unfortunately for Italia, Cloud City’s #3 and 4 starters also happen to be among the best in the league. Brendan Oswalt put up 4.3 WAR this season, albeit with an abnormally high ERA by his standards. The Sky Pirates’ worst starter, Xiang-Ling Chong, is arguably better than Italia’s #3 starter, Tom Chatwin. Even if Italia avoids the worst-case of facing Bi and Gonzalez a combined five times over a seven game series, they’ll still be going against the best rotation in the game.

Advantage: Cloud City

Lineup

Italia doesn’t have the most intimidating lineup, but midseason acquisitions Gustavo Vasquez and Danny Alejandre have at least bumped them up into the contender range. Vasquez has regained his MVP-caliber form from a season ago, and the 2-6 spots in the Stivali lineup (Alejandre, Hugo Nery, Hector Ortiz, Vasquez, and Izzy de Lara) have given more than a few teams trouble. It’s the other four spots in the lineup that will be the deciding factor in how long this series goes. Reynaldo Sanchez, Alexis Morales, George Hoen, and Verdiano Alighieri are mainly in the lineup for their defense, but they’ll have to come up big with their bats in order for the Stivali to have any shot at taking down Cloud City.

Let’s take a quick look at Cloud City’s offensive rankings this season: 2nd in runs scored, 1st in batting average, 1st in OBP, 2nd in home runs, and 3rd in stolen bases. Yeah, they’re pretty good. And that’s after trading away Pak, Osorio, et. al. The aforementioned Luis Diaz was the best hitter in the game this season, batting .291 with 49 HRs, all the while putting up good defensive numbers behind the plate. With Diaz, Ban-ki Jun, Won-chul Hoang, and J.R. Treichel, Cloud City has four of the top nine hitters in the league, with another (Rafael Ortiz) sitting at #15. It’s really no wonder why the Sky Pirates have the best lineup in the league. All nine batters can get on base, and there’s not a defensive liability among them. If Cloud City hits like they have all season, even Mateo and Ibuado will have trouble keeping them down.

Advantage: Cloud City

Bullpen

The Stivali bullpen is anchored by closer Dong Gou. Gou has the stuff and stamina to go multiple innings if needs be. Italia will need him to shut out the late innings in order to have any chance to win. The rest of Italia’s bullpen stacks up well against anyone, including Cloud City. Luis Nieto in particular pitched very well this season, posting a career-high 1.6 WAR. The only liability in the bullpen is Sadakazu Kaneshiro, whom Italia acquired from Everett earlier this season, along with Tom Chatwin. On paper at least, the bullpen is the only place the Stivali match up well with Cloud City. They’ll need to pitch lights-out, but they at least give Italia a chance.

Cloud City ended the season with the lowest bullpen ERA in the league, although they aren’t exactly loaded with talent. Raul Herrera is a monster, and Andres Acevedo and Juan Coll have had very good years, but if Cloud City has a weakness, it’s in the bullpen. The Sky Pirates will likely go to Raul Herrera as early as the 7th inning. If Italia can make him work early and often, they’ll have a chance to put up some late-inning runs.

Advantage: Italia

Final Prediction

Mateo and Ibuado will make this series interesting, but Cloud City just has too much firepower. The Sky Pirates have one of the best teams ever assembled, and will win their fourth TNBL Championship in the past six seasons.

Cloud City in 5