MLB Playoff Preview: Championship Series
After a division series round that featured three sweeps and one four-game series win, the real fun will begin tomorrow night, as the NLCS between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers will open at Dodger Stadium.
That will be followed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Yankee Stadium to kick off the ALCS on Friday night.
I cannot begin to describe how excited I am for both of these series.
Yes, it would have been nice to see another epic Boston versus New York ALCS; however, it is my belief that the two matchups that this year has dealt to us could not have been chosen any better.
Philadelphia Phillies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
For those of you with a short memory, this will be a rematch of last year's NLCS. The Phillies would take care of the Dodgers quite convincingly in five games and go on to win the World Series in 2008.
However, this year should be entirely different for one reason, and that is the maturity of the Dodgers.
Last year, the whole team basically tried to ride Manny Ramirez's bat through the playoffs and to the World Series. That plan did not end up working out very well, as Ramirez's bat proved to be nowhere near enough to counteract Philadelphia's lineup and dominant young pitching.
This year, the rest of the starting lineup has managed to make itself heard. While a few of the team's established veterans appeared to regress, including the aforementioned Ramirez, the Dodger youngsters did a great amount of speaking with their bats.
Outfielders Andre Ethier (coming off an impressive NLDS performance) and Matt Kemp, the future core of the organization, both had career years. Each hit for about a .300 average with over 25 home runs and 100 runs batted in. 25-year-old first baseman James Loney and 26-year-old catcher Russell Martin managed to turn in solid years as well.
Turning attention to the starting rotation, manager Joe Torre announced that he plans to have young phenom Clayton Kershaw, who went 6.2 innings while giving up two runs during his NLDS Game Two start, start Game One of this series.
Kershaw will be followed by Vicente Padilla in the rotation.
Padilla pitched seven shutout innings during Los Angeles's clinching game over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
The combo of Kershaw and Padilla should give the Dodgers an excellent one-two punch to open up the series. Power arms are something that is extremely valued when it comes to October baseball, and these two can really blow the opposition away if they are on their game.
Randy Wolf, who lasted only 3.2 innings during his Game One start in the NLDS, will get the Game Three start. As for Game Four, look for Hiroki Kuroda to get the start over the unreliable Chad Billingsley if the Dodgers are down in the series.
However, if Los Angeles is up, I would definitely not be surprised to see Billingsley in there, as he has the ability to deliver electric stuff from the mound.
On the other side of the diamond, there is really not much to say. The power-packed lineup of the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies is quite a sight to behold.
Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, and Raul Ibanez, the heart of the Phillie lineup, hit for a combined .367 batting average against the Colorado Rockies in their NLDS. While the Dodger pitching is a step above that of Colorado, cooling the bats of these four down is a very hard task to accomplish.
If leadoff man Jimmy Rollins can get his bat going and Shane Victorino continues to deliver in the two-hole, setting up Utley and Howard, the lineup will be even more dangerous.
Cole Hamels, who shut the Dodgers down in last year's NLCS, will start Game One. Cliff Lee, coming off a very impressive performance during the NLDS (16.1 IP, 2 ER) will start Game Two.
Ultimately, I expect this series to come down to the bullpen, and in that department, Los Angeles has the upper hand.
While Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge seems to have found a groove (for now), and the rest of the bullpen was not terrible during the first playoff series, their regular season stats (44 SV in 66 SVO this season—good for last in the majors) do not paint a pretty picture.
To compare the Phillie bullpen to a mediocre bullpen would be hard to do, never mind the Dodger bullpen, which is one of the best in the league. If the past has taught us anything, it is that most of the time the team with the best bullpen goes the farthest.
I would say that the starting rotation among the teams is about even and would give the Phillies a slight edge in the starting lineup.
But the disparity between the two 'pens will ultimately give Los Angeles the series.
Prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers over Philadelphia Phillies in seven.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs. New York Yankees
Wow. This was unexpected.
Just as Yankee and Red Sox fans were getting the war paint ready yet again, the Angels threw both respective fanbases a curveball (no pun intended).
I must admit, I expected the Angels to finally get that huge monkey off their back and beat Boston this year. But I did not expect it to happen in three games! With the clincher being in Fenway Park!
If you were to tell me that you expected the Angels to wrap the ALDS up in as neat a little package as they did, I would laugh in your face and make some kind of comment about your pants being on fire.
The Angels barely gave the Boston a chance to breathe in Games One and Two and came back to win Game Three in the ninth inning against the almighty Jonathan Papelbon. Not even Nostradamus saw that one coming.
Yet I digress. That is now the past, and I can't help but smile from ear to ear thinking about what the next week of baseball has in store for us.
While Red Sox-Yankees would have been fun for the Northeast, believe me when I say that Angels-Yankees is going to be a better series.
I personally think it would have taken the Yankees five games to get past the Red Sox.
Now, we've got major drama. Two totally different types of forces collide: the New York Yankees, who can basically bludgeon a team to death with their offense, versus the Los Angeles Angels, who have the ability to "steal" a series right out from under their opponent.
The teams went 5-5 against each other in regular season play this year. While the Yankees were swept by the Angels during their first visit to Angels Stadium in July, New York managed to salvage the final two games of a three-game series during their second visit to the West Coast in September.
Most believe that those two games will prove to have worked wonders for the Yankee psyche in the long run. However, the Angels still play a brand of baseball that the Yankees are very uncomfortable with and not used to seeing.
For example, Los Angeles can manufacture a run through Chone Figgins slapping a base hit to the opposite field, stealing second base, moving to third base on a groundout to the right side by Bobby Abreu, and scoring on a deep fly ball by Torii Hunter. They play like this very consistently.
Conversely, the Yankees have the ability to easily get that run back with a 450-foot Alex Rodriguez home run.
But with the Angels constantly showing off their wheels, the Yankees are going to have to make sure that they keep the mistakes to a minimum, no matter how many home runs they are capable of hitting once they get their turn in the box.
Overthrows, passed balls, and walks would ultimately lead to New York's demise. With the Angel ability to "make things happen," sloppy play by the Yankees is not out of the realm of possibility.
As expected, CC Sabathia will start Game One for New York, followed by A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte in Games Two and Three, respectively. Yet in a curious move by manager Joe Girardi, Sabathia will most probably start Game Four instead of Joba Chamberlain or Chad Gaudin.
While I prefer seeing Chamberlain stay in the bullpen and do not trust Gaudin in a big spot, Sabathia's previous track record starting on short rest in the playoffs is not anything to speak of, although the Yankees did not ask Sabathia to pitch on short rest to finish up the regular season as the Milwaukee Brewers did last year.
Still, it is still a risky move by Girardi.
Angel manager Mike Scioscia did a little tinkering with his rotation as well. Most notably, Scott Kazmir, who owns a 2.74 career ERA against New York and is used to pitching against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium from his days with the Tampa Bay Rays, will not start in either Game One or Two in the Bronx, but in Game Four back in Anaheim.
While the move may seem a little confusing, Los Angeles still will send out two legitimate starting pitchers in John Lackey and Joe Saunders, who had a very solid year of his own.
Both rotations stack up pretty evenly against each other, and if, as I mentioned earlier, the Yankees can keep the Angels under control on the basepaths, the lineups should stay in tune with each other as well.
Once again, as is the case in the NLCS, the ALCS, in all likelihood, will be decided by the bullpen. In that department, New York is greatly favored.
If any Yankee starter is able to make it through six innings, the game will be turned over to a bullpen which include the extremely talented young arms of Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Dave Robertson.
And, of course, there is Mariano Rivera.
The Angel bullpen has been weak this year, and while Brian Fuentes is an All-Star-caliber closer, he has shown a tendency to be soft in big spots.
That, mixed with the fact that the Yankees have 16 walk-off wins this year, does not bode for Los Angeles.
Yes, the Angels are going to give the Yankees a very hard-fought effort, but New York's modern-day "Murderer's Row" seems to be destined to make it to the World Series this year.
Prediction: New York Yankees over Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in seven.
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