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Championship Series Preview: N.Y. Yankees and L.A. Dodgers Headed for Epic Clash

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IOctober 13, 2009

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 09: The New York Yankees celebrate Mark Teixeira's #25 walk off home run in the eleventh inning against the Minnesota Twins in Game Two of the ALDS during the 2009 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 9, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers have a lot in common.

Each has a fan base of little or no merit: witness LA's failure to sell out its Game Two NLDS win over St. Louis, even though the Redbirds' fan base travels exceptionally well. Nor are Yankees fans, who have come out in numbers 12.7 percent smaller than last year despite the Yanks' 103 wins, especially worthy of the fruits they now enjoy.

(Note: A little less than half of that drop-off can be accounted for by the smaller capacity of the new Yankee Stadium, which is 52,000 and change rather than 56.)

Each also has a slugger who spent the first half of the season embroiled in controversy over allegations of steroid use. For the Yankees, of course, that player is Alex Rodriguez, whose status as the torch-bearer of baseball's "clean" superstars was compromised when accusations surfaced that he used human growth hormone (HGH) in high school and early in his pro career.

On the opposite coast, the steroid pariah is Manny Ramirez, the ebullient left fielder who tested positive for a drug commonly used as a masking agent for steroid use, and was suspended for 50 games from May to July.

Upon his return, Ramirez underachieved (at least relative to his exceptional career standards), but has rediscovered his stroke in October: he hit .308 with three doubles and two RBI in the NLDS.

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Rodriguez, who until this year lacked Ramirez's stellar playoff pedigree, recorded five hits, two home runs and six RBI in 11 at-bats against the Minnesota Twins, whom the Yankees swept.

Each team also led its respective league in walk-off wins, and has drawn in national audiences with long summers of dramatic comebacks, facilitated by surpassingly good bullpens.

The most compelling and clear similarity between the teams, however, is also the most important: they are each, without question, the best team in their league, and the more deserving of the potential combatants to represent their league in the upcoming World Series.

Los Angeles, who won 95 games en route to their second consecutive division title under new manager (and former Yankees skipper) Joe Torre, allowed the fewest runs in the MLB for the second straight year, despite the lack of an ace in the vein of the Philadelphia Phillies' Cliff Lee or New York's C.C. Sabathia.

Their bullpen, the best in the NL, facilitated that dominance, led by closer Jonathan Broxton and trade-deadline acquisition George Sherrill.

The boys in blue also hit for the highest average in the National League, which (along with unparalleled depth) allowed them to overcome Ramirez's suspension and score the fourth-most runs in the NL while hitting only 145 homers, good for 11th on the senior circuit.

The truly remarkable feature of Los Angeles is the depth it boasts in all facets of the game. Fourth outfielder Juan Pierre stole 30 bases, marking the ninth consecutive season in which he reached or exceeded that milestone. Pierre reached base at a .365 clip, his best such percentage since 2004.

Acquired at mid-season from the Washington Nationals, back-up second baseman Ron Belliard also contributed, hitting .351/.398/.636 and swatting five home runs in 24 games as a Dodger.

Finally, LA demonstrated again its ability to find bargain options to boost its rotation. In 25 starts, the four-headed monster of Jon Garland (stolen away from Arizona in July), Vicente Padilla (cast aside by the Texas Rangers in August), and returning Dodgers Jeff Weaver and Eric Milton combined to go 15-7, with a 3.43 ERA, all as spot starters and fill-ins around four superior pitchers.

For New York, the road to this near-pinnacle has been less improvisational.

Of the club's important pieces, only swingman pitcher Chad Gaudin arrived after the start of the season (in total, Los Angeles has four such significant players: Sherrill, Belliard, Garland and Padilla).

The team returned to its roots, after some years of non-committal tactics aimed at moderating, to some degree, with its disruptive influence on the entire economic framework of the game. George Steinbrenner's progeny spent nearly $60 million in 2009 salary alone to secure the services of three of the top five free agents available.

Carsten Charles Sabathia, the celebrated southpaw on whom the pinstriped emperors bestowed a seven-year, $161 million contract, delivered his third consecutive season of at least 230 innings, attaining the 19-win summit for the second time in three campaigns.

More importantly, he won all nine of his decisions in August and September (months in which he has traditionally struggled), compiling an ERA a shade over two runs per game during that span. Upon reaching the postseason, Sabathia added to this sterling effort the best start of his playoff career in defeating the Twins in the ALDS opener.

Mark Teixeira, who will finish in the top two among American League MVP candidates, led the junior circuit in both home runs and RBI. Taking advantage of a home park that surrendered round-trippers in bunches, Teixeira slugged a robust .627 at the new Yankee Stadium, and swatted 24 of his 39 homers there.

In the second game of the Twins series, Teixeira added an exclamation point to his fine first effort in the Bronx by belting a horizontal line drive into the left-field seats for a walk-off win.

A.J. Burnett, whom the Yanks nabbed at the steep price of $90 million over five seasons, had a rougher time of it, but managed to strike out 195 batters en route to 13 regular-season wins and a more-than-adequate Game Two outing against Minnesota.

Aside from the big-money, big-ticket moves, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman also made a fistful of smaller moves, acquiring outfielder Nick Swisher and coaxing starter Andy Pettitte into returning for 2009. A number of Yankees had resurgent seasons, especially second baseman Robinson Cano, left fielder Johnny Damon, and designated hitter Hideki Matsui.

The Yanks scored more runs than any team in the big leagues. No team hit as many home runs, drew as many walks, or had a higher on-base or slugging average.

But apart from the offensive juggernaut, New York found its dominant groove once its pitching got in gear.

The Yankees' bullpen, which has boasted future Hall-of-Fame closer Mariano Rivera for more than a decade, added a stable of effective arms in 2009.

Phil Hughes, once the organization's top starting pitching prospect, moved to the 'pen mid-season, and finished with a sparkling 3.03 ERA, accompanied by 96 strikeouts in 86 innings. Three young Yankee hurlers—Brian Bruney, Alfredo Aceves, and Jonathan Albaladejo—combined to go 15-1 in 119 appearances, while young arms Phil Coke and David Robertson struck out a combined 112 in 103.2 innings of work.

Both teams are obliged to play another series before potentially meeting in the Fall Classic. LA must overcome the defending champions, the Philadelphia Phillies, who have the best and most balanced offensive club in the NL, and who have attempted to answer questions about their bench and starting rotation via late-season moves that brought in starters Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez, and outfielder Ben Francisco.

Philadelphia, however, has questions they must answer in its bullpen, and if those questions are to be answered now, they will have to be answered by the same group that struggled all season. Los Angeles' ability to shut the door with a dominant bullpen sets them apart in this series, and they should take the NLCS in five games.

On the other side of the bracket, New York squares off with the Dodgers' cross-town counterparts, the Angels. The Halos come into the ALCS after sweeping away their long-time October nemeses, the Boston Red Sox.

There may not be a more balanced team left in contention, as LA has a trio of top starters in John Lackey, Jered Weaver, and Scott Kazmir; a lineup featuring two MVP candidates in Chone Figgins and Kendry Morales; and a deep bench and bullpen, headed by fourth outfielder Gary Matthews, utility infielder Maicer Izturis, and bullpen aces Darren Oliver and Kevin Jepsen.

Unfortunately for the Angels, their pitching is designed only to contain opposing offenses while the Angels' hitters score enough runs to win. That formula doesn't figure to work well against the mighty Yankees, whose offense defies containment, and who will have home-field advantage that inflates offensive output.

The two teams split the season series five games apiece, but here in October, the Yankees have a clear advantage. It may well go to seven games, but once it does, New York will prevail.

Thus, the stage would be set for what could be the best World Series since 1991, if both quality of teams and closeness of match are to be considered.

The Yankees and Dodgers are national brands, long-tenured winners, and old-fashioned collections of talent and intangibles. If the two meet, New York would seem to have the edge. But there we get ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say that the matchup would be entertaining, and immensely enjoyable.

It just has to happen, first.

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