Wednesday, October 14, 2009

League Championship Series Preview

So we're down to just the Final Four left in Major League Baseball, and in the American League we have two different teams from last year, while the National League has the same two teams battling it out in a repeat of last year's NLCS in which the Dodgers also had home field advantage going for them. This comes as a result of the divisional series playoffs going pretty close to most people's expectations, although I and it seems like most people out there seem to have underrated the NL's #1 seed heading into its LDS series this year.

In the American League, the two divisional series went pretty much as I thought. I totally nailed the Yankees sweeping the Twins, although I thought the Twinkies actually played better in reality than I expected. In fact, if not for a 2-run 9th inning comeback sparked by Alex Rodriguez's clutch home run in Game 2, the Twins would have stolen a game in New York and headed back for two games at home and a chance to close out the series by defending twice in front of the home-town Minnesota fans. But in the end, it was the Yankees' superior hitting and superior pitching winning out over the momentum and the fight that personify the Minnesota Twins seemingly every year under manager Ron Gardenhire. Oh, and who could forget the worst call I can ever remember seeing made in a major league baseball game late in that Game 2, when Joe Mauer pounded a ground-rule double down the left field line that the umpire, who was standing not ten feet away from where the ball landed and lookign directly at it, somehow managed to call foul even though it landed in fair territory by at least three full feet. It's so not excusable that if that umpire is still calling games in these playoffs then I don't know what other conclusion can reasonably be reached other than that the league condones the fixing of games just like we now know was happening in the NBA for several years with referee Tim Donaghy. In any event, I reject the notion that this call actually impacted the game, despite Gardenhire's suggestion to the contrary, since a leadoff double in extra innings would almost surely have led Minnesota to bunt with the next batter to try to get Mauer into position to score the crucial go-ahead run on any fly ball, so the fact that the next batter got a single is obviously not relevant to the discussion. Moreover, Mauer got on base anyways in that at-bat, and within seconds it was bases loaded, nobody out, with Mauer representing the go-ahead run on third base. The Twins letting the Yankees get out of that situation without scoring is what lost them Game 2, not the worst call in baseball history on Mauer's double.

The other AL divisional series also ended as I had predicted, with the Angels finally overcoming their demons against the Red Sox in the playoffs and taking care of the two-time World Series champions this decade. However, I was expecting this to be a whole lot closer than it was, as the Angels ended up sweeping the Sox out of the postseason whereas I thought this would come down to a Game 5 win for the Angels in Anaheim. This series, which also featured an amazing 9th-inning 3-run comeback by the Angels in Game 3, was funny because of the recent history between the two teams that has seen the Sox eliminate the Angels from the playoffs three out of three times they have matched up in the postseason in this decade. I have several good friends in Boston and, having spoken regularly with them throughout this series, I can tell you that in Boston, 100% of baseball fans believed the Red Sox would win this series before it began, knowing how their team has fared against the Angels in recent seasons. After the Angels nabbed Game 1 in Boston, still every baseball fan in Boston knew their Sox were going to come back and win the series. Even after the Sox's Game 2 loss in Anaheim to go down 2-0, still 80% of Boston fans were sure the Red Sox were going to come home and crush at Fenway and then win a tough Game 5 to continue their streak against the Angels. By the 8th inning of Game 3 with the Sox holding a comfortable 3-run lead, that percentage was back up to 100% as now once again every baseball fan in Boston knew the Sox were going to win the next three games. Not until Jonathan Papelbon had blown that huge save to end Game 3 and end the series did the hometown fans actually accept the possibility that their beloved Sawx would not be in the World Series again in 2009. But the Angels and top-flight manager Mike Scoscia believed all along, and they punched the Sox early and often, stealing a game late in the 9th inning at the end to claim the sweep.

With the Yankees and Angels meeting in the ALCS, I still have to give the nod to the Yankees although I expect this to be a more competitive series than what we saw in the American League in the LDS's. John Lackey and Jered Weaver, who I expect to pitch at least half of the total games in this series for the Angels, are both top-line pitchers who did a great job already in the LDS against a very tough Red Sox lineup and who should match up favorably with Yankee aces CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett. But the battle of the #3 starters in Scott Kazmir for the Angels vs the Yankees' Andy Pettitte has to go to Pettitte, one of the great postseason pitchers of all time, especially given Kazmir's less-than-great starts in the LDS this year and last year's World Series when Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies smacked him all over the park. The bullpen as well favors the Yanks, with all-time best closer Mariano Rivera easily outclassing Angels' closer Brian Fuentes who was 1-5 this year with 7 blown saves. And the lineup in general, as strong as the Angels are on offense, simply has to once again favor the Yankees, who have truly amassed one of the great lineup in the history of baseball in my view with this year's team. Damon, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, Teixeira, Matsui, Posada, Swisher, and the list just goes on and on. There are just no holes in this lineup, which I think combines poorly with the Angels' deficiency in their #3 starter as well as in the bullpen. If you review each of the four LDS series this year, the losing team in all four blew a save during the short series, and it cost each of them a chance to play in the LCS. I expect we will see more of the same in the ALCS, with the Yankees overall out-hitting the Angels, in particular the Angels' starter in Game 3 and probably winning a game in the 9th inning as well off of Brian Fuentes. Yankees in 7.

Moving to the National League, the easy call was in the Phillies - Rockies series, where I repeatedly made the point last week that the Champs simply had clearly superior pitching and clearly superior hitting to the Rockies, and it showed in that series as the Phils took it down 3 games to 1, losing only in a one-run game in Game 2 where the Phillies had a runner in scoring position in the 9th inning and Shane Victorino roped a liner that headed right into the Rockies' second baseman's glove but was perhaps one foot away from tying that game up as well. One thing the Rockies fell victim to in this series was that the Phillies are hands-down the best grinding team in baseball today. It used to be -- even last season to some extent -- that the later you could stay with the Phillies, the more chance you had to beat them. But not this year. Nowadays, if the Phils are tied 0-0 in the 5th or 6th inning of a big game, the other team is fixing to lose. The Phillies twice did exactly this to Rockies' #1 starter Ubaldo Jimenez, getting crushed by him for four or five innings in his two starts in the LDS before finally getting to him in the 5th and 6th innings. The Phillies have far and away the best lineup in the National League -- bested only by the Yankees in the entire major leagues -- and it is just next to impossible to keep the whole lineup down for an entire game. By far the worst thing that happened to the Phillies in the Rockies series was that Brad Lidge was called upon and succeeded in saving the final two of the three wins against Colorado. Lidge, as I've reported here consistently for months, is the literal worst player in all of baseball bar none, and for the Phillies to be amassing reneweded confidence in his shitty "skills" at this point in the season is about as horrible of an outcome as could possibly happen with this team. The Phils would sadly have been much better off with Lidge completely blowing the save in Game 4 and then the team having to come back to Philly to win Game 5 without Lidge, confident all across the team's management that Lidge's suckitude prevents him from being used again in a key spot in the playoffs. Instead, the fools in charge will now think Lidge has some measure of reliability, and that's a terrible situation for the Phillies to be in, especially given again how every single LDS series saw the losing team in the series blow at least one save, while every winning team failed to blow any saves on the series.

The one surprise in the LDS round for many people this year came in the 1-3 matchup in the National League, where Joe Torre's Dodgers swept the St. Louis Cardinals out of the playoffs. The Cardinals seemed custom-built for playoff baseball, with top mlb starters Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright ready to pitch three or four of the games as needed, but the Dodgers found a way to win all three games the teams played, including once again stealing a game in the 9th inning in Game 2 on a blown save on their way to the sweep. Longtime readers will note that I am a huge Joe Torre fan, and I am amazed at his ability to succeed against a rotation like the Cardinals' this year, as were many pundits out there also thought the Cardinals' pitching would carry them through to the LCS. But the Dodgers very smartly pitched around Albert Pujols through the series, and the otherwise not-scary Cardinals lineup simply could not produce like the Dodgers and they were swept away to end their 2009 campaign.

Looking at the NLCS rematch of the Phillies and Dodgers, with the Dodgers once again holding homefield advantage, I once again am predicting a 7-game series that will come down to the wire. At first blush the same comparisons seem to apply for the Phillies as they had in their matchup with Colorado -- in my view, the Phillies' starting pitching is noticeably ahead of the Dodgers' Randy Wolf - Vicente Padilla rotation of mainly Philadelphia castoffs, and I don't think anyone would doubt that the Phillies also have the superior lineup as compared to the Dodgers who, like the Cardinals, are really only particularly strong in one or two spots. All that said, however, the big X factor in this series to me is the bullpens, and in this area the Dodgers are light years ahead of the Phillies, especially with Brad Lidge seemingly back in the team's good graces after two saves in the LCS with the Rockies. As much as I would love to see the Phillies -- the only team in my view that could put up a credible threat to the Yankees' combination of starting pitching and hitting in 2009 -- take on the Yankees with absolutely no pressure and nothing to prove whatsoever after last year's World Series championship, I just can't help but think that Brad Lidge will blow a game that will cost the Phils a shot at repeating in the Series this year. I feel very confident that the Phillies will hold a lead late in the 8th or in the 9th inning in at least four of the games with the Dodgers in the NLCS. But I fear that the Phils will only manage to emerge victorious in three of those games, thanks to Brad Lidge, but really thanks to manager Charlie Manuel's overdone loyalty to his players and his complete refusal to deal with the Phillies' tremendous woes at closer all the way through the season. Literally, if Lidge had blown a save vs. Colorado and Manuel had used one of his other many options late in the clinching game, I would be picking the Phillies here, but with it now seeming all but certain that Lidge will be in there in a big spot in this series, the nod simply has to go to the Dodgers to emerge and set up a battle of the Joe's, and a battle of the #1 seeds, in the 2009 World Series.

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Blogger Shrike said...

I'll be cheering on the Angels, but it's quite an exaggeration to describe Jered Weaver as a top-line pitcher.


12:15 AM  
Blogger Astin said...

Not the worst call in history. The Jays' triple play in the '92 series was the worst call in baseball history. Gruber TRIPPED the guy tagging him and he's called safe? Give me a break.

12:53 AM  
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2:58 AM  
Blogger Riggstad said...

I also would like to sponeAsor your blog hammerplayer at blogspot dot com if you would just stop picking on lidge and charlie.

Don't get me wrong, I think Lidge's suckatude is beyond explanation and should have been rewarded with a non roster spot throughout the playoffs. But Charlie sees something and he did perform in two key spots.

The question becomes who the hell else do we use? Lidge has to be the guy for now.

Even with him, I don't think it will be as close as you think. 6 run games will be the average for our World Fucking Champs this time around and will win the series in 5.

The World Fucking Champs win this one with offense outscoring the Dodgers early and often. At home, that will rock the hell out of Dodgers. Once the Phils have a lead - well, you look up the stats.

I know you want them to win. and "picking on" isn't really the term I was searching for.

You just sound like every single Philadelphia fan on sports radio right now. Lidge Lidge Lidge.

the guy will get it done. (*I hope I hope I hope I hope)

6:57 AM  
Blogger OES said...

hindsight bias aside, I never thought the sox had a chance against the Angels. I guess I'm part of the 20% of sox fans, but it's just being realistic.

7:29 AM  

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