Last year, I went on and on about how majestic it sounded. The League Championship Series. There is just something about it, a combination of gravitas and majesty, that continues to turn grown men giddy and the downtrodden into dreamers. Sometimes it is just a prelude to the drama, but as any Red Sox fan would tell you, sometimes it is the drama. I mean all it really gets you is a pennant to hang, but there is something transcendent about that pennant that means so much more. Before the days of the playoffs, it means you had won your league, but now even with the playoff era, it still brings about visions of grandeur and hopes of what is to come. For the 26 teams sitting on their couches, it is where they want to be, but for the four teams left, there is nowhere on earth they would rather be. All expenses paid trip to Paris, London and Tokyo? Not a chance any of them would trade a plane ticket to Arlington or Philadelphia for it. Welcome back to the LCS.
I am not sure how to phrase the Yankees sweep of the Twins. Were the Twins the dirt that the Yankees swept away, or were the Yankees mopping the floor with the Twins? Both work in this case as the Yankees proved why the Twins are just not built for the postseason with that pitching staff. They coasted through and got to enjoy the Rays-Rangers series like the rest of us.
For as straightforward as the Yankees series was with one team just dominating, the Rangers-Rays series was a roller coaster. Neither team won a home game, Cliff Lee showed why he is probably the best playoff pitcher of his era, and the Rangers outlasted the Rays in 5 games. There is no ALDS MVP, but it is pretty clear that it would have been Cliff Lee as he seemingly won two games for the Rangers almost on his own. 16 IP, 2 ER seems to speak for itself if you ask me. The Rangers really deserved to win the series too, as they out Rayed the Rays so to speak. Watching Elvis Andrus steal second, then score on a hit and run on a ground ball to first was just awesome to see, and told you everything you needed to know about this team. We used to associate the Rangers with just being a pure hitting team, but they won this game by running (Andrus’ run, and Nelson Cruz’s steal that got the bad throw out of Kelly Shoppach) and pitching. Thee Rangers we used to know have gone through a metamorphosis that was way more pleasant than anything Kafka ever thought of. The are not some one-round wonder. They have what it takes to take this thing all the way.
Once again, we have a simple series and a complex one. The Phillies beat the Reds easily, though the Reds certainly helped out, behind two shutouts (one no-hitter) and a furious comeback spurred on by Jay Bruce losing the ball in the lights, and just generally bad defense from the Reds. I said going in that the Reds were really the only team I could not see making a run, and I was ultimately right about that, though perhaps not for the reasons I suspected. The Reds were a great hitting team all year and were first in many defensive categories all year and they just crumbled in the playoffs. Some teams can handle the pressure, some teams can’t, and the Reds couldn’t handle it this year. I have a feeling this is not the last we have heard of them though.
The Phillies were almost boring in their brilliance. They were simply better than the Reds in every phase, and even with Jimmy Rollins not at 100%, they handled the Reds with ease. They are still the favorites, and my boring preseason pick of Phillies over Yankees in 7 still looks pretty good.
The Giants-Braves series may have been my favorite LDS since my Indians beat the Yankees in 2007 (clear bias). However, once again, bad defense blighted what was otherwise a fantastic series with Brooks Conrad stealing the show from some fantastic pitching. I feel bad for the guy. I really do, but you cannot do that and expect to win games. The Braves struggled offensively as any team would without its 2 best players (Chipper and Prado), but still were in every game thanks to amazing pitching out of Lowe and Hudson (and to a lesser degree, Hanson). The Giants definitely deserved to win the series, but you cannot help but wonder what might have been if the Braves had not shot themselves in the foot over and over. Braves fans have got to be having flashbacks to the 90s when they couldn’t score runs for their pitchers. The Giants clearly deserved to win the series, but I wish they could have won it without Conrad’s help.
The defense overall in the first round was horrible. Defense is baseball is a little like special teams in football. No one realizes how important it is until it costs them games. It really is a huge factor in deciding who wins a series, and we saw that again this year. The Reds committed too many errors in the one big game they had a shot to win, the Braves ruined themselves with errors, and the Rays ultimately allowed the winning run on poor defense. It was kind of embarrassing to a purist like myself. Defense is far more important than anyone gives it credit for. How do you think the Padres nearly led the NL West wire-to-wire? Pitching and defense. Pitching and defense/ Pitching and defense. I cannot say it enough.
I am predicting greatness from this series. Look at all these storylines.
- CC is not a good playoff pitcher despite what we all saw last year. He is going to drop Game 1 and CJ Wilson is going to shut down the Yankees because they struggle with lefties and he was great against the Rays.
- Cliff Lee gets to throw in Yankee Stadium again, a building he completely owns. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a former Indian completely own Yankee Stadium as a visitor. He is really just an incredible postseason pitcher. One of the best I have seen.
- The Rangers’ bats in Yankee Stadium is going to be fun, although their lack of left-handed power hitters could become problematic.
- A-Rod and Teixeira return to Texas to find a franchise they both left in tatters now facing them in the ALCS.
- The level of baseball should be fantastic as both teams were great defensively and on the mound in their first rounds.
- The speed of the Rangers vs. Jorge Posada is a huge deal in this series. Only Pettitte’s ability to hold runners on will save Posada in this series, because otherwise, it is going to be a track meet.
- Josh Hamilton’s ribs are not at 100%, but he still might have the muscle to yank a few out of Yankee Stadium by using that short porch in right. He is really the only big time power hitter who is left-handed in that lineup, and his contributions will be huge if they are to advance.
- The Yankees have the 4th best ace in the playoffs. How’s that for high standards.
As if this was not enough, you have the upstarts who believe in themselves vs. the Evil Empire. Journalists will be drooling over this series, but the baseball should be such good quality that we do not fall into the old trap of thinking a series is good just because of the storylines.
I think the Rangers take Game 1, Yankees take Games 2. Cliff Lee beats the Yankees in Game 3. Yankees take Games 4 and 5, and in an act of desperation, take game 6 in trying to avoid Cliff Lee.
Note: If Lee ends up being slated for Game 6, the Rangers win that and the Yankees take it in 7. I could see the upset very easily in this series, but I am going to hold off picking it for now.
Prediction: Yankees in 7
This is probably the second best pitching matchup of my lifetime. Number one is probably Pedro vs Clemens in 2003, but this is not too far behind. Halladay vs Lincecum is going to set the tone for this series, and I cannot think of anything better for baseball. Lincecum’s 14 Ks vs Halladay’s no-hitter is a huge game for both teams, but especially the Giants. I feel like if the Giants lose this game, they are toast. They need to take advantage of The Freaky Franchise’s start way more than the Phillies need to take advantage of Halladay, so if Halladay outduels Lincecum, the Giants are done. I really hope the Giants take Game 1 so we have a series, but I really do not know who is going to take it.
I think the Giants are a little too home run dependent to win this series without some help, and judging by how the Phillies played for most of that Reds series, I do not think they will get that help. I like Oswalt and Hamels more than Cain and Sanchez and I think everyone likes the Phillies lineup more than the Giants’. It is clearly a boring pick, but I am sticking to my preseason guns and taking the Phillies in the series. Carlos Ruiz is going to be the unsung hero of it all (and I mean very unsung) as the Phillies return to the World Series for the 3rd straight year.
Prediction: Phillies in 7 if Lincecum wins Game 1. Phillies in 5 if Lincecum loses game 1.