Wednesday, October 14, 2009


By Rick Morris

By definition, no fewer than 12 games must be played in all of the MLB Division Series collectively. Only 13 were played in the round that just concluded, as three of the four series were sweeps and the other one went four games – and yet, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that more drama could have been jammed into those relatively few contests:

^ Seemingly impregnable closers Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Ryan Franklin and Huston Street all bit the dust at the worst times possible. And after a horrific season, Brad Lidge was “The Man” once again!

^ Alex Rodriguez (or was it Vladmir Guerrero? or CC Sabathia?) and Manny Ramirez seemingly had a “body-snatchers thing” going on in terms of their October production.

^ The Phillies avenged their unlikely playoff sweep of 2007, while the inspired Angels overwhelmed the Red Sox to get the large Beantown monkey off their backs.

^ Controversy will drag well into the winter as a result of the “phantom ground-rule double” from Twins Yankees Game Two, as well as the controversial safe-at-first ruling on Chase Utley late in Game Four.

^ Already a participant in one of the “plays of the decade” (the did-he-or-didn’t-he touch of home plate to wrap up the epic ’07 wild card play-in game), one of the great sluggers of this generation became a big goat on another big play when Matt Holliday lost a ball in the lights/waving white towels and allowed the Dodgers to come back and take the decisive Game Two.

Now that the Angels have advanced to the ALCS, baseball continues a 19-year drought since the last time that four truly “old-school” franchises made it to the league finals (stipulating that the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins do not count in this regard since those franchises moved to different cities AND assumed different identities – to differentiate them from such teams as the Oakland As and Atlanta Braves). In 1990, the Reds and Pirates squared off in the National League, with the Red Sox and As battling in the Junior Circuit. Also in terms of history, this is the first time since 2001 that neither wild card team advanced to the LCS -- and it's also the first time since 2001 that three of the four teams are managed by skippers with World Series rings. But good news, Joe Girardi, Ohio University's own Bob Brenly was the only one of those four without a title in '01 and he proceeded to win one then!

With the leading candidate for “Team of the Decade” now out of the way in the form of Boston, three candidates remain – and not coincidentally, the Yankees, Phillies and Angels are among the grittiest teams in baseball. Epic League Championship Series seem to await.

ANGELS vs. YANKEES: It’s not on par with Boston’s mastery over the Angels this decade (or also, depending on how you look at the timeframe, stretching back to the 1986 ALCS meltdown), but the Angels have given the Yankees fits this decade, bouncing them in the 2002 and 2005 ALDS. They remain a problematic matchup this year with their ability to run most of the way through the order and Jorge Posada’s difficulties contending with that aspect of the game. The Angels’ starting pitching is also kind of a collective cipher: some years the young arms live up to the billing (Ervin Santana last year, Jered Weaver this year) and some years they don’t. Most of the time, John Lackey looks like one of the best hurlers in baseball, but he’s never had the one breakout year to reach true superstardom. LA is probably a bit deeper in terms of starting pitching production regardless, although the Yankees have been substantially better as advertised this year. The Hughes-Rivera combo at the back end of the bullpen makes the Yanks extremely hard to beat if they have a late lead. Neither team has yet been hampered by offensive issues that might have reared their heads this year (slaptastic production at third base for the Angels, age at key spots in the lineup for the Yankees), so they probably will not come into play in this round. In short, the teams appear evenly matched and a great series should ensue. While I picked the Yankees to make the World Series prior to the last round based on a favorable matchup with Boston, I have to reverse that pick now. The Angels proved against Boston that they truly have reached another gear with the motivation to play for their fallen comrade Nick Adenhart and in an otherwise too-close-to-call series, I see that factor as the tiebreaker. ANGELS in 6.

PHILLIES vs. DODGERS: Just like in 1977-78, we have a rematch of these two teams for the National League Championship. The Dodgers swept that pair and now will try to keep the trend alive in this decade of teams winning the following season’s LCS matchup (following the Astros over the Cardinals in ’05 and the Red Sox over the Yankees in ’04). Late in the season and in the unlikely sweep of St. Louis (avenging 1985 and 2004 playoff losses to the only team that has rivaled them for NL dominance over the decades), the Dodgers finally looked like the team that blew through the National League like greasy nachos through a digestive system early in the year. They have some interesting opposite strengths, as the Phillies are powered by their awesome infield and the Dodgers by their supersonic outfield (although career years by Philadelphia outfielders Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth give the East Coasters a collective edge). Additionally, the teams are polar opposites in the bullpen as Brad Lidge can be unhittable if he’s on (which he may well be again), but can also be very shaky – matching his setup men, while the Dodgers have the game’s best bullpen and can protect a lead after six innings like nobody else. In terms of the starting rotation, Philly has a big edge on paper with the Cole Hamels/Cliff Lee 1-2 punch, the prototype for postseason success (think Curt Schilling/Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling/Pedro Martinez or other tandems of recent vintage). But Hamels has had an off-year by his standards and the Dodgers have an ace-in-the-making who had a heck of a 2009 in his limited starts at the big league level in Clayton Kershaw. It’s not completely unprecedented for a youngster of this caliber to essentially “turn the clock ahead” in the postseason and temporarily become the pitcher he’s going to be – think Josh Beckett in 2003 – and he can lead the team’s above-average rotation successfully, LA can take this series and possibly even the big one. With Manny Ramirez overdue to break out, look for the Dodgers to avenge last year’s loss at this level, move into an all-SoCal World Series and give manager Joe Torre a chance to avenge his aforementioned 2002 and 2005 playoff defeats to the Angels. PHILLIES in 6.


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