2009 MLB League Championship Series Preview and Picks

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At the risk of sounding a bit like Bob Uecker in the almost-forgotten movie, “Major League III: Back to the Minors,” I have an interesting statistic. In the 106 years of recording playoff baseball, never had a team trailed by more than one run with two outs in the ninth inning of a series-clinching game and subsequently gone on to win that game. That was until Sunday, when in the span of 36 hours both the Angels AND Phillies accomplished the dramatic feat. That sets up a beautiful final four for MLB, as they have television markets one, two, and four still involved. Expect a lot of eyes to be watching what should be two extremely good series that each should go a minimum of six games. What follows is a breakdown of the ALCS and NLCS:

Note: The ALCS will air on FOX, while the NLCS will air on TBS. All start times are approximate. If there is no Game 7 in the NLCS, the Game 6 of the ALCS will move to 8pm.

Los Angeles Angels vs. New York Yankees
1 – Fri, 10/16, 8pm @ NYY – Lackey vs Sabathia
2 – Sat, 10/17, 8pm @ NYY – Saunders vs Burnett
3 – Mon, 10/19, 4pm @ LAA – Weaver vs Pettitte
4 – Tue, 10/20, 8pm @ LAA – Kazmir vs Sabathia
5 – Thu, 10/22, 8pm @ LAA – Lackey vs Burnett
6 – Sat, 10/24, 4pm @ NYY – Saunders vs Pettitte
7 – Sun, 10/25, 8pm @ NYY – Weaver vs Sabathia
If the Yankees want to return to the glory days of the late 90’s and early 00’s, there might not be a more fitting team to beat than the Angels. While Boston was obviously the main rivalry, it was LA who always embodied everything the Yankees weren’t in the post-Gene Michaels era – starters pitched deep into games, hitters looked for singles and doubles, runners smartly took the extra base, the defense was always perfectly positioned, and manager Mike Scioscia repeatedly outmanaged Joe Torre.

In this series, the Angels will once again have to rely on the “fundamentals” in order to reach the World Series, because this Yankees team is even better than the one LA dispatched in 2002 to put them on the map and officially end the Yankee-dynasty. The Yanks will go with a three-man rotations, and all three starters who can go pitch for pitch with anyone on LA, meaning it could come down to a battle of bullpens. Aside from Rivera, this was always where the Angels would dominate New York, but not anymore. The LA bullpen might be the worst of the four left, and that’s saying something considering the state of Philadelphia’s relievers. If the Angels expect to win this series, they will likely have to hit NY’s starters and force Yankee skipper Joe Girardi to go to his pen early and often – the back end of Hughes, Chamberlain (yes, Joba in the bullpen again), and Rivera is as tough as ever, but the depth is definitely lacking. They can’t expect Mariano to hand them any game in this series the way Papelbon and the Red Sox gave away game three in the ALDS.

Meanwhile, the Yankees appear to have recovered some of the magic that disappeared a fateful night in the Arizona desert, the last time the World Series stretched into November. With heroics from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Jorge Posada in games two and three, coupled with Andy Pettitte and Rivera continuing to defy the test of time, this Yankee team might very well be better than any team fielded in the past two decades – and that’s really saying something. As long as C.C. Sabathia doesn’t have any 2007 flashbacks and pitches well on three-days rest in game four, this club has more than enough to erase the hex of the Angels in this very series and book their first World Series visit since 2003 – the year before they acquired the man I like to call Mr. Kate Hudson or A-Roid, but better known as Alex Rodriguez.
New York 4, Los Angeles 2

Philadelphia Phillies @ Los Angeles Dodgers
1 – Thu, 10/15, 8pm @ LAD – Hamels vs Kershaw
2 – Fri, 10/16, 4pm @ LAD – Blanton vs Padilla
3 – Sun, 10/18, 8pm @ PHI – Lee vs Kuroda
4 – Mon, 10/19, 8pm @ PHI – Happ vs Billingsley
5 – Wed, 10/21, 8pm @ PHI – Hamels vs Kershaw
6 – Fri, 10/23, 8pm @ LAD – Blanton vs Padilla
7 – Sat, 10/24, 8pm @ LAD – Lee vs Kuroda
There’s clearly no question that the two best teams in the National League over the last two years are the Phillies and Dodgers, so it’s fitting that they meet in a rematch of the 2008 NLCS won by the Phillies, 4-1. The biggest aspect of this year’s LCS is who, exactly, will be pitching and batting ninth for each team at the start of each game. Here’s what we know and what we think heading into Thursday’s game one.

For the Dodgers, they’ll start lefthander Clayton Kershaw in game one, a smart move as he was ready to start game four, had there been one, against the Cardinals. After that, the rest of the rotation is completely up in the air, meaning it is very difficult to project exactly how the Phillies will fair – and that, precisely, is why Joe Torre has kept his rotation under wraps. The best guess is that Torre will go with red-hot Vicente Padilla in game two in an effort to keep him from having to pitch in Philadelphia, a place where he struggled mightily and would be ridiculed non-stop for three hours if he does, in fact, pitch there. Also, the Dodgers will welcome the return of Hideki Kuroda from injury, the only starter to beat Philly in last year’s playoffs. He won’t be ready until game three, so look for him to get the start there. Aside from Billingsley, the other options for LA are Jon Garland and Randy Wolf, but Wolf is another former Phillie and Garland hasn’t pitched since the final week of the season, so he’s the biggest long shot.

The Phillies is a little less guess work as to WHO, but more of a focus on WHEN. Cole Hamels will get games one and five and Cliff Lee – who will get an extra day of rest – will go in game three. The likely option for game two is Joe Blanton, given the plethora of right handed hitters in LA’s lineup. That would leave either J.A. Happ or Pedro Martinez for game four, and while I would go with Pedro, Charlie Manuel’s decision to throw Happ in game three of the Colorado series clearly shows he has more confidence in the youngster over the veteran. The big question comes for game six, if necessary. With Lee throwing game three, he could conceivably return for game six on full rest, which he almost surely would if the Phillies trail 3-2. If they’re up 3-2, starting Lee would be a bigger gamble, because a loss would leave them handcuffed for game seven, on the road, with either an off-scheduled Blanton, a rookie Happ, or a little-used Pedro – not a good scenario in any way. Thus, we’ll leave Lee as the scheduled game seven starter and see what happens.

This series will likely come down entirely to pitching, and I could write another two columns on each pitching staff, their strengths and weaknesses, and each manager’s use of their respective bullpens. Runs will most definitely scored with the two prolific offenses, so it will come down to the back-end of the bullpen and clutch hitting from both teams. Like last year, the hitting edge goes to the Phillies, but unlike last year, the pitching edge does not. If this series doesn’t go seven it’ll be a disappointment, and the crowd at Chavez Ravine might be the tipping point to set up another classic between the Dodgers and Yankees in the World Series.
Los Angeles 4, Philadelphia 3

Projecting further…
So the team I picked to win the World Series (Saint Louis) is already out, and despite accurate predicting both ALDS, I have elected to reverse my prediction of the Angels beating the Yankees, so this section is probably quite useless. That said, for what it’s worth I simply can’t see either the Dodgers or Phillies being able to beat the Yankees regardless of the NLCS result. The Bronx Bombers are truly that, and now have a big-time pitching staff to back it up. LA will put up a fight, but the Yankees will celebrate number 27 as the first in the House that Steinbrenner built by knocking off their former cross-town counterparts in six games.

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