Thursday, October 14, 2010

Playoff Predictions: ALCS

Well, I was close.

So I got three out of four right with my first round predictions, and the one that I got wrong was the series I said would go five games and either team really could come out and find itself in the World Series (the Rangers/Rays series) so I feel pretty good about my selections.

It doesn’t get any easier in the American League though, because the two teams left standing (New York Yankees and Texas Rangers) both make a compelling arguement for why they should be considered the favorite.

So let’s take a look at some interesting bits that could be considered a reason to give either team an edge.

1. C. C. Sabathia: He looked shakey in Game 1 of the ALDS, but you know he’s more than trustworthy on the big stage. Able to go on short rest and pitch well. A true Ace.

2. Mariano Rivera: No matter what his age of his recent struggles at the end of the year, he is shutdown city in the playoffs as usual. Can get you a four or five out save in a close game and be trusted to still dominate. Unflappable. Turns games shorter… if you’re going to get to the Yanks bullpen do it before he comes in.

3. Experiance: Most of the roster has playoff and World Series experiance. They’ve done it before and know what to expect.

4. The Offense: If Derek Jeter really ready to be able to pull the ball with power (something he hasn’t done pretty much all year) then the lineup is hard to beat. Robinson Cano continues to hit like he has for most of the season and Jorge Posada usually finds a way to hit in the postseason. With Mark Teixeria more recovered from his ailments and Curtis Granderson suddenly swinging a hot bat the potential to score a ton of runs is there.

5. The Rangers Rotation matchups to start the series: Since Cliff Lee had to pitch last night’s Game 5, he won’t be available until Game 3. With C.J. Wilson starting Game 1 of the ALCS against Sabathia, if the Yanks can jump to a quick 2-0 series lead, Lee’s presence can be neutralized. That is not to say the Ranger starters aren’t good (they are), but having Sabathia, a true ace, against anyone but Cliff Lee give the Yanks a nice advantage.

1. Cliff Lee: Seemingly unbeatable. Lee was lights out against the Yanks this year (and in last year’s World Series) and he’s been amazing in the playoffs. If the Yanks split in Texas, they are looking at Lee in Game 3. Lose that and suddenly you are looking at a 2-1 Series Yankee deficit against Lee in Game 3 and an unreliable A.J. Burnett as your Game 4 starter. Not something most Yankee fans want to see.

2. The Offense: Talk about being dialed in. The Rangers have two players with 3 Home Runs in the post season already (Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz) and the whole lineup just flat out hit in the first round (except, surprisingly, expected AL MVP Josh Hamilton) . There is a lot of power and some speed in this lineup and they hit big time in Arlington, where the Rangers have the home field advantage. They are aggressive at the plate and on the basepaths and are a lot like the upstart Angels of 2002, but actually have more superstar power.

3. The Starting Pitching: The Rangers’ pitching is not just Cliff Lee. C. J. Wilson is a solid #2 and is actually quite under-rated. The Rangers went 24-9 games he started, which is the second-best winning percentage by any team for any pitcher in baseball this year. Colby Lewis is a serviceable starter who has an average fastball but pounds the strike zone with it. Hitters do not pick up his slider well at all. The Yankees know how good Wilson is and even Tommy Hunter will likely more than hold his own against Burnett in Game 4.

4. The September 10-12 Series Sweep: Don’t discount the importance of that three game series in which the Rangers found every way to beat the Yanks. The Twins haven’t been able to beat the Yankees in the regular season or the postseason, and that had to have played its part in their minds. The Rangers, on the other hand, walked away from this season with the sense they can beat the Bombers. Two come from behind wins (beating Mariano Rivera in one of them) and a convincing gem of a game from Lee gives the Rangers faith they CAN win, and faith is important to a franchise who finally won their first ever playoff series just this week.

Overall this should be a heck of a series in the way that the Rangers/Rays series turned out to be. Both teams have a number of reasons why they could win and neither team should be considered a clear favorite. What it comes down to is this: much like the 1986 Mets, who desperately wanted to avoid facing off against Mike Scott in a Game Seven of the NLCS, the Yankees want to avoid facing Lee in the same scenario. Most teams who start out a series without home field advantage look to split the first two games to get themselves the homefield advantage. The Yankees are hoping to actually win BOTH of the first two games in Texas. Why? Because you have the spectre of Cliff Lee looming in Game 3. While it’s no lock that the Rangers would win that game just because Lee is starting, the odds favor it. If the Yankees split the first two games and face Lee in Game 3, they could find themselves in a 2-1 hole with A.J. Burnett as their Game 4 starter which could be a disaster. Yes, they could send C.C. Sabathia (and what the heck is it with all the intitials in this series? C.C., A.J., C.J. … jeez!) on three days rest into Game 4, but then you would have to pitch Burnett in Game 5 or you’d be sending Phil Hughes into it with only three days rest. You do not want that. Any way you look at it, odds are Burnett is starting a game in this series. That doesn’t make anyone feel good, although there is no lock that Burnett would pitch badly. You just don’t know what you will get. The Yankees have Phil Hughes going in Game 2 and Andy Pettitte going in Game 3 and a potential Game 7 against Lee. That is smart. Pettitte will not be daunted by that pressure.

To me, the Yankees need to win this in six or less games, because if it goes to a Game 7 with Lee on the mound in Texas… well, let’s just say the Yankees will NOT have the advantage. If they can win the first two games of the Series, I think the Yanks can win fairly handily. If not, this is going to be a hell of a fight for them.


For the Yanks, three really stand out.
Phil Hughes: who struggled in the 2nd half after a fantastic first half, but looked excellent in his Game 3 start in the ALDS. Hughes will be expected to either help even the series if the Rangers find a way to beat or outlast Sabathia in Game 1, or help give the Yanks a 2-0 advantage going into a Game 3 against Lee. His performance could be huge.

Andy Pettitte: The crafty veteran really is the best one you can pick to face off against Lee in Game 3 (and perhaps Game 7) if it can’t be Sabathia. He’s unflappable, cool and calm in the face of pressure. He’s got more postseason wins than anyone. He looked very good in Game 2 of the ALDS, but there are still some questions about his health. It’ll be up to him to shoulder a heavy load if the Yanks are down going into Game 3 or if there is a Game 7. If he’s on, he’s the one *I* would want in that position.

Boone Logan: You know who might have been the REAL 2009 World Series MVP? It could have actually been Damaso Marte. Ok, that’s an exaggeration… but Marte was key in the postseason last year including retiring twelve in a row at one point after a little bit of a shakey start to the postseason. The Phillies two biggest bats are both lefties (Chase Utley and Ryan Howard) and neither one could touch Marte. What does that have to do with Logan? One name: Josh Hamilton. Imagine this: 1 run lead for Yanks. Bottom of the 7th inning. Two on, two out and Josh Hamilton at the plate. Who is pitching there? Joba Chamberlain? Kerry Wood? No. It’s going to be Logan, every single time. Joe Giradi will play the matchups and he should. Logan could wind up being the difference makers when it comes to neutralizing Hamilton’s incredible bat. Hamilton is 0-3 with one strike out lifetime against Logan, who was murder on lefties this year. He’s a specialist and can’t be counted on for a full inning for the most part, but his contribution could be huge.


For the Rangers, it’s quite simple:
C.J. Wilson: Lefties hit only .141 aginst him this year, something that could play a huge part with Cano, Granderson and Brett Gardner. The Yankees overall seem to struggle at times with lefthanded pitching. Wilson cannot be expected to outpitch Sabathia, but he can keep the game close and leave his team within striking distance. The Rangers pitching needs other starters to step it up besides Lee, and Wilson is one that can and should that.

Jorge Cantu: The Rangers, like the Yankees, have a strong offense. What they don’t have though, is a solid 1st baseman. Cantu has power but little else. He’s shown flashes of excellent bat control but often falls back into his normal free-swinging self. You expect big offense out of Hamilton, Kinsler, Cruz and Young (and Molinia to a lesser extent) and excellent table setting from Elvis Andus… but a hot bat in Cantu’s hands would make this team very difficult, if not impossible to shut down.

Neftali Feliz: The hotshot rookie closer had a fantastic season but was a little shakey in the ALDS against the Rays. He’s got the stuff but can he handle the pressure? Could he close out a one run lead in the ninth inning of a game in Yankee Stadium facing A-Rod, Teixeria and Cano? The Yankees know that if they go into the 9th with a lead, there is pretty much a 99.5% chance of a win. The Rangers have to wonder. Feliz needs to be a rock. There aren’t many things more demoralizing then eight great innings from a starting pitcher and then a loss when your closer gives it away in the 9th. Feliz’s performance in close games will go a long way to determining how far the Rangers go.

PREDICTION: Yankees in six, however… if it goes to a seventh game, all bets are off and I give the Rangers the nod.

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