Wednesday, October 8, 2008

LCS Previews

The NLCS will commence in Philadelphia Thursday night, so I figured I would get on here and give my brief previews for that series and the ALCS set to kick off Friday in St. Petersburg. There's a ton of intrigue involved in both matchups, and I'm happy that all four teams remaining are excellent clubs and are all conceivably good enough to win the World Series. I'll start out with the National League:

Dodgers v. Phillies: Both clubs defeated NL Central foes, with the Dodgers completing a sweep against the Cubs and Philly taking four games to dispatch Milwaukee. Each team has balance on offense, terrific starters and a deep, strong bullpen. For LA it's their first NLCS in 20 years and for the Phillies it's been 15. They've both had good teams in the interim years but never could quite get over the top. Now they'll vie for a chance to be the NL representative in the Fall Classic.

I wrote in my last post here that LA feels like the Team of Destiny in 2008. Their tight win in Game 3 in front of the LA fans only adds to my feeling on this. To make the Cubs, the best NL club during the regular season, look as poorly as they did in the NLDS is remarkable. They have this Red Sox-esque mix of veterans and young players (I don't have to tell you that some of those guys WERE Red Sox at one point) that works very well for the personality of the club. Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, Derek Lowe and Juan Pierre and well-complimented by the likes of Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, Blake DeWitt, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Jonathon Broxton. They've got an energy and feel about them great playoff teams always possess. And it doesn't hurt that Joe Torre is at the helm. He's been through a few of these before himself.

As for Philly, their pitching carried them through the Milwaukee series with strong outings in each of the four contests. Cole Hamels has emerged as a bonafide ace for this club, and if they can continue to get strong outings from Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer this series may go the distance. Of course, the Phillies offense is nothing to sneeze at as well, with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell anchoring the lineup.

Interestingly enough, I watched these teams lock up for a Saturday game in Philadelphia in late August. It was the 2nd game of an eventual series sweep for the Phillies, with Cole Hamels dominating and Clayton Kershaw looking very much like a 20-year-old. What got me about this game was the middle of the Dodgers' order, with Manny hitting cleanup and playing left, with Nomar hitting 5th at shortstop. It felt like 2002 all over again.

Anyway, I could see Hamels going out and knocking the Dodgers off their momentum somewhat by taking the first game. After that, however, I see this series as all Dodgers. If they can take Game 2 in Philly I feel very confident they'll win all three games at LA. This is their year to make it to the World Series. It pains me to predict this because no town needs a title of any kind more than Philly. They have a good team, and maybe this group will win the first major sports title for Philadelphia since 1983. But I just feel like it's not their year.

Red Sox v. Rays: I figured there was a very good chance this could have been the 2010 or 2012 ALCS matchup. But never did I think coming into this year that it could be the 2008 ALCS matchup. I'm still having a tough time taking these Rays seriously. I mean, they're the freaking Rays, aren't they? Imagine the Clippers and Lakers playing for the Western Conference title, or the Blue Jackets taking on the Red Wings for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. It's just not right. The Rays shouldn't be here. Not now. Not while the Red Sox are still the best franchise in baseball.

But here they are. They took care of the White Sox, despite my best gut feelings. I should have known better, considering the one-dimensional nature of Chicago's club. They've done it with James Shields and Scott Kazmir at the top of their rotation, but I have every reason to believe the rest of their starts won't pan out when the pressure is on in Fenway. The idea of Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine having success in Boston in October might be the biggest "I'll believe it when I see it" scenario I've had in a long time. I almost feel like Joe Maddon is pulling a fast one on us with Sonnanstine and he's really going to start David Price in that game. I mean, really? The guy's got a #1 overall pick with an electric left arm just sitting out in the bullpen and he's going to start Andy Freakin' Sonnanstine over him? Something smells here.

Tampa's offense performed well against Chicago and their success against Boston pitching during the year will give them confidence going in. I do wonder about their bullpen, I'm not sure I would trust Dan Wheeler to close out a playoff game with 39,000 Sox fans screaming for his head. (That scenario is applicable to games in both Tampa and Boston). I once had an away message that said: "The three things in the world that I love most: Hot girls, sandwiches, and the Tampa Bay bullpen." I figured that if I was hanging out with hot girls, while downing a steak and cheese, while watching Tampa's parade of 21-year-old-shouldn't-be-in-the-majors-deer-in-the-headlights relievers pitch blow leads against the Red Sox, I'd be in heaven. I'm not sure where I'm going so I'll stop.

This provides a nice segue into my feelings on the Red Sox heading into this series. I have never been prouder of a Red Sox team than I was surrounding this past series against the Angels. I mean that. They played their asses off to win the first two games in LA. They had many opportunties to end the series in Game 3 but couldn't capitalize. They could have withered away in Game 4 after the Masterson Cross-up (which is what that play would have been called for ever if they'd lost that game and eventually the series in LA), but they played tough, and won an incredible game to advance to the ALCS.

There's no question that on paper the Angels were the better team, but they killed themselves with careless mistakes and couldn't make the best of opportunities like the Red Sox did. Erick Aybar's inability to execute a squeeze bunt in that key spot, given the emphasis that Mike Scioscia's clubs put on fundamentals, may have been the biggest surprise of the entire 2008 postseason thus far.

The Sox will miss Mike Lowell dearly. They are a weaker team without him on the field. But Mark Kotsay proved the other night that he can play first base with the best of them, and his scorcher down the line in the 9th should have been the winning hit of Game 4. We know Youk can play a mean 3rd base. And with new, emerging leaders like Jed Lowrie and Jason Bay, I feel more confident than ever about this team's ability to win.

My biggest concern going forward is the bullpen, and in particular, the ability of Jonathon Papelbon to bounce back on a day-to-day basis for the rest of the playoffs. I'm confident he will, simply because he's Papelbon, and it's the playoffs. By the way, if you missed his antics after the series clincher Monday night, then I feel bad for you. There is no one on earth like this guy, and we're so lucky to have him around.

Anyway, I have a lot of confidence the Red Sox will be able to capitalize on the youth and inexperience of the Rays in this ALCS. It should be fun to watch the pseudo-home crowd in Tampa, and like the other LCS, I feel if the Sox can take one game in Tampa this series might not get back there for Game 6. Then we'd have the Dodgers-Red Sox match up everyone's been dreaming about.

Of course, that scenario of intrigue almost never happens (see 2003). For the sake of the game, I hope it does.

1 comment:

Cameron Kittle said...

I enjoyed the comment about the Wings and Blue Jackets. Definitely made me think about how I would feel in a similar situation. Nice work...keeps me actually interested in baseball for a change.