Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2009 World Series Preview

Anyone who knows me is aware of my undying love of baseball's history. It's the biggest thing that separates baseball from the other professional sports, in my opinion. For example, is there any other sport in 2009 where one of its championship participants began play in 1883? Think about that for a second; the Philadelphia Phillies were founded 18 years after the Civil War ended. Couple their history with that of their opponent, the New York Yankees, and you've got generations of fans and decades of stories with a new chapter still to be added.

Despite the long histories of these two franchises, they've only locked horns in the World Series once before. In 1950 the Yankees were in the midst of the most dynastic run in baseball's history, maybe in sports history.

From 1947 through 1964, the Bombers won the American League pennant in all but three seasons (the Indians won in 1948 and 1954 with the White Sox winning in 1959). In a pre-free agency world, the Yankees could keep all their best players at whatever price they chose. When those players lost their effectiveness, there was always another young superstar ready to take their place.

And they did. And they won, just about every year. They won 10 World Championships, and a list of their best players reads like an all-time team: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, Tony Kubek, Bill Skowron, Joe Pepitone, Ralph Terry, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson and Don Larsen amongst so many others under legendary managers Casey Stengel and Ralph Houk.

The 1950 Phillies won 91 games, edging out the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League title. It was their first since 1915, and the young team was called the Whiz Kids by the media and fans. There were led by two eventual Hall of Fame talents; Robin Roberts, who won 20 games and would be a dominant starter for another 15 years, and Richie Ashburn, a Nebraska farmboy who became a franchise icon with blazing speed in center field and a preternatural on-base ability. It was a storybook season for a team and city short on luck for so many years.

Unfortunately they ran headlong into the Yankees' dynastic buzz saw. The Pinstripers won four close contests in a row and swept the Whiz Kids. The longest game played in the series was Game 2, clocking in at three hours and five minutes (something to shoot for this year, guys). The Yankees' pitchers dominated to the tune of a 0.73 ERA. DiMaggio (who's on my "Top 5 Players I Wish I Could Have Seen" list along with Ruth, Williams, Cobb and Mays) hit .308 and knocked the game-winning home run in Shibe Park in Game 2.

So what does any of that have to do with 2009? Absolutely nothing. But I find it cool that we can have the same World Series match-up in 2009 that we had in 1950, and could have had dating back to the first World Series in 1903.

This World Series should be different from 1950. They've both come through the postseason only losing two games apiece, both overstocked with quality starting pitching and offense, both a bit thin in the bullpen, and both brimming with confidence. One side is coming off a World Series win, the other expected to win every season. I say this just about every year, but this is the best hope for an exciting World Series since 2002.

Presenting my 2009 World Series Preview, the Phillies vs. the Yankees, aka every Mets fans' nightmare:

OFFENSE: Believe me when I say neither club is lacking in this area. They Yankees have enjoyed the best lineup one through nine since Opening Day with threats to go deep everywhere in the order. Alex Rodriguez continued his October re-birth against L.A., coming up with huge hits and causing an entire fan base to do a total 180 since the spring (don't think I haven't noticed, Yankees fans). Derek Jeter looks ready to once again be Mr. November. While Nick Swisher's troubles have been well-documented, the biggest question mark for the Yankees in this series is Mark Teixeira. He's hit just .205 in October, but appeared to be coming out of it in ALCS Games 5 and 6.

For the Phillies, they've been anchored by Ryan Howard, the best left-handed pure power hitter of his generation. He's sporting a cool 1.203 OPS this postseason and how he'll do against the Yankees' dearth of southpaws will be a major factor. Jayson Werth has broken out, smashing five homers so far, many coming in clutch situations. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz also have that flair for the dramatic. Expect to see Greg Dobbs DH in Game 1 with AL veteran Matt Stairs likely to get some hacks in Game 2 (they will indeed be hacks, trust me). Chase Utley has just one extra-base in these playoffs, and like Teixeira, he needs to get it going for his team to be successful.

Edge: New York.

STARTING PITCHING: No inkling of a doubt here; this series hinges on whose starters are more effective. Apparently all CC Sabathia ever needed for October success was rest in September. It's possible Sabathia could get three more starts before all is said and done. He's been truly spectacular so far, giving up just four earned runs in 22.2 postseason innings. A.J. Burnett gets the ball in Game 2, and he must get over his poor ALCS Game 5 start. Despite strong performances so far, I wonder how much longer before Andy Pettitte breaks down a bit. He's not young, it's been a long year, and his next start will take him out of the confines of Yankee Stadium. Joe Girardi will once again go with just three starters.

Cliff Lee has been nearly as dominant as his old teammate Sabathia and he won't be intimidated in Game 1 against an AL lineup. If the Phillies win this World Series, the Lee trade will likely go down as the single-best midseason trade for a pitcher in baseball history. I defy anyone to come up with one better. Pedro Martinez will take the hill in Game 2 in front of the fans that destroyed him in 2004 ALCS Game 7 and saw him choke in 2003 ALCS Game 7. The Yankees are, after all, his daddy, and I question the decision to put him out there for this game. But Pedro will be Pedro, and nobody in baseball has ever relished a challenge more. Cole Hamels is due to break out of his funk, and I predict a strong Game 3 start. Either J.A. Happ or Joe Blanton will go in Game 4, and they could take advantage if Sabathia finally tires.

Edge: Philadelphia.

DEFENSE: Defense might not win championships in baseball, but it can certainly lose them. Just as the 2006 Tigers. Or the 1986 Red Sox, for that matter. (I need to cancel out that last sentence by wishing all Red Sox fans a happy 5th anniversary of winning the '04 Series. Now I feel better). I don't have an awful lot to say about this on either side, but since the Yankees' smartened up and now only use Matsui at DH, they've improve immensely on defense although they aren't great. Sometimes I wonder if Robinson Cano has any clue out there. Teixeira is far and away this team's best defensive player.

The Phillies are much more sound in the field with Pedro Feliz and Rollins patrolling the left side with Victorino and Werth making great plays in the outfield. Utley made some costly throwing errors in the last series but he's normally very good. I'll be watching how Raul Ibanez handles the spacious turf of left field in Yankee Stadium.

Edge: Philadelphia.

BULLPENS: So, if Brad Lidge hasn't given up a run yet in the postseason, does that just mean he's due to implode, or is he back to his history-making greatness of a year ago? We will find out in the coming days. Lidge's success, and the overall success of the Philadelphia bullpen, has been one of the biggest surprises of the playoffs. Scott Eyre and Chad Durbin are coming up big, and they'll have to continue their ways especially in a situation like Game 2 where Pedro might not be able to go longer than six frames.

I really don't feel like extolling the virtues of Mariano Rivera (who may or may not love Jesus more than Kurt Warner), so I'll focus on the other members of the Yankees' bullpen instead. I gave them crap for not having a solid unit all year, but Joba Chamberlain's move back to a setup role has provided a stabilizing presence. What I don't get is why Girardi insists on using Phil Hughes in key spots when he's been anything but good in the postseason while David Robertson, Phil Coke and Damaso Marte have all been solid in relatively little action. Girardi has had difficulty managing his bullpen this postseason, which is something I'll get to shortly. But there's one Yankee that can make any manager look good, and that might be all that matters.

Edge: New York.

MANAGERS: Charlie Manuel cracks me up. You take one look at the guy and without knowing anything about him you'd guess he was a baseball manager just based on his aesthetics. Then he opens his mouth, and it's hard not to laugh at his garbled diction. But he's awesome. He was on the brink of getting fired going into last season, now he's ready to lead the Phillies to the World Series for a second straight time. Manuel's players adore him, and the city has certainly warmed to him over the last couple years. Unlike his counterpart, he's actually won a World Series, and that means something here.

The Yankees might lose this series solely because of Girardi. I know the Yankees have only lost twice this postseason, but their Game 3 extra inning loss in L.A. was a direct result of a poor choice by Girardi. He brought in right-hander Robertson to start the 11th, and after getting the first two batters out, abruptly removed Robertson for another right-hander, Alfredo Aceves, to face Howie Kendrick. Kendrick singled, then Jeff Mathis doubled him home. If anyone can figure out why this happened, please let me know. He pinch-runs for hitters like Rodriguez and Teixeira in close or tied games, something that might cost them down the line. The word "overmanaging" has been used constantly, but again, it hasn't cost them more than one loss yet. The Phillies are better than the Angels, and should make them pay in case Girardi slips up again.

Edge: Philadelphia.

INTANGIBLES & LOOSE ENDS: I'm suffering from broken record syndrome here, but the Yankees have been and will continue to be very difficult to beat in Yankee Stadium. I hate to sound like the many lazy sportswriters that cover baseball these days, but maybe there is some sort of "mystique" about the place. The Yankees just win there, and other teams can't seem to break through. If the Phillies can take one of these first two games it will be quite a feat.

Philadelphia's bench is much deeper than the Yankees, and in close games late that could prove to be very important. Without a doubt, the Phillies want to make some history. They can go down as one of few teams to win back-to-back titles, and given the lack of championships in the history of the franchise and the recent history of the city, the Phillies have an opportunity to go down as the beloved group of athletes assembled in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Phillies will take one of two in New York, and the Yankees will take one of three in Philadelphia. Behind Pettitte the Yankees win Game 6 in New York. Then in Game 7, Sabathia and Lee do battle for the third time in the series. They lock up in a duel reminiscent of Jack Morris and John Smoltz in Game 7 of the legendary 1991 World Series. In the top of the 10th, Howard blasts a two-run bomb off Sabathia to break the deadlock.

Lidge enters, gets the first two out, then gives up a solo home run by Johnny Damon. Teixeira works a walk. Then comes A-Rod. After an epic at-bat, Rodriguez swings and misses at a 3-2 heater, and the Phillies celebrate wildly. A-Rod runs off the field crying and even Kate Hudson can't make him stop.

It's all going to happen. I guarantee it.

Prediction: Phillies in seven. Enjoy the series.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Down to Business - LCS Previews

So I didn't do too well with my LDS predictions, going 1-for-4 and losing my favorite team in the process. I'll try to do better with my LCS picks. Let's start with the Senior Circuit, a rematch of last year's NLCS.

Behind the prolific pitching of Cole Hamels, the Phillies surprised a lot of observers in 2008 by handily taking down the Dodgers in the NLCS on the way to their first World Series title in 28 years. The clubs find themselves here again, with Hamels set to go tonight against Clayton Kershaw.

The success for Hamels last year seems like a distant memory. Finishing 2009 a mediocre 10-11 with a pedestrian 4.32 ERA, the urgency to deal for a top hurler like Cliff Lee probably wouldn't have existed had Hamels pitched up to his capabilities. In NLDS Game 2 against Colorado, he again struggled, yielding four runs on seven hits in five innings in Citizens Bank Park.

It seems like the Dodgers are relishing the chance to face the Phillies in this spot after destroying the Cardinals in three NLDS embarrassments. They want revenge after what happened a year ago, and beating Hamels is a great place to start. With Hamels on the ropes, he'll need to be significantly better to avoid putting his club in an early hole.

But luckily for the Philles, they do have Cliff Lee, who was exceptional in both his NLDS starts, allowing just two total earned runs. He's expected to go in Game 3 back in Philadelphia, and he's clearly the best pitcher in this series. Pedro Martinez is chomping at the bit to get a start and it could come as early as tomorrow. The Dodgers will welcome Hiroki Kuroda back to face Lee, while Vicente Padilla's predictable dominance of the NL is probably causing Ron Washington to go gray.

If there's a significant mismatch between these clubs it's definitely the bullpens. All year the Dodgers were dominant at the end of games, and the NLDS was no different. L.A. relievers allowed just two runs in the three contests. While the Phillies' bullpen wasn't terrible against the Rockies, Brad Lidge's well-documented struggles could flare up at any time. We've seen already bullpens play a pivotal role in these playoffs. I'd be feeling pretty confident if I was a Dodger fan.

The offenses are relatively even, with the Phillies slugging their way past the Rockies thanks to timely knocks by Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and the insanely clutch Jayson Werth. The Dodgers are enjoying major production from Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal and we're beginning to see Manny Ramirez break through his season of tumult and disappointment. Ramirez is the most important player in this series because he could win it for his team all by himself. If Manny gets hot, and hits the way I've seen him hit in these spots before, the Phillies are done. Repeat: done.

There's also a possibility that Pedro could face Manny in one of these games. Which could then lead to this for me and many other Red Sox fans (probably NSFW).

Anyway, I think the Dodgers have the edge. They've got home field, the stronger bullpen, the most dangerous hitter and their starters were very effective against a Pujols-Holliday offense. Their drive and desire to get to the finish line will win out.

Dodgers in six.

Onto the ALCS, beginning Friday in The House That George Built:

There's a player in this series who hit .455 with two homers, six RBI and four runs scored in his ALDS and also came up with several game-breaking clutch hits. Who is this player? It's gotta be Derek Jeter, right? No, even though Jeter hit well against the Twins. OK, well then it's gotta be Torii Hunter. No? What about Mark Teixeira? It has to be him! It isn't? Well then, how about Vlad Guerrero? He came up with the big hit in Boston, but it's not him. Alright, then, who is it?

You better be sitting down. The answer is Alex Rodriguez.

Yes, that Alex Rodriguez. The same Alex Rodriguez who'd done nothing in the postseason since the middle of the 2004 ALCS and wilted in almost every key spot with a bat in his hands. Sure, he's great at launching three-run bombs when the Yankees are up already up by seven runs. But I'm not sure I want to live in a world where A-Rod is getting huge postseason hits and putting up big numbers for a team with an already-ridiculous offense.

Why is this happening? Perhaps it's because of Red Sox fan Seth Meyers' joke on "SNL" about how his reported impregnating of Kate Hudson represents "the only time he's produced in October." Maybe someone hypnotized A-Rod into believing that he's actually playing a meaningless May series against the Royals, except that it's unseasonably cold. Either way, when A-Rod is playing like it's May, it's bad news for everyone else. Like his buddy Manny, Rodriguez is the most important player in his LCS for this reason.

Tomorrow night the aces will square off in New York, with John Lackey and CC Sabathia ready for battle. Joe Girardi has hinted that he might go with a three-man rotation in the ALCS, making it so Sabathia could potentially pitch Games 1, 4 and 7. Past experience tells us that Sabathia is extremely less effective when overworked in the playoffs, so Girardi should tread lightly. Perhaps dusting off Chad Gaudin won't be a bad idea in this series. Scott Kazmir will be going in Game 4 for the Angels, so throwing Gaudin might be safe.

No question these teams are evenly matched. The Angels are better on defense and obviously run more, but the Yankees are dangerous one through nine and can break games wide open with their awesome power. Both starting rotations and bullpens are great but not flawless (the Yankees need to be concerned about Phil Hughes' struggles against Minnesota). Hopefully this closeness in talent leads to an epic series.

But both clubs also have intangibles on their side. The Angels have been inspired by the memory of Nick Adenhart, the up-and-coming starter killed by a drunk driver in April. They've paid tribute to him all season, hanging his jersey in the dugout and voting his family a full playoff share. I felt in years past that the Angels would often give up against tough playoff opponents when they got down. That won't happen this time around.

For the Yankees, there's a sense of unity and togetherness from the Pinstripes I haven't seen since the heyday of the Brosius-O'Neill-Martinez era. They're loose, they have fun, and they really seem to like each other as teammates. Needless to say, this was missing when the likes of Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield were around. These Yankees aren't concerned about the checkered recent past of their franchise. They're playing in the here and now, and they're going to be nearly unbeatable in their park.

I'm rooting for the Angels, of course. But these Yankees...they're different. They're going to the World Series after a classic ALCS.

Yankees in 7.

(Now do your work, Reverse Jinx Gods!)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One Pitch Away

(Boston Globe photo)

In 1995, author Mike Sowell penned "One Pitch Away," a book on the dramatic 1986 postseason, considered by many non-Red Sox fans to be the best October of all time. We know that the Red Sox were one pitch away from winning their first World Series since 1918 and couldn't do it. But before that, Boston had to beat the then-California Angels in the ALCS.

Up 3-1 in the series, the Angels led 5-2 in the top of the ninth in Game 5 in Anaheim. Don Baylor hit a two-run homer, and after Rich Gedman was hit with two outs, Donnie Moore was summoned to close it out. Moore was one pitch away from sending the Angels to their first World Series when Dave Henderson launched a 2-2 pitch over the left-center wall, giving Boston a 6-5 lead.

The Angels would lose in 11 innings. The Red Sox won the next two in Boston, and left the Angels in the dust.

Twenty-two years and 364 days after Henderson's iconic long ball off Moore, the Angels finally had their revenge. Leading 6-4, Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox were one pitch away from extending their ALDS against Los Angeles when Erick Aybar laced a two-out, two-strike single to center, beginning a three-run rally that culminated with Vladimir Guerrero driving in the tying and go-ahead runs. Brian Fuentes then finished the game and the series.

The Red Sox were ahead all day. Even as the game tightened to 5-4 in the eighth, I was still thinking ahead to a potential Game 4 Monday night. With Jon Lester going against Joe Saunders, and the Fenway crowd in a tizzy, I liked their chances. Then in Game 5, with a fully-rested Josh Beckett, anything could happen.

But it never got that far. Not even close. The fourth time this decade wasn't to be a charm. The Angels were motivated, played smart, and wanted to win more. They rendered the Red Sox offense impotent by consistently getting ahead in counts and forcing them to work from behind. Lester, Beckett and Clay Buchholz weren't the problem. John Lackey, Jered Weaver and a fine bullpen were. Arte Moreno, Tony Reagins, Mike Scioscia and the Angels are a terrific organization that I'll be rooting for them from here on out.

The Angels were just better this time. It's that simple.

Papelbon, who was an adventure all year but always seemed to pull through when he got into trouble (just three blown saves in '09), couldn't close the door as he'd done so many times in the playoffs. I've made a big deal about Papelbon and his future with the club, but there will be questions in the wake of this disaster about whether he's worth a long-term commitment. All I know is that his splitter is gone and the Angels won Sunday because they preyed on his fastball, the only pitch he throws with confidence. I also know Daniel Bard was outstanding today, and he looks ready to be a closer in the Majors.

The long winter seems especially long this year, with the Yankees looking like an unstoppable force and a true threat to win the World Series (even Alex Rodriguez is hitting). Re-signing Jason Bay must be the team's top priority. Alex Gonzalez has a $6 million option for next year that I'd like to see picked up, allowing Jed Lowrie to be an understudy. Casey Kotchman will hopefully be dealt for a quality bullpen arm. Veteran stalwarts Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek will both mull retirement or look to return to Boston with diminished roles. Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito are likely to flee via free agency, as will Rocco Baldelli. Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett will be entering their walk years.

Those questions will be dealt with in the coming weeks. Reflecting on this season, I see a team with tons of potential that never really put the pieces together. The Achilles' heel of this franchise for so many years was the bullpen, and Theo Epstein finally created an elite unit, only to see inconsistencies in offense and injured/ineffective starting pitching thwart a potentially dominating club. The 2009 Red Sox might go down as the most frustrating in recent team history because of that. The Yankees were better, having spent $423 million on new players and opening a majestic new stadium where they must have had an 81-0 record. The Angels were better, spurred on by an early-season tragedy and so many playoff failures dating back to 2002. But the Red Sox could have been better than both. That they weren't is a painful reality.

But there's plenty of reason to be grateful.

I'm grateful Epstein took a chance on Victor Martinez, knowing he was the missing link both in terms of the offense and the clubhouse. I'm grateful David Ortiz overcame a horrendous first two months to be one of the best hitters in baseball over the last four. I'm grateful Jacoby Ellsbury is quickly becoming the most exciting player in franchise history with blazing speed on the basepaths and in the field. I'm grateful J.D. Drew stayed healthy and proved to all thoughtful observers that he's an immensely talented hitter and an incredibly underrated outfielder. I'm grateful the organization heeded my call to showcase Bard as the next great young reliever in this game.

I'm grateful my favorite team is owned by people who care first and foremost about putting the best possible product on the field, knowing everything from fan appreciation to national recognition will trickle down from that. I'm grateful Red Sox fans from coast to coast overpopulate visiting stadiums to the point of mania. I'm grateful my favorite team is closing out a decade with seven 90-win seasons, six playoff appearances, two World Series titles, the respect of an entire industry and memories that will never escape me. I'm grateful for the foundation that means the next decade could be even better.

After losing to the Rays last year I wrote in TNH that when your favorite team loses, no matter what the circumstance or team history, it always hurts. Right now, losing this game today and having the season end hurts. But I can't lose sight of the things I'm grateful for, that we should all be grateful for.

I'll continue to update here throughout the playoffs, including LCS previews later this week.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Don't Blink - ALDS Previews

The field has been whittled from 30 to eight, and the race to the World Series title begins later today. Before I get to my thoughts on the four series to come, I must address what I believe is a major problem for MLB, which of course has no shortage of problems. That's the fallacy of the five-game LDS, instituted in 1994 but first put into practice the next year due to the strike.

Baseball prides itself on supposedly having the most meaningful regular season of all professional sports, and I'd agree it does. The long, arduous season of 162 games rewards only the very best over that stretch. Unlike the NBA, NHL or NFL, it's exceedingly rare for a team to get in the postseason with a .500 record or worse. Mediocrity doesn't have a place in the MLB playoffs, most of the time.

So it has never made sense to me that a sport whose standard for entering the postseason is so high would treat their entrants with a measly five-game series. There's no question there have been some classic Division series (Yanks-Mariners in '95, Mets-D'Backs in '99, Red Sox-A's in '03, Braves-Astros in '05 among others) but it strikes me as contradictory that the fate of the supposedly best teams comes down to winning three games out of five. Any team can beat any other team in that scenario.

I know baseball's strict adherence to October as the only month for postseason play makes adding games to the schedule difficult (especially in a weird calender year like this where it looks like a long World Series will take us into November), but the LDS needs to be seven games. The best teams need to win, not just teams like Colorado in '07 or St. Louis in '06 that get hot at the right time. The regular season needs to mean something. Five games isn't enough.

With my rant out of the way, let's move on to the previews. Starting with the N(AAAA)L:

PHILADELPHIA (93-69, East Champs) vs. COLORADO (92-70, Wild Card Champs)

The defending World Series Champions will be looking to repeat as they face off with the upstart Rockies, once again the feel-good story of the MLB postseason. After firing Clint Hurdle this summer, the Rockies took off under Jim Tracy and never looked back. They'll head to Citizens Bank Park to start their NLDS with a hungry but flawed Phillies team.

Certainly the experience factor goes to Philly, most of these guys have a ring. Cliff Lee will start Game 1, and he should be followed by Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton. Hamels was not even close to this year to the dominant force he was in last year's postseason, and the Phils will likely sink or swim dependent on how he does. Ubaldo Jimenez, the flamethrower who finally broke out this year, will go first for the Rockies.

Both teams have very good, balanced offenses, but the bullpens for both clubs could be a question. The Phillies saw a phenomenal drop-off for Brad Lidge this year after having the best season ever for a closer in 2008. It's a total mystery who Charlie Manuel will use in the 9th inning going forward, which isn't a good thing for this or any club. Regardless, I think the starting pitching and offense for the defending champs gets in done. Phillies in five.

LOS ANGELES (95-67, West Champs) vs. ST. LOUIS (91-71, Central Champs)

There are plenty of stories that go along with these two clubs, who have been postseason staples for much of this decade. Last year, the Dodgers won their first postseason series since 1988 and look to improve on that in their second straight playoff appearance under Joe Torre. The Cardinals earned their seventh Central title under Tony LaRussa based on one primary strength, and it's a huge strength to have: starting pitching.

LaRussa and longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan have lined up their rotation with Chris Carpenter (17-4, 2.24 ERA), Adam Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 ERA) and Joel Pineiro (15-12, 3.49 ERA) set to go starting tonight in Chavez Ravine. This is a massive advantage the Cardinals have over the Dodgers, who can't count on anyone past Randy Wolf, who'll square off against Carpenter tonight. That uncertainty means they won't go far in the playoffs.

The Dodgers can still hang their hats on balanced offense and a strong bullpen anchored by beastly Jonathan Broxton. Ryan Franklin will look to round out his strong year by closing the Cardinals to another World Series title. Let's also not forget this fellow Albert Pujols, coming off an absurd regular season and keeper of a 1.022 OPS in the postseason. The Cardinals are a popular pick in this series, and I can't see why not. Cardinals in four.

On to the American League:

LOS ANGELES (97-65, West Champs) vs. BOSTON (95-67, Wild Card Champs)

Another year, another Angels-Red Sox ALDS. For the third straight year, and fourth of the last six, Mike Scioscia's Angels and Terry Francona's Red Sox will meet to open the postseason. The Red Sox have won each of those matchups, and I expect this year to be no different. The Red Sox have advantages almost everywhere on the field and the hunger to avenge last year's loss in the ALCS to the Rays.

Jon Lester and Josh Beckett will start the first two games in Los Angeles with Clay Buchholz set to go in Game 3 back in Boston. Buchholz has been shaky in his last two starts, and they'll need him to overcome that if they want to go far this year. The Angels starters have been much shakier than in year's past, with John Lackey going in Game 1 followed by Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders. Lackey can't seem to beat the Red Sox in the playoffs, regardless of where the game is played.

Overall the offenses are even with the Angels much improved in that category, but the Sox have a clear advantage in the bullpen. Brian Fuentes as underwhelmed while Jonathan Papelbon is poised to lead the Red Sox to another title. A lot is being made about the Angels and their ability to run all over Red Sox pitching, but I can't see that being a serious deal. They've always been a running team and haven't beaten the Red Sox yet this decade. Red Sox in four.

NEW YORK (103-59, East Champs) vs. MINNESOTA (87-76, Central Champs)

The Twins wrapped up the most improbable of division comebacks in a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat tiebreaker game against the hapless Tigers in the Homerdome last night. In this space a few weeks ago I said the Twins had no chance of coming back after losing Justin Morneau. But the Tigers choked away their lead, culminating in yesterday's instant classic. For their efforts, the Twins get to fly and face the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees.

The Yankees might have the worst playoff rotation of any team to ever win 103 games, with CC Sabathia's struggles, A.J. Burnett's lack of a history and Andy Pettitte's age and wonky shoulder. Minnesota's rotation is no bowl of sunshine either, but if upstarts Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are strong, the Twins will have more than a fighting chance. After what they've done in the last month, anything seems possible.

Maybe I'm crazy, maybe I'm naive, maybe I just hate the Yankees. But the Twins will be coming into this series on a major high. Couple this with the fact that New York hasn't played a meaningful game in more than six weeks and I think the stage is set for some major surprises. If the Twins take one game in New York, they can take both games in the Homerdome and shock the world. Well, except for me. Twins in four.

One last night before I go: After winning the game yesterday, Orlando Cabrera told Craig Sager the tiebreaker was "the most unbelievable game" he'd ever played in or seen. Umm...what? Did you forget about Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS? What about Game 4 of the World Series, the game that, you know, won you the World Series? Really, O.C.? That bothered me, a lot. Baseball players have short memories, apparently.

Anyway, enjoy the games, starting with Philly and Colorado at 2:30 today.