- ALCS Preview:
Los Angeles Angels (97-65; 1st place, American League West; defeated Boston Red Sox 3 games to 0 in ALDS) vs New York Yankees (103-59; first place, American League East; defeated Minnesota Twins 3 games to 0 in ALDS)
Keys for the Angels: Patience in all aspects; get their starting pitchers deep into the game; no mistakes; Vladimir Guerrero.
The Angels have been a pedal to the metal, go-go-go team for the entirety of manager Mike Scioscia's tenure. Occasionally that's been a detriment as their aggressiveness runs them out of innings at inopportune times and sabotages potential big innings. This season though, they've removed their foot from the gas just enough to increase their on base percentage to number three in the league from eleventh in 2008----Bobby Abreu's presence has had a great impact on the way the whole team (except Vladimir Guerrero) approaches their at bats.
For the Angels to continue their run, they're going to have to maintain that controlled aggressiveness and get the Yankees starters to raise their pitch counts to the point where tough decisions are going to need to be made in the middle innings. With the Yankees leaning toward using a three-man rotation, the individual games aren't going to be the only thing on their manager Joe Girardi's mind if his starters are up around 100 pitches. The longer the series goes, the better chance the Angels have to cash in on exhaustion and the Yankees top-heavy starting rotation.
One thing the Angels do not want to do is get into a bullpen battle with the Yankees. Brian Fuentes has been pitching well lately, but with a 1-run lead and the Yankees bashers (that would be almost the entire lineup) coming to the plate, I wouldn't feel safe with Fuentes on the mound; nor any of the other Angels relievers. Getting the starters deep into the games if they're close, or getting a comfortable lead would advantage the Angels greatly.
The Twins gave the Yankees a struggle and should have won game 2. Clearly they were overmatched, but an overmatched team has to play perfect baseball when dealing with a superior club such as the Yankees. The baserunning gaffes; failure to cash in on big opportunities to score; and, especially, Joe Nathan's meltdown in game 2 (he looked petrified) doomed the Twins to a three game sweep. The Angels can hang with the Yankees in every aspect of the game aside from the closer and have an advantage in the depth of their starting rotation. That said, they can't give away runs in the field, at the plate, on the mound or running the bases.
Vladimir Guerrero is not the hitter he once was, but he seems to save his best for the big stage and the biggest stage of all is in New York against the Yankees. The Red Sox made the ridiculous mistake of challenging Guerrero in game 3 by walking Torii Hunter to load the bases in front of him----he made them pay. If the Yankees think that because Guerrero is no longer the one-man-gang he once was it's reason to challenge him and take him lightly, they're going to rue the day they came to that conclusion just as the Red Sox surely are right now. There will be at least one game that will come down to Guerrero at the plate in a big spot and whether or not he delivers will be a decisive factor in the series.
Keys for the Yankees: keep their starting pitchers' pitch counts down; score, score, score; put the game in the hands of Mariano Rivera; mitigate Joe Girardi's overmanaging.
If they do go with a three-man rotation (and depending on how things go, they might not have a choice), the Yankees are going to have to keep an eye on the pitch counts of C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. Sabathia most of all will be at his best and able to handle the extra work; when he's a little bit tired his command is better; weariness will prevent him being as amped up for his playoff starts as he's been in the past. Burnett and Pettitte are both major concerns on short rest. Who knows what's going to happen with the flighty Burnett? And Pettitte isn't young anymore----he can be counted on to gut his way through----at least until he hits a physical nadir.
Scoring is the best antidote for the Yankees questions on the mound. If they can get a big lead, they can pull their starters and hand the game over to the bullpen by the sixth or seventh inning and not really worry about pitch counts or the subsequent games to the degree they will if the games turn into a long wrestling match. With the way Alex Rodriguez has been bashing, he could wreck several games all by himself. That Yankees lineup is hellish and they don't beat themselves. Putting up runs will solve most, if not all, of their other issues.
Mariano Rivera has been the Yankees most devastating and important weapon for the playoffs since 1996. Not only does he have the fearlessness to handle any and all circumstances, but his entrance into the game almost always signals the end of the proceedings. The Angels are more resistant than other clubs to the intimidation of Rivera, but if it's a close or tie game late, Fuentes is no match for the greatness that is Rivera.
Girardi did not manage well in the ALDS against the Twins. He fiddled unnecessarily with his relievers for right-lefty matchups when it wasn't appropriate; he yanked Sabathia too early in game 1 in a decision that could've been disastrous; and he seems to be of the "do stuff" school of managers. If he starts playing that game of messing about strategically just because some invisible book says to do so, it could cost the Yankees dearly later in the games and in the series. Girardi's inexperience is a major problem in a chess match with Scioscia.
What will happen:
The Angels are not afraid of the Yankees.
The Angels are not intimidated by the Yankees.
They've blasted them out of the playoffs twice before when they were heavy underdogs because they've taken the Yankees best shots and, rather than cower as everyone else seems to do, they've shoved them right back----harder.
On paper, this matchup is relatively even. The Angels starting pitching will be proven to be equal to the Yankees and their depth will turn the series in their favor. Sabathia is better off with the extra work, but what happens if it's the sixth inning of game 1 and the Angels have pushed his pitch count up to 100 with the score tied? Will Girardi be thinking ahead to games 4 and 7 if he has a decision to make? As impressive as the power arms of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes are coming out of the pen, the Angels aren't ones to be frightened of anything after this trying season, least of all a couple of kids who've been shown to be all-too-human in recent days.
Girardi's inexperience and penchant for making needless maneuvers because he's thinking too much will doom the Yankees in at least two of the games. Because of their short starting pitching, if the series is close heading into game 4, the Yankees have almost no choice in using a three-man rotation. Burnett won't be able to handle the work; Pettitte isn't a kid anymore. Brian Cashman's attempts to regulate Joba Chamberlain's innings have relegated the youngster to the bullpen in what would've been a game 4 start had he been allowed to gain some rhythm as a starter during the season rather than having been babied like some breakable artifact.
Guerrero is impossible to pitch around and he's going to enjoy a renaissance in this series. The Angels newfound control at the plate and on the bases will make them resistant to the same screw-ups that undid the Twins. The Yankees never quit and are always in any game despite a deficit because of their awesome power; but the Angels never quit either. Their intestinal fortitude in what looked like a lost season after the death of Nick Adenhart has become an inspiration. They can smell a championship and are on a mission.
The Yankees failure to adequately deploy their troops will be lamented as their season ends sooner than anyone expected. The worship they're receiving by those drunk by the impressive second half and domination in the ALDS will be left wondering how such a promising season went up in smoke. Rather than being awash in champagne and a planned trip down the Canyon of Heroes in a month's time, the new Stadium's inaugural season will end in tears and legitimate questions as to the managerial skills of Girardi and the arrogance of Cashman in sticking to his flawed and self-indulgent blueprint.
The Angels dumped the Red Sox.
And the Yankees are next to fall.
The Angels are taking them out.
PREDICTION: ANGELS IN SEVEN
ALCS MVP: JOHN LACKEY