- ALCS----New York Yankees vs Texas Rangers:
New York Yankees (95-67); 2nd place, AL East (Won Wild Card, defeated Minnesota Twins 3 games to 0 in ALDS) vs Texas Rangers (90-72); 1st place, AL West (defeated Tampa Bay Rays 3 games to 2 in ALDS).
Keys for the Yankees: Mitigate the Killer; get into the Rangers bullpen; win the battle of managerial mistakes; rely on their big three starters; pop the Rangers in the mouth early.
The Yankees starting pitching----which was supposed to be in tatters (I thought it was in tatters)----in the division series turned out to be more resilient than imagined. Eventually I'll learn not to doubt Andy Pettitte in the playoffs. Eventually.
Because they were able to dispatch the Twins so quickly and relatively easily, there was no need to use any of their pitchers on short rest and they were even able to build up a lead in game 3 to get Phil Hughes out of the game at 99 pitches to rest him for the ALCS where he might have to be pushed hard. In addition to that, Mariano Rivera wasn't overtaxed; and they didn't have to resort to using Joba Chamberlain in an important situation (they didn't use him at all).
With the Yankees reverberating in the Twins collective heads, the series was essentially over after game 1. A team so reliant on their aged veterans benefits from such a fast, easy dispatching of their opponent. An extra day off here and there can mean the difference between a nagging injury preventing a player from taking the extra or making the necessary defensive play.
Following their brush off of the Twins, the Yankees got their rest and waited for the survivor of Rangers-Rays. Regardless of the implication that the "Rays know how to beat the Yankees"; and that they're not intimidated by them, the Rays would've been a far easier opponent than the Rangers will be because: A) the Rays aren't that good; and B) the Rangers have more weapons.
That said, since the series went 5 games and the Rangers were forced to use Cliff Lee in game 5, the Yankees will avoid the Stone Cold Killer until game 3. By then, they could have 2-0 lead and Lee's presence won't be as much of a factor even if he's at his most deadly. It's highly important to use this to their advantage.
The Yankees flawlessly executed plan has always been to raise the pitch counts of the starting pitchers (this is especially effective against teams with good starters and shaky bullpens) and pound the bullpen; this will not work with Lee. They can't wait for him to walk people----he's not going to; and once they fall behind in the count, he rips off that curveball to say good night. They do not want to be facing Cliff Lee in a game 7.
With their bullpen as young and shaky as it is, the Rangers are going to push their starters deeply into games if they can. C.J. Wilson is starting the opener for the Rangers and the Yankees have hit him well; he also led the American League in walks; while he didn't let that affect him negatively because he only allowed 10 homers, you cannot put a bunch of Yankees on base with that lineup; one big hit and it's a crooked number and the Rangers have to go to the bullpen----the weakest on-field part of their club.
Game 2 starter Colby Lewis didn't pitch against the Yankees this season and was far better than his 12-13 record; the outcome of the series may hinge on Lewis's performance. If the Rangers come to New York with the series 1-1 and Lee going in game 3, they're going to be feeling pretty good about their chances.
Off the field, there's always the chance that manager Ron Washington is going to do something inexplicably stupid to sabotage his team. The Rangers have done nothing but play hard and support their manager, but in the playoffs all it takes is one mistake to blow the whole thing up. Against the Yankees, the Rangers have to be close to perfect on the field and in the dugout.
The Yankees have stated their intention to use A.J. Burnett in game 4 (for now), but if they're down 2 games to 1, you can forget that idea; C.C. Sabathia is going to pitch in game 4 if they have to win it. In fact, I'd use Sabathia unless the series is 3-0 Yankees----that's the only way I'd run the risk of pitching Burnett.
A young team like the Rangers----despite having battle-tested veterans Vladimir Guerrero and Lee----can be intimidated; this is especially true for young closer Neftali Feliz. As much as the Twins were expected to finally get over the hump (by me anyway), it was as if they swaggered into the playoffs feeling great about themselves with a deep bullpen and good lineup with a "we're ready to beat these guys" aura.....and then wilted as soon as the Yankees popped them in the mouth in the latter stages of game 1. If something similar happens in game 1 against the Rangers, the series could be over before the Rangers realize it started.
Keys for the Rangers: get a split in Texas; extend the series; raise the pitch counts of the Yankees starters early in the series; get on base and wreak havoc; get it to the Killer; don't be intimidated.
They have the home field advantage, but that won't matter unless they use it for its intended purpose; the Yankees don't care about being at home or on the road and the hitters' haven of Rangers Ballpark will help the Yankees more than it will the Rangers. They have Lee in reserve for games 3 and 7, but that won't do the Rangers much good if they don't prove to themselves that they can make it a series by taking one of the first two games.
The longer it goes, the better the Rangers chances become; if they can force the Yankees to push Sabathia and Hughes in games 1 and 2; then have Lee going against Pettitte in game 3 and enter game 3 at 1-1 in the series, the Yankees won't have any choice but to start Sabathia on short rest in game 4. Sabathia's big and strong enough to handle it, but the cumulative effect can cause a problem for Sabathia and the Yankees.
Hughes would be forced to pitch on short rest as well if the Yankees decide to skip Burnett; this is where we'll learn the truth about the "Hughes Rules". Hughes has never pitched on short rest in his big league career. Will the extra rest, cool October weather and playoff adrenaline carry him through? Or will the babying leave him grasping for that little bit extra oomph? If he has to push himself, will that reduce his command; flatten his pitches; leave him vulnerable to walks and ultimately home runs?
I doubt there's any pitcher they Yankees trust more than Pettitte; he's not going to panic about being given the ball and with him unsure about continuing to pitch after this season, presumably, he'll tell manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland that he'll pitch as long and as often as necessary.
I'll say this right now: Pettitte or not, if this series gets to a game 7, the Yankees are going to lose. If the Rangers don't get their first wish of a stunningly quick series in dethroning the Yankees, the next best thing is getting it to Lee for game 7.
Jorge Posada can't throw anymore and the Rangers are going to do whatever they can to exploit this weakness and run wildly around the bases; they have to get on base.
It sounds simple enough to say, "we're not afraid of these guys"; but when the battle actually begins it's those who can stick to that seemingly simple plan of not being frightened who eventually win. In his early days, when Mike Tyson was the unstoppable wrecking crew whom no man wanted to face, it was that fear that led to the downfall of such competent opponents as Michael Spinks. In February 1990, that all came apart when Buster Douglas knocked Tyson out with a strategy of, essentially, not being afraid.
Bluster is great, but can the Rangers back it up? As young and free-wheeling as they are, can they stand up to the big, bad, battle-tested Yankees? Can Feliz face Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano in the late innings and maintain his cool? If so, the Rangers have a chance; but veteran teams like the Twins and Braves have wilted at the sight of the Yankees; winning the first game will do a lot for their collective psyche, but it's easier said than done.
What will happen:
I've seen it too many times.
The Yankees have been perceived to be ripe for the picking after staggering into the playoffs with injuries and shortness of personnel....and they've awakened at crunch time. This group has overcome every obstacle placed in front of them too many times to doubt them now. The managerial back-and-forth of mistakes won't be an issue with Washington making twice the number of bizarre decisions as Girardi.
Once the starters are out of the game, the Rangers are going to be in a lot of trouble and Washington showed an absurdly quick hook in the ALDS against the Rays; their closer is young and unproven and if anyone shows his age and inexperience against the Yankees, it'll be Feliz.
I'd be stunned to see A.J. Burnett starting a game in this series; Sabathia wants the ball on 3 days rest and can handle it. The plan to use Hughes in game 2 and Pettitte in game 3 has been questioned in some circles, but Hughes has been brilliant in Texas----link; Pettitte hasn't. They're far better off with this rotation and Pettitte ready for game 7 than with Hughes on line for game 3 and 7.
The Rangers are going to try and be patient; to push the pitch counts of Sabathia, Hughes and Pettitte into the stratosphere; but can they execute in their first taste of a championship series and the accompanying pressure and mental rush? They're going to be hacking, especially if they fall behind; they're going to run themselves into outs; and they're going to panic if things don't start out well.
With the Yankees strength and depth in the bullpen and the Rangers inexperience, the best formulated plans will be relatively meaningless in a 3-3 game in the ninth inning with Feliz on the mound and A-Rod coming up to the plate with a runner on second and one out.
The Yankees have the experience and weapons to deal with the Rangers, Cliff Lee or no Cliff Lee. The Rangers hope to get it to Lee so he can do what he does best----kill; but it's not going to get that far; the Yankees won't let it.
PREDICTION: YANKEES IN SIX
ALCS MVP: MARK TEIXEIRA
- NLCS----San Francisco Giants vs Philadelphia Phillies:
San Francisco Giants (92-70); 1st place, NL West; (defeated Atlanta Braves 3 games to 1 in NLDS) vs Philadelphia Phillies (97-65); 1st place, NL East (defeated Cincinnati Reds 3 games to 0 in NLDS).
Keys for the Giants: Run up the pitch counts of the Phillies starters; get into their bullpen; execute flawlessly; pitch, pitch, pitch; don't....walk....the....Phillies.
The Giants can pitch with the Phillies and they must work the Phillies big three----Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels----hard; the only way the Giants can win is if they get the series to go past 5 games----and Joe Blanton is scheduled to pitch game 4 for the Phillies. In a long series, they'll be able to exploit the overwork that has plagued the Phillies starters all season long.
Because their bullpen is so shaky, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is going to trust a tired Roy Halladay (yes, he's human; yes, he gets tired) over Chad Durbin, Jose Contreras and even Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge; what the Giants need to do is keep the games close and force Manuel into making that decision of yanking his starter with a pinch hitter to try and score a run; of pushing the pitch counts into the 120 range by the seventh inning that he's trapped with the choice of trying to win the game immediately and worry about the latter portion of the series when it happens or going for the long-term goal and keeping his starters fresh enough so they're still effective.
The Giants can't score with the Phillies so they have to execute. Walking the Phillies; giving them extra outs with errors; letting their pitchers have quick innings----all will be walking right into the Phillies trap. The Giants have to play close to perfect fundamental baseball to win.
Built on great starting pitching, the Giants can't win if they don't pitch and get length from their starters.
Keys for the Phillies: Score early and often; maintain starting pitching brilliance; tire Timmy; keep the Giants off the board; do what the Phillies do.
The Phillies had surprising offensive issues for long stretches during the regular season, but they have aspects to their game that don't have anything to do with hitting. They walk and they steal bases----two attributes that can only be prevented if the Giants don't let them get on base; with their lineup, it only takes a few baserunners and one bomb to put the game out of reach for the offensively challenged Giants. A 3-run lead and the Phillies starting pitchers will signal game over.
Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels have been unhittable for the entire second half of the season; the Gaints can't fall behind the Phillies in individual games or the series, Tim Lincecum or no Tim Lincecum.
Lincecum has never pitched on 3 days rest and it's probably not going to happen in this series either. Lincecum is scheduled for games 1 and 5; Jonathan Sanchez 2 and 6; Matt Cain for 3 and 7; Madison Bumgarner is listed as the game 4 starter.
Lincecum threw 119 pitches in his 2-hit, 14 strikeout masterpiece over the Braves in game 1 of the NLDS and manager Bruce Bochy won't hesitate to let him go to 120-130 pitches to beat Halladay in game 1. Getting his pitch count up into the 100s by the sixth or seventh inning and forcing Bochy to make that dreaded decision that also confronts Manuel in the other dugout could mean the difference in the series.
The Giants can't win if they don't score; the Phillies pitching and the Giants offensive woes will lead to a low scoring series and the Phillies have a habit of exploiting the tiniest opening to pound their opponent into submission. They've beaten up on closer Brian Wilson in his career and can catch up to his power fastball with their lefty bats.
It's what they do.
What will happen:
The Phillies offensive woes from the regular season were less of a concern when their pitchers weren't giving up any runs; but now they're running into a team that can pitch with them. Lincecum is having a blast in his first shot at the playoffs; Sanchez has done a number on the Phillies in his career----link; they've hammered Cain repeatedly.
These games are going to be low-scoring; Bochy isn't going to make the same mistake of entrusting late leads to Sergio Romo and if he has to, he'll use the courageous and fearless Wilson for 2 innings (or more).
The longer this series goes, the better it is for the Giants. Again and again, the Giants have proven to be more than the sum of their parts. They don't have that one basher in the middle of the lineup; they're rife with a bunch of tough guys from Wilson; Cody Ross; Juan Uribe; and Aubrey Huff. They won't be intimidated by the Phillies and Wilson isn't going to blow games because of a mental block as Jonathan Broxton did in the Dodgers back-to-back NLCS losses to the Phillies.
Buster Posey can stop the Phillies running game. Jimmy Rollins batted .091 in the NLDS; Placido Polanco .111. The Phillies on the whole didn't hit in their sweep of the Reds as they took advantage of a team that was essentially overwhelmed on the mound from top-to-bottom.
Can the Phillies keep up this ridiculous starting pitching? Are the Giants going to come in with a nothing-to-lose attitude knowing how heavily favored the Phillies are? That everyone seems to think that it's fait accompli that a Yankees-Phillies dream rematch is on the docket?
The Giants have to get back to San Francisco with the series tied at 1-1. If they do that, it will indicate an extended brawl to win the pennant.
There's something about the Giants.
They've been a close-knit, stitched together group all season long; they're more than the sum of their parts. On paper they're not even close to the Phillies in terms of overall firepower at the plate, but they can match them on the mound.
Games aren't played on paper.
Games are played on the field.
The Giants have something to say before allowing the desired Yankees-Phillies rematch.
And they're going to have the last word.
PREDICTION: GIANTS IN SEVEN
NLCS MVP: Jonathan Sanchez
I was on with SportsFan Buzz talking about this stuff earlier today. Click here for Sal's site or here to listen directly.