- ALDS----New York Yankees vs Minnesota Twins:
New York Yankees (95-67); 2nd place, AL East (Won Wild Card) vs Minnesota Twins (94-68); 1st place, AL Central.
Keys for the Yankees: receive competent starting pitching; hit and score enough to not have to worry about their tattered starting pitching; not have Joe Girardi's overmanaging bite them as it could've in 2009; Robinson Cano vs Brian Fuentes.
The Yankees starting pitching is in absolute disarray. After C.C. Sabathia, they have question mark 1; question mark 2; and question mark 3. Even though he's been shaky since his return from injury, Andy Pettitte isn't a worry----he'll rise to the occasion as he always does.
Phil Hughes may be taking the start in game 2 and while he cast the appearance as California cool, he hasn't pitched well lately either and didn't perform all that well in last year's post-season out of the bullpen.
Then there's A.J. Burnett.
Burnett has been nothing short of atrocious for almost the entire 2010 season; with his stuff, there's no excuse for him to have a 10-15 record; a ridiculously high 5.26 ERA; give up the number of hits he does (204 in 186 innings); and be relegated to game 4. His strikeout numbers are down as well. I suggested weeks ago that he may be tipping his pitches because I can't come up with any other reason why a pitcher with Burnett's stuff is so eminently hittable. Of course, he has the ability to pitch a 2-hit shutout at any time, but I wouldn't count on it; and if the Yankees do have to count on it----he's scheduled to pitch game 4----they're in a lot of trouble.
They can account for the pitching issues by hitting and hitting a lot.
The Twins starting pitching is functional but, aside from Francisco Liriano, there isn't a dominator among the bunch; if the games are close late, the Twins bullpen is deep, good and organized. The Yankees have made it their life's work to torment the Twins in the playoffs with big hits (mostly against the injured Joe Nathan), but this time, they'd be better served to have the games in control rather than be tied or behind in the late innings.
One can never discount the possibility that Yankees manager Joe Girardi is going to do something that lands neatly in the category of bizarre or stupid and costs his team a game; it happened last year and he's still got his blue book of stats that he relies on to the point of self-immolation.
Robinson Cano is going to have to deal with Brian Fuentes in a game-breaking situation at some point; whatever happens in that confrontation could be the difference. Cano is 1 for 4 in his career vs Fuentes and has handled lefties well all season, but Fuentes comes with a quirky, slingshot delivery that's hard for lefties to pick up. If anything, the injury to Nathan and resulting trades for Matt Capps and Fuentes gives Twins manager Ron Gardenhire the freedom to go by matchups rather than the "he's my closer" excuse for leaving a pitcher in the game knowing it's probably not going to work.
Keys for the Twins: have their starting pitching do what they do (throw strikes; trust the defense); pound the Yankees starters; don't blow games late with bullpen implosions; Brian Fuentes vs Robinson Cano.
The Twins are smart enough to know that the Yankees are going to score, but it's minimizing the damage that will determine the series. Liriano's starting the opener; Carl Pavano is going in game 2; and Brian Duensing in game 3 at Yankee Stadium.
If they get their 5-6 innings from the starters and the games are close, the Twins will be more than happy to turn it over to their bullpen. They'd never admit this, but they may feel more comfortable with Capps and Fuentes in the late innings than they did with Nathan----especially against the Yankees.
This won't be as much of an issue if the Twins lineup attacks the Yankees starters. They need to get Pettitte's pitch count up if he's on his game; if they beat Sabathia, the series will be theirs to lose.
What will happen:
With the wasteland into which the Yankees' high-priced starting rotation had degenerated, they----especially Burnett----can earn their lofty paychecks with one good start in this series. I can't see that happening after watching how hitters have been teeing off on the enigmatic righty for essentially the whole season. Amid all the complaining about Burnett, this is what the Yankees bought; this has been Burnett's history----mediocrity and questions about how someone with such amazing stuff can get rocked so consistently.
I'm not much more confident in Hughes making what could be a make-or-break start in either game 2 or 3. I think Pettitte will be fine.
The Yankees haven't exactly been setting the world on fire offensively during their late-season slump, so to automatically expect them to turn it on in the playoffs is a stretch. The Twins have never been about dominance on the mound; they're about throwing strikes and letting their defense do the work----the Twins big ballpark will make it important that the Yankees get runners on base; they can't wait for the homers; and the Twins are not going to walk them.
Again and again, we've read and heard that the Yankees don't want to face the Rangers and Cliff Lee; that the Yankees "always" beat the Twins; but the Twins team the Yankees beat in the last few years wasn't this good; they were always a scrappy, more than the sum of the parts, fundamentally sound group who maximized their abilities.
This Twins team is different.
They're better off without Nathan, especially against the Yankees. They have playoff-tested veterans like Jim Thome and Joe Mauer in the middle of the lineup and don't fear Mariano Rivera. Coasting into the playoffs rather than having it come down to a one-game playoff or late season fight gave the Twins the opportunity to set their ducks and rest their veterans.
I've been preaching caution to the Yankees and their fans in recent weeks.
They wanted the Twins.
They're getting them.
The Twins are on a mission.
It's cliche, but true to say: be careful what you wish for----you just might get it.
The Yankees are getting the Twins.
That's not all they're getting.
They're also getting bounced.
The Twins are taking them out.
PREDICTION: TWINS IN FOUR.
- ALDS----Texas Rangers vs Tampa Bay Rays:
Texas Rangers (90-72); 1st place, AL West vs Tampa Bay Rays (96-66); 1st place, AL East.
Keys for the Rangers: the Stone Cold Killer; Josh Hamilton; the bullpen; which manager will screw up the least.
Acquired to bolster the starting rotation at mid-season, the real reason the Rangers traded for the Stone Cold Killer, Cliff Lee, was for the playoffs. Well, now they're here. Lee pitched poorly for a month after joining the Rangers and the questions about his ability to pitch in the hitters' heaven of Arlington and if all the perceived overwork from going so deeply into games came to the forefront; then it was revealed that Lee was dealing with back problems; after a shot, he returned to form in September.
As Lee goes, so go the Rangers.
Josh Hamilton only recently returned to the lineup after missing a month with two broken ribs and went 1 for 11 with a homer. Rib problems are no joke----just ask Jacoby Ellsbury; if Hamilton is at a reasonable percentage of his normal self, then the Rangers offense will be greatly enhanced by his mere presence; if not...
Neftali Feliz has a near-100 mph fastball and had an excellent season as the Rangers closer. He's also a 21-year-old rookie. It would behoove the Rangers to get him into game 1 regardless of the score; preferably, they'll have a big lead and let him get his first playoff experience behind him with limited pressure. It can go two ways with a young closer: he's either going to come through like Adam Wainwright; or he'll detonate.
Ron Washington's main attribute as manager has always been that the players never stop playing hard for him; in the playoffs, that won't matter much because they'll be playing hard as a rule; Washington makes glaring strategic mistakes, but so does Rays manager Joe Maddon; which manager makes the less egregious error will be imperative and could determine the series.
Nursing a strained quadriceps, Evan Longoria didn't play during the final week of the season. Is he healthy? The most important player on and off the field for the Rays is Longoria. If he's compromised or out entirely, they've got a big problem.
Carl Crawford's free agent credentials are almost identical to those of Carlos Beltran before the 2004 NLDS----a five tool star; in his prime; set to enter the market and get paid. Beltran was going to get paid one way or the other, but his utter tear in the 2004 playoffs cemented the Mets decision to give him $119 million.
Crawford stands at that exact same precipice. Will he put on a Superman show as Beltran did?
The Rays clutch hitting was the biggest factor in finishing third in the AL in scoring, but the Rangers are a different animal with much better pitching than the rest of baseball on the whole; when the Rays are shut down, they don't simply have trouble scoring----they have trouble getting any hits at all!
James Shields----AKA Big Game James----has not pitched well for two years running; in fact, he's gotten rocked all over the place. If the Rays have to rely on him in a make-or-break game 4, they need the Big Game version, not the batting practice version.
Rafael Soriano had a fantastic year as the Rays closer, but he's got the penchant for tightening in big games and gives up some homers. He, like Crawford, is a pending free agent and wants to get paid; doing well in the playoffs will raise his pricetag; this could place more pressure on his shoulders and cause a gack or two.
Manager Joe Maddon makes as many bizarre stumbles as Washington.
What will happen:
We don't know how Crawford, Soriano, Feliz and Hamilton will respond to the pressures of the playoffs; we do know how Longoria, Lee and Vladimir Guerrero respond to the same pressures.
Longoria's injury is something the Rays may not be able to counteract; Hamilton's is an issue, but the Rangers have enough offense to work around it and his mere presence in the lineup will permeate everyone else. The Rays bullpen is deep and well-organized, but they have the aforementioned issue of allowing big homers; the Rangers will score against the Rays pitching staff.
Will the Rays score enough? Will B.J. Upton hustle? There are black spots in the Rays lineup that have contributed greatly to them continually getting no-hit. Carlos Pena hit .196 this year and struck out 158 times; he did hit 28 homers and walked enough to raise his on base percentage to .325, but batting under .200 is ridiculous.
Lee put on a show with the Phillies last year; he loves the big stage and he will again show the world why he's the Stone Cold Killer. The Rangers have never gotten past the first round of the playoffs because they continually ran into the Yankees in the late 90s while the Yankees were in the middle of their dynasty.
This time it's different.
The Rangers are ready to win. They've made in-season improvements to win immediately and they're going to do it. In the first round anyway.
The vaunted American League East with two of the "best" teams in baseball will go unrepresented in the ALCS as the Rangers eliminate the Rays.
PREDICTION: RANGERS IN FIVE.
- NLDS----Cincinnati Reds vs Philadelphia Phillies:
Cincinnati Reds (91-71); 1st place, NL Central vs Philadelphia Phillies (97-65); 1st place, NL East.
Keys for the Reds: score and score a lot; keep the Phillies off the bases; work their way into the Phillies bullpen.
The Reds led the National League in scoring led by Joey Votto. On the whole, their lineup isn't particularly patient and if they let the Phillies starters roll through with low-pitch counts, they're never going to get into the Phillies questionable bullpen.
They need to do both to have a chance; and even then, they might not have a chance.
The Reds are starting Edinson Volquez in game 1; Johnny Cueto in game 3; Bronson Arroyo will start game 2. Arroyo isn't going to be intimidated, but he gives up a lot of home runs----a death knell against the Phillies. Both Volquez and Cueto are giant question marks facing that Phillies lineup and they have to come through.
Keys for the Phillies: get good starting pitching; jump on the Reds young starters; hit homers and plenty of them.
Roy Halladay will be making his first post-season appearance. Regardless of any pitcher's greatness, this is always something to keep an eye on----you never know until you know, but Halladay is prone to loving the big stage just like Lee.
The Reds aforementioned starters in game 1 and 3 are going to be nervous and the Phillies won't assuage their fears with their power, patience and base-stealing.
Both Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati are homer happy; the Phillies take great advantage of small ballparks to go deep.
What will happen:
The Reds have taken a grand stride from years of mediocrity and worse to make their first playoff appearance since 1995; they have a bright future with young pitching and power; but the starting pitching with Volquez and Cueto going in games 1 and 3 is prone to nervousness, wildness and homers. Volquez appears to be a sacrificial lamb in sending him out against Halladay; this would be fine if the Phillies didn't have Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels ready to go in games 2 and 3.
The Phillies bullpen has been better lately----Brad Lidge looks like he's got his stuff and confidence back----but even if he didn't, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel will ride his starting pitchers as far as he can. The Reds bullpen has been up-and-down and you cannot trust Francisco Cordero in a big game.
Having had a hot streak that was beyond belief to blast their way into the playoffs, the Phillies look unstoppable right now. If they were playing a team with better starting pitching, I'd say they may have peaked too soon in September, but the Reds don't have the horses to handle the Phillies. They don't even have the personnel to make the series competitive.
This won't take long.
PREDICTION: PHILLIES IN THREE.
- NLDS----Atlanta Braves vs San Francisco Giants:
Atlanta Braves (91-71); 2nd place, NL East (Won Wild Card) vs San Francisco Giants (92-70); 1st place, NL West.
Keys for the Braves: get to the Giants starters and score, score, score; don't leave games in the hands of Billy Wagner.
It's no secret that the Giants are offensively challenged. The Braves pushed Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson hard down the stretch and they'll undoubtedly be rejuvenated by October baseball; Tommy Hanson is pitching game 2 and is a young pitcher with no post-season experience. Can they outpitch the Giants top two starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain? The Braves have to score to account for the extra work and opportunistic Giants.
Speaking from experience and remembering his high-profile blowups with the Mets, I can tell you that there's a giant, game-losing inning (with a homer, with walks, whatever) that he has yet to have this season for the Braves. The question is whether it will be a series-clinching gaffe or just a bump they can overcome.
Keys for the Giants: get good starting pitching and send the game to closer Brian Wilson; score enough; work the pitch counts of the Braves starters to simultaneously wear them down and get into the bullpen; Buster Posey.
The Giants have risen to the NL West title based on Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson and clutch hitting. This is truly a team that is more than the sum of its parts. The bullpen is deep and every pitcher knows his role.
Getting the heavily worked Lowe and Hudson to throw a lot of pitches early will get the duo's pitch count up and compromise them for a long series.
Will Buster Posey want to put an exclamation point on his Rookie of the Year candidacy in a head-to-head matchup with Jason Heyward? Posey has been brilliant at and behind the plate and if he hits, the Giants will win.
What will happen:
The Giants have been playing with a little magic all year long. In addition to Lincecum and Cain both getting their first taste of post-season, Wilson is a money closer who exemplifies the "whatever we have to do" attitude of this Giants team. I do not trust Wagner. Period. He's going to blow a game late. Watch.
All the attention will be paid to Bobby Cox as he tries to end his career with a championship, but the manager in the other dugout----Bruce Bochy----has a pretty impressive resume in his own right. Cox's teams have historically had some major falls in the playoffs; and those teams were far deeper and stronger than this one.
The Braves are injury-riddled and were lucky to make the playoffs; the Giants are surging. Even if the Braves escape San Francisco with a split in the first two games, the pockmarked and offensively-challenged Braves will be ripe for the taking back in Atlanta especially with their starting pitching being as pushed as hard as they've been in recent weeks.
Posey's going to put on a show.
Bobby Cox's career as a manager and baseball man has earned him a rightful place in the Hall of Fame, but the romantic story of going out with a championship will end in the NLDS as the Giants dispatch the Braves with relative ease.
PREDICTION: GIANTS IN FOUR.
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