So I batted .750 (3-for-4) in my first playoff predictions post; I must admit that the Dodgers surprised me. That's a big "what if?" series because of the embarrassing Matt Holliday blunder, but the fact remains that Joe Torre's men swept Tony LaRussa's boys. My respect goes out to Joe -- he managed a helluva series. Major improvement over his suspect performance in last year's postseason.
Moving on to the LCS, let's start with the National League this time. Saving the best for last; no offense Philly and L.A...
National League Championship Series: Phillies vs. Dodgers
Here we go again. As most of us already know, these two teams met in the NLCS last season. The rematch is good for the game, though. Last year's NLCS was extremely entertaining, and a little east coast/west coast rivalry developed. Not like the hip-hop rivalry; there will be less fighting and bloodshed, I promise.
This time around, it's really tough to call. I want to say Phillies with my initial instinct, but let's look a little closer at the personnel before any conclusions are made.
Offensively, it's difficult for me to bet against Philadelphia. Even their weak links, Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz, are far from dead wood. Ruiz actually performed quite well in the series against Colorado. Of course those two play second fiddle to the core guys: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Jayson Werth, and Shane Victorino. Every time I see those six names together, I think, "Wow." That has to result in a migraine for opposing pitchers.
However, neither the Dodgers or Phillies lit it up in the opening round of the playoffs. The Dodgers maxed out at five runs, and the Phillies at six. While those run totals don't jump off the page at us, we need to bare in mind that production in the postseason is a whole 'nother story. These hitters are facing some of the premier pitchers in the game, throwing with adrenaline, focus, and maximum preparation. In the National League, five or six runs is often more than enough to walk away with a playoff victory.
Though the Dodgers were adequate offensively in the LDS, I'm sticking with the Phillies in this category. Manny Ramirez looked tired and sluggish against the Cardinals, and while Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp are dangerous bats, their youth hinders their consistency. Ethier constantly gets beat inside with good fastballs, and Kemp chases two-strike breaking balls in the dirt far too often. There's no doubt that they can pop one here or there, but in a tight spot I'd rather see Ryan Howard or Chase Utley up there.
The Dodgers may have a game where they bust out for eight or nine runs against Philly's pitching, but I'll take the latter's offense over the course of the long series.
Speaking of pitching, both teams started off the LDS with a pair of lefties -- Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels for Philly, Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw for L.A. Lee is certainly the best of the four, but the advantage for Wolf and Kershaw is that three of the Phillies' power bats are left-handed: Howard, Utley, and Ibanez. The Dodgers, on the other hand, will have key right-handed hitters in Manny, Kemp, Casey Blake, Russell Martin, and even Ronnie Belliard to combat Lee and Hamels. I do believe the Dodgers will get to Hamels in Game 1, but it will be an entirely different story when Lee gets the ball in the series.
The middle games of the NLCS will be riddled with wild cards and question marks. The Dodgers have the Vicente Padilla/Chad Billingsley/Jon Garland situation, and the Phillies have J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, and Pedro Martinez. I much prefer the Dodgers' options to the Phillies, as Happ and Pedro would really worry me in this series. The stakes are so high, and I don't think either guy has a good enough arsenal right now. Padilla displayed surprisingly electric stuff in his start against the Cardinals; I can hardly imagine myself using the word "electric" to describe any of Philly's options.
Moving to the bullpens, the Dodgers have as significant an advantage as the Phillies do offensively. After Mariano Rivera, I think Jonathan Broxton is the best closer in baseball. Joe Torre has flamethrowing setup guys in righty Ronald Belisario, and lefty Hong Chih-Kuo. Former effective closer George Sherrill is also in the mix.
Conversely, the Phillies' bullpen performance can be likened to one season-long, nauseating roller coaster ride. Things went fairly well against the Rockies, but Charlie Manuel is very reliant upon three guys: Ryan Madson, Scott Eyre, and Brad Lidge. Madson and Lidge are timebombs waiting to explode, and there's added pressure on Eyre because he's their only truly serviceable lefty in the pen. The Phillies don't have the depth or consistency of the Dodgers in the relief department.
In the end, it really could go either way. But I'll take a stand:
Los Angeles Dodgers over the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-3.
American League Championship Series: Angels vs. Yankees
Make no mistake about it, these are the top two teams in the game. This year's Angels and Yankees feature two of the more explosive lineups of the past decade, and they have talented-enough arms to complement their bats. The balance is there for both teams, the only question is...who has the edge?
Well, let's start off with starting pitching this time around. C.C. Sabathia is the best starter on either team, but no one is safe from disaster in this series. Given his postseason track record, and the fact that he's almost too fine with his pitches, too predictable in the strikezone, would you really be surprised if the powerful Angels handed him a beating?
I know I wouldn't. The same can be said of A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte for the Yankees, and John Lackey, Jered Weaver, and Scott Kazmir for the Angels. I honestly believe that these two lineups are so good, that quality pitchers can come with their best stuff on a given day, and still walk away with four or five earned runs in six innings. There are no easy outs on either team, and everyone is (at the very least) a serious threat for an extra-base hit.
Though Sabathia will have the home crowd supporting him in Game 1, I think he'd have a better chance to succeed on the road. The reasoning is simple: the Angels' home park is more forgiving for pitchers. I know I wouldn't want to face Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Kendry Morales, or even Juan Rivera (25 homers) at the Yankees' little league stadium. The Angels' pitchers will have the same issues with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano, and Johnny Damon.
As you can tell from those lists, the Yankees seem to have more raw, power threats. While that's certainly intimidating, it may not make much of a difference. In recent years the Yankees haven't strung together rallies in the postseason like they did in the past with Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez and the rest of that group, a fact that indicates they are too reliant upon the longball. Those rallies were missing again in the Twins series, one in which they scored only four runs in Game 2 and 3. Even more disturbing is that they struggled against Carl Pavano for the vast majority of his start, and Pavano can't shine the shoes of the Angels' righties, Lackey and Weaver.
The Angels' offense should scare the Yankees because their hitters feed off of one another. They have scrappy, high-average contact hitters like Chone Figgins, Erick Aybar, and Maicer Izturis that complement their power threats. This is a very patient offense, something that should help them against Burnett, in particular.
Looking at the bullpens, I have to give the Yankees the edge. I've never been one to trust Brian Fuentes because of his wildness and sub-par offspeed stuff, and we're comparing him to Mariano Rivera here. Rivera's lost some velocity on his cutter, but as I mentioned briefly before, he's still the best and most reliable closer in the bigs. Though I'm not over-the-top obsessed with the Yankees' setup men -- Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain -- like everyone else seems to be, I'll still take them over Mike Scioscia's mix-and-match group.
The Yankees have the intimidating lineup and the bullpen advantage, but there's still one thing that I can't seem to get past...
This seems to be the Angels' year. They had injuries and the heartbreakingly tragic death of Nick Adenhart at the beginning of the season, and yet they perservered. They shook off the slow start and rose to their customary position atop the AL West. They swept their playoff nemesis in the Boston Red Sox, and now they're coming after a team that has struggled against them.
The Yankees' camaraderie has impressed me this season, and they certainly have more of a "team" than they've had in recent years, but I think the buck stops here...
Prediction: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim over New York Yankees, 4-2.
("JFro," aka John Frascella, is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land." It's the first full-length book centered on Boston Red Sox's popular general manager Theo Epstein. Preview or purchase it online at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or Borders. It's currently stocked in Barnes and Noble stores throughout the U.S. Also, check out John on Twitter.)