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Keefe To The City: MLB Playoff Preview

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By Neil Keefe
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It’s the day I wait all year for. It’s the day that I watch every Yankees game for. It’s the first day of postseason baseball, and arguably the best day of any year.

There is nothing like playoff baseball in sports and this is coming from a hockey and NHL enthusiast. Yes, the NHL playoffs were the best form of professional sports at one time, but that era is over. A few weeks ago on MSG there was a countdown of Mark Messier’s best goals as a Ranger, and it made me want it to be 1994 again and me to be eight years old again when watching the NHL was my life. Back then, the players were cooler, the crowds were crazier, the goals were more dramatic and the fights were epic. Now the game just seems monotonous and it isn’t nearly as appealing as it once was, even in the postseason when the best hockey is played. The same can’t be said for baseball. The baseball postseason and everything it entails has remained a constant. Thankfully, the Yankees have remained a constant in the picture.

From the eight teams that made the postseason in 2009, only three are back in 2010. The Red Sox, Angels, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rockies are all home. Every team in the tournament this year has a worthy story line and every series has an intriguing matchup. Consider these story lines for the eight October teams:

Yankees: The chance to repeat as world champions for the first time since 1999-2000.

If the Yankees win the World Series, it make for a very interesting scenario since they will have created a new Yankees dynasty, while also still being an extension of the last Yankees dynasty. They will have won for the sixth time in 15 years, but the eighty-year layoff causes a problem in classifying the 2010 Yankees with the 1996 Yankees as one long dynasty. So what would this actually be considered? I’m not sure, but hopefully I will have the chance to think about it over the next few weeks because there certainly needs to be a term for this unique situation even if it doesn’t happen often or ever in sports and might not happen again.

Rays: The chance to make one more run before the team undergoes change.

The main theme around the Rays is that this is the last chance the team might have to win a title for a while. The Rays will lose Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena at the end of the season, but I am not buying into the idea that the Rays won’t be competitive next year or in the near future. Their pitching staff is young and solid, and it seems like any prospect they call up is major league ready and a star in the making. If the Rays don’t win it this season, they will have their fair share of chances in the future.

Twins: The chance to finally overcome the Yankees and win a title in their first season playing at Target Field.

The law of averages tells us that eventually the Twins will overcome the Yankees in the playoffs if the two team meet enough times. Last season the Yankees finally got past the Angels right after the Angels finally got past the Red Sox. And let’s not forget the new stadium factor. The Yankees won in the new Stadium in 2009 and the Cardinals won in the first season in their new home in 2006. Will this be the year the Twins get past the Yankees? Let’s hope not.

Rangers: The chance to win the franchise’s first playoff series and make a run that will entice Cliff Lee to stay.

The Rangers haven’t been in the postseason since 1999, but they are finally back. They are the most underrated team and because of that the most dangerous team in the postseason in my mind. Their pitching and lineup can go against any of the other teams in the tournament, but for some reason I feel like they are being viewed as a dark horse or not even a horse at all. Aside from looking for a championship, the Rangers are looking for a way to make Cliff Lee want to sign with the club this offseason (if they can get their finances together) and an extended run in the postseason would only help their chances in bringing him back.

Phillies: The chance to reach their third World Series in as many years, and the first chance for Roy Halladay to showcase his abilities in October.

Nearly everyone is picking the Phillies to win the World Series, and it makes sense. They have an easier road to the World Series than any AL team since they play in the “B” League and with the Reds as a first-round opponent, they might as well just paint the NLCS logo on the field in Philly now. Let’s not forget this will be Roy Halladay’s first taste of postseason action and he is going to make sure he leaves 13 years of regular season starts on the field every time he takes the mound this October.

Giants: The chance to makeup for the organization’s collapse against the Angels in 2002, and win for the first time since moving to San Francisco.

Giants fans haven’t’ had much to be proud of since Barry Bonds broke the home run record. The collapse in the ’02 World Series and the fact that Barry Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs whether it was has been proven or not tarnished the team’s legacy. Then Tim Lincecum came along, won back-to-back Cy Youngs and you could sense the rise of the Giants in the NL West and their inevitable place in the postseason. Now they are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2003 with a chance to end Bobby Cox’s final ride, and they might be the only team that can stop the Phillies from representing the NL in the World Series.

Reds: The chance to surprise everyone.

The Reds and their fans should be happy that they were able to take the Central from the Cardinals, considering the Cardinals’ pitching. Charlie Manuel compared the 2010 Reds to the Phillies of three years go during his press conference yesterday and its an interesting comparison. The Phillies weren’t good enough to win the whole thing then, but it got them the experience they needed to win it all the following year and remain competitive for a while. I don’t think the Reds are in the postseason to stay, but they have conquered the first step by winning their division, and this trip to October will only help them in the near future.

Braves: The chance to produce a great baseball story and let Bobby Cox ride off into the sunset as a champion.

The Braves were able to hold onto their postseason berth down the stretch and now Bobby Cox has one last chance to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1999, and win it for the first time since 1995 (two achievements that happened long ago and would have gotten him fired or offered a decrease in pay if he was with the Yankees). The Braves have played above their heads all season long and have overachieved for the most part. Now it’s time to see if they can continue to do so against the best teams in baseball.

Ready for first pitch yet?

I’m not one for predictions, but since everyone else gets to make one, even Nomar Garciaparra (he picked the Twins over the Yankees in five), I figure why can’t I join the know-it-all party and put my predictions on the line, too? Here are my predictions for the four divisions series:

ALDS

Yankees-Twins
I wanted the Yankees to play the Twins rather than the Rangers in the first round, and I think any Yankees fan should have wanted the same scenario. If you are going to face a team with Cliff Lee, it better be during a seven-game series. However, I hoped for Tigers in 2006 and the Indians in 2007, so maybe I am just setting myself up for disaster.

The reason people are picking against the Yankees is because of the questions in the rotation after CC Sabathia. Sure, Andy Pettitte might not be his usual self and Phil Hughes has as many postseason starts as me. It always seems that whenever the Yankees play any team in the postseason, experts and analysts tone down the ability of the Yankees and hype up the abilities of the opposition. In this case, the focus is around the Yankees’ pitching, but no one is talking about the Twins’ pitching. The last time I checked, after Francisco Liriano the Twins are starting Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn. That would be the Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing the Yankees beat in Games 1 and 3 of the 2009 ALDS and the same Nick Blackburn who finished the regular season with a 5.42, right? OK, just checking. Not exactly Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine.

When it comes to offenses, it’s not even worth comparing. Without Justin Morneau the Twins just aren’t the same team. The hype right now is around Jim Thome, who is trying to push the hands of Father Time back, and Delmon Young, who seems to finally have become the player we all thought he would be when he was throwing bats at umpires. The only problem is that while these players are good and the offense of the Twins is good, there is nothing about the Twins that is great, and it seems like the evaluations of the Twins’ offense, defense and pitching is being exaggerated and fabricated to increase interest in the series.

Everyone was concerned with the potential playoff weather at Target Field in the postseason. No one will have to worry this season as there will only be two playoff games at Target Field this postseason.

The pick: Yankees in 3.


Rangers-Rays

You want to know how you lose in the ALDS? You face Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson in Games 1 and 2, that’s how.

Joe Maddon wanted to win the AL East and talked about how important it was to win the division and say that his team is better than the Yankees and Red Sox. Sorry to break it to you, Joe, but no one counts division championships, they count world championships. And being able to brag that you are the AL East champion doesn’t matter too much when you are home in the second week of October.

The Rays got their wish and they got the division and home-field advantage. But now they have to face what might be the best 1-2 punch in the entire postseason (that’s right, I said it Philadelphia). Back-to-back lefties with the ability shut down even the best offenses in baseball. The more I think about it, the more I want to thank Joe Girardi for laying down the final weeks of the season … that is, if all of this works out.

With Lee starting Game 1, it’s almost as if the Rays are already trailing in the series and a pitch hasn’t even been thrown yet. Sure, the Rays could find a way to beat Lee, who proved last season that the postseason is his cup of tea, since they are countering with David Price. But the problems come in Game 2, the game in which Maddon has decided it’s a good idea to start James Shields against C.J. Wilson. The only good that will come from this will be the chance for the rest of the country to watch highlights from the Rangers clearing the catwalks at the Trop with bombs off of “Big Game James.”

The pick: Rangers in 4.


NLDS

Reds-Phillies
There isn’t much to talk about with this series, and I’m sure the city of Cincinnati is just happy that the Reds are back in the postseason. It’s too bad their joy won’t last long.

Roy Halladay has made 320 starts, pitched 2297 1/3 innings and won 169 games in the majors. He has waited 13 seasons to reach the postseason, and believe me when I say that he isn’t about to let the Cincinnati Reds ruin his first October.

There isn’t much to discuss about this series. The Phillies have a better rotation, a better lineup and are pretty much just much better all around than the Reds. I think if the Reds could win one game in this series, it would be a victory for them.

If the Phillies lose this series, it would be one of the biggest upsets in NLDS history and possibly postseason history, and I’m not joking when I say that.

The pick: Phillies in 3.


Braves-Giants

I have always hated the Braves. In fact, after the Red Sox and Mets, I’m pretty sure the Braves would be next on the MLB Teams That I Hate list. I’m not really sure where this hatred for the Braves came from, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with growing up when the Yankees were playing the Braves in the World Series in ’96 and ’99, even though we beat them both times. You would think I would like the Braves since they have caused so much heartache for Mets fans, but it’s just not the case.

I am still in awe about how the Braves made the playoffs. Their pitching was pretty good this season, but has anyone outside of Atlanta ever looked at this lineup? Not exactly an order that is going to put immense fear into opposing pitching staffs. Then again, they are going to be going up against a Giants lineup that has a 23-year-old rookie batting cleanup in Buster Posey and an AL East reject as his protection in Pat Burrell. The over/under on runs for the entire series might be 10, and the under on that would probably be -125.

Bobby Cox trying to make one last run at another title before he leaves his managerial duties in Atlanta is a nice story and might make for a pleasant made-for-TV movie someday. The only problem is that I’m pretty sure Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain could care less about Bobby Cox’s fairy-tale run.

The pick: Giants in 4.

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

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