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Keefe To The City: MLB Playoff Preview With Predictions

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By Neil Keefe
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“Sweep! Sweep! Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!” Those were the chants that poured out onto River Ave. following Game 1 of the 2006 ALDS between the Yankees and Tigers. I was (stupidly) part of those chants. But, hey, the Yankees had just dominated Nate Robertson (5.2 IP, 12 H, 7 R, 7 ER) including a five-run third inning and looked like they were going to steamroll the team that limped into the postseason by losing 19 of their last 50 games.

Derek Jeter went 5-for-5 with three runs. Bobby Abreu drove in four runs, Jason Giambi hit a two-run bomb (his last postseason home run with the Yankees) and even A-Rod got a hit in four at-bats (at the time this was a big deal). The Yankees had trotted out the feared “Murderer’s Row and Cano” and they had put up an eight spot thanks to 14 hits in the series opener. It barely mattered that the Yankees rotation consisted of Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson and Jaret Wright. The Yankees were going to slug themselves past the Tigers and after beating Robertson, a 23-year-old righty named Justin Verlander awaited in Game 2 the following night in the Bronx. The Yankees weren’t gong to be stopped.

I had skipped class that Tuesday to drive from college in Boston with my friend Phil to the Stadium for the game. It was the first home playoff game since the Yankees survived the Angels in Game 4 of the ALDS the year before (a game I also made the trek from Boston for). We had driven from Boston listening to Barry Zito and Johan Santana going pitch for pitch in Oakland in Game 1 of the other ALDS, and picked up my friends Jim and Ryan in Milford, Conn. along the way.

I was ecstatic leaving the Stadium, joining in on the “Sweep” chants and envisioning the 27th world championship that wouldn’t come for three more Octobers. I had watched the Yankees fall to the Angels the year before from an apartment on Tremont Street overlooking the Boston Common, and the year before that I had watched the worst situation imaginable unfold in front of my eyes at Fenway Park as I sat through Game 5 of the ALCS hoping to see the Yankees celebrate on the Fenway field. 2006 seemed like it was the Yankees’ chance at redemption and to put an end to the World Series drought (if you could call six years a drought).

The day of Game 2 it rained in the Bronx. And that’s when everything changed.

The 23-year-old kid (I say kid even though I was 20 at the time) was supposed to make his first career postseason start under the lights in the Bronx where very few men not wearing pinstripes have come away successful. Instead it rained and the game was rescheduled for 1:10 p.m. the next day. It changed the entire series.

Johnny Damon hit a three-run home run, but Mike Mussina blew the lead in Mike Mussina fashion and Joel Zumaya came out throwing 100-plus mph in the shadows just before 4 p.m. in the Bronx. The Yankees lost 4-3 and then they lost 6-0 the next day and 8-3 the day after that. The postseason had started on Tuesday and was over on Saturday. Four nights before, I didn’t see this coming and now it was a few minutes before 8 p.m. on Saturday and the season was over.

The Yankees were much different back then, but so was Justin Verlander. He put 11 men on base in 5 1/3 innings in his one start against the Yankees. He won his only start in the ALCS despite giving up four earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. And then he lost both of his starts in the World Series against the Cardinals.

But in the last five years Verlander has evolved into the best pitcher on the planet (at least he was from March 31 to Sept. 28 in 2011). I would still go to battle with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the postseason over him, but he is the best pitcher on the AL side and the Yankees will see him on Friday night and then possibly again on the following Thursday.

The Yankees series has become about Justin Verlander and what can the Yankees do against Justin Verlander? No one is talking about what the Tigers can do against CC Sabathia or how Ivan Nova and Doug Fister will handle their postseason debuts in Game 2. The spotlight and the focus is on the Tigers’ Game 1 starter and pretty much only him right now. But I like it that way and let’s keep it that way all the way up until 8:37 p.m. on Friday night.

Last year on the day of the start of the postseason, I came up with a storyline for each of the eight teams involved, so I figured, “Why not do it again?” But this time I changed it up and turned the storylines into the biggest question surrounding each of the eight postseason.

Yankees: How Will The Rotation Hold Up? (If You Can Call It A Rotation)
The story I opened up with was from the 2004-2008 stretch for the Yankees when they didn’t have a real No. 1 or a real ace. Sure, Chien-Ming Wang won 19 games in 2006 and then another 19 in 2007, but he didn’t possess the “stuff” that could be counted on in the postseason. If his sinker wasn’t sinking, well you get what happened against the Indians in two starts in the 2007 ALDS.

That stretch featured postseason starts for the Yankees from Mike Mussina, Jon Lieber, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Shawn Chacon, Jaret Wright and Roger Clemens. Andy Pettitte was only around to start one of the Yankees’ 24 postseason games from 2004-2008 and he pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings.

Up until Wednesday night the Yankees hadn’t named their Game 3 starter. Sure, they knew who it would be, but the media and fans were left to guess about who it would be. That’s pretty scary if you ask me. It’s going to be Freddy Garcia, who will take his bag of magic tricks out to the mound and hope that his audience doesn’t know how he does his tricks.

I like Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia, but if the Yankees lose in the first round, it will be because of their starting pitching.

Tigers: Will Justin Verlander And Miguel Cabrera Carry The Tigers?
The entire focus of the Tigers is on Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers are sort of like a high school baseball team with one great pitcher and one great hitter and everyone else is just sort of along for the ride. There isn’t one other team in the postseason that you identify through one pitcher or one hitter. It’s pretty odd.

The pick: Yankees in 4.

Rangers: Can They Repeat As AL Champs?
As a Yankees fan, I wanted no part of the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. I will take my chances against Justin Verlander and pitching around Miguel Cabrera before I have to face the two lefties the Rangers will run out there in Games 1 and 2 (C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland) and the lineup of Kinsler-Andrus-Hamilton-Young-Beltre-Napoli-Murphy-Cruz. Umm yeah, no thanks.

If the Yankees can get past the Tigers (and I think they can), I can only hope that the Rays can knock off the Rangers. The Yankees had a 7-0 lead over the Rays and their best pitcher in a game that meant absolutely nothing for the Yankees and was a Game 7 for the Rays on Wednesday night before the Yankees pulled their starters. A Yankees-Rays matchup is way more appealing to me than a Yankees-Rangers matchup.

Rays: Can They Keep They Keep Winning With House Money?
The Rays were given their postseason spot by the Red Sox. Sure, they had to climb back from down 7-0 against the JV Yankees in Game 162, but it’s not like they played out of their minds for the month of September. It’s not like they won 20 of 22 or anything crazy like that. They played just good enough to make it in.

Now the Rays are playing with house money. There is no pressure on them. They made the postseason on their final at-bat (literally their final batter) of the regular season and now they can throw around their chips recklessly. If they want to split 8s … let them! If they want to double down on an 8 against a 2 … let them!

The pick: Rangers in 5.

Phillies: Can They Win It All? (They Sort Of Don’t Have A Choice)
There are three teams that began the year with their only goal being “win the World Series.” The Yankees, the Red Sox and the Phillies. (Someone might want to tell the Red Sox you first have to make the playoffs to realize this goal.)

The Phillies were heavily favored to win the National League last year, and they lost. This year they are even more heavily favored to win the National League. If they lose, it won’t be disappointing like it was last year. It will be embarrassing.

The Phillies have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Like Chubs tells Happy Gilmore, “Don’t be a fool! People would kill to hit the long ball like you. You got an advantage over any golfer.” The Phillies have the best 1-2 punch in the playoffs and their 3-4 punch could be other teams’ 1-2. If you took Hamels and Oswalt off the Phillies, they would probably still be favored to win the World Series. Insane.

The Phillies are the last team I want to see win this thing. Aside from not liking the city of Philadelphia or their fans, they sneaky stole Cliff Lee from me in December and tried to ruin my Christmas. Now I hope someone ruins their October. (My money is on the Brew Crew to do so.)

Cardinals: Can They Turn Their Momentum Into Knocking Out The Favorites?
Like the Rays, the Cardinals reached the postseason on the final day of the regular season in Major League Baseball’s version of March Madness. An 18-8 record in September coupled with the Braves falling apart nailed the outrageous two-team parlay that the Cardinals needed to hit to play October baseball.

The Cardinals are built in similar fashion to the Phillies. They both have trouble scoring runs (I know this because of MLBTV), especially in big spots and can be held scoreless for long stretches, and they are both built around their starting pitching (advantage Phillies). The one thing the Cardinals have going for them is that they are riding a crazy wave of momentum and aren’t going to be scared of the Phillies after having won it all themselves in 2006. If the Cardinals can beat Roy Halladay in Game 1, all the pressure in the world is going to be on the Phillies in Game 2.

The pick: Phillies in 4.

Brewers: Who Isn’t Rooting For The Brewers?
Any baseball fan whose team didn’t make the playoffs (Hey Boston, I’m talking to you) is pulling for the Brewers. That’s a fact. They have Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder and Bernie the Brewer and that cool playground slide in the outfield. It’s Milwaukee! It’s beer and baseball! If your team is home like you are, how can you not root for the Brew Crew?

I will pull for the Brewers as long as they don’t eventually face the Yankees in the World Series (if both teams can make it). It’s likely their last run at it all with Prince Fielder and the last time they were in the postseason in 2008 (after CC Sabathia put the entire team on his back), they were bounced in four games. The Brew Crew is going to become America’s Team starting on Saturday if they haven’t already.

Diamondbacks: Does Anyone Have The Diamondbacks Advancing?
No one believes in the Diamondbacks and no one is even thinking about them as serious competition to advance to the second round. I know I’m not because I don’t like their chances against the Phillies in the NLCS and I’m trying to get the Phillies out of this thing. No one is picking the Diamondbacks to beat the Brewers or get out of the first round, but how could they? If the Diamondbacks don’t win a game in the NLDS and are home just a few days after the rest of their division, at least they can call it a successful season in Arizona.

The pick: Brewers in 3.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

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