By Neil Keefe
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It’s been a long week waiting for the ALCS to begin, and it’s still not here. One more day without baseball before the Yankees and Rangers meet to decide who will be headed to the World Series.

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The Yankees got lucky with the Rangers-Rays series going five games, so that Cliff Lee won’t be able to pitch until at least Game 3 of the series and just once in the first six games of the series. Well rested and with their rotation in the order they wanted, the Yankees are set up to win the ALCS and return to the World Series for the second time in as many years and the eighth time in 15 years.

It seems like every time I talk Yankees baseball with Sweeny Murti, good things happen, and he also keeps me from getting too high and too low on the team. That and the fact that no one over the past decade knows the Yankees like Sweeny does. So with the ALCS set to begin and a trip back to the World Series on the line, Sweeny joined me to talk about what we can expect to see in this series, and what matchup we are looking at in the World Series.

Keefe: I’m sure the Yankees fans that wanted to win the division and face the Rangers in the ALDS and Cliff Lee twice in the first round are probably quiet after what they saw the Rangers do to the Rays. There is no way of actually knowing what would have happened if the Yankees played the Rangers in the ALDS, but there’s a very good possibility the Yankees could be cleaning out their clubhouse this week instead of the Rays if they had played the Rangers instead of the Twins.

The Yankees are fortunate that they won’t have to face Lee now until Game 3 and just once in the first six games. There is no one other than Roy Halladay that scares me like Lee and I am just hoping I can root for him rather than against him next season. Do you think the Yankees realize the importance of wrapping the ALCS up in six games or less?

Murti: I’m sure they do, though nobody wants to admit it. The Yankees don’t won’t to underestimate any of the other Rangers starters, provide any bulletin board material or think ahead, but the facts are the facts. Cliff Lee has beaten the Yankees in four different uniforms since the start of the 2009 season. He has been as dominant as anyone you’ve had nightmares about in years past whether it be Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson or you name him. It’s going to be up to the Rangers to find two pitchers other than Lee to win games and get them in the position to win this series. Its’ no guarantee, obviously, but it worked out as well as it could have.

Keefe: If Lee beats the Yankees and the Rangers go on to win the ALCS and possibly the World Series, do you think there is any chance he would stay in Texas, or will the Yankees just outbid everyone and themselves to make sure he is in New York next year?

Murti: I don’t think even Lee can play out the what-if’s right now, but rest assured the Yanks will make as big a push as they need in order to secure Lee this winter. He was so close to being traded here in July that he started texting CC Sabathia to talk about places to live, and you can bet CC will be in recruiting mode this winter too. But Lee will be in charge of his next destination, and seeing that he has been in four places in the last year and a half, I would think he’d consider all his options.

Keefe: Do you think given the way Justin Smoak finished the year and the way Jesus Montero did at AAA at the age of 20 that the Mariners might regret the trade they made?

Murti: Time will tell if they are right about Smoak. They also like the pitchers they got back, and as I understand it Zach McAllister – the pitcher the Yankees were going to include, but eventually sent to Cleveland for Austin Kearns – was not very impressive this year, so maybe they considered that part of the package as well.

Keefe: Jorge Posada is hard to watch behind the plate, but at the plate, he is still getting the job done. The same can’t be said for Francisco Cervelli. There is no reason that Cervelli should start when A.J. starts in Game 4 and the numbers prove that there is no difference of who the catcher is … A.J. Burnett just isn’t very good or trustworthy or any other adjective that you would use to describe someone who makes $16.5 million and should be reliable. Starting A.J. is already going to put the Yankees in a hole whether or not anyone is willing to admit, please tell me Joe Girardi isn’t going to also put the offense in a hole by starting Francisco Cervelli even though I have a feeling he will.

Murti: Sure, A.J. has been bad at times no matter who’s catching (Cervelli caught all but one of his starts in the second half), so maybe there is no correlation. But there obviously was a comfort level there to begin with, so maybe we will see Cervelli catch Game 4. I would be surprised if he’s not catching A.J. to be honest.

Posada’s bat is hard to replace, and it’s the reason he’s been there so long. It will be interesting to see how the Rangers’ aggressive baserunning affects Posada behind the plate. A combination of Burnett, who doesn’t hold runners well, and Posada, who doesn’t throw as well as he used to, could be a bad combo.

On a side note, check out Burnett’s numbers against Texas this year. They are pretty good. He threw seven shutout innings in April, seven innings and three runs in August and then he had a rain-shortened start in September where he went four innings and gave up two runs. Would you believe the guy who gave up 25 home runs this year only gave up one in three starts against Texas, and it was to David Murphy?

Keefe: There is a lot being made about Joba Chamberlain not being used in the ALDS and I’m not sure why. Joba has been the most inconsistent reliever on the team that should be on the team, so why would Girardi use him in crucial spots? Girardi can say it has to do with matchups and maybe it does, but it’s clear he does not want to get burned with Joba on the mound, whether it’s a trust issue or not.

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The times Joe went to the bullpen against the Twins happened to be in game-changing situations and I don’t think anyone outside of Minnesota is upset that Joba wasn’t used. He can’t be trusted – at least this season – to get a big out, but maybe that will change in 2011. In a close game with Kerry Wood, David Robertson and Boone Logan (yes I said it) there wasn’t a need for Joba to be used in the first round, and hopefully the same holds true for the ALCS as well.

Murti: I don’t think he’s afraid to use Joba, I just think he’s no longer the automatic eighth-inning guy, and that was made clear at the end of July when Joba was dumped from that role and Wood was brought it. I can attest to the “matchup thing” being a big part of their reasoning. I asked Dave Eiland about it once and he explained to me the detailed scouting reports that break down hitters’ averages against fastballs, curveballs, sliders, etc. So if a guy hits sliders better than curves, Robertson and Wood are better options.

And how about Boone Logan. He will be very important in the longer seven-game series. I asked him if he was watching Josh Hamilton during the last series and he smiled, of course he was. He noticed that Hamilton wasn’t getting a lot of good pitches to hit, and I’m guessing the same pattern will follow when your boy Booney gets in there in this series.

Keefe: Boone Logan … I always liked that guy.

A-Rod had a decent ALDS (3-for-11, .273 with one RBI), but he didn’t need to be “the man” because so many other people chipped in and did their part. With A-Rod being “due” and the series starting in Texas where he loves hitting bombs, I think we might see from A-Rod what we saw last year in the ALCS. I just hope John Sterling’s voice is well rested.

Murti: A lot of people seem to think the same thing right now. It’s funny how we now expect big things from A-Rod in October.

A-Rod played seven games against Texas this year and hit .360 (9-for-25) with three doubles, two home runs, eight RBIs and a stolen base. That might be good enough for ALCS MVP, no?

I think it’s one of the fun underlying story lines here that in 2001, the Rangers brought in Alex Rodriguez and drafted Mark Teixeira, with their sights set reaching the postseason and the World Series. But they never had a pitcher like Cliff Lee. Now the big sluggers are not only gone, but they are standing in the way of a Rangers’ World Series, and they actually have a fighting chance because of the type of pitcher they never had. Fun stuff.

Keefe: I wanted the Rangers to win Game 5 because I am a believer that teams the Yankees see too much know how to beat them and aren’t intimidated by them. The Yankees and Rays might have nearly split the season series, but they just don’t seem to be a good matchup for the Yankees. The Yankees have trouble with David Price and even James Shields, who no other team seems to have trouble with. The speed of the Rays and their role players also seem to give the Yankees problems.

The Rangers are a better matchup for the Yankees, despite having a more powerful lineup than the Rays and having a better 1-2 punch in the rotation. The Rangers have always had trouble with the Yankees in the past and with the Rangers offensive numbers against the Yankees rotation, I think rooting for the Rangers was the right move.

Murti: I think that’s a pretty good read on it. The Rays aren’t afraid of the Yankees, and they know they can beat them. The Rangers have some of that feeling too after sweeping them three straight in September, but that was one series. The Rays have a lot more to base their confidence on over the last few years, and the Yankees know that too.

The Rangers aren’t pushovers because you don’t get those this time of the year. They are a more dangerous offensive team, but the Yankees have managed to put September behind them with an impressive three-game performance against the Twins. I expect the Rangers to win a couple games here, but I still think the Yanks win this series in six games.

Keefe: In the division series, I had the Yankees in three, the Rangers in four, Phillies in three and Giants in four, and if I had the intestinal fortitude to bet those four predictions, I would be able to help the Yankees with their finances to make sure they get Cliff Lee next year. I have the Yankees in five against the Rangers and CC Sabathia as the ALCS MVP for the second year in a row, so hopefully my hot streak continues. You have them in six, but who is your MVP? And who will the Yankees be facing in the World Series?

Murti: Well, I’ll go with (gulp) A-Rod as MVP, and it’s hard to pick against the Phillies. Not because of any childhood allegiances, just because their pitching is so damn good.

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