Strong Running Game Leads Patriots Past Vikings; Favre Hurt in Fourth

BenJarvus Green-Ellis leaped over the back of blocking guard Dan Connolly, tumbling head over heels. When he came down, the Patriots had a two-score lead with less than two minutes left in the game. Green-Ellis ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns- the first multiple-touchdown game of his career- Sunday, and the New England Patriots beat the Minnesota Vikings 28-18 at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots played catch-up against the Vikings up until midway through the third quarter, when they finally took the lead. After giving up a 24-yard field goal to the Vikings, the Patriots began their drive at the 20-yard line. Three plays and a first down later, the Patriots found themselves in a second-and-10 situation on their 34-yard line. Tom Brady dropped back to pass, but was eventually  flushed from the pocket and ran to his left. Brady stayed upright long enough for Brandon Tate to elude Vikings cornerback Asher Allen along the left sideline, at which point Brady spun around and fired a strike to the now-open Tate. Once he secured the ball, Tate cut back from the sideline and sprinted towards the center of the end zone, beating safety Madieu Williams for the 65-yard touchdown score. It was the longest passing play of the season, and it put the Patriots up 14-10 midway through the third.

The Patriots would add two more touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters on the strength of Green-Ellis’ legs. Held to just 4 rushing yards in the first half, Green-Ellis exploded in the second half, rushing for 108 yards on 13 carries, good for 8.3 yards per carry.

The first Green-Ellis rushing touchdown came after Devin McCourty grabbed a Brett Favre pass bobbled by wide receiver Percy Harvin, giving the Patriots the ball at the Minnesota 37-yard line. They scored four plays later, with Green-Ellis breaking two tackles and benefiting from a solid Alge Crumpler block to run it into the end zone from 13 yards out.

The Patriots forced a three-and-out after the ensuing kickoff, but they then punted the ball right back to the Vikings, who took over at the 20-yard line down 21-10. Favre then orchestrated a pass-only drive that got all the way to the New England 3-yard line. Facing third-and-3, Favre dropped back to pass again, when defensive tackle Myron Pryor barreled into him, driving his helmet into Favre’s chin as Favre was passing. The pass was incomplete, but the Patriots were called for illegal contact before the pass, giving the Vikings a first down at the 1-yard line. Favre, however, was slow to get up.

His chin-guard soaked in blood, Favre would make it to the sideline before being carted off. He suffered a lacerated chin that required 10 stitches. Favre finished the day 22/32 for 259 yards. Tarvaris Jackson finished the drive with a touchdown pass and two-point conversion, cutting New England’s lead to 21-18 with 7:26 left in the fourth quarter, but all this did was set up Green-Ellis for another score.

New England started their ensuing drive on the 20-yard line. Green-Ellis then picked up 23 yards on two rushes before a false start slowed the offense and forced Brady to go back to the pass. Brady, who finished the game 16/27 for 240 yards and a touchdown, was up for the task, converting on third-and-6, then again on third-and-12 from the New England 44-yard line. The second conversion came on a 16-yard pass to Danny Woodhead, who broke a tackle in the process. Woodhead, who rushed for just 13 yards but caught 5 passes for 45 more, had scored the Patriots’ first touchdown on a direct snap from 3 yards out in the second quarter, tying the game 7-7.

After Woodhead’s first down, Green-Ellis picked up another on runs of 5 and 8 yards, the latter coming thanks to another Crumpler block. Green-Ellis then ripped off a 26-yard run up the sideline, finally getting pushed out of bounds at the Minnesota 1-yard line. Three plays later, Green-Ellis made his acrobatic leap into the end zone, sealing the victory for the Patriots.

Although New England’s defense seemed to have problems with Vikings superstar running back Adrian Peterson in the first half, giving up 68 yards and a touchdown, in the second half they were able to shut him down. The Patriots held Peterson to just 24 second-half yards, and he finished the game with a meager 3.7 yards per carry average. The Patriots held the Vikings rushing game to just 92 yards, not counting a 33-yard Jackson rush in garbage time. The defense also hit Favre six times, sacking him once, and forcing intentional grounding penalties twice for 20 lost yards.

Although Favre was passed to Harvin for 104 yards and to Peterson for 50 more, the Patriots defense held when it had to. Facing fourth-and-goal on their 1-yard line, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes turned back Peterson for a 2-yard loss, forcing a turnover on downs.

In his first return to Gillette since being traded, Randy Moss barely factored in the game, catching one pass for 8 yards.

Sobriety: the Worst Thing to Happen to Baseball in the History of Everything Ever

“Futurama” said it best: A storm is gathering… that will reign down us like fire. It’s probably a firestorm. And that firestorm’s name is Josh Hamilton, ALCS MVP. Josh Hamilton is the “Dr. Rockso” of Major League Baseball (I’m not explaining the reference- go watch “Metalocalypse,” it’s awesome). When his Texas Rangers clinched their various regular-season and postseason titles, they celebrated by spraying ginger ale instead of champagne out of respect for his addiction problems. Ginger ale! Ginger ale?! You kidding me? Don’t talk to me about ginger ale (thanks, Jim Mora)! Quite frankly, this is a disgrace, and we should be up in arms about it. How dare those Rangers, named I think for Chuck Norris, not celebrate by spraying the most expensive champagne they can every which way, destroy their locker room and then get drunk on Bud Light? We look to these athletes as role models, for God’s sake. If they can’t get absolutely trashed, then how on earth can we? What are they gonna do when they win the World Series (unlikely, since their down 2-0 to the Giants)? Drop Mentos in Diet Coke?

And it’s all because of Josh “I Do COCAINE!” Hamilton. Way to go and ruin the fun for everyone else. What happens at the rolling rally? Are they going to lock Hamilton up in one of those glass cases like the one the Pope rides in? He’ll have to just sit there and watch all the drunk people having fun. And then all the drunk people will see him, and they’ll feel guilty because they’re having a grand ol’ time boozing it up and he can’t, and they’ll feel bad. Way to be Buzz Killington, Josh. Texas is, after all, the state with second most cases of both gonorrhea and chlamydia in the country, according to statemaster.com. I don’t know what this has to do with alcohol consumption, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

If you don’t count the Dallas Diamonds (their women’s soccer team… seriously), there hasn’t been a championship of any kind in the Dallas area since 1999 (the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup after the 1998-1999), and none that anyone really cared about since 1995 (Cowboys’ last Super Bowl). So Arlington is ready to explode if the Rangers win. There’s no zealot like a convert, and the Rangers have never won anything before. If they win the World Series, there will be a lot of converts, and they will drink zealously. But all of that will be tempered because poor little Josh Hamilton can’t be around a couple of Lone Stars or a Texas Tornado. It’s not their fault, so why should they pay for it?

There is a long-standing tradition of getting completely ripped after winning a championship. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, they may all have been doing shots of Jack Daniels beforehand (or maybe just Kevin Millar). If you freeze either the Larry O’Brien or Vince Lombardi trophies, they make really great ice luges (I have no idea if this is true, but why not?). And then there’s Lord Stanley’s Cup. The first thing NHL players do when they win it is drink out of it. There is a person who year-round can only handle the cup while wearing gloves. The reason: to keep it clean and shiny for the Stanley Cup, wherein a bunch of foreigners with about 75 percent of the requisite number of teeth will fill it with champagne. Clearly, binge drinking is a priority in the NHL.

But of all of these venerated rites and traditions are under attack from the most-tattooed man in baseball. Screw the inspiring story of the addict who turned it all around. That’s boring. This is a business of entertainment, darn it! We want to see antics! We want to see carousing! We want to see Jonathan Papelbon dancing Irish jigs in his underwear! We want to see Braylon Edwards get in a car when the NFL would have sent a limo to pick him up! We want something to make us feel better that in three hours of work, some of these athletes will make more money than we’ll ever make in our entire lives!

So I say “nay” to Josh Hamilton and his fascist, communist, terrorist, Tea Party, insert-your-own buzzword sobriety. If the Rangers win the World Series, they should get hammered. They should get blitzed. They shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman (it’s in the Bible… look it up). And if it really makes Hamilton uncomfortable, well … that’s why God invented broom closets.

Who Wins the World Series?

Well, I still have a chance to go over 50% for playoff predictions, if I can just get this one right. I nailed the National League in the divisonal series, then got the American League Championship right. I was on a good pace for awhile, too, predicting every game but one in the ALCS (I thought the Yankees would score more in game six and force a seventh game), and getting three of the first five NLCS games right (I thought Lincecum would win the first matchup with Halladay, but Halladay would win the second, and that Oswalt would beat Sanchez).

But whatever may have happened, we now have a World Series to predict. For the National League, there are the San Francisco Giants, who haven’t won a World Series in over 50 years. For the American League, we have the Texas Rangers, who have never even been to the World Series at all.

The Rangers have had an excellent offensive postseason, scoring almost twice as many runs as the Giants have (59 vs. 30) while batting 50 points higher (.281 vs .231). The Rangers’ team postseason OPS is .815, generally considered to be in the third-highest OPS class. The Giants’ OPS, .626, puts them in the second-lowest class. The Rangers are also a more powerful team, hitting nearly three times as many home runs (17 vs. 6). Lastly, while they’ve walked only slightly more (30 vs. 27), they struck out far less often (99 vs. 81).

Texas has the definite offensive advantage, but San Francisco has pitched slightly better, and usually pitching wins championships. The Giants have the better team postseason ERA (2.47 vs. 2.76). They also have walked fewer batters (37 vs. 28), although they’ve struck out slightly fewer batters as well (107 vs. 102). Team opposing batting average is also slightly better (.199 vs. .208) for the Giants.

Problem is, the Giants’ pitching advantage is not enough to cover their offensive deficiencies against the Rangers. The Rangers are going to score a little more easily, and that will make all the difference. The Giants won three NLCS games by one run, and they scored five runs or more once. The Rangers, meanwhile, scored five or more runs in every game they won, plus one they lost. The Rangers’ pitching better complements its offense than the Giants’ does, and that will prove the difference.

Let’s look at the individual game matchups:

Game One: Tim Lincecum (Giants) vs. Cliff Lee (Rangers). As I pointed out in my LCS column, Lincecum is a weaker pitcher at home than on the road. Cliff Lee, meanwhile, is Mel Gibson: the Road Warrior. He’s 3-0 on the road this postseason, with 34 strikeouts, one walk, and a 0.75 ERA. Lee is also playing for a contract, whereas Lincecum is not. Add to it Lee’s age, and thus dwindling opportunities to get a ring, and it all points to another dominating performance by the star of the postseason. Texas takes this one in San Francisco.

Game Two: Matt Cain vs. C.J. Wilson. Wilson went 0-1 in the ALCS, taking a no-decision after his team blew a lead against the Yankees. But then he lost outright in Yankee Stadium. Matt Cain, meanwhile, has yet to allow an earned run in the postseason. Giants win, sending the Series to Arlington tied 1-1.

Game Three: Jonathan Sanchez vs. Colby Lewis. Lewis should be brimming with confidence. He’s 2-0 in three postseason starts this year, and he didn’t allow an earned run in the Rangers-Rays game in which he took a no-decision. He also was the winning pitcher when the Rangers clinched the AL pennant, giving up just one earned run over eight innings of work. Sanchez, meanwhile, allowed two earned runs in just two innings of work, and his schedule is off because of it. In his previous start, he allowed two earned runs (three total) in six innings and lost. This might be a close one, but it’s at home, and the edge goes to Lewis. Rangers take this one, but Lewis maybe just gets a no-decision.

Game Four: Madison Bumgarner vs. Tommy Hunter. This one is really tough to call. Bumgarner has yet to really be tested. He won his NLDS start, but then got a no-decision after allowing three earned runs in less than five innings of work. He then pitched two scoreless in the Giants’ NLCS-clinching sixth game. Hunter, meanwhile, has had durability issues, not reaching the fifth inning in either of his postseason starts. This one is a bullpen game, where the Giants have the advantage (3.18 vs. 3.64 ERA this postseason; .214 vs. .236 BAA). Give it to the Giants.

Game Five: Tim Lincecum vs. Cliff Lee, again. In a 2-2 World Series, Game Five is critical. In two-thirds of all World Series where the series was 2-2 after four games, whoever won the fifth game won the championship. Lincecum plays better on the road, but the Rangers are going to be smarting after the Game Four loss. They’re not going to knock Lincecum around, but they’ll do enough damage (maybe four runs in six innings) to secure the win for Cliff Lee, capping off a brilliant postseason for him and sending the Series back to San Francisco with Texas up 3-2.

Game Six: Matt Cain vs. C.J. Wilson, again. Let’s not forget: Wilson won 15 games this year, and Cain was barely more than a .500 pitcher. And after watching his bullpen cost him the win in Game One of the ALCS, then losing two straight decisions, he’s going to a) be itching to prove his postseason mettle, and b) be held on a short leash by Ron Washington. It’s here where I think the Rangers’ offensive strengths will pay dividends. All across the Series, the Giants will have had to use more relievers than the Rangers as San Francisco’s starters will not be pitching as deep into games. In Game Six, the bullpen is going to crack from overuse. This game is going to be close for five innings, then the Rangers are going to put up three or more runs in the latter half and clinch the World Series in convincing fashion.

Final Pick: Rangers in 6. MVP: Cliff Lee, who finishes the postseason 5-0. And now that Nolan Ryan owns the team instead of George W. Bush, everyone will be happy for Texas instead of secretly groaning.

Patriots Week 6 Report Card

Well, it’s Monday: that wonderful day when most of the world wakes up and has to immediately resist the urge to start swearing loudly and frequently (or succumbs to it). So what could make everyone’s day a little bright? A new report card! Sunday’s game was especially challenging to grade. On the one hand, the Patriots won. On the other hand, they got incredibly lucky, and many have argued that they didn’t win so much as the San Diego Chargers lost (four first-half turnovers, a false start penalty on a potentially game-tying field goal attempt that backed them up five yards). But no matter how you slice it, the Patriots are 5-1 heading into a game against the Minnesota Vikings that suddenly looks a lot easier, with reports surfacing that Brett Favre has multiple ankle fractures. So let’s assign some semi-arbitrary letters!

Quarterback: B-. For the man who might be the highest paid player in the NFL next year, 19/32 for 159 total yards and a touchdown really isn’t going to cut it. This wasn’t Brady’s worst game of the season, but he’s definitely played much better. His 35 first-half passing yards were especially troubling. And this wasn’t like last week’s game, where dropped balls and a Hail Mary interception really brought down the quarterback’s numbers. Sometimes defenders knocked balls away, but for the most part Brady’s passes were just off. Even his touchdown strike to Rob Gronkowski required the tight end to stretch his arms out and catch a pass that could have just as easily been floated to his chest.

However, to Brady’s credit he got the offense in gear to start the third quarter. Although the Patriots really only had one good drive in the game, it was all they really needed. Brady was 6/7 for 59 yards on their third-quarter drive, and also successfully executed a quarterback sneak to pick up another first down. The drive ate up 8:35 and ended in a touchdown that put the Patriots up 20-3. That third score would prove crucial to the Patriots victory.

Running Backs: C. Fifty yards by running backs isn’t going to cut it. Not by a long shot. New England’s running back duo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead really struggled Sunday, each gaining only 24 yards on the ground. Green-Ellis especially gets knocked for failing to pick up a single yard on a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter that would have likely ended the game. Were it not for Woodhead catching all three passes thrown his way for an additional 28 yards, this grade would have been even lower. However, the offensive line definitely had trouble with San Diego’s rushers, and that may have played a role in New England’s rushing failures. Still, this game seemed like a step back for a running game that had been making definite strides since Laurence Maroney was traded.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B-. It’s very hard to distinguish what was Brady’s fault and was his receivers’ during Sunday’s game. Sometimes Brady would be off-target. Other times his receivers could not shake their coverages. And sometimes defenders just made plays. So the receiving corps gets the same grade as Brady, because they were probably about equally responsible. It was a decent day for the tight ends (Aaron Hernandez led all receivers with five catches for 54 yards, good for 10.8 yards per catch; Gronkowski caught both balls thrown to him and executed a perfect play-action route for a touchdown), but the wide receivers really struggled to get open and catch balls. Even when Brady had time to pass, there didn’t seem to be many open options. Chalk some of it up to a bad passing day from Brady, and give San Diego credit for a very strong defense, but if the Patriots are going to become a route-based offense without Randy Moss, they will have to run their routes better and get open more.

Offensive Line: D-. Had the Patriots lost, I’d have failed this unit. Since they won, I gave them the lowest passing grade possible. Four sacks. Again: four sacks. That’s 12 on the season, good for 11th place in the NFL. And two of those sacks forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal when they likely would have scored a touchdown (they had a first down at the San Diego 8-yard line). There were also two tackles for losses (including on the above-mentioned fourth-and-1), plus the inability to spring the running backs. That line looks like it’s really starting to miss Logan Mankins.

Special Teams: B+. Stephen Gostkowski made all three field goal attempts, and Zoltan Mesko twice pinned the Chargers inside their 20-yard line (his 38.3 yards per punt average is deceptive, because Mesko punted once from midfield and twice from near the New England 40-yard line). There were also no serious gaffes on kickoff return coverage. The main knock against special teams was the onside kick in the fourth quarter. Down two scores with just over eight minutes to play, and having already seen the Patriots chew up over eight minutes on a single drive, an onside kick by the Chargers should have seemed at least possible. The group wasn’t prepared for it, and it swung momentum in San Diego’s direction. That might have been due to a coaching blunder more than a player blunder, but it still should not have happened. The group should have expected an onside kick and planned for it.

Defensive Line: B. Not a bad game from the Patriots defensive linemen. Mike Wright and Brandon Deaderick each recorded sacks, and the line held the Chargers running backs to just 38 yards on the ground (nine by Philip Rivers himself). This wasn’t quite the domination we saw against the Ravens, but the defensive line definitely played a big role in the Patriots’ victory. The defense as a whole also gets credit for holding the Chargers to just three points through the first three quarters (including five straight scoreless drives by San Diego).

Linebackers: B. The first San Diego fumble happened when Brandon Spikes stripped Kris Wilson, then Jerrod Mayo recovered it. It led to the Patriots’ first touchdown. That was good physical play. Later on, Rivers threw a pass sideways to Jacob Hester, but the ball bounced off his outstretched hand and hit the ground. Not hearing a whistle, Rob Ninkovich fell on it, picked it up, then returned it to the San Diego 8-yard line. It was ruled a fumbled lateral, and it led to a Patriots field goal. That was good mental play. The linebackers lost points for letting running back Darren Sproles have a banner day in the middle of the field (caught all nine passes thrown to him for 70 yards), but no running back ever broke off more than a 6-yard run, and no tight end did much of anything before Antonio Gates caught fire midway through the fourth quarter (at which point the defense had played upwards of seven minutes without much rest). Not a bad game from the linebackers, but they definitely ran out steam in the fourth quarter, allowing Gates and Sproles to run over them.

Defensive Backs: B-. More solid mental play, this time by James Sanders. On the ground after catching a 25-yard pass, wide receiver Richard Goodman put the ball down as he stood up. Sanders realized that Goodman had never been touched while going to the ground or lying there, so that was a live ball (there’s no “down by contact with the ground” rule in professional football). He fell on it, and the Patriots recovered. And again, more solid physical play, this time by Devin McCourty. On a pass to wide receiver Patrick Crayton along the sidelines, McCourty leaped into the air and intercepted the pass with outstretched arms. While Rivers passed for 336 yards, over 150 yards of it came in the fourth quarter, and most of it went up the middle to Gates and Sproles, more the responsibility of the linebackers then the cornerbacks and safeties. The Chargers nearly came back in the fourth quarter, but it was not the fault of the defensive backs.

Coaching: B-. Bill Belichick’s game-plan for the first half definitely didn’t work, but he clearly came up with a pretty good scheme at halftime, as the Patriots overpowered the Chargers to start the second half. This game was a defensive triumph for three quarters and an offensive triumph for half of one quarter. The decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 was a calculated risk, but getting it would have likely ended the game. The defense was tired, and you had to give them an extra few minutes of rest (or at least try for it). Also, if you can’t trust your running backs to pick up a lone yard, can you trust them to do anything? The move showed confidence in Green-Ellis, and any damage to Green-Ellis’ self-confidence by not picking up the first down would still be less than the damage done by not even giving him the opportunity.

Belichick and special teams coach Scott O’Brien should have considered an onside kick, so that also brought down the coaching grade. Had the Patriots picked up that play, they likely would’ve at least gotten a field goal and chewed up a few minutes, resting the defense and completely changing the nature of the last half of the fourth quarter. Overall, it was an acceptable coaching performance, perhaps brought down by bad execution as much as bad planning.

So there you have it: a “C” offense, a “B+” special teams, and a “B” defense. That’s why Belichick says, “you got three phases of the game, and if you can control two out of those three, you got a pretty good chance to win.”

Patriots Survive Chargers Fourth-Quarter Surge, Win in San Diego

In key situations in the fourth quarter, Stephen Gostkowski is the perfect field goal kicker. Chris Brown… not so much. Brown’s 50-yard field goal attempt, pushed back 5 yards by a San Diego false start penalty, bounced off the right goal-post, and the New England Patriots held on to beat the San Diego Chargers, 23-20. Brown’s missed field goal came after the Chargers held the Patriots back on a fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 49-yard line.

When asked if he second-guessed the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1, Tom Brady said, “heck no. I’ll go for it every time.” Brady also said that had they executed the play the correctly, they probably would have been able to run the clock out and win the game.

Drive of the Game

The Patriots offense struggled in the first half, amassing just 38 total yards. “Oh God,” Brady said when asked about the first half. “What offense?” But the team clicked as they began the second half. Up 13-3 at halftime, the Patriots began the second half by orchestrating a 17-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, eating up 8:22 in the process. On that drive, the Patriots converted a fourth-and-1 and overcame a second-and-17 before BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran it in from 1 yard out, putting the Patriots up 20-3.

Play Until the Whistle Blows

The touchdown put the Patriots up three scores midway through the third quarter, but the score could have been much more lopsided at that point. San Diego turned the ball over four times in the first half, twice on plays where the fumbling Charger thought the play was dead. On the first of such plays, Chargers wide receiver Richard Goodman caught a 25-yard pass and went to the grass. As he was getting up, he placed the ball on the ground. Since he was not touched while going to the ground or while lying there, the play was ruled a catch and a fumble, and James Sanders picked it up and returned it to the New England 41. The Patriots punted that drive away, but on the next fumble they came away with points.

Midway through the second quarter, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers attempted a sideways pass from the Patriots 32-yard line to fullback Jacob Hester. The ball glanced off Hester’s outstretched hand, and Hester slowed up as if it was an incomplete pass. However, the play was ruled a fumbled lateral, and Rob Ninkovich dove on it, got up, then returned it to the San Diego 8-yard line. The Patriots ended that drive with a 40-yard field goal, putting them up 10-3.

That’s what we teach our guys to do,” Bill Belichick said. “You play it out, you ask questions later. Forget about the whistle.”

The Patriots also scored their first touchdown of the game after a turnover. Late in the first quarter, Brandon Spikes forced a fumble and Jerrod Mayo recovered it, giving the Patriots the ball at the San Diego 22-yard line. That drive ended on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, a play in which Gronkowski lined up on the left side, then cut across the linemen to the back of the end zone, catching Brady’s play-action pass with outstretched arms. Brady finished the game 19/32 for 159 yards and a touchdown.

Devin McCourty also intercepted a Rivers pass with just over five minutes to go in the first half, but the Patriots went three-and-out on the ensuing drive. Regarding the Patriots’ first-half offensive woes, Brady said, “we gotta do a better job starting the game, we gotta do a better job taking advantage of their turnovers, we gotta do a better job throwing the ball.”

Fourth Quarter: Lapses on Defense and Special Teams

Momentum was shifting the Chargers way in the fourth quarter. The Chargers cut the Patriots lead to 23-13 midway through the fourth on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates, then recovered a surprise on-side kick by Brown. They then marched 60 yards down-field, scoring another touchdown on a 1-yard Mike Tolbert run, cutting the lead to just 23-20. However, the Chargers were unable to convert their 50-yard field foal attempt, and the Patriots knelt down once to end the game.

Sacks, Sacks, and more Sacks

Although Rivers was able to light up the Patriots secondary, passing for 336 yards, a touchdown and an interception, against the run the defense was much more stout. The New England defensive line allowed just 38 yards on the ground. They also sacked Rivers twice, the first one by Brandon Deaderick on second-and-7 from the New England 10-yard line. The sack backed the Chargers up to the 13, they failed to get the first down and they had to settle for a field goal.

Brady, meanwhile, was sacked four times, including twice in two plays from inside the Chargers 10-yard line. The offensive line is continuing to struggle without two-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. They have now allowed 12 sacks in just six games.

Despite the offensive struggles of the team, Belichick said that the defense and especially special teams played well enough to cover for them. “You got three phases of the game, and if you can control two out of those three, you got a pretty good chance to win,” he said.

Ranking the Red Sox Rotation

The Red Sox starting rotation finished the regular season ranked sixth in ERA (4.17) in the American League. They were fourth-best in wins (70) and fourth-lowest in losses (50). They had the fewest complete games (three), but pitched the third-most inning (1,011.1). They led the league in both strikeouts (833) and walks (383). And while they were dead in the middle for earned runs allowed (469, good for seventh place), they had the fourth-highest opponent batting average (.254). If all of these stats strike you as contradictory, they should. The Red Sox starting rotation was an enigma this season. It had some of the best pitchers in the league, but also some of the worst. So in order to grade the team, we must first grade the individuals.

Josh Beckett: C+. Beckett gets a slight pass for being injured for much of the season. But six wins (worst since 2002) and a 5.78 ERA (career highest) aren’t acceptable from the man who made $12.1 million this year. He did strike out 116 batters this season, which is decent for a guy who pitched just 127.2 innings (8.18 strikeouts per nine innings, good for 23rd place). But he gave up a whopping 20 home runs, and opponents batted .292 off him. He was in the bottom 20 for opponent OPS with .848. He was also terrible on the road, with an ERA of 6.07 away from Fenway. This was easily the worst season of his career, and for a guy who just three years ago put on one of the great postseason pitching performances ever (4-0, 1.20 ERA, 35 strikeouts, two walks), this has to be a major disappointment. Hopefully he recovers next year. He usually rebounds from bad years with good ones.

Clay Buchholz: A. Buchholz won’t win the Cy Young award this season (smart money’s on CC Sabathia), but he’ll definitely get some votes. He finished second in the AL with a pristine ERA of 2.33. He only gave up 45 earned runs all season. He missed some time due to a hyper-extended knee, which limited his innings-pitched to just 173.2, and he’s not a strikeout pitcher (120, just over half as much as the league leader, Jered Weaver). But he was an excellent contact pitcher this year, inducing 24 double plays. He also was impossible to hit hard. He gave up the fewest home runs among qualified starting pitchers (just nine). His .312 opponent slugging is just .001 off the league-leader. It was hard to hit Buchholz (he gave up just 143 hits all season, best among qualified starters), and even harder to drive his pitches. The Red Sox had been waiting for years for Buchholz to become the elite pitcher they thought he could be, and now he has.

John Lackey: B-. First the good news: he won 14 games. He was the team’s workhorse (33 starts, 215 innings pitched, both highest on team). And… that’s about it. Really, it was a lackluster season from the $18.7 million Man. His 105 earned runs puts him in fifth place in the AL. His 72 walks and 156 strikeouts puts him in the middle of the pack. So does his batting average against (.277). Just kind of a middle of the road season. As a third or fourth starter, you could probably live with this performance. But as the highest-paid pitcher on the team, as well as the team’s marquee free-agent signing, we all really hoped he would do better than he did. With John Farrell likely to leave for the Blue Jays, Lackey is going to have to improve himself in the off-season. There won’t be a high-caliber coach to work with him next season (whoever the Red Sox sign, he won’t be as good as Farrell), so the burden will fall to Lackey to prove his value to the team. The Red Sox are stuck with Lackey as a fourth or fifth starter next year, but hopefully he has the competitive drive to push himself to a higher level of performance than he had this year.

Jon Lester: A. If Buchholz was the ace this season, Lester was maybe the best second starter in the game. His 19 wins puts him second in the AL, and his 3.25 ERA puts him ninth. He was also third in the league in strikeouts with 225, just eight off the leader, who made two more starts than him and pitched 16 more innings. Lester had some walk problems (83, third-highest), but opponents batted just .220 off him, good for seventh place. He was another pitcher who was difficult to drive the ball on, surrendering just 15 home runs all season. And Lester’s hit total has gone down each of the last two seasons (from 202 in 2008 to 186 in 2009 to 167 in 2010). The tandem of Lester and Buchholz should make Red Sox fans salivate over the thought of next year. Both of these players are young (both are 26), and both were All-Stars this year. They are a testimony to the strength of Boston’s farm system.

Daisuke Matsuzaka: C. The best word to describe Matsuzaka would be “frustrating.” Frustrating to watch, frustrating to analyze. He’ll walk the bases loaded, then get out of it without allowing any runs, but take 30 pitches to do so and shorten his outing by two innings, all before the first Red Sox at-bat.
His ERA, 4.69, was second-highest of his career. He allowed the second-most hits and earned runs of his career, but this was actually his second-lowest season in terms of walks. But his strikeouts are the worst of any season where he went over 150 innings. Is any pattern emerging here? Not really. It seems like Matsuzaka is either getting worse or at the very least not getting any better, but there’s no way to really prove it. He’s actually in the top 40 among qualified pitchers in terms of opponent OPS (.706). Hitters seem to have as much difficulty figuring out Matsuzaka as fans do. But the bottom line is, he’s not entertaining to watch. And that’s bad for a business that, at its core, is about entertainment.

Tim Wakefield: C-. Wakefield may have gotten shafted toward the end of the season by being moved to the bullpen, but it was absolutely justified. Wakefield just didn’t have it this year, going 4-10 (fewest wins ever) with a 5.32 ERA (third-highest of his career). And he never went on the kind of run you usually get from him once or twice a season. There was no three straight shutouts, or four straight wins. He just stumbled along all season, winning rarely, losing frequently. At 44, he really has to consider whether another season is worth it. He could play for one more salary, or he could do the honorable thing and retire. He needs 14 wins to break the franchise record for career victories, and he hasn’t managed that since 2007. And the only way he’ll start next year is if regular starters get injured. This is quite possible, but cobbling together 14 wins from spot-starts will be next to impossible. The knuckleball is an awesome, quirky, weird pitch, and he has made his bones on it for 17 years. But those bones are old, and it’s time to give them a rest. He should retire, and let the accolades roll in.

So there you have it: two aces, one almost-decent performance, and two and a half (counting Wakefield) bad performances. Average it all out, and you wind up with a B-. And that’s a pretty accurate description of their season: not bad, but really not acceptable from a rotation that averaged $7.8 million per starter.

Twenty Years Later, Two Pitchers Remind Us of the Express

Twenty years ago, baseball fans had the honor and privilege of watching the most dominating pitcher of the modern era. Simply put, Nolan Ryan was unhittable. His career strikeout record, 5,714, is a whopping 839 strikeouts more than Randy Johnson, who sits in second place. He also has three of the top 10 single-season strikeout performances of all time, including his 1973 season, where he struck out 383, an MLB record. Ryan leads the MLB in career no-hitters with seven, and was the last person before this year (more on that later) to throw two no-hitters in a single-season (1973). He also had a whopping 24 potential no-hitters broken up in the seventh inning or later.

But it wasn’t just his strikeouts that prove his domination. In a weird way, his place at the top of the all-time walks list (2,795, 962 more than second-place Steve Carlton) also proves his domination. Batters couldn’t hit Ryan, so they just stood there. Usually they struck out. Sometimes they walked. Either way, they never beat Ryan; he just sometimes beat himself. That’s o.k.: every genius has self-destructive tendencies. Just ask Vincent van Gogh, or Sigmund Freud.

Nearly twenty years after the Ryan era ended, two pitchers have baseball purists remembering the days of the only man to have his number retired by three teams (discounting Jackie Robinson, whose number was retired league-wide). And lucky for those purists, the two may yet face each other in the World Series. For the National League, there is Roy “Doc” Halladay. The similarities between the two are striking. Halladay is the first pitcher since Ryan to throw two no-hitters in one season (including the postseason). Like Ryan, Halladay has spent most of his career on mediocre teams. When Halladay played for the Blue Jays, who only finished better than third one time during his tenure, the Blue Jays were a .500 team, and he was a .660 pitcher. Ryan’s teams combined to win 47.7 percent of the time, whereas he won 52.5% of the time. In both cases, you have talent being wasted on mediocre teams. Their career ERAs (3.19 for Ryan, 3.32 for Halladay) are similar too, as are their first postseason ERAs (2.00 for Ryan, 2.25 for Halladay, both in two games).

But more than anything else, the same desperation, the same hunger that allowed Ryan to dominate for so long seems to fester in Halladay as well. His first postseason outing was a message to the rest of the league. He struggled when paired with uber-pitcher Tim Lincecum in his second outing, but he will likely come back with a vengeance for Game Five.

For the American League, there is Cliff Lee. Though statistically dissimilar to Ryan, he has inherited Ryan’s mantle as the Texas Rangers’ ace. Though his regular season record of 12-9 is nothing special, his postseason has been incredible, an exclamation mark on what is turning out to be a brilliant postseason career. Opponents bat just .172 off Lee, a postseason record. Teams average just 6.56 base runners per nine innings, another postseason record. His 5.6 hits per nine innings and 9.57 strikeouts per walk are both second-best all-time. In eight postseason starts, he is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA (fourth all-time, third among pitchers with at least five postseason starts). He is the first pitcher ever to strike out 10 or more batters three times in one postseason.

Until Cliff Lee, the Rangers had never won a home playoff game, let alone a playoff series. They also had not enjoyed a pitching performance like Lee’s since the days of Ryan himself. Since Lee, who has already won twice at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay and once at Yankee Stadium, they have knocked off the best team in the American League and now sit just one win away from eliminating the 2009 World Series champions and punching their first ticket to the World Series.

In different ways, both Halladay and Lee carry semblances of the man who could throw over 100 m.p.h. even after he turned 40. Halladay has carved out the same niche: the talented pitcher brought down by the mediocre teams he played for. He is the newest member of the two no-hitter club, and his 2010 season carries the same quirkiness to it so common of Ryan’s years (first in innings pitched, most hits, second-most strikeouts, most wins, third-lowest ERA). In the postseason, Halladay is trying to seize the opportunity that Ryan never did. Lee, meanwhile, has inherited the symbolic crown from Ryan as the overpowering Rangers ace. His postseason has the same raw domination to it that Ryan’s regular seasons had.

With any luck, the two will face each other in the World Series. They each represent a side of Ryan’s legacy, and perhaps a battle between the two will determine which side of Ryan best characterized him: his inability to rise above the mediocrity of his teams (comparing his winning percentage against his teams’, it turns out that he only won 10% more of the time than they did),  or his capacity to overwhelm every batter he faced.

Patriots Week 5 Report Card

After a week off, Goose’s Gabs is back with an all-new Patriots Report Card. New England fans were treated to an old-school victory by the Patriots on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. Down 10 in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to Deion Branch to cut the lead to 20-17 Ravens, then Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal inside of two minutes to tie it and send the game to overtime, where the Patriots defense stopped the Ravens three times before Gostkowski kicked his third field goal of the day, winning the game. Classic Patriots. So let’s give out some grades!

Quarterback: B+. Brady’s numbers are a little skewed for this game. One of his interceptions was on a 44-yard Hail Mary pass to the end zone as the fourth quarter ended, and it was only intercepted because it landed on Ken Hamlin after being batted around in the end zone a few times. And of his 17 incomplete passes, five of them were dropped by receivers. So his stats must be contextualized a bit. What matter’s most is that when the Patriots were down late in the game, Brady played his best football. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Brady was 68 percent accurate for 160 yards and a touchdown. Without the drops, the numbers would be even higher. Brady loses some points for early inaccuracies, plus his first interception, in which he was completely fooled by the Ravens defense, but the bottom line is that the Patriots won, and he was one of the primary reasons why.

Running Backs: A-. Danny Woodhead leads the group with 63 yards on just 11 carries, good for 5.7 yards-per-carry. He also picked up 52 yards via the pass. Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for 83 yards rushing and touchdown on the day, but some of that was because they were frequently used as decoys for either play-action passes or end-around routes. The Patriots used play-action successfully three times, and that always is a credit to the running backs playing well enough to make the defense think it’s a running play. Green-Ellis also executed the flip to Brandon Tate on their 23-yard end-around run that put the Patriots at the Ravens 2-yard line, then scored a touchdown on the next play to put the Patriots up 7-3. When they weren’t running, they were successfully selling Baltimore on the run. A very commendable performance.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B+. Five drops is not acceptable, but the wide receivers for the most part did their part. Deion Branch picked up right where he left off. He might not have Randy Moss’s pure athletic ability, but he ran his routs perfectly, and as the stakes got higher as the game went on, he got better. Seven of his nine completions came in the fourth quarter or overtime. Aaron Hernandez also was impressive, catching four balls for 61 yards and picking up 18 more yards on the ground. But in overtime he dropped two passes that hit him right in the numbers. He is still learning how to play under pressure, so we can’t come down to hard on him. For the most part, the receivers and tight ends did their part in getting open. But too many drops either late in the game or in the red zone brought their grade down. And some of their big plays were only possible because the running backs played well enough to make reverses and play-action passes effective.

Offensive Line: B-. Tom Brady was sacked three times, costing the team 25 yards. The offensive line also gave up two tackles for negative yardage or no gain on running plays. Five breakdowns is not acceptable, especially the final sack, which kept the Patriots out of field goal range at the end of the fourth quarter. Without that sack, the Patriots likely would have faced about a 52-yard field goal try, not a 62-yard try, and gone for it. The Patriots still won, but the team might have been saved 13 extra minutes of work. This grade would’ve been lower, but the Patriots won, so it’s hard to ding them too much. But the line has now allowed eight sacks in five games. If they want Brady still standing at the end of the season, this has to change, and soon.

Special Teams: A+. Though this game may not have had the flash of their win against Miami, the special teams unit was every bit as important in this game as that one. Stephen Gostkowski continued his recent trend of sending kickoffs so far that they can’t be returned. He was also three for three on field goal attempts, tying and then winning the game. He’s perfect in the fourth quarter when the Patriots are tied or behind. He’s proving himself to be every bit the big-moment kicker that Adam Vinatieri was. Not wanting to be out-done by his place-kicking compadre was Zoltan Mesko. He averaged 47.0 yards per punt, and his 65-yard bomb in the overtime was an absolute back-breaker for the Ravens. The Patriots were punting from inside their 15-yard line, and instead of starting at their 40-yard line as they expected, the Ravens wound up starting at their own 19-yard line. A three-and-out later, and the Patriots executed their game-winning drive. Mesko and Gostkowski were absolute heroes for the Patriots.

Defensive Line: A. You wouldn’t think so if you just watched the game, but the defensive line played really, really well. Jermaine Cunningham, Mike Wright, and Brandon Deaderick all sacked Joe Flacco, and Vince Wilfork had two tackles for losses, one coming after Cunningham had stripped Flacco. The defensive line kept the Ravens running backs, which feature an explosive player in Ray Rice, to under 100 yards. And the defense on the whole gets extra credit for holding the Ravens scoreless in their final five possessions, give the offense time to tie and then win the game. Terrific effort all around.

Linebackers: A-. Again, you wouldn’t necessarily see it, but a pretty solid performance. Ravens tight ends combined for just 56 yards in receptions, and most of their big plays were when they were covered by safeties, not linebackers. Jerrod Mayo had 18 tackles, and he leads the team with 61, good for second in the league. If he keeps this up, we’ll be watching him in the Pro Bowl. The linebackers also did a terrific job at stopping runs. No Ravens running back ever ran for more than eight yards at a time, and Rice averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s a testament to linebackers clogging up holes. And while Rob Ninkovich didn’t quite live up two his two-interception game from two weeks ago, he hit Flacco twice and made two solid open-field tackles to set up either third or fourth-and-long situations.

Defensive Backs: B-. I had to take points off for Brandon Meriweather. His vicious hit on Todd Heap is unacceptable, and he will likely be fined by the NFL for it. Those kind of hits can give players concussions, and the Patriots should not be o.k. with dirty play. Meriweather also led with his helmet on a touchdown pass to Heap in the second quarter, he just got lucky that he missed. Let’s not forget that we’re just four years removed from the Miami-FIU game where Meriweather repeatedly stomped on FIU players lying on the ground. The other defensive backs played poorly at first, then improved as the game moved on. By overtime, for instance, Devin McCourty was facing the right direction while covering his wide receivers, and he made a great play to kill a Ravens overtime drive. McCourty, Kyle Arrington, and Patrick Chung are all still improving their games. They get points for stepping up at the end, but I’d still like to see a game where they don’t appear out of position at least a half-dozen times.

Coaching: A-. Bill Belichick gets credit for the Patriots play in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Ravens offense looked completely out-of-sorts for the final 28 minutes,  only picking up three first downs after kicking their field goal to open up the fourth quarter. The Patriots definitely got better as the game went on. Their best play was in overtime, followed by the second half, then the first. That was likely because Belichick successfully adjusted to Baltimore’s game plan at halftime, then came up with some creative new ideas for overtime. The offensive play calls also improved across the game, as the Patriots began using Branch’s route-running skills more effectively. Their decision to use play-action and end-around plays more was also a good coaching decision. The first half could’ve been a lot better (Patriots fans were booing when Brady knelt down to end the half), but the Patriots’ continually improving play means high marks for the man in the hooded sweatshirt.

Gostkowski Ties Game in Fourth, Wins it in Overtime

Heading into Sunday’s game in Foxboro, Stephen Gostkowski had never missed in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were either tied or behind. After the game ended, his streak remained intact. Gostkowski’s late game field goals capped a 10-point comeback by the New England Patriots, who beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in overtime. Gostkowski hit a 24-yard field goal with 1:51 left in the fourth quarter, then hit a 35-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime. He also split the uprights from 38 yards out in the third quarter and sent four kickoffs near or out the back of the end zone.

“As a field goal kicker, you can’t make your own opportunities,” Gostkowski said. “Any time you can help the team win as a special teams unit is very rewarding.”

Special Teams Heroics

Gostkowski was not the only Patriots special teams hero Sunday. Zoltan Mesko averaged 47 yards per punt. Punting in overtime from the Patriots 16-yard line, Mesko launched a punt that rolled all the way to the Baltimore 19-yard line, a whopping 68 yards from where Mesko punted. What might have been the best starting field position of the day for the Ravens was instead one of their worst. After two plays went for little gain, Ravens fullback Le’Ron McClain was flagged for 10 yards on a personal foul. The Ravens could not overcome the resulting third-and-19 and punted, setting up the Patriots’ game winning overtime drive.

Tricks and Traps

The Patriots used end-around runs to help solve the problems posed by the Ravens’ strong defensive line. Late in the first quarter, Tom Brady handed the ball off to BenJarvus Green-Ellis near the Baltimore 25-yard line. Green-Ellis ran a few yards laterally to the right before flipping the ball to Brandon Tate, who went the other direction before turning up field.. He was finally brought down at the 2-yard line, good for a 22-yard gain. Green-Ellis then punched it in for the touchdown, putting the Patriots up 7-3.

Late in the third quarter, Brady began a drive by faking a hand-off, then instead gave it to Aaron Hernandez, who was coming off the left side. A good block by newly-made captain Alge Crumpler, and Hernandez easily picked up 18 yards. That drive ended in Gostkowski’s first field goal, cutting Baltimore’s lead to 17-10.

New England’s third-quarter drive also featured a play-action 21-yard pass to Wes Welker over the middle, a trick play that New England used sparingly but effectively. Brady hit Crumpler for a 4-yard gain on a play-action pass in their game-winning overtime drive, putting the Patriots within Gostkowski’s field-goal range.

Welcome Back, Deion

In his first game back, Deion Branch wasted no time in reclaiming his role as Brady’s favorite receiver. Branch caught nine passes for 98 yards Sunday to lead all receivers. He also caught a touchdown pass  in the back of the end zone early in the fourth quarter to cut the Ravens’ lead to just 20-17. “We put him over there to see if he could get open, and he doesn’t let us down,” Brady said.

Branch played methodically and consistently, executing his assignments as if he had never left New England. “I’m just gonna run the rout as if he’s [Brady’s] throwing me the ball, period, every time,” Branch said. The smiling wide receiver was quick to credit other members of the team for his success, especially Brady. “Tom makes everything so much easier,” Branch said. “I wish every receiver would get the opportunity to play with this guy, cause he’s amazing”

Brady, who went 27/44 for 292 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, was just as quick to credit to Branch for the skills he brings to New England. “I don’t think there’s a lot that he doesn’t do well,” Brady said. “There’s not many limitations that Deion has.”

Defense Continues to Improve

The defense saved it’s best for the end of the game, holding the Ravens scoreless on their five final drives, three of which occurred in overtime. The Ravens only converted three first downs in those final five drives, going three-and-out three times. Devin McCourty showed the most improvement across the game. Flagged for 18 yards on pass interference late in the first quarter when he never turned to face a pass thrown his way, McCourty turned and knocked down another pass thrown his direction in overtime. The defensed pass forced the Ravens to punt.

The defense also played well against the rush, holding explosive Ravens running back Ray Rice to just 88 yards. He never ran for more than 8 yards, averaging just 3.1 yards on 28 carries. The Patriots, meanwhile, combined for 127 yards on the ground, led by Danny Woodhead’s 5.7 yards-per-carry.

The Coach’s Reaction

Bill Belichick said he thought that “the one thing we did was we kept fighting, we kept playing hard.” Though critical of his team’s early-game defense, which allowed 17 points through three quarters, including an opening-drive field goal, he said that “team defense” was what helped the team come back and win the game. He said that many players contributed, and that he had confidence in every player on the team. “That’s why they’re on the team,” Belichick said.

Belichick said then switched his focus to the Patriots’ upcoming game against the San Diego Chargers. “We’re gonna enjoy this one for a little while, then get back to work,” he said.

(Yay! 200 Posts!)

Choosing the League Champions

Well, it’s finally upon us: the Championship Series. Baseball’s final four compete for a spot in the World Series. After a few years where the wildcard playoff team was eliminated early on, we’re back to a potential wildcard entrant in the New York Damn Yankees (whoops). Opposing them is the Walker, Texas Rangers (whoops again), a team that has never won the World Series before. And in the National League, it’s the Philadelphia Phillies vs. the San Francisco Football Giants (wait, no, that’s not right either). The Phillies have been in the last two world series, winning in 2008. A World Series win here might cement them as the first baseball dynasty of the 21st century. Meanwhile, it was midway through the 20th century when the Giants last won it all.

Regarding the divisional series, I went 2-4. Not bad, but clearly I still I have a lot to learn regarding game prediction (that, or all the pros are just guessing, too). What was weird was that I was right about the National League divisonal series, where I know little to nothing about the teams, but wrong about the American League divisonal series, where I know a fair amount, especially since there were two AL East teams again this year. Perhaps personal biases prevented me from accurately weighing all the factors. Or maybe every team was so close statistically to every other team that each series was essentially a coin flip, and I just got lucky twice. Whatever. On with the previews!

New York Yankees vs. Texas Rangers: OK, now I’ve got the names right! Phew! The Rangers have two advantages going into this series: hunger and home field. The Rangers have never won a World Series. In fact, up until this year’s ALDS, they’d never won a playoff series of any kind. You think they might play with a bit more urgency than the Yankees, who’ve won the World Series 27 times, including last year? Also, they get to play four games in Arlington. The Yankees are o.k. on the road, but a 43-38 record means the Rangers should win at least one, probably two home games.

Statistically, it’s almost a dead heat. The two teams split the season series 4-4. The Rangers have a slightly better team batting average (.276 vs. .267), but the Yankees score a little more (5.3 vs 4.9 runs-per-game). However, the Yankees’ team ERA is higher (4.06 vs. 3.93), meaning they give up a few more runs than the Rangers do. You can see this in both teams’ divisional series; The Rangers gave up seven runs to the Tampa Bay Rays in five games, whereas the Yankees gave up seven runs to the Minnesota Twins in three games. So the Rangers should be able to score on the Yankees, it’s just a question of whether they can score enough.

It all comes down to matchups. C.J. Wilson isn’t a bad pitcher (15-8, 3.35 ERA), but there’s no way he beats C.C. Sabathia, who I’ve already predicted as the American League Cy Young winner. So the first game goes to the Yankees. After that, it gets a bit dicey. Game Two pairs Phil Hughes, a pitcher who had a terrific regular season (18-8, 4.19 ERA) but struggled mightily in the playoffs last year (0-1, 8.53 ERA in six postseason appearances in 2009), with Colby Lewis, a .500 pitcher in the regular season who only went five innings in his first postseason appearance, walked five but allowed no runs. This game is tough to call, but if the Rangers lose Game One they’re going to come out hungry in Game Two. So give that one to the Rangers, though it might come down to the bullpens, where Texas was slightly better in the regular season (3.38 vs. 3.47).

So the series heads to Yankees Stadium tied 1-1. Cliff Lee is going to beat Andy Pettite in Game Three. Lee has already won two tough road games this postseason, so he’s used to it. And in Game Four, you have Tommy Hunter, who in just his second year in the majors went 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA. Not terrific, but he’s facing the absolute weak link in the Yankees starting rotation: A.J. Burnett. He went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA in the regular season. It’s kind of amazing that Joe Girardi decided to start Burnett at all, but he might not have had much choice. Hunter is a contact pitcher, so he’ll need help from his defense, which has already made five errors this postseason. But I think Burnett lays an egg this game and gets absolutely shelled. Give it to the Rangers. But Sabathia comes out and wins Game Five easily.

Now the series heads back to Arlington with the Rangers up 3-2. Wilson won’t hold it down in Game Six, which the Yankees will play all-out, but there’s no one you want starting Game Seven besides Cliff Lee, and he’ll get it done, earning ALCS MVP honors. Pick: Rangers in 7.

Philadelphia Phillies vs. San Francisco Giants: Roy Halladay sent a message with his first postseason start ever: “Fear me.” You know who the last person to throw two no-hitters in the same season was? Nolan Ryan, 1973. Ever heard of him? Halladay is a guy who spent 12 years on Toronto Blue Jays teams that never finished better than third. Time and time again he had to watch pitchers he’d beaten go on to postseason glory. Now he gets to go to the postseason himself, and he’s not wasting the opportunity. The Cy Young will be nice, but he wants a ring.

Problem is, he’s matched up against a Giants pitcher who’s every bit the big-game pitcher he is: Tim Lincecum, who in his first ever postseason start struck out a whopping 14 in a complete-game shutout. However, Lincecum has only been in the league since 2007. He doesn’t yet have the hunger, the desperation, that Halladay has. So while he might be able to out-duel Halladay once, he won’t be able to do it twice. And the Giants will need to beat Halladay twice to have a chance to win, because the Phillies can easily go 3-5 in the non-Halladay/Lincecum games. Let’s look at the matchups:

Game Two will pair Roy Oswalt of the Phillies with Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants. Oswalt went 13-13 this season, but he had a pristine 2.76 ERA. Sanchez was good (13-9, 3.07 ERA), but in the postseason experience definitely helps, and Oswalt has years of it. It’s a close one, but Game Two being played at Citizens Bank Park, where the home crowd is usually huge, gives the game to the Phillies. I think the Giants actually win the first game, a pitchers’ duel in which Lincecum exits a little earlier than Halladay and gets a no-decision, giving way to the Giants’ dominant bullpen (2.99 ERA), who hold off the Phillies until Halladay gives up a late-inning run or two. So the series goes to AT&T Park tied 1-1.

Game Three features Cole Hamels and Matt Cain. They had almost identical regular seasons (12-11, 3.06 ERA for Hamels, 13-11, 3.14 ERA for Cain), but Hamels has 10 more postseason games under his belt than Cain. Additionally, the Phillies are going to be smarting after losing Game One at home, so they’ll want to send a message in their first road game of the NLCS. Give this one to the Phillies. Game Four is another postseason veteran (Joe Blanton, eight games) vs. a rookie (Madison Bumgarner, one game, great name). Blanton had a pretty high regular season ERA, especially for an NL pitcher (4.82). Bumgarner’s is much better (3.00). So give this game to the Giants, setting up an epic Game Five between Lincecum and Halladay. This time, Halladay gets it done. He has nine road wins already, and Lincecum’s home ERA is much higher than his road ERA (3.69 vs 3.17). Halladay straight up beats Lincecum in Game Five, sending the series back to Philadelphia with the Phillies up 3-2. And once they get there, Oswalt wins Game Six in convincing fashion. The MVP: Chase Utley, who picks up right where he left off against the Cincinatti Reds (3-11, a home run, four RBIs, and a stolen base). Pick: Phillies in 6.

The 2010 World Series is set: the Texas Rangers vs. the Philadelphia Phillies. A hotshot rookie squad facing a team fighting for its place in history. I’ll have my World Series prediction next week. Hope y’all like the new layout!