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!

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