We're down the League Championship Series, and the prospect of a Freeway World Series has never been closer. This season, Southern California is truly the king of baseball regions. The Dodgers led the Majors in attendance and finished with the best record in the National League. The Angels finished second in the AL in both the standings and in attendance.
For seven straight years, the Dodgers and Angels have been in the top-6 in attendance in MLB. Yes, baseball is alive and strong here, and Los Angeles has proven itself as a great sports town. Don't let any obnoxious East Coast-biased fans tell you otherwise.
The Angels win over the Red Sox was predicted on this site, although I was a bit surprised that they were able to sweep. The Halos lineup is the best it's been in years, and they are getting contributions from everyone in the batting order. Their pitching has held up well for the most part, and their defense is strong.
The Dodgers win over the Cardinals was not predicted on this site, but only because I thought the team's late season struggles would continue. I've been a big defender of the Dodgers all season long, and evidently the belief that the team would step up their play in games that mattered held up true.
I am a bit dismayed though at the anti-Dodger pro-Angel bias that we've seen in the Los Angeles Times and in other media local media outlets, and I'll touch on that briefly. Like me, the Times predicted a Cardinals victory in the first round, but unlike me, they saw a sweep. Turned out the Times got every single game wrong.
In his "analysis" Times scribe Kevin Baxter claimed that the Cardinals had a better lineup than the Dodgers. However, Baxter listed just two Cardinals players - Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday - neglecting to mention that the rest of the lineup was mediocre. Well, the other six Cardinals did nothing in the series (and neither Pujols for that matter), while the deep Dodger lineup was able to hit Chris Carpenter, Joel Pineiro, and Ryan Franklin just fine.
Yesterday's LA Times offered 10 reasons "Why America should root for the Angels over the Yankees" without a similar article for the Dodgers. On the front page of that issue, there was a small box announcing a "Cole front is moving in" referring to Cole Hamels' success against the Dodgers in the postseason last year. It didn't mention that Hamels has been a completely different pitcher this year, and struggled in his one start against the Rockies.
Jon Weisman at DodgerThoughts has a great post about postseason myths, and how the Dodgers have proven many of them wrong. The Dodgers aren't winning baseball games in a traditional way and that seems to have flummoxed media pundits. The truth is there are many ways to win a baseball game, and it takes a full roster of 25 players.
You can't just say "Carpenter and Wainwright" and automatically give that team two wins. Even the best pitchers fail to get a win in 40% of their starts, leaving the win to the bullpen or an opposing pitcher. You can't just say "the Dodgers are all about Manny" when 89% of the team's plate appearances don't involve him, and then you see guys like Ronnie Belliard and Mark Loretta wind up with key hits.
So with all of that being said, I am going to preview both the Dodgers and Angels series by looking at specific matchups. First, let's look at Dodgers-Phillies:
Catcher: Carlos Ruiz vs. Russell Martin
Last year, a Sports Illustrated player poll rated Russell Martin and Joe Mauer as clearly the two best catchers in baseball. This year, Martin has confounded everyone and been the worst regular hitter in the Dodgers lineup. He's still a defensive asset, but his play this season has been very troubling. Carlos Ruiz is a pretty mediocre catcher with some upside and some power. In this series I see both players having similar production.
First Base: Ryan Howard vs. James Loney
It's true that Ryan Howard strikes out too much, can't hit lefties, and isn't much of a fielder. But he's still one of the best power threats in Major League Baseball, and only Albert Pujols hits righties better. James Loney will turn into Mark Grace if he's lucky.
Second Base: Chase Utley vs. Ronnie Belliard
For now I'm going to assume that Belliard will start over Orlando Hudson in every game, although I think there's some matchups that favor Hudson. It doesn't matter though because Chase Utley is the best hitting second baseman in the game today.
Third Base: Pedro Feliz vs. Casey Blake
Pedro Feliz is the weak link in the Phillies lineup while Casey Blake is a pretty consistent performer. Neither does much defensively.
Shortstop: Jimmy Rollins vs. Rafael Furcal
Have you seen how bad Jimmy Rollins has been this year? He nearly destroyed my fantasy team before I was luckily able to unload him in a trade. Rollins was always overrated and he's nothing close to the player he was 2-3 years ago. Furcal has also struggled this season, but it looks like he's finally healthy and hitting like it. But given that both players are somewhat unpredictable, there's no clear advantage.
Left Field: Raul Ibanez vs. Manny Ramirez
Ibanez has gotten a lot of publicity for having one of his best seasons. But Ibanez is a prime example of how a player's good first half can lead to a season-long reputation. Ibanez hit .232 after the All-Star break and his defense is almost as bad as Manny Ramirez's. While Ramirez has gotten a lot of criticism this season, justifiably so, he's the greatest threat in this series at the end of the day.
Center Field: Shane Victorino vs. Matt Kemp
Shane Victorino was a key to the Phillies win over the Dodgers last year. But Matt Kemp hits for more power, steals more bases, and is a greater threat at the plate. Both of these guys are great players, but Kemp is a little bit better.
Right Field: Jayson Werth vs. Andre Ethier
The Dodgers once had both Victorino and Werth in their organization, but let them go. Their stellar play is an example of what can happen if a team gets rid of good young players. Fortunately, the Dodgers held onto Kemp and Ethier and their in the NLCS for the second straight yet.
As for Eithier and Werth, both of these players have remarkably similar statistics. The biggest difference is that Werth strikes out a bit more while Ethier is horrible against lefties.
Projected Game 1 Starting Pitchers: Cole Hamels vs. Clayton Kershaw
I know that Cole Hamels pitched well in the postseason last year. But that was last year. He hasn't been the same pitcher in 2009 and his whining about throwing a day game against the Rockies made him look almost immature. Clayton Kershaw has looked fantastic lately and he provides a useful left-handed arm in this series. Still you wonder about him going deep into games, even with the Dodgers great bullpen.
Remaining Starting Rotations: J.A. Happ, Cliff Lee, and Pedro Martinez vs. Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, and Hiroki Kuroda or Chad Billingsley
Since neither manager has told us much about the rotations beyond Game 1, I won't project another matchup. I'm guessing the Phillies will use Cliff Lee in Game 3 so that he doesn't go on short rest. In that case, Lee could be used in Game 6 on normal rest. Lee has been terrific since he joined the Phillies and is the best pitcher in this series. J.A. Happ is a good young pitcher, but we can't really expect to see much from him. He only lasted three innings in his first postseason start. Martinez had a nice comeback year, but he's still a shell of his former self, and he can't pitch deep into games. That's worrisome if you're the Phillies and you have a bad bullpen.
Randy Wolf finally looks like the great prospect that the Phillies once had now that he's over his injuries. He didn't pitch well in the first inning of his first postseason start and it hurt him the rest of the way. Still, you have to think he'll bounce back. Vicente Padilla is another great ex-Phillies prospect who has had his own journey and is pitching as well as he ever has. The No. 4 starter spot is between Hiroki Kuroda who might be pitching hurt and Chad Billingsley who is unpredictable.
If you were to rank these starting pitchers, you'd go Lee, Wolf, Padilla, Happ, Martinez, Kuroda/Billingsley with the last spot potentially moving into the top-3. If I were the Phillies, I'd actually consider using Joe Blanton over Martinez. Overall, I think Lee's great pitching will be counter-balanced by the pedestrian performances from the other pitchers, while the Dodger pitchers will consistently get into the 6th inning and leave their team with a chance to win.
The Dodger bullpen has been a source of strength all season long, and the addition of George Sherrill coupled with the health of Hong Chih-Kuo allows the team to mix lefties and righties. The Phillies bullpen could actually cost them the series. The Dodgers won two early season games because of Brad Lidge meltdowns and Scott Eyre and Ryan Madson haven't pitched well in the 9th when called upon.
The Phillies bench is not much to write home about with guys like Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs, Miguel Cairo, and Matt Stairs (yes, him). The Dodger bench offers some interesting options with the obligatory Jim Thome pinch hit appearance, Orlando Hudson's solid play, and the speedy Juan Pierre.
Manager: Charlie Manuel vs. Joe Torre
Both of these managers have proven themselves in the postseason, but Joe Torre has won more and I love the job he's doing this year. I'll give the edge to experience.
Prediction: I see the Dodgers taking Games 1 and 2 in LA, with the Phillies bullpen possibly blowing one of those games. I think Cliff Lee will come back strong in Game 3 and the Phillies will steal another back home. Even though Lee is going Game 6, I see Dodgers learning from him the first time and coming back to win the series at home.
Dodgers in Six.
Angels vs. Yankees
At this moment, I don't have the time to write a full post about this series. I might between now and Friday. Either way, I think this series is going to be a classic. Both teams have deep lineups, but they both have their flaws. The Angels still match up particularly well against the Yankees though, the Halos taking it. Angels in Seven. And yes, I think we'll have a Freeway Series.