For the sixth consecutive year, either the Dodgers or Angels have made the playoffs, and this is the third time in that stretch in which both have reached postseason play. I would love to see a Freeway World Series, but in order to get there, both the Dodgers and Angels will have to get by tough first round opponents.
I broke down both series on The Filter with Fred Roggin yesterday, but here is a more in-depth analysis:
Dodgers vs. Cardinals
Both of these two teams finished the 2009 season poorly. The Dodgers seemed to take an eternity to clinch the NL West, while the Cardinals lost eight of their last 10.
Both teams have also struggled offensively of late. The Cardinals really only have two good hitters on their team -- Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. I hear idiot media pundits all the time say that the Dodgers don't have the big hitters to win in the playoffs, but they forget that no MLB teams are perfect. St. Louis is going to start Ryan Ludwick (disappointing year), Skip Schumaker (no power), Brendan Ryan (an unknown), Colby Rasmus (inconsistent), and Mark DeRosa (.228 average in St. Louis). That's a lot of question marks.
Many of the Dodgers hitters have struggled mightily down the stretch. Manny Ramirez, who has been a major disappointment since he returned from the steroid suspension, hit just .229 in September and he hasn't hit a home run in a while. Matt Kemp hit .241 in September was hitless in two October games. Andre Ethier only hit .212 in the season's final month. Russell Martin has been an enigma all year. Casey Blake and Ronnie Belliard have been banged up lately. Orlando Hudson has fallen out of the lineup. And I have no idea what to expect from Rafael Furcal.
I don't think any of these Dodgers hitters are bad. But I don't think most of them have been at their best. There's a theory that the Dodgers hitters have just been bored for a while, and there is credence to that argument. Still, what I've seen this past month hasn't been encouraging.
When it comes to pitching the Cardinals have two of the best pitchers in the National League in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. I'm sure if Joel Pineiro was the Dodgers Game 3 starter then the local media would be freaking out, but he's gotten little attention despite having a solid year. In Game 4 the Cardinals will turn to either Kyle Lohse (who has struggled lately) and John Smoltz (who is barely hanging onto his career).
The Dodgers are going with two lefthanders in the first two games -- Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw. That's significant because the Cardinals do not hit lefties well. The team surprisingly announced today that Vicente Padilla will start Game 3 of the series. Rumors of Padilla being a clubhouse cancer were greatly exaggerated. He's pitched pretty well for the Dodgers, going 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA. That being said, neither him, nor Kershaw figure to pitch deeply in games. Perhaps no Dodger starting pitcher has greater questions surrounding him than Chad Billingsley who will start Game 4. I've been one of Billingsley's biggest defenders, but I can't explain his sudden and sharp collapse in the second half after being named an All-Star in July. Still, Billingsley has the talent, his last start was respectable, and he should have plenty of motivation in the postseason. We can only hope he comes through.
All season the Dodgers have gotten 5-6 innings from their starting pitchers and then turned it over to one of the best and deepest bullpens in baseball. George Sherill has been excellent in the 8th inning, and Jonathan Broxton is as tough to hit as anyone in the 9th. If guys like Ronald Belisario, Ramon Troncoso, and James McDonald can be stable, the Dodger pitching should be OK.
St. Louis' bullpen is filled with plenty of no-names who have mostly pitched well. Their closer Ryan Franklin had a stunningly good year, but a lot of sabermetricians think his luck is going to run out.
Both of these teams have veteran managers who are among the all-time leaders in postseason games managed. Joe Torre is known for keeping his teams mentally strong while Tony LaRussa has made many smart strategic moves over the years.
I've been one of the biggest defenders of the Dodgers this season. I felt like most of the criticism levied against them was unwarranted and unfounded, and I've often been appalled at the glee with which local media members have bashed them. That being said, I can't ignore what I've seen the past few weeks with the Dodgers. While there is no evidence that momentum means anything entering the postseason, I don't like the way the Dodgers are playing, and I'm going to pick the Cardinals to win the series.
Angels vs. Red Sox
The Angels have never beaten the Red Sox in a playoff series, going back to 1986 and the famed Donny Moore-Dave Henderson plate appearance. More relevantly, the Red Sox have beaten the Angels in postseason in 2004, 2007 and 2008. Is this the year the Angels come through? I think so.
The Angels have been playing with a great deal of inspiration in honor the late Nick Adenhart. But also, the reason why the Angels have struggled in the postseason is their lack of offense. The Halos will bring their best lineup into the postseason since 2002. Kendry Morales has been the home grown power hitter that they've been searching for. Their young infielders -- Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis, and Howie Kendrick -- have all been good lately, while Chone Figgins gets on base and has speed. Bob Abreu was a shrewd addition in the outfield and Torii Hunter has had a pretty good year. Juan Rivera swings at a lot of bad balls, but he has power. And while Vladimir Guerrero isn't what he used to be, he's carried his weight since he came back from injury.
The Red Sox lineup is fantastic, and will not lay down against the Angels. Kevin Youkilis is one of the best hitters in baseball and Dustin Pedroia is a reigning MVP. David Ortiz has improved since his atrocious start and Jason Bay is as good as anyone in the outfield. Victor Martinez was also a nice addition.
The difference in this series for me is the pitching. Both Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are phenomenal pitchers, but both suffered late-season injuries, and it remains to be seen if they'll be at full strength. It's hard to believe that a team with a $120 million payroll will make Clay Bucholz their No. 3 postseason starter, but after spending much of the year in the minors, the young Bucholz will get the call. It looks like the Red Sox will go with Lester on short rest in Game 4 rather than going to hobbled pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Red Sox bullpen is a certainly a hodgepodge of characters after Jonathan Papelbon.
The Angels pitching staff is kind of weird. John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, and Joe Saunders are all talented pitchers who have all gone through ups and downs this year. But I think they'll come through, especially since the Halos will use two lefties at Fenway Park.
The Angels bullpen is arguably their biggest concern. Brian Fuentes led the AL in saves, but he's hardly lights out. All of the Angels top middle relievers imploaded early in the season, giving way to unproven commodities like Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger. No one knew who Francisco Rodriguez was when he dominated for the Angels in the 2002 postseason. I don't think we'll get that out of Jepsen and Bulger, but they're not terrible either.
Overall, I see the Angels going to the ALCS and facing the Yankees, against whom the Halos match up well.