Pennant Fever: An MLB League Championship Series Preview


flickr/Texas Rangers/Philadelphia Phillies

At the end of a 2,433-word diatribe against baseball's divisional series round, Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski declares: "The baseball playoffs start now." Well alrighty then. Let's break down the league championships series, which begin tonight for the American League and tomorrow night for the National League:

ALCS: Texas Rangers vs. New York Yankees

OFFENSE: The defending champs strut into Texas with the best lineup $200 million can buy (disclaimer: I am a born-and-raised Yankee fan and am grinning from ear to ear right now). The latest free agent signing to pay dividends is center fielder Curtis Granderson, who struggled for much of the season but hit a sizzling .455 in the Yanks' three-game sweep of Minnesota in the first round. New York needs one of its big bats—Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and MVP candidate Robinson Cano—to have a big series, or it will struggle to keep up with a stacked Rangers' lineup. Texas boasts AL batting champion and MVP favorite Josh Hamilton, who could eat up the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium. They also have elite shortstop Michael Young, the red-hot Ian Kinsler, the speedster Elvis Andrus, and...oh yeah, the future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero hitting cleanup. Suffice to say it's a strong lineup. Edge: Rangers

PITCHING: When the Tampa Bay Rays rallied to force a Game 5 against the Rangers last round, it deprived the world of a C.C. Sabathia-Cliff Lee marquee matchup in Game 1 of this round because Lee was forced to put Texas on his back and throw a complete-game masterpiece to win the series. Now the Yankees have the burly Sabathia going in Games 1 and 5, while the Rangers can't start Lee until Game 3. If that weren't enough of an advantage for New York, they also have postseason mainstay Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, while Texas has to rely on the unproven Colby Lewis in Game 2. A.J. Burnett and his American Psycho routine notwithstanding, the Yankees' rotation stands head and shoulders above the Rangers. And of course, New York has the all-time greatest closer/postseason pitcher/member of the Justice League in Mariano Rivera. (OK, I made one of those up. But still.) Edge: Yankees

MANAGER: The Yankees have Joe Girardi, who won three World Series as a player and another managing New York last year. The Rangers have Ron Washington, who tested positive for cocaine last year. On the other hand, Washington did coax the best from his rotation and lead Texas to its first-ever postseason series victory. As much as acquiring Lee in midseason helped, you can't discount what Washington has done for the franchise. Edge: Even

X-FACTOR: The Rangers have the home-field advantage, which you would expect to work in their favor. But Texas is 0-6 at home in its playoff history. 0-6! And four of those losses came against the Yankees! You can argue the Rangers will be a different team after their franchise-defining win over the Rays on Tuesday. But what if the Yankees jump out to an early lead in Game 1 or make a late-inning comeback? You'll almost be able to hear 50,000 Rangers fans thinking: Uh-oh...Edge: Yankees

PREDICTION: If the series goes to a seventh game, the Rangers will be almost unbeatable with Lee getting the ball at home. But it won't. Yankees in 6

NLCS: Philadelphia Phillies vs. San Francisco Giants

HITTING: In the light-hitting National League, Philadelphia's lineup is basically a Murderer's Row. With the clutch second baseman Chase Utley, the mammoth power-hitting Ryan Howard, and the streaky Jayson Werth, the Phillies have the best 3-4-5 hitters in the game (except for maybe the Yankees). Philly could use a resurgence from shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who was huge in their NLCS victory last year but is hitting just .091 this postseason. The Giants, meanwhile, rely heavily on their pitching and scored just 12 runs in four games against Atlanta in the divisional series. Put in this way: Your lineup can only be so good when you have a 23-year-old rookie catcher hitting cleanup. Edge: Phillies

PITCHING: Where do I even start? The Phillies have arguably the best postseason rotation in 20 years. Don't believe me? Let's see, ace Roy Halladay threw the second no-hitter in playoff history last week (yawn), Cole Hamels hurled a five-hit shutout to clinch the divisional series (ho-hum), and Roy Oswalt has years of big-game experience, including an NLCS clincher for the Astros in 2005 (zzzz). In the last two months of the regular season, the Phillies went 30-5 in games started by those three. That, plus the playoff brilliance, adds up to crazy good. Amazingly, the Giants aren't far behind, with an elite pitcher of their own (Tim Lincecum, aka The Freak) and solid starters Jonathan Sanchez and Matt Cain. But if San Francisco needs more than three outs from closer C.J. Wilson, watch out—he's disastrous in save attempts of more than one inning and failed to deliver in that exact situation against the Braves last week. Edge: Phillies

MANAGER: The Phillies have Grumpy Old Man Charlie Manuel, who's taken them to back-to-back World Series and continues to get the best out of his players. The Giants counter with Bruce Bochy, who managed a pennant winner of his own with the Padres in 1998 and took the Giants from worst to first in the NL West in just three years. But only Manuel has the World Series ring. Edge: Phillies

X-FACTOR: The Phillies appear to be a juggernaut/dynasty/(insert dominant analogy here). They're the popular pick to win it all and have made the National League their plaything for three years running. Momentum and experience are a dangerous combination and very difficult to overcome. If the Giants want to have any chance, they need a win from their ace, Lincecum, in Game 1. As an aside, if you're a fan of baseball at all, you should check out Halladay-Lincecum on Saturday. It could be an epic pitcher's duel. Edge: Phillies

PREDICTION: The team who has all the edges. Phillies in 5