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TCB's League Championship Series Preview

When the season began waaayyyyy back in March, and waaaayyyyyy over on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I think I can safely say that practically nobody predicted that these are the four teams that would emerge from the 160+ game war of attrition that is the MLB regular season and Divisional Series. The defending WS Champs were among the early favorites to return to the Series. You really didn’t have to go out on a limb to pencil them into baseball’s greatest showcase, or if you insisted on going out on a limb, it was like a bonsai size limb.

Completing the ALCS match-up, are the plucky, overachiev…nope, Tampa Bay didn't get here on good karma. They have a quirky manager who actually studies statistics (gasp!), and a roster full of power pitchers who aren’t intimidated by anyone. Hell, they won the best division in baseball- and nearly did it wire to wire. They may have thoroughbreds in the rotation, but their offense is a mosaic of players. From the vagabond slugger (Carlos Pena), the Japanese import (Akinori Iwamura), the young stud (Evan Longoria) and of course…the veteran presence (Cliff Floyd), the Rays have a blend of players that has propelled them beyond any of the expert’s predictions. If that’s not enough for ya, think of the Texas ties: Gerry Hunsicker, Jim Hickey, JP Howell, Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, Trevor Miller and Dan Wheeler

Over in the NL, it’s a East-Coast vs. West-Coast duel. The Dodgers have endeared themselves to me based solely on their sweeping of the Cubs.  Manny. Joe Torre. We know them. What should we know about them, is just as important as the big names that came from out east. LA has a young nucleus of players (Blake DeWitt, James Loney, Andrew Ethier, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley) that has provided a boost to a team that  signed a few too many big name free agent disasters (Jason Schmidt, Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones) over the past couple off seasons. Their closer goes down early in the season? No problem- former set up man Jonathan Broxton steps in and performs well. Joe Beimel is their fire fighter coming out of the bullpen. With Rafael Furcal missing a majority of the season, and Jeff Kent finally showing some signs of aging, the Dodgers offense sputtered for a great deal of the season. GM Ned Colletti had a big payroll that was almost all of his doing, and his franchise was looking at a 21st straight season without a post season series win. Enter Casey Blake, who at 35, is having himself a career season. Then in a true 12th hour move, Colletti landed the biggest fish of them all- the elusive, finicky Manny. I don’t know if he calmed down the clubhouse, made the team looser or helped the guys in front of him see more fastballs. What I do know, is that Man-Ram slugged .743, hit 17 homers and amassed an OPS+ of 213 in his 53 games as a Dodger. Colletti could have saved his job with that move, but he most certainly saved his team’s season.

3,000 miles away in Philadelphia, the big changes came before the season even began. Brad Lidge and utility man Eric Bruntlett arrived in a deal that saw Mike Bourn and Geoff Geary land in Houston. Lidge would re-legitimize himself as a top closer in the game, and was the headlining name of a bullpen that was the driving force of an improved Phillies team. Most of that improvement was spurred by the pitching staff, whose ERA fell from 4.73 last year (13th in the NL) to 3.89 (4th) this year. After a shaky start, and a trip to AAA, former closer Brett Myers offered another quality arm to the starting rotation. Joe Blanton has been perfect record-wise since his trade to Philadelphia. Jaime Moyer is still the same guy from Moneyball- doesn’t throw hard, but doesn’t do anything to beat himself either. Cole Hamels may be the best left handed pitcher in the NL not named Santana. Offensively, Chase Utley was his usual underrated self, Jimmy Rollins saw a return to relative mediocrity (OPS+ of 101) after his MVP season in 2007, and Pat Burrell did what Pat Burrell does: bat .250, slug over .500 and hit 30 home runs. Then there’s Ryan Howard. He’ll get his MVP votes because of a September flourish. That being said, he was 30th in the majors in VORP. He wasn’t even in the top five on his own team in OBP. In June, he struck out 36 times, and walked 6. No wonder that his OBP that month was a Michael Bourn-esque .287. Philly didn’t make the playoffs on the strength of Howard, or rather, they did in part, but there are about five moreimportant reasons to the Phillies’ 2008 success:

1)      Improved pitching

2)      Improved starting pitching

3)      Improved bullpen

4)      Chase Utley

5)      The Phillie Phanatic stopped wearing clothes under his costume in the beginning of August, thus bringing about good karma

6)      Ryan Howard

Ok. I’m done quasi-bashing Ryan Howard. This is only important to me because I have a terrible feeling that he may get more votes for MVP than Lance will. Personal vendettas aside, the Phillies did what smart teams do in the off season (This part is for you, Drayton): Improve their pitching staff.  Pitching wins. None of these teams rank outside the top five in their respective leagues in ERA. LA is first in the NL, and the Rays are second in the AL- all the more impressive given that they play against Boston and New York for nearly a quarter of their season. So, while Manny, Papi, Howard and Longoria may get the headlines for each of these clubs, pay attention to the guys delivering the pitches. I’d be a shame to miss Matt (Garza), Jon (Lester), Hiroki (Kuroda) and Chad (Durbin).