With the Phillies Game 4 win over the Rockies, Major League Baseball has its final four teams vying for a shot at the World Series. One can almost surely bet that Bud Selig couldn't be happier with the four teams in the hunt for that elusive World Series ring (Boston Red Sox absence aside of course).
As usual, the MLB always manages to conjure juicy storylines to generate interest, but this year's finals seem particularly juicy.
Phillies-Dodgers: A rivalry in the making? For the second straight year, the Dodgers and Phillies will be meeting in the National League Championships. Of course last year, the Phillies got the better of the Dodgers winning the series in 5 games, and eventually going on to become World Series champions. The loss left the Dodgers embittered and hungry for revenge. They finally get their chance this year, only with some major differences. While the media and LA's infatuation with Manny hasn't wavered from last year, Manny's batting average has certainly taken a turn for the worse. Meanwhile, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp have emerged from Manny's shadow to become leaders this year's Dodger team. Ethier especially has improved leaps and bounds to the point where if he wasn’t already a superstar, he certainly is one now. Not to be outdone, the Phillies have their own emerging star in Raul Ibanez, who is putting up career numbers this year, and was number #2 in NL all-star voting. Last, but certainly not least, Ryan Howard achieved almost Pujol's recognition last year, and he should continue to command the respect of opposing pitchers a lesson the Rockies seemed to skip in their stunning game 4 loss.
On the pitching side of things, the Phillies, in the midst of the Roy Halladay fiasco were able to quietly grab ace Cliff Lee, giving the Phillies perhaps the most formidable 1-2 duo's amongst the teams remaining with 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels leading the rotation. Amazingly, these two arguably aren't the best duo the Dodgers will have seen, having just proven the experts wrong by beating the Cardinal's Wainwright and Carpenter. The story goes even deeper considering former Philly SP, and current Dodger #1 Randy Wolf gets his chance to show the Phillies the mistake they made by not offering him a spot in their rotation. The Dodgers also have a few young soon-to-be aces of their own in Kershaw and Billingsley who seem almost primed for a potential breakout postseason. In the bullpen, these two teams are polar opposites. Brad Lidge of the Phillies has never looked shakier, while the Dodger's pen with the addition of former Oriole's closer George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton are looking rock solid.
The title nearly says it all. The Long Ball vs. Small Ball. The Evil Empire vs. the Magic Kingdom. Free-Agent Plunder vs. the old fashioned home grown farm system. Despite these two teams’ differences, one thing is the same: these teams can flat out SCORE. These two teams spilt their season series 5-5 with both teams’ high powered offenses leading the way. Both teams face-to-face ERA's were well above 5. And while both teams have rotations that have raised their games to playoff standards, it seems highly unlikely that these pitchers will be able to pull the plug on offenses that are dangerous from 1 through 9. As far as storylines go, the Angels are this year’s feel good story having dedicated this season to the tragically deceased Nick Adenhart. With their stunning sweep of the Boston Red Sox, the Angels seemed to have captured lighting in a bottle getting clutch hits from both unlikely heroes Maicer Izturiz and Erick Aybar, as well as stars Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, and Vladimir Guerrero. The Angels will need to keep the hits coming to keep up with the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Mark Teixeira. The story of the year for both teams remains the Kendry Morales-Mark Teixeira story. Back in December, experts thought the Angels suffered a huge blow to their offense when they lost Teixeira to the Yankees. Little did those experts know that the Angel's had a secret weapon in waiting in the form of Kendry Morales. The Angels proved to be the ones laughing at the end of the regular season, when Morales put up almost identical numbers to Tex for exponentially less salary. Morales wasn't the only surprise this season, for a mere 5 million dollars, the team acquired this years team MVP, and former Yankee, Bobby Abreu. It appears patience really is contagious as the arrival of Bobby Abreu has made the whole lineup much more patient at the plate, as we saw in Game 3 vs. Boston, even notorious free-swinger Vladimir Guerrero is able to work a walk. For the Yankees, even with Mark Teixeira, the story will always be about 2 men, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, and for the first time Alex Rodriguez seems to be showing his critics he can lead this Yankee team to victory. In the wake of the whole steroids/ Madonna controversy, Alex Rodriguez seems to have emerged a more mature player. Some point to his relationship with Kate Hudson as the source for his newfound leadership, while others point to the arrival of Mark Teixeira, whatever the case may be, the Angel's pitching staff will have their work cut out for them.
As far as pitching storylines go, no single pitcher will be more highly scrutinized than the Yankee's C.C. Sabathia. Signed for a mega $161 million dollar contract this past off-season, Sabathia will have to prove he was worth every penny of the largest pitching contract EVER! In the other dugout, perennial staff ace and workhorse John Lackey will be a free agent this off-season and one can be sure that he will do everything within his power to showcase his skills against a highly potent Yankee lineup in hopes of also getting that big payday! Having just outpitched the combo of Lester and Beckett, Lackey and Jered Weaver have shown they have both the stuff and mental ability to pitch with the best of them. And while experts continue to overlook the Angels 1-2, the Angels do get credit for having the best rotation 1-4 thanks to the addition of Scott Kazmir, who is very familiar with the Yankee's having pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays. In the bullpen, one man comes to mind when you think about great closers and that’s Mariano Rivera. For the better part of a decade, the Yankees have been unbeatable when leading going into the 9th. Rivera has been so dominant and reliable that he has been called the Greatest Closer of ALL TIME! As Buster Olney once said, "No other player can instill calm in his team's fans as reliably as Mariano Rivera." Meanwhile, the Angels have newly acquired Brian Fuentes at the helm, a closer who probably inspires the least calm in his team's fans out of the closers remaining. Despite having the most saves this season, Angel fans blood pressure seem to always rise a few notches when they see him running out of the pen.
While these two series seem more packed with storylines than any recent previous league championship series, the plot promises to only thicken in the future. Here’s a look ahead at potential matchups:
Angels vs. Dodgers - Scoscia vs. Torre. Vladdy vs. Manny. The legendary epic freeway series that once previously only existed in the domain of hypotheticals. For the first time both the Angels and Dodgers are in their respective League championships in the same year. This "freeway series" would certainly be one every Southern California baseball fan will want to remember. This will be the ultimate showdown for regional bragging rights until the next time these teams meet in a World Series, which could just as easily be 50 years from now, making it an especially important world series for both teams fan base, not to forget about the Weaver family.
Yankees vs. Dodgers - Bronx Bombers vs. the Brooklyn LA Dodgers. What could be sweeter than the two most storied baseball franchises in baseball history meeting in the World Series? For Joe Torre, I'm sure the whole nation will be rooting for him to get the chance to give Steinbrenner the bird in the form of a Dodger win at the new Yankee Stadium.
Phillies vs. Yankees - the two "favorites" to win the League Series. These two teams arguably have the most complete teams in their respective leagues, and both of their rosters are filled with high end talent.
Angels vs. Phillies - The least plot oriented matchup. Aside from Bobby Abreu playing the best years of his career in Philly, there’s not much to say. Should still be a fun series though!