It’s the kind of story line that can overshadow the reality of a playoff series in any sport: A superstar with an amazing season and an amazing story of overcoming the nightmare of drug addiction, facing the team that originally drafted him, with the prospect of eventually getting to a World Series against the team that gave him a second chance (and then traded him away anyway).
It’s almost as if it’s just Josh Hamilton versus the Tampa Bay Rays.
Actually, it is almost as if it’s just Josh Hamilton versus the Tampa Bay Rays. Ian Kinsler and Michael Young had ordinary seasons, the bottom third of the line-up is a mixture of Mitch Moreland, Julio Borbon, Jeff Francoeur, David Murphy, Bengie Molina, and Matt Treanor, and the starters – Cliff Lee included – had long dead spots, and despite Nolan Ryan’s pronouncements about longer outings from them, the Rangers actually got the shortest efforts from their starters of any A.L. team.
But, you say, what about those two hitters behind Hamilton? Boomstick Cruz is the real thing, but human history divides evenly into those times when he’s out with a hamstring pull, and those times when he’s about to sustain a hamstring pull. And Vladimir Guerrero found the fountain of youth, but only in the first half. His second half was a very pedestrian .278/.322/.426 and he has deteriorated on the basepaths to such a degree that a foot race between him and Molina would probably continue into November.
By contrast the Rays have largely been underachieving all year long. One of Joe Maddon’s lineups against Texas might feature three sub-.200 hitters. But Tampa is a disciplined, designed ballclub at the plate and in the field, their pitching is deep and even writing off Jeff Niemann, startling, and the irony of ironies is that the key to the series might not be Tampa castoff Hamilton but Texas throwaway and Rays set-up man Joaquin Benoit.
I like the Rays, and quickly, unless Texas somehow batters David Price tomorrow – and Price is 9-and-2 at home this year (and a tidy 17-and-5 there lifetime).
Meantime, trust me, I have front row seats at Yankee Stadium, there’s nothing I’d like more than to watch World Series games from them. I’m not even sure I’m going to get to see two playoff games there this weekend. I haven’t liked the chances of this Yankee team since spring training and while I commend and am heartened by their accomplishments despite glaring holes and what has become one of the most parochial and even jingoistic eras in New York media history, I think they’re not going to reach the ALCS.
The key here is the fact that the Yankees should face lefthanded starters in three of the five games (possibly, if Ron Gardenhire wants to gamble, in three of the first four). Lefthanders turn Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher to their weaker sides (and in Yankee Stadium force them to aim at the tougher fences in left), hurt Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and, unexpectedly, Alex Rodriguez: 6-35-.217-.441 and make Brett Gardner into a .252 hitter. The trade-off is that they enable Marcus Thames at DH and actually make Derek Jeter look like his old self (6-24-.321-.481 – correct: Jeter hit .246 against righties this year, with a slugging percentage of .317 and an on-base of .315).
You’re not overwhelmed by Minnesota southpaws Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing? How about the prospect of Brian Fuentes coming out of the bullpen, right before or right after Jon Rauch, with Matt Capps warming up for the 9th.
We have not even discussed Yankee pitching. There is a reason CC Sabathia should be the Cy Young winner. Without Felix Hernandez, the Mariners wouldn’t have been much worse. The Rays without David Price might not be post-season favorites, but Jeremy Hellickson could have stepped in. Right now, Sabathia is the only Yankee starter who is not attached to a question mark the size of, well, Sabathia. On the other hand, I wouldn’t worry too much about Mariano Rivera’s September slump, although the Yankee set-up men are hardly what they were a year ago and I’ll believe Boone Logan in the clutch when I see him whiff Jim Thome twice.
The Twins did not prosper down the stretch (none of the AL playoff teams did) and would have loved just the thought of Justin Morneau returning later on. But since the Yankees saw them last in the playoffs, the rest of the infield has been upgraded, Jim Thome has been added at DH, and Delmon Young has gone from a dubious platoon guy to a 112 RBI man. Young struggled over the last two months, then seemed to come alive in the last ten (3-7-.293). The Twins’ lineup is also staggered to minimize repeating same-side bats, which could completely befuddle the pitching-change challenged duo of Joe Girardi and coach Dave Eiland.
Frankly, if Minnesota somehow beats Sabathia in the opener, with an ailing and/or rusty Pettitte and an erratic Hughes behind him, the Twins could sweep. I doubt that. I like them in four or five.