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2011 Major League Baseball Playoff Preview

The Phillies are the overwhelming favorites in the National League. The American League goes through New York. As unpredictable as the MLB postseason is, this much we know: We’re Brian Wilson-free this year. Thank God for that.

I don’t write about baseball that often. I love the sport and everything, but I rarely find myself inspired enough to offer anything meaningful. Also, I don’t get to watch the Phillies as much since my wife despises baseball, and DirecTV and Comcast can’t act like adults. Nevertheless, I go all-in for the postseason. Every game. Every pitch. Nothing beats Fox’s postseason baseball music. It brings back very fond memories of 2008 and horrific flashbacks to Ryan Howard staring at strike three in the 2010 NLCS.

Tampa Bay Rays (AL Wildcard) vs. Texas Rangers (AL West)

Three reasons to watch:
3. With all the attention paid to the Rays and Cardinals, you’d be surprised to learn the Rangers are actually the hottest team entering the postseason, winning 10 of their final 11 games. Texas also boasts the best hitting team in the American League (in regards to batting average). Of the eight teams in the 2011 postseason, the Rangers are the most forgotten. Josh Hamilton has had a quiet year. (For him, at least. .298, 25HR and 94 RBI is a career year for most). Without Cliff Lee, they lack a pitching ace that attracts national attention. Regardless, the Rangers are good. Really good.

2. Balanced rotations. Unlike the Tigers or Yankees, neither the Rays nor Rangers boast a premiere ace. However, both offer deep and talented rotations of five pitchers with double digit wins. Only one of those 10 pitchers finished with a losing record in 2011. (David Price, of all people. Go figure.) I’m giving a slight edge to the Rangers’ starters, but more than any other series, I expect the bats to decide this one.

1. What will the Tampa Bay Rays do next? As much as Boston contributed to Tampa’s epic run into the playoffs, the young Rays still needed to perform and deliver in the clutch. Now that the season is over and they reached the playoffs, are the Rays kaput? Or, can Evan Longoria carry them a little further?

Two nonsensical thoughts:
2. In all the excitement of the Rays catching, and ultimately passing, the Red Sox for the AL Wildcard berth, we all forgot the greatest ballpark in the American League was eliminated from the postseason as a result. What’s worse, we traded Fenway for the absolute worst stadium in the league. Even worse than that, Tampa Bay’s fans are quite possibly the worst baseball fans in the world. On Tuesday night, with their team trailing the AL Wildcard leaders by a game with two games remaining, the stadium was virtually empty. A night later with their team tied for the Wildcard, the stadium still wasn’t sold out. I feel bad for rooting against Boston. At least Bostonians appreciate their team. Also, has anyone figured out the purpose of that awkward star-like figure in center field of Tampa’s stadium?

1. Let’s hope the Rangers get some positive press throughout the playoffs. They could certainly use it. Throughout the 2011 season, most of the national attention surrounding the Rangers had been in relation to the fan falling to his death. Some positive attention would be well deserved for a team of such likeable players.

One team to advance:
1. I know the Rays battled so hard to get here, but the Rangers are too good and too hungry. I think they climb back to the World Series after eliminatin the Rays in five games.

Detroit Tigers (AL Central) vs. New York Yankees (AL East)

Three reasons to watch:
3. It’s the Yankees. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s just something special about watching those pinstripes in the fall. I fear the day when I turn on playoff baseball and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera aren’t around. I’m not even a Yankee fan, but Jeter and especially, Rivera make every postseason game more significant.

2. Last time we saw Detroit in the postseason, Kenny Rogers was accused of using a foreign substance to doctor pitches in Game 2 of the 2006 World Series. I think Jim Leyland was 114 then, so he’s pushing 120 now. Just kidding. Leyland’s teams are always a tough out in the playoffs, especially this year with…

1. Justin Verlander. Has there been a more dominant pitcher in 2011? Verlander ranked first in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. He’s Detroit’s best shot at taking down the “Evil Empire.” Game 1 should be epic as Verlander and CC Sabathia go head-to-head. Sabathia’s season, while not as strong as Verlander’s, was also worthy of CY Young consideration. Don’t be fooled, the Yankees need this game just as much, if not more than Detroit. After Sabathia, the Yankee rotation is a crapshoot. Uncertainty in the pitching rotation is never ideal when pursuing a title.

Two nonsensical thoughts:
2. How about Detroit? One of the cities hit hardest by our nation’s financial crisis, the city is now getting some much-needed entertainment from their sports franchises. The Tigers won the AL Central and face the Yankees in the opening round of the MLB playoffs, the Lions are establishing themselves as the best young team in the NFL, the Red Wings expect to be competitive once again, and BONUS: The lousy Pistons will be MIA for another 6 months. Good for you, Detroit.

1. If Joe Girardi manages to win a World Series, or even an ALCS with the Yankees’ current rotation, he deserves a raise. It’ll be fascinating to see how New York manages Sabathia throughout this series and the playoffs.

One team to advance:
1. Despite rotation issues, the Yankees are impossible to pick against. Robinson Cano is the best non-pitcher in the series and he’s surrounded by all-stars. There’s just too much for Detroit to overcome. Granted, if they get two wins from Verlander, the Tigers would force the Yankees to win with Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. That sentence just sent shivers through Yankee fans.

Arizona Diamondbacks (NL West) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (NL Central)

Three reasons to watch:
3. The Milwaukee Brewers knock the snot out of the ball. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are, in my opinion, the best one-two punch in the National League. They’re what every Phillies fan pretends Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are. The core of this Brewers squad had their “we’re just happy to be here” tour in 2008, so expect a more successful showing in 2011. This will also be Prince Fielder’s final audition for his 2012 suitors. Will he put on a Carlos Beltran-esque show or wither under the bright lights?

2. Ian Kennedy. He’s Arizona’s best player, and best chance at winning the series, too. If Kennedy can steal Game 1, the Diamondbacks have a chance. Arizona’s offense is the worst in the playoffs, so Kennedy’s margin for error is slim. (By the way, I hate the five game Division Series. Can we just make it seven already? Hack ten games off the regular season if need be, but get rid of the five game series.)

1. The Arizona Diamondbacks. Seriously. I know almost nothing about this team. I’ve only seen them three times this season and those were the few games I caught against my Phillies. I’m legitimately excited to see what they’re about. Obviously, learning about the Diamondbacks may not interest you, but remember, thanks to the Arizona Diamondbacks, we are all free from Brian Wilson’s stupidly ridiculous, overplayed, and absolutely hideous beard. For that alone, we should all be eternally grateful.

Two nonsensical thoughts:
2. One of the greatest things about playoff baseball is the weather. Unfortunately, both Milwaukee and Arizona play inside. (Both have retractable roofs. Needless to say, weather won’t impact the series.) We get a swimming pool in right field and a huge slide in left center, instead. It’s not ideal, but hey, at least it’s something.

1. Prince Fielder’s stats resemble Ryan Howard’s on an annual basis. But there is one pretty significant difference. Fielder puts up power numbers while still batting a very productive .290ish. Howard struggles to reach .270. Considering this, why is Howard widely regarded as one of the biggest superstars in baseball when he’s not even the first or second best player at his position, in his own league, no less? I know this much; I’d trade Howard for Fielder in a heartbeat.

One team to advance:
1. It’s gotta be the Milwaukee Brewers. Too much offense, two very good starters, and they have that 2008 Phillies feel to them. Plus, I can only name three players on the Diamondbacks’ roster.

St. Louis Cardinals (NL Wildcard) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (NL East)

Three reasons to watch:
3. It’s always fascinating to see how a team with World Series or bust aspirations responds when the stakes are finally raised. Phillies fans have been waiting for October since Spring Training. As enjoyable as the regular season was, it really didn’t matter in Philadelphia. It was the casual, relaxing hike leading to the much bigger, more challenging, and critically important 12,000-foot ascent. The pressure will intensify. Every at bat scrutinized. Every move questioned. The honeymoon is over for the Phillies.

2. Just how hot are the St. Louis Cardinals? Are they 2007 Colorado Rockies hot? Let’s hope not, because that ended poorly for the Phillies (and me). Regardless, the three to four times per game we’re treated to Albert Pujols vs. Roy Halladay/Cliff Lee/Cole Hamels will certainly be exciting.

1. The Phillies rotation. In 2010, Philadelphia entered the postseason with a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, and everyone was amazed. In 2011, the Phillies add the most dominant postseason pitcher of the past two years to the rotation. It’s not unrealistic to believe the Phillies could sweep their way to a World Series title. The rotation is that good. Will it happen? Doubtful, but a rotation with this much firepower won’t come around every year, so enjoy it while you can. Also, considering the Phillies haven’t come through with a clutch postseason hit since 2009, the rotation will need to be on the top of its game.

Two nonsensical thoughts:
2. Maybe I’m underestimating the Arizona Diamondbacks, but I would have preferred the Phillies letting the Braves into the playoffs. The Cardinals are too experienced, have the greatest hitter of our generation, and a manager that can out-manage Charlie Manuel in his sleep. Arizona had the “we’re just happy to be here” feel to them much like the 2010 Reds. I’d prefer that as a first round opponent than a playoff savvy group sneaking in on the final day of the regular season. Plus, we all know what happened to Brad Lidge the last time he met Albert Pujols in the postseason. Consider me nervous.

1. The world will pretty much end in Philadelphia if the Phillies lose, especially in the first round. But one bright spot would be seeing the look on Nyjer Morgan’s face if the Brewers welcomed the Cardinals to Milwaukee for Game 1 of the NLCS. Remember late in the regular season when Morgan insulted Albert Pujols and made a remark about the standings? Watching a loud mouth like Morgan eat his words would bring some momentary joy.

One team to advance:
1. Phillies. Oh dear God, please make it the Phillies.

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