Wednesday October 6th, 2010

Cliff Corcoran will break down the day's games everyday during the postseason.

Series: ALDS, Game 1 Time: 1:30 p.m. EST TV: TBS Starters: Cliff Lee (12-9, 3.18 ERA) vs. David Price (19-6, 2.72 ERA)

This is why the Rangers traded for Cliff Lee. They would have won their division without him (he was worth just 1.6 wins above replacement after the trade according to Baseball Prospectus' win-expectancy based SNLVAR and the Rangers won the West by nine games), but they would have been completely out-matched when facing their opponent's ace in the postseason. Now they have Lee to negate Price (or CC Sabathia, or Roy Halladay, or any other pitcher he might face). That makes this a very important game for the Rangers as, with Lee due to become a free agent in November, they effectively traded their top hitting prospect, Justin Smoak, for a chance to win games like this one.

Lee's regular season performance as a Ranger was frankly disappointing (4-6, 3.98 ERA), but his poor August (1-4, 6.35 ERA) was mostly the result of bad luck (Lee's opponents hit .386 on balls in play over those seven August starts, while he continued to dominate in the strike zone with 47 strikeouts against five walks in 45 1/3 innings pitched). He has showed no lingering effects from the lower back stiffness that caused him to miss his first September start, going 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA in four starts since returning to action. Lee faced the Rays at Tropicana Field during that August skid and gave up six runs despite striking out 10 against one walk. He had the same peripherals in his one other 2010 start at the Trop back in May, when he was with the Mariners, and allowed just two runs over eight innings.

David Price faced the Rangers just once this year, coincidentally facing Lee in that ugly August outing at the Trop. Price held Texas to two runs over six innings while striking out eight in that game, but also walked five men. Like Lee, Price finished the season strong, going 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his final six starts, all Rays wins. Price was among the top four or five starters in the AL this year and was practically untouchable at home, going 9-2 with a 1.96 ERA at the Trop.

This pitching matchup is the key to this series as Price and Lee would meet up again in a decisive Game 5 if things get that far. If they don't, it will likely be because the team that won Game 1 took the series. At least one of these two aces is likely to come up big in this game, and if they both do and the game is passed on to the bullpens, the advantage tilts to the Rays, who have last licks and the superior one-two punch in their bullpen in set-up man Joaquin Benoit (1.34 ERA, 11.2 K/9) and closer Rafael Soriano (1.73 ERA, 45 of 48 save chances converted).

Series: NLDS, Game 1 Time: 5:00 p.m. EST TV: TBS Starters: Edinson Volquez (4-3, 4.31 ERA) vs. Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44 ERA)

The Phillies are such a heavy favorite in this postseason that the backlash against them has already begun, so just imagine the uproar should the Reds take this opener. As it so happens, this might be the game that most favors Cincinnati in this series. Though Halladay will win the NL Cy Young award, his performance down the stretch was the weakest of the Phillies' H2O starters, which include Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. In six starts from August 25 to September 21, he posted a pedestrian 4.32 ERA and gave up 10 home runs while allowing at least three runs in each of those six outings. Of course, he finished the season by shutting out the Nationals on two hits, no walks, and 97 pitches, but there's some hope for the Reds to cling to from those previous six starts.

Volquez, meanwhile, was dominant in his final four starts (1.95 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 3.88 K/BB, 0 HR). The staff ace in 2008, Volquez lost most of the last two seasons to Tommy John surgery and was inconsistent upon his return after the All-Star break this year. A brief return to Triple-A at the end of August seemed to set him straight, however, yielding that strong finish upon his return. Still, that's a small sample that came largely against weaker competition (the Pirates, Diamondbacks and Astros were three of the four teams he faced, along with the Brewers). Volquez hasn't faced the Phillies since early 2008, but he was fantastic in two starts against the eventual world champs back then (13 1/3 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 HR, 4 BB, 16 Ks).

The Reds got to Halladay in Cincinnati in late June, scoring four runs on 13 hits, two of them home runs, but were dominated by him in Philadelphia 10 days later as Doc threw nine scoreless innings while striking out nine against just one walk in a game that went into extra innings. As the contrast between those two games suggests, Halladay was at his best at home, going 12-5 with a 2.21 ERA at Citizens Bank Park.

The Reds scored the most runs of any NL team and the Phillies ranked second, but Philadelphia's offense is on fire while Cincinnati's has cooled off. The Phillies have scored 5.57 runs per game since the end of August, while the Reds managed just 4.23 runs per game over the same stretch. That's what the H2O backlash is overlooking: The Phillies don't just have the best rotation in this postseason, they arguably have the best lineup as well now that everyone in it is healthy and hitting.

Series: ALDS, Game 1 Time: 8:30 p.m. EST TV: TBS Starters: CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18 ERA) vs. Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62 ERA)

Game 1 is crucial for the Yankees, whose rotation is in such shambles that they really do have to win all of Sabathia's starts to have any hope of getting deep into this postseason. That might change if Andy Pettitte suddenly snaps back into his pre-groin-injury form in Game Two, but betting on the health of a 38-year-old pitcher who struggled in his brief late-September return to action seems like a fool's gamble. So, for now, it's all in with CC for the Bombers.

Sabathia is a pretty safe bet, but he did struggle a bit down the stretch, allowing five or more runs in three of his last seven starts. Of course, he also allowed one or none over eight innings in three other starts during that span. Sabathia proved in last year's postseason that he's very much the kind of ace who can pitch his team to a championship, posting a 1.98 ERA across five quality starts against three of the best teams in the majors. He did have help, both from his offense and from postseason veteran Pettitte, who won four of his five starts last October and turned in a quality start in the lone exception. The Yankees also got a huge win from A.J. Burnett, who, after Cliff Lee out-pitched Sabathia in Game 1 of the World Series, turned in a gem in Game 2 to tie it.

This year, Burnett has been so awful that he didn't even make the Yankees' ALDS rotation (though he is on the roster and in the bullpen), and if Liriano negates Sabathia in Game 1, the Yankees will need the questionable Pettitte to step up to keep them from falling to the brink of elimination before playing a single game at their home ballpark. That's a scary proposition for New York, and one that could easily come to pass.

As for Liriano, his journey to this start has been an arduous one. A rookie sensation and All-Star in 2006, Liriano was headed for Tommy John surgery before that season was out and missed the '06 postseason and all of 2007. After spending most of 2008 in the minors (some would argue he was kept down too long), he put up a strong finish with the big club only to struggle in 2009, going 5-13 with a whopping 5.80 ERA. His stock as a starter had dropped so much by this spring that, when Tommy John surgery sidelined Joe Nathan for the season, Liriano was mentioned as a possible replacement closer. Fortunately for the Twins, they left Liriano in the rotation and he finally reemerged as the staff ace this year. Liriano's improvement this year has been across the board. His strikeouts are up, his walks are down, and his groundball rate has dramatically increased. That last has worked in combination with his new homer-swallowing home ballpark to give him the lowest home-run rate in the American League in 2010.

Part of the reason why Liriano's results have been less impressive than his actual pitching is that he's had some bad luck on balls in play, yielding a .335 BABIP. Some of the blame for that falls on the multiple disabled list stays by slick-fielding middle infielders Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy, but both are healthy and in the lineup for Game 1. However, Liriano still has the brutal defense of corner outfielders Delmon Young and Jason Kubel to contend with.

The Yankees' challenge in this game, then, will be to get the ball in the air against the groundballing Liriano to take advantage of Young and Kubel and the spacious pastures in Target Field. The Twins, meanwhile, have to hope that the big lefty bats in their lineup -- Joe Mauer, Jim Thome and to a lesser degree Kubel -- aren't neutralized by the lefty Sabathia, or that righties Young, Michael Cuddyer and rookie Danny Valencia can pick up the slack if they are. That last will be a theme in this series with the Yankees set to start southpaws Sabathia and Pettitte in four of the five games.

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