It's important to learn from your mistakes, and given that we overwhelmingly picked the Yankees and Phillies to repeat as pennant winners, it seems we have a lot to learn. Here, then, are five lessons to be gleaned from the Rangers and Giants' LCS victories.
1. Josh Hamilton is healthy and so are the Rangers. Hamilton is the favorite to win the AL MVP award, but after missing most of September due to a pair of broken ribs, he hit just .172/.219/.276 in his first 32 plate appearances after returning to action in the regular season's final weekend. That performance included all of the Division Series against the Rays. Hamilton entered the ALCS having gone hitless in his last 11 at-bats, but his first LCS at-bat resulted in a three-run home run off CC Sabathia, the first of a record-tying four taters Hamilton would hit in the series despite being intentionally walked five times. When the Yankees pitched to him, Hamilton hit .350 and slugged an even 1.000.
With Hamilton having erased the doubts about his health, the Rangers find themselves at full strength for perhaps the first time all season. Consider the fact that they didn't acquire Bengie Molina to solve their catching problem until July 1. Another 10 days went by before Cliff Lee made his first start for the team. First base was an offensive sink-hole until they called up rookie Mitch Moreland on July 29. A day before that, second baseman Ian Kinsler hit the disabled list with a groin injury. Kinsler's first game back was the game in which Hamilton broke his ribs, and Hamilton didn't hit after his Oct. 1 return until smacking that Game 1 home run off Sabathia in the ALCS. That doesn't even account for the fact that Kinsler's DL stay was his second of the season, or that Nelson Cruz thrice hit the DL with hamstring injuries. Nor does it factor in the various additions the team made to its bench and bullpen in the season's final months. The Rangers caught a lot of people by surprise because no one had seen this fully armed and operation version of the team prior to the ALCS.
2. Good pitching beats good hitting (and good pitching). Much like the Rangers, the Phillies weren't really at full strength until the playoffs as injuries tore through their lineup for most of the season. Philadelphia scored just 4.58 runs through the end of August, but with everyone but Jimmy Rollins back in the swing in September, they scored 5.57 runs over the season's final 30 games. That plus their top three starting pitchers, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels made them prohibitive favorites entering the postseason, and they lived up to the hype in the Division Series, crushing the Reds by a combined score of 13-4 in three games.
The Giants, however, were the stingiest pitching staff in the majors in 2010, allowing just two more runs than the Padres, a difference more than eliminated by any adjustment made for the Padres' pitching-friendly home ballpark. That Giants staff was lead by their own big-three starters: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez (whose initials condense to the more apt LCS). In the NLCS, the Giants' pitchers made the Phillies' decided advantage at the plate moot, holding Philadelphia to 3.33 runs per game. The Phillies hit just one home run after Game 1. Ryan Howard and Raul Ibañez failed to drive in a single run. Rollins failed to score one. Lincecum out-pitched Halladay in Game 1. Cain out-pitched Hamles in Game 3, and the Giants' bullpen, buoyed by cameos from fourth starter Madison Bumgarner and Lincecum, held the line against Oswalt and the Phillies top two relievers in Game 6.
The Giants aren't winning because of their hitting. The Phillies actually outscored them 20-19 in the NLCS, only one of the Giants' seven victories this postseason was decided by more than one run, and over the postseason as a whole, they are hitting .231/.297/.330 and averaging just three runs scored per game. They are winning because they are out-pitching their opponents and making every run their offense scrapes together count.
3. It's better to remove a pitcher too early than too late. Two batters into the third inning of the decisive sixth game of the NLCS, Bruce Bochy had seen enough from Jonathan Sanchez. He had only given up three hits and had just worked a 1-2-3 second inning, but Sanchez was wild, having walked two, uncorked a wild pitch, and hit Chase Utley leading to a minor tiff on the field. With the game tied at 2-2, two on, none out in the third, and Oswalt looking sharp, Bochy removed Sanchez, who had pitched well in his two previous postseason starts, and handed the game to his bullpen. Six innings later, his Giants were the NL champions.
Meanwhile, in the ALCS, Joe Girardi let Phil Hughes give up seven runs in Game 2 of the ALCS and left both Hughes and A.J. Burnett in just one batter too long in their subsequent starts, all three slow hooks leading to Yankee losses. In Game 4, the Yankees held a 3-2 lead two outs in the sixth inning when, with the tying run on second, Girardi ordered Burnett to walk lefty David Murphy. Rather than bring in a fresh arm to face righty Molina, he let Burnett, who hadn't appeared in a game for 17 days and had already thrown 97 pitches, try to get out of his own jam. Molina hit a three-run homer that gave the Rangers a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Facing elimination in Game 6 Hughes battled to preserve a 1-1 tie into the fifth. With two out and a man on third in that inning, Girardi ordered Hughes to intentionally walk lefty Hamilton to face righty Vlad Guerrero, but again, rather than fetch a fresh arm to face Guerrero, he left Hughes in the game. Guerrero crushed a two-RBI double that gave the Rangers the lead that would ultimately decide the series.
4. Colby Lewis had an excellent season. Lewis had a losing record this season. The previous two seasons, he pitched in Japan. Prior to that he was a twenty-something journeyman who compiled a 6.71 major league ERA while passing through five organizations. I understand why many failed to notice how well he pitched this year, but when he dominated the Yankees for eight innings in the decisive sixth game of the ALCS it really shouldn't have come as a surprise. One could argue that Wilson was actually the Rangers' best pitcher during the regular season. Lee didn't show up until July, struggled in August, and went 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA for Texas during the regular season. Lewis had a better strikeout rate and lower ERA than Lee in more than twice as many starts for Texas. Converted reliever C.J. Wilson led the Rangers in ERA (3.35 to Lewis's 3.72) and wins (15 to Lewis's 12), but he had a lower strikeout rate, higher walk rate, and worse WHIP than Lewis and only threw three more innings despite having one extra start. Take away Lewis' worst start of the year and his ERA for the other 32 was 3.39. More importantly, give Lewis average run support, as opposed to the poor 4.09 runs per game he actually received, and his record works out to 17-15.
5. It's hard to repeat. Since the Yankees won four straight pennants from 1998 to 2001, just one team, the 2008-2009 Phillies, has repeated as league champions, and no team has won consecutive world championships since the Yankees did so from 1998 to 2000. With the Rangers defeat of the Yankees, the AL has produced six different champions in six years, and two of the last three, the Rangers and Rays, have been the first pennant winners in the history of their respective franchises. That's not to say that there aren't still inequalities in the game, but a lot of smarts and a little luck can overcome significant payroll disadvantages, while even the richest teams can be undermined by injury and performance collapse. Besides which, anything can happen in a short postseason series. I'd be shocked if there was a baseball analyst alive who predicted a Rangers-Giants World Series before the playoffs began, never mind in March. That's why they play the games, why we watch, and why there's a constant desire to make sense out of what we've seen or are about to see. It's also why, when a team does repeat, like those late '90s Yankees or even the Phillies of the previous two seasons, it's all the more impressive.