Cliff Lee has been one of the best pitchers in the NL since he was traded from Cleveland. Can he do it in the NLCS?

Cliff Lee has been one of the best pitchers in the NL since he was traded from Cleveland. Can he do it in the NLCS?

The National League Championship Series is set to kick off tonight in Los Angeles as the Dodgers and Phillies meet in a rematch of last year’s playoff series.  Last year, the Phillies took care of business en route to their first World Series title in 28 years.  Will it be any different this year?

Catcher
At the outset of these playoffs, it was not a case of which of these two, Russell Martin or Carlos Ruiz, was better.  It was more a question of how much better Martin was than Ruiz.  However, in the NLDS, it was Ruiz who showed up for his team in a way that he usually doesn’t, coming up with key hits in the Phils’ 3-1 victory.  So, the gap has certainly narrowed. Still, Martin has shown a more consistent pattern of success, and there was never enough concern about him to make the Dodgers go out and get Paul Bako.

Advantage: Dodgers

First Baseman
Much like in the American League, this is a very big mismatch.  The Dodgers have a serviceable 1B in James Loney, who disappointed by not really having the breakout season that many were predicting, but still had a very respectable year.  The Phillies counter with the Big Man, Ryan Howard, who continues to rack up stunning power numbers, benefitting greatly from having a powerful lineup around him.  He also got his batting average up to a respectable level this year, making him even more dangerous to pitch to.

Advantage: Phillies

Second Baseman
Chase Utley is hands-down the best second baseman in the Majors today.  Not one other 2B gets it done batting and fielding quite like he does.  On top of that, he is the Phillies’ quiet team leader and a hero in the City of Brotherly Love.  The Dodgers have yet another solid presence at 2B in Ronnie Belliard, who I personally think is one of the more underrated second basemen in the Majors, but he’s not nearly in the same category as Utley.

Advantage: Phillies

Third Baseman
Moving to the left side of the infield makes it a lot tougher to determine who’s superior between these two teams.  The Phillies have Pedro Feliz at the hot corner, who is always solid, but far from spectacular, and isn’t the player you expect to get hurt by if you’re a Dodger fan.  Casey Blake has had a bit of a resurgence since leaving Cleveland for LA, but still is far from a superstar.  That being said, it’s hard to imagine either of these two having a major impact in this series.

Advantage: Push

Shortstop
Another slot in the infield that it’s truly unclear as to who has the advantage, but the difference is that both Jimmy Rollins and Rafael Furcal could have a major impact on this series.  Rollins has the ability to give the Phils a quick start, with his unusual power hitting from the leadoff spot, as well as good speed on the basepaths, and very good defensive skills.  Furcal has been one of the more clutch players for LA down the stretch, along with Andre Ethier, and isn’t a slouch out in the field, either.

Advantage: Push

Outfield
The Dodgers’ outfielders have certainly drawn the most attention this postseason, and that’s not a surprise when you have Manny Ramirez in left field.  The real surprises have been his supporting cast of Ethier and Matt Kemp, who have come up with numerous timely hits and home runs for LA down the stretch, and who both played very well in the sweep of the Cardinals.  The Phillies have a pretty good outfield, though, too, with Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and Raul Ibanez, all of whom could have been All-Stars this year in the NL.  The play of these groups in the field, as opposed to at the plate, might be a key to this series.

Advantage: Push

Starting Pitching
This is the separating point between these two teams. I feel it would be a dis-service to take the time and explain this, so I’ll just list the starting rotations for both teams.  For the Dodgers, it’ll be Clayton Kershaw, followed by Phillie outcasts Vincente Padilla and Randy Wolf, and finally either Hiroki Kuroda or Chad Billingsley.  These five have a combined season record of 51-39, and an ERA close to 4.00.  The Phils counter with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, J.A. Happ, Pedro Martinez, and maybe Joe Blanton.  Lee should automatically give them two wins, Pedro has been a huge surprise and has always pitched well in the playoffs, and Hamels and Blanton have been here before and excelled.

Advantage: Phillies

Relief Pitching
Almost the complete opposite of starting pitching, with the Phillies having some major bullpen issues as they sit on the ledge whenever they need to call on Brad Lidge to close out a game.  The Dodgers, meanwhile, might have the best overall group of relievers in the playoffs, which is a huge advantage for the Dodgers if they get into a high-scoring game or an extra innings game with the Phils.  Not to mention, Johnathan Broxton has been lights out all year for Los Angeles.

Advantage: Dodgers

Taking all of these things into account, as well as a few other factors, including the Phillies success on the road and its similar success against left-handed pitchers.  This is why I am taking the Phillies in six.

Justin Verlander leads the AL with 245 Ks this year. Will it be enough to hold off the surging Twins?

Justin Verlander leads the AL with 245 K's this year. Will it be enough to hold off the surging Twins?

After 150 games, there is only one race in Major League Baseball that really has any major storyline down the stretch.  The Detroit Tigers looked like they had the AL Central all but wrapped up about three weeks ago after dismissing the slumping Chicago White Sox.  The Minnesota Twins were floating around in 3rd place, right around .500 and not looking very dangerous.  Entering today, the Twins stand at only 2.5 games back of a Detroit team that has come back to Earth at a bad time to do just that.  Starting Monday, these two teams will get a chance to determine the final outcome of their race in a four-game set in Comerica Park.  However, the other 7-8 games on the schedule could play just as big of an impact.  Let’s take a look at how each team finishes up:

Minnesota (11 games remaining): Tonight at White Sox; Fri-Sun. at Royals; Mon-Thurs. Oct. 1 at Tigers; Fri. Oct. 2-Sun. Oct. 4 vs. Royals

Detroit (12 games remaining): Tonight & Fri. at Indians; Fri-Sun. at White Sox; Mon-Thurs. Oct. 1 vs. Twins; Fri. Oct. 2-Sun. Oct. 4

Assuming the Tigers win against the Indians tomorrow and pick up the half game, that leaves them 3 games up with 10 to go for both teams.  The weekend series should be interesting for both teams.  Both are on the road, so that isn’t an issue and both are playing teams that are out of the race.  To make it even more fair, both teams are 7-5 against their respective opponents, and both finish their seasons with 3 game homestands against these same teams. So much for analyzing the remaining schedule.

That leaves it up to the four game series in Detroit.  So far this year, the Twinkies have taken 9 of 14 meetings from the Tigers, but they are an even 4-4 in games at Comerica Park.  The pitching matchups could very well determine the outcome of the series, with the Tigers holding a big advantage in the first two games of the series, sending out rookie Rick Porcello and flamethrower Justin Verlander against Chase Blackburn and Brian Duensing.  It’s hard to say that it gets any better for Minnesota with Carl Pavano taking the ball in the next game before their best pitcher in the second half in Scott Baker gets the ball in the series finale.  However, Detroit looks like they will have Nate Robertson and inexperienced Eddie Bonine for the next two games, unless the ineffective Jarrod Washburn can make the start in Bonine’s place, or if the Jim Leyland sees the opportunity of finish off the Twins and sends Edwin Jackson on three days rest, but that would be risky considering that they need to be thinking about the playoffs and matching up with the Yankees in the ALDS.

From an offensive standpoint, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the Twins have been far more productive recently, outscoring the Tigers 54-36 over the last 10 games.  It’s also hard to argue against a lineup that’s anchored by Joe Mauer, who’s hitting .372 with 28 homers and 89 RBIs heading into tonight, and doesn’t appear to have been all that affected by the injury to his partner-in-crime Justin Morneau.

Outside of measuring the tangibles of this race, it’s hugely important not to underestimate the power of momentum.  Right now, the Twins have a lot of Mo’ going into the final stretch, while the Tigers are playing just to hang on.  The Tigers have struggled in September and there always seems to be a team that gets hot just in time to make the postseason.  Will this be enough for Minnesota, or will Detroit keep it together for long enough the grab the AL Central crown?  I personally think the Twins have come too far to fall short now and are poised to go into Detroit and take 3 out of 4 to complete their comeback.  If not, the Tigers are going to have to hope that they’re this year’s version of the ’06 Cardinals, who backed into the playoffs and ended up winning the World Series, ironically enough over the Tigers.

Mauer has had one of the best offensive seasons ever, but it still might not be enough to win the AL MVP.

Mauer has had one of the best offensive seasons ever, but it still might not be enough to win the AL MVP.

Somewhere in the bowels of the soon-to-be vacant Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome there is a player who is quietly having one of the most spectacular offensive seasons in Major League history, and yet, almost no one is recognizing the tremendous numbers that Joe Mauer has put up in 2009.  Mauer enters tonight’s showdown with the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers hitting at a just silly clip of .374 for the year with 27 homers and 87 RBIs.  Name the last catcher to have that kind of season?  That’s right, no catcher has ever hit like this before. Not Johnny Bench, not Yogi Berra, not Carlton Fisk.  In fact, name the last player to hit .375 with 30 homers and 100 RBI.  It’s only happened to three players in Major League history, four times by Babe Ruth, and once a piece by Ted Williams and Stan Musial.  That’s pretty amazing company for the somewhat underappreciated Twins catcher to be in.

In spite of these facts, though, Mauer has only been getting sniffs of the MVP talk.  This is a combination of several things. One is that the Twins are a mediocre 74-72 right now, but with a few wins over the Tigers down the stretch, they could sneak into the playoffs.  Another is that he doesn’t get the exposure of players like Mark Teixeira because he plays in small-market Minnesota.  The last is that his numbers aren’t legitimate because he missed all of April with an injury.

The small-market argument is probably the most compelling argument of the bunch.  It’s extremely difficult to escape the so-called East Coast Bias that exists through media outlets like ESPN.  Also, the reach of both the fanbase of the Yankees and the expansive national and international coverage that New York receives dwarfs anything the Minneapolis Star-Tribune can do for Mauer and the Twinkies.

The injury argument is one that can be looked at with respect to its face value.  Yes, Mauer missed a month’s time and therefore his numbers might be inflated.  However, I take the position that it’s that much more impressive that a guy could miss all of spring training and the first month of the season and get thrown right back into the fire and play at as high a level as Mauer has this year.  It just doesn’t happen.  I think that when all is said and done that Mauer has the ability to become the greatest offensive catcher in the history of the game.

So what does Mauer and/or the Twins have to do so that their star catcher snags the MVP award?  Well for starters, the Twins have to make the playoffs

Justin Morneau won the AL MVP in 06. Could his season-ending injury actually help Joe Mauer?

Justin Morneau won the AL MVP in '06. Could his season-ending injury actually help Joe Mauer?

and become relevant in the national baseball picture this year.  They’ll have plenty of opportunities as they face the Tigers 7 times in their final 16 games.  Also, it’s crucial that they don’t get swept out of the playoffs if they happen to make it.  Assuming they play the Yankees in the Divisional Series, they face an uphill battle, as they are a robust 0-7 against New York this year.  However, regular season series has proven to be unimportant in the past (See Cleveland Indians vs. New York Yankees, 2007 playoffs).

Other than that, Mauer can certainly help himself by getting on a hot streak over the remainder of the regular season that pushes his numbers to that .375/30/100 level, which would look even better considering that he no longer has Justin Morneau in the middle of the lineup with him.  That by itself might be just enough to push him over the top with voters, regardless of the Twins making the playoffs or not.