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Baseball's Final Four ready to get started

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Major League Baseball's version of Bad Boy Records versus Death Row, without the murder, of course, gets underway on Thursday, as baseball's final four this season pits two East Coast powerhouses against the two best teams from the Pacific Time Zone.

I cannot remember anticipating two League Championship Series as much as I am these two bi-coastal showdowns.

In the National League we have a rematch of last year's encounter, as the defending world champion Philadelphia Phillies take on the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the American League, the New York Yankees are back in the ALCS for the first time in five years and will battle the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who got over the hump by finally getting past the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS.

Honestly, I would not be shocked if any of these four teams advanced. That is how close these two series are.

In the NL matchup, the Phillies hold a slight edge with regard to their lineup and a decided edge in their starting rotation. But, the Dodgers hold a huge edge in the back end of their bullpen.

Both of the advantages, though, could be nullified.

Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw was brilliant in his NLDS start against the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe this series is his coming-out party the way it was for his Game 1 counterpart, Cole Hamels, a year ago. Or better yet, the way Josh Beckett burst upon the scene in 2003.

Would anyone be shocked if that happened? Although he hasn't actually picked up a win in a while, Kershaw has been amazing for the Dodgers, and has given up more than three runs just once since May 12.

Hamels, meanwhile, is anything but a sure thing. After a sub-par regular season, last year's NLCS MVP and World Series MVP was awful in his NLDS start. Granted, the impending birth of his first child may have had something to do with that, but given the way he pitched down the stretch, that outing may not be the exception

My feelings on this whole series could change a lot based on what happens on Thursday.

Going in I am thinking this is a pretty even series. But, if Hamels does his thing and Brad Lidge gets the job done the way he did in Colorado, it might not be that close at all.

Somehow, someway, though, I think the Phillies will get a split in LA. I don't think Hamels can just flip the switch, but I do think that Lidge is OK. Closers are a weird bunch. Maybe those two outings in the NLDS, coupled with a few solid outings to close the season, were all he needed to get his head right.

I was kind of surprised that Charlie Manuel decided to pitch Pedro Martinez in Game 2 rather than J.A. Happ or Joe Blanton. There is nobody more playoff- tested in this series than Martinez, but it has been a long time since he has been there.


Maybe Brad Lidge's two outings in the NLDS, coupled with a few solid outings to close the season, were all he needed to get his head right.
But, I guess if you were set on giving Pedro a start, I would rather see him go in the warm weather of LA, rather than the chilly temperatures in Philadelphia.

Like I said, though, the Phils will get a split. Whether they get to LA's bullpen, or Vicente Padilla turns back into Vicente Padilla in Game 2, the Phils at worst will be heading back to Philly tied, and that should be enough to get them through.

Now over in the American League, you clearly have the two best teams in the league squaring off.

Like in the other series, the teams are fairly even when it comes to their lineups and starting rotations, but there is a huge edge in the bullpen and, ultimately, that will be the difference.

New York's bullpen is so good, it's scary. Forget pitcher, I've always said that Mariano Rivera is the best player of this generation, period. Nobody has ever done their job better than he has, specifically in the postseason. His stats are mind-numbing, and when you look at the recent meltdowns of Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Ryan Franklin and Huston Street, you appreciate him even more, if that is possible.

Now he has Phil Hughes setting him up. Hughes was the most important player on the Yankees this season and they became a different team once he went to the bullpen.

Hughes, though, looked very hittable in the ALDS. That is not going to be a problem in this series. If he gets hit again, the person handing the ball to Rivera will be Joba Chamberlain, who was terrific in the bullpen in the first round.

If all three of them are clicking, it is going to be a short series.

On the other side, there is no worse bullpen left in the postseason than that of the Angels, even Philadelphia's. If I had to choose between Lidge and Anaheim closer Brian Fuentes to get me three outs, I am going with Lidge 10 times out of 10.

Fuentes is awful and there is not an Angels fan anywhere who could be confident if he has to face Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, or even Robinson Cano in a big spot.

Get the point?

There is not a weak spot in the entire Yankee lineup. Anaheim may have the same kind of depth 1-through-9 as the Yankees, but they don't have the same kind of firepower.

If they are going to beat the Yankees, they are going to have to do it on the base paths.

Chone Figgins will be the most important player for the Angels in this series. The Yankees, though, neutralized him in the final three games they played with the Angels in the regular season and took two of three.

I have been saying since about July that Alex Rodriguez was going to be a monster this postseason and he did not disappoint against the Twins, getting clutch hit after clutch hit, including a pair of game-tying home runs. I expect that to continue versus a team against which he has always enjoyed hitting.

The one x-Factor here could be the weather in New York. Yankee manager Joe Girardi is planning on using three starters, with CC Sabathia going in Games 1,4, and 7. However, rain is forecast for the Bronx all weekend and a rainout at some point seems likely, meaning he would have to use a fourth starter and by all accounts it would be Chad Gaudin.

That possibility won't be enough for the Angels to win, though. I think their starters will pitch reasonably well, but the Yankees lineup will just wear down that bullpen and put runs on the board.

Either way I am gearing up for two great series, with a terrific World Series to follow.

PREDICTIONS: PHILLIES in SIX, YANKEES in SIX

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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