Final Day brings answers to final postseason spots

There wasn’t a need for Game 163 for the first time in three years to reveal the completed MLB playoff picture. Instead it game down to the final game of the season to crown the final two playoff teams in the National League.

The Atlanta Braves were playing their final regular season home game needing a win just to guarantee them a spot in a tiebreaker. In the must-win game, manager Bobby Cox went with ace Tim Hudson. The visiting Philadelphia Phillies were just looking to get their pitchers some work. The Phillies started Cole Hamels, but like an early spring training game, he was done after two innings. In came divisional series Game 2 starter Roy Oswalt, who allowed a run in his inning of work. The wheels fell off for the Phillies once the bullpen entered the game. The Braves scored four runs in the 4th inning on five hits off Danys Baez (which may have hurt his chances on being included on the playoff roster). Starter Joe Blanton, who most likely will be a reliever during the divisional series, allowed four hits and two runs in the 5th inning (including a Derek Lee solo homerun).

Hudson meanwhile was cruising. He did not allow a hit until pinch-hitter John Mayberry connected for a two-run homerun in the 3rd inning. That was the only hit he allowed until Jayson Werth connected for a two-run homerun in the 7th inning to cut the Braves lead to 8-4.

Things got interesting in the top of the 8th inning. Braves reliever Jonny Venters got two quick outs before Jimmy Rollins singled. Pinch-hitter Mike Sweeney followed with a rocket to third base that went through the legs of Omar Infante for an error. In came closer Billy Wagner. Wilson Valdez worked a ten-pitch at-bat until he provided an RBI single. Pinch-hitter Ben Francisco ripped a two-run double to cut the lead to 8-7. Wagner would intentionally walk Werth, but came back to strike out Raul Ibanez to end the inning. In the 9th inning, Wagner was his normal dominant self. He blew away the Phillies hitters by striking out the side as the Braves entered the clubhouse to await the outcome of the SF Giants-San Diego Padres matchup.
With a packed ballpark in San Francisco waving orange rally towels, the Giants players were just as fired up as their fans. With the NL West title on the line, the Giants sent Jonathon Sanchez to the mound, who had been their best pitcher down the stretch. The Padres turned to young ace Mat Latos, who had struggled late in the season. The Giants scored first with two runs in the 3rd inning. Sanchez ripped a triple leading off the inning. Latos got Andres Torres to strike out, but Freddy Sanchez followed with an RBI single. Aubrey Huff followed that up with an RBI double giving the Giants the early 2-0 lead. That would be all Latos would allow through six innings. He gave up eight hits while striking out four.

Sanchez meanwhile did not allow a run over five innings (plus two batters into the 5th inning) though he did walk five which led to his early exit. With two men on and nobody out, reliever Santiago Casilla induced a ground ball from Yorvit Torrealba to third base. Pablo Sandoval quickly tug third and fired to second base (a risky move), just getting Ryan Ludwick for the force out (maybe Sandoval was trying for the triple play). He got the two lead runners out, which fired up the entire Giants team. Casilla would then get Scott Hairston to ground out to end the inning.

In the bottom of the 8th inning, Giants rookie catcher Buster Posey provided some insurance as he blasted a solo homerun to give the Giants a 3-0 lead with closer Brian Wilson set to take the mound. Wilson quickly induced two ground outs and in fitting fashion, struck out Will Venable for the final out. Posey threw his catching helmet into the air and ran for Wilson as they jumped into each other’s arms, setting off the wild celebration in San Francisco. The Giants overtook the Padres late in the season and finally clinched the NL West title on the final game of the season. With the Padres loss, the Braves clinched the wild card, setting off a celebration in Atlanta.

There was still the issue of naming the American League East champion and the wild card participant in the AL, though it was known which two teams. The Tampa Bay Rays and NY Yankees were tied for the top spot of each. The Yankees were in Boston finishing up their series with the Red Sox. Spot-starter Dustin Moseley took the mound for the Yankees and allowed a two-run homerun to JD Drew in the 1st inning. The Yankees battled back to tie the game at 2-2 after three innings.

However in the 5th inning, the Red Sox went ahead for good as Jed Lowrie hit a two-run homerun off Moseley (he added a solo homerun in the 7th inning), giving the Red Sox a 4-2 lead. The Red Sox would score three more in the bottom of the 6th inning off the Yankee bullpen. Despite putting runners on base and scoring an unearned run off Red Sox closer Jonathon Papelbon, the Yankees could not pull out the win, as they lost 8-4. The loss meant they were the wild card entry into the postseason.

That meant that the Rays, who were in Kansas City still playing, were the AL East champions. The Rays were down 2-0 in the top of the 9th inning (the Royals scored their runs on an Alex Gordon two-run homerun in the 4th inning) facing one of the best closers in the game, Joakim Soria. Soria had converted 36 straight saves (he last blew a save on May 6th). However Soria struggled in his final game of the season. Carl Crawford led of the inning with a single. Soria struck out Dan Johnson, but Matt Joyce followed with a single. Carlos Pena followed with a two-run double, tying the game at 2-2 and giving Soria just his third blown save of the season. Soria did battle back to get the final two outs of the inning with the game still tied. It was in that 9th inning that the Rays received the news that they were AL East champs.

The game would stay tied until the 12th inning. With one out, pinch-hitter Rocco Baldelli singled. He then stole second base as Reid Brignac struck out. Kelly Shoppach hit a ground ball to third base that went threw Wilson Betemit for an error, allowing Baldelli to score the go-ahead run. Rays closer Rafael Soriano got into trouble in the bottom of the 12th inning as there were runners at second and third base with two outs, but he got Mike Aviles to strike out to end the game and set off the Rays celebration.

ALDS Preview

It took until the final day of the season to figure out who would be playing who and where in the American League. The Tampa Bay Rays finished off the season with a win, clinching both the AL East title and home-field advantage throughout. The Texas Rangers won the AL West and headed to Tampa. The NY Yankees clinched the wild card and headed to Minnesota to play the AL Central champion Twins. The AL Divisional Series’ begin on Wednesday with the best pitching matchup opening up the MLB playoffs. Cliff Lee of the Rangers faces off against David Price of the Rays. The Twins and Yankees face off later that night with Francisco Liriano matching up with CC Sabathia. All four teams have question marks coming into the playoffs as none of the four AL teams were playing well at the end of the season. Here is a little preview of the two series:

Texas Rangers vs. TB Rays

Starting pitching: Lee versus Price is the marquee matchup. Lee has struggled late in the season, but last year he knew when to turn it on with the Philadelphia Phillies, so it will not surprise me if he dominates again this postseason. The rest of the matchups are interesting. Rays manager Joe Maddon is going with James Shields in Game 2 versus CJ Wilson. Maddon is hoping “Big Game” James can turn his season around. Wilson has been the Rangers most consistent starter and his bulldog mentality should work well in the postseason. When the series moves to Texas, the Rangers will throw Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter in Games 3 and 4 while the Rays go with Matt Garza and rookie Wade Davis.

Bullpens: Both the Rangers and Rays have two of the best bullpens in the game. The series may come down to whose bullpen is better. The Rangers have the young fireballers while the Rays have the wily veterans. The edge would probably go to the Rays as they have the veteran presence that has been to the World Series (Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, and Grant Balfour). Plus their bullpen turned around with the offseason acquisition of Rafael Soriano. Rangers rookie closer Neftali Feliz has been great, but the playoffs are uncharted waters for him.
Evan LongoriaStarting lineups: For the Rays, catcher John Jaso has led off for most of the season once he claimed the starting job. However he has struggled as of late and with the Rangers throwing left-handers in the first two games, it will be interesting if Maddon goes with Kelly Shoppach in those games (and his .196 average). Carlos Pena may be playing in his final games with the Rays and they could use his power, which has the ability to quickly change a game. His .196 batting average is scary for someone in the middle of the order and if he does not hit, Evan Longoria will not see many good pitches to hit. Longoria is the Rays big question mark in their lineup. He did not play the final week of the season and their offense sputtered without him. The Rays have many key players having down offensive seasons (BJ Upton, Pena, and Jason Bartlett) and with Shoppach and DH Dan Johnson in the lineup (though Johnson provides instant power like Pena), they could be in trouble if they do not hit. Speed is a key part of the Rays game and expect Carl Crawford, Upton, and Ben Zobrist to run when they reach base.
For the Rangers, Bengie Molina will catch Lee, while Matt Treanor will catch Wilson. The veteran duo is out there for their game-calling and defensive abilities but can just as easily spark the offense at the bottom of the order. The Rangers will most likely continue to platoon Mitch Moreland and midseason acquisition Jorge Cantu. The middle of the Rangers order is the key with Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Vladimir Guerrero. Hamilton is the key as he missed most of the last month of the season and their offense sputtered without him. Speed is also important for the Rangers with Elvis Andrus at the top of the order, but power in the middle is the key to their success.
Bench: The Rays bench is very versatile. Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez have been clutch for the Rays all season and can play multiple positions in the infield and the outfield (in Rodriguez’ case). Willy Aybar, a switch-hitter, provides a potent bat that could also DH. It will be interesting to see if Maddon carries Rocco Baldelli, a key right-handed bat that could DH the first two games of the series against the left-handed Rangers starting pitching.

The Rangers bench will include versatile infielder Andres Blanco and speedster Julio Borbon. David Murphy will most likely come off the bench in Game 1 with Jeff Francoeur getting the start in right field against David Price.

*This could be the most exciting series as both teams match up well against each other. The games could be pitcher’s duels or slugfests. Look for these games to possibly go to the final at-bats and for the series to last five games.

Phillies Begin The March

Manager Charlie Manuel will give the ball to his ace of aces in game one of the NLCS on Wednesday. Roy Halladay, the favorite for the Cy Young, leads the most experienced and talented pitching staff into the playoffs where the Phils have won the title the last two seasons.

The already dangerous lineup will get a boost from the return of speedster Jimmy Rollins, no stranger to the big stage, to the lineup. A host of seasoned batsman eagerly await the arrival of the Central Division Champion Cincinnati Reds.

Reds manager Dusty Baker, a strong candidate for Manager of the Year, will send his young fireballer Edinson Volquez (4 -3, 4.31) to the hill to calm the home crowd storm. Volquez has recovered from Tommy John surgery but has had difficulty with his mechanics and control. Baker sent the youngster to Class A Dayton for mid-season rehab but the patient Philly batsmen will make Volquez throw strikes.

Since returning, Volquez has gone 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA. A right-hander, Volquez will rely heavily on a sharp slider and heavy fastball. Carlos Ruiz and Placido Polanco have had success against Volquez in the past. The right-hander has controlled Ryan Howard and the base stealing Rollins.

In Halladay’s 21 wins were nine complete games, 250 2/3 innings, four shutouts and a no-hitter. He has been everything the Phillies expected since joining the team. Halladay averages 7.3 strikeouts for every walk and Miguel Cairo, Brandon Phillips and Jim Edmonds have had success against Halladay.

The fate of this game and future games could well be in the hands of Reds closer Francisco Cordero. Manager Baker’s closer blew eight saves this season and cannot afford unfocused appearances against the Phillies.

In game one, we like Philadelphia to show the Reds how championship teams play. With then most wins in the majors, Philadelphia could well go all the way as they did in 2008.

Angels and A’s Square Off In Key AL West Battle

he Los Angeles Angels will travel to the Oakland County Coliseum this weekend in what should be the most pivotal series in the NL West this season. Trailing the A’s by 10 games, the Angels hope this four-game series will give them the boost they need to mount a charge in the second half.

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