10/14/09 2:15 PM EST
Let's get ready to rumble
Heavyweights set to slug it out in titanic ALCS matchup
By / MLB.com
These are the baseball heavyweights. This is the genuine October article. We do not even have to wait until the World Series. Starting Friday night in Yankee Stadium, the 2009 American League Championship Series gives us the matchup of baseball's two best teams by record, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Some observers are saying that these two teams are so good that this Series will in fact determine the eventual champion, that the World Series will be anticlimactic. Perhaps, but there is no need to get ahead of ourselves, when something this inherently good is about to step to the plate.
Why should this ALCS be so anticipated? Why should it be so good? The answer requires no leap of faith. The series should be so good because the two teams involved are so good.
The Yankees have waited nine long autumns for the team that could put them in what they believe is their rightful place -- on top of the baseball world. This team has a better shot than any recent Yanks team, because it is better equipped to compete in the postseason.
By this time, the only teams left are teams with pitching strength. So even the best of offenses more than occasionally get stopped. Top-shelf frontline starting pitching is required in these circumstances. The Yankees spent a bundle in this area, but they bought themselves an October chance. They are better set up in their rotation than at any time in the past eight years, particularly with CC Sabathia, but also with A.J. Burnett. Andy Pettitte, a longtime mainstay of New York's rotation, has successfully made some trips around this block, too.
The Bronx Bombers of recent seasons have brought some terrific lineups into the postseason. Those lineups were sometimes silenced. New York was outpitched. Now, the Yankees, with another imposing offense, have the pitching to make their task more plausible.
On the other side of this argument, the Angels have two exceptional reasons for believing that an American League pennant can be theirs. First, they have already climbed their own postseason mountain.
The Halos have proved their regular-season worth, winning an AL West title in five of the past six years. But from 2004-08, three times the Angels ran into the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, and three times they were thumped, winning only one game in those three series.
But this year, Los Angeles swept Boston, getting two splendid performances from starting pitchers and then finishing the job by coming back from a four-run deficit at Fenway Park. No club was more impressive in a Division Series this October than the Halos.
And the Angels have been able to do something that, over time, everybody else struggles mightily to accomplish. They have been able to beat the Yankees.
Push for the pennant
The Halos eliminated the Yanks from the postseason in 2002, when they went on to win the World Series, and in 2005. They have not had a losing regular-season series against the Bombers since 2003. From 2004-09, the Angels were 35-23 against the Yankees in the regular season. That's closer to incredible than good.
The teams were 5-5 this season, which only serves to underscore the probability of a highly competitive series.
The Yankees could argue that their pitching is now better than it was in any of those seasons in which the Angels handled them. And that's true.
On the other hand, Los Angeles could argue that this present roster, even with all of its talents, has other strengths. It overcame an early season in which an epidemic of injuries hit the rotation. And it had to overcome tragedy -- the death of young starter Nick Adenhart in an auto accident, at the hands of an inebriated driver.
Are there weaknesses on these clubs? Whatever shortcomings exist weren't large enough to keep these two clubs from winning handily in the regular season and getting through their Division Series in the minimum number of games.
Of course there are questions. The back end of the Angels' bullpen is not this club's biggest strength. The Yankees' starting pitching is obviously improved, but is it up to the standard of October greatness? For all Burnett's ability, this is his first postseason. For all Pettite's value over the years to this franchise, he is far from untouchable.
But the big picture is glowing, in both directions. These are two exceptional baseball teams, with their pitching in order, their momentum unbroken, and their championship aspirations fully matched by the quality of their play. This cannot officially be the Fall Classic, but here is a series that should be a classic this fall.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.