10/14/09 4:26 PM ET
Road to LCS different for four finalists
Dodgers, Phils, Halos and Yanks found glory in own way
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
Of the four, only the Dodgers grabbed first place in April and never let it go. After starting out 2-3 to be in the National League West basement on April 10 and 1 1/2 games out of first place, Los Angeles banged out eight straight wins and took over first place for good by April 19.The Dodgers spent 175 days in first place and finished with the NL's best record at 95-67. They withstood a late surge from the NL Wild Card-winning Rockies to end the season with a three-game lead. Perhaps some ominous trivia -- the last time the Dodgers had their league's best record was 1983, when they lost the NL Championship Series to the Phillies. Philadelphia had its hands full in the early going before it moved into a higher gear. The defending World Series champs started out 5-6 and were 5 1/2 games behind the 11-1 Marlins on April 19. During that time, the disjointed April schedule with extra off-days and two rainouts had the team out of sync. The pitching staff, with a 6.87 ERA through 11 games, wasn't pulling its weight. Add in the sudden death of legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas just before a game in Washington, and it wasn't a feel-good start for the Phillies. The first taste of first place came to Philadelphia by May 5, but they didn't get the top spot for good until May 30. The Phillies kept it all to themselves, with the exception of July 2, when the 39-37 team was in a tie with the Marlins. The Phillies went 54-32 the rest of the way to lock up the NL East. A slow start and tragedy often derails hopes of contending, but like the Phillies, the Angels also came back from some dark days to triumph in the American League West. Rookie starter Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident by an alleged drunk driver on April 9. Beyond the tragedy, the Angels' pitching staff was shorthanded and the lineup didn't find its sizzle in the early days. Injuries also took hold, including to slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who missed 35 games with a torn pectoral muscle. Holding a .500 record of 29-29 on June 11, the Angels went 67-36 the rest of the way. First place didn't come for good until July 11, when they were in the midst of going into the All-Star break with a three-game series sweep of the Yankees in Anaheim. Then there are the Yankees, who emerged to own baseball's best record at 103-59, despite their lackluster jump out of the gate. On the heels of a pre-Spring Training steroids scandal, Alex Rodriguez needed hip surgery and didn't have his 2009 debut until May 8. The team's top free-agent prize, first baseman Mark Teixeira, was a target of boos as he batted just .198 while Rodriguez was out. The Yankees were a season-high 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Blue Jays on May 12, when they were 15-17. But once Rodriguez returned, Teixeira caught a spark, too. The two combined to hit 64 home runs and drive in 207 runs -- the most among any AL teammates over that stretch. Teixeira batted .310 with 34 of his 39 homers coming after May 8. The march to October went into overdrive in June, when New York emerged from being chewed out by general manager Brian Cashman in Atlanta and won seven in a row and 13 of 15 games from June 24. Sole possession of first place in the AL East came on July 21 and it was never relinquished. The Yankees were a Major League-best 52-22 (.703) in the second half, the franchises' best second-half winning percentage since they were 50-20 (.714) after the All-Star break in 1977.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.