Goodbye, Bobby Cox. So long, Twins (that '91 World Series seems soooo long ago. But hey, if Hawaii Five-O can make a rousing comeback, so, too, can Atlanta and Minnesota).
Farewell, Reds and Rays. Was it something against four-letter nicknames?
Baseball's Final Four is set. For your viewing pleasure, beginning this weekend: Something old (Yankees, Phillies) and something new (Rangers, Giants), something borrowed (Cliff Lee and Pat Burrell) and something blue (oh Lord, in the name of Jocko Conlan, please, no more umpire shenanigans! Pleasepleasepleaseplease!).
An early peek at the League Championship Series clubs:
How they will beat the Rangers: Someone (or some two) steps up behind CC Sabathia. That simple. The Yankees must get the Andy Pettitte who dispatched the Twins in Game 2 of the ALDS (two runs in seven innings on an economical 88 pitches), not the Pettitte who was rusty recovering from a groin strain in September (10 earned runs over 13 1/3 innings in three starts). And there's no more hiding A.J. Burnett, who was not on the AL Division Series roster against the Twins (he was bound and gagged behind the Steinbrenner monument). The Yankees have said he'll start Game 4, following Sabathia, then Phil Hughes and Pettitte in Games 2 and 3.
How they won't: What the Yankees should have done this summer when the Rangers were in bankruptcy court was purchase them, strip Texas of Cliff Lee, then re-sell the Rangers for parts. If the Yankees are beaten by Lee and the Rangers, that will have been their key failing (opening the door for everyone to say Hal and Hank Steinbrenner just aren't cut from the same cloth as their father).
Culture change: Is this the last October ride together for the Core Four? Once the young nucleus of the latest great Yankees dynasty that won World Series in 1998, 1999 and 2000, the twilight has arrived for Pettitte (38), Derek Jeter (36), Jorge Posada (39) and closer Mariano Rivera (40). They now are the bridge to what the Yankees hope is their next dynasty. (Three of the four -- all but Posada -- were instrumental in the 1996 World Series title, too).
Though Jeter's contract is up after this season, he's sure to return to the Yankees again in 2011. But how much longer can he remain the everyday shortstop? His range is even more limited now, and he's coming off the worst offensive season of his career (Jeter's batting average, .270, dropped 64 points from last year to this and his on-base percentage, .340, dropped 66 points).
Pettitte goes year-to-year at this point and could retire. Rivera is a free agent (but like Jeter, is sure to return). Posada has one more year left on his contract. But at their age, baseball tomorrows are not guaranteed for any of the Core Four.
How they won't: If Texas' streak of never having won a home playoff game in club history continues (with home-field advantage, the Rangers potentially will play four home games this series). If the men who never were True Rangers, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, bring the lumber and have big series. If closer Neftali Feliz is as shaky as he was against the Rays. And if Josh Hamilton, who is on deck to become this year's AL MVP, does not. Back from broken ribs, Hamilton was a non-factor against the Rays.
Cool thing to know: Against Tampa Bay in Game 5, Lee struck out 10-plus hitters with no walks for the fourth time in his postseason career. No other pitcher has done that more than once. And though Lee probably won't pitch until Game 3, that sets him up to start in a potential Game 7.
Culture change: The reason the Rangers were easily eliminated by the Yankees the last times they faced them in the postseason (1996, 1998 and 1999 in the division series) is because the Rangers had thumpers like Juan Gonzalez and Pudge Rodriguez but not enough pitching.
Prior to last year, when the Rangers finally got religion and improved their defense, pitching and baserunning, they pretty much could be summarized by re-telling one of the franchise's greatest stories, from spring training 1971 when they were still the Washington Senators: Going over rundown plays one day, a couple of coaches got into a heated argument about the proper way to do it.
Finally, someone summoned then-manager Ted Williams to be the arbiter. Williams listened to each side screaming at the other about the nuances of the way to do it before finally rendering his verdict: "---- it," he said. "Let's hit."
How they won't: The Phillies' bullpen is a key. Closer Brad Lidge, great as he was when the Phils won in 2008, has had his disappointing moments. Jose Contreras? Maybe. Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero ... the job will be to keep the ball in the ballpark. Because the Giants do not run well, and when they're not hitting home runs, they can have difficulty scoring. Overall, this should be a pitching-dominated, low-scoring series. The two clubs went 3-3 against each other this year, and against San Francisco pitching, the Phillies batted only .226 with a .308 on-base percentage and a .362 slugging percentage.
Cool thing to know: By getting past San Francisco, the Phillies will become the first National League club to make three consecutive World Series appearances since the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals.
Culture change: Last year, the Phillies went into the playoffs with Cliff Lee, who turned out to be a hired gun when they stunned the baseball world by unceremoniously shipping him to Seattle in December. Over the long haul, ace-for-ace, it was hard to argue with the move. Over time, Roy Halladay -- in workload, results, everything -- has proven to be the gold standard in the game. And while Lee always going to be a free agent following the 2010 season, the Phillies knew when they acquired Halladay they could sign him to a long-term deal.
Lee, though, is a proven commodity in October. Including his Game 5 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, Lee is a sensational 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA in seven career postseason starts this year and last.
Halladay? The reason he wanted to be traded from Toronto was to get into the postseason -- a place he had never visited, until Game 1 against Cincinnati. And you know how that turned out: One postseason start in, Halladay has yet to allow a hit.
How they won't: No small key down the stretch was San Francisco's bullpen. Closer Brian Wilson, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Ramon Ramirez and Co. were nails in September, compiling an 0.90 ERA over the Giants' last 28 games (80 innings). Though that's nearly an impossible standard to live up to, postseason games are won and lost in the late innings, and if the Giants' 'pen slips, it will be curtain.
Cool thing to know: It may be down times for the Miami Hurricanes' football program, but the university will be on the baseball map in the NLCS. Pat Burrell, in line for NL Comeback Player of the Year, and Aubrey Huff were teammates there. While it was Huff who highly recommended Burrell to Giants management when Tampa Bay released him earlier this summer, Huff credits Burrell for bringing a once-shy college student out of his shell at Miami.
In fact, Huff told a great story about it earlier this summer to the San Jose Mercury News' Andy Baggerly. The short version: Huff was a junior-college transfer, homesick and did not enjoy the fraternal razzing in the college baseball world. In particular, Burrell, whom Huff thought was as arrogant as anyone he had ever met, was a chief culprit. Huff was going to quit school, and his mother visited from Fort Worth, Tex., to talk him out of it.
As Huff tells Baggerly, he and his mother were sitting on his bed talking one night when there was a knock at the door. "Before I can even get off the bed, Pat comes barging in with a six-pack in his hand, dripping wet, buck naked," Huff said.
Short version from here: Huff's mother thought it was hilarious, Huff decided that if his mother could laugh why couldn't he, and he stayed at Miami.
Burrell confirmed the story to Baggerly, saying, "I was looking for the shampoo. There wasn't any in the shower. Obviously, I didn't know his mom was in there. [Pause] I don't know how the six-pack got in my hands."
Culture change: No playoff team has been retooled as deftly as the Giants under the skillful hand of GM Brian Sabean. Essentially, five members of San Francisco's opening day lineup no longer play key roles: Center fielder Aaron Rowand, shortstop Edgar Renteria, left fielder Mark DeRosa, catcher Bengie Molina and right fielder John Bowker.
Rowand has been supplanted by Andres Torres, the man who makes the lineup go, in center field and atop the order. Molina was dealt to Texas before the All-Star Game to open a spot for rookie Buster Posey. Renteria landed on the bench when second baseman Freddy Sanchez got healthy and manager Bruce Bochy moved Juan Uribe to shortstop. Burrell, picked off the scrap heap, has been a godsend. And Cody Ross, claimed off of waivers from the Marlins, knocked in two of the Giants' three runs in the Game 4 win over Atlanta. And relievers Lopez (from Pittsburgh) and Ramirez (Boston) were key mid-season additions.