Today we wrap up a week of promises and get set for playoffs round 2.
First, a quick glance back at the Minnesota series to further lionize a couple Yankees who've been gamers since the day.
Quintessential Derek Jeter moment #1: Minnesota takes a 2-0 lead in the top of the third in game 1. In the stands, memories of recent ALDS failures travel like electric current across a blue and white expanse. We don't yet know about CC. We don't yet know about A-Rod. We don't yet know about the heart. We don't know anything except a 2-0 deficit. But after Melky reaches on an infield single, Jeter ties it up with a deep blast to right, and we know a bit more.
Quinessential Derek Jeter moment #2: Game 2, sixth inning, and we can't touch Nick Blackburn. AJ's holding off the deluge, but it's 1-0 Twins and nobody wants to visit the Metrodome for two games without a lead. Posada flies to center and we're 1/3 into another feckless inning. The scoreboard credits us with just one hit. And then Jeter steps up and turns his wrists and slashes a fastball inside-out into right center for a ground rule double. He scores on A-Rod's single, and the fight is on.
Quintessential Derek Jeter moment #3: Game 3, bottom of the 8th, Yanks up 2-1 and six outs from clinching. But Nick Punto doubles off a suddenly shaky Phil Hughes, and the Metrodome gets loud. Real loud, because this might be the last baseball game in its confines before the wrecking balls come. The last thing they want to do is go out with a loss to the Yankees. Denard Span hits a slow grounder up the middle, which Jeter fields, and it looks to be a close play at first. But the Captain, in his intelligence and hyper-awareness, has one eye on Punto, who rounds third expecting the 6-3 put-out. But the fated throw comes home, and Punto is hoisted by his own petard in the error that will end the Twins for good. Hughes won't need a third chance.
Non-Yankee fans are sick of hearing about Jeter. I get that. But that's kinda too bad, because he keeps delivering in the crucial spot, and he keeps pulling these little virtuosic bits of genius from the ether. If there are brief, circular spaces of opportunity in moments of extreme pressure, Jeter is the man who's learned to find and lunge through the void without hesitation. A physical feat becomes amazing for its odd anticipation, improbable with recurrence, and transcendent in frequency. Jeter, he of the strange green eyes, is at the very least an anomaly.
So. One more thing:
Quintessential Mariano Rivera moment #1: Unlike Jeter, the Mariano Rivera phenomenon is highly explicable: he has an amazing pitch that turns out to be the best one-trick pony in professional sports. The cut fastball looks, for all the world, like any number of straight or slightly-moving fastballs a given professional hitter has seen maybe a hundred thousand times in his life. And then it moves drastically to the left, like a slider except way faster, which to put it plainly is just unfair. The ball tails away like a fading dream against right-handed batters, producing ugly flails and limp ground-outs, but it reaches a true peak of devastation against lefties. The straight fastball they were going to crush is suddenly in on their hands in an inexplicable (and probably frightening) trajectory, and all they can do is transform their long, fluid swing, honed since they were young men being groomed for fame, into a short, defensive, awkward punch of lumber.
This is precisely what happened to Mauer in the 8th inning with two outs in game 3, and the splintered wood of his broken bat and the slow dribbling ball that trickled harmlessly to Teixeira might as well have been stock footage from the Rivera archive. The cut fastball pays homage to no man, not even the MVP.
If you read yesterday's post, you know I'm riding a 4-for-4 streak in playoff predictions, only three series' away from a perfect bracket. With LA and Philly starting their series tonight in SoCal, it's time for the next round of predictions.
NLCS: Dodgers defeat Phillies, 4-1
Cliff Lee is the best starter in this series, but he can't pitch game 1, and if he pitches game 2 it'll be on 3 days' rest. Other than Lee, the Dodgers have the better rotation. Kershaw and Padilla proved their chops against a tough St. Louis line-up, and Wolf is better than he showed in game 1. I don't trust Hamels anymore, and I don't think anybody fears him. Beyond that, what? Pedro? Come on! The bullpen battle isn't even close; Sherrill, Kuo, Belisario, Weaver, and Broxton are all competent arms in Torre's arsenal, and Philly's pen, especially their closer, has looked like hell. Offensively the Phils are the best team in the NL, but the Dodgers are no slouches, and if Ethier and Manny get it going, Philly's odds get a lot longer. And let's face it: it's October, Manny's gonna get it going. This series changes dramatically if the visitors can win game 1 without Lee on the mound, but I'm seeing a quick piece of work by LA. Maybe Lee steals one game, but the Dodgers come through in five.
ALCS: Yankees defeat Angels, 4-1
These are the two best teams in baseball, and there are a lot of good reasons to be scared of the Angels. Alas, I'm not. If we can use Sabathia in game 4 on 3 days' rest, which is the current plan and will change only if a game gets rained out, we don't have to fret about Gaudin or Joba. Our bullpen is lights out as long as Hughes can overcome his recent tremors. The mini-slumps for Cano and Damon are spots of worry, but I expect Johnny to emerge in a big way. Cano, I have no idea. I love the guy, but under pressure your guess is as good as mine. The Angels have a great rotation. Lackey, Weaver, Kazmir, Saunders. All class all the way, for sure, and their pen is good-approaching-very-good. The offense is scrappy, like every Angels team ever. Scioscia is the best manager in the game. The whole team and fanbase is motivated by the story of pitcher Nick Adenhart, who died in a car crash on April 9th (and let me be the latest of many to point out that FOX using his death to promote the series is horribly, horribly tactless). There's a lot going for them, but for some reason I'm not scared. This Yankee team is on a different level than any team in baseball, and I think we'll win comfortably and end the Angels curse that's been dogging us for a decade.
And there it is. A Dodgers-Yankees series is in the cards. Old Joe vs. New Joe. New York vs. L.A. The Bronx vs. The Ghosts of Brooklyn. Sign me the hell up.