Familiar foes among MLB's final four

Familiar foes among MLB's final four

We're one step away from the 105th World Series.

It's a big step, too.

Coming up now are a pair of League Championship Series that have Game 7, high drama, confrontation, history, intrigue, emotion, second-guessing, controversy, celebrity stargazing and serious frequent-flyer mileage written all over them.

The NLCS will be a rematch of Phillies vs. Dodgers, and a key difference this time is that the Dodgers have the home-field advantage starting with Game 1 Thursday at 8:07 p.m. ET in Los Angeles and televised by TBS.

The ALCS will begin with the Angels at the Yankees Friday at 7:57 p.m. ET on FOX (the same day the NLCS plays its Game 2 at 4:07 p.m. ET), and it will mark the first time those two teams have met in a best-of-seven series.

This figures to be a loud and long round, one that features the rare distinction of having the two teams with the best regular-season records in each respective league. The Yankees were 103-59 and the Angels 97-65. The Dodgers were 95-67 and the Phillies 93-69.

Don't be surprised to see Cole Hamels for the Phillies against Randy Wolf or Clayton Kershaw for the Dodgers in the NLCS opener. Cliff Lee probably will not start for the Phillies until Game 3 because he just threw the NLDS clincher, and that means there also is a possibility of the Dodgers seeing him in a Game 7 if necessary.

Probables for the ALCS Game 1 are John Lackey for the Angels against CC Sabathia for the Yankees. A start has not been announced yet by the clubs or MLB.

All four clubs easily can make a case for why they should win on paper, in this round and in the Fall Classic. But the bottom line is this: You have to go through the defending champs to win the Commissioner's Trophy sometime in the first week of November.

Defending the title
A look at how defending World Series champions in the Wild Card era have fared in the following postseason -- if they made it that far.
Year Champion In defense
2008 Phillies TBD
2007 Red Sox Lost '08 ALCS
2006 Cardinals Missed playoffs
2005 White Sox Missed playoffs
2004 Red Sox Lost '05 ALDS
2003 Florida Missed playoffs
2002 Angels Missed playoffs
2001 D-backs Lost '02 NLDS
2000 Yankees Lost '01 WS
1999 Yankees Won '00 WS
1998 Yankees Won '99 WS
1997 Marlins Missed playoffs
1996 Yankees Lost '97 ALDS
1995 Braves Lost '96 WS

In the Wild Card era, only the 1999-2000 Yankees accomplished what they'd done the previous season and won the World Series. Two defending champions returned to the Fall Classic and lost (the 2001 Yankees and 1996 Braves), one team lost in the League Championship Series (2008 Red Sox), three bowed out in the Division Series (2005 Red Sox, 2002 D-backs, 1997 Yankees) and five missed the postseason (2007 Cardinals, 2006 White Sox, 2004 Marlins, 2003 Angels and 1998 Marlins).

One of the most promising reasons for Phillies fans to believe is that probably their biggest concern all season long -- 2008 saves lock Brad Lidge turning into 2009 blown-saves leader (11). Lidge, however, was immune from all the closer frustration in the Division Series round. There were six blown saves, including a defining one in each series. Lidge, meanwhile, converted both of his save opportunities, including the clincher.

The last NL team to repeat was Cincinnati, which won its back-to-back titles under Sparky Anderson in 1975-76. On paper, the Phillies are even better than last year's champs. Raul Ibanez had a bigger season this year than departed Pat Burrell had during the 2008 title season, and Cliff Lee's acquisition has been a constant payoff.

"We really believe that we can do it," Lidge said. "We know that if we do, we can form -- I don't want to say legacy -- but some kind of pretty cool thing in this game. It's too early to say legacy, but I think we've got a lot of swagger on this team. The guys just don't want to be known as one-time World Series winners. They want to be in the same sentence as some of the great teams."

QUICK WORK
With three sweeps and one four-game series, this year tied the mark for fewest Division Series games played in one season:
YEAR Games
1995 15
1996 14
1997 15
1998 14
1999 16
2000 15
2001 18
2002 17
2003 18
2004 16
2005 15
2006 14
2007 13
2008 15
2009 13

These are four "great teams" remaining in the postseason, and now it is time to see which two go on to Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 28 at either Angel Stadium or Yankee Stadium. Will we go the distance, or will it somehow be more sweeps?

They all have strengths and weaknesses, but you have to look a lot harder than usual to find those weaknesses in this particular LCS round. All four clubs have been labeled with a certain rap, only to debunk it in the Division Series. Consider:

Rap: The Phillies can't play small ball. Reality: They just did it against Colorado.

Rap: The Dodgers don't have starting pitching. Reality: They held their own against the Cy Young candidates, and Vicente Padilla was almost untouchable in the clincher.

Rap: Alex Rodriguez can't produce in the postseason. Reality: A-Rod homered twice in the Division Series to lift the Yanks past the Twins.

Rap: The Angels are just good enough to get into the playoffs. Reality: They just swept the Red Sox to end that hex and they are firing on all cylinders.

There are some remarkable storylines brewing as clubs prepare for off-day workouts leading up to the LCS openers. Consider just some of these:

The Angels can become the first team to knock the Yankees and Red Sox out of a single postseason, having already swept Boston.

A-Rod, Torii Hunter, Manny Ramirez and Ryan Howard are four big-time stars who are just waiting for big moments. Remember when Howard turned it on against the Rays in the last World Series? Ramirez finally caught fire at the end of the NLDS sweep of the Cardinals. Rodriguez and Hunter each had huge Division Series as well.

A Freeway Series is just eight combined victories away from being a reality. Never have both L.A. clubs each been a step away in the same postseason.

The Phillies could be forced to defend their trophy against the team with the best record in baseball, and once again without home-field advantage in a Fall Classic. A lot of people would love to see a Phillies-Yankees World Series, and that would be excluding every single Mets fan. What if it's Pedro vs. the Yankees again like old times?

Close games
The six one-run games in the 2009 Division Series tied a record for that round, but the percentage of one-run games this year surpassed all previous postseasons since 1995.
Year Games One-run Pct.
2009 13 6 46.2%
2008 15 2 13.3%
2007 13 2 15.4%
2006 14 3 21.4%
2005 15 3 20.0%
2004 16 3 18.8%
2003 18 5 27.8%
2002 17 2 11.8%
2001 18 4 22.2%
2000 15 3 20.0%
1999 16 2 12.5%
1998 14 6 42.9%
1997 15 5 33.3%
1996 14 6 42.9%
1995 15 4 26.7%
Total 228 56 24.6%

What if it's Joe Torre and Don Mattingly against the Yankees in a mega-battle of the two biggest markets? And Manny thrown in for good measure? That would be interesting.

"The Yankees had their century," wrote Bill Shaikin in the Los Angeles Times, as the first of "10 reasons why America should be rooting for the Angels to beat the New York Yankees."

Will the Bronx Bombers repeat what Babe Ruth and the 1923 Bombers did and win it all in the first year for Yankee Stadium? Will the Dodgers win their first World Series since the Kirk Gibson days of 1988? Will the Angels or Phillies make it a pair of rings this decade?

It is all fodder for fun conversation. But starting Thursday and Friday, it will be time to play a pair of League Championship Series, and each has all the makings of a distance classic. Get used to Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Rafael Furcal and the Dodgers. Get used to Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies. Get used to Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Derek Jeter and the Yankees. Get used to Chone Figgins, Kendry Morales, Brian Fuentes and the Angels.

They are the four teams left out of 30 that started the season. They are four explosive teams capable of making some history and a lot of noise. And now they are each just a step away from the prize -- a trip to the World Series.

"This is the culmination of a lot of hard work in a season that has been going up and down for us emotionally," Angels general manager Tony Reagins said after the clincher at Boston. "We've had some clubhouse leaders really step up and Mike Scioscia has been huge. And (owner) Arte Moreno has given me enough to work with and have fun and put this thing together."

Torre, baseball's winningest postseason manager, is back in the LCS round for the second straight year with the Dodgers. He has managed in that round every year this decade except for the three-year stretch from 2005-07. He'd like to move beyond it, naturally, and have a chance to restore winning ways to an elite franchise.

"Last year, it really was something thrust on us very quickly," Torre said. "Our goal coming in last year was to be six or seven over .500. These guys learned, and especially during Manny's absence, they can function. They are good players in their own right. Just getting to the postseason last year and beating the Cubs. And even getting beat [by the Phillies], there's still something to learn and something to take from that."

Veteran catcher Jorge Posada was on the New York clubs that lost twice to the Angels in best-of-five series. Now it will be a best-of-seven and a week or two filled with action and intrigue.

"It's going to come down to who is going to pitch best, who is going to hit in the clutch," Posada said. "You know, home-field advantage is going to help a little bit. I think that's the key to this series, having four games at home is going to change."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.