When it comes to crunch time in the League Championship Series, the best of the best must excel to carry a club into the World Series.
As the National League and American Championship Series open Thursday and Friday in Los Angeles and New York, all eyes will be on four key offensive players: Mark Teixeira of the Yankees, Torii Hunter of the Angels, Chase Utley of the Phillies and Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers.
A team must get peak performance from its star players if it expects to be alive when the World Series opens in either the Bronx or Anaheim on Oct. 28. And while each team has other stars to count on, the performance of these four players could go a long way in deciding who will play for top honors in about two weeks.
"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong," said Joe Garagiola Jr., Major League Baseball's vice president of baseball operations and the winning general manager in 2001 when his D-backs defeated the Yankees in a classic seven-game World Series. "But that is the way to bet."
The first part of Garagiola's eclectic quote comes from Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The second part was penned by Damon Runyan, the famous sportswriter. But the meaning is pretty simple.
"The big guys have to step up," Garagiola explained. "There are only so many times you're going to get a Buddy Biancalana."
Biancalana had a .435 on-base percentage for the Royals team that came back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series. Brian Doyle, subbing for the injured Willie Randolph at second base, batted .438 in 1978 for the Yankees when they defeated the Dodgers in six World Series games.
They were one-hit wonders, but those are the aberrations, Garagiola said.
BIG 4 BY THE NUMBERS
"There's Reggie Jackson for the Yankees [three homers in the clinching Game 6 of the 1977 World Series], Barry Bonds for the Giants [four homers, six RBIs and a .471 batting average in the 2002 World Series]," Garagiola said. "Those are the type of guys who have to perform."
While Alex Rodriguez had a great first round for the Yankees in their sweep of the Twins in an AL Division Series with a pair of game-tying homers and six RBIs, it was Teixeira, whose 11th inning walk-off homer won Game 2, 4-3, on Friday night at Yankee Stadium.
Like David Ortiz and Ramirez for the Red Sox before them, Teixeira and A-Rod may be the best 3-4 lineup combination left in the playoffs, although Utley and Ryan Howard for the Phillies aren't too shabby a 3-4 punch, either.
Teixeira was only 2-for-12 in the first round, but both hits were pretty important. By the time he came to bat to lead off the ninth inning of Game 2, Teixeira was 0-for-7 when he singled with the Yanks trailing, 3-1. A-Rod then hammered a long homer off Twins closer Joe Nathan, tying the score. Teixeira stepped up two innings later.
"Every team goes into the playoffs expecting to win the World Series. That's why you're there," Teixeira said on Wednesday. "It's no different here. But I think everybody has enjoyed the ride so far. We expect a lot out of ourselves."
Teixeira, who played first base for the Angels last year when they lost to the Red Sox in the opening round of the playoffs, had only five homers and 15 RBIs when Rodriguez returned from hip surgery on May 7. He finished a possible MVP season with 38 homers and 120 RBIs as the Yankees won 103 games.
"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet."
-- Joe Garagiola Jr.
"He's had an unbelievable year for us," Yanks manager Joe Girardi said. "New York is not always a situation that's easy to come into your first year. It takes some players a little bit longer to adjust than others. Some players never adjust. If you look at all the things that he's done, whether it's been his defense that's saved us games or it's been him breaking up a double play to save a game for us, he has done it all. He's been the complete package."
This is the seventh time center fielder Hunter has been to the playoffs, the first five times with the Twins and the past two with the Angels, but it's only the second time he's made it out of the first round. The Angels haven't been to the ALCS since 2002, when they defeated Hunter's Twins in five games and beat Bonds' Giants in the last seven-game World Series to date. That's the only World Series title in the 48-year history of the franchise.
Like Teixeira, who the Yanks signed for $180 million this past offseason, Hunter left the Twins as a free agent to sign with the Angels for $90 million prior to the 2008 season. With the big bucks comes the accompanying pressure, and Hunter has responded so far. He's a .306 hitter with four homers and 16 RBIs in 28 playoff games.
The Angels have defeated the Yankees twice in the ALDS (2002 and '05), but Hunter has lost to the Bronx Bombers twice in the first round with the Twins ('03 and '04). So he's experienced playing big October games in the Bronx.
"I've played there in the postseason in 2003 and 2004 and it's exciting," Hunter said. "The fans know so much about baseball and they're screaming and yelling out there on every pitch. It's a lot of fun. It brings out the best in you. You live the dream."
Utley plays second base for the defending World Series champion Phillies, but he doesn't play second fiddle to anybody. He just hit .429 (6-for-14) with a homer in a four-game NLDS against the Rockies. Last October, he may have hit .167 in the World Series against the Rays, but he smashed two key homers and knocked in four runs.
"You try to treat it like another game," Utley said about the playoffs on the eve of another Phillies-Dodgers series. "You can't make the situation bigger than what it really is. Obviously, the playoffs are bigger and [fans] bring more attention to them, but it's still the same game and you try to stick with the same game plan just like the regular season."
Still, talk about coming up big in the World Series, last fall, his first homer was a two-run shot in the first inning of Game 1 in the Tropicana Dome, giving the Phillies a 2-0 lead. They won that one, 3-2. The second led off the sixth inning of Game 6, which was delayed several hours by rain. It tied a game the Phils won, 5-4, while Howard followed with a back-to-back shot that gave them the lead. Howard had three homers and six RBIs as the Phillies won the series and Game 5 over the next three weather-plagued days.
"What do you want me to say about [Utley]? I can't say enough," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He is something really special. He's what I call a player. I used to say [the late] Kirby Puckett was my favorite player. I loved Kirby Puckett, but Chase is getting there."
A year ago, the Dodgers tacked their fate to Ramirez, who was obtained from the Red Sox in a witching-hour Trade Deadline maneuver. Ramirez batted .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 53 regular-season games as the Dodgers won the NL West by two games over the D-backs. He continued his hot hitting in the postseason, batting .500 with two homers and three RBIs in a sweep of the Cubs in the NLDS, and .533 with a pair of homers and seven RBIs in a five-game NLCS loss to the Phillies.
But this year, with his 50-game suspension for a positive drug test coupled with contract negotiations that delayed his arrival late into Spring Training, the Dodgers haven't relied heavily on the top tenant of Mannywood, who slumped to .290, 19 homers and 63 RBIs in 104 games.
"Manny is capable of carrying a club. He's done it many times in his career -- especially this time of year," said GM Ned Colletti, when reached on Wednesday via e-mail. "[But] he's one of many in our lineup who can do some damage at the plate."
Still, it's hard to believe that anyone can ignore him this time of year. He's one of the greatest offensive players in playoff history with a .286 average, 28 homers and 76 RBIs in 22 postseason series with the Indians, Red Sox and Dodgers. No doubt, Boston wouldn't have won the World Series in both 2004 and '07 sans Ramirez. And the Indians may not have even been to the World Series and lost in '95 and '97 without him.
"Every time you're in the playoffs, it's fun," Ramirez said on Wednesday. "It's great, especially when you're only one step away from the World Series. I'm just blessed. Everywhere I've gone, I've been in the playoffs. I'm just excited and I can't wait to see what happens."
Manny may have had a down year (for him), but he seemed to awaken from his offensive slumber by going 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and two RBIs in Game 3 of their just-ended NLDS as the Dodgers swept the Cardinals. Even with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier raking, the Dodgers may find it tough to win at this level without Manny's usual postseason performance.
Ditto, the Phils without decent numbers from Utley, the Angels without the same from Hunter and the Yanks without a big series from Teixeira.
Barry M. Bloom is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.