- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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The top 10 matchups of the AL and NL championship series:
1. Boston-New York Lineups Vs. The Pitch Counts
Both the Red Sox and Yankees have nine-deep batting orders, with Boston throwing out tough hitters from Johnny Damon to Bill Mueller, and the Yankees countering in kind, from Derek Jeter to Miguel Cairo. There are no easy outs to be found; even the weaker hitters, such as Cairo, can throw out prolonged at-bats, five and six pitches or more.
The Red Sox starters are better-suited to cope with this, theoretically. Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez can finish off hitters quickly, forcing them to swing at two-strike pitches weakly or miss altogether. But if they don't and their pitch counts mount into triple digits by the fifth or sixth inning, then the weakness of the Boston staff -- its middle relief -- will be exposed.
Pitch count could be an enormous factor with Mike Mussina, the Yankees' No. 1 starter, who sometimes has trouble finishing off hitters, and with Kevin Brown (and it is more of a factor now because the Yankees don't know what to expect out of Mariano Rivera and need their starters to go deeper into games). When things are not going well with the pitch count, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre tends to twirl his pitch-counter on his right hand.
2. Houston Vs. Its Tired Rotation
Phil Garner was vindicated, in the end, by getting Houston through the Division Series against Atlanta. But his starting rotation is a mess: Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt both pitched on three days' rest on Sunday and Monday, and with the NLCS starting Wednesday, Garner will be scrambling. If he wants both Clemens and Oswalt fully rested, they wouldn't pitch until Games 3 and 4, and St. Louis might have control of the series by then.
A possible solution: After throwing Brandon Backe in Game 1, Garner could throw Clemens in Game 2 on three days' rest, and Oswalt fully rested in Game 3. That way, Clemens could pitch on full rest in Game 6, Oswalt fully rested in Game 7. The only alternative would be to start Pete Munro in Game 2, and that might be a little dicey.
3. Timlin Against Murderers' Row of Righties
The Yankees throw out right-handers Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield at the top of their batting order. Most managers avoid bunching right-handed or left-handed hitters together so they won't be exposed to relief specialists at the end of games, but these guys are so good that it doesn't matter. This trio saved the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALDS, Jeter drawing a walk before A-Rod doubled home the tying run.
Mike Timlin is the most trusted right-handed middle man in the Boston bullpen, so he'll draw this assignment in the sixth, seventh or early in the eighth inning. Right-handers batted .247 against Timlin during the regular season, left-handers .269, but he is not overwhelming -- as the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero proved by crushing the game-tying grand slam in Game 3 last Friday.
Jeter in his career against Timlin: 2-for-13, one strikeout; Sheffield, 2-for-11, zero strikeouts; A-Rod: 4-for-13, a homer, four strikeouts.
And if the Red Sox try Derek Lowe, another ex-closer in the middle, remember this: Sheffield is 8-for-17 with two homers against him.
The Red Sox came within five outs of winning the ALCS last year, and believe they're five outs better this year. But what must not be forgotten is that last year, Boston's bullpen was terrific in the postseason; Scott Williamson was dominating, mostly. Unless Timlin or other relievers emerge, Boston will be soft in the middle in this series.
4. Phil Garner Against Tony La Russa
These managers like to make things happen. Garner takes chances, La Russa likes to control everything. There will be signs and counter-signs and sign-stealing and fake signs, and it's possible that we will see our first 12-hour playoff game. Let the chess match begin.
5. Schilling And Martinez Vs. What Ails Them
The Red Sox have to have these guys be right. Schilling has a bum right ankle and could take pain-killers before the game, something he's dealt with all season, when he was good enough to be a leading Cy Young Award candidate.
Martinez's issues are a little more unpredictable. When the wind-chill sinks into the low-50s and below, he seems to have trouble getting loose and throwing a decent fastball and commanding his pitches, and fall has officially arrived in New York; it'll be sweater weather for Game 2.
And then there's the Yankees-are-my-daddies thing. A mind game played by Pedro? Doubtful. A moment of frustration spilling out? Probably. Carry-over effect? We'll see. The Yankees have beaten Boston in almost two-thirds of the games started by Martinez over the years, so watch that pitch count.
6. The Houston Defense Vs. The Baseball
The Red Sox started winning when they got shortstop Orlando Cabrera and shored up their defense. The Yankees have a strong defensive infield. The Cardinals have Gold Glove-caliber players running all over the place.
And then there are the Astros, who won't win any awards for range -- in left field, where Craig Biggio patrols, or in right field, the home of Lance Berkman, or at shortstop, with Jose Vizcaino (who has done a very good job, nonetheless), or at second base, with Jeff Kent. They might not kick the ball around a whole lot, but Houston might struggle and not provide a lot of extra help to its pitching staff.
7. Ramirez, Et Al Vs. Inside Stuff
The last time Jon Lieber pitched against Boston in Yankee Stadium, about 3½ weeks ago, he gave a textbook lesson on how you must pitch to the tough Red Sox lineup: Pound them inside with fastballs. If you pitch over the plate, they will kill you, either by fouling off pitches and driving up your pitch count or by whacking hits. So Lieber and Mussina and others will try to venture inside in this series, at some considerable risk. If they miss with their location, Manny Ramirez and his friends are fully capable of launching home runs.
8. Lidge Vs. His Workload
Crunch time came and we learned how much Garner trusts Brad Lidge (and does not necessarily trust Houston's other relievers). Garner summoned his closer into tie games, into games in the seventh inning, every chance he got, and Lidge threw 4 2/3 innings in three games in the first round of the playoffs.
Lidge had the greatest workload of any closer in baseball during the regular season, and he handled it well. When he worked with zero days' rest, Lidge allowed three earned runs in 27 innings, for an ERA 1.00, allowing just 10 hits and striking out 42. He will continue to be tested.
9. AL Closers Vs. Familiarity
Mariano Rivera is the greatest reliever in history, but the Red Sox are not afraid because they've seen him time and again and beaten him in the past. Still, in a series when each team will see their opponents' closer repeatedly, Rivera -- assuming he returns from Panama -- has an edge over Boston's Keith Foulke. Rivera wins with hard stuff and if his cutter is moving, he is very difficult to hit.
Foulke wins with soft stuff, and as the Yankees see him time and again, the chances of them being fooled by his changeup will probably diminish; he will not overwhelm anybody. Foulke has good numbers, by the way against A-Rod, who is 5-for-24 with four strikeouts against Foulke -- and terrible numbers against Sheffield; the Yankees' right fielder is 4-for-7 with three doubles against Foulke, meaning he sees the ball very well.
10. King-Kline vs. Beltran-Berkman
The Houston outfielders are both switch-hitters, and Carlos Beltran's numbers are just slightly worse against lefties, like Ray King and Steve Kline; Berkman's numbers are markedly worse against lefties, with four homers and a .272 average in 125 at-bats, compared with 26 homers and a .329 average in 419 at-bats against right-handers. La Russa will try to use Kline and King against those two, meaning that Jeff Bagwell -- who is sandwiched in between Beltran and Berkman -- needs to take advantage of situations he gets to swing against the lefties.
And Bagwell is 2-for-4 in his career against Kline, 2-for-3 against King, including a homer.
Bonus Big Matchup: Embree Vs. Matsui
The Yankees' left fielder is hot, and Alan Embree will get a couple of shots at him -- and during the regular seasons, Hideki Matsui is 4-for-9 against Embree. But Grady Little probably knows that.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.