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ALCS Preview

The 2009 ALCS between the Yankees and Angels will be a battle of tangibles and intangibles. The on-field assets of these two teams are obvious; so, this year, are the more ephemeral ones.

The Yankees' winter spending spree was impossible to ignore. Reeling from the end of their thirteen-year postseason streak, they added starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira (from the Angels) as free agents, with outfielder Nick Swisher coming over in a lopsided trade. Has any team makeover ever worked as well? Sabathia was a horse, averaging nearly seven innings per start, winning a major-league high 19 games. Burnett had his second healthy year in a row, going 13-9 despite leading the AL in walks. Swisher became the regular right-fielder after one disappointing year in Chicago, and returned to the form he'd shown as a budding star in Oakland, hitting 29 home runs (21 on the road) and drawing 97 walks. All Teixeira did was lead the AL in home runs and RBIs, while providing excellent defense at first.

Johnny Damon contributed his best season in years, and Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano became the only double-play combination in baseball history to have 200 hits each. Mariano Rivera pitched like Mariano Rivera, and manager Joe Girardi found the eighth-inning compliment he'd been missing by shifting young Phil Hughes to the bullpen. Hughes struggled as a starter, going 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA in the early season; beginning in June, he worked exclusively in relief, posting a 1.40 ERA and holding opponents to a .172 average.

And then there was Alex Rodriguez. His year began with the steroids revelations and the publication of Selena Roberts's book about him. He opted for spring surgery on his ailing hip, and the procedure had the twin effects of repairing damage and allowing the often-hostile Yankees fans to miss him for a while. By the time he came back, the team was 13-15, and Manny Ramirez had taken over as the latest pharmacological scapegoat. A-Rod homered on the first pitch he saw, and wound up with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in 124 games. He seems happier to be just one of many parts of the team instead of its focal point; he may have gotten enough attention in February and March to last a lifetime. The club has played at a .679 clip, 93-44, since he rejoined the lineup. He even delivered a big October hit, his two-run ninth-inning home run off Joe Nathan that sent game two of the ALDS into extra innings.

The new faces brought an entirely new spirit and enthusiasm to the team. The Yankees played with a visible joy that they'd never shown even in their near-dynasty of the 1990s. During a three-game series against the Twins in May, they won each game with a walkoff hit - and the hero was rewarded with a shaving-cream pie in the face during his postgame TV interview, courtesy of A.J. Burnett. Pies - and wins - became an instant tradition as the Yankees won twenty-eight games in their final at bat, the most in the majors. Angels center-fielder Torii Hunter noticed the change, telling reporters in September, "There's something different over there about those guys, like they're having a lot more fun instead of walking on eggshells."

If the Yankees' early wound was self-inflicted, the Angels' was truly tragic. The season was just three games old when 22-year-old starting pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car crash. The clearly shaken team limped through April, and was still sitting at .500 in the second week of June. John Lackey and Ervin Santana returned to the rotation in May, though Santana never recovered the form he'd shown in 2008. But suddenly, almost overnight, the team seemed to shift from shock and grief to inspiration and determination. They won 13 of 16, lost Torii Hunter and Vlad Guerrero to injuries and went 17-4 without them, and romped through the rest of the season with a 71-36 record after June 11. Adenhart's home locker remains untouched, and a locker is set aside for his memory on the road.

The biggest surprise for the Angels was the blossoming of Cuban émigré Kendry Morales. In his first full season, replacing the departed Teixeira, Morales hit 34 homers and drove in 108 runs while earning $21 million less this year than the new Yankee. During the Angels' four-month surge that began June 12, Morales hit .331 with an OPS of 1.015. He joined with the quietly effective Bobby Abreu to spread the offensive burden throughout the lineup; seven Angels scored at least 70 runs, the most in the majors, and the Angels finished second in the AL in scoring.

The number-one offense in the AL was in New York, of course. The Yankees and Angels had the exact same number of hits, but the Yankees had 35 more doubles and a whopping 71 more home runs. They also drew over a hundred more walks. The Angels have the reputation of an aggressive, running team - but while the Yankees stole 37 fewer bases than the Angels, they were caught stealing 35 fewer times, so the running game was more of an advantage to the New Yorkers than to the Angelenos/Anaheimers.

The Angels will put forward a good rotation against the Yankees: Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, and Joe Saunders have all pitched effectively against New York in the past, while Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte have struggled against the Angels. Still, Sabathia gives the Yankees the one true ace in this series, and they will probably pitch him on three days' rest, starting him in game one and bringing him back for game four. Sabathia made three consecutive starts on four days' rest for the Brewers in September 2008; he went 2-1 with a 0.83 ERA while averaging seven innings per game. He can handle it. For the Angels' good-but-not-great staff, the Yankees' lineup will be much harder to handle.

Yankees in five.

 

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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