Rays and Sox renew rivalry

Baseball’s league championships are already upon us after a short and stunning first round.

Thursday saw the start of the National League Championship Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The second game in that series will be tonight. That game will coincide with game one of the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays.

To get to this point all four squads had an impressive albeit astonishing League Division Series.

The LDS were in short a shocker. Many were expecting at least one series to go the full five games. Instead most ended up being dismissive victories devoid of much drama.

In case you missed it the Tampa took down the Chicago White Sox and the Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by margins of 3-1 in the American League.

In the National League the Dodgers dismissed the Chicago Cubs in a 3-0 sweep while Philadelphia beat down the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1.

If there’s anything the playoffs have shown thus far it’s to never underestimate the underdog.

From last month many, me included, would have readily said this year’s World Series would have been between the Angels and the Cubs.

But both would continue to be haunted by postseason demons. The Cubs haven’t won the World Series in nearly a century and the Angels have been bounced out of the postseason when they have faced the Red Sox over the last decade.

Meanwhile the Phillies and the Rays have made it clear that their pitching staffs are no joke. Hamels is the real deal in Philly and Sonnanstine was a winner with skill, not luck.

All of those facts should lead to interesting, and hopefully lengthy, LCS for both leagues.

One of the more fascinating of the two should be in the American League where Boston and Tampa will once again go toe-toe.

In the regular season those two had a genuine rivalry brewing. With everything from heart-breaking swings, dominant pitching and fisticuffs it had everything the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has plus an impact on this year’s standings.

This time around fans should look for much of the same. The Tampa rotation was brilliant against Chicago, holding the major-league leader in home runs to about three runs a game.

The starting rotation, in particular their fiery bullpen, is going to have to be on point again to keep Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay in check.

Meanwhile their offense seemed to be clicking with the emergence of B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria. The young stars helped propel the squad to a little over five runs a game.

The White Sox pitching staff was no pushover but it is not on the same level as that of Boston. Lester, Dice-K and Beckett (when he’s on target) are some of the best in the game and Tampa will need to run when possible to help make the rotation pay.

The formula for Tampa against Boston then is simple: limit base runners in scoring position, make timely pitches and manufacture runs when the hits can’t be strung together.

For Boston it boils down to out-duelling the starting rotation, remaining patient in the batter’s box and getting more two out hits and limiting Tampa’s speed.

In the other LCS the Dodgers and Phillies should make for a pitching-dominant match-up.

Granted both clubs did flash power. Burrell was a thorn in Milwaukee’s side and Ramirez was up to his old tricks at the Cubs’ expense.

But the bread-and-butter of both squads is deep rotations. LA certainly showed that their position as one of the top clubs in baseball by ERA was no misprint.

Lowe, Billingsley and Kuroda are part of a serious group of hurlers. In the bullpen Broxton and Wade are showing a knack for closing the door on teams late in ball games.

Meanwhile Philly showed Hamels and Blanton were no mistake as they proved their worth.

In the bull-pen Lidge is a re-focused and solid closer while Madson and Eyre have done a good job getting Lidge the ball with a lead.

The x-factor in the series though will be the offense. Ramirez and Blake have undoubtedly jump-started the bats of players like Loney. Time will tell if Loney can keep the hot bat going for much longer.

Meanwhile the Philly line-up will feast or famine depending on how Ryan Howard gets treated in the middle and whether Victorino and/or Werth can continue to get on base.

In the end the League Championships are a step before the grand finale. Hopefully it will be as awe-inspiring as the first round and linger in the spotlight a little longer.