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Playoff cast is dream come true for fans

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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If your idea of October baseball features big-market teams, established rivalries and rosters crowded with superstars, you've come to the right place. MLB is bracing for its most entertaining postseason in years, with storylines guaranteed to wrap you tightly in their long tentacles.
Among the contestants are three of the sport's most storied franchises — the Yankees, Dodgers and Cardinals — as well as the Red Sox, who've won more World Series in this decade than anyone else, and the Phillies, the defending champs. The Rockies, the National League's 2007 pennant winners, finished the season on a crazy sprint — they pushed the Dodgers all the way to the final weekend — which made it impossible to focus solely on the American League's Central Division race. Still waiting on Game 163 between the Tigers and Twins? We don't have to know the outcome of Tuesday's showdown in the Metrodome to envision the winner bringing its own, unique Q rating to the playoffs. Either Justin Verlander will show up throwing high 90s heat, or MVP candidate Joe Mauer will be smoking line drives into the gaps. Whatever series you lose yourself in, it figures to be a long and thrilling month. That's good news for MLB officials and TV viewers alike, given the low ratings of the past two World Series. Baseball could certainly use the boost, given attendance was down for the second straight season. A 6.9 percent plunge this summer left the game at its lowest levels since 2003. Perhaps the renewal starts now, as all eyes will be locked on the Tigers and Twins. Whether the winner arrives in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday loaded with momentum or emotionally spent depends on how wide you consider the divide between the regular season and the Division Series. If carry-over is a meaningful currency, the Yankees are in a commanding position, finishing with the most wins by an American League team since 2002 and leading in virtually every offensive category. The wild-card Rockies, meanwhile, are banking on their hot streak that began on May 29, when Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle. Colorado went 71-41 with its new manager, reason enough for Rockies fans to think they're headed to the World Series for the second time in three years. But to get there, Colorado will have to deal with Phillies' powerhouse offense and the devastating rotation duo of Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. They make the Phillies' run-scoring machine look all the more dangerous, after leading the National League in runs, home runs and slugging percentage. You might think a Phillies-Rockies muscle-flexing contest will produce a flurry of home runs. What better launching pads than Citizens Bank Park and Coors Field, right? Not exactly. The two stadiums finished ninth and 15th, respectively, in home run park value this year, which is to say Ryan Howard (45), Jayson Werth (36) and Troy Tulowitzki (32), among others, hit their homers the old-fashioned way — with timing and power. The real intrigue in this series is how (and with whom) the Phillies are going to nail down the ninth inning. Brad Lidge's 48-for-48 masterpiece season in 2008 feels like a million years ago, as the Phillies have all but declared the role of closer defunct. That's one thing the Yankees won't have to worry about; their formula for late-inning success dates to 1997, when Mariano Rivera began his reign as baseball's finest ninth-inning specialist. He had another impossibly successful season, holding the American League to a .199 average while racking up 44 saves. Thanks to his timeless cut fastball, Rivera finished the season by allowing just one home run to the last 180 batters he faced. And talk about ending on a high note: Alex Rodriguez set an American League record by driving in seven runs in one inning against the Rays on Sunday, making it 13 straight years of at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs. A-Rod is one of the reasons the Yankees look so dominant this time around — they were 52-19 upon his return from the disabled list in May. After watching helplessly as the Red Sox became baseball's best-run team in the new millennium, the Bombers believe they've finally retraced their steps to nirvana. Indeed, team officials say this is their deepest, most talented roster since 2004, and maybe even 1998. But if you're ready to unconditionally embrace the Yankees, caveat emptor: a short series can take down a monolith as easily as the Lilliputians neutralized Gulliver. That's why Boston took no offense to the Yankees celebrating their division title at the Stadium last week. The Sox were fine being the wild-card, knowing they boast some of the American League's hardest throwers going into the opening round against the Angels. Behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Sox have the ability to do more than shut down hitters; they can demoralize an entire opposing lineup. But the Angels insist they're ready. They finished only eighth in the AL in HRs but were second in runs, which means they're better at manufacturing offense than any other AL contender. That's about as close to National League baseball as you'll see from an AL team. If speed and defense is your obsession — indeed, if you prefer to dine from the NL buffet table — who could top the Dodgers-Cardinals matchup? All it's serving up are two Hall of Fame managers in Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, the game's most dangerous right-handed hitter (Albert Pujols), the season's most significant trade deadline pickup (Matt Holliday, who hit .353 after coming over from the A's), and the player most impossible to ignore (Manny Ramirez). The Cardinals are steeped in tradition, having won 10 world championships. But Torre knows a thing or two about October: He has four rings with the Yankees and now has two Western Division titles in two years with the Dodgers. In both leagues, it'll be matchups between the larger than life — matter versus anti-matter. Everywhere you look this postseason, you're left asking: Who can resist?
Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, Tigers, Twins, Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies, Cardinals, Rockies, Rays, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Jayson Werth, Brad Lidge, Josh Beckett, Cliff Lee, Joe Mauer, Ryan Howard, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Troy Tulowitzki

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