ChiSox, Angels could spark upsets in AL

Although it seems destined for the American League playoffs to boil down to a Yankees-Red Sox showdown, the Angels and White Sox will look to disrupt the powers that be and try to knock off their respective opponents in the divisional series that started yesterday.

In the Angels-Yankees matchup, New York has the clear advantage at the plate with experienced, powerful hitters who’ve knocked in the second most runs in the league, behind only the Red Sox. Likewise, their hitters know how to work the count and have combined to walk 200 more times than the Angels.

However, what the Angels lack in power at the plate, they make up for on the bases. They lead the league with 154 swipes, led by versatile speedster Chone Figgins, who has nabbed 62 bases while appearing in every position except pitcher, first base and catcher. Although their second leading RBI man, Garret Anderson, has been nursing a sore back, all-world outfielder Vladimir Guerrero will have to come up as big as he has all season for the Angels.

Each team has a solid bullpen, so don’t expect too many late-game heroics in this series. By moving former starter Kelvim Escobar to the pen, Angel’s manager Mike Scioscia adds another strikeout specialist to help set up closer Francisco Rodriguez finish games. The Yankees still have the greatest postseason closer of all time in Mariano Rivera and former closer turned setup man, Tom Gordon.

The starting pitching is the question mark in this series. Because the Angels have the advantage of getting their starting rotation in line, they get the nod here. That means leading Cy Young candidate and 20-game winner, Bartolo Colon, will get a chance to pitch two games if the series goes to five. He’ll be followed by John Lackey, whose 199 strikeouts rank him third in the league, and Jarrod Washburn, who will start game three on the road, where he sports a 2.65 ERA.

The Yankees will rely on late-season acquisition, Shawn Chacon, who has given up just two runs in his last four outings and journeyman Aaron Small, who has won his first 10 decisions since resurrecting his career. In addition, the Yanks will look to get a strong start from Randy Johnson who has gone 4-0 in September, but will not be available until game three. For game one, the Yanks will go with Mike Mussina, who has had some recent elbow problems, but will come into the game on six days rest. The Yanks may not get enough from their starting rotation so I’ll take the Angels in this series.

Boston-Chicago: For the Red Sox, the good news is that their first round opponents, the White Sox, have not won a postseason series since 1917. However, Boston fans know full well that baseball curses are not meant to last forever.

Although nearly blowing a 15-game divisioanl lead, the White Sox pulled it together late in the season and have won eight of their last 10 games, including a season ending sweep of the Indians. Moreover, the White Sox know how to win close games, going 35-18 in games decided by one run, and their starting pitching should keep them in this series.

Former Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras has beecome the staff’s ace, winning his last eight starts while allowing just seven runs in his last five outings. He will be followed by soft-tosser Mark Buehrle, who was pounded for six runs on 12 hits the last time he faced Boston, and Freddy Garcia, who has won his last two outings.

The Red Sox bring to plate the most productive lineup in baseball, scoring a run more per game than the White Sox. Boston features a pair of intimidating hitters in leading MVP candidate David Ortiz, who has an uncanny knack for coming up with clutch hits, and outfielder Manny Ramirez. The duo has combined to hit 92 homeruns and 292 RBI this season.

However, the Red Sox starting pitching has been less than impressive this year and they are without a starting pitcher with an ERA below 4.00. In addition, Curt Schilling, has been slow to regain last season’s form, posting an ugly 5.69 ERA and a mediocre 8-8 record this season.

The bullpen has been the Achilles heel for the Red Sox. With Keith Foulke done for the season, Mike Timlin has stepped in as the interim closer and has been less than reliable, going 12 for 19 in save opportunities. With a thin group of middle relievers, Boston will have to rely on rookie Jon Papelbon to pitch critical innings.

On the other side however, the White Sox will rely on rookie closer Bobby Jenks to finish off games. Jenks will be helped, though, by former closer Dustin Hermanson, who will be available for late-inning relief. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has said he will retire if Chicago wins the World Series. Despite the lack of playoff experience, Guillen may be headed for early retirement as the Sox take the series.

First round predictions: Chicago in five, LA-Anaheim in five.