My wish list for the second round of the baseball playoffs, which begin tonight when the Yankees take on the Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series:
• I want to see the quality of play pick up from the division series.
Sure, between Roy Halladay’s no-hitter, Tim Lincecum’s 14-strikeout gem and the surgical precision of postseason master Cliff Lee – 21 strikeouts and no walks in two starts – the pitching in the first round was dominant to the point of historic.
But the baseball itself was sloppy, with leadoff men reaching first by pretending they were hit, misguided fielder’s choices, fly balls lost in the lights and botched relay throws. Not only did all that happen in Game 2 between the Reds and Phillies, but all that also happened in the bottom of the seventh inning.
The Giants got some help during their series-clinching game in Atlanta when the Braves’ Alex Gonzales failed to run out of the box after hitting an eighth-inning liner to shortstop. Gonzales, who’d already committed two errors, assumed shortstop Edgar Renteria would make an easy catch. Renteria dropped it, momentarily groveled to find the ball on the ground – and his throw to first still beat Gonzales by 30 feet.
The Rangers got some help, too, during their decisive fifth game at Tampa Bay, where the foot of Rays pitcher David Price missed first base on a 3-6-1 double-play attempt. Price turned to argue with the umpire, allowing Vladimir Guerrero to lumber home from second base.
Vladimir Guerrero is not supposed to score from second during a split-squad Grapefruit League contest, let alone a game in which the winner goes to the league championship series.
• I want the showdown in the NLCS opener – the Giants’ Lincecum versus the Phillies’ Halladay – to draw television ratings approaching a regular-season NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles.
• I want to find out if Yankees manager Joe Girardi really follows through on his decision to start A.J. Burnett against the Rangers in Game 4. Thanks to the campaign on behalf of Felix Hernandez as the AL’s Cy Young Award recipient, most casual fans now realize there are more accurate statistics to measure a pitcher’s work than his record of wins and losses. Still, despite pitching for a team with baseball’s most explosive lineup, Burnett lost 15 games this season. He last won on Sept. 1.
• I want to learn the secret behind Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
He looks frumpy and rumpled in a baseball uniform, talks in a West Virginia drawl, changes the direction of his thoughts as suddenly as the juked tacklers in a Barry Sanders highlight film – and he’s the coolest guy in the room.
How does he do that? (I’d like to think Manuel’s local ties had something to do with it. He hit 16 homers with Tacoma, as a Twins minor-league prospect, in 1973.)
• I want the Mariners’ Justin Smoak to enjoy the Yankees-Rangers series on a comfortable couch at home. No need to take notes, or study the tendencies of pitchers he’ll face next season. I just want Smoak to savor the idea that, as the key piece in Texas’ acquisition of Cliff Lee from the Mariners, he prevented the Yankees from steamrolling toward their 41st trip to the World Series.
If the Rangers don’t offer the rookie first baseman as a last-minute trading chip on July 9, Lee is wearing a pinstriped uniform in the ALCS because a Mariners deal for some Yankees prospects was all but official. How scary are the Yankees with Lee joining a staff of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte?
• I want the Rangers to beat the Yankees, not just because the personal sagas of MVP candidate Josh Hamilton and manager Ron Washington mirror a once-broke franchise’s resurrection from the ashes. I want the Rangers to win because I’ve always wondered if a World Series could divert Dallas’ attention away from the Cowboys.
• I want the Giants to beat the Phillies, because if the combination of stellar pitching and a patchwork, assembled-during-the-season lineup can vault San Francisco into the Fall Classic, the Mariners might not be as hopeless as we suspect.
• Most of all, after enduring six months of general cluelessness at Safeco Field, I want crisp, intelligent, playoff-worthy baseball. If Vladimir Guerrero scores another run from second base on an infield grounder, I will scream and throw stuff, and then I’ll calm down, remembering that Justin Smoak – the guy whose potential made the Rangers’ postseason advancement possible – has yet to turn 25.