Playoffs stocked with aces

First playoff appearance in 15 years. Packed house in Philadelphia. Goose bumps galore.

Joey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds will have their work cut out against the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of the National League playoffs.

Joey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds will have their work cut out against the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of the National League playoffs.

First playoff appearance in 15 years. Packed house in Philadelphia. Goose bumps galore.

By the time Joey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds have a chance to soak it all in, Phillies ace Roy Halladay will be in the middle of his windup.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” said Reds manager Dusty Baker, taking his third NL team to the post-season. “It’s sort of like a kid coming out of college. Everybody wants to know what is his job experience? And sooner or later you’ve got to work to get that experience, and that’s where we are right now.”

The anticipation is over, the also-rans are out and the pressure is on. Everyone knows what’s at stake in October.

Ryan Howard and the Phillies are swinging for their third straight pennant. Texas is trying to win a playoff series for the first time. The wild-card Yankees hope to repeat as World Series champs.

Post-season baseball begins today, with a trio of Cy Young Award winners on the mound: Halladay, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia.

In the first of three marquee pitching matchups, Lee gets the ball for the Rangers against the Tampa Bay Rays, who will throw an ace of their own under the roof at Tropicana Field. David Price has blossomed into the elite starter almost everyone expected, going 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA for the AL East champions.

First pitch, 11:37 a.m.

“Should be a pretty fun matchup to watch,” said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, all set to play after missing the final 10 games of the regular season with a strained left quadriceps.

Texas’ dangerous lineup features playoff newcomers Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, but the Rangers are the only current major league franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series.

Lee was acquired from Seattle in July to help change that. The left-hander went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five post-season starts for the Phillies last year.

Next up, Halladay and the Phillies host Cincinnati at 3:07 p.m.

With three aces in the rotation and a playoff-tested team, Philadelphia is heavily favoured to reach its third consecutive World Series. The last National League club to do that was the St. Louis Cardinals from 1942-44.

But the Reds, led by Votto, a top contender for NL MVP, can slug with just about anybody and they have an overpowering arm to bring out of the bullpen in rookie Aroldis Chapman.

Halladay, obtained from Toronto last December, will be making his playoff debut after 13 stellar seasons. He’ll face Edinson Volquez, who returned this year from right elbow surgery and went 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA in 12 starts.

Cincinnati, winner of the NL Central, is in the post-season for the first time since 1995.

“I could sit here forever and talk about Halladay,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “He’s very dedicated, he’s very intense, he wants to win, he definitely wants a ring. He wants to be the best pitcher in baseball, but he also wants to be on the best team. He definitely puts his team before himself, and he’s definitely inspirational to all of our players and he plays a big role in the makeup of our team.”

The 6:37 p.m. game is a familiar matchup. Sabathia and the Yankees face AL Central champion Minnesota in a first-round series for the fourth time since 2003.

New York won all three previous meetings, including last year en route to its 27th World Series title, but this time the Twins have homefield advantage at their spacious new ballpark, Target Field.

Tonight will mark the first outdoor post-season game in Minnesota since 1970, and the temperature is supposed to be in the 60s.

“It’s hard not to look at the past, that is pretty obvious,” Twins first baseman Michael Cuddyer said. “But it’s a totally different team than those first two times we played the Yankees.”

It might be a different New York team than last season, too. Derek Jeter and the Yankees staggered to a 9-17 finish that cost them the AL East crown.

Francisco Liriano pitches the opener for the Twins, who hung a picture in their clubhouse of the back page of a recent (New York) Daily News that read “Bad news: Yanks must go on road for playoffs. Good news: They play the Twins. E-Z Pass.”

All division series are best-of-five. The fourth matchup gets under way Thursday night, when retiring manager Bobby Cox and his wild-card Atlanta Braves play at NL West champion San Francisco.

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