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Powerhouse Phils and Yankees top playoff seeds

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two powerhouse top seeds in the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, and a pair of wild card Cinderellas make for intriguing match-ups in the first round of Major League Baseball playoffs starting Friday.

The thrilling regular season finish fixed the line-ups for the best-of-five Divisional Series with the defending American League champion Texas Rangers hosting the wild card Tampa Bay Rays, while the AL-best Yankees host the Detroit Tigers.

AL Central winning Tigers will send baseball's top winner, Justin Verlander (24-5), to the mound in a scintillating duel against New York ace CC Sabathia (19-8) in a game that could set the momentum in a short series where one false step can lead to early elimination from the postseason.

The National League series begin Saturday with the Phillies hosting the St. Louis Cardinals, and NL West winning Arizona Diamondbacks visiting NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers.

Survivors of the Divisional showdowns advance to their respective League Championship Series, with the winner of those best-of-seven tilts earning a trip to the World Series.

The Yankees will try to extend their record to a 28th World Series title with a deep attack supporting a questionable starting rotation following Sabathia, though they boast all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera to close out victories.

New York, who will rely on rookie Ivan Nova (16-4) as their number two and veteran Freddy Garcia for the third game, are counting on strong run support from a lineup that includes Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez.

The Tigers rebounded from a 10-17 start to the season with a balanced club that boasts one of the game's most feared sluggers in Miguel Cabrera, dependable run-producer Victor Martinez and emerging catcher Alex Avila.

The pitching staff was bolstered by a midseason trade with Seattle for Doug Fister, who was 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA after joining Detroit and has a productive closer in Jose Valverde.

Texas may rival New York for potent offense, but their starting pitching has slipped from the form that carried them in 2010 to their first World Series, where they bowed out in five games to the San Francisco Giants.

The Rangers can score in bunches with Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre anchoring the lineup.

Tampa Bay, the 2008 American League champions, showed their mettle in overhauling the Boston Red Sox after trailing them by nine games in early September for the biggest final-month comeback ever.

True to form, they clinched the wild card Wednesday by rallying from a 7-0 deficit to the Yankees for an 8-7 win in 12 innings on Evan Longoria's walk-off home run.

Pitching is the Rays' strong suit with a rotation including David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

The National League playoffs begin Saturday, with the Phillies and their vaunted starting rotation tipped as favorites to reach the Fall Classic.

Ever since winning last year's free-agent sweepstakes with their signing of left-hander Cliff Lee, the Phillies have been top-rated and the quartet of Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt lived up to their billing.

Philadelphia won a major league leading 102 games - the most ever collected by the franchise.

The pitching quartet made up for some slippage on the veteran-laden offense, which was fortified with a mid-year trade for energetic Astros outfielder Hunter Pence.

St. Louis comes into the series against Philadelphia with confidence, nonetheless, after a hot September lifted them past the slumping Atlanta Braves, who led them by 8-1/2 games in the first week of September.

The Cardinals, whose offense is sparked by Albert Pujols, won six of nine games this season against the Phillies.

The other National League series pits NL Central champions Milwaukee Brewers, who boast a divine one-two slugging punch of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, against the surprising NL West winning Arizona Diamondbacks.

Clinching home field advantage for the first round could prove vital for the Brewers, who registered the best home record in the majors this year at 57-24.

(Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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