Cincinnati Reds (91-71) at
Philadelphia Phillies (97-65)
There was a time not too long ago when the Phillies were having a down season. After an uncharacteristically strong start, they went 19-27 for a month and a half before the All-Star break, salvaging some dignity with a four-game sweep of the Reds to close out the season’s first half in third, behind the Braves and even the soon-to-be-pedestrian Mets. The second half has been decidedly different, with Philadelphia winning an even two of every three games (50-25) and its division going away. Now the Phillies meet the Reds, an upstart team that had everything it needed to go right go right this season. In the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, Cincinnati is a big-time underdog looking to shock the two-time defending NL champs.
Long the National League’s best and deepest offense, the Phillies were overtaken at the top of the offensive standings this season by the Reds, who boast a 108 team OPS+ and averaged 4.88 runs per game. They also led the league with 188 home runs — an absurd 69 fewer than the AL-leading Blue Jays, by the way. Under the “Things That Had To Go Right That Did” ledger for Cincinnati, Joey Votto transformed from a really good-looking prospect into the presumptive NL MVP (1.024 OPS), Scott Rolen returned to form after a several-years hiatus, Jay Bruce came alive following a slow start, and Jonny Gomes and Drew Stubbs combined for 40 home runs from the other two outfield spots.
At the same time, the Phillies’ offense is better if everyone is healthy. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard have all missed some time this season, leaving Jayson Werth as the team’s most dependable bat in 2010. The most surprising offensive development this season may have been the emergence of Carlos Ruiz, who started hitting in the regular season as he always did in the postseason, leading the team with a .400 OBP.
Obviously, this is where Philadelphia holds the big advantage. The headlining trio of Roys Halladay and Oswalt with Cole Hamels is why the Phillies are the faves not just in the NL, but in all of baseball this October. Halladay was every bit what you could expect, winning 21 games and posting a 2.44 ERA. Oswalt was even better down the stretch than Cliff Lee was for Philly last season, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. Hamels’ 12-11 record is unimpressive, but that’s only because he lost roughly nine games by a score of 1-0 (Philly scored two or fewer runs in 14 of his starts).
The Reds, meanwhile, made the surprising move to give the ball in Game 1 to Edinson Volquez, whose four wins this season almost have to be a record for fewest by a Game 1 starter whose team had comfortably clinched in September. Manager Dusty Baker made the move because Volquez, who made only a dozen starts after undergoing Tommy John surgery, has pitched well of late (1.95 ERA in last four starts) and has held lefties to a .229 average this season. Cincinnati will go with 17-game winner Bronson Arroyo and arguably their best pitcher in Johnny Cueto in Games 2 and 3. That means Travis Wood, the pitcher who did nothing short of carry a perfect game into the ninth inning in his only career start in Philadelphia, will be used out of the bullpen — along with three other southpaws to help neutralize the Phillies’ left-hand heavy lineup.
JOHN: Who is this Travis Wood, and what is this nonsense about him almost throwing a perfect game?
It was only Wood’s third career start that July night at Citizens Bank Park, and he absolutely dominated one of the game’s best lineups until a Carlos Ruiz leadoff double in the ninth. The problem for Wood, though, was even if he got through 27 batters, that wasn’t going to be enough. Because Halladay was matching him zero for zero, tossing nine five-hit frames. The Phillies eventually won in 11 on a Rollins single after another Ruiz double. It was the best pitchers’ duel of the season, and probably the greatest Citizens Bank Park will ever see.
JOHN: As a Mets fan, are you still happy the Phillies traded Lee for Halladay?
I explained it before the season, I reiterated it midseason, and I’ll say it again now. Yes. Roy Halladay is really good. I mean, really, really good. But he’s older and has more mileage on his arm than Lee, who is also left-handed and has won big games in the playoffs. (This isn’t to say I expect Halladay to pitch poorly in the postseason. He will do just fine.)
JOHN: What’s the best nickname for the Two Roys?
Siegfried and Roy! The Viceroys! The Henry Rowengartners (that’s kind of a conceptual one)!
Personally, if I were one of them, I’d call us “The Roy-al We.”
JOHN: What will the average speed of Aroldis Chapman’s fastball be in this series, and what is the percentage chance that the ball bursts into flame coming out of his hand?
Both numbers are the same, John: 110.
Needless to say, I am super excited to see Chapman face some of the Phillies’ big left-handed bats. Hell, I’m super excited to see Chapman face anyone. He’s special.
JOHN: Does Joey Votto really deserve the MVP, or will he just win it because everyone’s sick of voting for Albert Pujols?
Is this a common thought? I mean, Pujols had a down year this season, and the absurdity of calling a .312/42/118 season “a down year” only serves to highlight how freakishly good his first nine years have been (it’s the lowest batting average of his career, and only once before has his average been below .327; he has had more seasons hitting over .355 than under .320. Can you conceptualize this?).
But Votto was, by several measures, better than Albert this season. He finished in the top three in all three Triple Crown categories, and he led the league in OBP, SLG, and as a result OPS and OPS+. (How his OBP was better than Pujols’ [.424 to .414] despite the fact that he was intentionally walked 30 fewer times than Albert is befuddling.) Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs split on WAR between them.
If I were a voter, the fact that Votto’s team beat out Pujols’ in the same division would be the tiebreaker between two deserving and more or less even candidates.
JOHN: Will we be seeing Dusty Baker’s kids again?
Dusty actually brought his son up during his press conference on Tuesday, mentioning how upset he was he wasn’t allowed to skip school to be in Philadelphia. Kid’s 11 now.
JOHN: What happened to the Phillies lineup this year? How did Ruiz become their second-best hitter?
Well, Rollins and Utley continued their descents from their peak years in 2007-08, while Howard started his. It will be interesting to see how Philly’s lineup responds next year, with Werth gone, everyone else a year older, and Ruiz presumably coming back to earth.
JOHN: How many saves does Brad Lidge blow this series?
He’s gotten better. Now he only makes you think he’s going to blow the save before he nails it down. Strangely enough, Philly actually has the better closer situation in this series, since Francisco Cordero has had a bad year, blowing eight saves for the Reds.
JOHN: Who ya got?
I’m more excited for this Division Series in the NL, since the Phillies are the stalwarts and the Reds bring some new blood to the postseason, what with Votto, Chapman, and I hope a very loud crowd in a great baseball town. But the Phils’ pitching will prove to be too much. Cincy will steal a low-scoring game from Cole Hamels — because in 2010, that’s what happens to Cole Hamels — before Halladay ends it in Game 4.