at Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s the most anticipated NLCS rematch since Cardinals-Astros ‘05! Will this one finish what that one started, and officially put the nail in Brad Lidge’s coffin?
The Phillies are coming off a very entertaining four-game NLDS victory over the Rockies (seriously; it was one of the best NLDSs in a while) while the Dodgers swept the Cardinals in a direct and reciprocal refutation of my prediction for the series. The Phillies dispatched Los Angeles in five in the NLCS last season, with the series turning on a big Matt Stairs pinch-hit home run in Game 4. This one appears more evenly matched, as it’s the Dodgers with the home-field advantage.
LCS rematches have been fairly memorable over the last two decades, including the 2004 series between the Yankees and Red Sox and the 1992 rematch of the Braves and Pirates.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
History! The Phillies are trying to become the first National League team to repeat as pennant winners since the Braves in 1995-96, and the first NL team to repeat as champs since the Big Red Machine in 1975-76. Jayson Stark of ESPN already pointed out that the Phillies are the first NL team to win a playoff series the year after winning the title since the 1996 Braves. He astutely observes that Philly is just the fifth NL team to do this all-time. He does not point out that maybe this is because, for most of baseball’s history, winning a playoff series the year after winning the title constituted repeating as World Series champion.
The Phillies’ lineup showed why it’s the National League’s best in its final at-bat in Colorado on Monday. With Jimmy Rollins on and two out, you could see how difficult it was for Huston Street to pitch to Chase Utley. Anything on the inside part of the plate risked tying the game. Street walked Utley with pitches exclusively away, only to face Ryan Howard, where anything anywhere risks leaving the yard. After Howard doubled to right, Jayson Werth inside-outed a ball into center to win it for the Phils. It’s the best middle of the order in the NL this decade.
The Dodgers don’t have a middle of the order, per se. They’re eight guys deep, headlined by youngsters Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Both provided a big lift in the (very surprising to me) sweep of the Cardinals. Los Angeles also has the best bench left in the postseason, and they put it on full display during their miraculous Game 2 comeback. Juan Pierre and Mark Loretta each came up with big two-out knocks.
The Phillies’ pitching staff had three big questions entering the Colorado series: Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Lidge. Lee looked fantastic, Hamels less so, and even with two saves, the jury is still out on Lidge (he walked two in Game 3 and Charlie Manuel opted to start Game 4’s ninth with Scott Eyre on the hill). Having pitched Game 4 Monday, Lee can’t go until Game 3, so Hamels gets the shaky Game 1 nod. How Manuel decides to fill out his rotation in-between—choosing among the threesome of J.A. Happ, Pedro Martinez, and Joe Blanton—will likely be up in the air right up until game time.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, beat the Cardinals on the back of their starting pitching. Former Phillies Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla were solid and terrific, respectively, against St. Louis, sandwiching a nice playoff debut from Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw somewhat surprisingly gets the start in Game 1 of the NLCS against Hamels while Padilla, the returning Hiroki Kuroda, and Wolf follow. It’s interesting that Joe Torre pushed Wolf all the way back to Game 4 and Chad Billingsley out of the rotation, in large part due to his struggles both of late and in last year’s NLCS. LA doesn’t have the shutdown starter that Philly has in Lee, and they lack the Phils’ rotational depth—at least on paper (this is a direct shot at Padilla). They’ll try to overcome that with their excellent bullpen, spearheaded of course by the gargantuan Jonathan Broxton.
JOHN: You were being sarcastic when you called the ‘05 NLCS “anticipated,” right?
TIM: You and your AL bias. You know, when we count down the best baseball games of the decade in December, maybe then you’ll realize how good the ‘04 NLCS between those teams was.
JOHN: What do you think of the way Manuel’s handled the back of his rotation so far? Who do you think goes in Games 2 and 4 for the Phillies?
TIM: I think the snow bailed him out in Colorado. I would have started Happ from the beginning of that series in Game 3, if only for the advantage a lefty has against that Rockies’ lineup (Brad Hawpe and Ian Stewart spent most of the series on the bench). Picking Pedro and then backing off didn’t look very good, and neither did using both Happ and Blanton out of his bullpen. I would start Pedro in Game 2 and Happ in Game 4 of this series. Lefty starters certainly won’t help the Phils against the Dodgers, and it may be a detriment.
JOHN: Does the Dodgers sweep of St. Louis officially refute the “All you need in a division series is one great starter” hypothesis?
TIM: Well, combined with the Cardinals’ domination of the Padres a few years back, it certainly refutes the “Look out for the team with two very good starters” perspective. This is what happens in a five-game series. The Dodgers play well, Matt Holliday makes a ridiculous error, and the Cardinals were done by the time they got back to St. Louis.
JOHN: How can St. Louis justify resigning Matt Holliday this off-season after that dropped ball in the ninth?
TIM: Because he hit .350 for them for two months? And besides, is the St. Louis media gonna really beat him up? It’s Blues’ season, baby!
JOHN: TBS, particularly Chip Caray, set the floor pretty low for their coverage of the first round. How are they going to get worse for the NLCS?
TIM: First of all, that’s from Game 163. How could you forget Game 163, given that Chip Caray mentioned Game 163—and always called it Game 163—about once an inning in that Yankees-Twins series.
For the NLCS, they made the smart decision to add a third man in the booth to cut in on the amount of time Chip has to speak. Unfortunately, they made the poor decision to make that third man Buck Martinez, who has the most annoying voice in professional sports. I can’t criticize what Buck actually says because I can’t stand to hear him speak. If I played for the 2001 Toronto Blue Jays, I would have demanded a trade for this reason. And you know how much I love Toronto.
JOHN: Why aren’t people making a bigger deal of the “Padilla vengeance factor” in this series?
TIM: It could go right along with the Wolf Vengeance Factor and the Werth Vengeance Factor and the Bowa Vengeance Factor. Think about that last one. It could get ugly.
Overall though, I think too many people are caught up in the Shockey Vengeance Factor in that huge Giants-Saints game on Sunday.
JOHN: Is there anyway this series doesn’t come down to Lidge blowing a crucial save?
TIM: Umm, of course. If the Phillies win every game by more than four runs, or lose every game easily. In baseball, you only need a closer if you lead heading into the ninth by three or fewer runs.
JOHN: Who ya got?
TIM: Brad Lidge blows a crucial save! No, I think they split the first two, Philly wins two of three at home—including one where they come back late—and the Phillies clinch it by roughing up Padilla in LA in Game 6. The lineup is just too good for the Dodgers’ pitching staff. I will now watch replays of Ron Dixon’s kickoff return against the Eagles in the 2000 playoffs to cheer myself up.