First of all, we have two excellent and intriguing match-ups in the Championship Series’ of each league. If you were asked to pick the best team of the four remaining, which would you choose? You might have a strong opinion, but nobody in their right mind could honestly say that one team stands out above the rest. Tampa Bay has been the story all season and are playing great baseball. They are taking on a Boston team who played four, closely contested battles with the Angels and have experience on their side. The Dodgers just swept arguably the best regular-season team and their two top starting pitchers are hitting their stride at the right time. And, the Phillies cruised past the Brewers, including C.C. Sabathia in four games. I can’t honestly make a prediction at this point – mainly because it would be meaningless. I will, however, give my opinion on each squad through-and-through, breaking down each position and hit on each nook and cranny to help get you ready for two all-out battles about to ensue. I guess you could take this as more of a “viewer’s guide” with an educated guess at the end. I will do the NLCS first and get the ALCS done shortly after. Enjoy.
I challenge you again. Who should win this series? Sure, the Dodgers come in on a high generated by handing the Cubs one of the worst defeats in a history chock full of them. The Phillies have home-field advantage, where they had little trouble in dismissing the Brewers in the first two games of the NLDS. Yeah, well, the Dodgers have two starting pitchers in Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley who currently look like they are hitting their peak at the right time. OK, but the Phillies offense is getting contributions up-and-down their lineup, from Rollins, to Werth, to Victorino, to Burrell – everybody is getting in the act. Fine, but the Dodgers now have a healthy and rejuvenated table-setter in Rafael Furcal and the best pure hitter remaining in Manny Ramirez. The Phillies have the advantage of giving the ball to a closer who has an unblemished record in shutting the door this year in Brad Lidge.
The arguments could continue the length of the entire cross-country flight between games. Yet, after the dust settles there is one fact that reigns true in post-season baseball that gives the advantage to one of these teams.
Pitching beats offense. Period.
In the 15 games played so far in the post-season, six of them were decided by two-runs or less. The fact is that starting pitching and bullpens win games in October. There is no disputing that the Dodgers hold the advantage in starting pitching. Compare the top three pitchers used by each team in the Division Series:
Los Angeles: Lowe – Billingsley – Kuroda
Philadelphia: Hamels – Myers – Moyer
Now, consider the fourth starter if needed: Dodgers have been rumored to go with rookie Clayton Kershaw, who grew up in a short period of time. He has a live arm and good stuff. The Dodgers could trump the inexperience factor by pitching him at home and the advantage of pitching lefties against the lefty-laden Phils is obvious. My guess is that Philly might look to Blanton this time around before Moyer, based on the clinching win and solid performance in the Game 4 and his strong finish to the regular season. Then again, starting the veteran Moyer would benefit the team by pitching carefully to one Manny Ramirez and challenging the lefties surrounding him in Andre Ethier and James Loney.
Game One becomes extremely important to the Phillies. If Hamels, their only sure-fire stud starting pitcher, can’t find a way to get a win, the hill to climb would instantly become steeper and the pressure would build.
On the surface, just based on names and depth, the starting pitching nod goes to the Dodgers. The matchups, however, might draw it a little closer to even. Remember, those Dodger starters faced a very right-handed Cubs lineup and the road should be a little rockier for them against this powerful lineup.
What about the second most-important aspect to post-season baseball? The bullpen. We mentioned that the Phillies have the stop-gap closer in Lidge, but is his supporting cast up to the task, especially if the starting pitching falters in a game? We know what J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin are all about, but Scott Eyre, Clay Condrey and Ryan Madson will also be called upon to get the ball to Lidge. And they weren’t exactly razor-sharp against the Brewers.
The Dodgers bullpen is strong and relatively rested other than their new seventh-inning man Cory Wade. Wade, a rookie, is simply dirty and appears to enjoy the spotlight that the MLB Playoffs is sure to provide. He was called upon three times in the Cubs series, the same amount as their “set-up man” Jonathan Broxton. Wade gave up one earned run and didn’t walk a man. Broxton was nearly perfect, not allowing a hit, run and walked just two. The Dodgers still insist that Takashi Saito is their closer, but he did give up two earned runs without recording an out in Game 2. I am not exactly buying that business. I think if Joe Torre has to give the ball to somebody to get their three best hitters out, he goes with Broxton. Again, that is all speculation.
It is well documented that the Phillies employ some killer left-handed bats. Another key to this series is the health and availability of Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo. They didn’t need a lefty out of the pen in the three-game sweep of the Cubs, but he is sure to be a factor in this series. He has had some operations on his elbow and after a successful simulated game at Dodgers Stadium today shortly before boarding the plane, they do expect him to be ready to go. Joe Beimel will also likely be called upon against the big lefties. He was 5-1 with a 2.02 ERA in 71 appearances this regular season.
Both teams have solid bullpens, but I would have to give the slight edge to the Dodgers in this facet.
When trying to determine between two evenly-matched offensive sides, it is beneficial to take a look at who is hot. Another key to this series is one Jayson Werth who torched the Brewers in the NLDS and is needed to keep swinging a hot stick against the Dodgers. The Phillies have power up-and-down the lineup. The Dodgers, again, get their catalyst in Furcal back and the boost provided by James Loney, highlighted by the granny in Game 1. What might be a little overshadowed is the fact that the Dodgers got opportune hits in the Cubs series and the key to their lineup is how those around Manny perform. Take away that big blast from Loney he was 2-for-13 with one RBI. Matt Kemp was 2-for-13 with no RBI and Andre Ethier was 1-for-10 but drew four free passes. The point here is that without those three striking the ball with consistency, the Phillies can pitch to them without having to face No. 99.
Finally, we have defense. Solid defense is an extension of solid pitching in more ways than one. In closely contested games, it is usually the teams who make plays in the field that win the game. That said, it is also a big confidence boost to those on the hill to know they are backed up and don’t have to do it all by themselves. The Phils have a very good defense with strong arms at all positions. The Dodgers aren’t bad either. Each team had similar fielding percentages in the regular season, but the Phillies compiled an NL-leading 36 outfield assists. Defense becomes a legitimate factor in October.
A quick recap of the keys to this series:
1.) Game 1 – the Phillies need to win Game 1 with Hamels on the mound at home.
2.) Kuo – the Dodgers could really use the services of their lefty reliever.
3.) Werth & Victorino – the Phillies offense is solid without these two, but devastating when both are contributing (see NLDS).
4.) Defense – both teams will rely on their defense to make plays and avoid extended stress on the arms.
I really believe strongly in the Dodgers conviction this post-season. I hate to keep harping on it but if they win Game One, they have a decisive advantage heading back to Los Angeles, even if Game Two doesn’t go their way. Joe Torre’s experience and calm demeanor will also help LA.
Dodgers in Six
Look for my ALCS Preview tomorrow.