What to watch for in the National League Division Series

With some dramatics on Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers clinched the wild card and set the National League Division Series. The Los Angeles Dogers and the Chicago Cubs will square off in Chicago and the Brewers will visit Philadelphia for the first two games of their five-game set with the Phillies.

While the Cubs and the Phillies will be favored, there are plenty of reasons to like the underdogs in both these series. While the Cubs had the second lowest team ERA in the NL this year, the Dodgers held that top spot. The Phillies swept the Brewers in a four-game set down the stretch, but they didn’t have to face CC Sabathia, who could pitch twice in five games in this series.

Here are some things to keep an eye on when you watch the games:

Dodgers vs. Cubs

Dodgers pitching vs. Cubs hitting
The Dodgers will turn to Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda in the first three games of the series. All three are very capable starters who posted ERAs under four this year. Also, all three are right handed. Despite the Cubs’ best efforts to add a solid left-handed bat during the offseason, their top six hitters by OPS this season all hit right handed (minimum 400 at-bats). While the Cubs will score some runs, they probably will be off the pace they set during the year, when they led the National League in runs scored.

This brings up an interesting dilemma for Cubs manager Lou Piniella, who has gone to a productive platoon at second base and in the outfield the past few months. Kosuke Fukudome, Jim Edmonds and Mike Fontenot have gotten the lion’s share of playing time against right handers, but Fukudome has been in a prolonged slump at the end of the year and this would leave Mark DeRosa, one of the Cubs’ best players, on the bench. DeRosa almost always plays somewhere. If Piniella doesn’t like Fukudome but still wants a left-handed bat, he could play rookie Micah Hoffpauir, who has been swinging a hot bat, in right. That might be the best offensive lineup, but would leave a lot to be desired defensively, especially in the spacious Dodgers Stadium when play moves there.

Piniella has shown willingness to play rookies with very little big league experience in the playoffs—last year he went with Geovany Soto over Jason Kendall despite Soto having had only a handful of starts to get to know the Cubs’ pitchers. Piniella has pressed all the right buttons in the regular season, so keep an eye on what kind of lineup he puts out and how it changes if the Cubs don’t win the first two games at Wrigley.

In the other dugout, Joe Torre will have some decisions with his bullpen in this series. With Takashi Saito coming back from injury and rookie flamethrower Clayton Kershaw being moved to relief, this likely is the strongest the Dodgers pen has been all year. Will Torre go to Saito in the eighth inning for a two-inning save as he did with Mariano Rivera? Will he use Kershaw as a LOOGY or as a middle reliever? Kershaw was regularly hitting 95 mph as a starter and could be even more overpowering out of the bullpen.

Throw in Jonathan Broxton, Cory Wade, Joe Beimel and even Chan Ho Park and you have what could be a shut-down bullpen. These guys might not be household names, but they can pitch. and Torre has a record of getting the most out of his bullpen in October.

Dodgers hitting vs. Cubs pitching
The Cubs will counter with Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden and Ted Lilly in their rotation. Dempster was sort of a surprise when he was named the starter for Game 1, but he has been much more consistent than Zambrano, who has had a couple of shaky starts since his no-hitter.

Another nice thing about this setup is that the two groundball pitchers, Dempster and Zambrano, will be pitching at Wrigley and the two fly ball pitchers, Harden and Lilly, will be pitching at Dodger Stadium. It is small advantages like this that the Cubs routinely have had in their favor. A lot of credit needs to go to Piniella and the front office for things like this.

Harden has been healthy for the Cubs, but there has been some concern about him losing velocity in his recent starts. Obviously, injuries are nothing new to Harden, but just before the A’s traded him to the Cubs his velocity also dipped and he recovered without any real problems.

The Cubs’ bullpen is a little more of a concern. The back end is more than solid with Kerry Wood as their closer and Carlos Marmol as primary setup man, but after that things get a little murky.

Bobby Howry hasn’t had the kind of year you would expect from him. Michael Wuertz has pitched pretty well but is prone to walking batters, which could be dangerous in a tight series. Neal Cotts is normally a solid lefty out of the pen, but he has been merely average this year. Jeff Samardzija has a sparkling ERA but a much higher RA and xFIP and a questionable record in Double-A this year.

Look for Piniella to go to Marmol for multiple innings if the game is close, to bridge the gap to Wood. Piniella also has mentioned the possibility of using Lilly in relief in Game 1 or 2. I think this would be a smart move and if Zambrano, especially, exits early, look for Lilly to step in and get the Cubs to the back end of the bullpen.

What kind of Dodger offense will be opposing them is still a mystery. It appears that both Rafael Furcal and Jeff Kent will be on the playoff roster, but what role they will play is still uncertain. Furcal, especially, could really help the Dodgers offense even if it is in a pinch-hitting role.

The Dodgers won’t win a slugfest with the Cubs, but if their pitching holds up they can play some small ball and grind out a couple of runs. One thing the Dodgers are likely to test early is the throwing arm of Cubs catcher Soto, who threw out only 20.7 percent of base runners during the year and missed the last few games with a bruised hand.

I guess I am obliged to mention how good Manny Ramirez has been since coming to the Dodgers, but the guys in front of Manny will likely tell the story. If they can get on, the Dodgers will score some runs. If they don’t, it could be a quick series.

Brewers vs. Phillies

Brewers pitching vs. Phillies hitting
Can anyone other than Sabathia step up for the Brewers? It certainly doesn’t look like that will be Ben Sheets, who is nursing a sore elbow. Without Sheets, the Brewers probably will throw Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan and Yovani Gallardo. Don’t be surprised that Gallardo is getting the ball in Game 1. He pitched well in his only start after tearing his ACL early in the year and the Phillies haven’t seen him this year, which could be an advantage. He features a solid change-up that might be effective against all the Phillies’ left-handed bats.

That sets up Bush and Suppan to pitch in Miller Park, where they have been much better than on the road. Still, Bush and Suppan are exactly the kind of guys the Phillies hitters eat for lunch, so expect new manager Dale Sveum to go to his bullpen early in those games.

Speaking of the Brewers’ bullpen: I think it is safe to say that it is the worst among the playoff teams. Eric Gagne has been bad all year and new closer Salomon Torres has struggled lately. When Guillermo Mota has been your best pitcher recently, you know you don’t have a good bullpen.

That said, I think the Brewers might be catching a small break with their opponent. The Phillies are filled with left-handed bats (or switch-hitters better from the left side) and the most consistent pitcher out of the Brewers bullpen has been lefty Brian Shouse. With starter Manny Parra being moved to the bullpen and possibly rookie lefty Mitch Stetter, that pen might be better than people think this series.

As for the Phillies’ bats, what else can be said that hasn’t been already? They are a powerful lineup top to bottom and have absolutely destroyed many of the Brewers’ pitchers, especially in that last series. Ryan Howard is white hot right now, getting all the press, but Chase Utley certainly had a better year than Howard and Jayson Werth has been great flying under the radar. This team is going to score runs in probably every game not started by Sabathia. How they do in those two games, however, might be the difference in the series.

When Sabathia is on the mound, though, he is a threat to go the distance and hide the poor Brewers pen. The Phillies would do well to work the count against Sabathia, especially in Game 2 with Sabathia on three days rest for the fourth straight time. They may not score a lot of runs, but if they get a couple innings of Brewers middle relievers it probably is worth it. Sabathia’s slider is just death to lefties, so can guys swinging from the right side of the plate like Werth and Shane Victorino pick up Utley and Howard? Sabathia already has likely boosted his next contract with his play down the stretch, but if he pitches well in the postseason he might be the highest paid player in baseball next season.

Phillies pitching vs. Brewers hitting
The Phillies will counter with a very solid lefty of their own in Cole Hamels. Hamels is scheduled to pitch Game 1 and likely would pitch Game 5 if necessary. The other games will be started by some combination of Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers and Joe Blanton.

Myers has been shaky in his last two starts but generally good since moving back into the rotation and he pitched a complete game against the Brewers three starts ago. Blanton, the Phillies’ midseason acquisition from the A’s, has pitched pretty well too. He hasn’t gone deep in games much recently, but with the strong Phillies bullpen, this hasn’t been a problem. Moyer is the crafty veteran who has pitched well down the stretch. I am not sure it matters much what order Charlie Manuel uses these three guys. With the built-in off days and the team’s strong bullpen, none of them will be expected to go very deep.

That bullpen is anchored by Brad Lidge, who didn’t blow a save all season. Setup men J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin also have been excellent this year. Both Madson and Durbin have gone multiple innings many times this year, so expect to see one of these three on the mound in an important situation. Scott Eyre has been a good situational lefty since joining the Phillies, so he might be asked to get Prince Fielder out once or twice.

The Brewers are a predominantly right-handed hitting team with all of their top players batting right handed with the exception of Fielder, who also can hit lefties. Hamels and Moyer have had pretty good success against the Brewers this year, but if the Brewers offense is going to bust out, it likely will come against one of them.

When a right hander is on the mound, expect a steady diet of sliders to Brewers batters. All the Milwaukee hitters have had trouble with that pitch; Corey Hart in particular has really struggled. The Brewers are not a patient bunch at the plate, so if the Phillies pitchers can get ahead of them, they likely can get a lot of swings and misses on balls outside the zone. The danger comes if they fall behind and have to come in with a fastball.

Ryan Braun hammers fastballs, but so does J.J. Hardy, who has been batting behind Fielder since Sveum took over. I wouldn’t expect Fielder to get a lot to hit unless Hardy burns the Phillies once or twice first. The Brewers offense is feast-or-famine, relying on the long ball for a large percentage of their runs. Playing in Citizens Bank Park for the first two games might suit them well.

Predictions

I think the Cubs will beat the Dodgers, but it will take them all five games to do so. The Dodgers will win a couple of tight games between a couple of Cub blowouts before bowing out.

I think the Brewers-Phillies series also will go five games, with the Brewers coming out on top. I can’t go against Sabathia, who is the best pitcher in the game right now, by far. The Phillies better try to end this series in four games, because if it goes five they are in trouble.

If you have a different opinion, feel free to let me know. My e-mail address is listed below.

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