It’s hard to believe that after nearly 170 games, two teams that looked so even on paper could perform so differently under the bright lights of October. But such was the case in the 2009 NLCS, as the Phillies handily defeated the Dodgers.
To put it bluntly, the battle for the National League championship pitted a varsity team against a K-8 after-school baseball program. The Phillies focused, played instinctively, and treated these semi-finals as if they were just another collection of games in mid-June. The Dodgers pressed, strayed away from throwing strikes in hitters’ counts, and played “not to lose.”
I don’t mean to disrespect the 2009 Los Angeles Dodgers, for they did beat the Phillies in four of seven regular season meetings en route to the National League’s best record. They have a good nucleus of young talent (Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw) that they hope will reach their peak at the same time.
But they also have young guys who appear to be declining, such as Russell Martin (the new Jason Kendall) and Chad Billingsley, as well as the rapidly aging Manny Ramirez and Rafael Furcal, who went 8-for-40 in the NLCS. Furcal was supposed to be the Dodgers’ igniter, yet he failed to score a run in the series. Ramirez was supposed to be the middle-of-the-order run-producer extraordinaire, but he didn’t drive in a single run after the fifth inning of Game One.
Coming into the NLCS, the Phillies appeared to have an advantage on the Dodgers, but the gap between the teams wasn’t as gigantic as these five games showed. The Phils had the more powerful offense, reliable defense and superior starting pitching, but the Dodgers held a massive edge in the bullpen, where they sported the likes of 2009 unhittables Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill and Hong Chih-Kuo.
Against a left-handed-heavy Phillies lineup, devastating lefties Sherrill and Kuo were supposed to thrive. The Dodgers held a distinct advantage on the bench, too, which supported the rear ends of Jim Thome, Mark Loretta, Juan Pierre and Orlando Hudson.
Suffice it to say, the Phillies absolutely pounded the oft-praised Dodgers bullpen, scoring 14 runs on 21 hits off the unit in 21 innings, while also drawing 14 huge walks. In addition to displaying a fondness for multiples of seven against LA’s relief corps, the Phillies played their brand of baseball against the Dodgers pen. They were extremely patient, worked deep counts, and executed with runners in scoring position. For five games, the entire Dodgers pitching staff looked scared and outmatched by this dynamic Philadelphia offense.
Two single innings represented the Dodgers’ fear of failure in this series: the ninth inning of Game Four and the first inning of Game Five. In the final frame of Game Four, Broxton pitched around his old nemesis Matt Stairs with one out and the bases empty, walking him on four pitches. This took Broxton out of his element: He hit Carlos Ruiz one pitch later, and eventually surrendered a game-winning two-run double to Jimmy Rollins that will forever be etched in the minds of Philly faithful.
The very next time the Dodgers sent out a pitcher and eight fielders, Vicente Padilla easily got past Rollins and Shane Victorino, but then got behind in the count to Chase Utley and refused to give in. Padilla walked Utley, then threw four pitches way out of the zone to Ryan Howard due to fear that the “The Big Piece” would once again carve his initials into the major league postseason record book.
Much like Broxton with Stairs, Padilla didn’t trust his stuff enough, and paid the price when Jayson Werth blasted a three-run homer that set the tone in the Phillies’ clincher.
All the blame cannot be placed on the Dodgers starting rotation or bullpen, however, because it was up to the Phillies to execute, which they did, just about every time. Sure, the Dodgers bullpen was critically acclaimed throughout the season, but if they pitched only against the Phillies, you better believe those ERAs, FIPs, and BB/K/HR rates would be vastly different. Throwing a fastball by Chase Headley at Petco Park in mid-August is much different than attempting to get one past Chase Utley at Citizens Bank Park in October.
In between the Phillies’ ridiculous offensive output and the Dodgers’ pitching woes came a bunch of head-scratchers from Joe Torre that only helped the Phils. For no logical reason, Torre refused to play second baseman Orlando Hudson. I understand that Ronnie Belliard had a high slugging percentage and a number of timely hits after coming to the Dodgers from the Nationals on Aug. 30, but his hot streak had been over for some time, and the minimal offensive advantage that Torre feels Belliard provides is undeniably negated by his inferior fielding. Hudson’s legs, switch-hitting and defense (even after all the injuries) are still more threatening than what Belliard provides in the two-hole, seven-hole, or wherever else Torre felt he needed to bat his undeserved starter.
Another baffling decision was not pinch-hitting Thome with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a 9-4 Phillies lead in Game Five. Torre elected to let Martin strike out with one away, and then let Casey “the Grinder/Battler/insert stupid analyst cliché here” Blake ground out for the 9,000th time this series. All the while, Thome waited in the on-deck circle. I fail to see the logic in this. Both Martin and Blake struggled in the series, and both are much worse candidates to face Ryan Madson than Thome. Even if the presence of Thome were to force Charlie Manuel to counter with Scott Eyre, isn’t Thome vs. Eyre a more favorable matchup for LA than Martin/Blake vs. Madson?
In contrast, Manuel pulled all the right strings and didn’t worry about the feelings of his players. Cole Hamels couldn’t hold big leads in Games One or Five, a la Adam Eaton, and Manuel didn’t let last year’s NLCS and World Series MVP stick around to work through it. Hamels’ effectiveness was nowhere to be found, and Manuel played the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” card, reaping the benefits both times. In Torre’s defense, managing is much more difficult and subject to scrutiny when you’re playing from behind in 34 out of 45 innings.
A key factor in this series was the ability of the Phillies to put up crooked numbers. The Phils scored in 16 different half-innings over five games, and scored two runs or more in 11 of them. Meanwhile, the Dodgers scored more than one run in an inning only four times throughout the series. Why, you may ask? Because the Dodgers pitchers out-walked the Phillies 23-to-12. Six walks a game isn’t going to get it done against the Phillies—this lineup is too deadly to dilly-dally with.
So many different Phillies stepped up in this series. Howard has had one of the most impressive postseasons in major league history, tallying an RBI in a ML-record eight consecutive playoff games. Rollins’ game-winning two-run double in Game Four was the most substantial swing of momentum in the series. Jayson Werth hit three mammoth home runs in the NLCS to set the Phillies’ all-time record for playoff homers, with seven. Utley reached base in every game—what else is new? He now holds the record for most consecutive playoff games reaching base safely, with 25. Victorino went 7-for-19 with a double, triple, three homers, six RBI and four runs scored. Ruiz, the Phillies’ very own Mr. October, started the scoring in Game One with a three-run big fly off Kershaw, and reached base in 11 of 19 plate appearances!
On the mound, Cliff Lee was brilliant once again, tossing eight scoreless innings, with 10 strikeouts and no walks. Through two rounds, he has now allowed a mere two runs in 24.1 innings pitched. Pedro Martinez dazzled in Game Two, giving up two hits in seven shutout innings. Brad Lidge, after allowing nearly two baserunners per inning in the regular season, saw only two Dodgers reach base in three outings. And not to be overlooked is the stellar performance of Chad Durbin, a 2008 blessing and 2009 disappointment, who came in during four different situations (three of which were crucial) and refused to let a Dodger reach base.
What will transpire in the World Series is anyone’s guess. Predictions in sports are like TVs in the backseat’s head-rest—they’re useless. The bullpens of the Rockies and Dodgers were each labeled as reasons for the Phillies’ impending demise, yet here we are, waiting one long week for the World Series. The Phillies one-through-eight hitters have disposed of every “great” reliever they’ve faced, and their pitchers have made Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Helton, Ramirez, Furcal and Kemp all look like different forms of Eric Bruntlett.
By the time the World Series returns to Philadelphia, the Phillies will have held baseball’s crown for more than one calendar year. It doesn’t matter who or what has stood in their way during the title defense; every attempt at dethroning the Phils has been futile. It’s as if this team listens to the traffic report on the radio and hears about four-car pileups and overturned tractor trailers, but when they actually get there, the streets are clear. What’s supposed to stop them now, a fantasy baseball team led by Joe Girardi with a $210 million payroll?
I’ll believe it when I see it.