By defeating the Rockies in the NLDS, the Phillies became just the fifth team in NL history to win a playoff series following a World Series title. Before the 1995-96 Atlanta Braves, the last team to accomplish this feat was the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds, a team that the Phillies are eight wins away from matching as repeat NL World Series winners.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before even thinking about another championship, the Phillies will have to move past the Los Angeles Dodgers, their NLCS foe for the second consecutive year.
In the 2008 postseason, the Phillies used back-to-back home wins to take a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Dodgers, before dropping Game Three to Hiroki Kuroda in L.A. Kuroda’s involvement in this NLCS is key, because the righthander was 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in last year’s playoffs and has killed the Phillies during his brief two-year career in America.
A pitcher that the Phillies once had a chance to sign, Kuroda has made them pay in four career starts (one in the playoffs), going 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA, allowing only four runs over 25 innings pitched, while striking out 20. His 0.68 WHIP against the Phillies is ridiculous, and every Phillies fan is hoping that the bulging disk in his neck will sideline him for one more week. Joe Torre told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that a decision concerning Kuroda’s status for the NLCS would be coming the following day.
After losing to Kuroda in the ’08 NLCS, the Phillies used the late-inning heroics of Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs, who each hit two-run homers off Dodger relievers in a memorable eighth inning of Game Four, in order to capture the momentum. Two days later, Cole Hamels pitched brilliantly and the Phillies clinched the NLCS.
But this time around, the Dodgers bullpen is a force to be reckoned with. George Sherrill, the best trade deadline acquisition not named Cliff Lee or Matt Holliday, is just what the Dodgers need in the late innings of this series—a devastating situational lefty. Left-handed hitters were 10-for-78 off Sherrill in ’09, with only two extra-base hits (both doubles) and a pathetic .340 OPS.
After joining the Dodgers, Sherrill allowed only two runs over 27.2 innings and became the eighth-inning gluestick for closer Jonathan Broxton. A series with the left-handed-heavy Phillies is exactly why the Dodgers went out and traded for Sherrill in late July. Kudos to Ned Colletti.
The Phillies lineup is 2-for-9 off Sherrill, with Matt Stairs being the only batter to face him more than once. Only Stairs and Raul Ibanez have gotten hits off the dominant lefty, while Chase Utley is 0-for-1 with a strikeout and Ryan Howard has never faced him.
The bullpen is obviously L.A.’s strongest asset, as Sherrill isn’t even the only tough southpaw. Hong-Chih Kuo has held the Phillies to 5-for-30 lifetime and has never allowed an extra-base hit. The fact that Broxton represents the Phils’ best chance of late hits in this series is scary.
The absolute key to this series will be the score of the games entering the seventh inning. If the Dodgers have as much as a two-run lead, the game could very well be over. Don’t expect the late-inning drama that the Phillies provided in the NLDS or last year’s NLCS, because this Dodgers bullpen is too stacked for that.
Luckily for the Phils, the Dodgers don’t really offer in much in terms of starting pitching. If Kuroda is unable to go, their three-man rotation will include Clayton Kershaw, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla. Honestly, if you would have told me in 2003 that Wolf and Padilla (two disappointing former Phillies) would be standing in the way of a second straight World Series berth for the Phils, I would have laughed in your face and cried myself to sleep wondering if I’d ever witness a championship for my beloved team. Don’t judge me, it was an exaggeration. Maybe.
The Phillies have always slapped Kershaw around—he’s 0-3 with a 6.64 ERA in his career against them, with 21 hits and 11 walks allowed in 20 innings. Like just about any major league pitcher, though, Kershaw has fanned quite a few Phillies in his time—23 to be exact. While the young lefty is clearly the most talented of the Dodger starters, this Phillies’ lineup has never seemed to care.
Wolf had two starts against the Phils this season, one good and one bad. Control has always been the X-factor for the former Phillie, and you better believe he will be tested by an extremely patient lineup.
Padilla defines the word “enigma,” and my prediction is that he will follow up his tremendous start against the Cardinals with a stinker against the Phillies. In one start against the Phils, he allowed seven runs and two homers in six innings pitched. I can tell you firsthand that this is a guy who has never put it together for a long enough time to be considered reliable. I watched him for years, and every time he seemed to realize his potential and toss a gem, he followed it up with a start that reminded us all just who he is. For every fist-pump Padilla generates, two eye-rolls and a shake of the head are bound to follow.
For the Phillies, Cole Hamels is the key to the pitching staff. He will likely start Game One, with either Pedro Martinez or Joe Blanton following in Game Two, and Cliff Lee after that. Over six starts, Hamels is 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA against the Dodgers in his career. This season, Hamels was brilliant against L.A., allowing only one earned run in 16 innings, while allowing 13 total baserunners and striking out 14.
Despite an up-and-down ’09 season, Hamels should fare well in this series. He has a history of stifling the boys in blue, and that should continue at spacious Dodger Stadium. The keys with Hamels are always the establishment of his fastball in the first three innings and his pitch count. In addition to very bad luck (.325 BABIP), much of the reason for his tumultuous season could be attributed to his newfound inability to put hitters away. After getting ahead in counts, Hamels would allow foul ball after foul ball, increasing his pitch count and decreasing his ability to sneak something by the opposition.
The Phillies’ offensive X-factors will be Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth. As Rollins showed in the ninth inning of Games Three and Four, any time he can get on base with less than two outs, the Phillies do great things. Rollins got on base to begin an inning 80 times this season, and scored 54 runs. This means that he scores 70 percent of the time when he gets on to start an inning! Shane Victorino is on one of his scorching streaks right now, and with the power that comes after him, Rollins could get the Phillies rolling in this series if he could just get on base his first time up.
Werth is a key to the NLCS because Torre has made it clear that he won’t hesitate to give Howard the same treatment he gave Albert Pujols this year—plenty of intentional walks. If this happens, Werth should have a great series with two lefties on the mound in Kershaw and Wolf. Werth is to left-handed pitching what Ryan Howard is to right-handed pitching—death. Since 2007, Werth is hitting .319/.421/.635/1.056 off lefties, with 35 homers in 392 at-bats. If all pitchers were lefties, Werth would be Pujols, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, you pick a legend.
The Dodgers’ success will hinge on whether or not Manny Ramirez can be superhuman like he was in the ‘08 NLCS, and if Andre Ethier can hit the lefties that the Phillies will be throwing at him. In 165 at-bats against lefties during the regular season, Ethier hit .194/.283/.345 with six homers. He is 3-for-16 lifetime off Hamels and 0-for-3 against Lee, but he has had success off the Phillies’ situational lefty, Scott Eyre, going 3-for-4 with a double and a homer.
The Phillies will win this series because Rollins will ignite the offense and the team will get to the Dodgers’ starters early enough to make their dynamic bullpen irrelevant. I see the series going six games, with the Phillies losing one of Hamels’ or Lee’s starts, as well as Game Three, with Martinez or Blanton on the mound.
This Dodgers team is improved from last season, but it still lacks the power the Phillies possess. Sure, L.A. had the highest batting average and on-base percentage in the National League, but the command of Lee (1.67 BB/9) and Hamels (2 BB/9) will negate a patient Dodgers lineup.
If Kuo, Sherrill and Broxton could each be reincarnated as starting pitchers before first pitch Thursday night, the Dodgers would have a chance. But unfortunately for the “passionate” fans out west, that ain’t happenin’.