NLDS Preview: Brewers vs. Phillies
Less than three weeks ago the Brewers came to Philadelphia holding a four-game lead in the wild-card race and carrying the league's second-best record despite a slump that had seen them lose seven of 10 to open September. By the end of the four-game set the two teams were tied for the wild card. It was the start of a finishing kick in which the Phillies went 13-3, breezing past the Mets to claim their second NL East title in a row.
It was also the end of the line for Brewers manager
On the strength of some dramatic home runs from a homegrown nucleus of
At their most fundamental level, both of these offenses share some common traits. Both put the ball in play less than the average NL team and have low batting averages when they do. Both make up for it with serious doses of thunder from numerous spots in the order, and ranking among the majors' top five teams in terms of the percentage of runs generated by homers. But far from being units of slow-footed sluggers waiting around for the long ball, both augment their attacks with surprising amounts of speed via high-percentage stolen-base threats. The gap in their raw scoring levels (4.9 runs per game for the Phillies, second in the league, and 4.6 runs per game for the Brewers, seventh) is slightly distorted by their ballparks; Citizens Bank Ballpark favors hitters while Miller Park tilts toward pitchers.
The Phillies led the league in homers (214), with seven players reaching double digits and three more finishing with nine.
The supporting cast beyond those four is reasonably strong. Werth spent the first four and a half months of the season platooning with
The main moving parts in the Phillies lineup involve third base and Utley's spot in the order. Concerning the former,
As for the Brewers, they were third in the league in home runs (198), with eight players reaching double digits and five reaching 20.
The deployment of players surrounding that dynamic duo changed with the managerial switch. Sveum's first action was to shake up the lineup by installing Cameron in the leadoff spot -- a counter-intuitive move given his contact woes -- and to bat
Further down the order the Brewers have serious OBP issues; this segment of the lineup is where rallies go to die. Hardy has responded well to moving down the lineup, but Hart has been in a dreadful slump (.173/.192/.245 in September) amid a year in which he couldn't match his stellar 2007 contributions. Hall provides a potent bat against lefties (.306/.371/.522) but is helpless against righties (.174/.242/.316), so Sveum will likely start
The Brewers are a slightly above-average team when it comes to stealing bases, succeeding at a 74 percent clip, with the four players in double digits -- Hart with 23, Weeks with 19, Cameron with 17 and Braun with 14 -- all a bit better than that. Even so, that can't touch the Phillies, who succeeded at an 84 percent clip.
Both of these teams have reasonably good benches, but they may be of differing utility in this series. The aforementioned tendency for Dobbs to play behind the two righties will probably be trumped by the fact that the lefty Sabathia will be squaring off against Myers; Dobbs has just 10 PA against southpaws this year. Given his stellar performance as a pinch-hitter (.355/.388/.532 with an MLB-high 22 hits), he's in no danger of rusting, however. Stairs offers another game-changing threat in a pinch; he was 4 for 12 with two homers in September and boasts a career .281/.377/.513 line in 308 pinch-hit PA. In all the Phillies led the league with nine pinch homers and ranked second in pinch-hitter OPS on a .252/.309/.415 performance.
As for the rest, they're likely to be non-factors except for
Turning to the Brewers, Durham theoretically makes for a handy combination of peskiness and punch off the bench in games started by southpaws, but he's never found much success pinch-hitting, and went just 4 for 32 in that role this year. He and Counsell will likely start against Myers, and while the latter is laughably short of power, his patience at the plate proved critical down the stretch; he drew 16 walks in 20 September games while finding himself in the middle of some of the final week's crucial rallies.
As units the Phillies ranked seventh and the Brewers third in
Myers is an enigma. After spending most of last year as the team's closer he returned to the rotation and put up an unsightly 5.84 ERA in the first half of this year before accepting an option to the minors. He made four starts across three levels while ironing out his mechanics, and the returns were promising; he put up a 1.80 ERA over his next 11 starts, including a two-hit complete game against the Brewers on three days' rest in Yost's swan song. A pair of bombings to end the regular season tacked half a run onto his ERA and raised injury concerns, but the Phils feel that his woes are mechanical in nature and thus correctable.
The soft-tossing 45-year-old Moyer put up his best ERA in five years thanks to newfound stinginess with regard to the long ball; he surrendered just six homers in the second half and only two on the road, which could disappoint souvenir-hunters in Milwaukee. Blanton hasn't pitched all that well despite a superficially tidy 4-0 record since being acquired from Oakland, managing just four quality starts out of 13 as a Phil. He's got his place as staff filler, but his mediocrity may tempt Manuel to bring back Hamels on short rest if they're facing elimination in Game 4.
The Brewers arrive at this juncture with no shortage of question marks regarding their rotation: Will
Sheets is off the roster, having fallen prey to elbow woes that put a damper on his finest season since 2004. MRIs taken on Monday revealed that he has a torn flexor mass, meaning that he has almost certainly thrown his last pitch of the year. That might be a fatal blow to the Brewers' chances were it not for the return of Gallardo, who has made exactly one start since returning from the torn ACL he suffered on May 1. The 22-year-old threw 67 pitches over four innings in his return, striking out seven and maintaining a velocity in the low 90s. If everything is in order he'll probably make 80-90 pitches before handing off to the bullpen. The Philly lineup is the more patient of the two, and they could turn this into an advantage by working the count and attempting to wait Gallardo out.
That leaves Sabathia to start Game 2. The savior of the Brewers' season set career highs in starts, innings, strikeouts (251, second in the majors), complete games (10, tops in the majors), and shutouts (five, ditto), and it's anyone's guess as to whether he's got anything in the tank coming off his intense, emotional, 122-pitch effort in the finale. Memories of his poor performances in last year's playoffs following a 241-inning regular-season tally only add to the concern, but on a positive note he has put up an 0.83 ERA (2.49 RA) during his run of short-rest starts, thanks to increased reliance on his changeup; he may have a few tricks up his sleeve yet. If the Brewers make it to Game 5 he'll start on four days' rest.
Sveum hasn't committed to a starter beyond Game 2.
The Phillies' bullpen represents a significant advantage over the Brewers in this series. They led the NL in
Ahead of him
The Brewers' bullpen ranked only three spots behind the Phillies in terms of WXRL, but the drop-off between the two clubs is steep, 6.5 wins. Over the winter Melvin took a huge risk by laying out $10 million for one year of
The rest of the unit doesn't inspire tremendous confidence either, though
Both of these teams can make a case as slightly above-average defensively. The Brewers finished second in the league in raw
There's far less backstory to the Phillies' defense, which ranked fifth in the league in raw Defensive Efficiency and fourth in PADE at 0.59 percent above average. The Davenport numbers provide a slightly less sanguine view (-3 FRAA), showing Howard (-14) and Burrell (-11) as outright liabilities; hence the latter's frequent departures for a defensive replacement. Everywhere else the team rates as average or better, with Werth (+9, spread across all three outfield spots) rating the highest according to FRAA. On the Plus/Minus tip, Utley and Rollins top their respective positions (the former by nearly doubling the second-ranked
Sveum is mostly an unknown commodity; no manager has ever entered the postseason with less experience. He showed a willingness to shake things up upon taking over, particularly in the lineup, and by most accounts he's served as a stabilizing influence during a potentially traumatic time. He seems well aware that the makeup of his club precludes an over-reliance on small-ball tactics, but it will be interesting to see if he changes his mind if his offense again finds itself pressing. He's had his ups and downs navigating around a pitching staff that's full of holes, and the potential for land mines remains high, particularly given Gallardo's limitations and the recent shakiness of Torres.
For the second year in a row Manuel piloted a team that started slowly but wound up bringing home a division flag, making him just the third Phillies manager to take the team to the postseason in back-to-back years. He'll never be mistaken for
Despite the state of Milwaukee's pitching staff, this is a more even series than it might appear to be at first glance. That the Brewers might face southpaw starters three times in a five-game series helps their cause just a hair due to two of those starts being taken by Hamels. The biggest difference between the two clubs appears to be at the front end of their bullpens, where the Phils enjoy a considerable advantage, and the feeling here is that unless the Brewers can find a way to get Sabathia a second turn on the hill for a Game 5, that bullpen edge will prove decisive. I'm predicting the