NLCS Preview: Dodgers-Phillies
The Phillies made short work of the Brewers in the Division Series and come into the NL Championship Series with arguably the most potent lineup of any of the four remaining teams, along with the top starting pitcher in
Adding color to what already appears to be a competitive series, the Phillies-Dodgers matchup is one
It's no secret the Phillies are first and foremost a slugging team as far as their offense is concerned. They led the National League in home runs (214), with seven players reaching double digits and three more finishing with nine. Furthermore, they placed a close second in the NL in their percentage of runs generated via homers (42.6 percent). That trait was on display in the Division Series against the Brewers, as the Phils plated two-thirds of their 15 runs via five homers. Victorino's grand slam off of
On the other hand it's worth noting that in the first round the Phillies struggled to score when they didn't get the long ball, managing just four runs in their two homerless games and putting up runs in only six of the series' 36 innings. That's not entirely out of character; the Phillies were held homerless in fewer games than all but two NL clubs, but when they failed to go deep they scored just 2.9 runs per game, 12th in the league under such circumstances. Nonetheless, their arsenal does include smart baserunning, a trait due in part to the influence of Lopes, one of the great percentage basestealers of all time. These Phillies were successful on 84.5 percent of their stolen base attempts, a clip
The major nit to pick with regard to skipper
Neither of those two lefty hitters did much damage during the opening series; they combined to go 4-for-26 with a pair of doubles and seven walks, five of them Howard's, two of those intentional. In addition to the aforementioned homers by Victorino and Burrell (whose Game 4 performance allayed concerns about his pre-series lower back woes), the Phils got strong contributions from Rollins and Werth. Although Werth hacked his way through a three-strikeout opener, he collected five extra-base hits in the remaining games, including three off of righties, underscoring the fact that he's now a valuable every day player in this lineup.
As for the Dodgers, the return of Furcal allowed them to field a stronger lineup in the Division Series than at any point prior to clinching the NL West flag. The shortstop had put up MVP-caliber numbers back in April before being sidelined due to a herniated disc that required surgery. Returning to the leadoff spot for the LDS, he got on base seven times in 15 plate appearances, and while he didn't steal a base, he demonstrated his speed -- not to mention his creativity -- by beating out a two-out bunt in Game 2, driving in a run that helped turn a trickling one-run inning into a five-run flood. Later in the series he would underscore his improved health by scoring from second on a single, scoring from first on a double, advancing to second on a throw home after singling and helping generate an error on a pickoff play. The Dodgers are a completely different team with him atop the lineup, with a 22-16 record including the LDS.
That improvement compounds the one provided by Ramirez, who hit a torrid .396/.489/.743 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 53 games after being acquired from the Red Sox. Prior to his arrival the Dodgers offense was woefully underpowered, ranking second to last in the league in both home runs and percentage of runs generated via homers. With him, it was a different story:
Of course the above splits are due to more than just Ramirez's dreadlocked presence. The acquisition of Blake to shore up the team's quagmire at third base and the solidification of full-time roles for Kemp and Ethier at the expense of
Ethier had a quiet Division Series, but Martin snapped out of a second-half funk (.336 SLG) with three doubles and a homer and Loney had the go-ahead hits in the first and third games via a grand slam off of
Given that the Dodgers will face two lefties in the first three games in Hamels and
The Dodgers didn't attempt a steal in the first round, but they ranked fourth in the league in steals (126) and fifth in stolen base percentage (74.6 percent). Furcal (8 for 11 this year, 62 for 81 in 2005-06) may be itching to continue showcasing his health by returning this weapon to his arsenal. Kemp (35 for 46) might be on the go to give a shot at scoring a run with the lower third of the order, and Martin (18 for 24) has great speed for a catcher. Pierre (40 for 52) likely won't get too many chances coming off the bench, but if he miraculously winds up on base, bet on him to go.
The Phillies' bench drew just nine plate appearances in the four games of the LDS. Manuel bypassed Coste for the start in Game 2 despite the fact that he'd been behind the dish for 22 of Myers' previous 24 starts; the following off-day made resting Ruiz a moot point, and could drive a repeat of that decision. Manuel pulled off a few late-inning double switches to upgrade over Burrell in left field, calling upon Bruntlett instead of his other outfielders in three of the four games, something he had experimented with late in the year.
Manuel's biggest move with regards to his bench came in Game 4, when he started Dobbs, a stronger hitter but weaker-fielding third baseman than Feliz, with
Torre had even less occasion to use his bench against the Cubs than Manuel did against the Brewers, finding them just three plate appearances in the three games. At the moment he's got an odd collection of ex-famous people at his disposal. Kent would be starting at second base were it not for fact that he's still recovering from early-September surgery to repair a torn medial meniscus; as it is he's probably limited to pinch-hitting detail. Garciaparra probably represents the team's best power threat coming off the bench; he could also find his way into the lineup against one of the lefties for a spot start at first base if the Dodgers struggle against Hamels in Game 1. Pierre represents the team's best set of extra wheels for pinch-running purposes and their only true extra outfielder, though he's really not much of an upgrade over Ramirez in left or Kemp in center to offset the loss of either of those big bats in anything but a blowout.
As for the rest, Ozuna's got speed in his favor as well as a bit of outfield experience, though it's quite possible if such a calamity arose where the latter mattered, he'd play at third base and Blake would move to the outfield. Ardoin is merely an insurance policy. Berroa... well, he looks kind of bad-ass with that goatee, but he can't hit his hat size. If he's playing that means Furcal isn't, which spells serious trouble for the Dodgers.
Both teams got very strong performances from their rotations in the first round. Continuing to build on the ace form that saw him finish sixth in the league in both ERA and strikeouts and
Myers allowed only two hits against the Brewers, an effort that was largely overshadowed by his own tenacious at-bats against Sabathia. In any case he quelled whatever doubts lingered regarding his final two starts, looking much more like the pitcher who put up a 1.80 ERA over an 11-start stretch from late July to mid-September. Moyer was the weak link in the series against the Brewers, laboring through 90 pitches over four innings before being lifted for a pinch-hitter, but he came into the series on something of a roll as well, having put up a 3.39 ERA while allowing just 0.7 HR/9 since the All-Star break. As you might expect from a fly-ball pitcher who calls a homer-conducive park home, he pitched better in road games (2.92 ERA, 0.8 HR/9) than at Citizens Bank Ballpark (4.61 ERA, 1.1 HR/9), though to be fair this was the first time in his two-plus years with the Phillies that that was the case. Blanton was thought to be the weak link in the Phils' rotation but pitched a strong game in closing out the Brewers, striking out seven (five swinging), which rates as a surprise given his reputation as a pitcher who doesn't generate many strikeouts (5.1 per nine this year) or even swings-and-misses (11 percent, according to the data at
The Dodgers had no shortage of ace-like performances in their series. Lowe came in having put up a 1.27 ERA over his previous 10 starts (nine of them quality, the other a post-clincher tune-up). Riding his sinker/slider combo, he scattered seven hits over six innings, and despite allowing at least one baserunner in each frame he seemed able to conjure up ground balls and strikeouts exactly when needed. He does an equally good job of holding lefties and righties in check and is very good at avoiding the long ball (his 0.6 HR/9 was
Billingsley, who ranked fifth in the NL in strikeouts, seventh in ERA and 10th in
Who the Dodgers start in Game 4 may be the biggest decision Torre makes in the series. His options besides Lowe are the 42-year-old Maddux and the 20-year-old Kershaw, the salty veteran righty bound for the Hall of Fame and the rookie southpaw still learning the ropes at the major league level. Maddux pitched at about a league-average level with the Padres but was rocked for a 5.09 ERA after being reacquired in late August (including a seven-run drubbing by the Phillies in his return); at this stage of his career he's got control, experience, guile, veteran herbs and spices, and plenty of moxie, but little in the way of stuff. Kershaw pitched much better after returning from a stint in the minors than he had before, putting up a 3.74 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 65 innings over his last 12 starts. He may be more vulnerable against a Phillies lineup that thumped southpaws to a .257/.337/.464 tune (compared to .255/.330/.426 against righties). While Torre has said the Dodgers need "a left-handed presence" against the Phillies, it's tough to imagine him giving Kershaw the ball if the Dodgers are down 2-1.
The Phillies came into the playoffs with the NL's best bullpen by several measures. They had the lowest ERA of any unit in the league (3.22) and
The set-up men ahead of Lidge were similarly effective in the LDS, but not untouchable. Madson demonstrated his mid-90s heat and terrific changeup while showing his ability to go multiple innings in the finale; he can eat more than three outs if Manuel so desires. Romero held lefties to an anemic .102/.193/.153 but was pounded by righties at a .282/.444/.455 clip; he retired
The Dodger bullpen finished second in the league in ERA (3.34) and fourth in
Ahead of Broxton, Wade has stepped into the go-to role. The rare rookie who has gained Torre's confidence, he's a command-and-control guy with an excellent curve and the ability to navigate with men on base;
The key question is whether Kuo has recovered enough from the bout of triceps soreness that kept him off the first-round roster. His high strikeout rate (10.8 per nine), ability to shut down both righties (.205/.284/.285 this year) and lefties (.202/.216/.340), and multi-inning capability are tantalizing. If he's effective, that may push Kershaw toward the Game 4 start.
The Phillies' defense ranked fifth in the league in raw
Overall the Dodgers defense fares better according to
The outfield is another story. After four months of bungling the situation by giving too much time to Pierre and Jones at the expense of Ethier, Torre stumbled onto a solution prompted by Ramirez's arrival. Kemp isn't the second coming of
As noted in
One of the interesting angles to this series is the link between Manuel and Ramirez, whom he managed both in Triple-A in 1993 and in Cleveland in 2000, serving as the Tribe's hitting coach in between. Given Ramirez's .212 average and one homer in 40 PA against the Phillies this year, the skipper may have some insight into how to handle his protegé -- or not. As with all things Manny that involve a bat in hand, that's a show worth paying to see.
Torre has also shown flexibility with regard to his lineup's late-September returns (yes on Furcal, no on Kent) and his bullpen, incorporating Wade despite his general reservations about rookies, finding productive roles for the oft-injured Kuo and the long-ineffective Park, and tabbing Broxton over Saito. Clearly the lessons of his Yankee tenure have not been lost; while Broxton's no
Despite the difference in full-season records, this is a relatively even matchup. Hamels is possibly the best starter on either team, but the Phillies' reluctance to bring him back on three days' rest may neutralize that if the Dodgers shorten their rotation and opt for Lowe to start Game 4. If that's the case Philadelphia's only clear advantage in the matchups would come in the opener, whereas a Hamels/Billingsley Game 5 could be a tossup (note that the extra day off between Games 4 and 5 will keep the latter on normal rest), and Lowe-Blanton or Lowe-Moyer might be expected to lean the Dodgers' way, tilting the series as well.
Otherwise Torre has one decision that may put him on the spot (Maddux/Kershaw for Game 4), something he generally tries to avoid. Either way that Game 4 pairing could still favor the Dodgers by a hair, but the rest are tossups, with Hamels' and Billingsley's advantages over their opponents canceling out. What it may come down to in that case are the Dodgers staff's stinginess in surrendering home runs (they
In the end, I'm willing to go out on a limb and call this for the