LOS ANGELES -- They met in this same round a year ago, finished with the two best records in the National League this season and each had home-field advantage in the division series, and yet somehow the fact that the Phillies will meet the Dodgers in the NLCS feels mildly surprising. The Dodgers upended a Cardinals team overflowing with top-quality starting pitching, supposedly that most determinative of postseason factors, while the Phillies eliminated a Rockies team that had been playing the best of any team in the league since late May.
There will be no surprise, however, when one of these teams advances to the World Series. In many ways, they are a more even matchup than the Yankees-Angels ALCS clash that is being viewed as the main event to the NLCS undercard. Whichever NL team survives will almost certainly be viewed as the underdog in the World Series, but to get there, they will have to first find the answers to these key subplots
He's young, left-handed, the most reliable starter in their rotation and now the Game 1 starter in the NLCS. Cole Hamels? No, Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers' 21-year-old lefty started Game 2 against the Cardinals but has been bumped up a spot in the L.A. hierarchy on the strength of a stellar outing in the NLDS (6 2/3 innings pitched, two earned runs) that followed a consistently excellent regular season (2.79 ERA, nearly a run and a half better than his rookie year of 2008, and an NL-best 6.3 hits-per-nine-innings allowed).
Kershaw will start Games 1 and, if necessary, 5 for the Dodgers, who hope he'll be as dominant in those outings for them as Hamels was against them a year ago. But after appearing to emerge as the game's next great starter (being named NLCS and World Series MVP in 2008), Hamels was inconsistent throughout this season, finishing 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA that was more than a run above his 2008 total. He was at his best, however, against the Dodgers this year, posting a 0.56 ERA in two starts, striking out 14 against just one walk in 16 innings pitched. That, even more than his dominant NLCS a year ago, should give Charlie Manuel and the rest of the Phillies confidence that the old Hamels will emerge for this series.
The team's offenses are, for the most part, fairly even, and dangerous in their own way. The Phillies led the league in home runs and runs scored, the Dodgers in batting average and on-base percentage. But both teams have key players who need to heat up. Both Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies are potential game-changers, and both showed signs of snapping out of late-season funks with multi-hit games in their respective teams' clinchers. Rollins has never been much of a postseason performer (his .263 average against the Rockies was actually his second highest of the five playoff series in his career), but even discounting for the small sample size in the NLDS, he has not been the same hitter this year that he's been for much of his career. His on-base percentage of .296 was the fifth-worst in all of baseball this year, and his batting average dropped to just .250.
Ramirez, meanwhile, tortured the Phillies in last year's NLCS, batting .533/.682/1.067. But he entered this postseason having struck out nine times in his last four games of the regular season while going just 1-for-14. He had just one hit in the first two games of the NLDS before busting out with three hits in Game 3, causing both Dodgers manager Joe Torre and general manager Ned Colletti to hope he had turned the corner for good. "It looked like Manny was looking line drive," Torre said. "I thought his swing was a lot more level, and that was important."
Arguably the biggest play of last year's NLCS was the pinch-hit home run by Philadelphia's Matt Stairs in Game 4 that gave the Phillies the lead in the eighth inning. One year later, Stairs is still a dangerous bat off the bench, but he's just about the only weapon manager Charlie Manuel can go to. Joe Torre, meanwhile, has a bench perfectly suited for the postseason. He has an All-Star (Orlando Hudson) he can go to as a defensive replacement, a pinch runner to steal a base late in the game who also is a defensive upgrade (Juan Pierre), and a power-hitting lefty (Jim Thome) that can provide the same thunder Stairs can. Every one of those players did something to help the Dodgers beat the Cardinals, and that list doesn't even include little-used Mark Loretta, who delivered the walk-off single in Game 2. The Phillies use their bench far less, which makes sense given the strength top-to-bottom of their lineup, but also because there's not much to go to: Phillies bench players were 0-for-8 in the NLDS.
The bullpen was so vital to the Phillies' World Series triumph last year that it became the subject of a reality show (MLB Network's The Pen). This year it remains unsettled even as Philly has advanced to within four wins of a return trip to the Fall Classic. Much was made of Brad Lidge's so-called "revival" after he nailed down Games 3 and 4 against the Rockies, but it's clear that Manuel still has reservations about his formerly lights-out closer. Lidge, who posted a 7.21 ERA this year, wasn't used at all in Games 1 or 2. The former was because Cliff Lee was en route to a complete game victory, which was understandable, but not being used in the latter was puzzling if only because Manuel instead used not one but two potential Game 3 starters, even though there was an off-day coming up. When he finally did pitch in Game 3, Lidge was shaky, walking two batters with a one-run lead. In Game 4, he didn't enter the game until there were two out in the ninth and a right-handed batter at the plate. Had it been another lefty, would Manuel still have gone to Lidge?
The Dodgers, meanwhile, have no such concerns about their 'pen. While Manuel is hoping to get as much length as possible from his starters, Torre has shown that he has no problems pulling his starters early, even with a lead -- as he did to Randy Wolf in Game 1 against the Cardinals -- and taking his chances with the group that posted the lowest bullpen ERA in the NL this year (3.12). That confidence stems from the fact that the Dodgers relievers had the best winning percentage in the NL (.617), giving Torre little reason not to trust them with a game's outcome. With Hong-Chih Kuo (3.00 ERA regular season) and Ronald Belisario (2.04), neither of whom allowed a run in the NLDS, Torre can mix and match to face lefties and righties in the middle innings and still have not one but two All-Star closers to call on to get him the final six outs. George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton give Torre perhaps his most dynamic back-end duo in the postseason since Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland were closing out the final three innings for him with the Yankees in 1996. All the Dodgers have to do is hand a lead to their bullpen and start counting down the outs.
At 69 years old, Torre spent part of the down time before the start of the NLCS dropping hints about retirement, but he showed in the NLDS that he still has as much managerial acumen as any skipper in the game. His uncanny knack for making all the right moves in the postseason is back. He not only removed Wolf in Game 1 and won, he used Broxton in the eighth inning of Game 2 -- while trailing -- and won that game as well. Then he gave a start in Game 3 to Vicente Padilla, bypassing All-Star Chad Billingsley, and was rewarded with Padilla's best outing of the season. He made Ronnie Belliard the starter at second base, which gave him more options to use Hudson off the bench, and he didn't hesitate to send Loretta up against Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin despite the fact that Loretta was 0 for 15 to that point in his career against Franklin. Manuel is no slouch himself, but Torre is riding the kind of smart moves and good fortune that won him four World Series with the Yankees. Unlike last year's matchup, Torre also has a more experienced team, a deeper bench and a better bullpen to help make him look so good. All of which means he'll be going back to the World Series to try and win title No. 5.
THE PICK: Dodgers in six.