Tuesday October 5th, 2010

The Reds are making their first postseason appearance since 1995 on the strength of their first winning season since 2000. That sudden turn-around is one of the best stories of the season, but the Phillies look ready to ruin the ending. Having won the last two National League pennants, the Phillies are heavily favored to win their third straight NL flag, and given the top three in their rotation and the way their offense is clicking right now, they have to be considered the favorites to win the World Series as well. The Reds may very well be the second-best team in the NL field, but beating the Phillies would be a sizable upset.

This series -- quite possibly this entire postseason -- will be about the Phillies' three aces: Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. They are not only the most formidable rotation trio to reach the postseason since Oswalt teamed with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to lead the 2005 Astros to the World Series, but will be the only three starters the Phillies will need in the NLDS as the schedule permits the Game 1 and 2 starters to start Games 4 and 5 on normal rest. That alone makes the Phillies the strongest favorite in any of the four Division Series matchups.

Oswalt and Hamels enter this series with dominant postseasons under their belts. In 2005, Oswalt went 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA in the first two rounds of the playoffs and was NLCS MVP. Three years later, Hamels was the key performer in the Phillies' world championship run, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five postseason starts while winning NLCS and World Series MVP honors. Halladay, who has arguably been the best pitcher in baseball over the last three seasons (leading qualified starters in innings, ERA, ERA+, wins, shutouts, complete games, WHIP, K/BB, and BB/9 over that span), will make his postseason debut in Wednesday's Game 1 at Citizens Bank Park.

Halladay enters that start having likely just won his second Cy Young award by going 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA and a staggering 7.30 K/BB ratio. Oswalt, who will start Game Two, was acquired from the Astros at the non-waiver trading deadline. He began his Phillies career with a dud, then went 7-0 with a 1.31 ERA over his final 11 regular season starts for his new club. Game 3 starter Hamels was similarly dominant in his final seven regular season starts, going 5-1 with a 1.48 ERA.

The Reds ranked third and the Phillies fourth in the NL in defensive efficiency, the rate at which a defense turns balls in play (not counting home runs, which are hit out of play) into outs. To consider the impact defense can have on a pitcher, consider the Game 2 starters, Oswalt for the Phillies and Bronson Arroyo for the Reds.

Oswalt shaved more than a run and a half off his ERA after joining the Phillies, and while he did make some improvements as a Phillie -- he allowed fewer line drives and induced more ground balls, which not only are easier outs but enabled a dramatic improvement in his double-play rate -- his strikeout-to-walk ratio was actually a tick better with the Astros. The most dramatic change in Oswalt's performance was that his opponents' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped nearly 50 points after he joined the Phillies. Those ground balls certainly helped, but a large part of that drop can be attributed to luck and the Phillies' defense.

The only Phillie who isn't a superlative defender at his position is left fielder Raul Ibañez. Similarly, the only Red who's not a superlative defender is left fielder Jonny Gomes (both are brutal outfielders). That has translated directly into the Reds' pitching staff having the third-lowest BABIP in the league. The primary beneficiary of that has been Arroyo, who despite his 17 wins is the weakest starter being deployed by either team in this series. He doesn't strike out many men and gives up more than his share of home runs, but he survives by avoiding walks and putting his defense to work. This year his opponents hit just .241 on balls in play (compared to a league average of .300).

These are the Senior Circuit's two highest-scoring offenses, but the Phillies' offensive output is even more impressive considering that two-thirds of their lineup hit the disabled list at one point this season. Carlos Ruiz missed 20 games starting in mid-June, Chase Utley missed 43 games at midseason, Shane Victorino missed the first half of August, Ryan Howard missed 20 days that month and Jimmy Rollins is still coping with a sore hamstring after playing in just 88 games all season. Meanwhile, Wilson Valdez was given 363 plate appearances despite hitting .258/.306/.360. Altogether, the Phillies scored 772 runs, second-best in the NL and 4.77 runs per game, on the season, but with the lineup almost back to full strength in September and early October (Rollins' continued absence being the only exception), they scored 5.57 runs per game and, nearly a full run per game more than the 4.58 they had scored in the first five months of the season, and, not coincidentally, went 23-7 (.767).

While the Phillies offense was finally finding its stride, the Reds bats, which led the league with 790 runs, had pushed across 5.02 runs per game during the season's first five months, started to doze off, scoring just 4.23 over the season's final 30 games. The Reds, not coincidentally, went 14-16 over that stretch. The Reds bats now have to wake up against Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels.

The key players to watch in the Reds lineup are Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips. Rolen missed 10 games in late July with a sore hamstring and hit just .251/.325/.374 after the calendar flipped to August while battling neck and back pain down the stretch. Phillips, meanwhile, has been playing with significant pain in his right wrist since being hit by a pitch in late August and has hit just .198/.277/.292 since returning to the lineup on September 3. Chronic injuries had diminished Rolen over the five seasons prior to this one, so there's minimal hope for the 35-year-old's restoration, but the 29-year-old Phillips has begun to show signs of life. He homered twice in his last six starts, his first home runs since the hit-by-pitch, and hit .421/.500/.737 in his final 24 plate appearances of the regular season. Phillips also has respectable numbers against Halladay and Oswalt, though he's just 2-for-22 career against Hamels.

Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman combined to throw just 76 innings for the Reds this season, but both are expected to play prominent roles in the postseason. Volquez was the staff ace in 2008, but went under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2009. He returned to the rotation after the All-Star break this year, but proved inconsistent across eight starts and was sent back to Triple-A to work things out. In four starts after his mid-September return he went 3-1 with a 1.95 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 3.88 K/BB, and 31 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings without allowing a home run. He will start Games 1 and 4 against Halladay.

Chapman, the 22-year-old Cuban defector signed by the Reds back in January, was called up on August 31 and immediately captured headlines with a dominant debut and a 105-mile-per-hour fastball. Though he has proven human since, he gives the Reds a dominant full-inning set-up man to complement fellow lefty Arthur Rhodes. That's important in part because Rhodes' role would seem to be diminished given the platoon splits of the two dangerous lefties in the Phillies lineup. Utley hit .294/.422/.581 against southpaws this season, and Ryan Howard's split was decidedly less pronounced this year than in recent seasons (a drop of 50 points of OPS against lefties as opposed to 435 last year).

Jay Bruce, 23, missed the first half of September with a strained oblique and was given intermittent rest thereafter, but over his final 34 games (27 of them starts) dating back to August 13, he was downright Tulowitzkian, hitting .371/.446/.819 with 15 home runs in 121 plate appearances. Having Bruce back in the lineup every day gives the Reds another reason to hope that their offense will perk up.

The postseason hasn't been kind to Dusty Baker the manager. His first two Giants teams to make the playoffs, in 1997 and 2000, won just one postseason game combined. He finally took the Giants to the World Series in 2002 but watched the title slip through his fingers as the Giants got within seven outs of clinching only to blow a 5-0 lead in Game 6 and lose Game 7. The next year, as skipper of the Cubs, Chicago got within five outs of winning the NLCS in Game 6 only to blow a 3-0 lead in that game and lose Game 7. Baker was staring down some ominous history on both of those occasions. The Giants still haven't won a World Series since moving to San Francisco (since 1954 to be exact), and the Cubs haven't won a pennant since 1945. The Reds most recent title came in 1990, when they swept an A's team that was as heavily favored as the Phillies are in this series. History is on Baker's side for a change but, unfortunately for him, the superior pitching is on the side of his opponent.

THE PICK: Phillies in three

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