Cliff Corcoran breaks down today's Division Series openers. All games are on TBS; all times EST.
After being swept by the Rockies in their first playoff appearance in 14 years last October, the Phillies are back for a re-do. Again they snuck past the Mets in late September to win the NL East. Again they're hosting a wild-card team that just ended a long playoff drought due more to its underrated pitching staff than its much-heralded offense. Again they're sending young left-handed ace Hamels to the mound at Citizens Bank Park in Game 1. Last year Hamels wore long sleeves on a muggy day in Philadelphia and had trouble throwing his changeup for strikes due to the sweat running down his pitching arm. He switched to short sleeves after giving up three runs in the second inning and retired 14 of the next 15 men he faced. In addition to Cole choosing the correct couture (weather forecasts predict it will be 70 degrees with scattered thunderstorms today), the Phillies are hoping that their big bats have gotten over their apparent jitters from last year's NLDS, when Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell, all making their postseason debuts, combined to go 9 for 45 (.200) with 18 strikeouts. Burrell leaving yesterday's workout with lower back pain isn't the sort of omen they were looking for.
InCC Sabathia, Ben Sheets and Gallardo the Brewers had a potentially devastating starting trio, but Sheets is unlikely to pitch again this year after lasting just 2 1/3 innings on Saturday in an attempted return from elbow problems. Having carried the Brewers into the postseason with a complete game on Sunday, Sabathia will be starting Thursday's Game 2 on short rest again (and will thus be able to start a possible Game 5 on regular rest). That leaves Game 1 in the hands of the 22-year-old Gallardo, who has pitched just once since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on May 1.
In his return last Thursday, Gallardo struck out seven Pirates in four innings while surrendering just two singles and a solo homer. He's pitching on five days' rest and is one of the best young arms in the game, as evidenced by his strong rookie season last year and his three strong starts at the beginning of this year, but there's a significant risk of a hangover from his last start given the nearly five months of inactivity that preceded it. Still, give manager Dale Sveum credit for rolling the dice on the kid rather than settling for known mediocrity such as likely Game 3 starter Jeff Suppan. The Brewers haven't been in the postseason since they lost the 1982 World Series to Whitey Herzog's Cardinals, and with both Sabathia and Sheets likely to leave as free agents this winter, there's no reason for them to hedge their bets this October. If they can pull out a win against Hamels this afternoon it would upset the balance of the entire series, much like the Rockies' victory over Hamels in last year's Game 1 did. The catch is that Gallardo will have to out-pitch Hamels head-to-head, as the Philly bullpen was the best in the NL this year.
Series: NLDS Game 1Time: 6:30 p.m.Starters:Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24 ERA) vs. Ryan Dempster (17-6, 2.96 ERA)
How significant was L.A.'s trading-deadline upgrade from Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre to Manny Ramirez? In 109 games without Ramirez the Dodgers scored just 4.14 runs per game. In the 53 games Manny has started they have scored 4.70 runs per game, an increase of 14 percent. That makes Joe Torre's team a lot more dangerous than its 84-78 record, which would rank them fifth in the American League East, suggests. The return of shortstop Rafael Furcal, who will lead off this evening after missing most of the season with a sprained sacroiliac joint in his back, could make them even more so. Another reason why the Cubs need to take the Dodgers seriously is Game 1 starter Lowe, who has been dominant down the stretch, posting an 0.94 ERA, an 0.85 WHIP and allowing just one home run in his final nine starts.
Cubbie consolation comes from the fact that they'll be hosting the first two games of this series. Chicago not only has the league's most potent offense, but they also score more than a half a run more at home than on the road, pushing across 5.6 runs per game in Wrigley Field's friendly confines, nearly a run more per game than even the Manny-powered Dodgers. Adding to that inequity, the Dodgers allow 1.46 more runs on the road, with Lowe being one of the primary offenders, posting an ERA more than two runs higher on the road than at home.
Overall the Dodgers have allowed the fewest runs per game in the senior circuit this year, but their road mark of 4.73 runs allowed per game ranks in the bottom half of the league. The second stingiest team in the NL has been the Cubs, who have very little discrepancy between their pitching performance at home and on the road. Cubs pitchers lead the majors in strikeouts, and their defense is the league's most efficient in turning balls in play into outs, both of which were also true of last year's 85-win team, which was swept by Arizona in the first round. The difference in this year's Cubs, who improved by 12 wins to notch the second-best record in baseball, is offense, specifically the upgrade from Michael Barrett and Jason Kendall to Geovany Soto behind the plate, the rejuvenation of scrap-heap pickup Jim Edmonds in center field, the career year enjoyed by second baseman/utility man Mark DeRosa and shortstop Ryan Theriot's rise to respectability at the plate.
Taking the hill for the Cubbies tonight is Dempster, who like Lowe in 2002 was converted from closing to the rotation with spectacular results. Dempster, whose annoying glove twist prior to his delivery is designed to prevent him from tipping his pitches, went 7-2 with a 2.52 ERA over his final 13 starts, striking out 83 and allowing just three home runs in 82 innings. Given the Dodgers' pitching dominance at home and the fact that the Cubs' Game 2 and 3 starters, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, appear to be pitching through injuries, a Dodger win tonight would tip the balance in favor of Torre's squad, which otherwise seems likely to hand the manager his fourth-straight LDS loss.
Series: ALDS, Game 1Time: 10 p.m.Starters:John Lester (16-6, 3.21 ERA) vs. John Lackey (12-5, 3.75 ERA)
The Red Sox have swept the Angels in the ALDS on the way to each of their last two championships. The two teams also faced off in an epic ALCS in 1986 that's best remembered for Dave Henderson's home run off Donnie Moore in Game 5, when the Angels were one strike away from reaching the World Series. The Red Sox won that series as well. Given that history, you'd think the Angels and their fans would be dreading facing the Red Sox in the postseason again, but the Halos have actually owned the BoSox this year, winning eight of nine head-to-head contests while outscoring them 61-33. That represents the Angels' best and the Red Sox' worst performance against any opponent this season. The postseason, of course, sometimes changes things. Most famously the 1988 Dodgers won just one of 11 regular-season games against the Mets and had been outscored 49-18 before beating New York in the NLCS.
Jason Bay has largely replicated Ramirez's production in Boston (.293/.370/.527 to Ramirez's .299/.398/.529), but even with Bay the Sox are literally limping into the postseason. Serious question marks surround third baseman Mike Lowell, who has a partially torn labrum in his right hip, and right fielder J.D. Drew, who has been nursing a bad back since mid-August, and nominal ace Josh Beckett sports a 4.03 ERA and has been pushed back to Game 3 due to a strained oblique suffered during his between-start throwing session on Friday.
The Angels' chief concern is Lackey, who started the year on the disabled list with a triceps injury but was dominant in his first nine starts after returning. Since the calendar flipped to July, however, he has posted a 5.42 ERA and allowed 20 home runs in 15 starts. Things have only gotten worse of late as Lackey has a 7.96 ERA with seven home runs allowed in his last five starts and finished the season by getting torched by the Rangers last Friday. Still, Lackey nearly no-hit the Red Sox at Fenway on July 29 (his bid was spoiled by a Dustin Pedroia single and, you guessed it, a home run by Kevin Youkilis) and had another strong outing against Boston earlier that month. Lackey turned in a solid outing in his one start against the Sox in last year's ALDS, but it was of little use against Beckett, who shut out the Halos.
Lester pitched the World Series clincher last year and tossed a no-hitter at Fenway this year, but he didn't face the Angels in last year's ALDS and only saw them once this season, allowing four runs on nine hits in five innings back in April. In his 27 starts since then Lester has gone 15-4 with a 2.82 ERA and just nine home runs allowed, but he's been inconsistent on the road, where his ERA swells to 4.09. Similarly the Red Sox score almost a run less per game outside of Fenway, putting their road production right in line with that of the Angels, who are very much the same team at home and on the road. Add to that the fact that just one of the Halos' regulars, Garret Anderson, hits exclusively from the left side, and there's reason to believe that the Angels could finally turn the tables on Boston.