Previewing today's NLCS game

Publish date:

Breaking down Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. All stats for starting pitchers are for this postseason only.

Series: NLCS, Game 5; Phillies lead 3-1Time: 8:07 p.m. ESTTV: FoxStarters:Cole Hamels (2-0, 1.20 ERA) vs. Chad Billingsley (1-1, 8.00)

Matt Stairs' home run off Jonathan Broxton in Game 4 may prove to be the first "name" moment in this postseason (forever remembered as simply "the Matt Stairs home run"). The Dodgers needed to win on Monday night in advance of facing Hamels tonight, and Stairs' tie-breaking, and ultimately game-winning, home run in the eighth inning felt like a stake through the hearts of the Dodgers' pennant hopes. The Phillies couldn't have asked for much more than to be able to hand their top starter the ball with a two-game cushion and a chance to pitch his team into the World Series for the first time in 15 years, and that's exactly what they'll do tonight.

I've written before in this space that there are three 24-year-old aces in these playoffs: Hamels, Billingsley and the Red Sox's Jon Lester. In Game 3 of the ALDS Lester turned in his first poor performance of this postseason in his third start. Billingsley was even worse in his Game 2 start in this series. The Dodgers' season now hinges on the hope that Hamels is due for an off-night. If so, each of those three young aces will have had one dud among their first three starts of this postseason. Such symmetry is a natural human desire, but it's more probable that both Hamels and Billingsley will pitch well tonight. In each of his three starts against the Dodgers this year, including Game 1 of this series, Hamels has allowed exactly two runs in seven innings. Of those three games the Phillies won the last two, but L.A. managed to win the first, on Aug. 12, by holding the Phillies to three runs and scoring two against their bullpen. Indeed, if both starters perform well tonight, it will place the onus on the bullpens for the second straight game.

Thus far in this series the Dodgers' bullpen has posted a 2.93 ERA in 15 1/3 innings but has allowed two of four inherited runners to score. That looks good until you compare it to the performance of the Phillies' pen, which has a 1.08 ERA in 16 2/3 innings and has not inherited a runner all series. Both bullpens were heavily taxed in Game 4. The Dodgers used everyone but long men Greg Maddux and James McDonald, with closer Broxton throwing 27 pitches. The Phillies used everyone but Clay Condrey and J.A. Happ, with closer Brad Lidge throwing 24 pitches. Yesterday's off-day should have left everyone well rested, but the poor Game 4 performances of Broxton and Cory Wade remain fresh on the minds of both pitchers, their manager and the opposition.

Ultimately, the key to tonight's game is Billingsley, who dominated the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLDS (6 2/3 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 7 K), but was awful in Game 2 of this series. Unable to hit his spots last Friday, Billingsley watched helplessly as his pitches drifted over the plate and were scattered about the ballpark by the Phillies' hitters. Five straight two-out hits in the second inning gave the Phils a 4-1 lead. Three more safeties in the third, including the second of three on the night by opposing pitcher Brett Myers, who had just four hits in the regular season, bounced Billingsley from the game with one out in the inning and the Phillies up 5-2. Two of the runners he bequeathed to his bullpen would also come around to score.

Billingsley failed to record the eighth out of a game just once during the regular season, that coming in his first start of the year, all the way back on April 8. In between those two stinkers he failed to complete the fifth inning just once and allowed more than five runs in a game just twice. Over his final 28 starts he averaged 6 1/3 innings and posted a 2.78 ERA. Unless Billingsley is hurt or abnormally unnerved, which certainly didn't seem to be the case in the NLDS, he's likely rebound tonight. The only question is if it will be enough to beat Hamels and extend his team's season.