Five Keys to Phillies-Rockies

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The Phillies and Rockies just might be the most unlikely postseason rivalry in baseball history. The Phillies were the worst of baseball's 16 pre-expansion franchises before the arrival of Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton in the early '70s and made just two postseason appearances between their first championship in 1980 and the beginning of their current run in 2007. The Rockies were a foundering expansion team unable to solve the mystery of pitching at high altitude prior to the introduction of their humidor in 2002, and remained mired in the bottom two spots of the NL West for several years after its arrival as well. Despite that, there's a rich history behind this matchup.

Perennial bridesmaids since 2001, the Phillies finally broke through in 2007, swiping the NL East from the Mets, who had led Philadelphia by seven games on Sept. 12, in one of the game's greatest regular-season comebacks. Unfortunately for the Phils, they ran smack into a Rockies team that had won 14 of 15 games to take the wild card via a 13-inning tiebreaker victory in a game started by the league's best pitcher (2007 pitching triple crown and Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy) and lost by the game's all-time save leader, Trevor Hoffman.

The favored Phillies had home-field advantage and Cole Hamels starting Game 1, but Hamels misjudged the weather and wore long sleeves on a warm Philadelphia afternoon, causing sweat to run down his arm and hamper his ability to grip his signature changeup. The Rockies scored three early runs before Hamels switched to short sleeves, and Colorado's young ace, Jeff Francis, made those runs stand up, getting the Phillies' big bats off on the wrong foot, which sent them stumbling through a three-game Rockies sweep.

Just two years later, these two teams are back at it, again with an afternoon start in Philadelphia. But this time Cliff Lee will start Game 1 for Philly, and Francis, out the entire year due to a shoulder injury, has been replaced by 2007's Game 3 winner, Ubaldo Jimenez. The Phillies are now the defending world champions and coast into this series having led their division since the end of May. The Rockies again arrive as an unexpected wild-card entry that finished strong, nearly unseating the Dodgers for the NL West title, though this time they held the wild-card lead for nearly two months. The Rockies are again a dangerous underdog, but the Phillies are a far more experienced postseason team than they were two years ago.

With Yorvit Torreabla starting in place of Chris Iannetta behind the plate, five of the six best hitters in the Rockies' lineup are left-handed hitters (first baseman ToddHelton, outfielders Brad Hawpe, Carlos Gonzalez and Seth Smith, and third baseman Ian Stewart). It's no surprise, then, that the Rockies as a team fare better against right-handed starters than lefties, both in terms of run production and winning percentage. Helton and Stewart are particularly hampered by left-handed pitching, with Helton losing 176 points of slugging against southpaws, and Stewart managing a mere .178/.278/.386 line against them. That gives the Phillies a decided advantage given that they can run out three elite left-handed starters in the ALDS in deadline acquisition Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels(the Phillies' Game 1 and 2 starters, respectively) and rookie J.A. Happ. On the season, left-handed batters have hit just .241/.263/.320 against Lee, .242/.295/.416 against Hamels and .207/.280/.352 against Happ.

That puts a lot of pressure on...

The best right-handed hitter in the Rockies' lineup also happens to be the best overall hitter in the Rockies' lineup. An all-around sensation on the 2007 Rockies team that swept the Phillies in the NLDS and claimed the franchise's first pennant, Troy Tulowitzki suffered an injury-laden sophomore slump in 2008. After a slow start this year, he has rehung his star on the National League over the last four months. When Tulo missed four games with a bruised hand in early June, he was hitting .218/.309/.382 on the season. After returning he took one more collar, then hit a staggering .332/.410/.629 with 27 homers and 76 RBIs from June 7 through the end of the season. Not coincidentally, the Rockies were 23-32 (.418) on June 6 and 69-38 (.644) thereafter. Tulowitzki is both the Rockies' most dangerous hitter and their key weapon against left-handed pitching, and thus the most important Colorado hitter in this series.

You may have heard that there's a closer controversy in Philadelphia ... The Phillies collected 10 saves in September. Last year's Mr. Perfect, Brad Lidge, had just four of them, blowing two others. Hard-throwing setup ace Ryan Madson had the other six, blowing one. This after Lidge blew three saves in August and finished the month with a 7.03 ERA on the season. Lidge's last four appearances of the regular season came in blowouts, three of them Phillies loses. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel hasn't tipped his hand about who would get the ball in a save situation in the NLDS, but if it's Lidge it could be trouble, and if it's Madson that further shortens a Philly pen that has already seen injuries claim lefty set-up man J.C. Romero and effective converted starters Chan Ho Park (2.52 ERA in 38 relief appearances) and Jamie Moyer (1.93 ERA in five relief appearances). That, along with the loose body floating around in lefty Scott Eyre's elbow and Brett Myers' continued struggles, is why Manuel is contemplating putting Happ in the pen, where he has more recent experience than Pedro Martinez, who would start in Happ's place. Given Happ's dominance and the Rockies' left-handedness, that would be a mistake, but either way the Philly bullpen, a strength of last year's world champions, is now the team's biggest weakness.

In stark contrast to the Phillies' unit, the Rockies' bullpen has been key to their surprising playoff run. Let's revisit those win-loss splits from the Tulowitzki comment above, adding in runs scored and allowed per game:

Through May 31: 20-29 (.408), 4.86 R/G, 5.20 RA/GSince May 31: 72-41 (.637), 5.01 R/G, 4.07 RA/G

Tulowitzki's rejuvenation (as well as Carlos Gonzalez's return to the majors on June 5 and Ian Stewart's unseating of Garrett Atkins at third base on June 7) certainly helped improve the offense, but it was the more-than-one-run-per-game improvement on the other side of the ball that ultimately propelled the Rockies to the wild card. Save for two starts by Franklin Morales in April and the five starts Aaron Cook lost to injury down the stretch, the Rockies' rotation consisted of the same five men all year: Jimenez, Cook, Jason Marquis, Jorge de la Rosa and Jason Hammel. Through May 31 that rotation posted a 4.64 ERA. Since then it has posted a 3.84 ERA. That's a solid improvement, but it's not the whole story. Through May 31 the bullpen posted a 5.38 ERA compared to a 4.16 ERA since, a trend more comparable to the team's overall improvement in run prevention.

The Rockies worked hard to rebuild their bullpen as the season progressed, bringing in Rafael Betancourt from the Indians in mid-July, Joe Beimel from the Nationals at the trading deadline, 2007 pen stalwart Matt Herges from Cleveland in mid-August and scuffling starter Jose Contreras from the White Sox at the roster deadline. Beimel has struggled and Herges has been a non-factor, but Contreras, acquired as an emergency replacement for Cook in the rotation, has been far more successful in a handful of relief outings, allowing just one run in 7 1/3 innings, while Betancourt has posted a 1.78 ERA in 32 relief appearances for Colorado. Meanwhile, closer Huston Street, part of the return for Matt Holliday (along with Carlos Gonzalez), has enjoyed arguably his finest major league season, converting 95 percent of his save opportunities and posting a remarkable 0.91 WHIP and 5.38 K/BB.

Still, that 4.16 ERA since May 31 isn't a particularly impressive number on its own, and the Rockies' bullpen remains -- well -- rocky behind Street and Betancourt. The Phillies have the better rotation, making it all the more imperative for the Colorado relievers to hold the line for late-game comebacks against the weakened Philly pen. A failure to do so could lead to a quick exit for the upstart Rockies.

Don't blame Phillies fans if this matchup makes them nervous. Two years ago the Phillies finally broke through to win the NL East, only to face a Rockies team that had surprised everyone by surging to the wild card. The Rockies arrived in Philadelphia to kick off the NLDS against Cole Hamels in an afternoon game on the first Wednesday in October, and three days later had swept the Phillies out of the playoffs. The big story of that series was the poor performance by the Phillies' big bats. Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and the since-departed Pat Burrell each went 2 for 11, Utley with five strikeouts. Ryan Howard went 3 for 12 with seven K's. Shane Victorino went 2 for 9. Neither Victorino nor Howard drew a single walk. Howard and Utley struggled in the NLDS again last year against the Brewers, going 2 for 11 and 2 for 15, respectively, but Victorino and Rollins had a big series, Utley had a monster NLCS against the Dodgers, and Howard finally broke through with a trio of homers in the World Series against the Rays. Don't expect the Phillies' big bats to have any remaining jitters this time around, and watch out for little bat Carlos Ruiz, who has raked in three of his four career postseason series (hitting .341/.426/.512 in 47 plate appearances against the Rockies, Dodgers and Rays) and is coming off his most productive regular season.

THE PICK: Phillies in five.