NLDS Preview: Phillies too stiff a test for red-hot Cardinals
St. Louis, in many ways, has Philadelphia to thank for its participation in the playoffs. The Phillies spent the last 10 days of the regular season knowing that they had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but still they played hard enough to sweep their season-concluding series with the Braves -- who led the Cardinals in the wild card standings by 10 ½ games as of Aug. 25, and by 8 ½ games as recently as Sept. 5 -- thereby allowing St. Louis to sneak by Atlanta and into the postseason.
For their trouble, the Phillies will now draw an opponent that played them well in the regular season. The Cardinals won the season series six games to three, holding Philadelphia's offense to two runs or fewer five times due largely to a starting staff that posted an ERA of 1.15 against it. Still, if St. Louis presents much of an obstacle in what is shaping up to be another World Series run for the Phillies -- who won a franchise-record 102 games this year, and who won as many or more games (50) on the road as all but four other teams did at home -- it would come as a surprise.
St. Louis, quite obviously, did well to make the playoffs for the eight time in the past 12 seasons, and the ninth time in Tony La Russa's 16 years as manager. But the hangover from that effort might be fierce. The Cardinals will benefit from the fact that they did not have to face the Braves in a one-game playoff, and from the fact that the NL series do not begin until Saturday, affording them two full days to rest and regroup. Still, the Phillies are entirely fresh (for instance, none of their probable starters -- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels -- threw more than six innings in his most recent start), and the team finished strong after a mildly concerning mid-September eight-game losing streak. The NL wild card winner has lost in the divisional series in four of the last five seasons, and in each of the last three, and the Cardinals do not represent a strong contender to reverse that trend.
Many of its names are the same, but Philadelphia's lineup, due to a combination of injury, age and underperformance, is far from the juggernaut it was when it reached the World Series in '08 and '09. The Phillies ranked third and first in the NL in runs in those seasons, but this year it was seventh. The Cardinals, meanwhile, easily led the league in scoring (4.7 runs per game), behind the efforts of sluggers like Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman -- and it is on offense that St. Louis might hold its only advantage in this matchup. A key man for the Phillies will be Hunter Pence, who batted .324 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in 54 games in Philadelphia, and who as a former member of the NL Central with the Astros, is intimately familiar with St. Louis' pitching staff. Pence hit .349 in 16 games against the Cardinals this season, and in his career has played more games -- 73 -- against them than any other opponent, with a slash line of .319/.361/.491.
The 31-year-old leftfielder ranks second on the Cardinals in OPS (.921) and third in home runs (22) and RBI's (75), but he had only 59 at-bats in September due to an inflamed tendon in his right middle finger that he aggravated on Tuesday. Holliday did not play in Wednesday's wild card clincher, and LaRussa said that he would likely not have been available for any potential play-in game. Holliday was due to receive a cortisone shot on Thursday, but even if two days off gets him back in the lineup, he will likely not be at full strength. That means that the Cardinals -- who also might be without shortstop Rafael Furcal, who has been sidelined for most of the past week with a left hamstring injury -- will probably have to contend with the Phillies' host of aces with something significantly less than a full deck.
When faced with a pitching staff as stingy as the Phillies', any opponent would ideally be able to capitalize upon any small advantage it might attain, such as on the basepaths. St. Louis, though, simply does not have the personnel to do so in that area. Not only did the Cardinals steal fewer bases (57) than any club in the majors except the Tigers, but they had an MLB-low success rate of 59 percent -- the worst for any team in six years. Pujols led Cards' regulars with nine swipes, and while utilityman Tyler Greene has some ability as a pinch runner (he was a perfect 11-for-11 in stolen base attempts this season), he is no Dave Roberts.
Despite their regular season success against Philadelphia, no member of the Cardinals' rotation is good enough to be anything better than the Phillies' fifth starter -- and even that isn't a certainty, as the stats of the rookie who held down that role, Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01 ERA), compare favorably to those of St. Louis's nominal ace, the revitalized Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.39). There is really no combination of starting pitchers, beginning with Lohse versus Halladay in Saturday's Game 1, in which the Phillies won't hold the advantage, generally significantly so. It is strange to think that the man who was the Phillies' ace in '08, and was named the World Series MVP -- Hamels -- is now their third starter, even though the lefty had a much better season in 2011 than he did then. Hamels is in line to pitch Game 3 of this series but there is little chance the series extends much further than that.