Friday, October 10, 2008

National League Championship Series Preview

Philadelphia Phillies (92-70, NL East champions) vs Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78, NL West champions).

Season Series: Tied, 4-4.

Prior Playoff Meetings: Three. Dodgers won in four games in both 1977 and 1978, Phillies won in four games in 1983.


The Phillies came into the playoffs with the most home runs in the National League (214), and second only to the White Sox in the majors.

Philly hit four home runs alone - accounting for all the scoring - in a clinching Game 4 against Milwaukee, but only tallied in three total innings in the first three games. They also were abysmal at getting runners home from scoring position.

Ryan Howard's league-best 48 homers dissipated into a 2-for-11. Chase Utley's sluggish second half turned into a 2-for-15 and Pat Burrell had to have two-homer performance in Game 4 to take the scrutiny off his 3-for-12 (0-for-8 in the first three games).

On the other hand, Jimmy Rollins (6 hits, 2 doubles, .375) was the lone star to deliver.

Part-timers Shane Victorino (grand slam, 5-for-14) and Jayson Werth 2 HR, 3 doubles, .313) did some timely damage, but it may be too late to hope the Big Three can snap out of their collective funk.

On the other hand, no Dodger player hit more than 20 homers in the regular season.

Andre Ethier hit the mark over a full year while Matt Kemp was second with 18. James Loney led the team with 90 RBI, while Kemp and Ethier tied for the lead in doubles with 38. Juan Pierre topped the club with 40 stolen bases.

Manny Ramirez is the fulcrum on which the series will turn as far as bats are concerned. He burned NL pitching for 17 homers and 53 RBI in 53 games after coming over from Boston. In this case, the cliche is correct: you can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him. He is the single biggest playoff threat either teams possess.

He finished the NLDS 5-for-10 with two homers and three runs batted in and has a history of abusing opposing pitchers with both the Indians and Red Sox.

If Ramirez is given the Bonds treatment, Russell Martin (.308, 5 RBI) and Loney (grand slam, 6 RBI) is waiting in the wings. A presumably recovered Rafael Furcal also churned out four hits and scored four runs.

Advantage: Dodgers. Los Angeles had a clear balance of offense prior to the Ramirez acquisition, but his presence tips the balance in their favor.

DEFENSE: Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste combined for only five passed balls and a .993 fielding percentage.

Howard's lack of motion and ball-handling skills have been called into question in each of his four full major-league seasons, and Utley (13 errors, .984) at times has shown a lack of focus on some easy chances.

Rollins is left to play the role of Superman, one for which he is suited. He's the club's best chance to come up with a key defensive stop, like the one that sealed the division to end the Washington game.

Say what you wish about Pedro Feliz's lack of bat speed, he is a Human Vacuum at the hot corner. In 129 games, he committed just eight errors on 223 chances, good for a .974 fielding percentage, and has little trouble handling line drives and tough bounces.

In the outfield, Victorino (2 errors, .994), Jenkins (5 errors, .967) and Werth (2 errors, 231 putouts) are capable enough.

Burrell's .991 and 2 errors are deceptive, as he lacks clear speed and intelligence breaking on balls he can't easily haul in. Let's hope Charlie
Manuel doesn't pull a Danny Ozark in a crucial game and leave Burrell in late.

For LA, Martin committed 11 errors with six passed balls. Loney made 13 blunders at first base, while Jeff Kent was charged with 11 errors. Blake DeWitt and Casey Blake combined for 10 of the 16 errors at third base, while none of the Dodgers' three shortstops (Furcal, Angel Berroa, Nomar Garciaparra) had a fielding average higher than .975.

In contrast, the Dodgers outfield is as solid as they come.

A suddenly undistracted Ramirez only committed two (non-comedic) errors in left field, but his lack of chances dragged down his percentage. Kemp made one error for a .995 mark while right-fielder Ethier did not have a blemish on his record with 171 putouts and eight assists.

Advantage: Philadelphia. If only because half a good infield is better than none.

PITCHING: The Phillies will throw out Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer in Games 1-3. The Dodgers counter with Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda.

It's a risky proposition, but if all three Phils starters can go at least six innings in every contest like in the NLDS, that takes the strain off a bullpen which was nearly stretched to the limit in the regular season.

The 24-year-old Hamels won 14 games but saved his best performance for Game 1 of the NLDS, going eight strong for the win. Myers (10-13, 1-0) seems to have the eye of the tiger back and Moyer's professional pride will be a driving factor as he looks to turn a 16-win season into playoff success after a subpar performance in the loss to Milwaukee.

Billingsley, the Game 2 choice, led LA with 16 wins, while Game 1 workhorse Lowe is a former World Series champion and 14-game winner. Kuroda (9-10, 1-0) had the advantage of pitching against a demoralized Cubs team in the first round and he won't have that pleasure in the first contest at Chavez Ravine.

Takashi Saito (4-4, 18 saves) could have been a formidable challenge, but he's been left off the roster due to elbow troubles in favor of Hong-Chih Kuo. The hard-throwing lefty has only pitched in one game in the last month with elbow problems but went 5-3 with a 2.14 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 80 innings.

Joe Beimel (5-1, 2.02 ERA, 11 ER in 49 innings), Jonathan Broxton (3-5, 3.13 ERA, 14 saves) and Cory Wade (2-1, 2.27) did well enough earlier in the season with little cushion, but in their late-season push had a greater margin of error to work with. Beware of ageless wonder Greg Maddux, who may be called on to fill any role at any time.

Ryan Madson (4-2, 3.05 ERA, 79 hits in 82 2/3 innings), Chad Durbin (5-4, 2.87) and Clay Condrey (3-4, 3.26, 85 hits in 69 innings) are capable enough -- given a limited time on the mound. The longer they have to pitch, the better off the Dodgers are.

J.C. Romero (4-4, 2.75), the quintessential situational left-hander, has shown the fire necessary to perform well in pressure situations. His
championship series experience with the Red Sox will be key.

Brad Lidge was 41 for 41 in save chances in the regular season, while locking down two of the Phils' three wins over the Brewers. Until he does blow one, he's the closest thing to automatic on either side.

Starters: Slight edge Philadelphia. Middle Relief: Push. Late relief/bullpen: Philadelphia.

INTANGIBLES: Having home-field advantage with the two contests to start and end the series helps, as the Phillies took all four games against the Dodgers at Citizens Bank Park.

The other side to that, is the Dodgers swept a four-game set in LA. All the club may need to do is take either one of the first two matchups in Philly before a three-game cushion at Chavez Ravine.

For the Phils, there is also the psychological burden of fans and media who will have no problem recalling the previous two NLCS losses, when supposedly superior Phillies clubs found nothing but bad luck as the Dodgers rolled to the World Series.

However, there has been so much time between those playoffs of the past and right now. Most of the Phillies roster, whether they are young or unfamiliar with the franchise's history, have no clue about previous playoff misfortune.

Still, the Dodgers have a four-time World Series winning manager in Joe Torre, countering a glorified hitting coach in Manuel; hitting coach Don Mattingly against Milt Thompson; an eminently capable and excitable third-base coach in Larry Bowa, whose counterpart is the maligned Steve Smith.

In addition, you can't let the 84 wins and a heartless Cubs team fool you. Los Angeles has the earmarks of the 2006 champion Cardinals, who went 83-78 during the regular season then capitalized on hitting, pitching and luck on their way to the title.

Advantage: Los Angeles. They have very little to lose.

PREDICTION: Come on, folks. This is the Phillies we're talking about. Just because they've gotten this far doesn't mean anything is guaranteed. One more heartbreak before the breakthrough.

Los Angeles in seven.

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