LA, Philly a perfect NLCS matchup
Both clubs to bring the unexpected to compelling postseason
This may not have been the matchup that many were expecting in the National League Championship Series, but the one that emerged has its own potential as an October classic.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies will begin NLCS play on Thursday on FOX at Citizens Bank Park. In some ways, these are contrasting teams with contrasting strengths. What they have most immediately in common are extremely strong NL Division Series performances; the Phillies beating the Milwaukee Brewers in four games and the Dodgers sweeping the Chicago Cubs, who had the best regular-season record in the league.
The Dodgers may have had the least imposing record of any postseason qualifier at 84-78, but they demonstrated against the Cubs that the best strength in any October is strength in pitching. The Cubs led the NL in runs scored in the regular season, but against the Dodgers, they could score a total of just six runs.
One week ago, the Dodgers were given little chance to advance. But they made their case as a genuine postseason outfit in no uncertain terms. A closer examination of the Dodgers indicates that their victory shouldn't have been that surprising. They led the NL in team ERA, and they pitched to that level against what had previously been an impressive Chicago lineup.
The Phillies aren't short on pitching, either. If they were, they wouldn't be here. The starting pitching has been strong, and closer Brad Lidge was perfection itself in regular-season save opportunities. Overall, the Phillies were fourth in the NL in team ERA. But their offense has been particularly impressive, tied for second in the NL, leading the league in home runs. (The Dodgers led the NL in giving up the fewest home runs. Something might have to give here.)
The Dodgers were merely 13th in the league in runs scored and 13th again in home runs. That's a meager output for a postseason team, even for one with quality pitching. But those numbers have to be put in context. For most of the season, the Dodgers didn't have Manny Ramirez or Casey Blake. Now, leadoff man Rafael Furcal has returned, and the entire offense has been bolstered by the increased patience and selectivity of the Dodgers' talented young hitters. Offensively, this is the rare case in which the team is legitimately better than its numbers indicate.
But even with Manny Ramirez on the L.A. side of the equation, the Phillies lead in demonstrated offensive star power with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Pat Burrell had a big NLDS. Jayson Werth emerged as a run-producing force in the second half. This is an imposing Philadelphia offense, combining both significant power and speed.
The home ballparks play to the strengths of the two clubs -- Citizens Bank, one of the most hitter-friendly facilities in the Majors and Dodger Stadium a much more favorable venue for pitchers.
And you have a notable stylistic difference between the two managers. Both are accomplished, but on the Dodgers' side is the urbanite, Joe Torre, with 13 straight postseason appearances. Torre has now made his success bicoastal. On the Phillies' side is the folksy Charlie Manuel. Manuel sounds like country but he is country shrewd, succeeding as a manager in both leagues, now winning division titles with the Phillies for the past two seasons.
If you add it all up and you come up with something like a very even matchup, congratulations, the 2008 numbers are with you. The teams split eight games during the regular season.
The home teams won on all eight occasions. That seems to favor the Phillies, who have the home-field advantage here by virtue of the better regular-season record. But the Cubs had the best home record in the NL, and the Dodgers never blinked as they opened the NLDS with two convincing victories at Wrigley Field.
The Phillies, unlike the Dodgers, were favored to win that Division Series. But as the Cubs found out, the past, even the recent past, counts for nothing in postseason baseball.
One of these teams is going to represent the NL in the World Series. And that status will be hard-earned, because this NLCS matchup has all the earmarks of a matchup that is close, difficult and compelling.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.