Spin Forward: LA must play the park
Avoiding homers in Philly new challenge for Dodgers pitchers
PHILADELPHIA -- In three games in their National League Division Series, 27 full innings pitched, the Dodgers allowed all of one home run to a potent Cubs offense. In the space of 10 pitches on Thursday night, Derek Lowe served up two.
It's a different challenge going up against the Phillies lineup, and it's a very different ballgame trying to keep the ball in the yard at Citizens Bank Park. The Dodgers must win the home run battle if they want to win the NL Championship Series, and in Game 1 they lost it.
They have to think their chances are good in Friday night's Game 2, with Chad Billingsley on the mound. But then again, they had to think the same thing with Lowe on Thursday, and even Lowe wasn't immune to the combination of Phillies power and claustrophobic Citizens Bank Park.
Neither Chase Utley's homer to right field nor Pat Burrell's to right was cheap. But there are parks where Burrell's, at least, might have died on the warning track. The right-hander's liner dropped in the flower bed just behind the fence in the shallow Philly left field. Utley's went a little deeper, and again, neither was a Houston Crawford-Box special. But they were reminders of the perils of pitching in Philadelphia.
"Clearly, you know it's a hitter's park, but that doesn't mean you can't pitch a good game," Lowe said. "You've got to pitch to your strengths. [Utley] could have rolled it over just as well as hit a home run. That was a tough game."
Lowe was the seventh-toughest starting pitcher in the National League to take deep in 2008, and even he was bitten. Lowe permitted 14 dingers in 211 innings in the regular season, though he did allow one in his Division Series start at Wrigley Field. Still, his entire game is built around keeping his pitches down and keeping the ball in the park -- better yet, in the infield.
When he left a couple of fastballs up in the zone, though, the Phillies did what they do -- and what they especially do at home. Phillies pitchers are used to it. Opponents are not.
"It's a huge challenge," said Phils ace Cole Hamels, who pitched an outstanding game on Thursday. "When you're pitching in this day and age, it's all about the home runs. The crowd wants to see the home runs. So bats are a little bit harder, balls are a little bit harder, the fences are a little bit shorter. To be a pitcher, you really have to grind and be mentally tough.
"So playing here, I think if you're able to succeed here, you can pitch anywhere."
The next visitor to face the challenge will be right-hander Billingsley, who ranked just a hair behind Lowe in home run rate this year. It's what Dodgers pitchers do -- Game 3 starter Hiroki Kuroda also ranked among the leaders.
But it's one thing to do it at PETCO Park or AT&T Park, or even Dodger Stadium. It's another to do it in Philadelphia.
Dodger Stadium plays much more as a hitters' park than its reputation suggests, but Citizens Bank Park is still a different animal. The ball scoots out over the imposingly close outfield walls, and the Phillies absolutely love to hit at home.
The Phils hit .262 and slugged .447 as a team at home this year, versus .249 and .429 on the road. They hit a homer every 28.4 at-bats at home, and one every 30.3 on the road.
It's not that you can't pitch at Citizens Bank Park. It's just that you have to pitch very, very well and minimize mistakes. Lowe was able to do that for five innings but not a sixth on Thursday. Billingsley can't afford a similar letdown, or the Dodgers will go home facing an 0-2 series deficit.
"It's pretty much mostly keep the ball down in the zone," Billingsley said. "Try not to take or make too many mistakes over the middle. I mean, they've got a lot of power and speed. You just want to keep those first couple of guys off the bases when you have Chase and Ryan [Howard] coming to the lineup. That's one of the main things."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.