10/16/08 3:57 AM ET
Phils prove they're second to none
NL champs flat-out superior in advancing to World Series
The Philadelphia Phillies played the kind of October baseball that had something for everyone. Adding it all up, they also had something very fitting for themselves -- the 2008 NL pennant, Philadelphia's first pennant in 15 years.
The Phillies put on a complete and compelling performance in the NL Championship Series. They finished up on Wednesday night with another convincing victory, 5-1, over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Phillies got to celebrate on the Dodger Stadium turf, because they did what championship teams can do, winning the final two games of this series on the road.
That made the Phillies 4-1 winners in the NLCS. And it made the Phillies 7-2 in the 2008 postseason. That's an October performance somewhere between no-doubt and dominant. Either way, it's a very nice neighborhood at this time of the year.
The Phillies weren't short in any facet of the game. In fact, they appeared to be superior to the Dodgers all over the place. The Dodgers came here with three primary reasons to believe that they could win. Their team ERA was the lowest in the NL, they had the hottest hitter on the planet, Manny Ramirez, and they had just swept the Cubs -- the NL's best regular-season team -- in the NL Division Series.
But the Phillies trumped the Dodgers' pitching with two superb starts from Cole Hamels and consistent work from their bullpen. Ramirez kept hitting at a supernatural pace, but he didn't get enough help from his friends, proving once again that, in a postseason series, if one man is going to be the central figure, you're better off if that one man is a pitcher.
The Dodgers were very impressive in that sweep of the Cubs. But the truth of the matter is that in this October, the Phillies were a vastly more difficult opponent than the Cubs.
Checking around the diamond, this was about much, much more than the Phillies clobbering numerous home runs, although the home runs were helpful, too. The Phillies had the whole game covered.
Starting pitching? By now, you could count on Hamels to not only win a big postseason game, but to be in charge of the education of your children and to administer the federal bailout of crisis-stricken financial institutions.
Hamels won the MVP award for this NLCS. While numerous Phillies performed well, his successful work started and ended the NLCS for the Phils. Hamels has a 3-0 record with a 1.23 ERA for the postseason. That's the stuff of dreams for the rest of the pitching world, but it is Hamels' reality here.
This 24-year-old lefty is the picture of composure and calm. But he also turns out to be a postseason competitor of the first rank. After stopping the Brewers in the opener of the NLDS and then shutting down the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS, on Wednesday night, Hamels got to work on the other end of a playoff series, the clincher.
He was, of course, up to the task, limiting the Dodgers to one run over seven innings. Game 5 came down to the starting pitching matchup of two remarkable and talented young pitchers. Chad Billingsley, coming up short for the second consecutive NLCS start, was unable to get through the third inning. But Hamels was in command -- early, often, always -- locating his pitches precisely and keeping the Dodgers perpetually off-balance with a change of speeds.
The bullpen? Yes, Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels set a new saves record this season. So maybe Brad Lidge wasn't the most prolific closer, but he was the most effective. Following his 41 saves in 41 save opportunities in the regular season, Lidge has been 5-for-5 in the postseason, including three in the NLCS. Fittingly enough, he was on the mound on Wednesday night for a scoreless ninth and the finish.
Nobody's perfect? So far, Lidge at his job in 2008 defies that notion. And the entire Philadelphia bullpen chipped in, giving up only two runs in its last 19 1/3 innings of the postseason. When Game 4 became a battle of the bullpens, the Dodgers essentially had no chance.
Power, not to mention power in the clutch? Chase Utley and Pat Burrell supplied the home runs that made the difference in Game 1. Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs hit even more dramatic home runs that determined the outcome in Game 4.
"Yeah, they live and die by the home run," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre. "So they can jump back into a game or win a game. They did it against us in Game 1, two homers in a short period of time. The other night, the same thing.
"If you make a mistake, it's not a line drive in the hole. It's a home run."
Defense? The Phillies were clearly the better team in this category, too. While the Dodgers' infield defense imploded in the fifth inning of Game 5, the barest hint of trouble for Hamels seemed to lead directly to another double play, the niftiest of which was started by Utley in the fifth.
Intangibles? The way this team rallied around its manager, Charlie Manuel, when his mother died was both genuine and heartwarming. It's not all cold, hard numbers in this game. It is also hearts and minds. The Phillies are also in good shape in those last two categories.
When it mattered most the Fightin' Phils were the best team in the NL. And second place in this race wasn't anywhere near the winner.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.