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10/13/09 2:39 AM EST
Phillies-Dodgers NLCS breakdown
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
In Philadelphia, the Phillies delivered a message to fans who thought Colorado could stand up to the defending World Series champs: "You got Rox in your head?"
Phillies: We can't stray from Matt Stairs. Not because he did it to the Dodgers last October, the gigantic, go-ahead two-run pinch-homer in the eighth inning of Game 4. Not even because he keeps doing it -- MLB-high five pinch-hit homers this season, 19 in his career. But because he is always a threat to do it, even when he seems least capable. Stairs can be hitless for two months, and come out of it with a pinch-hit grand slam -- in fact, that's precisely what he did on Sept. 10.
Dodgers: Orlando Hudson certainly was kept a secret throughout the Division Series, barely leaving the dugout. But a frontliner who hit a robust .283 in 149 games won't remain invisible. Either at-bat, on the bases or with his range and glove, the O-Dog will regain his bite and provide a game-affecting highlight.
In Los Angeles, the Dodgers made their own contribution to the Visine postseason: Get the red out. While the Angels got rid of the Red Sox, the Dodgers dismissed the Redbirds.Which brings us to a dog-eared National League Championship Series. The Dodgers and Phillies meet in the event for the fifth time (reprising clashes in 1977-78, 1983 and 2008), matching the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh NLCS rivalry that had its last enactment in 1990. The Phillies have taken the two most recent chapters in overwhelming fashion, and the consensus accords them another inside track because they can strong-arm the Dodgers. Starting pitching does hold the postseason key, simply because everything flows from that. The starter sets up all the dominoes: The shuttle of relief specialists, using role players in their assigned slots (such as late-game defense). And with Cliff Lee at the top, the Phillies' rotation is deemed superior. In fact, entering these playoffs, the Philadelphia rotation -- which now expands to four with the addition of Pedro Martinez or Joe Blanton -- was generally ranked third only behind those of the Red Sox and the Cardinals ... oh, right, never mind. The Dodgers have already dealt with this year's possible NL Cy Young Award winner (Chris Carpenter), so they won't be fazed by a Cy Young guy who is so last year (Lee). Indeed, the Dodgers specialize in busting up expectations and order. They have talent, and perhaps even more spunk. The Dodgers definitely don't want a chance to find out what Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel meant as he remained calm when his club clinched a third consecutive NL East title. "I'll celebrate when we get to the big one," Manuel had said -- and around the San Andreas Fault, no one wants to have anything to do with The Big One.
BY THE NUMBERS
AT THE PLATE
Phillies: Raul Ibanez, who waited 1,518 games to get into a postseason, began making up for lost time with a terrific Division Series against the Rockies. If Jimmy Rollins, who has had an uncharacteristic on-and-off season, wakes up after a quiet NLDS, the Phils' attack will be whole. Their offense depends too much on the long ball, which makes them vulnerable, especially against a Los Angeles staff which allowed the third-fewest homers in the Majors. Dodgers: With all of the Phillies' individual giants, the Dodgers busied on offense like an ant-farm. At the end of the season's 162 days, they had 40 fewer runs. That's right, an average of one-fourth run less per game. There is no reason for manager Joe Torre to go away from the new lineup -- Matt Kemp at second in the order, Ronnie Belliard at second in the field -- that clicked so well against St. Louis. Casey Blake has gradually shaken off the rust from an end-of-season absence with a sore left hamstring and is ready to again be a force.
KEY LATE GAME MATCHUP
Los Angeles' George Sherrill vs. Philadelphia's Howard: The Dodgers were glaringly obvious about not letting Albert Pujols beat them, walking him intentionally three times. The late-game strategy against the Phillies isn't as obvious -- Howard, every big a threat as Pujols, got only eight intentional passes all season -- because Howard hits from the opposite side as the man behind him, right-handed Jayson Werth. Rather than burn an extra arm, Torre would likely let Sherrill take on Howard, especially since the two have never met, always an advantage to the pitcher. Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz vs. Los Angeles' Juan Pierre: Key late-game situations always revolve around the pitcher and the batter, but pinch-runner Pierre's presence on the bases will only compound that battle. But it will come down to a run-and-shootout with Ruiz, the catcher who stopped 23 of 84 steal attempts for a slightly-better-than-average 27 percent. Conversely, Pierre has been thrown out on 12 of 42 attempts, an almost-matching 28 percent. Now that's a fair fight.
Phillies: The closer. This goes beyond Brad Lidge. Shaken and stirred, despite earning two saves during the NLDS, there is too much track record by now to suggest he won't waver, and push Charlie Manuel to turn to Ryan Madson. But switching closers in mid-series can be very unsettling. Dodgers: Jim Thome. His presence in the clubhouse and threat in the dugout may be incalculable. Around him, the Dodgers have a very capable veteran bench, which was already a huge factor in the Division Series. But he is Torre's lone big pinch bat when a long, comeback blow is needed -- and the fact remains the erstwhile American League DH hasn't had a pinch-hit homer in 39 months.
AND THE WINNER IS ...
The Phillies will win if ... Their studded lineup backs the Dodgers into a slugfest series, in which they won't be able to keep up. The Phillies' power edge -- 224 homers to L.A.'s 145 -- is the largest disparity between NLCS foes since 1987, when the Giants had 205 to the Cardinals' 94. The Dodgers will win if ... They win the first six innings. The plot doesn't change. That worked against St. Louis, and bequeathing leads to that gilded bullpen remains the best formula against the Phillies.