Five Keys to Dodgers-Phillies
Nothing is more intriguing than the matchup of young lefties: Kershaw vs. Hamels
Manny killed the Phils last year, but he hasn't been the same hitter for most of '09
Joe Torre's uncanny knack for making all the right moves in the playoffs is back
LOS ANGELES -- They met in this same round a year ago, finished with the two best records in the National League this season and each had home-field advantage in the division series, and yet somehow the fact that the Phillies will meet the Dodgers in the NLCS feels mildly surprising. The Dodgers upended a Cardinals team overflowing with top-quality starting pitching, supposedly that most determinative of postseason factors, while the Phillies eliminated a Rockies team that had been playing the best of any team in the league since late May.
There will be no surprise, however, when one of these teams advances to the World Series. In many ways, they are a more even matchup than the Yankees-Angels ALCS clash that is being viewed as the main event to the NLCS undercard. Whichever NL team survives will almost certainly be viewed as the underdog in the World Series, but to get there, they will have to first find the answers to these key subplots
1. Lefty vs. lefty
He's young, left-handed, the most reliable starter in their rotation and now the Game 1 starter in the NLCS. Cole Hamels? No, Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers' 21-year-old lefty started Game 2 against the Cardinals but has been bumped up a spot in the L.A. hierarchy on the strength of a stellar outing in the NLDS (6 2/3 innings pitched, two earned runs) that followed a consistently excellent regular season (2.79 ERA, nearly a run and a half better than his rookie year of 2008, and an NL-best 6.3 hits-per-nine-innings allowed).
Kershaw will start Games 1 and, if necessary, 5 for the Dodgers, who hope he'll be as dominant in those outings for them as Hamels was against them a year ago. But after appearing to emerge as the game's next great starter (being named NLCS and World Series MVP in 2008), Hamels was inconsistent throughout this season, finishing 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA that was more than a run above his 2008 total. He was at his best, however, against the Dodgers this year, posting a 0.56 ERA in two starts, striking out 14 against just one walk in 16 innings pitched. That, even more than his dominant NLCS a year ago, should give Charlie Manuel and the rest of the Phillies confidence that the old Hamels will emerge for this series.
2. Stagnant stars
The team's offenses are, for the most part, fairly even, and dangerous in their own way. The Phillies led the league in home runs and runs scored, the Dodgers in batting average and on-base percentage. But both teams have key players who need to heat up. Both Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies are potential game-changers, and both showed signs of snapping out of late-season funks with multi-hit games in their respective teams' clinchers. Rollins has never been much of a postseason performer (his .263 average against the Rockies was actually his second highest of the five playoff series in his career), but even discounting for the small sample size in the NLDS, he has not been the same hitter this year that he's been for much of his career. His on-base percentage of .296 was the fifth-worst in all of baseball this year, and his batting average dropped to just .250.
Ramirez, meanwhile, tortured the Phillies in last year's NLCS, batting .533/.682/1.067. But he entered this postseason having struck out nine times in his last four games of the regular season while going just 1-for-14. He had just one hit in the first two games of the NLDS before busting out with three hits in Game 3, causing both Dodgers manager Joe Torre and general manager Ned Colletti to hope he had turned the corner for good. "It looked like Manny was looking line drive," Torre said. "I thought his swing was a lot more level, and that was important."
3. Bench strength
Arguably the biggest play of last year's NLCS was the pinch-hit home run by Philadelphia's Matt Stairs in Game 4 that gave the Phillies the lead in the eighth inning. One year later, Stairs is still a dangerous bat off the bench, but he's just about the only weapon manager Charlie Manuel can go to. Joe Torre, meanwhile, has a bench perfectly suited for the postseason. He has an All-Star (Orlando Hudson) he can go to as a defensive replacement, a pinch runner to steal a base late in the game who also is a defensive upgrade (Juan Pierre), and a power-hitting lefty (Jim Thome) that can provide the same thunder Stairs can. Every one of those players did something to help the Dodgers beat the Cardinals, and that list doesn't even include little-used Mark Loretta, who delivered the walk-off single in Game 2. The Phillies use their bench far less, which makes sense given the strength top-to-bottom of their lineup, but also because there's not much to go to: Phillies bench players were 0-for-8 in the NLDS.
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