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10/03/2007 08:17:00 AM

NLDS: Rockies vs. Phillies

By Cliff Corcoran

Let's call it the Cinderella Series. On the morning of Sept. 13 the Phillies were seven games behind the Mets in the NL East. They proceeded to go 13-4, including a three-game sweep of the Mets at Shea (the Phillies won their last eight head-to-head matchups with the Mets), to capture the division on the final day of the season. On the morning of Sept. 17 the Rockies were in fourth place in the wild-card race, five games behind the Padres. They then went 13-1, including a three-game sweep of San Diego at Petco (the Rockies won six of their last seven head-to-head matchups with the Padres), to win the wild card via the seventh one-game playoff in major league history.

The Rockies' 14-1 record over the final 15 games of the season had only been matched once -- by the 1965 Dodgers, who went 14-1 prior to defeating the Twins in seven games in the World Series. The only team ever to finish the season with a 15-game winning streak was the 1960 Yankees, who lost the World Series on Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run despite outscoring the Pirates 55-27 over seven games.

Add to that the fact that the Rockies have only made one postseason appearance in their 14-year history, that coming when they won the inaugural NL wild card in 1995 and promptly lost the ALDS in four games to the Braves. The Phillies, meanwhile, haven't seen the postseason since 1993. In fact, the first pitch Cole Hamels throws to Kaz Matsui this afternoon will be the first postseason pitch thrown by a Phillies pitcher since Mitch Williams' fateful offering to Joe Carter that ended the '93 World Series.

Adding to the fairy tale flavor is the fact that these two teams are primarily home grown. That group includes six of the Phillies' expected starting nine today (including their ace starting pitcher and the top four men in their order) and seven of the Rockies' starting nine, from Rookie of the Year candidate Troy Tulowitzki to veteran Todd Helton, who was third on the active list of most games played without a postseason appearance prior to today's game.

Also among those homegrown players are the two leading candidates for NL MVP in Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday. The choice between the two is almost impossible to make. Holliday's Rockies were the less likely postseason participant, but Rollins' Phillies made the Mets the victims of the second greatest collapse in baseball history. Holliday bore more of his team's offensive load, while Rollins was supported by MVP-quality seasons from Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but, as a shortstop, Rollins plays a much more valuable defensive position than Holliday, who is a left fielder. In terms of raw numbers Holliday was far more productive than Rollins, but Holliday also got a much larger boost from his home park than Rollins did. Then again, Holliday was still more productive than Rollins on the road, hitting .301/.374/.495 to Rollins' .293/.352/.507 (both play in divisions otherwise composed of pitchers parks; Holliday's park-adjusted road OPS+ was 130 to Rollins' 129). Holliday was easily the most valuable Rocky this season, while Rollins had the fifth-highest OPS+ on the Phillies and was not even the most productive member of his team's double-play combination.

Is it really fair to leave Utley out of this conversation because one of the league-leading 25 pitches that hit him broke his hand in late July, costing him a month of the season? Is the fact that Rollins played more this season than any other player in the history of the game (his 716 at-bats and 778 plate appearances established new single-season records) part of why he deserves the award or merely why his counting stats look so impressive? Rollins is the favorite for the award because it makes for a good story. Rollins, the small, scrappy, be-nicknamed shortstop, bragged that his Phillies were the "team to beat" in the NL East back in February, then backed it up by leading his team to the division title with his best major league season, including becoming just the fifth man in the last 50 years to hit 20 triples, but I can't see the logic in penalizing Holliday for being a strong, strapping lad and keeping his mouth shut. After all, Holliday tripled in his team's clincher, too, and with Willy Taveras on the shelf, he's the Rockies' second biggest stolen base threat after Matsui.

The focus on Rollins and Holliday underscores the sort of series this is likely to be: a high-scoring one. The Phillies have the second-best offense in baseball after the Yankees, and both Citizens Bank Park and Coors Field are run-inflating ballparks. As always, the Rockies offensive numbers have been inflated by their ballpark (though not quite as much as in the pre-humidor era), but they're still a very good hitting team, as evidenced by the fact that Brad Hawpe, who hit .273/.368/.462 on the road this year, is their sixth-place hitter.

With that in mind, the Phillies' home field advantage is significant, as at least one game in this series will likely be decided by who has the last chance to score. The Phillies have another advantage, however, and that is today's starter, Hamels. The Phillies' 23-year-old lefty is a stone cold ace, and came up huge in the biggest game of his life on Friday night, pitching the Phillies to a one-game lead in the division with eight innings of shutout ball and 13 strikeouts. If he turns in another start like that tonight, I might start believing some of the things that have been written about him on the internet.

That's not a slight at the Rockies' own lefty ace, Jeff Francis, who will start against Hamels today, but as good as the 26-year-old Francis is, he's no match for Hamels, and was actually the loser in the one loss in the Rockies' 14-1 stretch to end the season. Francis was roughed up badly in both of his starts against the Phillies this year, most recently allowing eight runs in 3 1/3 innings at Citizens Bank on Sept. 13. Hamels, on the other hand, has never faced the Rockies in his young career, which is an added disadvantage for the Colorado offense tonight.

The Phillies announced their NLDS roster yesterday. They'll carry 10 pitchers, with a rotation of Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Lohse (though Lohse will be available out of the pen for the first two games), and a bullpen that includes starter-turned-closer Brett Myers, Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, and fire-starting veterans Antonio Alfonseca and Jose Mesa. That short bullpen gives the Phils a seven-man bench with three catchers (starter Carlos Ruiz and backups Chris Coste and Rod Barajas), seven infielders (stars Rollins, Utley, and Howard plus the third-base platoon of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs, and reserves Abraham Nuñez and Tad Iguchi), and five outfielders (starters Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand, right-field platoon Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth, and speedster Michael Bourn).

Free-agent bust Adam Eaton and injured reliever Geoff Geary (strained flexor pronator in his pitching elbow) are the notable omissions. Meanwhile, the three catchers have something to do with the fact that Ruiz is still nursing a sore left elbow after getting hit by a pitch in the season finale on Sunday. Ruiz had the swollen elbow drained on Monday, and got an MRI on it yesterday. Mike Carminati over at Mike's Baseball Rants argues that, if Ruiz is hurt, the Phillies should have devoted his spot to an extra reliever and carried the two healthy catchers. "Mike Piazza he ain't," sez Mike.
One interesting change in the rules this year is that teams will be allowed to replace injured players on the roster during a playoff series with the approval of the commissioner (previously they had to play short-handed and alter their roster for the next series if they advanced). Eaton and outfielder Chris Roberson will travel with the Phillies in case they need to be added as injury replacements.

The Rockies are waiting until the last minute to announce their roster. The major items that have leaked out thus far include the fact that Francis and rookie southpaw Franklin Morales will start the first two games (one assumes Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Fogg will start the other two, likely in that order, as Aaron Cook is still rehabbing his strained oblique). Ramon Ortiz, who earned the win in Monday's playoff against the Padres, will not make the squad, nor will center fielder Taveras, who is still out with a right quadriceps strain, leaving Ryan Spilborghs to start in center as he did on Monday, or infielder Ian Stewart. Mark Townsend of Bugs & Cranks offers his preferred roster, though he'll have to sub in Seth Smith, who got a big hit in Monday's win, for Stewart.

A position-by-position comparison of the two teams can be found over at Baseball Analysts, while Dan Lucero of Up in the Rockies offers his own breakdown here. David Cohen of The Good Phight, who contributed the Phillies side of the Baseball Analysts comparison, breaks down the Rockies' regular-season dominance of the Phillies that was otherwise masked by their 4-3 head-to-head record. Erik Grissom at Philliesflow recaps those seven head-to-head contests, while The Rocky Mountain News' Paul Willis stokes the fires by reminding us that the season series ended with a beanball war and Alfonseca being suspended for four games after throwing at Helton's head.

Those looking for still more to read can check out yesterday's workout-day interview with Hamels, Utley and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel here, or join Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Inquirer to catch up with the 1993 NL champion Phillies and get their takes on this year's squad. The Denver Post's Troy E. Renck does the same with the 1995 wild card winners. Finally, for those still debating it, Iowa resident Tim McClelland, the veteran home plate umpire who made the controversial game-ending safe call on Holliday on Monday, discusses that call as well as the doubts about Garrett Atkins' double earlier in the game with the Des Moines Register.

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posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: October 3, 2007 12:06 PM   by Cliff Corcoran
Update: Here's the Rockies roster:

IF: Helton, Matsui, Tulowitzki, Atkins, Jamey Carroll

OF: Holliday, Hawpe, Spilborghs, Jeff Baker, Cory Sullivan, Smith

C: Yorvit Torreabla, Chris Iannetta

SP: Francis, Morales, Jimenez, Fogg

RP: Manuel Corpas, Brian Fuentes, LaTroy Hawkins, Jeremy Affeldt, Matt Herges, Taylor Buchholz, Ryan Speier, Mark Redman

Human lighter fluid Jorge Julio, who nearly cost the Rockies their season on Monday, was left off the roster.
Posted: October 3, 2007 1:41 PM   by Anonymous
The Phillies will definitely win tonight. If they keep pitching they might just sweep the rockies. Just like they proved themselves on Sunday they are the tea, to beat.
Posted: October 3, 2007 5:22 PM   by Anonymous
They certainly were the "tea" to beat...yeah right, scoreboard!!!!!!! Go Rockies!
Posted: October 4, 2007 1:12 PM   by Jim L
Yeah, if the Phillies keep pitching...with that 13th ranked pitching staff they have that gives up a half a run mor than the Rockies per game...don't act as if the Phils pitching is better than the Rockies...in fact, in the 2nd half, the Rockies had the BEST ERA in the NL, while the Phils stoof at 14th in team ERA...
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