- NLCS Preview:
Philadelphia Phillies (93-69; 1st place, NL East, defeated Colorado Rockies 3 games to 1 in NLDS) vs Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67; 1st place, NL West, defeated St. Louis Cardinals 3 games to 0 in NLDS)
Keys for the Phillies: starting pitching; the bullpen; score, score, score; control Manny Ramirez.
The Phillies never-say-die attitude saved them from a return trip to Philadelphia and (what I think) would've been a game 5 loss as they scored 3 runs in the top of the ninth inning of game 4 off of Huston Street to dispatch the Rockies. This attitude also glossed over the glaring issues in the Phillies bullpen that remain despite Brad Lidge saving the final two wins in the NLDS. Cole Hamels is starting the first game of the NLCS. Although he ostensibly left game 2 of the Rockies series to be with his wife who'd gone into labor, Hamels didn't pitch particularly well before the blessed event. Hamels has been up-and-down all season; if the Phillies are going to win this series, they're going to need the Hamels from 2008 and not the inconsistent pitcher he's been for all of 2009.
The absence of J.C. Romero and possible injury to Scott Eyre, who'd become more than a lefty specialist, will require Antonio Bastardo to deal with the looming presence of Jim Thome off the bench for the Dodgers. At least one game could hinge on his ability to do it or not.
In the NLDS, Cliff Lee regained the brilliance he displayed upon his arrival in Philly. Given the shaky Hamels and the questions surrounding the other starters available to the Phillies (I'd go with Joe Blanton as the third starter, J.A. Happ fourth), Lee must maintain that level of work against the Dodgers.
Even with Lidge getting the job done, he's still constantly teetering on the verge of another meltdown both mentally and in performance. His stuff didn't look much better against the Rockies than it did for his horrendous regular season and he's not going to get away with that if he's called on to retire Manny Ramirez late with runners on base.
The Phillies lineup is hell. Not only can they hit the ball out of the park at any time, but they're patient; they hit in the clutch; they execute fundamentally; and they can run. With the Dodgers starting rotation as short as it is and the questions surrounding the Phillies pitching, they'd better score early and often against the likes of Randy Wolf and young Clayton Kershaw; if the games are close late or their offense goes into a collective slump, they're going to lose.
Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal led the Dodgers past the Cardinals, but everything in this series will come down to Manny Ramirez. The Phillies have to mitigate Manny----or at least control him. One game-wrecker from Manny could turn the series for the Dodgers.
Keys for the Dodgers: the bullpen; keep the Phillies offense down; Manny.
The Dodgers starting pitching is known to be a question, but it's not going to matter as long as they're not allowing crooked numbers in the early innings. If the likes of Wolf, Kershaw and Vicente Padilla (they haven't announced any of their game starters yet) wobble, Torre's modus operandi in the playoffs is to yank his starters at the first sign of trouble no matter the inning; with a deep and diverse bullpen, he won't hesitate to make moves with a quick hook.
The Dodgers hold a massive advantage over the Phillies if the games are close late. With Hong-Chih Kuo, George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton, the Dodgers can shut the game down after the sixth inning and wait for the Phillies bullpen to implode. If the Dodgers bullpen does their job, they're tough to beat.
As intimidating as the Phillies offense is, the Dodgers' offense isn't too shabby in their own right. They got through the Cardinals with little contribution from Manny; Matt Kemp and Casey Blake. Furcal was on fire throughout the first round and set the tone; and Ethier was sublime. Manny has had a trying year with the PED suspension and will be on a mission in this NLCS to regain his rep. There's not one pitcher in baseball that can contain a motivated Manny Ramirez. If Manny has a game-breaking game or even a series, the Dodgers are unstoppable.
Torre and coach Larry Bowa are going to hammer home the point that the Dodgers hitters must be patient with the Phillies starters, if for no other reason than to get them out of the game or wear them down for later in the series. If the Dodgers are able to get Hamels and Lee out of the games early and dig into the Phillies soft bullpen, there's not much the Phillies can do about it other than shut their eyes and pray. The Phillies will be faced with a choice if the pitch counts of their top two starters are high: leave them in the game and worry about the now, or trust their relievers. The Dodgers can't let Lee have his way with them as he did the Rockies. If the Dodgers jump on Hamels and Lee and the Phillies have to rely on the back of their rotation, they're in deep, deep trouble.
What will happen:
Hamels's inconsistency for 2009 will be counteracted by his penchant for pitching well in big games, but he's going to give up runs. The Dodgers starting pitching isn't impressive, but the bullpen will be deployed liberally by Torre. The Phillies are going to score, but so are the Dodgers. The games are going to come down to bullpen battles. The absences of Romero and possibly Eyre are going to cost the Phillies at least one game and possibly two. Lidge is a nightmare waiting to happen. Most importantly, Manny is set to explode.
With their bullpen as varied as it is----and playoff series come down to bullpens----Torre is going to have an advantage that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel won't. The Dodgers woke up at the right time in the NLDS after a drunken stumble down the stretch of the regular season.
The Phillies were lucky against the Rockies in two respects: the cold weather allowed them to avoid using Pedro Martinez in game 3 (he would've gotten shelled); and they were able to squeak past their own bullpen issues because of Street's gack jobs. They won't be that lucky against the Dodgers.
Broxton has a tendency to melt down occasionally, but he's far more trustworthy than anything the Phillies have. The Dodgers are going to hang with the Phillies offensively and a battle of the bullpens will allow them to avenge last year's loss and win the pennant.
PREDICTION: DODGERS IN SIX.
NLCS MVP: MANNY RAMIREZ
- Billy Wagner talks retirement:
More than anything else, Wagner's an emotional guy and was probably upset over the Red Sox loss; and don't discount a negotiating ploy with the Red Sox because he doesn't want them to offer him arbitration lowering the number of options he has as a free agent.
I have a hard time believing the speculation that the Red Sox would consider trading Jonathan Papelbon to keep Wagner as their closer. Even with the blown save in game 3 of the ALDS against the Angels, Papelbon has been completely reliable----especially when it's counted. Having watched and suffered through several instances of Wagner's penchant for bullpen arson while he was with the Mets, I can tell the Red Sox here and now that they do not want to go down that road. I don't think that the Red Sox are going to offer arbitration to Wagner and pay a set-up man upwards of $10 million next year.
There are a few places for Wagner to go where he'll get a chance to close. It's said he wants to be close to his Virginia home which would make Washington a good spot; other options are Atlanta, his former home of Houston and, where I think he'll wind up, Florida with the Marlins on a 1-year deal.
I'll be stunned if he retires. Did he go through the Tommy John surgery and rehab to return for one month and then hang it up? No way.
- Giants re-sign GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy to 2-year extensions:
Brian Sabean has been ridiculed for signings like Barry Zito and that atrocious trade for A.J. Pierzynski in which he surrendered Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser, but for the most part he's been a stabilizing force for the Giants. Dealing with the Barry Bonds fiasco for all those years and building around the temperamental and controversial star showed Sabean's skill at walking the line in running a club. Add in that they've been rebuilt very quickly to the verge of legitimate contention with a loaded farm system, and he deserved the contract.
With his grumbly way of talking; thick black mustache reminiscent of grainy, turn-of-the-20th-century team photos; and gruff but soft-hearted old-school manner, Bruce Bochy is one of the best-liked and most respected baseball men and overall people in the game. It was a no-brainer to keep him as well. If the Giants get a power bat, they're just about ready to take the step into the conversation with the elite teams in baseball and they're smart to keep their management team intact.