The weather in Southern California is very, well, un-Southern California. Overcast, drizzle -- almost feels like we're back in Philadelphia. But have no fear -- the weather gurus are predicting temperatures in the 80's and sunny skies for both tomorrow and Friday.
In the paper today, we took a look at some of the big questions the Phillies will have to answer over the next 24 hours. Manager Charlie Manuel is scheduled to meet with the media later this afternoon, so we might get some of them then. For now, though, I thought I'd focus in on the two questions that will decide the series:
1) Can the Phillies overcome a Dodgers bullpen that is as effective this year as the Phillies' was last year?
Dealing with this Dodgers' team can be a lot like dealing with the Phillies of last year: An offense has six innings to score enough runs to win the game. After that, it is dealing with the best bullpen in the National League. Closer Jonathon Broxton has had an excellent season, but he hasn't been as automatic as Brad Lidge was last year. Broxton, who gave up Matt Stairs' famous home run last year in the NLCS, has blown six saves. And it is tough to argue that he is more dangerous than Huston Street, against whom the Phillies rallied twice in the NLDS. But it is the guys in between the starting pitcher and Broxton who make this Dodgers' 'pen so dangerous. Young righthanders Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario have both had excellent seasons. And the 13 hitters on the Phillies roster are a combined 6-for-32 in their careers off of that duo. But it is lefties Hong-Chih Kuo and George Sherrill who really give L.A. the advantage. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are a combined 1-for-12 with six strikeouts off of Kuo. They don't have much experience against the former Oriole Sherrill, but he has held lefties to an average under .175 for his career. And the lack of experience would seem to play into Sherrill's favor.
In the paper today, I floated the possibility of Charlie Manuel changing his line-up around to better prepare it for late-innings work. He used the same line-up in all four games of the NLDS, but the special challenges that the Dodgers present might convince him to further split up his lefties -- especilly in Game 1, where opposing starter Randy Wolf has held Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to two hits and eight strikeouts in 17 career at-bats.
Try this line-up on for size:
- Jimmy Rollins SS
- Chase Utley 2B
- Jayson Werth RF or Shane Victorino CF
- Ryan Howard 1B
- Shane Victorino CF or Jayson Werth RF
- Raul Ibanez LF
- Pedro Feliz 3B
- Carlos Ruiz C
- Cole Hamels LHP
2) Can the Phillies' starting pitchers tilt the series in their favor?
I've said it for the better part of the month: if Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitch like a pair of pocket aces, they have the ability to overcome any match-up advantage the Dodgers might enjoy. Hamels has had an inconsistent season, and he is coming off an NLDS start in which he lasted just five innings. But he has a number of things going in his favor this time around: First, he is familiar with the Dodgers, and had success against them in two NLCS starts last year. Second, he loves the mound at Dodger Stadium, which is reputed to be higher than a lot of other mounds. He tossed a complete game shut-out there this season and has allowed just two runs in 17 career regular season innings there. Third, his wife is no longer nine months pregnant and he won't be facing the possibility of leaving the stadium early to be with her at the hospital.
Lee, on the other hand, doesn't have much experience with this Dodgers team. But he has faced them once - last summer at Dodger Stadium - and performed well, allowing one run in 7 1/3 innings.
If Hamels and Lee can give the Phillies four wins, they will obviously be headed to the World Series.
Here are my projected match-ups. Hamels and Lee (kind of sounds like a Law Firm) are no-brainers for Games 1 and 3. I think the Phillies end up putting J.A. Happ in the bullpen, given the shaky health of Scott Eyre and the inexperience of Antonio Bastardo. With two lefties on the bench in Juan Pierre and Jim Thome and a balanced line-up, the Phillies need all the southpaws they can get. Plus, Matt Kemp and Casey Blake kill lefties, and Rafael Furcal is much better from the right side of the plate than the left side. The one hesitation is sending Martinez out to pitch Game 2, since he hasn't started a game since Sept. 30, and even he admitted that he thought it would be beneficial to face hitters before making his first postseason start. But Game 2 would seem to be as good of a place to slide Martinez back into action -- a warm environment, a day game, in a stadium where he started his illustrious career.
Game 1: Cole Hamels at Randy Wolf
ANALYSIS: Since July 1, Wolf has allowed more than three runs in an outing twice (out of 17 starts), and has not allowed more than four runs. Sixteen of those 17 starts have lasted at least six innings, and 10 have gone into the seventh. Interestingly enough, the Phillies hit Wolf harder than any other team has this season, scoring six runs on eight hits and two home runs in 6 1/3 innings in their 7-2 win at Dodger Stadium on June 7. But in two other starts against his former team, Wolf has thrived. On May 13, Wolf held the Phillies to one run on three hits while striking out eight in six innings of a 9-2 win. On May 1, 2008, Wolf allowed two runs on six hits and struck out nine in six innings of a 3-2 loss at Citizens Bank Park while pitching for the Padres.
Game 2: Pedro Martinez at Clayton Kershaw
ANALYSIS: Historically, the Phillies have done an excellent job of making Kershaw work. Although he held them to two runs on four hits the last time he faced them, he lasted just 5 1/3 innings, throwing 105 pitches and walking three in a 3-0 Phillies win at Dodger Stadium on June 4. The previous month, he allowed four runs on four hits and four walks while throwing 98 pitches in five innings of a 5-3 Phillies win at Citizens Bank Park.
But after Kershaw's last outing against the Phillies, he went 5-4 with a 1.97 ERA while holding opponents to a .195 average in his last 20 appearances - 19 of them starts - of the regular season. In his one start in the NLDS, he held the Cardinals to two runs on nine hits and one walk while throwing 106 pitches in 6 2/3 innings of the Dodgers' 3-2 win.
Game 3: Cliff Lee vs. Vicente Padilla
ANALYSIS: The Phillies have faced Padilla once since he left town, back on June 28 in Texas while he was pitching for the Rangers. They scored seven runs on seven hits with two home runs off of him in six innings of a game they won 8-6.
Game 4: Joe Blanton vs. Hiroki Kuroda
ANALYSIS: The return of Kuroda, who pitched in an instructional league game earlier this week and should be ready to return to the Dodgers roster, could tilt the balance of this series. For whatever reason, the Japanese import dominates them. In four career regular season and postseason starts, Kuroda has held the Phillies to five runs on 11 hits in 25 innings. Kuroda stymied the Phillies on June 6 at Dodger Stadium, allowing two hits and three walks while striking out five in six scoreless innings of a 3-2 Dodgers win.
Kuroda pitched the Dodgers to their only win in the 2008 NLCS, allowing two runs on five hits while striking out three and walking one in six innings of L.A.'s 7-2 victory in Game 3.
In two starts against the Phillies in 2008, Kuroda allowed three runs on four hits in 13 innings, picking up a win and a no decision.
Game 5: Hamels vs. Wolf
Game 6: Lee vs. Kershaw
Game 7: Blanton/Martinez vs. Kuroda/Padilla
I still haven't made my predictions for the series, which will run in the paper tomorrow. The Phillies appear to have the advantage in both of Lee's starts, while the Dodgers seem to have the advantage when Kuroda is on the mound. That leaves the series hanging in the balance of the Hamels vs. Wolf match-ups.
I really think this one is going to go seven games. Who will win? I'm not sure yet.