Cliff Lee has been one of the best pitchers in the NL since he was traded from Cleveland. Can he do it in the NLCS?
The National League Championship Series is set to kick off tonight in Los Angeles as the Dodgers and Phillies meet in a rematch of last year’s playoff series. Last year, the Phillies took care of business en route to their first World Series title in 28 years. Will it be any different this year?
At the outset of these playoffs, it was not a case of which of these two, Russell Martin or Carlos Ruiz, was better. It was more a question of how much better Martin was than Ruiz. However, in the NLDS, it was Ruiz who showed up for his team in a way that he usually doesn’t, coming up with key hits in the Phils’ 3-1 victory. So, the gap has certainly narrowed. Still, Martin has shown a more consistent pattern of success, and there was never enough concern about him to make the Dodgers go out and get Paul Bako.
Much like in the American League, this is a very big mismatch. The Dodgers have a serviceable 1B in James Loney, who disappointed by not really having the breakout season that many were predicting, but still had a very respectable year. The Phillies counter with the Big Man, Ryan Howard, who continues to rack up stunning power numbers, benefitting greatly from having a powerful lineup around him. He also got his batting average up to a respectable level this year, making him even more dangerous to pitch to.
Chase Utley is hands-down the best second baseman in the Majors today. Not one other 2B gets it done batting and fielding quite like he does. On top of that, he is the Phillies’ quiet team leader and a hero in the City of Brotherly Love. The Dodgers have yet another solid presence at 2B in Ronnie Belliard, who I personally think is one of the more underrated second basemen in the Majors, but he’s not nearly in the same category as Utley.
Moving to the left side of the infield makes it a lot tougher to determine who’s superior between these two teams. The Phillies have Pedro Feliz at the hot corner, who is always solid, but far from spectacular, and isn’t the player you expect to get hurt by if you’re a Dodger fan. Casey Blake has had a bit of a resurgence since leaving Cleveland for LA, but still is far from a superstar. That being said, it’s hard to imagine either of these two having a major impact in this series.
Another slot in the infield that it’s truly unclear as to who has the advantage, but the difference is that both Jimmy Rollins and Rafael Furcal could have a major impact on this series. Rollins has the ability to give the Phils a quick start, with his unusual power hitting from the leadoff spot, as well as good speed on the basepaths, and very good defensive skills. Furcal has been one of the more clutch players for LA down the stretch, along with Andre Ethier, and isn’t a slouch out in the field, either.
The Dodgers’ outfielders have certainly drawn the most attention this postseason, and that’s not a surprise when you have Manny Ramirez in left field. The real surprises have been his supporting cast of Ethier and Matt Kemp, who have come up with numerous timely hits and home runs for LA down the stretch, and who both played very well in the sweep of the Cardinals. The Phillies have a pretty good outfield, though, too, with Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and Raul Ibanez, all of whom could have been All-Stars this year in the NL. The play of these groups in the field, as opposed to at the plate, might be a key to this series.
This is the separating point between these two teams. I feel it would be a dis-service to take the time and explain this, so I’ll just list the starting rotations for both teams. For the Dodgers, it’ll be Clayton Kershaw, followed by Phillie outcasts Vincente Padilla and Randy Wolf, and finally either Hiroki Kuroda or Chad Billingsley. These five have a combined season record of 51-39, and an ERA close to 4.00. The Phils counter with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, J.A. Happ, Pedro Martinez, and maybe Joe Blanton. Lee should automatically give them two wins, Pedro has been a huge surprise and has always pitched well in the playoffs, and Hamels and Blanton have been here before and excelled.
Almost the complete opposite of starting pitching, with the Phillies having some major bullpen issues as they sit on the ledge whenever they need to call on Brad Lidge to close out a game. The Dodgers, meanwhile, might have the best overall group of relievers in the playoffs, which is a huge advantage for the Dodgers if they get into a high-scoring game or an extra innings game with the Phils. Not to mention, Johnathan Broxton has been lights out all year for Los Angeles.
Taking all of these things into account, as well as a few other factors, including the Phillies success on the road and its similar success against left-handed pitchers. This is why I am taking the Phillies in six.