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?

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?

Catcher
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.

Advantage: Dodgers

First Baseman
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.

Advantage: Phillies

Second Baseman
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.

Advantage: Phillies

Third Baseman
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.

Advantage: Push

Shortstop
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.

Advantage: Push

Outfield
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.

Advantage: Push

Starting Pitching
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.

Advantage: Phillies

Relief Pitching
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.

Advantage: Dodgers

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.

Joe Torre's L.A. Dodgers are one step closer to the World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday

Joe Torre's L.A. Dodgers are one step closer to the World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday

This was supposed to be a quick exit for Los Angeles.  They weren’t supposed to be able to get to the St. Louis Cardinals’ vaunted pitching staff.  This was supposed to be Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday’s playoff coming out party.  Apparently Joe Torre, Manny Ramirez, and the rest of the LA Dodgers didn’t get the message.

A decisive 5-1 victory in an abnormally quiet Busch Stadium, backed by seven shutout innings from the somewhat unlikely Vincente Padilla left no doubt about the NL West Champions, who all of a sudden look rejuvenated and as good as they did back in April and May when they first were called World Series contenders.

Even though the Cardinals’ bats were held in check to the tune of just six runs in three games, it’s hard to ignore the timely hitting from the Dodgers as a key factor in the sweep.  No player on the field had a bigger impact on the series than Andre Ethier, who has continued his late season tear into October, hitting .500 in the series with two home runs and three RBIs, including the 2-run home run in tonight’s game to make it 3-0 Dodgers in Game 3, and eventually 3-0 in the series for L.A.

Now the Dodgers get to sit and watch the Phillies and Rockies battle it out for the next two games of their series in wintry Denver, and potentially play an all-or-nothing game back in Philadelphia.  Either way, the winner of that series has to go out to Chavez Ravine, where a well-rested, well-managed, and maybe most importantly, a hungry Dodgers team will be lined up and primed for the NLCS.  Both teams bring up some big motivators for the Dodgers, as well.

If it’s the Rockies, the motivation is explicit.  A battle to end all battles of an NLCS against their closest rivals from the NL West.  A team that they beat 14 times in 18 games, and yet, it seemed like down the stretch that a lot more people were watching Colorado than Los Angeles.  It’s a great chance for the Dodgers to reclaim their supremacy on the West Coast, especially if they are to possibly meet the Angels in the World Series.

If it’s the Phillies, you better believe that closer Johnathan Broxton will be fired up.  In last year’s NLCS, it was Broxton who gave up the key home run to pinch hitter Matt Stairs that permanently shifted the series in favor of the defending World Champions.  Most of the members of that 2008 Dodgers team are still around and remember the feeling of getting beaten by the Phillies and will have that to feed off of if they come into Dodger Stadium for the second consecutive year for the NLCS.

Regardless of the result of the other NLDS series, the only thing that is certain at this point is that the Dodgers are not going to go silently, if not by their play, then simply by their surroundings.  Only time will tell if it’ll be a Hollywood ending in Mannywood.

If Albert Pujols were to retire today hed be considered for the HOF. Were lucky to get to see him for a few more years.

If Albert Pujols were to retire today he'd be considered for the HOF. We're lucky to get to see him for a few more years.

Amid the hype and hoopla of NFL Kickoff this weekend, the MLB playoff races continue, albeit that most of the races are over at this point.  If you get the chance to at some point this weekend, though, do yourself a favor and take a really good long look at what Albert Pujols is doing for the St. Louis Cardinals right now.  Even though it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll win the Triple Crown this year, he is still having another one of the great individual seasons in this decade (this is taking out any and all possible and definite steroid-enhanced seasons).  Pujols will without a doubt be named NL MVP at the end of the season and it will once again bring up the question of how good he could be at the end of his career.

Many of the baseball experts have been very vocal about how good he actually is.  ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian has said more than once that Pujols could go down as “one of the top 5 hitters of all-time.”  Whoa.  It’s rare when someone is called a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but one of the best ever?  That is some truly amazing praise for a guy who in his career is hitting .334 and is quickly closing in on 400 career home runs, with a lot of years left in his career.

Of course, in this era in baseball, it goes without saying that all of this greatness is contingent upon whether or not Albert Pujols is clean.  I truly believe he is, and I think that just about every baseball fan hopes he is.  If Pujols were to be found out as a cheater, it would be an absolutely devastating blow to baseball fans, players, and the business of baseball, in general.

Cards Fans have has a lot to cheer about in the 2000s, including their World Series in 06

Cards Fans have has a lot to cheer about in the 2000s, including their World Series in '06

I look back to this summer when it was announced that both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were on “The List.”  That evening I called a friend and a big Red Sox fan and she literally cried on the phone when I brought it up.  Imagine the reaction in the fairly new Busch Stadium if it came out that Pujols was no better.  All of a sudden, the Cardinals faithful would be eerily quiet, and some of them might be turned away from the game forever.  I only say that because that would be my reaction if I were to find out that the face of my franchise, Derek Jeter, were to be caught.  It’s something that you have to think about.

That aside, I was asked who baseball’s next hero was going to be a few months back and I immediately responded with “Go watch Albert Pujols.”  He is the rare kind of player that, at the end of his career, all fans will look at and say “That guy was great, one of the best.”  Much like Cal Ripken Jr. and the Great (Tainted) Home Run Chase saved baseball after the 1994 strike, as Pujols approaches those records once thought to be impossible to surpass, he has the ability to lift the MLB out of the shadows of the Steroid Era.  There is no other player out there right now who is capable of such a feat.  So, if you can get yourself away from College Football Saturday and NFL Sunday, just take a peek at one of the great athletes of our generation, I’m sure he won’t disappoint.