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The NLCS begins

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Last year’s championship series featured 1 great matchup – a 7 game thriller that ended w/ Boston rallying from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Indians – and 1 blowout – the Rockies completed their tremendous improbable run to the World Series w/ a sweep of the Dbacks. Of course, the Rockies tremendous streak ended against the Dbacks as the Sox took it to them in what has, unfortunately, become World Series S.O.P – the World Series wipeout. This year’s LCS get started w/ a somewhat surprising matchup – the Dodgers (my brother’s favorite team) and the Phils.

There’s really no reason why the Cubs aren’t here – except for the fact that they’re the Cubs – which I would like to believe in despite my affinity for ridiculous things like facts. Well, there’s actually another reason. The Dodgers really took it to them in the Division Series. They won the 3 games by a combined score of 20-6. They out-hit them, out-pitched them and, particularly in game 2 (when the Cubs successfully accomplished the rarest of feats – the infield fielding grand slam) out-fielded them. The Phils series w/ the Brewers was only slightly more competitive. 3 of their 4 games were 3 or 2-run games.

The Dodgers strike me as a particularly interesting team this postseason. They are a team that was built w/ veterans in the hopes that these older players would return the team to glory. When that wasn’t working, they had the foresight to stick all these geezers on the bench and play their young players. Now their bench reads like an All-Star team from 10 years ago – Garciaparra, Kent, Andruw Jones, Pierre, Schmidt (DL). Surely somewhere somebody’s saying what an advantage the Dodgers have in this series w/ so many "proven vets" on their bench, all the while ignoring the fact that the team wouldn’t be here if those "proven vets" weren’t on the bench and were, instead, in the starting lineup. Did I mention that the Dodgers made the playoffs w/ "proven vet" Rafael Furcal on the DL instead of in the lineup?

Instead, they’ve got young, unproven yet talented players completing their lineup, rotation and bullpen. Finally, the team decided to let its young, uber-talented CF play every day and, wouldn’t you know it, he’s been terrific. They’ve got youngsters at 1B, C, and RF as well as their #2 starter and terrific setup man but, of course, they really took off when they acquired the outstanding right-handed hitting line-drive hitter w/ power – Manny Ramirez.

In a lot of ways, this team reminds me of the 2006 Cardinals. No one really expected them to be able to compete w/ the Cubs just like no one really expected the stumbling Cards to compete against the other NL teams 2 years ago. The Dodgers entered the playoffs w/ just 84 regular season wins – only 1 more than the Cards’ total in ’06. Like the Cards that year, their playoff lineup was distinctly different from the one they used for much of the season. During the ’06 season, the Cards suffered from a lot of injuries and rarely played w/ Eckstein, Edmonds, Rolen, Pujols, Belliard, and Duncan all in the same lineup. Part of that was due to injuries to Edmonds, Eckstein and Rolen. Part of that was due to Duncan’s mid-season promotion and Belliard’s trade deadline acquisition. In any case, the lineup almost had to have a meet-and-greet before taking the field in San Diego to begin the ’06 playoffs. This year’s Dodgers aren’t all that different.

Pierre and Kent began the season in the lineup (well, Pierre was platooning), as did Jones. Ramirez came over at mid-season. DeWitt took over for Kent and Casey Blake took over for DeWitt at third. Out of necessity, the Dodgers turned to their young guys. It became abundantly clear that they weren’t going anywhere w/ their $9 M, weak-armed and offensively feckless LF and their $14 M, offensively brutal CF in the lineup every day. To their credit, they finally did extricate Pierre and Jones from that lineup and replace them every day w/ Kemp and Ethier. It would have been easy to try to squeeze blood from the turnips that are the Pierre and Jones contracts but they ultimately determined that those contracts were sunk costs and, if they were going to win, it was time to put the vets on the bench and play the kids.

They turned to Kemp as the Cards turned to Wainwright in ’06 – only after doing everything they could to get the vet to work out. Finally, the teams were left w/ no other option – remember, the Cards tried Braden Looper before turning to Wainwright in September, 2006 – and it was either play the kids or watch the postseason on TV. The Cards in ’06 got a lot out of Jeff Weaver in the playoffs and the unheralded bullpen of Kinney, Johnson, and Wainwright. The Dodgers, too, have an unheralded but very strong pen consisting of Jonathan Broxton, Joe Beimel, Cory Wade, and Takashi Saito. No one expected Weaver to pitch as well as he did in the playoffs and I doubt people expect much from Hiroki Kuroda – probably b/c they don’t know who the hell he is.

The Cards had to face an ostensibly daunting Mets’ offense in ’06. Even so, as powerful as the group of Beltran, Delgado, Wright, and Reyes seemed to be, if you looked beyond the surface, the Mets had some pitching problems. Pedro wasn’t healthy. Maine was unproven and Oliver Perez was downright crazy. He’s still probably crazy though he’s a much better pitcher than he was in 2006. The Mets did have a relatively stable hand in the aging left-hander Tom Glavine – a guy who was still managing to get people out every now and then on guile and a pretty good changeup.

The Phils seem to be a pretty similar team. Wagner was, if not as dominant as Lidge has been this year, pretty damned good – So Taguchi and Yadi notwithstanding. The top of the Phils’ rotation is much stronger as Hamels is one of the best pitchers in the NL. Beyond that, though, they have their issues. Moyer is their Glavine – he could be OK. Is Brett Myers John Maine or is he Oliver Perez? I’m not sure. Blanton just isn’t that good. The bottom line is that the Phils have 1 starter they can count on to combat Lowe, Billingsley and Kuroda. Even Maddux vs. Blanton is, at best, a wash for the Phils.

Their lineup, however, is salty. Playing the roles of Wright, Delgado, Beltran and Reyes will be Burrell, Howard, Utley, and Rollins. Beyond them, though, they have some spots where they can be pitched to. Feliz, though excellent defensively, is horrible offensively. Carlos Ruiz is no Russell Martin. Victorino’s a nice player but one that likely won’t hurt you too bad. Jayson Werth has really become a pretty good ballplayer as well. The Phils are no slouches, that’s for sure.

All that said, I like the Dodgers in 6. The Phils were really hot to end the season and were never seriously challenged by the Brewers in the Division Series but the Dodgers this year, like the Cards in ’06, aren’t at all the same team they were for most of the season. The Phils were 8 games better in the regular season but the Dodgers’ Pythagorean record was actually 2 games better than their 84-78 record would indicate. Still, it’s not the same team. Billingsley, like Hamels, has become one of the best starters in the NL and he’ll pitch twice in this series. Lowe is better than anyone else the Phils have and Kuroda probably is as well. The Phils’ pen isn’t horrible but the Dodgers’ is outstanding. Broxton, Kuo, and Saito all averaged well over a strikeout an inning and Beimel (a free agent after the season, Mr. Mozeliak!) is really tough on lefties. He’ll get a lot of work against Howard and Utley, in particular. Kuo’s another lefty, if he’s healthy enough to be on the roster, and lookout for Dodger phenom Clayton Kershaw – another young ‘un who could really create some problems for the Phils. Saito’s been banged up of late and hasn’t pitched well since returning from the DL. Dodgers’ fans are probably rightly concerned about Broxton stepping into the closer’s role w/ so little experience. Wainwright’s postseason performance in 2006 ought to comfort them some.

At the plate, the Dodgers have almost no real holes. Blake’s not a star and neither is DeWitt, but they both have OBPs over .340 and Blake’s OPS is over .800. Their lineup’s not as strong at the top as the Phils’, but neither is it as weak at the bottom. Both teams rank in the middle of the pack defensively, w/ THT ranking the Phils as slightly better than the Dodgers but, provided they have no Cubs-like breakdowns in the field, their pitching should be enough to pull them through. One interesting thing to watch will be the slight change in format instituted this year. Instead of playing games 3, 4, and 5 on consecutive days, there’s now a day off between games 4 and 5, and then again between 5 and 6 as the teams fly back to Philly. How that will affect the teams’ pitching rotations should be an interesting thing to watch for since there’s no precedent for how to handle it.

I’ll get a game thread up a little later so that we can all enjoy what should be a pretty competitive and exciting series between the two teams.