The NLCS is a rematch of last year's series, won by the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Los Angeles Dodgers hope to avenge that series loss and advance to the World Series for the first time since 1988. Here is a breakdown of what should be a competitive series between two strong teams.
The Phillies can do it all offensively. They have four 30-home run hitters this season: Ryan Howard (45), Jayson Werth (36), Raul Ibanez (34), and Chase Utley (31).
They also boast having four players who had 20 or more stolen bases: Jimmy Rollins (31), Shane Victorino (25), Utley (23 without being caught) and Werth (20).
Collectively, the Phillies led the National League in runs scored and fare well against both right-handed and left-handed pitching.
The Dodgers have a good lineup core, but can't match the Phillies' firepower. Andre Ethier, Manny Ramirez, and Matt Kemp are a solid middle-of-the-order trio, but Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, and James Loney provide less production around the Dodgers' sluggers compared with Philadelphia's supporting-cast hitters.
On the basepaths, the Dodgers have two main base-stealers: Kemp and Juan Pierre, who each topped 30 stolen bases. Since Phillies' catcher Carlos Ruiz is not known for his defense or throwing arm, Rafael Furcal and Russell Martin could try to steal a base or two in the series.
On paper, Philadelphia has the better, more dynamic pitching rotation. Cole Hamels dominated the Dodgers in last year's NLCS (2-0, 1.93 ERA), and he's got company. The Phillies can pick from Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, J.A. Happ, and Joe Blanton to fill out the rotation. Hamels will start Game One, Lee will pitch game three, and it's anyone's guess who goes in games two and four.
If I were Charlie Manuel, I'd gamble on Pedro Martinez and his Hall-of-Fame arm in Game Two, and use the "all hands on deck" approach in Game Four.
While the collective group that the Phillies will use is better than the Dodgers' overall rotation, Los Angeles has the most talented single starting pitcher on either team: Clayton Kershaw.
The 21-year-old held opponents to a .200 batting average this year and averaged more than a strikeout per inning during the regular season. He will pitch in Game One, and has the ability to match Hamels pitch for pitch.
The rest of the Dodgers' rotation features quality veterans such as Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, and Hiroki Kuroda. They are all good enough to give the Dodgers quality starts, but none are standout performers by any means.
Much has been made of Brad Lidge's struggles this season. He only had 31 saves in 42 opportunities and caused the Phillies to wonder how to handle games in which they had close leads in the postseason.
Their answer, thus far? Lidge, who managed to record two saves in the NLDS win over Colorado. Whether it's due to enormous luck or a resurgence, Lidge appears to be the Phillies' closer once again, which allows the likes of Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Chad Durbin, and Scott Eyre to be used in the regular roles.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, only Madson (3.26 ERA in regular season) proved to be effective on a consistent basis this season.
In contrast, the Dodgers' bullpen is their greatest strength. Jonathan Broxton had a big year, saving 36 of 42 opportunities. He also struck out nearly four times as many batters as he walked, and averaged 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Setup men Hong Chih-Kuo, Ronald Belisario, Ramon Troncoso, and George Sherrill complement Broxton nicely, and give manager Joe Torre a nice balance of left-handed and right-handed relievers. Jeff Weaver, who has postseason experience and is flexible to start or relieve, is a nice luxury as a long reliever or emergency starter.
Neither team wants to be in a position to have to rely heavily on their benches, but in the National League, where pitching changes could bring on the occasional double switch, it is important to have one or two versatile players to go with one or two strong pinch-hitting options.
Philadelphia doesn't have a great bench. Matt Stairs is their biggest threat off the bench. He can still draw walks, but hasn't exhibited the same power he did last season. Greg Dobbs could see some time at 3B if Pedro Feliz continues to struggle in the postseason. Ben Francisco will be used in double-switches in the outfield, and Miguel Cairo may be involved in similar situations in the infield.
When Francisco comes into the game, his passable offense and solid defense makes him a good replacement. Cairo is pretty useless though.
Between the two teams, the Dodgers have the biggest threat off the bench in Jim Thome. He's a DH at this point, but deployed to have one at-bat a game in a key situation, he's as dangerous as ever. Juan Pierre provides speed off the bench, and can play the outfield in double-switch situations.
Either Ronnie Belliard or Orlando Hudson will be on the bench for this series, and whomever it is will allow Torre to double-switch on the infield if need be without losing much at the plate. Mark Loretta doesn't have much range in the field, but is an effective pinch-hitter for contact.
Defensive play can be an X-factor in determining who wins close games, and key plays or errors can be turning points in a series. Neither team is exceptional defensively, but the Phillies may have a slight edge.
The Phillies are above average defensively up the middle, with Utley and Rollins on the infield, and Shane Victorino in CF. Pedro Feliz is a solid defensive 3B, but Ryan Howard is basically a DH playing 1B. On the outfield corners, Jayson Weth is pretty athletic, surprising given that he is a converted catcher, but Raul Ibanez has lost some range. Carlos Ruiz threw out less than 30 percent of would-be base-stealers.
For Los Angeles, they receive superb defense from Kemp in CF and James Loney at 1B. Rafael Furcal has lost range at SS, and Casey Blake is serviceable at 3B. Andre Ethier is pretty good in RF, but Manny Ramirez's defense is intermittent in LF. Russell Martin threw out roughly 31 percent of those attempting to steal bases, a decent percentage.
The Phillies are capable of outhitting, outscoring, and out-pitching the Dodgers, while the Dodgers must rely on close games and late-inning meltdown in order to win this series. As much as I wanted to pick the Dodgers, I can't fathom how they win four out of seven. They have a decided edge in the bullpen and with their bench players, and nothing else. I'll take the Phillies to repeat as NL champs, winning this series in six games.
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