After dismissing the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS, the Phillies will face off against the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS.
Will the Giants be a minor speed bump on the road to another National League pennant, or do they have a legitimate shot at sending the Phillies home early?
Here are some arguments for both cases:
Fear the Giants
In theory, the teams in the NLCS are the two best the league has to offer. Not only does a team have to survive the regular-season gauntlet to earn a playoff berth, but they must also defeat another playoff worthy team just to advance.
The Giants won a competitive NL West division, and then dismissed the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. That alone marks them as a good team. And the main reason for their success is their pitching staff.
The staff is led by Tim Lincecum, who is one of the best starters in the majors, having won the 2008 and 2009 Cy Young Awards. By his standards, 2010 was a slightly off year, as he struggled in August leading to some “What’s wrong with Lincecum? Is he injured?” talk.
He quickly dismissed that speculation with an outstanding stretch run, and a sterling effort in his start in the NLDS. If he is on his game, he can be near unhittable.
The rest of the staff is impressive as well: Jonathan Sanchez is a tough left-hander, who has given the Phillies trouble in the past. Matt Cain had an excellent year and features a good fastball. It isn’t clear if the Giants will use a fourth starter, but if they do, it will be rookie left-hander Madison Bumgarner. (Now that’s a great name!) Bumgarner had a strong rookie season and excelled in his NLDS start, so he is far from a weak link.
The Giants bullpen has also performed well this year, led by closer Brian Wilson, who led the NL in saves.
Considering that the Phillies had trouble scoring runs (or at least earned runs) off of the Reds’ good but not great pitchers, what kind of success can they expect to have against the Giants pitchers? They can’t depend on a complete breakdown by the Giants’ fielders similar to what happened to the Reds.
The long layoff between playoff series isn’t going to help the Phillies’ chances either. Ryan Howard (one of the few Phillies who has had past success against Lincecum) didn’t have a strong NLDS, and tends to suffer after extended time off. They’ll need him to start hitting like he did in last year’s NLCS in which he was named MVP. The extra rest probably won’t help guys like Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez find their stroke either.
There’s a good chance that these games are going to be low-scoring affairs. Games will likely come down to one or two plays, and in that type of situation, one fluke play can make a huge difference. The Phillies are the better team on paper, but in close games, that doesn’t mean anything.
Start Planning for the World Series
While the Giants' spot in the final four may prove that they are a good team, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a great team. They won a West division in which their two closest competitors (Padres and Rockies) both collapsed badly down the stretch. In the NLDS, they were matched against a beaten up Braves team that seemed to find ways to lose.
So while it is nice that they have gotten this far, at some point they’ll have to prove themselves to be more than just opportunistic.
They’ll also have to find a way to hit better than they have. If the Reds—the highest scoring team in the NL—couldn’t hit against the Phillies’ starters, what chance do the weak-hitting Giants have?
While the Giants were the only team in the majors to have beaten the Phillies starting trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels this season, there’s no indication that they’ll be able to do so again. Even they don’t seem to like their chances, as I’ve heard quotes from Giants players about “needing to scrape out some runs,” and “wanting to keep things low scoring.”
If we give the Giants the edge in the potential Game 4 matchup of Fat Joe Blanton vs. Bumgarner (By the way, people need to give Blanton more credit. He didn’t have the the greatest year, but he was solid down the stretch, and has had postseason success in the past), will the Giants be able to score enough runs in three out of six starts by Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels?
I can’t see the Giants scoring enough runs to win the series. Who in the Giants lineup seems like a real threat? Buster Posey had a great rookie season, but is he capable of carrying their entire offense? Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres are solid hitters, but once again, not exactly the type to make a pitcher worry too much.
Former Phillie Pat Burrell has played well for them, and could provide some power, but as any Phillies fan can tell you, Burrell can be pitched to.
Maybe in a close game the Giants will be able to score some runs against the Phillies relievers. But the way that the Phillies starters have pitched, their relief pitching doesn’t often even come into play. And unlike the Braves, the Phillies late-game relief combo of Ryan Madson (MADSON!!!!) and Brad Lidge are healthy, and have been extremely effective in the second half of the season.
The Giants are also far weaker than the Phillies defensively. Sure, their numbers might look OK because they don’t commit a lot of errors. But that is partially due to the horrendous fielding range showed by many of their fielders. Are the Giants capable of making the game saving defensive plays that would be necessary to win a close game? It seems doubtful.
As for the Phillies hitters, I think they’ll do just enough damage to get the job done. Unlike most lineups that the Giants face, the Phillies have strength all the way through. Which means that even if Rollins and Howard are slumping, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth are capable of carrying the team. And while the layoff might hurt the Phillies’ hitting timing, it can only help with Rollins’ sore hamstring. If he can run at near full speed, that adds yet another element that the Giants will have to deal with.
The Giants seem like a tougher opponent than the Dodgers of 2008 and 2009. And I don’t think that the Giants will play scared like the Reds seemed to.
But in the end, the result will be the same. The Giants’ starters are too good for them not to win a couple games, but in the end, the Phillies will capture their third consecutive pennant.
Phillies in six.
Originally published on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land