The Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78, NL West Champions )were a mediocre, underachieving team until a Christmas present arrived early in the form of one LF, Manny Ramirez. The trade-deadline deal gave L.A. arguably the best-right handed hitter in MLB and a dominant force in the middle of their lineup.
Fresh off a sweep of the Chicago Cubs in the division series, Manny and Co. head east to Philadelphia to square off against the N.L. East Champion Phillies (92-70), led by MVP candidate 1B Ryan Howard.
Philly defeated the Milwaukee Brewers in four games, relying on strong starting pitching and timely situational hitting to advance one step closer to the World Series.
Ramirez's presence was immediately felt from the moment he put on Dodger Blue. In 53 games for L.A., Manny batted .396 with 17 HR and 53 RBI, showing a renewed energy and level of commitment that left people in Boston scratching their heads.
The Red Sox's loss has been the Dodger's gain, and he has continued his onslaught against N.L. pitching, batting .500 with two home runs in the NLDS, as well as providing much needed protection for up-and-coming stars 1B James Loney, RF Andre Ethier, and CF Matt Kemp.
Loney led the team with 90 RBI and provided a big grand slam in the NLDS Game One, setting the tempo for the series, while Ethier really came into his own in the second half of the season, making teams pay for pitching around Manny. He posted a team-high .305 batting average and 20 home runs in 2008.
Kemp, possibly the most physically gifted of the three, added 18 HR and 78 RBI to go with 35 SB during the season and is finally showing signs of realizing his enormous potential.
Ex-Cleveland Indian 3B Casey Blake, acquired during the season under the radar, has allowed 3B/2B Blake DeWitt to shift to the right side, where he seems more natural. SS Rafael Furcal returns from a back injury just in time for the playoff run and made his presence felt against the Cubs, collecting four hits and scoring four runs in the sweep.
Russell Martin remains steady as ever behind the plate, as well as a presence at it, batting .280 with 13 HR and 69 RBI. Veterans Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent provide quality depth on the bench.
1B Howard had another monster season for the Phillies, in terms of home runs and RBI, leading the league with 48 HR and 146 RBI. Even though he batted only .251, with nearly 200 strikeouts, the 2006 N.L. MVP continues to be one of baseball's most dangerous hitters, especially in Citizens Bank Park.
Reigning N.L. MVP SS Jimmy Rollins struggled with nagging injuries all season long but is still as clutch as they come and provides a speed/power threat whenever he comes to the plate.
2B Chase Utley completes one of the most talented offensive infields in the majors, leading all second basemen with 33 HR and 104 RBI.
The emergence of CF Shane Victorino this season made the popular Aaron Rowand expendable, and he rewarded the Phillies brass with big plays all season, whether with his bat, feet, glove, or arm. Victorino's grand-slam against Brewers ace CC Sabathia proved to be the biggest hit of the series and a major reason why they are playing in the NLCS.
LF Pat Burrell rebounded nicely this year, hitting 33 HR to go along with 86 RBI after struggling mightily last season. He and RF Jayson Werth are very good against left-handed pitching, with OF Matt Stairs and 3B Geoff Jenkins as good options against righties.
C Carlos Ruiz is in the lineup mainly for his glove and ability to handle the pitchers, so any hit/walk would be a bonus. Utility infielder Tadahito Iguchi rounds out the bench and can play any infield position.
Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24 ERA) takes to the hill in Game One and is no stranger to the postseason. Having closed out all of the Boston Red Sox's playoff games in 2004 and handling the media circus in Beantown, D-Lowe is a savvy veteran who will not be rattled by the bright lights and gives L.A. a solid, quality start every time out.
Chad Billingsley (16-10, 3.14 ERA) was the Dodger's best pitcher all year long and followed up his strong regular season with a win in his first postseason start against Chicago. The youngster is brimming with confidence heading into Game Two.
Game Three starter, Hiroki Kuroda (9-10, 3.73 ERA), was signed in the offseason to a multi-year deal and has not disappointed so far.
It will be interesting to see who manager Joe Torre will go with for Game Four, youngster Clayton Kershaw or veteran Greg Maddux. Kershaw, a left-hander with unbelievable stuff, figures to get the call because of Philadelphia's left-handed dominant lineup (Howard and Utley).
Cole Hamels (14-10, 3.09 ERA) is coming off a dominant performance against the Brewers in the division series and is slated to oppose Lowe in Game One. In a 3-1 win, Hamels went eight IP, allowing only two hits while striking out nine batters. His changeup is devastating and his strikeouts to walk ratio (196 K/53 BB) is very impressive.
Game Two starter Brett Myers (10-13, 4.55 ERA) was demoted early in the season after struggling in the bullpen but has found his groove again as a starter. Ageless wonder Jamie Moyer (16-7, 3.71 ERA) continues to prove his doubters wrong and is scheduled for Game Three. Moyer is the ultimate junkballer and relies on changing speeds to keep hitters off balanced.
Joe Blanton, the Game Four starter, was acquired from the Oakland Athletics during the season and has provided a spark at the back end of the rotation. He closed out the Brewers on their home field, going six innings while allowing only one run in a 6-2 Phillies win.
Jonathon Broxton has made the transition from set-up man to closer a seamless one. The young fireballer took over for Takaishi Saito late in the season and has flourished in the role. Cory Wade has stepped in to fill Broxton's role and Los Angeles has not skipped a beat.
Lefty-specialist Hong Chih Kuo was just added to the roster and will be a key in this series. Kuo is especially tough against lefties, so the key matchup might be him against Howard/Utley with runners on base.
Maddux will serve as the team's long man and emergency spot starter. Chan Ho Park also figures into the mix here.
Brad Lidge was acquired in the offseason to bring stability to the bullpen, and he did not disappoint manager Charlie Manuel. Lidge has been perfect in all save opportunities (41 for 41 regular season, 2-for-2 in NLDS) and has re-established himself as one of baseball's best closers.
Ryan Madson has been improving every year and is a nice bridge to Lidge. J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin fill out the rest of the bullpen and provide Manuel quality arms in waiting.
Torre's resume is well-documented (four World Series, 13 postseason appearances) and cannot be overstated. His trademark coolness and even keel temperament suits the Dodgers' clubhouse perfectly and allows his players to perform to the best of their ability.
The young players gravitate towards him and see him as a father figure with rings and credibility. With the addition of Ramirez, it gives Torre the presence he needed in the middle of the lineup, taking the pressure off the youngsters Ethier, Kemp, and Loney. Going with Broxton as the closer has been a stroke of genius as well, giving the team something they were sorely lacking with Saito being hurt all season.
Manuel does not have a good track record in the playoffs but he never had as much talent as he has on this team. The Phillies have elite players at all the key positions (1B Howard, 2B Utley, SS Rollins, SP Hamels, Closer Lidge), as well as the home-field advantage.
He will need more production out of Howard, Rollins, and Utley (combined 10-for-42, four RBI in NLDS), if Philadelphia is to advance any further in the postseason.
On paper, it seems like the advantage goes to the Phillies in every position. They have the better starting pitching, better bullpen, and the deeper, more explosive lineup. But I am picking the Dodgers for one reason and one reason only: Manny Ramirez.
When motivated, he is the single greatest force in baseball, routinely carrying teams on his back for prolonged periods of time. He is in the process of doing so with L.A., and I think he will carry them to the Series. Dodgers in six games.
NLCS MVP: Manny Ramirez