The Phillies have a pitching staff that is far superior to that of the likely NL West champions, and sports a lineup riddled with playoff-tested mashers who are looking for redemption following last year’s disappointing postseason exit.
The Diamondbacks will make the playoffs only because the bylaws of Major League Baseball dictate that every division must have a “winner”, and that that “winner” must be awarded a playoff spot, no matter how terrible their division is.
But baseball isn’t played on paper.
Despite the myriad ways in which the Phillies are a superior team to the Diamondbacks, Philadelphia should be concerned at the prospect of facing Arizona in the playoffs.
I’m not saying the Diamondbacks will beat the Phillies in a possible NLDS matchup. I’m just saying that it’s possible. And here’s why…
The Diamondbacks may not have all the baseball karma in the universe on their side like the Giants did last year when they bounced the Phillies from the playoffs, but consider the following:
-Ian Kennedy has 19 wins so far this season, and an ERA under 3.00. Yes, that Ian Kennedy.
-J.J. Putz has 40 saves and an ERA under 2.40. Yes, that J.J. Putz.
-18-3. That’s the Diamondbacks record in their last 21 games. They are heating up, gaining confidence, and proving to themselves that they can play with anyone. They are winning on walk-offs and in blowouts. They are being carried equally by their pitching and their hitting. Say what you want about the NL West…this team is legit.
-Justin Upton would be the best offensive player in this series. In 2011, Upton seems to have finally begun to put together the season that everyone in baseball knew he was capable of. Among qualified hitters, he leads the Diamondbacks in batting average, home runs, RBI, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS and at-bats. He is a more consistent hitter than anyone the Phillies can send to the plate, and he has just begun to scratch the surface of what he can do.
Truthfully, if Upton gets hot in a playoff series, he is capable of single-handedly carrying a team through the postseason. Upton’s talent is otherworldly, as are the numbers he could put up. Don’t sleep on the possibility of Justin Upton dismantling Phillie’s dream team all by himself.
Nothing is more dangerous than a team with nothing to lose. And no team has less to lose than the Arizona Diamondbacks.
I should clarify: having nothing to lose is not, in itself, a dangerous thing. It becomes very dangerous, however, when it is paired with legitimate talent. Like the legitimate talent of Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy or Daniel Hudson, for instance.
While it may seem that Arizona’s feel-good 2011 season could make for a classic “just happy to be here” playoff squad, they seem to share an identity with the 2010 San Francisco Giants and the 2003 Florida Marlins, teams who should have been happy to make the playoffs, but instead rode their respective waves of momentum all the way to world championships.
Although the D-Backs have nothing to lose, they have been finding ways to win, and have successfully developed an identity over the course of the season. This is a dangerous combination, even if you are the mighty Philadelphia Phillies.
For the Phillies, the days of Ryan Howard, up-and-coming power hitter, and Chase Utley, dominant offensive force, are gone. Howard may rack up the home runs and RBI’s over the course of a 162-game season, but as the Giants proved in 2010, he is a one-dimensional hitter who is easy to pitch to in a short series.
To say that Utley is a shadow of his former self is a massive understatement. Injuries seem to have taken their toll on the Phillies’ second baseman, a statement that is backed up by Utley’s ever-declining effectiveness at the plate, including an abysmal 2011 campaign (.262/344/.441/.785/91 H/41 RBI), his worst since his sophomore MLB season in 2004.
Jimmy Rollins hasn’t been good since 2007, and Raul Ibanez’s 15 minutes of fame have been over for quite some time.
While Shane Victorino has remained effective for the Phillies, his support through the lineup simply isn’t what it used to be. Sure, the Phils have great pitching. But so does any team that they will potentially face in the playoffs, including the Diamondbacks.
Arizona’s staff is strong enough to keep them competitive against a rapidly declining Philadelphia lineup, and is balanced enough in the bullpen to eliminate players like Ryan Howard from the equation.
Certainly Philadelphia’s pitching staff will carry them a long way. But ultimately, any team needs to score runs to win. For the Phillies, high run totals in the playoffs are nowhere near the guarantee they were from 2007-2009.
Seriously, expectations could not be higher for this Phillies team.
Anything less than a World Series title will be considered an abject failure for Philadelphia in 2011. And I don’t care who you are, what your payroll looks like, or how many superstars you have on your roster; sky-high expectations will make any team tense up and play tighter than they normally would.
The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, have literally nothing expected of them. They weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, and they aren’t supposed to compete once the postseason starts.
Arizona has the luxury of playing in the moment, but more importantly they have an advantage in that they get to legitimately enjoy the moment. They get to soak in the sellout crowds and the playoff atmosphere, and fully embrace the role of the underdog.
For the Phillies, an easy NLDS victory is expected. It’s business. The Diamondbacks aren’t expected to make any noise in the playoffs. They can enjoy the ride, which could ultimately make their trip to the postseason an unexpectedly fruitful one.
To paraphrase Billy Beane: The playoffs are a freaking crapshoot.
Certainly, looking at Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the first two games of a series is daunting. But what if one of them drops a game?
Then the series is tied 1-1, and is headed back to Arizona, where anything can happen. Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are good, but they are by no means unbeatable. Giving a young team like Arizona a glimmer of hope can be very dangerous, especially when they are playing at home with nothing to lose.
What if Shane Victorino, the catalyst for the Phillies’ offense, finds his bat going cold entering the playoffs?
What if the Diamondbacks surprisingly effective bullpen manages to render the Phillies offense impotent?
What if Justin Upton starts tearing the cover off the ball (or, more accurately, continues to tear the cover off the ball)?
Anything can happen in the playoffs. A team with a poor offense and a great pitching staff can start to collect clutch hits, and walk away from October holding the World Series trophy.
A preseason favorite can drop a key game or two, lose their confidence, and wind up starting their vacation early.
Heck, if Edgar Renteria could once again be a playoff hero at the ripe old age of 75 (age calculated in MLB shortstop years), then who’s to say that the promising, young, energetic Diamondbacks can’t shock the baseball world by beating the (possibly overhyped) Phillies?