The Philadelphia Phillies are NL East champions once again. Capturing their fifth consecutive NL East title a week ago Saturday has boosted the team's spirit and has given them even more determination to beat their franchise-record 101 wins.
Following their division-clinching win on the September 17, the Phils had an eight-game skid, losing the remaining two games in the series to the St. Louis Cardinals, and then being swept in the final home series by the Washington Nationals. They also lost the first two games (and thus the series) of their penultimate series against the Mets. However, they ended the losing streak yesterday when they, behind Roy Halladay, hit 19 times in a 9-4 victory against New York.
Although the Fightins no longer have anything to play for the rest of the season, their losing should not be tolerated. In their upcoming series against the Braves in Atlanta, their last series of the season, they can determine who will win the NL Wild Card. The Braves, who have lost two straight games, are only a game ahead of the Cardinals, who have won two in a row. If the Phillies win the series and the Cards win their games, then the Cards would win the Wild Card (and vice-versa).
But why is this relevant? Because the Phillies would most likely match up best against the Braves much better than the Cardinals. They have played them more often throughout the season and know more of their tendencies and weaknesses. They have also played the Cards a good amount this season, but they happen to have a guy named Albert Pujols.
Earlier in the season I wrote a slideshow about who the Phillies would prefer to face in the postseason. This slideshow will cover who they match up best against, with seven being the worst team and one being the team they would be best to play. In the case of the Wild Card teams, the teams holding the spot as of today will be included (meaning that St. Louis will be excluded).
Let's get to it.
If you bothered to click on the blue text on the last slide with my old slideshow embedded within it, you would have seen that I ranked the Detroit Tigers as the Phillies' team of preference to play. This is no longer the case.
Things have changed since I wrote that article a month ago. The Tigers had their 12-game winning streak, the Boston Red Sox have gone from division favorites to desperation mode, and the Phillies are left wondering whether they'll even win 100 games in the aftermath of their eight-game losing streak.
But the 92-67 Tigers are now a team to be feared. Despite their relative ease into the postseason, they have one of the best pitchers in baseball right now in Justin Verlander, and their acquisition at the trade deadline, starting pitcher Doug Fister, has been one of the hottest all-around players since the deadline, taking the loss in only one of his 10 starts after the deadline and earning the win in seven of them. That one-two punch is arguably the best in the AL and among the best in baseball right now. And they have Jose Valverde, one of the best closers in baseball who is a perfect 47-for-47 in saves this season.
Additionally, their offense is stacked with talent. First baseman Miguel Cabrera is always in the MVP discussion, and catcher Alex Avila has been a a breakout star. DH Victor Martinez, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta have all been reasons why the team has been a huge threat to anyone in its path. The Tigers will be tough to beat throughout the postseason, and they very well could be the team that wins at least the AL Pennant.
At the beginning of the season, if you said that the New York Yankees would win the AL East, the only people that wouldn't have called you crazy would have been Yankees fans. Behind CC Sabathia, they had no starting pitching depth, and their team was aging and had little left in the tank.
But this season has nearly come to a close, and the unexpected has occurred: the Yankees have secured the AL East division crown yet again. They are even the best team in the American League, currently sitting comfortably at 97-62. They've had a handful of pleasant surprises, including the emergence of Brett Gardner, the re-emergence of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, and the MVP-caliber season Curtis Granderson has had.
There are some things that never change. Sabathia, although one of the game's best pitchers, is not fantastic against the Phillies in his career. And behind him are pitchers who could easily be roughed up by the Phillies in the right situation. But, of course, there's Mariano Rivera, now the all-time saves leader and a beast in the postseason, yet again there's little depth behind him in the bullpen.
But it's really the offense that could pose problems for the Phillies should these two teams rematch in the World Series. Shortstop Derek Jeter has been as hot as anyone since he notched his 3,000th hit, and first baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Robinson Cano, and third baseman Alex Rodriguez are ready to strike at the right opportunity. But with the Phillies' pitching rotation, the Yankees' offense could find it difficult to muster runs. Then again, so could the Phillies.
The Yankees have been a team the Phillies have had issues with in the past, but despite their aging and less powerful team, the Yankees have a reputation for doing well in the postseason. Ask their 27 World Series victories what they think and they'll tell you the same.
The Milwaukee Brewers have cooled off a bit, but they remain one of baseball's best teams this season. With an offensive punch consisting of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder and MVP candidate Ryan Braun, this Brewers team is built to win. Not to mention their pitching rotation, led by Zack Greinke, is extremely solid as well.
The Brewers, who are currently 94-65, clinched their first division title in 29 years. As much of a feat as that is, it means nothing unless the team performs in the postseason. And against the Phillies, that could be a challenge for the Brew Crew.
In April, the Phillies faced Milwaukee here in the City of Brotherly Love, where they lost two of three in the series, including a Roy Halladay-Shaun Marcum matchup in which Halladay gave up five runs en route to a 9-0 loss. The Phillies also faced the Brewers in Milwaukee earlier this month and took three games in a four-game road series, making a statement that asserted them as the best team in the NL at the time.
There is a bit of an issue, however. The Phillies never had the opportunity to face the ace of the Brewers' staff in Greinke. In April, he was still on the DL for his broken ribs he has suffered playing pick-up basketball in the offseason. And back two weeks ago, he just didn't fit into the schedule against the Phillies when they rolled into town. At home, Greinke is 10-0 with a 3.13 ERA, in addition to the Brewers being the best NL home team at 55-23. And then there's the set-up, closer duo of Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez and John Axford, who lead the way for the team's dominant bullpen.
The Phillies showed that they could best the Brewers at home. But can they best Prince and Ryan? Can they best Greinke and Axford? Or will they not get the chance to face them at all should either team lose? It'll be an interesting series should these two teams play, and potentially one for the ages.
Are the Texas Rangers the Phillies' biggest threat? No. But they are a tough team, and because they could go either way for the Phillies, they sit smack dab in the middle of these rankings.
I originally placed the Rangers ahead of the Brewers because of their bullpen depth, but after further thought, I decided that the four spot was best for the Rangers. And here's why.
The Rangers, now 93-66, have had a big turnaround in the last month. At one point in late August, their series against division-rival Anaheim could have cost the team the division lead. The Rangers still maintained their lead, and have since, leading them to their second-straight AL West division title.
However, not all has been well for the Rangers this season. Reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton has not been the player he was last year, especially struggling in day games this season. Nelson Cruz has been hurt and on the DL a few times this season. And second baseman Ian Kinsler's production has dipped as the year has progressed as well.
The Rangers have had many bright spots, though. Center fielder Endy Chavez has exceeded expectations, third baseman Adrian Beltre has been great aside from injuries, sophomore Elvis Andrus has been consistent, DH Mike Napoli has picked up, and starting pitchers C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando, and Derek Holland have been bright spots on the team. Their bullpen was also very good with closer Neftali Feliz, but with trade deadline additions Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, they are now practically unstoppable.
There is something the Rangers don't have that we do, and that's Cliff Lee. Lee is really the spark that led the Rangers through the postseason last year to their first AL Pennant and World Series appearance. Now that Lee is a Phillie once again, that spark might not be as prevalent, what with Hamilton's and Feliz's lesser performances this year. The Phillies have the edge, with the rotation, and they have the edge in offense, so a World Series matchup between these two teams would be in favor of the Phillies, hands-down.
If you said at the beginning of the season that the Boston Red Sox weren't going to win the division by a landslide and have at least two or three MVP candidates, once again, the only crowd that wouldn't have called you crazy would be Yankees fans. But alas, the Yankees fans were right, and the Red Sox are struggling to claim even the Wild Card.
Before the season began, things were looking bright for the Red Sox. They acquired power and average hitting first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres, and they signed outfielder Carl Crawford, arguably the best offensive free agent at the time, to a lucrative contract. But things quickly took a turn. They started out the season 2-8 and didn't get to the top of the division for another few weeks. While they eventually made it to the top spot, they didn't hold it for the whole season, as is evidenced by their struggles to make the postseason.
Things also started out well with most players. Adrian Gonzalez was basically a lock for AL MVP after the first half of the season, but after the All-Star Break, he cooled off and wasn't the same player. Meanwhile, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was shot into the spotlight and is now an MVP candidate, having secured a 30/30 season yesterday, and second baseman Dustin Pedroia and DH David Ortiz have had nice seasons as well. But Crawford, who the Red Sox spent $142 million on, has had a terrible year and actually apologized to the fans of Boston for his lackluster season.
Now the 89-70 Red Sox are only a game up on the Tampa Bay Rays for the AL Wild Card, and with three games left to play, nothing is a lock. They are not the team they were earlier in the year, currently 2-8 in their last 10 games, and they can barely hold themselves together. The fact that the Phillies took two of three games in their June face-off is irrelevant now. If the Red Sox don't even make the playoffs, the fabled Phillies-Red Sox World Series matchup might not occur.
But if it does, the Phillies have the edge. They have the better pitching by far, and their offense has been better as of late. They don't have a player like Ellsbury at the moment, but one player won't win it all. The Red Sox are not the team to beat anymore. And should these two teams match up, the Phillies will prove that.
One of the biggest surprises of the 2011 MLB season has been the 93-66 Arizona Diamondbacks. Having placed last in the NL West last season, the season in which the NL West champion San Francisco Giants won it all, the D'Backs turned it around and won the division.
Led by Manager of the Year candidate Kirk Gibson in his first year as manager of the organization and MVP candidate Justin Upton, the D'Backs took the division lead ahead of the Giants in August and haven't looked back. They're still atop the division, and they kept the Giants out of the postseason.
As a Phillies fan, it's nice to see the Giants miss the postseason. But back to the point here.
Anyway, the D'Backs have some good players in Chris Young, Paul Goldschmidt, and recently, Aaron Hill, as well as closer J.J. Putz and Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy made a big impression on the Phillies back in April when he pitched his first career complete game (and shutout) against the Phils, allowing just three hits in the process. But that was April. It's now September. And things have changed.
Since their meeting in April, the Phillies have faced the D'Backs and they took two games out of three, including one against Kennedy. While it was at home, the Phillies have home-field advantage all throughout the playoffs, so should a series go to a game five or seven, it would theoretically fall into the Phillies' hands.
The D'Backs are one of the hottest teams right now, there's no denying that. They've won their last four games and are 6-4 in their last 10. There's little stopping the team. They would be a very formidable opponent in the playoffs, but past Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, along with Upton and Young on offense, there's nothing substantial. The Phillies' rotation and offensive pieces should propel them past the D'Backs if they meet in the playoffs, no question.
Take a breather here, folks. You're probably sitting in shock, wondering how in my right mind I could say that the Atlanta Braves would be the best team for the Phillies to face in the postseason?
Well, I stand by it. There's reasoning, too. The Braves sit at 89-70, yet despite the Phillies' recent losing ways still are 10 games behind. Not that it matters anymore.
But the Braves aren't the team they were. They've lost two games in a row and are 4-6 in their last 10 games. And while there is much the Braves are playing for (a postseason spot), they don't seem to be playing like they care. They're 8-15 in September and were swept by the Phillies earlier in the month.
But I get it. This isn't enough for you. You need to know more.
On the season, the Braves are 6-9 against the Phillies and 3-3 at home. With their last meeting of the regular season coming up, the fate of the team making the postseason is in the Phillies' hands. While the Phils would love to see their rivals not make the playoffs, it might depend on who they prefer to play in the first round.
I suppose I'm done talking about why the Phillies match up best against the Braves, but I'll say this. They know the Braves better than any other team they'll play in the postseason because they're division rivals. The Phillies know the Braves' tendencies, whether good or bad, and they'll attack them should they meet in October. There's little the Braves can do to stop the Phillies, what with their beat up rotation and underwhelming offense. The Phillies' rotation is fully healthy, as is their offense (for the most part), and they'll take the Braves down with relative ease.
But back to the Wild Card chase. The Braves lead by a game over the St. Louis Cardinals, and if the next series goes the Phillies' way, then the Braves will most likely miss the playoffs. But if the Phillies lose, whether because they choose to or just because the Braves fare better, then the Braves will most likely win the Wild Card.
The final series of the regular season will be a telling one. If the Braves win, they could make a statement that they are capable of beating the Phillies in a potential NLCS matchup. But if they lose, then it shows that not only are the Braves incapable of making the playoffs, but also that the Phillies are nearly unbeatable.
Yes, they just lost eight games in a row. But in October, it's a whole new game, a game the Phillies know how to play in recent years and how to play it right.