The Philadelphia Phillies, the best team in MLB during the regular season, host the hottest team in the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals, in a best-of-five series starting Saturday evening. There are many reasons for all of Phillies Nation to be quite cautious.
My colleague, Kelly Scaletta—a fine writer who often covers his favorite baseball team—outlined five reasons that the Cards (90-72, and a wild card from the NL Central) can upset the Phillies (102-60, the NL East champions). He offered me a chance to produce a counterpoint, and here it is. His points (paraphrased) are in bold.
1. The Cardinals' starting pitchers have pitched great against the Phillies this year
The Cards’ ace, Chris Carpenter (announced as the Game 2 starter, who may pitch again on short rest if there were a Game 5), gave up only one run in 15 innings vs. the Phils.this year. Kyle Lohse, the Game 1 hurler, pitched to a 1.76 ERA in 15.1. Jaime Garcia has bedeviled the Phillies the last two years, and he has matched Carpenter’s stinginess this year.
At this time, we don’t know if mid-season acquisition Edwin Jackson or veteran Jake Westbrook will get the ball in a fourth game, but even so, those numbers are impressive.
Impressive? Yes. Concerning? Oh, a little.
Former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter has logged a ton of innings and seems to be peaking, judging from his masterpiece shutout of the Astros on Wednesday night. Will he be as impressive on three days’ rest? That’s an unknown.
Lohse has pitched well vs. the Phillies, but even the Cards must admit that it would be a bonus if he hangs with Roy Halladay in the opener.
Garcia is a little more troubling, but he has never pitched in the postseason before. He may shine in the spotlight; he may shrink from it.
Yes, the Cardinals were 6-3 head-to-head vs. the Phillies, but five of those games were played before Hunter Pence added balance and pop to the lineup. The Cardinals did take three out of four in Philly a couple weeks ago, but their incentive to win was much greater than their host’s. Give them credit, but not too much.
2. The Cardinals had the best offense in the NL this year
Yes they did, and objectively, the Cards’ offense was a little better than the Phillies' this year.
The Cardinals hit for a higher batting average (.274 to .253), hit a few more homers (162-153) and had the better OPS (.766 to .718). As a result, the Cards scored the most runs in the NL (766, an average of 4.7 per game) compared to the Phillies (713, 4.4 per game).
One might assert that if the Phillies had Pence for more than 54 games, they would have been closer to their NLDS opponents in all those areas. I would agree.
Yes, the Cards—especially if Matt Holliday is in the lineup—may still be a little better on paper offensively, but I think that the edge is tiny,
Of course, the edge the Cards may hold in hitting is dwarfed by the edge the Phillies have in pitching. The Phillies’ staff had an ERA of 3.02 (tops in the majors), much better than the Cardinals’ 3.74.
In the final analysis, should the Phils respect, if not fear, any lineup that can feature Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman as their 3-4-5? Yes. But last year, the Phillies shut down another team that led the NL in runs scored in the NLDS—the Cincinnati Reds.
3. The Cards are especially motivated to win for Pujols
As a full disclosure, I admit that I am about as big a Pujols fan as there is on the planet. It’s been that way since he broke into the bigs in 2001, and he has assaulted MLB pitchers ever since. I’m a fan and something of a Pujolsologist.
Even in an off-year (by his immense standards) due to injuries and contract uncertainty, Pujols still posted numbers that all but a few players in the NL would have liked to have matched this year.
As far as extra motivation, that is hard to gauge. Give the Cards credit for winning 22 of their final 31; that and an epic Atlanta Braves collapse got them here.
On the other hand, the Cards had that same motivation, and only won 68 of their previous 131. Even in their last seven games (against the lowly Mets, Cubs and Astros), they were only 4-3, and one was a total gift by a wild Cubs reliever named Carlos Marmol.
They’re not that hot, and I would surmise that both teams have huge motivation.
4. The Tony La Russa factor
Like him or not, most baseball fans respect what TLR brings to a team.
Two world championships, 59 postseason wins and a 9-3 career record in the first round.
In the other dugout is Charlie Manuel, who in a much shorter career as a manager, has won one championship, compiled a career 27-19 postseason record and has won three out of four first-round matchups with the Phillies.
La Russa may rate a slim edge overall, but Charlie has always known the correct buttons to push to motivate his team.
5. The Cardinals won the season series 6-3
Kudos to the Redbirds for doing so. Baseball, like most sports (except for stroke-play golf) is all about matchups; do they have the Phillies’ number?
Nine games is a very small sample size in baseball, and some of the effects of those games could be rationalized by a couple factors: a) the Phils did not have Pence for five games; and b) the Cardinals were desperate to win the last time in Philly, whereas the home team had little motivation.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Cardinals own the matchups, even if three of their starters have had terrific numbers in their starts this season.
I would put stock in these three factors—elemental as they are.
Quite simply, the Phillies won a MLB-best 102 games; the Cards were victors 90 times.
Cardinals fans are in good position to counter this fact, as the best team over 162 games does not always win it all. In 2004, the Redbirds went 105-57 and got swept by the Red Sox.
The 2005 team won 100, but lost to Houston in the NLCS despite that epic blast by Pujols over Brad (once Lights-Out) Lidge.
Ironically, their 2006 team (only 83-78) won it all.
Having recognized that, I’ll still take the team that won 12 more times in the regular season.
Mariano Rivera is not coming out of either team’s pen, but on the whole, the Phillies have the more reliable closer in Ryan Madson (32 out of 34 saves). While this has been his first year as the team’s main closer, he has lots of postseason experience. Antonio Bastardo has converted eight of his nine chances.
For the Cards, Fernando Salas and Jason Motte both had pretty good ERAs, but they blew 10 of 43 save opportunities between them. Only Motte has seen postseason duty—one inning in 2009.
Experience of the Starting Rotation
My prediction is
Almost any sane baseball pundit will concede that the Phillies have the better starting rotation, and the best one in baseball. Of course, that will all go out the window if Lohse bests Halladay in the opener or Carpenter gets the better of Cliff Lee in Game 2.
If you count Jake Westbrook (1-2, 5.60 postseason) as the No. 4 starter, the Cards’ rotation has a combined record of 6-6. Carpenter is a solid 5-2, 2.93; Lohse is 0-2, 3.38; Garcia has yet to toe the rubber in October and Westbrook is 1-2, 5.06. Jackson has never started in the postseason.
The Phillies counter with Halladay (2-1, 2.45); Lee (7-2, 2.13); Hamels (6-4, 3.33) and Oswalt (5-1, 3,.39)—a combined won-loss record of 21-8.
Final Analysis and Prediction
I would like to think that I have much more than a pittance of baseball knowledge, even if one should not bet the farm on my projections. Would you like some evidence?
The Cardinals are a worthy opponent with a terrific manager and for my money, (still) the best hitter in the game.
All that said, the Phillies offer a much better starting rotation, a slightly better bullpen and an experienced lineup that should be able to hit with St. Louis.
Part of me thinks the Cards will split the first two in Philly and take it to five. The other part of me is feeling a sweep.
So, I’ll split the difference: Phillies in a very entertaining four-game series..
Matt Goldberg, a featured columnist for the Philadelphia Phillies and all-around baseball fanatic, is also a noted humor author and speaker. For more information, please visit www.tipofthegoldberg.com