After a wild and crazy final day of the regular season, the Philadelphia Phillies finally learned who their NLDS opponent would be: the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, the Phillies played a part in the drama that night as they beat the Atlanta Braves in 13 innings, helping the Cardinals to complete their incredible climb from 8.5 games back to beat out the Braves for the National League Wild Card. The Cardinals prize? Facing the Phillies, the team with the best record in baseball, in the NLDS.
But many experts believe that the Cardinals, especially with their hot finish, may pose a challenge to the Phillies in a short series. The Cardinals were 6-3 against the Phillies in the regular season making them one of only three teams to post a winning record against the NL East winner.
In a short series unexpected things can and often do happen. The Cardinals, having worked so hard to get to the playoffs, would like nothing more than to knock off the favorites. As for the Phillies, they need to keep doing what they’ve been doing all year. And what might that be? Here are the five keys to the Phillies taking care of business and beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
In a short series winning the first game is always important. For the Phillies playing at home, with their ace Roy Halladay on the mound, only adds to the pressure to get that first win. Halladay finally got his first taste of the postseason last year when he pitched a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds. The focused Halladay will be determined to get his team off to a good start. Not only would it set the tone for the entire series but the Cardinals have to come back the next day and face another ace in Cliff Lee.
As for the Cardinals, they enter the series riding a lot of momentum and very little pressure. A win in Game 1 would neutralize the home-field advantage the Phillies worked so hard for. It would also make Sunday a must-win game for the Phillies, putting added pressure on Lee.
Both teams have some big bats. The Phillies have Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. The Cards have a resurgent Lance Berkman and possibly Matt Holliday (although the Phillies might get lucky if he is still unable to play).
But, of course, there is only one Albert Pujols. The Cardinals slugger is considered by most to be the best hitter in baseball. The Phillies must keep runners off base ahead of him and not let Pujols beat them. In a short series even one hot bat can make the difference and carry an entire team to victory. The Phillies can't allow that bat to be Pujols.
While the Phillies starters aren't likely to shy away from any hitter, they would be wise to tread carefully when “Prince Albert” steps to the plate.
The old baseball axiom that good pitching beats good hitting will be put to the test throughout these playoffs starting tonight. And pitching is especially important in a short series.
Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt must perform if the Phillies are to advance. The Phillies starting pitchers had a 2.86 ERA this year, the best in the majors since 1985. They are all playoff tested and have performed very well on the big stage.
That will come in handy in this series against the Cardinals, the highest-scoring team in the majors. Hitting versus Pitching, the age old debate. Only the winner will move on to the next round.
Although the Phillies bullpen, so dominant earlier in the season, has been a little shaky in the past month, the Cardinals bullpen has been a problem all year. Their pen blew 26 games this season and the Phillies need to take advantage of that.
The Phillies batters, especially the top three, must be patient at the plate. If they can work long counts in their at-bats, they will force the Cardinals starters to throw a lot of pitches and manager Tony La Russa to dip into his pen. Getting into the Cards' bullpen early, will greatly improve the Phillies' odds of victory.
Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter will be pitching Game 2 on three days rest for the first time in his career when he takes the mound Sunday against the Phillies well-rested Cliff Lee. Making Carpenter throw a lot of pitches on short rest could be especially important in this short series.
The Phillies worked hard to gain home-field advantage throughout these playoffs. Winning the first two games at home in the short NLDS will almost insure victory and the fans will be a factor.
Crowds in Philadelphia have been known to impact ball games and especially pitchers—just ask Burt Hooton. And they will be out in full force tonight. The Phillies are riding a sell-out streak with no end in sight and these fans have been waiting since an unsatisfying ending last October had their Phillies going home early.
Count on a lot of noise, a lot of waving towels and major crowd support for the home team, support that the Phillies players are quick to say has played a big role in the team's success over the past five years.
Five keys, five games. But as the last day of the regular season proved once again, in baseball, anything can happen.