Friday, October 16, 2009

Phillies Bang and Hang to Win Tense Game 1

National League Championship Series

If Game 1 of the National League Championship Series is an indicator of what to expect over the course of the series, we are in store for some dramatic, entertaining baseball. The Phillies and Dodgers kicked off the 2009 rematch of last year's NLCS in style as both teams punched and counter punched until the final out, with the Phillies ultimately walking off the field with an 8-6 victory. Dodgers manager Joe Torre reinforced that when he drew the analogy to a "prize fight" in his post game comments.

It goes without saying that it was a big win as all games are important in a short series, but certainly Game 1 on the road. Besides transferring home field advantage back to the Phillies, the 1-0 series lead gives them a little more comfort in sending Pedro Martinez to the mound in Game 2 after a long layoff. There were also several other subtle story lines or developments within last night's game that are noteworthy.

The Phillies landed a few big blows, while the Dodgers maintained persistent pressure throughout the game. This is surely in keeping with the personalities and make-up of each club. The foundation of the Phillies starts with their intimidating power and the ability to put runs on the board in bunches. Conversely, while the Dodgers have some power themselves as they demonstrated last night, they tend to rely more on balance throughout the line-up to scratch out runs. The Dodgers banged out 14 hits, while the Phillies total of 8 was augmented with 7 walks that are the direct by product of pitchers fearing the long ball.

The Dodgers did land the first blow when James Loney lined a home run into the right field bleachers to make it 1-0 in the second inning; otherwise, both Cole Hamels and Clayton Kersaw were in control through four innings. That changed in the 5th inning when Raul Ibanez lined a single to left and Pedro Feliz walked. With Kersaw now struggling to find the strike zone, Carlos Ruiz jumped on a high fastball and launched it into the left field stands to suddenly vault the Phillies to a 3-1 lead.

Kershaw appeared rattled and followed by walking Hamels. After recording two outs, but also throwing 3 wild pitches along the way, Chase Utley drew another walk. Ryan Howard stepped to the plate knowing that Kershaw was having trouble locating his curve and quickly pounced on a fastball, driving it the fence in right for a 2-run double.

To their credit, the Dodgers promptly responded to the 5-1 deficit with a little help from the Phillies usually superb defense. Russell Martin stroked a double to left and one out later, Rafael Furcal singled to put runners on the corners. Hamels induced a bouncer to short from the dangerous Andre Ethier that appeared like it would be an inning ending double play, but Jimmy Rollins and Utley both had trouble handling the ball. They salvaged an out, but Martin scored to make it 5-2, with Manny Ramirez coming to the plate.

With Hamels visibly upset, he proceeded to throw 3 consecutive change-ups to Ramirez despite the fact that age and other reasons make it hard for him now to catch up to fastballs. Ramirez golfed the third pitch into the bleachers and then pompously stood and stared into the Phillies dugout, reveling in his own glory. In the space of a few minutes, Hamels went from escaping the inning with no runs to a lead of 5-4.

When the Dodgers again threatened in the 6th inning, Hamels was pulled, but Chad Durbin and J.A. Happ eased out of the jam. The Dodgers were back on the attack again when Ethier doubled off Antonio Bastardo to start the bottom of the 7th. Chan Ho Park, returning from a month long injury break, shut the door, though, combining a 96 mph two seam fastball with a sharp slider.

Torre tapped lefty George Sherrill with a couple lefty sluggers coming to the plate in the 8th. Howard and Jayson Werth patiently worked walks as Sherrill wrestled with his command. Raul Ibanez made him pay by jacking a slider for a 3-run homer, temporarily giving the team some breathing room at 8-4.

That comfort did not last long, though, as Ryan Madson quickly ran into difficulty in the bottom half of the frame. Loney, Ronnie Belliard and Martin all singled to make it 8-5 with no outs. A ground ball and sacrifice fly cut the lead to two, before Ethier collected his 3rd hit of the game to put the tying runs on base for Ramirez. Manuel stuck with Madson, who was able to get the uber confident "Manny" to ground out weakly.

Once again, Brad Lidge was called upon to nail down the victory in a tight playoff game on the road. He pumped two 95 mph fastballs for strikes, but then Matt Kemp guessed right on a slider and lined a single to left. Lidge battled Casey Blake before getting him to hit a one hopper to Utley for a tailor made double play. The Dodgers still had some fight left and Loney worked a walk. Lidge secured the save, though, by getting Belliard to pop out to end the game.

A few of the subplots from the game include reinforcement that the Phillies sluggers appear to be in a groove, the strong return of Park bodes well for the bullpen, the confidence of having Sherrill to shut down the Phils is a little eroded and Lidge's role as closer seems to be solidified. On a less positive note, two pitchers important to the club's success struggled. Madson did not have good command or miss many bats. Hamels had good stuff, but continued the 2009 pattern of letting unfortunate events break his poise. The team needs both of them to rebound if they want to repeat their trip down Broad Street.

Both teams go back at it with a day game today. Martinez takes the ball for the Phillies, returning to the big stage where he has prospered throughout his career, but with the uncertainty created by a long lay off. The Dodgers counter with former Phil and recent addition Vicente Padilla, who is coming off a strong performance in the NLDS. Based on last night's events and previous games this season, today's game should be another entertaining battle.

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