The Los Angeles Dodgers are a good baseball team. There is no question about that fact. They proved that to be the case all year by racing to the best record in the league and never letting up, finishing with 95 wins, most in the National League. They reinforced that by winning some tough games against the surging Rockies in the last series of the season when they had a chance of being overtaken. They punctuated it all by sweeping a Cardinals team that appeared poised for a serious post season run in the NLDS, beating two Cy Young candidates along the way.
As you would expect from the team with the best record, statistically the Dodgers ranked high in pretty much every category. They ranked 1st in hitting at .270, 1st in pitching with a 3.41 ERA, 4th in runs scored and 4th in fielding in the National League. And, interestingly, they have reached these accomplishments through tremendous balance across their entire roster.
The bullpen is their greatest strength with the trade deadline acquisition of lefty George Sherrill to add to an already formidable group led by smoke throwing, right-hander Jonathan Broxton. Although the starters have posted solid numbers, and they added a couple veterans late in the season who have made strong contributions, there is no one that strikes fear in the opposition. None of them would be considered "stoppers" or big game proven pitchers. Joe Torre does not lose sleep over this fact, though, because he can go to his pen early and often if any of his starters labor.
Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw has the best stuff and is left-handed, but the Phillies have fared well against him in the past. Game 2 and 4 pitchers (Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf) are very familiar to the Phillies, of course, having both worn the same uniform in the past. Torre plans on starting Hiroki Kuroda in Game 3, who is returning from a back injury, but has been historically tough on the Phils. He shut them out on 2 hits over 6 innings back in June.
On offense, the Dodgers are deep and get on base, but they also do not have imposing sluggers like the Phillies. They hit roughly 1/3 less home runs during the season and ranked 11th in the NL. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp are their best long ball threats, but neither really has a reputation as a big bopper. Manny Ramirez has the historical stats and reputation as a slugger, but his production has been way down since returning from his 50-game steroid suspension. The team also has future Hall of Famer and former Phillies player Jim Thome lurking on the bench, who did hit 23 home runs for the White Sox in 124 games.
This is not to say that any of the Dodgers are incapable of hitting balls out of the park, but they tend to score through stringing rallies together. Another new addition to the team is someone worthy of attention from the Phillies. Ronnie Belliard came over from the Nationals and hit .351 for the Dodgers down the stretch. He has historically hit well against the Phillies and will be in the line-up against their lefties.
In the opposite dugout, the Phillies have some positive trends heading into the NLCS. They are getting contributions throughout their line-up, and most importantly, the "bomber quartet" seem to be grooved. The middle of the line-up is scary with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez all swinging the bats well. Shane Victorino had a big NLDS series, and Jimmy Rollins' timely hitting played a big role in the series win. Dodgers pitchers can not rest at the bottom of the order,either, as Carlos Ruiz and Pedro Feliz can both hurt them with timely hits.
The Phillies are 5 deep with the starting pitching, anchored by Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Charlie Manuel has indicated that Pedro Martinez will get the ball in Game 2, electing to use Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ to strengthen the bullpen until further notice. No matter who is on the mound, though, they have the comfort of knowing that the best defense in baseball is behind them.
Although Hamels did not get the results he expected in his first playoff start, he had good stuff. With any possible distractions behind him, the guess here is that he will step up and make a strong contribution over the balance of the post season. Lee appears to be back to the laser focused, surgical version of himself that we first saw in a Phillies uniform. Pedro is a wild card considering his long layoff, but you surely should not discount the future Hall of Famer on a big stage in the city where he started his career.
Another hugely positive trend has been the work of Brad Lidge, who saved the final two games of the NLDS. Although he struggled all season long, the 2008 version Lidge has always seemed to be only a minor adjustment here or there away, so perhaps Manuel and Lidge have gotten it dialed in? There is mounting evidence to believe this to be the case, particularly since most importantly, Lidge himself is a believer, which may have been the issue all along.
Clearly, the Dodgers are a strong team and it will be a tough series, but the Phillies will be the team heading back to the World Series. It will take all 7 games to do it, but the Phillies will win for 3 simple reasons. They have the best talent in baseball. They possess the best team chemistry, laden with selfless players and gamers who rally around each other and know what it takes to win a championship. And, as they demonstrated in winning last season and most recently in Colorado, they have great mental toughness and tremendous heart. That is the ultimate winning combination.
NLCS- Phillies 4, Dodgers 3