NLCS Preview: Phillies vs. Dodgers

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Rematch.  And from a historical perspective, a rubber match of sorts as well.  The Dodgers beat the Phillies in the 1977 and 1978 NLCS.  The Phillies took 1983.  For our purposes, however, really only last year is relevant, and the Phillies won 4-1.  Going in to that series the question was whether the Phillies’ big bats would actually show up for a postseason series, whether the Dodgers could do anything about the Phillies’ shutdown-bullpen, and whether the Phillies had an answer for what seemed like an unstoppable Manny Ramirez.

Those questions are no longer really operative.

Indeed, we basically have the reverse in 2009.  Can the Dodgers’ contain a bombastic Phillies’ lineup?  Will the Phillies’ bullpen be able to keep things together?  Will Manny Ramirez crank it up and be the straw that the Dodger drink so desperately needs to stir it?  The short version: yes, no, and maybe.  The quick prediction:  Dodgers in seven.  The reasons.  Well, read on:

2009 NLCS Probables

Game 1 – Cole Hamels vs. Clayton Kershaw

Game 2 – Pedro Martinez vs. Vicente Padilla

Game 3 – Cliff Lee vs. Hiroki Kuroda

Game 4 – Joe Blanton vs. Randy Wolf

Game 5 – Hamels vs. Kershaw

Game 6 – Lee vs. Kuroda

This is all obviously subject to change, depending mostly on how deeply in trouble a given team finds itself as the series progresses.  The most notable thing — as Matthew noted yesterday — was the young Mr. Kershaw getting the start in Game 1. I’m less worried about his age and the potential for an Ankielesque meltdown than I’m worried about the fact that the Phillies roughed him up this year.  Still, the last time he saw them was June 4th, and since then he has really stepped up his game.  I like him against a less-than-stellar-of-late Cole Hamels.

The next most interesting thing is Pedro in Game 2.  The Dodgers were more vulnerable to righties this season so it probably makes sense to go with Martinez over Happ, but the fact is that Pedro hasn’t pitched for over two weeks.  Does this give his old arm much needed extra rest or problematic extra rust?  The answer to that question will be pretty important given that I think the Dodgers will win tonight, thereby making Game 2 fairly damn important.  OK, fine, they’re all important, but the Phillies don’t want to be down 0-2.

As for the rest of the series, Cliff Lee may be a lefty, but he’s stone cold dealing lately.  Vicente Padilla may be stone cold dealing lately, but he’s Vicente Padilla and I wouldn’t bet the milk money that a guy like him is going to pull a 2006 Jeff Weaver and rip off a third stellar start in a row.  Kurdoa is an X-factor in that he’s coming off a long layoff, though the Dodgers can throw Jeff Weaver v. 2009 or Chad Billingsley out in long relief if necessary.

Overall, I think that season-long numbers aside, the rotations are more or less even at the moment.  Maybe a slight advantage to the Phillies, really.  It’s all going to come down to Kershaw and Pedro, methinks.

Offenses

The Dodgers get on base and get timely hits. The Phillies mash.  Historically speaking, mashers seem more likely to go cold in a short series than the patient and pesky of the world.  Certainly L.A. has nothing to compare to the 1-2-3-4 punch of Utley, Howard Werth and Ibanez.  Right now Matt Kemp and Jimmy Rollins are cold.  If one or the other warms up, his team gets the advantage.  If neither or both do, it’s going to come down to bullpens.  Hell, I think this series comes down to bullpens regardless.

Bullpens

You know the storyline by now: The Dodgers’ bullpen is lights out, and unlike Jim Tracy, Joe Torre isn’t a slave to conventional bullpen use when the postseason comes around.  He’ll stretch Broxton if he has to.  Unlike Tracy, he’ll throw a lefty out there if Ryan Howard comes up in a key situation, whether it’s to replace Broxton or whoever.  The Phillies, in contrast, have Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and a prayer.  Given that Charlie Manuel managed the NLDS as if he was scared to death to actually use a reliever — and given that Lidge’s two saves were both shaky affairs — the Dodgers have a big, big advantage in this department.  If a game is close as we approach late innings, you have to like L.A.’s chances.  If the Phillies knock the cover off the ball early, however, no bullpen is going to save the boys in blue.

Overrated Angle

The lookahead.  These teams are really, really evenly matched in my view and I think this has all the makings of a close, fantastic series.  I just have this feeling, however, that we’re going to hear countless references to a potential Yankees-Dodgers series or a Freeway series (and yes I know I became part of the problem yesterday. I’m way easier to ignore than TV, however, so my contributions are minimal at best).  Which should drive Phillies fans absolutely nuts and rightly so.  Indeed, I’m having trouble remembering the last time a still-contending defending World Series champ got as little respect as the Phillies are getting right now. 

Underrated Angle 

The actual games. If there was ever a series that begged for near total coverage of the on-the-field stuff and the eschewing of “storylines” and all of that garbage, it’s this one.  These are two very different yet very strong, very interesting teams facing off.  The differences between the very essences of these two teams — power and patience, the bullpens, the temperaments of the managers, etc. — and the intriguing matchups they create call out for some hard-nosed analysis, the sort of which, if a young kid or a casual fan heard it, could teach them oodles and oodles about the intricacies of baseball and turn them into a hardcore baseball fan for life.  I have zero faith that we’ll get that from Chip Caray.

Prediction

After my spectacular failure to predict the Dodgers-Cardinals series within ten miles of reality I should probably get out of the prediction business.  But what the hell, it’s not like I’m going to get sued or fired or killed or anything for being wrong about this stuff.  So here it is: this thing could go either way, but I like the Dodgers in a close, hard-fought seven game series that, ultimately, is decided by the Dodgers’ bullpen and the Phillies’ lack thereof. 

The Indians are unveiling a Frank Robinson statue on Sunday

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The Cleveland Indians will unveil a Frank Robinson statue at Progressive Field on Saturday.

Robinson’s tenure in Cleveland was not long, but it was historic. On April 8, 1975, he became the first African-American manager in Major League history. He was a player-manager. One of the last ones, in fact. He spent two years in that role and then a third year — a partial year anyway — as a manager only. Robinson would go on to manage the Giants, Orioles and the Expos/Nationals, compiling a career record of 1065-1176 in 16 seasons. He is now a top MLB executive.

Robinson was, of course, a Hall of Fame player as well, lodging 21 seasons for the Reds, Orioles, Dodgers, Angels and Indians. He won two MVP awards and hit for the Triple Crown in 1966. Overall he hit 586 home runs – 10th all time – and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. For an inner-circle Hall of Famer with that kind of resume he is still, strangely enough, underrated. I guess that happens when your contemporaries are Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.

Anyway, congrats to Frank Robinson for yet another well-deserved honor in a career full of them.

Hey kids: don’t swing a weighted bat in the on deck circle

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Here’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal. It’s about some studies of hitters who use weighted bats or doughnuts on their bats in the on deck circle. Turns out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, using a weighted bat for practice hacks does not speed up one’s swing when one uses a naked bat in the batter’s box. In fact, it slows it down.

There are lots of caveats here. The sample size in the studies are small and they all involve college and high school players, not big leaguers. The results, however, are consistent with previous studies and they do make some intuitive sense. This is particularly the case with batting doughnuts, which add weight to a very concentrated portion of the bat, thereby changing the center of gravity and thus the swing mechanics of the hitter.

Whether this is applicable at large or to higher level hitters or not, I still find it kind of neat. I always like it when people scrutinize ingrained habits and ask whether or not that thing we’ve always done is, in fact, worth doing.