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. 

There was another miscommunication between the Phillies and Pat Neshek

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Back in June 2017, then-manager of the Phillies Pete Mackanin and reliever Pat Neshek had some miscommunication. In a series against the Cardinals, Neshek worked a five-pitch eighth inning and it was believed he would come back out for the ninth inning, but he never did. Mackanin said Neshek said he didn’t want to pitch another inning. Neshek said he was never asked. There was also some miscommunication the game prior. Neshek thought he had the day off; Mackanin said Neshek said he wasn’t available to pitch.

Mackanin is no longer the Phillies’ manager, but the miscommunication between Neshek and the team apparently persist. Neshek was notably absent during the Phillies’ hard-fought 5-4 win over the Cubs on Monday night. The game featured a struggling Seranthony Domínguez pitching two innings, yielding three crucial runs in his second inning of work.

Manager Gabe Kapler called the bullpen and instructed Neshek to begin warming up to prepare to face Albert Almora, Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Kapler rang the bullpen after Domínguez walked Jason Heyward, who batted ahead of Almora. Neshek wasn’t warmed up yet. Domínguez was able to retire Almora on a sacrifice bunt, which was reviewed and gave Neshek some extra time to get ready. He was ready for the next batter, Daniel Descalso, but at this point Kapler no longer wanted to bring Neshek into the game. Descalso lined a triple to left-center field, scoring two runs and came home himself when shortstop Jean Segura‘s throw caromed off of his foot out of play.

Recounting the situation, Neshek said, “I got on the mound and threw two pitches. [Kapler] said, ‘Is he ready?’ And I said, ‘No. I’m not ready yet. I’ve thrown two pitches.” Neshek was asked how long it takes him to get ready. The veteran said, “A minute. Not 20 seconds. I’m, like, the best in the league at getting ready. My whole career has been coming in like that.”

The Phillies were able to eke out a 5-4 win. Had they lost the game, Kapler and Neshek would likely have been under the microscope for the awkward situation leading to a crushing defeat. Kapler drew plenty of criticism over his bullpen management last year in his rookie managerial season. That included bringing in lefty reliever Hoby Milner into a game in which he hadn’t yet warmed up.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the manager who struggled with bullpen management last year nearly mucked up a win last night, and maybe it’s just a coincidence that a reliever who’s had prior issues with communication had another communication mix-up. Maybe it’s not. It’s worth noting that the Phillies needed three innings from the bullpen to protect a 2-1 lead over the Cubs on Tuesday. Kapler called on rookie Edgar Garcia for two outs, lefty José Álvarez for four, and then brought in Juan Nicasio to close things out in the ninth. No Neshek, even as Nicasio got into trouble. Nicasio would surrender the tying and go-ahead runs, resulting in a deflating 3-2 loss.