Let’s not pencil the Phillies into the World Series just yet

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There’s no doubt that the Phillies’ rotation has a chance to be historically great, with two likely Cy Young candidates and two other starters that could rank among the NL’s 10 best, but this is still a team with issues.

– First, it’s no lock that Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will live up to the sure sky-high expecations. Oswalt finished 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA in 30 starts for the Astros in 2009 and seemed on a pretty steady decline before bouncing back last year. Hamels was 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA in 2009.

– The team’s best position player is a 32-year-old second baseman, and second basemen have a track record for falling apart early. Ryne Sandberg had his last big year at 32. Roberto Alomar was 33. Craig Biggio hung around forever, but he was never the same after 32. Maybe Chase Utley has some Jeff Kent in him, but he did miss 47 games and finish about 80 points south of his usual OPS last year.

– Jimmy Rollins has been a bust in back-to-back years, hitting .250/.296/.423 in 2009 and .243/.320/.374 in 88 games last season.

– The outfield is a question mark, particularly if the Phillies are forced to dump as much of Raul Ibanez’s salary as anyone will take.  Top prospect Domonic Brown might not prove quite ready to step into right field, leaving Ben Francisco and maybe John Mayberry Jr. to hold down the fort for a spell.  Left field could be handed to a cheap free agent if Ibanez goes, maybe Austin Kearns or Marcus Thames.  

– Not one of those guys mentioned figures to approach Jayson Werth’s 921 OPS. 

– The bullpen has definite implosion potential.  Brad Lidge was plenty effective last season, but he’s continued to lose velocity off his fastball and he’s only getting outs with his slider at this point.  Ryan Madson is great in the eighth, but he’s melted down when asked to pitch the ninth, leaving Jose Contreras as the Phillies’ fallback in the closer role.

– Depth is a concern.   I like the Phillies’ strategy of loading up on stars and hoping for the best, but they’re going to have problems if injuries strikes.   The assumption is that Joe Blanton will be jettisoned to free up some cash for the Lee signing, leaving Kyle Kendrick as the probable fifth starter and Vance Worley next in line for a rotation spot.    Besides Brown and maybe reliever Scott Mathieson, no one else figures to graduate from the minor league system and play a role next year.

So, yeah, the Phillies have to be the favorites on paper.   A four-man rotation projected to finish with an ERA right around 3.00 guarantees that.   But I’d like to see a couple of shrewd moves from GM Ruben Amaro before I’d be confident making the pick.  Bringing in a live bullpen arm for Blanton and finding a cost effective replacement for Ibanez would be a nice start.  If he’s forced to simply give both away, then the 2011 Phillies will have merely traded Werth for Lee and seen a bunch of 30- to 33-year-old players get a year older.

Brewers hold off the Dodgers to force Game 7 of the NLCS

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Down 3-2 in the NLCS, the Brewers faced a must-win situation during Game 6 on Friday. Any residual uncertainty they might have felt about their chances of extending the series was all but resolved in the first inning, however, when Jesús Aguilar, Mike Moustakas, and Erik Kratz combined for a four-run spread to take an early lead. Powered by those early-game RBI, as well as masterful performances from Wade Miley, Corey Knebel, and Corbin Burnes, the club surged to a 7-2 win to pull even with the Dodgers and force a Game 7 tiebreaker.

Left-hander Wade Miley trounced the Dodgers in 4 1/3 innings of two-run, four-strikeout ball. He was bested by David Freese in the very first at-bat of the night, which culminated with a 402-footer to right field to put Los Angeles on the board, 1-0. After a few scoreless innings from the Dodgers, Freese returned to torment Miley in the top of the fifth, this time with an RBI double that narrowed the Brewers’ advantage from four runs to three.

Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly for opposing lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu. In the bottom of the first inning, Ryu allowed a leadoff single to Lorenzo Cain, followed by a four-pitch walk to Ryan Braun. Jesús Aguilar came up to bat with two out and two on, then smacked a two-RBI line drive double to right field. Moustakas and Kratz went back-to-back-to-back with Aguilar, putting up another three runs on an RBI double and single, respectively.

The Brewers kept rolling in the second inning. Christian Yelich and Braun each collected a double off of Ryu, bringing Milwaukee’s lead to 5-1 over Los Angeles. Braun advanced to third on a Travis Shaw groundout, but with Aguilar up to bat, Ryu wasn’t going to chance a repeat of the Dodgers’ first-inning debacle. He intentionally walked Aguilar, then whiffed Moustakas on three straight fastballs to cap the inning.

By the time both Miley and Ryu were forced from the mound, the Brewers stood 5-2 above their opponents. Right-hander Corey Knebel worked a scoreless 1 2/3 innings, striking out Manny Machado to eliminate another potential rally from the Dodgers in the fifth inning and retiring all four batters in the sixth (save for Joc Pederson, who reached base after taking a 96.3-MPH fastball to the wrist). The righty received another significant opportunity to do some damage against the Dodgers in the bottom of the fifth, when he came up to bat for the first time in his professional career with the bases loaded and two outs… but saw just four pitches before swinging at a 1-2 pitch to end the inning.

After Ryu’s unexpected departure in the third, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts cycled through five pitchers — Julio Urías, Alex Wood, Dylan Floro, Caleb Ferguson, and Kenta Maeda — in an attempt to squelch the Brewers’ comeback. The bullpen combined for four consecutive scoreless frames, but was ultimately foiled in the seventh, when, with runners on second and third and two outs, a wild pitch from Maeda ricocheted off the front of home plate and allowed Aguilar to plate yet another insurance run. Still not content with a two-hit, two-RBI performance, Aguilar came back in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single — only moments after a failed double play that would have ended the inning — to bring the Brewers to a cushy 7-2 advantage as they entered the ninth.

No similar last-minute rallies awaited the Dodgers there. Rookie right-hander Corbin Burnes orchestrated another flawless 1-2-3 inning in the ninth, retiring Pederson and Puig with consecutive strikeouts and inducing a game-inning, series-extending pop-up from Matt Kemp to wrap the win.

Game 7 is set for 8:09 PM EDT on Saturday. The starters for both clubs have yet to be announced.