Anyone watch the baseball games last night? I don’t think there’s really much point in elaborating on what happened. If you were expecting a couple of one-game playoffs like I was, well…you got something else. Especially cruel endings for Atlanta and Boston, and a comeback they’ll remember forever in Tampa (assuming Tampa keeps their franchise). I wanted the playoffs for the drama they usually create, but last night took care of that, and the Cardinals having to play one more game wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. Let’s be honest, there was no way the Braves were winning if they played today. It was going to be St. Louis all the way. So, we might as well embrace it. If you want atmosphere, palpable tension, it has to be the Cardinals, right? I feel like the excitement ceiling for the Diamondbacks is much lower, regardless of the circumstances.
So, what are the Phillies going to be facing come Saturday?
The Cardinals are a good team. Before Adam Wainwright was lost for the season they were legitimate challengers to the crown that everyone wanted to hand to the Phillies on the day they got Cliff Lee. Without Wainwright and without knowing that Lance Berkman was going to resurrect his career, most people slotted the Cardinals below the elite National League teams. But, the Cards have been right there all year. It’s just been a matter of their bullpen. They actually started quite strong, but then the bullpen started blowing an inordinate amount of games, Albert Pujols lost some games to injury and the NL Central contenders started muddling around just above .500. After the All-Star Break it was the Brewers who seized control of the division, and by the time the Cardinals found a somewhat usable option at closer they were too far back in the division. They should have been too far back in the wild-card as well, but the Braves did a swan dive off the Bank of America building.
The summary is, the Cardinals are hot entering the playoffs, but they’re still pretty much the same team they’ve been all year. They scored the most runs in the National League, they have two front of the rotation starting pitchers and a patchwork bullpen that can’t be trusted. That’s the team the Phillies will be facing starting Saturday. If you want to build up a 90-win team that averaged 4.7 runs a game into a runaway juggernaut, go right ahead, but I think the panic and naysayers should be tempered to a certain extent.
I’m going to look at this series in terms of what the Phillies need to do to win. They’re the better team. It’s no secret what the Cardinals have to do to win the series, they’ll need to play their best. For the Phillies, it isn’t quite so simple. Here’s five keys:
1. Hit Jaime Garcia (at least a little bit). Garcia is the scariest Cardinal from a fan’s perspective. He’s a strong pitcher, but against the Phillies he becomes elite. You’d think if a team like Houston can chip away at Garcia for a few runs then the Phillies should be able to do the same, but for the last two years they’ve been totally handcuffed by the left-hander. Working in the Phillies favor is Garcia will be squaring off against Roy Halladay, so hopefully they won’t need 7 or 8 runs, and this will be Garcia’s post-season baptism. On the road, rowdy crowd, and the Phillies do have a history of flipping bad resumes on pitchers in the post-season. They’ll likely need to beat Garcia once to win this series.
2. Brad Lidge. I just have a feeling Brad Lidge is going to pitch a big inning or two in this series. That may not be comforting news to Phillies fans out there, but considering his experience and relative success toward the end of the season, there doesn’t appear to be many other right-handed options before Ryan Madson. Now, the best case scenario is the Phillies starting pitchers duplicate the job they did against Cincy last year, but if the Phils get in a tight spot in a 7th or 8th inning, Lidge will likely have to answer the call.
3. Work the counts. It’s no secret that the Cardinals don’t have a ton of reliable arms in the bullpen. The sooner the Phillies can get a starter out of the game, the better. Especially against a guy like Garcia, who has been very economical in the past, they need to work some counts and be patient.
4. Hit a few Long Balls. I don’t want to become a Charlie Manuel convert here and wait around for the 3-run homer, but circumstances may require the Phils to leave the yard a few times. Home runs always help, but considering the Phils lack of speed at certain positions and generally how dinged up they are, they’ll probably need some 1-hit rallies. Ibanez, Polanco, Howard, Ruiz–these are all station to station guys, and as we saw last year sometimes in the playoffs you don’t get to string 3 and 4 hits together very often. The good news is, for all the grumbling about their offense the Phillies have plenty of one-swing pop.
5. Don’t get too painfully out-managed. I don’t think I’m out of line if I say Charlie didn’t exactly weave a masterpiece against the Giants last year. The miniscule batting average was a nice scapegoat, but Chuck was always one step behind Bruce Bochy. Now, I’m in the Tony LaRussa is overrated camp, and I say go ahead and let him over-manage, but we can’t afford any Charlie head-scratchers in this one.
I think the Phillies will win the series. I trust Roy Halladay, and I do think the Phils will play better than they did against the Cardinals in the regular season. The Phils didn’t always have their best foot forward in those nine games. For reference, here’s a starting 8 they put out against Garcia in St. Louis:
- Mayberry–Pre-Minor League Stint
I think the Phils have big advantages in games 2 and 4, and that’s enough for me to pick the home team in 4 games. No haters live here.
Other Series Predictions:
Yankees in Five, Rays in Four, Brewers in Three.