NLDS Playoff Picks: For The Want Of The Ninth Inning…

October 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Fan News

In the greater Philadelphia area, there is excitement for the Phillies with their attempt to defend their World Series championship. The team is better than last year’s squad in nearly every definable measure.

The outfield consists of three borderline All-Star selections. The infield has three recent MVP selections. Third base and catcher are manned by guys who hit well in the stretch run, provide top-drawer defense, and performed admirably in last year’s playoffs.

The rotation has strong left-handed pitching options, including last year’s Series MVP, the 2008 American League Cy Young winner, and a possible Rookie of the Year winner. Even the back end of the rotation has good options, with a wily veteran Cy Young winner and a control pitcher with 2008 heroics.

The organization has not rested on its championship; instead, it has moved forcefully (witness the Cliff Lee trade) to go for back-to-back crowns. No one has talked about how they’ve coasted, or that they’re fat and happy.

And yet, just about every observer is writing them off, and it’s hard for me not to as well.

The reason, of course, is the bullpen. It’s hard to say just how bad Brad Lidge was this year, other than this: while he might have had the best year ever for a closer in 2008, he might have had the worst year ever for a closer in 2009. The only reason he didn’t set a record for blown saves was that the club coddled him to avoid it late in the year.

They invented injuries for him to rehab and come back stronger; it didn’t help. They tried others in the role, only when all human patience had been exhausted; those options also didn’t work. (Though, for my money, showing considerably less patience with Ryan Madson than was warranted.)

Baseball fans have been here before. Red Sox Fan had his falling out with Keith Foulke after he more or less sold his soul and arm to get them the 2004 crown. Once 2005 rolled around, he was spent, never to recover, and they tossed him aside with speed for Jonathan Papelbon.

It is the nature of closers, and why fantasy players never pay for saves; for every long-term solution like Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman, there are a million guys who blow up after big years. Your best hope, as a fan of a version of laundry, is that your team either chooses wisely and/or gets lucky, or has the ability to stock the farm system with people who can do the gig. (When the Phillies ran into ninth inning issues this year, they brought up… Tyler Walker. Rut roh.)

In the last decade, teams have won, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, without shutdown closers. Consider Bobby Jenks seizing the job away from Dustin Hermanson and Shingo Takatsu for the 2005 White Sox. Jason Isringhausen’s ordinary 3.55 ERA for the 2006 Cardinals, and BK Kim’s ill-timed meltdown for the 2001 DiamondBacks (and given Lidge’s performance, especially consider BK).

But none of those guys were flat-out terrible. Even Kim was solid until he made his fateful entrance into Yankee Stadium. Lidge has been terrible and will be terrible in the next few weeks. No amount of faith, hope or prayer will change that. The man’s slider hasn’t been sharp. The fastball has always been hittable, and there are no other tricks in the arsenal.

A creative and, to be fair, loyalty-free manager would have recognized this months ago. A front office that catches every trick should have provided options at the trading deadline. The A’s would have sent over some no-name guy that would have just gotten outs for prospects that don’t work out, just like last year’s move for Blanton. Even if they didn’t, there was always George Sherrill from the Orioles, who the Dodgers scooped up for a pittance, or perhaps backing up the truck for Heath Bell from the Padres.

The fan base recognized the problem months ago, and while still displaying an inordinate amount of good will towards Lidge, has agonized over it. It’s also telling that the extra half-dozen or more games that Lidge forced the team to win again meant that September was spent in a stress position, which probably didn’t help the rotation’s efforts to close the year on a high point.

In the last two weeks, none of them have pitched well, and while it’s a bit of a reach to say that an extra week of Triple A call-up action would have fixed them, it’s better than the alternative.

Having said all that… can they win? Sure. It’s baseball, after all. In my relative youth, a mediocre at best Dodger team with career retreads swept an apparently dynastic A’s team behind one at-bat from Kirk Gibson, two starts from Orel Hershiser, and one week of exposure to the catastrophic fail of Tony LaRussa. (Yes, he’s great, but when his teams lose, they go down like Shaquille O’Neal—kitten-soft sweeps.)

You don’t need to look hard to find teams worse than this Phillies team, after all. They are better than the Cardinals flash team of five years ago. They are better than the team that won last year in every way but one. They could just slug their way to enough wins, and they defend very well, so even if the late inning relief is giving up rockets, maybe enough of them find gloves. It could happen.

But no matter how hard you look, you can’t find a playoff team in the modern era with a worse end-of-game plan than this team. If they do win it all, it’ll be unique.

And with that.. on to the picks.


Up to 10 p.m. EST on Saturday night, I really wasn’t liking this matchup for the Fightins. The Rockies were on their way to a historic rally to win the NL West, assuming they could complete the sweep against the Dodgers in LA. In Saturday night’s game, Jorge De La Rosa was matching an electric Clayton Kershaw zero for zero, and it seemed like the team was just going to replicate their buzzsaw run to the World Series.

And then De La Rosa was walking off the mound gingerly, and it all changed.

I’m going to assume that De La Rosa is unavailable for the next week, because groin injuries are rarely next-start things, especially when they are serious enough to make a man leave a meaningful start in which he’s been dominant. So you take the weakest part of the Rockies, and take away the guy who was probably going to get the ball in Game Two. Not good.

Ubaldo Jimenez gets Game One, and he’s fine—a 15-game winner with strikeout an inning stuff who keeps the ball in the yard. He’s got some control issues, but not unworkable. There’s a realistic chance that he can go seven-plus. Second game seems slated for Aaron Cook, which is a little odd given his WHIP, historical playoff record, and overall game, but they like him—so be it.

Then Game Three sets up for… Jason Marquis, who’s really not much more than a pitch to contact guy. Game Four either goes back to Jimenez or Jason Hammel, who is basically Marquis without a pedigree. If you want a wildcard, they could try Jose Contreras, which boggles the mind considering how erratic he’s been in his career, but he has pitched well since moving to AAA.

The Fightins “should” have an edge in starting pitching here. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, a month ago, looked like two dominant lefty aces in a league where just one usually wins you a five-game playoff series. But neither has been very good recently, and it seems highly likely that these games will go the bullpens… and that’s just looking all kinds of ugly as well, since the Rocks relievers, outside of Huston Street, haven’t been very good either. When your next best guys are the put-it-on-a-tee Matt Herges and Rafael Betancourt, it’s hard not to see how these games go to Slugfest Mode, especially when you consider the ballparks involved.

In a slugfest, it’s very difficult to predict anything with confidence. It’s basically a coin flip. In that case, I’ll take the team with the home field advantage in Game Five, more positive postseason experience, better options in the seventh and eighth inning, and stronger overall defense. That would be Philadelphia, in five.

ST. LOUIS vs. Los Angeles

Rarely do you see a home team as dismissed as this Dodger team, who ran away with the NL West in the first two months, then more or less puttered around and waited for the season to end. Yes, the Rockies gave them some pause, but they knew they were making the playoffs either way. When your early season division challenge came from a Giants team that scored less than the Amish, I can forgive you for not feeling Big Fear and/or a lot of focus to the 162 game job at hand.

If you are looking for the Dodgers in microcosm, it’s not Mannyworld, though his 50-game siesta and intermittent efforts since is a tempting target for analysis. Instead, look to lead-off hitter and full-time coaster Rafael Furcal, who spent most of the summer looking like his birth certificate was given the Dominican dating treatment, only to crank up his bat and legs in September. (At least, he was still on my roto roster when it happened. We’re still not voting you a championship share, Rafe.)

Was Raffy—and for that matter, the rest of the Dodgers—just playing possum? Truth be told, the old adge that you can’t turn it on like a switch seems like bunkum. You’d be crazy to think that Manny and Raffy are going to be bigger threats than Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, who are the real studs here (thanks again for moving Andre away from Oakland, Genius Beane)… but I wouldn’t be shocked to see it.

The Dodgers are better than they’ve shown, especially if they can get any kind of lead late. George Sherill and Jonathan Broxton are a very nice way to end the game after the seventh.

The trouble for Jet Blue is that they’ve got a Cardinals team that has the best two starting pitchers in the series in Cris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and two game-changing hitters in Albert Pujols and Matt Holiday.

Pujols looks positively Ruthian in this series, and the only real question for me is whether the Cardinals can get enough men on base to make his at bats meaningful. I think they will; the Dodger pitchers nibble too much, and are prone to big walk blowups.

The Cards are not without weakness. We’ve mentioned LaRussa’s playoff history of flush. Pitching coach Dave Duncan is rumored to be leaving out of bitterness over how his son was sent out of town, and closer Ryan Franklin is the kind of regular season success (38 saves) that tends to fall apart in the postseason (44Ks in 61 IP).

If the Dodgers can somehow win with Randy Wolf in Game One at home, there’s a real chance of the chutes being pulled, the Dodgers stepping on the gas, and Joe Torre looking like his old New York self.

However, I just can’t go against Carpenter, and for that matter, Pujols. This is baseball. Stars matter, and when you’ve got the Cy Young and MVP on the same team, you should win. St. Louis in four.

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Article Source: Bleacher Report - Philadelphia Phillies

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