This year is going to be different.
Last year, the Phillies won an emotional pennant race with the Mets and it almost seemed as if they had accomplished their goal. This year, they are hungry.
Last year, they ran into the hottest team to enter the playoffs in baseball history. This year, they face a team that really stumbled down the stretch and would have missed the playoffs if they were being chased by any normal team.
Last year, the Phillies were the team that was “just happy to be there.” This year the Phillies play the team that is “just happy to be there.”
Last year, the Phillies trotted out a young pitcher with no postseason experience in Game 1. This year, the Phillies face a young pitcher with no postseason experience in Game 1.
Last year, the biggest question on the team was the bullpen. This year, the biggest strength on the team is the bullpen.
Last year’s playoffs ended in the blink of Kaz Matsui grand slam. This year is going to be different.
All that being said, I am terrified by Yovani Gallardo. Yes, there have only been three pitchers in the history of baseball to start a playoff game with fewer regular season starts than Gallardo, but if you have ever seen him pitch (and, I have seen one of those four starts this year), you will know that he has great stuff. The question, aside from his 22-year old nerves, will be stamina. He has only pitched once since May 1, and he only threw 67 pitches in four innings. But, there is something about him that terrifies me. And, Game 1 is absolutely gigantic for the Phillies because otherwise, they are staring at having to beat CC Sabathia to salvage one game at home.
The reason the Phillies will win Game 1 is because of Cole Hamels. Hamels has, somewhat quietly, had maybe the best season of any Phillies pitcher in my lifetime. He is second in the league in innings pitched (227) and LEADS THE LEAGUE in fewest baserunners allowed per inning (1.09 WHIP). Plus, he is 6th in both strikeouts (196) and ERA (3.09). Yes, he is only 14-10, but he has (if you can believe it) not gotten much support from this otherwise potent Phillies’ lineup and the otherwise fantastic Phillies’ bullpen. Take all these numbers and put them in the context of having to pitch half of his games in the band-box that we call Citizens’ Bank Park, and you have yourself one hell of a season by the young lefty. Throw in the fact that Brandon Webb struggled down the stretch while his team choked away the playoffs and the fact that the aforemetioned CC only pitched 17 games in the NL, and you can make a serious and legitimate case that Cole Hamels was the best pitcher in the National League this year. Unfortunately, they do not have an award for such a thing…oh wait, they do? So, he has got to be the favorite, right? No, no one is even talking about him as a contender for the award?!? Inconceivable.
[For the record, I intentionally left out of the discussion the pitcher who I feel should CLEARLY be NL Cy Young winner this year–Johan Santana–but we are not mentioning him out of respect for the deceased. But, really, check out these numbers.]
Okay, I admit, I have not had much time recently for blogging my daily opinions because of planning my wedding in two weeks, but that has not stopped me from forming some. About a month ago, I wanted to write about how clear it was that the Phillies’ MVP this season was not Chase Utley or either of the two reigning NL MVPs, Howard or Rollins. It is clear to me that, all season long, Brad Lidge has been, without a doubt, the Phillies most valuable player. Well, as of last week, it seems like the team agrees with me, as Lidge was named the Phillies team MVP. The other post that I have been wanting to write was going to be on how this year might be the worst year I can ever remember for MVP races–in both leagues. The fact that Ryan Howard and his .250 batting average is one of the two favorites to win the award is case in point (though, I very much agree with Doogan that Pujols really ought to win it–and easily). And, the NL race is even better than the AL race. Who is going to win it there? You know it is bad when Carlos Quentin is in the running for the league’s MVP, but you know it is really bad when Carlos Quentin is in the running for a league’s MVP after MISSING THE LAST MONTH OF THE SEASON. Anyway, because of all this, shouldn’t Brad Lidge get serious consideration for the award. The Phillies were in a chase for the division through 161 games, and Lidge converted every save opportunity all year long. He should at least be in the conversation.
I have yet to see the official Phillies’ postseason roster, but we already know that it will not include Kyle Kendrick. But, in a very intelligent roster move, probably orchestrated by either Pat Gillick or Jimy Williams, Kendrick is heading to the Florida Instructional League to stay fresh, in case he is needed in an upcoming series. Apparently, it did not sit too well with Mr. Kendrick, but that is probably simply because he wants to be with the team in their playoff run. And, who can blame him?
Yes, Lidge is the most valuable Phillie. Hamels is, quite possibly, the best starting pitcher in the National League. This offense is fueled by the three superstars in Rollins, Utley, and Howard. And, there is no doubt that the Phillies would not be in this position without all of these key pieces, but they also could not have done it alone, and I strongly believe that, over 162 games, the best teams are those with the most productive complementary players. This is what wins championships, and this is why the Phillies have a real shot at winning a championship this year. Look back at the great teams of the recent past. The Yankees of the late-90’s were led by Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera, but they won with guys like Scott Brosius, Jim Leyritz, and Aaron Boone. The recent Red Sox had Manny, Ortiz and Beckett, but probably would not have won titles without the likes of a Dave Roberts, an Orlando Cabrera, or a Jason Varitek. And, we, as Phillie fans, have been treated all year long to incredible production from just these types of players. Guys like Jayson Werth, Greg Dobbs, and Shane Victorino do not have jump-off-the-page numbers, but they, as a collective group, have been just as valuable, if not more, than any of the big-name superstars. So, I would not be surprised at all if the big playoff hit came from Eric Bruntlett or Carlos Ruiz because this Phillies team really is a TEAM.
So, I agree with Doogan that the Phillies should earn a split at home and then go to Milwaukee and take both Games 3 and 4, so as to avoid CC in Game 5. But, I am envisioning a loss to Gallardo in Game 1, followed by a win over Sabathia in Game 2, a shellacking of Suppan or fellow Central Leaguer Dave Bush in Game 3, and a figuring-out of Gallardo in Game 4. Phillies win 3 games to 1, and move on to host Game 1 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On a personal and interesting note: there are only three players in Major League baseball that I know personally and two of them are on the Brewers. One is the aforementioned Bush, with whom I played a couple times and against whom I played many times (he was the best throwing catcher I have ever seen), and the other is Brewers relief pitcher Mark DiFelice (who may not be on the postseason roster, I am not sure), a fellow Haverford High grad, who I watched pitch many times in high school and actually faced several times in summer ball. He was very, very good.