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Phillies vs. Reds – NLDS Preview

October 6, 2010

On Wednesday, the Phillies begin their quest for their third straight National League championship, and more importantly, their third ever World Series championship.

While making the playoffs has now become a familiar experience for the Phillies, this year they find themselves in a position in which they have been unfamiliar with throughout their history: Favorites.

Their 97 regular season wins were the most in the major leagues, marking the first time ever the Phillies have had the best record in the majors.  On paper, this is probably a better team than the previous two years, and might be the most talented team in Phillies history.

And yet…

For much of the season, they didn’t play like the best team in baseball.  In fact, they looked so pathetic in late July that I actually gave up on them.  Of course since the day I wrote that, the Phillies went on an absolute tear, erasing a seven-game deficit in the standings, and cruising to another division title.

(Truth be told, I kind of expected the team to take off after I gave up on them.  For whatever reason, the Phillies never hit their stride until I write off their chances.  I’ve tried to pretend that I’ve given up on them, but the magic doesn’t seem to happen until I truly lose hope)

For a team that is supposed to have one of the better – if not best – lineups in the league, the Phillies have had trouble scoring runs for much of the season.  They have been shut out in 11 games, and the offense has been held to three or less runs more times than I can remember.  There was a stretch from mid-May to July when they couldn’t seem to score at all.  This stretch was lowlighted by a three-game series in New York when they failed to score a single run.

Injuries played a part in the struggles as they barely had their projected starting eight on the field all season.  Jimmy Rollins fought various injuries all year, and as a result, couldn’t find any hitting consistency.  Chase Utley spent a couple of months on the disabled list.  After Ryan Howard sprained his ankle in August, he never seemed to regain his stroke.

But even when healthy, Phillies hitters had their troubles.  It felt like just about every player went through a bad slump at one point of the season or another: Utley’s hitting was well below his normal levels even before the injury.  Raul Ibanez had a horrendous first half.  Howard’s power numbers were down.  Jayson Werth couldn’t seem to get a hit with runners on base.

As the playoffs begin, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Phillies hitters.  Utley, Ibanez, Werth, and Shane Victorino seem to be hitting well recently, but Howard and Placido Polanco are not.  And it’s impossible to say what they’ll get out of Jimmy Rollins.  He has already said that he won’t be able to run like he usually does.

So with a lineup that is a question mark, why are the Phillies considered to be the favorites? 

The optimism is due to having the best starting pitching in the playoffs.  The trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels should give the Phillies the pitching advantage in just about every game.  While other teams may have one ace who can match up well enough against Halladay, I’m thinking that Oswalt is better than every other #2 starter out there, and Hamels is assuredly the best #3.  (And although they won’t need him in the NLDS, Joe Blanton is certainly a good option as a #4)

(For whatever reason, I felt like Halladay’s season was slightly disappointing.  He was hyped up so much before the season, that I guess I either expected him to never lose or to give us a Stephen Strasburg-like wow factor.  Halladay may not have jaw dropping stuff like Strasburg, but he just doggedly gets the job done.  But considering he’s had the best season by a Phillies pitcher in almost 30 years and will probably win the Cy Young Award, I guess I’m just really hard to please)

Assuming they can get at least seven innings from their starters, the Phillies have to like their chances, because the backend of their bullpen has been strong lately as well.  Ryan MADSON!!! continues to excel as a setup man, and despite Phillies fans’ lack of faith in him, Brad Lidge has been solid throughout the second half of the season.

Adding to the Phillies strength is their bench.  They have several players who could contribute if needed, such as Ben Francisco, Ross Gload, and Wilson Valdez.

So what could go wrong?

No matter how good the Phillies look, their opponents are not going to simply roll over for them.  Their NLDS opponents will be the Cincinnati Reds, who are certainly not a lightweight.  In order to make the playoffs, a team has to be pretty good, and the Reds have one of the best lineups in baseball.  Led by probable league MVP Joey Votto, the Reds led the league in runs scored.  This team is certainly capable of scoring on the Phillies’ pitchers.

And while the Reds’ starters may not be as dominant as the Phillies’ trio, they are still pretty good.  Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, and Bronson Arroyo are all capable of pitching a strong game and shutting down the Phillies offense.

If the Reds’ starters can keep the game close, the Reds may have an advantage due to their bullpen.  One key to defeating the Phillies is having strong relievers – particularly from the left side – who can be brought in for important late game situations.

The Reds have two such relievers in Aroldis Chapman and Arthur Rhodes.  Chapman is the rookie sensation from Cuba who throws the fastest ball in the majors.  Rhodes is a veteran who had a solid year – although the Phillies did pretty well against him when they faced off.  It wouldn’t surprise me if at least one game hinges on a matchup between one of these pitchers and the Phillies’ left handed sluggers.

So what’s my prediction?

Despite the Reds being a solid team, I can’t see them overcoming the Phillies.  The Phillies have playoff experience, they’re entering the playoffs on a hot streak, and they fared well against the Reds in the regular season, going 5-2.

I could see the Reds beating one of the Phillies three starters in a game.  But can they beat Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels three times?  I don’t see it happening.

Phillies in a sweep.

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