Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Phils Clinch NL East!

The Phillies are you National League East Champions for the third straight year. This year's clincher lacked the drama of the last two, but it feels pretty sweet all the same.

The game itself didn't start out that well, as Pedro was tagged for three runs in just four innings of work. But Kyle Kendrick pitched three scoreless innings and the offense did the rest, highlighted by a four-run fourth inning, back-to-back triples in the fifth by Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, and a towering two-run shot by Raul Ibanez.

Chad Durbin and Scott Eyre combined for 1.2 innings but when it came time to get the last out, Charlie Manuel went with a symbolic move, bringing in Brad Lidge. This decision was purely symbolic, as the Phillies had a comfortable 10-3 lead, but it was a very nice gesture to the much-maligned closer. Lidge made the most of it, using just one pitch to retire Lance Berkman, who grounded to first to end the game.

Ironically, just before Lidge sealed the win, the Braves lost in dramatic fashion, as Matt Diaz was picked off third to end the game; a 5-4 Marlins win. So the Phillies actually had already clinched by the time Ryan Howard stepped on the bag to end tonight's Phillies game.

So now the Phillies have secured a playoff spot with four games remaining, a nice improvement from the last two years when they took the division on the last (2007) and second-to-last day (2008). However, there's still motivation to win the last few games. The Phillies are two games ahead of the Cardinals and one game behind the Dodgers. If all goes well, they could get homefield advantage through the NLCS. If things go poorly, they could have to face the Dodgers or Cardinals on the road in the first round.

Most likely, whether they have the best record in the league or not, they'll wind up facing the Colorado Rockies in the first round. The Rockies, of course, swept the Phillies in 2007 in their run to the World Series. However, since then the Phillies have posted a 9-2 record against Colorado in the regular season, including a sweep in 2008.

The main question for the Phillies now is how they'll set up their postseason rotation. Obviously Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are the 1-2, probably in that order, but after that it gets tricky. Joe Blanton has been solid for the Phillies all year and was a key part of the rotation last October, but doesn't overwhelm anyone with his 3.95 ERA. J.A. Happ has been arguably the best Phillies starter all year, with a 12-4 record and a 2.95 ERA, but he is still a 26-year old rookie. And then there's Pedro Martinez, who gave the Phillies a lift with some strong outings (most notably throwing 8 shutout innings against the Mets), but has pitched just 7 innings in his last two starts.

In my opinion, the best bet is to make Happ and Blanton the 3 and 4, since we have a good idea of what we can get out of them, and move Pedro to the bullpen. There has been talk of making Happ the closer, which is not a terrible idea, since he'd probably do better than Lidge and Ryan Madson has been shaky in the role, but Happ is too valuable as a starter and an innings-eater to relegate him to the 'pen. One has to think he would give the Phillies a considerable advantage as he is better than most team's 3rd or 4th starter.

All in all, it's a good problem to have, and one that the Phillies will have some time to think about for a change. Here's hoping this is just the start of another World Series run!