Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Phillies-Rockies: NLDS Game 1

The Phillies begin their quest to repeat as World Champions tomorrow afternoon, taking on the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series. This is, of course, a rematch of the 2007 NLDS, in which the Rockies swept the Phillies before advancing to the World Series. Since then the Phillies are 9-2 against Colorado.

For Game 1, the Phillies will send out Cliff Lee and the Rockies will counter with Ubaldo Jiminez. Jiminez, as fans may remember, started Game 3 in 2007 against the Phils and pitched 6 1/3 innings, while allowing only one run. He dueled Jamie Moyer to a standstill, but eventually the Rockies won 4-2, completing the 3-game sweep.

While his postseason history against the Phillies is impressive (though it was only one start), he has had less success in the regular season. He last faced the Phillies in May 2008, in Citizens Bank Park, and was lit up for 7 runs in 4 innings. His one other regular season start was in September 2007, in which he allowed 2 runs over 6 innings. So in three career starts against the Phillies, he has a 0-1 record with a 4.91 ERA. Not all that impressive, but then again it's a very small sample size.

Cliff Lee has no significant history against Colorado. His only start against them came this year and it was a good one. Lee allowed 1 run over 7 innings while striking out 9 in a 3-1 Phillies win. This certainly bodes well, but then again it's only one start.

The Phillies should have a clear advantage in starting pitching, but the bullpens are more evenly matched. Huston Street has been good, though not dominant, for the Rockies, with a 3.02 ERA and 35 saves. Rafael Betancourt has been a valuable mid-season acquisition for the Colorado bullpen, but after that there isn't a whole lot.

Not that the Phillies bullpen is scaring anyone right now. Brad Lidge's abysmal play has been well-documented so there's no need to go into it here. Ryan Madson has been the team's best reliever, but he has looked shaky when asked to close and moving him to the ninth inning just opens another hole in the seventh and eighth innings. Scott Eyre has been effective when healthy, but that's very much in question right now, so the Phillies may have to rely on J.A. Happ to be the primary left-handed reliever. Brett Myers is expected to be available but he may not be fully healthy and hasn't looked especially good in relief. The Phillies might want to look to Kyle Kendrick, who has looked good in his five September appearances.

On paper it's not a good bullpen, but it is something of a wildcard. While Eyre may not be able to pitch and the Phillies will miss J.C. Romero, this is largely the same bullpen that was lights-out a year ago. It's not inconceivable that the pitchers, Lidge in particular, could return to form. It's not as if Lidge doesn't have his stuff anymore, he's just struggled with confidence. Perhaps Charlie Manuel's continued support will pay off and Lidge will get his act together for some more October magic.

On the offensive side, the Phillies should have a slight advantage. They led the NL in runs, but the Rockies were 2nd. The Phillies are loaded with left-handed bats and switch-hitters, which should help against right-handed starters such as Jiminez. The Rockies' offense also relies heavily on left-handed hitters, highlighted by Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe, though the best offensive performance came from right-handed Troy Tulowitski.

However, left-handed pitching can clearly exploit this team, as evidenced by their 27-26 record vs left-handed starters (compared to 65-44 vs RHP). The Phillies have played about equally well against both left and right-handed starters. Homefield advantage should also be key. The Phillies' home record (45-36) isn't overwhelming, but CBP should be an intimidating place to play in October, especially considering the Phillies didn't lose a single home game in the '08 playoffs, and the Rockies aren't a great road team (41-40). The Rockies have played extremely well at home (51-30) but the Phillies have been great on the road (48-33).

Going into October, these Phillies don't seem to have the same swagger as last year's team, but, aside from the bullpen, they are a decidedly better team than last year. Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino have improved, Raul Ibanez is a clear upgrade (on offense and defense) from Pat Burrell, and Cole Hamels-Cliff Lee (in any order) is a much better 1-2 punch than Hamels-Myers, not to mention the back of the rotation where the Phillies have rookie sensation J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, and Pedro Martinez to use as they see fit. The bench also looks improved. Matt Stairs remains an intimidating presence, Greg Dobbs is still a solid left-handed bat, and Ben Francisco is the best right-handed pinch hitter the Phillies have had in a few years.

This is a tough series to call, but I like the Phillies' chances. I think their surplus of left-handed starters and homefield advantage should make the difference, which is why I'm picking the Phillies in 4.

I'll be at the game tomorrow and will make an effort to post updates via Twitter.

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