Phillies vs. Dodgers: A Family Affair

 

Outside of video games and computer simulations, no "rematch" is ever really that: rosters change, managers and coaches move on, and even the guys who were around for the last battle are older and different, better or worse. But the differences in the Phillies and Dodgers between October 2008 and October 2009 promise to make this series a battle between two teams that know each other about as well as non-division opponents possibly can--and in some ways, a lot better than that.

Again and again in this series, a batter will be looking at a pitcher sixty feet away with whom he played for years. Half the Dodgers' likely series rotation--Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla--were Phillies for the better part of a decade. Jim Thome, LA's biggest weapon off the bench, was the biggest star on the Phils for more than two years--and Charlie Manuel's protege and close friend through more than a decade with the Indians and Phillies. Dodger third base coach Larry Bowa was the Phillies' manager for four seasons, present at the creation for the big league careers of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Madson and others (and, as this piece in today's Inquirer notes, an admirer of his former charges). On the other side, Phils reliever Chan Ho Park first emerged into stardom in a Dodger uniform and then re-established himself as a big-time pitcher in a return engagement last season. And Jayson Werth still carries both fond memories of his early success in LA and a grudge against the organization that first misdiagnosed the wrist injury that threatened his career, and then gave up on him. 

Emotional resonances aside, the most interesting question might be whether Wolf and Padilla have the advantage of familiarity over their former teammates, or vice-versa. Mostly owing to small sample size, the evidence is inconclusive: in three career starts against the Phils, Wolf is 1-1 with a 4.42 ERA but a strong .243 batting average against. Both decisions came this year: a victorious six-inning, three-hit, one-run performance on May 13, and a 6.1 inning, six-run effort in a loss on June 7. Interestingly, Carlos Ruiz--who might have caught Wolf three or four times in 2006--was the Phils' best hitter in both games. Padilla, who has spent most of his post-Phillies career in the American League, lost his only career start against the Phillies in 2008. 

For the fans as well as the players, though, those emotions linger. It's still strange for me to see Randy Wolf in another uniform: I remember listening to his first major league start, in summer 1999, while driving down to the Jersey Shore, watching his starts as the bright spots for dismal Phillies teams in his first two years, cheering him on through the near-misses of 2001-2006. Padilla was the briefly shining hope of the much-lamented Curt Schilling trade, an out of nowhere all-star in 2002 who flashed enormous talent over the next three seasons as well but too often faltered in the big moment before being given away after the 2005 season.

And Thome... the signing of Jim Thome, who'd been one of my favorite players since he surfaced as Cleveland's third baseman a decade earlier, put the Phillies back on the baseball map after years as something between a joke and an afterthought. For the first two years, he was as good as advertised, with a league-best 47 homers in 2003, then the second-highest season mark in franchise history, and a top-five MVP finish. Even his fadeout in 2005 proved a blessing in disguise, as it probably saved Ryan Howard from a trade we would have bemoaned for decades.  And Thome's presence in the clubhouse might have been the key element in management's decision to name Charlie Manuel as Bowa's replacement to manage the club. However questionable a rationale for his hiring, Manuel has proven to be the greatest manager in Phillies history. As a 39 year-old without a defensive position, Thome wouldn't seem set for a starring role in this series. But with all that back story, it's hard to imagine he won't find a way onto the stage at a key moment.

So too with Wolf, the Game One starter, and Padilla. Strange as it'll be to root against all three, it's their presence on the Dodgers that lends this matchup an intrigue and potential drama that even a rematch for the league pennant might not otherwise boast. 

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