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Three Up, Three Down: Why the Phillies Will and Won’t Repeat in 2009

Look: I don’t know and you don’t know. The playoffs aren’t a total crapshoot, and it’s inane to compare a post-season series to any five- or seven-game stretch of the regular season, as some analysts do. Talent matters, but it’s not determinative: between the randomness of baseball and the pure unknowns, from physical condition to unpredictable environmental factors, guessing is a fool’s game.

But let’s play it anyway.

Here are three reasons why the Phillies will raise a second straight world championship banner in a month or so, followed by three why they won’t. 

  1.  Aces Up. In terms of talent and pedigree, none of the other seven playoff clubs can match the front-of-the-rotation duo of Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Maybe more important, both pitchers have enjoyed a lot of success against the teams they’ll see in the first two rounds of the postseason: defending AL Cy Young Award winner Lee is a combined 3-0 in four career starts against the Rockies, Cardinals and Dodgers, with a cumulative ERA of 1.23 in 29.1 innings. Hamels, the reigning NLCS and World Series MVP, was shelled in his lone regular-season start against the Rockies--his first of 2009 before he was fully healthy--and his numbers against St. Louis are fairly pedestrian: a 2-2 record and 4.22 ERA in six career starts. But he’s owned the Dodgers, with a 2-0 record and 1.50 ERA in four regular season starts (including a shutout this year) and, of course, those two wins last October for the pennant. Add in the struggles of Colorado and St. Louis against left-handers generally, and the Phils should have a big edge whenever their big two take the mound.

  2. Grinding for Glory. Notwithstanding the overall inconsistency of the offense and the baffling tendency to scuffle against the likes of Yorman Bazardo, the Phillies hitters tend to focus and turn in better at-bats against superior pitchers. Examples this year have included superior performances against the likes of Dan Haren and Josh Johnson—but the trend also shows up in the career splits of some of the starters they’ll see through the NL playoffs. Rockies Game One starter Ubaldo Jiminez has an 8.10 career ERA against the Phils in two regular-season starts; Jorge de la Rosa, who will start Game Two or Game Three if his injured groin allows, has a 9.78 mark in four starts. Aaron Cook is 1-5 with a 5.85 ERA in nine games (eight starts).  Jason Marquis is 5-3 with a decent 4.38 ERA against the Phillies, but has walked more hitters (51) than he’s struck out (45). Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter is 4-2 against the Phillies, but his 5.73 ERA in eight starts suggests he hasn’t exactly dominated them. Chad Billingsley of the Dodgers has a good 3.24 ERA against the Phils in the regular season, but they beat him up twice in last year’s NLCS. There are exceptions: Adam Wainwright has a solid 3.10 ERA against the Phils in six games (four starts), and LA’s Hiroki Kuroda--who’s out for the NLDS and could miss the entire playoffs--has stymied them to the tune of an 0.85 ERA in 19 innings. But for the most part, the Phillies hitters should go into these matchups with a lot of confidence.

  3.  Been Here, Done This. Obviously, experience can be overrated in baseball as in life, and past performance is no guarantee of future results: the Braves had ten straight post-season appearances after their 1995 world championship without another parade to show for it. But with this Phillies team, you know there won’t be any panic, and you get the strong sense that this is a team that not only expects to win, but has been waiting for October pretty much since July, when they took control of the NL East. Confidence does help, and this team has plenty—maybe as much as any team since baseball’s last true dynasty, the Yankees of 1996-2000.

 On the other hand…

  1. They’re gassedRich Hoffman has noted it,  as has Ken Rosenthal. And you’ve seen it too: Chase Utley’s weak swings, Shane Victorino’s disappearing strike zone judgment, Pedro Feliz’s regression, Jayson Werth’s flails and corkscrews. No lineup in baseball has been worked as hard as this one, and it’s shown in their September hitting performances. A few days of rest and the adrenaline boost of the playoffs will help—but the accumulated fatigue of eight solid months of baseball can’t be argued away. Facing some of the best pitchers in the game, the Phils hitters might also have to battle the limitations of their own overtaxed bodies.

  2. No relief. Do you really trust anyone coming out of the Phillies bullpen to get big outs in big spots? Brad Lidge’s travails we all know in excruciating detail; as nice as it would be were the light finally to come on and "Lights Out Lidge" to return, there’s utterly no grounds to believe it’ll happen. Ryan Madson? Nobody doubts the talent, but he’s reverted to a one-pitch guy… and the best hitters can time a fastball. Every other arm you might want to believe in is hurting: Brett Myers and Scott Eyre are limited, and J.C. Romero and probably Chan Ho Park will have as much bearing on playoff outcomes as you and I will. If they win a series or two, it will be a shock if the Phillies lose fewer than one or two games in which they’re leading late; teams can overcome those taint-kick losses to hoist a trophy (2001 Diamondbacks, I’m looking in your direction), but it’s difficult and rare.

  3. Nobody repeats. There’s a good reason it’s been a decade since baseball’s last back-to-back champion: on top of superior talent, everything has to go just right. The 2008 Phillies were a perfect example of this: already blessed with implausibly good health going into October, they were able to set up their rotation for every series with Cole Hamels working Game One. Beyond that, they kept getting the most advantageous matchups: a happy-to-be-here Brewers team for the Division Series, the Dodgers rather than the Cubs for the NLCS, an exhausted and inexperienced Rays club rather than the defending-champion Red Sox in the Series. Maybe all the dominoes will fall for the 2009 Phillies the way they did for last year’s club. But that’s probably not the way to bet. 

As any long-time Phillies fan will tell you, these years don't come around that often. All we can do is enjoy the ride--and hope it's a long and fun one.