Well, here we are again.
The Phillies are back in the National League Championship Series, this time against a team with which they have virtually no rivalry whatsoever, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Much like when they faced the San Diego Padres last season, there is very little history between these two franchises, no legendary moments upon which to hang one’s hat, no real bad blood, unless you count Torey Luvello’s animated frustration at Phillies pitchers hitting Corbin Carroll with pitches a couple times this year.
Yeah, that’s about all we got, kids.
The good news is, both teams have a bunch of really good players and are red-hot entering the NLCS, where the Phillies will look to repeat history and get back to the Fall Classic with a shot at redemption.
Most analysts will tell you the Phils are the more talented team. After battling Arizona and four other NL teams for all of August and most of September in the wild card chase, Philadelphia pulled away down the stretch and finished six games better than the Diamondbacks, who were tied with the Marlins at 84 wins. But as we’ve seen in their series against the Atlanta Braves these last two years, and as Arizona showed in defeating Milwaukee and Los Angeles, with four of their five games all on the road, regular season records don’t mean nuthin’.
So, throwing the records aside, here are five reasons why the Phillies will win the NLCS and move on to face the Rangers or Astros in the World Series.
Starting Pitching Depth
The strength of both staffs lie in their starters for Games 1 and 2, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola for the Phillies, Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly for the Diamondbacks. It’s a pretty even match-up that could go either way.
Where the series could really swing is in Games 3 and 4, where the Phils should have an edge in both cases. Game 3 will almost certainly feature Ranger Suarez, who is once again putting on a clinic of postseason pitching this season. He was pulled early in Game 1 of the NLDS but retired 10 of the first 11 hitters before running into a little bit of a jam, and with Thomson managing aggressively off the bat, Suarez was pulled in favor of a cadre of hard-throwing relievers. In Game 4, he twirled five innings of one-run ball, baffling the best lineup in baseball all night long.
Arizona, meanwhile, will likely send Brandon Pfaadt, who put up a 5.72 ERA in 19 starts this season. To his credit, Pfaadt was very good against L.A., going 4.1 innings and giving up just two hits with no walks, two strikeouts and no runs allowed in the Game 3 4-2 win. But Suarez’ 4.18 ERA and postseason experience would make him the favorite in a Game 3 match-up.
We’re going to see Taijuan Walker or Cristopher Sanchez start Game 4, and the smart money would be on Walker beginning that game, with Sanchez ready to piggy-back if necessary. Or, they may have Sanchez start the first inning to neutralize Carroll and then bring Walker in, although Walker is less experienced as a starter. Sanchez was outstanding as a full-time starter tthis year, but saw his ERA jump from 2.30 in June and July to 4.15 in August and September. Still, that was better than Walker’s 5.93 ERA in September. They could face Ryne Nelson, who was no better, with a 5.31 ERA in 144 innings this season for the D-Backs.
I’d rather have Walker/Sanchez over Nelson in a Game 4 start, and those middle games should tilt things in tomorrow’s favor.
Both teams used the long-ball to bludgeon their opponents in the divisional round. The Phils out-blasted Atlanta 11-3 in the four games, while Arizona pounded out nine dingers in their three-game sweep, including an MLB-record four in one inning of Game 3. Both teams have hit 13 homers in all through their two rounds of the postseason.
However, that is an aberration for the Diamondbacks, who slugged just 166 during the regular season (22nd in MLB, tied with Miami), while the Phils smacked 220 (8th-best) and tied with Atlanta for most in baseball since August 1. While not a certainty, it’s more likely the Phillies homer barrage in October is reflective of their true strengths, while Arizona may not be able to keep up.
The Phillies’ bullpen just seems to do better in October. Sure, they were pretty good all year, with a 3.58 ERA that was 7th-best in baseball and a .232 opponents’ average allowed, 8th-best, but in the postseason, both last year and this year, guys like Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez and the rest of the gang seem to do better with the off-days in between series. Adrenaline is pretty cool, too.
The thing the Phillies have going for them is a group of southpaws who can counter the lefty-hitting Carroll. Alvarado, Gregory Soto (provided he throws strikes), and Matt Strahm should be available to keep him under wraps, and don’t be surprised to see Cristopher Sanchez enter the chat if needed.
The D-Backs were tinkering with their bullpen mix all year before finally finding a groove in September and into October, so we can probably throw away that 4.22 ERA from the regular season. They swung a trade with Seattle for sidewinding right-hander Paul Sewald, who struggled with a 4.66 ERA in August after arriving in Arizona. However, he’s figured it out, with a 1.50 ERA since the beginning of September.
Still, the Phils’ bullpen is deeper and provides more match-up issues for the Diamondbacks than theirs do the Phillies.
Rob Thomson’s Experience
If it seems like every button Rob Thomson pushes seems to work, that’s because it does. Not all of them, mind you, Game 6 of the World Series chief among them, but when Rob gets aggressive, good things usually happen.
Game 1 of the World Series. Game 1 of the NLDS. Starting Christian Pache in Games 1 and 2 of the NLWCS against Miami. Game 4 of the NLDS, leaving Suarez in longer. Thomson usually has a phenomenal feel for how to manage in the postseason and have his players up for any role he throws at them at any time. His usage of relievers in the Game 4 clincher was exceedingly unorthodox, having to rely on Strahm to close it out, but it worked.
Luvello has obviously never made it this far in the playoff tournament, and so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the moment, especially when he’s on the road in a hostile environment.
Citizens Bank Park
Most of the time, when you talk about a team’s home field advantage, it’s not as big an advantage as CBP has become for the Phils in the postseason. At 26-11, it is the best record of any team in their home ballpark with at least 20 games played. The Phils have also been outstanding in Game 1s, winning their last six dating back to last year.
The Diamondbacks have reportedly been pumping in crowd noise to try and get ready for the environs of the hellscape that is Citizens Bank Park in October, but there’s really no replicating it. It must be experienced first-hand. Arizona is very good in Chase Field, and yes, they have won all five of their postseason games thus far, the first four on the road, but Milwaukee and Los Angeles are not the same as Philly, no matter what anyone else will tell you.
Sure, Zac Gallen may be #FromHere, but he won’t be #OneOfUs tonight for Game 1.