Plucky underdog stories are so last year.
There are no Tampa Bays among baseball's final four this year. All the participants in the 2009 League Championship Series are solid members of the $100 million club, proud possessors of nine-figure payrolls. Such expenditures don't guarantee success - ask a Mets fan, if you can find one - but failing to make them helps you get an early start on your autumn vacation.
Big markets don't always add up to big ratings, but this year's foursome offers something for every fan's taste: a defending champion with a patched-up rotation and an arsonist for a closer; two Southern California squads with balanced offenses, pitching staffs bolstered by late-season acquisitions, and likable Italian-American managers; and one 500-pound gorilla that spent lavishly and well, adding two top starters and two power bats to a star-drenched squad.
The Phillies-Dodgers series is a repeat of the 2008 NLCS, won by Philadelphia in five games. Cole Hamels shut the Dodgers down in games one and five, and the deep bullpen allowed three runs in eighteen and two-thirds innings. Hamels will start the opener, but it's been a different Cole Hamels this year, hampered by a variety of sprains and tweaks. Cliff Lee has been the surrogate ace since arriving from Cleveland just before the trade deadline; J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, and Pedro Martinez give the Phillies more starters than they'll need (though Pedro has thrown just seven innings since an ill-considered 130-pitch outing against the Mets a month ago).
The Phillies' question mark all season has been closer Brad Lidge. His perfect '08 (48-for-48 in save opportunities including the postseason) gave way to an excruciating '09. He blew eleven saves in forty-two attempts; his ERA inflated from 1.95 to 7.21, batters hit eleven home runs against him (versus two in 2008); his hits per inning ratio increased by sixty-nine percent, while his strikeouts per inning fell by twenty-one percent. He earned two saves in the division series against Colorado, allowing no hits or runs (though two walks) to the six hitters he faced. Charlie Manuel's faith in him is touching, but there is no way to know which Lidge will come out of the pen on any given night.
Offense is less of a problem. Philadelphia was the only NL team to score more than five runs per game, and it was no Citizens Bank Park illusion: they scored more runs on the road than they did at home. The lineup tilts heavily leftward, with three of their four 30-home run hitters swinging from that side (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Raul Ibanez; Jayson Werth was the fourth). Switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino provide some balance, while causing problems for platoon-obsessed bullpens. And for a team with so much power (their 224 homers easily led the league), they also run effectively -- 119 steals with a .810 success rate, led by Utley (23/23), Rollins (31/39), Victorino (25/33), Werth (20/23), even Howard (8/9).
The Dodgers' hopes may rest on Clayton Kershaw's 21-year-old arm. Kershaw allowed the fewest hits per nine innings in the majors this year; only four active pitchers have posted a season total lower than his 6.263 (Pedro Martinez twice, Johan Santana, Randy Johnson, and Chris Young). Lefties batted .173 against him, with one home run in 154 plate appearances; righties batted just .208, but with a much higher walk rate. Kershaw gets to open the series in Dodger Stadium, where he had a 1.83 ERA in sixteen starts. He is, however, 0-3 with a 6.64 ERA in four starts against Philadelphia. (Hamels, his game one opponent, is 4-0, 1.64 against the Dodgers.)
Vicente Padilla, Hiroki Kuroda, and Randy Wolf are expected to round out the rotation. Padilla threw seven shutout innings against St. Louis in the division series, but these three will mostly be counted on to keep the game close until the bullpen can take over. The Dodgers' relief pitchers led the major leagues in ERA, batting average against, and WHIP, and this strength of the team grew even more effective after the trade for lefty George Sherrill, who allowed just two earned runs in thirty games for L.A. Supersized closer Jonathan Broxton struck out 13.5 batters per nine innings, holding them to a.165 average, the lowest in the majors. Joe Torre loves to use relievers in roles defined by innings, and the Sherrill/Broxton combo gives him his best end-of-game pair since Rivera and Wetteland.
The Dodgers ranked fourth in the NL in scoring, impressive for a team playing in Dodger Stadium, especially impressive for a team playing fifty games without Manny Ramirez. In Manny's absence, the club held its own: it played .580 ball without him, .589 before and after his suspension, despite a decrease in runs per game from 5 to 4.4 while he was out. Andre Ethier helped fill the power void, hitting a career-high 31 home runs; Matt Kemp had an impressive season for a 24-year-old in a pitcher's park; and the rest of the lineup (Russell Martin, James Loney, Orlando Hudson/Ronnie Belliard, Rafael Furcal, and Casey Blake) contributed without a true weak spot. Los Angeles had the best record in the league throughout the season, only a late slump keeping them under 100 wins.
While Manny struggled - for him - after returning to the lineup (a .269 batting average and sub-.900 OPS in 77 games), he's proven impervious to postseason pressure throughout his career, and should help the Dodgers hold the Phillies' offense to a standoff. The biggest edge held by either side is the Dodgers' bullpen; if you're going to beat them, you'd better do it early.
Dodgers in six.