The NLCS: Pre-game 3 notes and whatnot

cliff_leeSo how is this for the weather sampler: last week at this time we were watching the coldest playoff baseball in history in snowy and chilly Denver, only to be watching a workout in Los Angeles two days later as temperatures pushed into the 90s.

Now we’re back in Philadelphia where it actually feels colder than it did in Denver simply because we were teased with that dry, hot Southern California air. Plus, it feels windier here in Philly because the put the ballpark down in an area devoid of buildings or large structures and near a geographical anomaly where two major rivers converge.

Yep, it’s chilly.

For Cliff Lee, it will be two straight chilly nights on the mound. Certainly it wouldn’t seem ideal for a guy from Arkansas, but according to Southern California guy Randy Wolf, a pitcher who actually likes to pitch in the chilly weather, the pitcher is always the warmest guy on the field.

“I’ve always had a tough time pitching in Atlanta and Florida and I sometimes I turn about three shades pink and I overheat,” Wolf said. “In the cold I feel more alert, I feel like my energy level is always there and the fact that you can blow on your hands when you’re on the mound in cold weather, your hands are only affected. As a pitcher you’re the only guy that’s moving on every pitch. The pitcher has probably the easiest job of keeping warm.”

Here are your pre-game factoids and whatnot:

• Sunday night’s game is the 21st time a NLCS has been tied at 1-1. Of the previous 20 Game 3s played in a 1-1 series, the home team won 13 of them. More notably, the winner of Game 3 in those instances went on to win the series 12 times.
• The Phillies are 2-5 in Game 3 of the NLCS. Both of the Phillies’ wins in Game 3s are against the Dodgers (1978 and 1983).
• Coming into Sunday night’s game, the Phillies are 6-for-60 against Dodgers’ starter Hiroki Kuroda. That does not include Game 3 of the 2008 NLCS where Kuroda gave up five hits in six innings of a 7-2 victory. Counting that, the Phillies are 11-for-83 (.133).
• Finally, Ryan Howard can break the all-time single season record for playoff games with an RBI on Sunday night. He is currently tied with Carlton Fisk with six straight games in the playoffs with an RBI, which Fisk did during the 1975 World Series. The amount of RBIs Fisk had in those six games? Try six.

The all-time record for consecutive games with an RBI in the playoffs is eight by Lou Gehrig in the 1928 and 1932 World Series.

The NLCS: Phillies in five

dodgersLOS ANGELES — Let’s just put it out there on the line—Dodger Stadium is my favorite ballpark. It isn’t so much about the actual facility as it is what it represents. Of course the reality of how Dodger Stadium was built compared to its ideals of manifest destiny and a veritable garden party don’t exactly mesh, but still… the views!

That’s the part that’s amazing—sitting in the actual ballpark one can see palm trees and flowers with the picturesque San Gabriels looming just beyond the pavilion. Yet when one goes to the very top of the park to exit and looks out at the skyline of Los Angeles with its hulking post-modernist buildings and the Hollywood sign off to the right it’s hard not to think of the opening scene from “Blade Runner.”

Dodger Stadium is the second oldest ballpark in the National League, but it represents the future. It always has.

So we’ll go to Dodger Stadium on Thursday afternoon for the first game of the 2009 NLCS. There’s a pretty good chance that we’ll be back later next week, too, in order to figure out which team will go to the World Series.

If the Phillies won the National League at Dodger Stadium last year, why can’t they do it again?

Well, they can do it again. After all, in Game 1, Cole Hamels will face 21-year old Clayton Kershaw in a battle of young lefties. The interesting caveat in this matchup is Kershaw is 0-3 with a 6.64 ERA in four starts against the Phillies. Plus, three years ago he was still in high school. Of the teams that he has faced at least twice in his short career, Kershaw is the worst against the Phillies.

Moreover, the Dodgers will send ex-Phillie Vicente Padilla to the mound in Game 2. The Phillies know him well and understand that he is full of weaknesses and can easily be intimidated. As Jimmy Rollins said during Wednesday’s workout:

“When he’s good, he’s really good. If not, he’s way off.”

Take away his win against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS and Padilla hasn’t pitched seven innings since the middle of July. Besides, that Game 3 was Padilla’s first appearance ever in the playoffs so who’s to know if he can keep his focus long enough to be known a s a big-game pitcher.

Hiroki Kuroda is known to the Phillies and not in a good way. Sure, everyone remembers that incident with Shane Victorino during last year’s NLCS, but more telling is that the Phils are 6-for-60 in three games against the Japanese righty.

Then there is Randy Wolf, the ex-Phillie who pitched the first-ever game at Citizens Bank Park. Pitching for other teams at the Bank, Wolf is much better than he was as a Phillie. However, Wolf’s playoff debut wasn’t too good and he was pushed out of a Game 1 start to go in Game 4.

So it will come down to the bullpens. If the Phillies can get a lead and hold it, they will return to the World Series. But if they let Kershaw, Padilla, Kuroda and Wolf hang around, it could prove to be a tough road for the Phillies.

I’m not sure that will happen. That’s why I’m going with the Phillies in five games. Yeah, that goes against the conventional wisdom, but these aren’t the Phillies of yore. These guys know how to win and so they won’t have to return to Southern California until the end of October when they face the Angels in the World Series.

Yeah, that’s it—Phillies vs. Angels in the Fall Classic.

Can the Phillies repeat? It’s tough, says Dodgers manager Joe Torre who was guided the last team to do it in 1998-2000 with the Yankees.

“Well, first off, you’ve got a bulls-eye on your back,” Torre said. “That’s one. Everyone seems to put on their Sunday best to play you. You always get the best pitchers matching up. And then if you have a young pitcher that nobody knows, it seems to be a challenge to that young man to show what they can do against the world champs or those teams.

“So, I think when you repeat, you basically have to go through a tougher season to get there. And the Phillies, they’ve experienced those ups and downs. They go through and have a good streak, and I think they went down to Houston and got swept. But the thing about it, when you have a ball club that has been as consistent, knowing they’re good, they rebound from things like that. I think that’s the main thing about Philadelphia is how resilient they’ve been. Early in the year this year they didn’t win any games at home. It didn’t seem to bother them. They just kept plugging away. I think that’s why they’re so good. Not to mention the talent they have. When you look down that lineup, a couple of switch hitters at the top and then a couple of left-handers and then (Jayson) Werth who’s that blue-collar guy, you may compare him a little bit to Casey Blake type of individual, they’re going to fight you every step of the way. They’re a ballclub that has a purpose—they have a purpose out there, and we certainly are aware of it.”

Let’s pause for a second and think about the notion of Charlie Manuel becoming the first manager to repeat as World Champion since Joe Torre and the first National Leaguer to do it since Sparky Anderson and the Big Red Machine of 1975 and 1976…

Yeah, Charlie Manuel.

“You like to be able to look over your shoulder and know that your manager believes in you. He’s there for you,” ex-Phillies and now Dodgers pinch hitter Jim Thome said. “Charlie does that. He keeps it relaxed so all you have to do is go out and play. You can’t explain how important that is.”

It starts on Thursday afternoon from here in California.

Is everyone ready?

Pregame: Tonight is the night

LOS ANGELES – The consensus around here with the media types is that tonight’s Game 5 is bigger than most people believe. It’s big, sure… it is, after all, the NLCS. But aside from the obvious, Game 5 will decide which team goes to the World Series.

Yeah, that’s right … the winner of tonight’s game will go to the World Series.

Obviously, if the Phillies win it’s all over, and in that regard things look pretty good for them. Cole Hamels, the team’s best pitcher, has been close to Koufax-esque during the playoffs. Since the Dodgers countering with Chad Billingsley, a pitcher who struck out four of the first six hitters he faced during Game 2, but then retired just four more hitters for the rest of the game, it appears to be a matchup that favors the Phils. Billingsley damn-near melted down in Game 2 and then he and his teammates began chirping at each other.

But if the Phillies don’t get it done tonight at Chavez Ravine, it gets tougher back in Philadelphia beginning on Friday night. For one, Hiroki Kuroda, the lights out pitcher that has baffled the Phillies in three starts this year, will pitch against Brett Myers. The Phillies’ pitcher wasn’t so sharp despite winning Game 2, and has a gimpy ankle to go along with it.

If there is a need for Game 7 on Saturday, Derek Lowe will make his third start of the series against a Phillies pitcher to be determined. Typically, Saturday will be Jamie Moyer’s turn in the rotation, however, the veteran lefty has lasted just 5 1/3 innings in two starts in the playoffs for an ERA of 13.50.

So there it is – tonight is the night. The Phillies definitely do not want to return to Philadelphia this weekend without the Warren Giles Trophy. Otherwise, it might just slip out of their hands.

Here are tonight’s lineups:

Phillies
11 – Jimmy Rollins, ss
28 – Jayson Werth, rf
26 – Chase Utley, 2b
6 – Ryan Howard, 1b
5 – Pat Burrell, lf
8 – Shane Victorino, cf
7 – Pedro Feliz, 3b
51 – Carlos Ruiz, c
35 – Cole Hamels, p

Dodgers
15 – Rafael Furcal, ss
16 – Andre Ethier, rf
99 – Manny Ramirez, lf
55 – Russell Martin, c
7 – James Loney, 1b
30 – Casey Blake, 3b
27 – Matt Kemp, cf
33 – Blake DeWitt, 2b
58 – Chad Billingsley, p

Fifth and sixth innings: Lots of zeroes in the offense

LOS ANGELES – Having some trouble with the wireless connection again out here, which is kind of a pain, but oh well.

My trouble getting online is nothing like the Phillies’ problems in attempting to figure out Hiroki Kuroda. In two previous outings against the Phillies, the 33-year-old rookie from Japan pitched a pair of two-hitters. So far tonight in Game 3, Kuroda is again pitching a two-hitter.

After Pedro Feliz’s two-out RBI single in the second inning, Kuroda has retired 10 in a row with three strikeouts.

I wish there were something more to add, but the Phillies just can’t figure out Kuroda. Forget the third time being the charm… unless the Phillies stage some sort of wild rally, the Dodgers look like they’re going to get back in the series.

Meanwhile, the fans here at Dodger Stadium are having a good time doing the wave and batting around beach balls. Sometimes they even watch the game. That’s where they’d see everything going the Dodgers’ way.

During the sixth, Kuroda sat the Phillies down in order again to push his string to 13 straight retired hitters.

Between the top and bottom of the sixth, they showed a montage of Fernando Valenzuela highlights. The fans went nuts. On another note, I saw Fernando in the press box before the game, but he didn’t seem to remember our conversation from the other day.

Helluva of pitcher though.

Scott Eyre came on in the sixth for Happ. Who knows… maybe Happ will start the next time Moyer’s spot in the rotation comes around.

End of 6: Dodgers 7, Phillies 1

Fishing for a Carp?

Hiroshima CarpCome on… did anyone really think the Phillies were going to sign Curt Schilling? For that matter, did anyone really believe that Schilling wanted to sign with the Phillies?

Or the Brewers?

Or the Diamondbacks?

Or the Tigers?

Or the Astros?

Or the Mets?

Or any other team he listed on his 38pitches.com site?

Nope, me either.

For the Phillies, Schilling was that girl that was way out of everyone’s league, but taunted everyone by thinking she was cool and down to earth. Ha! No one ever had a chance.

So what do the Phillies do now that their top choice to fill out the rotation has decided to remain in Boston? Who else is out there on the free-agent market? What about Tom Glavine? He really helped the Phillies’ playoff chances with his pitching down the stretch – could he do it in 2008, too?

Doubtful. Besides, the Phillies already have an over-40, soft-tossing lefty. Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva are two pitchers on the free-agent market that could fill the starting-pitching void, though the Phillies would likely have to commit a lot of money and years to either man. Meanwhile, the White Sox Jon Garland and the Marlins’ Dontrelle Willis could be available in a trade, but then that opens up more issues if the Phillies want to keep those guys beyond 2008.

Where does that leave the Phillies? If they can’t make a trade or add a dependable pitcher via the free-agent market, where do they look?

Japan?

Yeah, why not.

When it comes to spotting trends and entering the modern age, the Phillies have always been slow. They were the last National League team to integrate its roster; they were slow to enter the market to sign Latino ballplayers (though the Venezuelan baseball academy got good reviews); and until Tadahito Iguchi joined the team last August, the Phillies had never had a Japanese player. Maybe that’s where they should look now.

Needless to say, I haven’t been keeping with the action in the Pacific or Central League in Japan, but every season there are plenty of players from those leagues ready to make the jump to the Majors. This season the top starting pitcher appears to be a fellow named Hiroki Kuroda, who is a right-handed veteran with 11 seasons under his belt with the Hiroshima Carp[1]. Though Kuroda will be 33 in February, he is coming off his best three seasons for the Carp and, better yet, won’t require a posting fee in order for a Major League team to negotiate with him.

According to reports, the Phillies, Royals, Dodgers and the Mariners are a few of the teams interested in Kuroda. However, Seattle might have the upper hand since the pitcher’s agent lives there.

Perhaps the Phillies will take a shot. If not, there’s always David Wells.


[1] See, even the names for the Japanese teams are better than ours.