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?

Game 3: The new Bobby Abreu

bobby_abreuDENVER — Go ahead and ask Todd Zolecki from MLB.com for the proof, but I totally called the Angels’ comeback over the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALDS at Fenway Park. Totally saw it coming.

Now I did not foresee the two-strike, two-out hit from Erick Aybar off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning, or the eight-pitch walk to Chone Figgins. However, I thought to myself if the Angels can get Bobby Abreu to the plate in the ninth, they will win the game.

Guess what happened.

Now this I did not predict to anyone but myself. No one wants to hear a crazy person say something so outlandish and ridiculous in their out-loud voice. But go ahead and ask Zolecki about the text he got from me during the seventh inning when the Red Sox led 5-1.

Me: Wanna bet the Angels win this…

Zolecki: Unbelievable.
Me: Told you.

Call it a pretty good postseason for a bunch of former Phillies. Abreu stands above the fray with his 3-for-5 outing in the clinching Game 3 and pair of clutch doubles in the eighth and ninth innings. In Game 2 Abreu went 2-for-4, which followed a Game 1 effort where he walked four times.

In other words, the old Bobby Abreu who used to work counts and force pitchers to throw something over the plate has surfaced in the playoffs. If there were an MVP of the ALDS, it probably would have gone to Abreu.

Remember that guy Philllies fans? No, he wasn’t very inspirational in the outfield, but as a hitter Abreu is so smart. More interestingly, Abreu is a different player for the Angels than he was with the Phillies and even the Yankees. During the series against the Red Sox cameras caught Abreu showing emotion and rooting his teammates on as they rallied in the ninth. In fact, reports from California say Abreu is the vocal team leader he was not in Philadelphia and did not have to be in New York.

When he was playing in Philly, Abreu famously pumped his fist when he homered in a lopsided defeat in Florida that put him in the 30-30 club for the first time.

Who knows if a new Bobby Abreu has emerged? After all, he went unsigned until spring training began and only got a one-year, $5 million deal from the Angels. Needless to say, Abreu wants to come back to the Angels for 2010 so perhaps the emotional, smart hitter bit is his angle to get that new contract he wants.

padillaEither way, Abreu has been a pretty decent $5 million pickup for the Angels. He has them four wins from the World Series where he very well could face two of his former teams.

Meanwhile, it was pretty interesting to see how far Vicente Padilla has come since the Rangers cut him loose in July. Even though the ex-Phillie pitched the Dodgers into the NLCS for the second straight season by shutting down the Cardinals for seven innings, he must have been just horrible to deal with in Texas.

Think about it—the Rangers were in great need for pitching at the deadline but because of their financial uncertainty they were unable to go out and make a deal. So it really says something that the Rangers would flat-out send Padilla packing knowing how badly they needed pitching.

Then again, that’s kind of the way it happened in Philadelphia, too.

So give the Dodgers credit for figuring out how to keep Padilla in line. And maybe Padilla ought to get some credit for noticing that he was about to get bounced out of baseball for good.

Then again, Padilla is looking to keep his contract, too. The Dodgers hold the club option on Padilla and if they don’t pick it up, the righty is off looking for a job again.

So if you’re counting, here are the former Phillies on the way to the League Championship Series:

Dodgers
Larry Bowa
Mariano Duncan
Jim Thome
Vicente Padilla
Randy Wolf

Angels
Bobby Abreu

Yankees
none

Oh no, Vinnie

From the “now you see why we traded him for nothing” file, we give you the latest from Vicente Padilla. This time, instead of an arrest for suspicion of DUI, Padilla decided that throwing fastballs at the Los Angeles Angels was a smart thing to do.

Here’s what happened according to ESPN’s Buster Olney:

On Tuesday night, Vicente Padilla stunk, and rather than just take some responsibility and do his job and try to make better pitches, Padilla started firing fastballs at the hitters. Then last night, with the Angels getting blown out, they felt the need to answer back, to retaliate, and that’s how Kennedy wound up going after Feldman with two outs in the ninth inning.

That’s what happened with Tino. In 1995, when he was with Seattle, and in 1998, when he was with the Yankees, Benitez made bad pitches, he got hit around and so he fired fastballs at Tino. To me, there’s nothing more gutless in the sport.

You’re mad because you’re giving up runs? Well then, make better pitches. Don’t take it out on the next hitter.

As the benches cleared in both instances when Tino got hit — during play, while the players were still grabbing and pushing — some of Benitez’s Orioles teammates were apologizing to their opponents for the actions of the pitcher. And I suspect that this took place last night, in some form or fashion. The Rangers are a good team that plays hard, and they probably were almost as angry at Padilla as the Angels were. (And remember, the White Sox have had their issues with Padilla, too.)

Padilla will likely be suspended, but until he is manager Buck Showalter gave him an earful, while Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News ripped into the former Phillie.

Padilla is slated to be a free agent at the end of this season, and it’s my guess that he won’t be pitching for the Rangers in 2007.

On the subject of Padilla, I’ll never forget the time last September when a uniformed member of the Phillies not-so subtly passed on information that it was highly unlikely that Padilla would return for 2006. The team had just grown tired of him.

I’ll also never forget when he came four outs away from tossing a no-hitter against the Diamondbacks or sitting in the dugout during a simulated game at the Vet a few days after Sept. 11 when hitters refused to go to the plate to face Padilla. His stuff was just too nasty.

I’ll also remember how Scott Rolen took a weird shine to the moody Nicaraguan. Rolen had taken to playfully teasing “Vinnie” on the field and in the clubhouse as a way of making the pitcher feel involved or part of the team… you know, one of the guys. The goofy part was that Rolen’s jibes were often lost in translation since Padilla never took much of an interest in speaking English in public or communicating to teammates. Rolen said: “He has no idea what I’m saying and I have no idea what the hell he’s saying. That’s the beauty of it.”

Padilla was also the last National League pitcher in the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee that ended in a tie.

Friday morning musings

Here’s one from a columnist named Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where he writes that it could be worse for the Cardinals and their fans during the current losing skid — they could be Phillies fans. Yeah, ouch.

Either way, Gordon doesn’t shed new light on anything. It’s included here because I thought it was interesting how the Phillies and their organization are viewed outside of the vortex of the Delaware Valley. Judging from the column, it’s safe to say that it’s not very different.

Meanwhile, the Phillies have won three games in a row, six of their last seven and eight of the last 10 games to climb out of oblivion to just 2 1/2 games off the pace in the wild-card race. That makes the Phillies and the Yankees the hottest teams in baseball.

And to think, all it took was a little trade for both teams.

Ex-Phillie watch
Vicente Padilla, who general manager Pat Gillick shipped to Texas for, well, nothing, during the off season, was picked up for a suspected DUI last night.

Soapbox time: As a father of a two-year-old boy and uncle to three kids all under the age of three, irresponsibility while driving is very troublesome — and this has nothing to do with Padilla because he hasn’t been indicted and is only a suspect. Nevertheless, it’s hard to have any sympathy for jackass drivers who could do damage to themselves or a child. I’ve lost one too many friends because of car accidents that could have been avoided.

Rant over.

Back to Padilla — now does everyone understand why the Phillies cast him out for nothing? Certainly, Padilla’s habits in Philadelphia were no secret and this doesn’t take into account his fitness, or lackthereof. In fact, a bunch of writers knew that the team was going to let him walk as early as last September when the Phillies were still in the wild-card race and Padilla was pitching quite well. But whether he pitched well or not, the enigmatic Nicaraguan just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Padilla definitely has a few demons brewing beneath the surface. After all, he was in the car during a car accident in his native Nicaragua where his best friend was killed a few years ago. Through it all, the Phillies always denied — at least officially — that Padilla had a problems. It always seemed as if the Phillies were more concerned about touting Padilla’s potential as a pitcher than anything else. Yes, he was very talented — actually, there was a time when hitters feared Padilla like no other pitcher. I still remember Padilla coming four outs away from a no-hitter in a game at the Vet against the Diamondbacks.

But Padilla, from a severely rural and poor upbringing in Nicaragua, never really knew how to fit in with his teammates on the Phillies or the media. He spoke English and could communicate with teammates, but often refused to do it. Sometimes it seemed as if he was from another planet.

Lets hope the Rangers are less worried about what Padilla can do on the mound and help him get himself together.

More Abreu trade fodder
In today’s edition of Baseball Prospectus, Jim Baker wrote a story about how Bobby Abreu and his penchant for drawing a walk per game makes the Yankees almost unbeatable. Almost.

Here’s a graf from the opus:

I’m not saying that Abreu in and of himself makes the Yankees unbeatable, but he assures them of having more of the type of individual games where the records show teams have a much easier time winning. Ideally, that is what all deadline deals should do for those in competition.

Abreu had another multi-hit game for the Yankees last night and the Bombers are undefeated since his arrival. Based on wins and losses it appears as if the trade worked out well for both clubs.

Reading:

  • Lidle’s First Win as Yankee Comes With a Sweet RewardThe New York Times
    Looks like the Yankees like ice cream, too.
  • Best Hitters Still Chasing Yankee ClipperThe New York Times
    Every one is taking notice of Chase Utley.
  • Abreu Is Just the Latest to Get in Line for a RingThe New York Times