After one of the all-time greatest days in regular season baseball, here we are, ready to embark upon the journey to the 2011 World Series. I’m not sure I’ve had enough time to catch my breath with there being so much to say about the Braves and Red Sox monumental collapse. I’ll say this: it felt great. Felt great to see the Phillies play till the final out of their 102-win season. Felt great to see the Orioles rally against Papelbon. Felt great to see the Rays come back from 7 runs, hanging by a thread with two outs and 2 strikes in the bottom of the 9th. And it felt great to finally put the regular season behind us.
Now the real show begins. I won’t go on about all the intriguing division series match-ups but I will say that Verlander vs. Sabathia will be an awesome game 1 duel, that the Rangers and Rays may have a bit of a rivalry going after facing each other in the playoffs last year (and CJ Wilson vs. James Shields looks nice as well), and the Diamondbacks actually stack up pretty well against the Brewers. I would take Ian Kennedy over Gallardo, and I’d say that Justin Upton can match the star power of either Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder, but not both. All will be good series, all are spread out across every corner of the country. It truly looks to be a great round of playoffs. But what I’m concerned about most, of course, is my beloved Phillies.
Going against the Cardinals, who scored the most runs in the NL this year, will be no easy task. They are a veteran ball club with playoff experience on their side and a wise old manager who really knows the game. They’ve got Albert Pujols, the best player of our generation, so there’s that. He could get his Cody Ross on at any moment and could really cause some damage if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, you can’t just pitch around him with the reemergence of Lance Berkman this year, and a potential return from injury by Matt Holliday. Besides those three, I’m not too scared. The team possess basically no speed, with utility player Tyler Greene the only guy on the team with double digit steals (he has 11 on the year). Yadier Molina has had a nice year, and has a strong arm for throwing out baserunners, but he doesn’t scare me as the team’s fourth most dangerous hitter. The goal of the Phillies pitchers should be to avoid letting guys get on base when Berkman, Holliday, and Pujols are coming up. If there are runners on, we’ve got to pitch around those guys, because all it takes is a double or a home run, and a two or three run lead in the playoffs can be mighty tough to overcome.
Offensively, the Phils lineup has never looked better. They look better than 2008 when they won the World Series, they look better then 2009 and last year as well. They are more stacked up and down the lineup, even without Jayson Werth, for two reasons:
1. We got Hunter Pence
2. The emergence of Shane Victorino
The lineup I’m digging the most right now, and the one Charlie Manuel has been favoring as the playoffs approach, looks like this:
1. Jimmy Rollins (lead-off man extraordinaire, that’s where he belongs, and he’s been known to come through in the playoffs)
2. Chase Utley (good contact hitter with pop, speed, and good instincts, fits in nicely at the two spot)
3. Hunter Pence (he’s been batting over .300 all year and will be excited to get on base for Howard during his first career playoffs)
4. Ryan Howard (clean-up hitter, this is his spot, always has been, always will be)
5. Shane Victorino (after a fantastic all around season, he’s shown he can protect Howard in the five spot, essentially replacing Werth)
6. Raul Ibanez (managed 20 HRs and 80+ RBIs this year, adequate pop towards the back of the lineup)
7. Placido Polanco (seems like a demotion to move from #2 to #7 but Polanco is a stand-up professional who gets base hits)
8. Carlos Ruiz (putting one of your most clutch playoff hitters after one of your best contact hitters is pure genius)
9. Halladay/Lee/Hamels (all have been above average at hitting this year, they will motivate each other to help turn the lineup over)
Victorino and Pence and Utley can be shuffled about depending on how they are performing as the playoffs go on. You really can’t go wrong with this line-up. I am in love with it.
Now, as much as everyone really wants to read the ole’ position by position breakdown that I sort of just did, let me make one thing clear: the intangibles will make or break this postseason for the Phillies. Unlike the NBA Playoffs, for example, the best team in baseball does not always advance. Especially in a five game series. You’ve got to come out hot to have a chance. You’ve got to have confidence and chemistry and above all else, a burning desire to do whatever it takes to win. The one thing that makes me believe the Phillies could legitimately sweep this entire postseason (if not, at least, simply just win the World Series) is that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and to a slightly lesser extent, Cole Hamels want that Championship more than anyone’s ever wanted anything in their life. Namely, Halladay and Lee are two of the most focused and determined athletes I’ve ever seen play any sport in my lifetime. Plus, they’ve been both been to the playoffs with the Phillies before and both have come up short–they know how it feels, and they don’t like feeling that way one bit. I expect nothing but the absolute best from them every time they pitch. Hamels, too, is craving to prove that he can rekindle his 2008 postseason glory. He’ll have a chance to play early hero in a Game 3 match-up against Chris Carpenter.
The second intangible I think will be Hunter Pence playing the role of playoff rookie. He is an unknown factor–unpredictable, yet very dangerous. The only thing we know we’ll get from Pence for sure is maximum 100% effort. His energy will be a boost.
The third intangible I think will be the historic dominance hovering over this team, having owned the rest of the league all year long. How do they manage to forget all that they’ve done, while maintaining a sense of superiority and confidence that helps you relax and play your game? That’s up to Charlie, and I have faith he can lead them.
The fourth and final intangible, as I’ve mentioned before, is chemistry. Reuben Amaro has been working tirelessly on this roster to build chemistry–guys that fit well together, have each other’s back–good guys who you love playing with and rooting for. One thing I really appreciate is when a non-Philadelphian says they like the Phillies or are rooting for them or at least respect them. You look at their roster and realize they are truly a great group of guys, devoid of egos and arrogance. Can you name one guy on this team who isn’t a stand up guy? Some people don’t like Jimmy Rollins for his occasional, flamboyant cockiness. But he gives the team a little spark, a little pizazz that is invigorating. What about Ryan Madson? Sure he has a mean face, and he looks like a jerk sometimes milling about in the bullpen, but I’ve never seen anything to suggest he’s not a decent guy. Everyone else on that roster is extremely likeable. No douchebaggery, just love–for the game, for each other, and for the fans. This is why Charlie Manual is the perfect leader for this team. And it’s also why I think the Phillies will win it this year. The Red Sox won in 2004 and then again, three years later, in 2007. The Phillies won in 2008, and now three years later, I just have a feeling that it will all come together. The players and fans deserve it for all that they’ve given each other, now let’s make it happen.