The best lineup in the National League squares up against the best pitching staff in the National League for the right to go to the World Series. The series starts tonight at 8:07 Eastern Time, 5:07 Pacific Time. It will be Cole Hamels versus Clayton Kershaw. The Phillies are the reigning champions and the Dodgers are led by Joe Torre, who has won more championships than anyone in the last thirteen years. On the surface of things, this should be an intriguing and see-saw series. Let's break it down a bit.
The Dodgers open the series with Clayton Kershaw. The kid is 21 years old. Can you remember the last time a kid that age was the opening pitcher of a series like this one? The Fan can. His name was Dwight Gooden on the 1986 Mets. That team went on to win the World Series. But Dwight Gooden already had 58 wins in his career, which is incredible when you think about it. Gooden was a strikeout pitcher who walked very few batters. Kershaw is a strikeout pitcher who walks a lot of batters. Gooden and Kershaw's ERAs at the age of 21 are strikingly similar however and there is one big benefit Kershaw has: He pitches left-handed.
The Phillies big hitters are pretty much all lefties. Howard, Victorino, Utley and Ubanez, but before you get excited about that, note that the Phillies had a slightly higher OPS against lefties than they did against righties. But those Phillies strike out a lot, which plays right into Kershaw's hand if he can throw strikes early in the count. Howard, Ibanez, Werth and Utley struck out 571 times this season. That's a lot of strikeouts.
Add all that up and throw Cole Hamel into the mix, who was so good in last season's post season, and you have a first game that seems to be a wash. If Kershaw is on top of his game, the Dodgers could win easily, especially if they get to Hamel. If Kershaw is shaky in the strike zone, it could go the Phillies' way.
The second game would pit Chad Billingsley against Cliff Lee. Lee is a difficult guy to predict. He can be absolutely brilliant and at times he can be killed. Fortunately for the Phillies, the former has happened a lot more than the latter. But the possibility is still out there, especially if you can get to Lee early. If he gets in a groove, you're pretty much done.
Billingsley is one of the most talented pitchers on the planet. He didn't pitch like that much during the home stretch. And Torre hasn't announced his rotation yet for the post season. Billingsley didn't start against the Cardinals when Torre went with Wolf, Kershaw and Padilla. But any of those four match up well with Lee in this Fan's opinion. The Fan would go with Billingsley on talent alone, but Torre likes to go with the hot hand, so we'll see.
But then you get to Game 3 and there are no pitchers among Pedro, Blanton, et al, that would seem to match up with whoever is left of Padilla, Wolf and Billingsley. It would seem that the Phillies best hope would be to steal the first two games, which doesn't seem possible. If the Dodgers seemed to have no trouble with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamel and Cliff Lee don't appear to be close to those two Cardinal pitchers.
It will be interesting, but this series seems to favor the Dodgers. Unlike last year, they have home field advantage. Unlike last year, they have a top notch bullpen. Their core young players have a year more experience. They are the better fielding team. They have Sherrill this year who can shut down the big lefties in the ninth if Torre wants to go that route.
The Fan just doesn't see the Phillies repeating. But the old cliche still stands: That's why they play the games.