- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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So, here we go again. The Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers will meet in the National League Championship Series, just like last season. The Dodgers again will be coming off a convincing sweep of the NL Central champs; last year, it was the Cubs, this year, the Cardinals. The Phillies again will be coming off a division series victory in four games; last year, it was the Brewers, this year, the Rockies. Last year, the Phillies beat the Dodgers in five games. This season, the Dodgers won four of seven games in their season series. It was a low-scoring series, with the losing team scoring three or fewer runs in each game. How will this one go? If you really think you know the answer to that question, after how this postseason has gone and with the remarkable way the Phillies won Game 4 at Coors Field, you're kidding yourself. Just when you think you understand this game, you don't.
Here are five questions:
1. How good is the Dodgers' bullpen?
It is very good and very deep. In 2009, it ranked first in the majors in ERA, batting average against and WHIP, plus second in wins. But it had 26 blown saves, tied with the Astros for most in the NL, and tied for second most in the big leagues behind the Mariners. The L.A. bullpen is loaded with arms, beginning with closer Jonathan Broxton, who throws in the upper 90s and was the hardest pitcher in the game to hit (average against was an MLB-low .165). George Sherrill gives the Dodgers a left-hander for the late innings, and left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo throws in the mid to upper 90s. The L.A. 'pen was terrific in the division series against the Cardinals, but one warning: The Dodgers' bullpen had a heavy workload this year. It had the fourth-most appearances, and third-most innings pitched, in the big leagues. In the past 20 years, the only team to advance to the World Series after being in the top 10 in bullpen innings was the 2007 Rockies.
2. Can any team stop the power, especially from the left side, of the Phillies?
These Phillies are the second team in major league history to have three left-handed batters with 30-plus home runs: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez (the other team was the 1929 Phillies). This is where Sherrill and Kuo will be so important in the late innings, and where Game 1 starter Randy Wolf, a former Phillie, will be so important for at least two starts. Wolf had, by far, the best OPS (.417) against left-handed batters in the major leagues this year (Oakland reliever Andrew Bailey was next at .470). Clayton Kershaw, who likely will start Game 2, had the third-best OPS against left-handers at .489. If the Dodgers can throw the left-handers in the first two games at big Dodger Stadium, then have more of the sinkerball types (led by Vicente Padilla) for smaller Citizens Bank Park, they might be able to handle the Phillies' lineup. Howard went 3-for-28 with 11 strikeouts against the Dodgers this year, and Utley and Jimmy Rollins hit under. 200. But when those three big left-handed hitters are swinging well, to go with Jayson Werth, no staff will be able to stop them.
3. How good is the Dodgers' bench?
It is very good and very deep. Teams with a good bullpen and a good bench always have a chance in the postseason, and few benches are more versatile and experienced than the Dodgers'. Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, Juan Pierre, Mark Loretta, Brad Ausmus and Juan Castro provide the Dodgers with everything they need off the bench: speed, power, defense and flexibility. Keeping 11 pitchers in the first round gave manager Joe Torre more options than Cardinals manager Tony La Russa did. It was Loretta's game-ending hit against the Cardinals in Game 2 that turned the division series.
4. What did we learn about the Phillies' pitching in the division series?
First, we know that Cliff Lee, who had never pitched in the postseason, certainly was ready, throwing extremely well in both his starts. But because he started Monday night, the earliest he could go is Game 2 in the NLCS, and that would be on short rest, as he did nearly without issue in Game 4 at Coors Field. That means Cole Hamels would start Game 1 against the Dodgers, as he did in the NLCS last year. Hamels gave up one earned run in 16 innings against the Dodgers. With Hamels, Lee, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ and Pedro Martinez, the Phillies have five starters for four spots. But Martinez hasn't pitched since Sept. 30 and has thrown only seven innings since Sept. 13. The bigger question, as always, is the Philly bullpen. Embattled Brad Lidge saved a 6-5 win in Game 3 with a scoreless ninth inning. In Game 4, after Scott Eyre faced the first four batters of the inning, Lidge came on to strike out Troy Tulowitzki with a nasty slider and end the game. But yet another warning about Lidge: In 3 2/3 innings against the Dodgers this year, he allowed eight hits and had a 7.36 ERA.
5. What benefit came from the suspension of Manny Ramirez?
Ramirez hit .355 the first half of the season, .255 the second half. With him not being Manny at the plate, and not carrying the team the second half of the season, or in the first round of the playoffs as he did last year, other Dodgers found their identities. It is still Manny's team offensively; he is still the key guy, their best hitter, and he did have three great swings in Game 3 against the Cardinals. But several Dodgers, including Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, were forced to take a bigger role offensively without Manny, or without Manny at his best. Ethier went 6-for-12 with five extra-base hits and two home runs in the division series. He hit four walk-off home runs this season (more than Manny or Ted Williams hit in their careers), and Kemp drove in 101 runs. Now, it seems, the Dodgers aren't waiting around for Manny to get a big hit. Now, others do.
PREDICTION: PHILLIES IN SEVEN
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg