It'll be a phantastic phinish for Phillies
Philly headed for its third straight World Series and second title in past three years
Judging by my e-mail, there don't appear to be many readers out there who have me confused with The Amazing Kreskin.
Judging by my e-mail, you'd think the odds that I could accurately predict the winner of this year's World Series were right up there with the odds that, say, North Carolina A&T will win the Fiesta Bowl.
So as I prepare to explain my reasons for picking the Philadelphia Phillies to win the 2010 World Series, let me mention something:
I've been writing this column every October for the past decade. And it's true that I'm not exactly 10-for-10. But I've learned from my mistakes. And by that I mean: I'll never pick the Chicago Cubs again. Ever. For the rest of my lifetime. At least.
However, to find the last time I was actually correct about this pick, you'd have to turn the clock way, way back to let's see now oh, yeah to last year.
Yes, you could look this up. I picked the Yankees to win it all just 12 months ago. So it has happened. Which means it could happen again.
Which means it's safe to go on with the rest of this column.
I'm well aware that, like the Yankees last year, the Phillies have turned into this year's fashionable pick. But first off, I'm not real into fashion. My wife could testify to that. And second, for those of us who have to prognosticate this time of year, that's actually a compelling reason to pick somebody else. Still, it wasn't compelling enough for this prognosticator. Not this year.
I guess I need to issue some kind of formal statement here that I'm not making this pick because, as millions of you will be thrilled to point out, I come from Philadelphia. I'm making this pick the same way I've always done it -- after polling people all over baseball, studying matchups, crunching numbers, analyzing whatever seemed relevant. And every one of those indicators points in the Phillies' direction.
I admit I thought about all the abuse I could spare myself if I anointed a team other than the Phillies as your surefire, take-it-to-Vegas 2010 champ. But when I even suggested I might pick somebody else, the reaction I got from other people in baseball could be summed up in three words: Are you nuts?
Listen to the reaction I got from one scout who followed the Phillies around for a while in case his team wound up playing them in the postseason:
"The gist of my report was: 'Good luck, boys,'" he said.
Now listen to an NL executive whose team has seen plenty of the Phillies:
"The only team that can beat the Phillies," he said, "is the Phillies."
And you know what? He might be right. Since the day Roy Oswalt showed up in this team's clubhouse, the Phillies have been the best team in baseball, by any standard:
• They're 41-19 since then. Only one other team in either league -- Minnesota (38-22) -- is within seven wins of them.
• They played 10 series and 29 games in that span against teams that were .500 or better at the time. They won all 10 series and went 24-5.
• They lost their first two road games after Oswalt arrived -- then went 21-5 on the road the rest of the way, winning nine straight series.
• Their team ERA, post-Oswalt, was a spectacular 3.23. That's seven-tenths of a run lower than it was before Oswalt checked in, and is the second-best in baseball, only microscopically higher than the Giants' (3.21), since then. And Oswalt, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels were a combined 21-7, 2.33. Scary.
• Finally, no other team in either league had a better record against the other teams in the postseason field. The Phillies went 21-15 against the Braves, Reds, Giants, Yankees and Twins this year. The only other club that was more than one game above .500 against fellow playoff teams was Tampa Bay (20-15).
So this is a team built for October, eminently familiar with October and rolling as it approaches October. And remember how the October schedule played right into the Yankees' strengths last year? Well, the postseason format this year couldn't fit this Phillies team better if Charlie Manuel had designed it himself.
The Phillies earned the right to pick the division series with the extra off day. So they head into this scrum knowing they should be able to start Halladay, Oswalt or Hamels in 17 of a possible 19 postseason games. And that's not a promising development for the rest of the sport.
Oswalt lost his Phillies debut hours after hopping off the plane from Houston. But from that game on, through the day the Phillies clinched, he, Halladay and Hamels made 32 starts. The Phillies had a .781 winning percentage (25-7) in those starts.
Let's put that into perspective without the decimal points: A team that won at that rate over a 162-game season would finish 92 games over .500 (127-35). And remember, the Phillies figure to start that big three in all but two games in the entire postseason.
"You know, I got to play with [Oswalt] in Houston when we had Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, too," Phillies closer Brad Lidge said. "And at that point, that was the best three-man rotation I'd ever seen. But right now, to take nothing away from those other two guys, we've got three guys in their prime that are about as good as anybody I've seen."
PHILLING THE TOP SPOT
The records of this year's eight playoff teams since July 30 -- the day the Phillies acquired Roy Oswalt.
How good are they? Halladay looks as if he's going to win the Cy Young. Oswalt has the lowest ERA in the National League (1.41) since Aug. 1. And Hamels has the second-best ERA of any left-hander in baseball since the start of July (2.28). So if you had to pick which one to face, you'd pick None of the Above.
"What I like best about those three is the diversity," one scout said. "You've got Hamels, with the great changeup. You've got Oswalt, with that power mindset. And you've got Halladay going sinker-slider-changeup. It gives you three different looks, which can really screw up hitters big-time."
It's tough to remember any team in recent memory that charged into the Octoberfest with three aces who were all this hot at the same time. But around those three, you find a team full of players who seem to feed off the madness of October.
Then again, that doesn't mean this team is unbeatable in October, either. Far from it. So let's examine
Where it could all go wrong
The lineup: We tend to think of this group as the best lineup in the National League, possibly because every Phillies regular except one is a former All-Star. And the only one who isn't a former All-Star, catcher Carlos Ruiz, happens to be the guy who led the team in hitting (.302) and on-base percentage (.400).
But the reputation of this offense has far exceeded how it has performed in real life. Of the eight playoff teams, the Phillies ranked sixth in runs scored and seventh in on-base percentage. And they were held to one run or none 34 times this year. That's more than the Pirates, believe it or not, and the fourth-most in baseball.
"That lineup can be pitched to," one NL scout said. "They're a fastball-hitting club and a mistake-hitting club. So the key is, you've got to pitch them hard inside so you can create holes away with softer stuff. If you're going to get beat, you've got to get beat on the hands so they hook those balls foul. If you can execute hard and inside, so they know you're coming in, you can open up that off-speed stuff away and get them to chase it."
With left-handers: The numbers say the Phillies handle left-handers better than most of the planet thinks. In fact, they actually had better numbers against left-handers (.269 batting average/.339 on-base percentage/.439 slugging percentage) than right-handers (.256/.329/.407) this year.
But the counterargument can be summed up this way: Damaso Marte. Anybody remember last year's World Series, when the Yankees hauled Marte out of their bullpen in four of six games to face Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and/or Raul Ibanez? Those three went 0-for-7 against him with four whiffs.
So a big part of the scouting report for how to beat the Phillies in October remains: Load up on left-handers in the bullpen. And the Reds will have four of them out there in the LDS, with a heavy dose of Aroldis Chapman in the forecast.
"If Chapman turns into what Francisco Rodriguez was in 2002, that's an issue for the Phillies -- if he gets hot and dominates their left-handed hitters," another scout said. "And those Phillies left-handers will chase sliders when they get down in the count. So they're going to have to show tremendous patience."
The bullpen: This is another area where the perception of the Phillies doesn't match the numbers. Statistically, this bullpen had the second-best ERA (3.39) of the eight playoff teams. And the late-inning tag team of Ryan Madson (1.04 ERA since July 31) and Brad Lidge (0.73 since Aug. 1) has been 2008-esque for two months.
"But you can get to the guys in front of them," one scout said. "[J.C.] Romero and [Jose] Contreras are sketchy. Romero seems like he's afraid of left-handers sometimes because he walks so many of them. And Contreras has closer stuff, but his command comes and goes. And if it goes, that's a problem."
Here, though, is the bigger problem: Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt have pitched into the seventh inning or later in 30 of their past 34 starts. And if you don't count abbreviated pre-playoff tuneups by Hamels and Oswalt last week, it's really 30 of their past 32. So the lineups facing them had better do some massive count-working, or they'll never see the shaky part of that bullpen.
History lessons: You'd think it would be a good thing to be both the best team in baseball and the hottest team in baseball. You might want to think again.
Crazy stuff happens in October. Always. And all it takes is one funky hop of the baseball and any team's world can change reallll fast.
So before the Phillies fire around any confetti to celebrate that they had the best record in the sport for the first time in the 124-year history of the franchise, they should remember this:
Since the postseason expanded into a three-round, four-week marathon 15 years ago, the team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series only three times -- in 1998 (Yankees), 2007 (Red Sox) and 2009 (Yankees).
And you know that 41-19 post-Oswalt-acquisition roll the Phillies are on heading into this tournament? Means absolutely zilcho. In the division-play era, 26 other teams have roared into the postseason by winning at least 41 of their last 60 games, too. Nearly twice as many (13) lost in the first round as won the World Series (seven).
The field: Danger lurks at every postseason turn. So you never know. The Reds beat Oswalt twice this year; got 18 hits off Halladay in two games; and batted .317, with a 1.214 OPS, off Lidge. Then again, they're also 2-10 in Philadelphia in the past three years and got swept there in a four-game series this year.
THREE'S A CHARM
How the Phillies' top three starters have fared since July 30.
|* -- Includes losses in two abbreviated starts last week after the Phillies clinched the National League East|
But if the Phillies survive the first round, the Giants are still the Team Nobody Wants to Face. The Giants' big three (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez) were just as omnipotent from Sept. 1 on (12-3, 2.13) as the Phillies' big three (13-1, 2.16). The Giants' bullpen has an insane 0.90 ERA since the beginning of September. And Brian Wilson "might be the best closer in the big leagues right now," one scout said.
The Giants also outhomered the Phillies (80-75) in the second half. And AT&T Park neutralizes the Phillies' biggest offensive strength -- left-handed power. So it wouldn't, or shouldn't, shock anyone if the Giants "upset" the Phillies.
"They're the only team in our league that has the pitching to shut the Phillies down," one NL GM said. "But I'm not sure they can score themselves against Philly."
If the Phillies survive that minefield and become the fourth NL team in history to reach three straight World Series, I found zero consensus on which AL team they would find waiting for them. All four teams got votes. And there was practically an even split between the Rays and Yankees as the most likely AL survivor.
The Rays would love a rematch of 2008, minus the monsoon. And they definitely would test the Phillies with "their pressure offense," one AL exec said.
Meanwhile, nobody knows what to expect from the Yankees' pitching beyond CC Sabathia. But you also could envision Sabathia just about winning a series all by himself. He's 4-2, 2.40 in seven starts on short rest in his career, counting the postseason. And the Yankees went 2-0 in his two starts on three days' rest in last year's postseason.
"They can start CC three times in a seven-game series," another AL exec said. "And it's at least 50-50 they get a good outing out of Pettitte. They're also best-positioned with their bullpen to match up with power and different looks. And their lineup is so hard to pitch to."
But the problem those teams have, another AL exec said, is that "there isn't a shutdown staff" in the entire AL field. So knowing what we know about postseason baseball, does it make sense to pick any of those teams over the ultimate shutdown staff?
Not from this scenic overlook, it doesn't. Six months ago, coming out of spring training, I picked the Phillies to win the World Series. Now here we are, all these months later, and it makes even more sense to pick them now than it did then.
So that's my story. I'm sticking to it. And given my long and distinguished track record at this sort of thing, you should now sprint directly to Vegas -- and place all your money on North Carolina A&T to win that Fiesta Bowl.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.