Two unexpected sweeps give us a four-day respite before the start of the NLCS, which is in its first year with a new schedule (including a new off day between Games 4 and 5).
Although the Diamondbacks had the better record and will have home-field advantage, the Rockies had a much better projected record based on runs scored and allowed.
When the Diamondbacks are up
• Expect some quick at-bats. The Diamondbacks aren't a patient team, and any team that does some advance scouting can identify their hitters' weaknesses. Most of these hitters are dead fastball hitters who don't adjust that well to off-speed stuff, and they'll chase a lot of pitches outside the strike zone. Their best matchup is Ubaldo Jimenez, whose best pitch is a fastball he doesn't command well.
• The Diamondbacks aren't a huge homer-hitting team, but they did hit six (five solo shots and one three-run homer) in three games against Chicago, accounting for half of their runs in the series. With this series played in two very strong hitters' parks, the Diamondbacks are even more likely to see their runs come from the long ball.
• Look for them to challenge catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who has been terrible at throwing runners out all year (19.7 percent), and several Rockies pitchers who don't hold runners well, including Jimenez.
• Keep an eye on the middle infield. Colorado's shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, and second baseman, Kaz Matsui, are one of the best middle-infield tandems in the game, covering a lot of ground in both directions.
When the Rockies are up
• Although the ballpark helps, the Rockies' five hitters in the 2-6 spots all have above-average raw power. All three right-handed hitters (Matt Holliday, Tulowitzki and Garrett Atkins) look to pull balls out of the park, although Holliday can go the other way. Their left-handed power bats (Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe) both do a better job of using the whole field.
• Two sleepers have come in late to provide some big hits for the Rockies: replacement center fielder Ryan Spilborghs, who particularly crushes lefties and provides far more power than injured Willy Taveras, and Seth Smith, a could-have-been first-round pick who fell to the Rockies in the second round when he hit just .284 in his junior year at Ole Miss.
• Watch their hitters to see how they adjust to the road; even with the humidor running at Coors Field, Rockies hitters still show a pronounced drop in their statistics, especially power (slugging about 80 points higher in Denver), away from home.
• Arizona can potentially start two center fielders in its outfield with Justin Upton in right and Chris Young in center, and Eric Byrnes is no slouch in left. They'll miss Orlando Hudson at second base, although Augie Ojeda has been a capable fill-in since Hudson's season-ending injury.
Keys for the Diamondbacks
• Keeping it close. The Diamondbacks' biggest strength is the front end of their bullpen, so getting the ball to them with the lead or a small deficit is key because they're capable of shutting down any offense. Closer Jose Valverde's stuff is just toxic, and Juan Cruz, Brandon Lyon, and Tony Pena have been excellent in highly leveraged roles. Bob Melvin knows how to manage his 'pen in close games, so it's on the starters to keep the games tight.
• Working the count. Arizona's offense is the worst of any playoff team and one of the worst in the National League, and a big reason for that is its lack of patience and selectivity. Young and Mark Reynolds are the biggest culprits -- Young's sub-.300 OBP was unacceptable for a leadoff guy -- but Byrnes and Chris Snyder could stand to tighten their approaches, as well. Along similar lines, laying off breaking balls outside the zone is key.
• Working Brandon Webb. Not so much a key as a potential advantage, Webb could pitch in Game 1, go on short rest in Game 4 and come back on full rest in Game 7 because of the funky NLCS schedule. He could even pitch on short rest again in Game 6 if Arizona were down three games to two, although that's probably playing with fire. Either way, Webb is so far superior to any of Arizona's other starting pitchers that using him three times, even if one is on short rest, is the right move.
Keys for the Rockies
• Don't change. The Rockies have been winning because their players have been playing up to their abilities, and they've gotten the right guys into games, using their best relievers in leveraged situations, getting their best bats at the top of the lineup and keeping their younger starters on short leashes. So manager Clint Hurdle must not overthink it. It's not a fluke.
• Expand the zone. The Diamondbacks' hitters are not selective, and nearly all the Rockies' better pitchers have at least one good off-speed pitch. Getting ahead early, then drawing the Arizona hitters out of the zone is the best overall strategy for attacking their lineup.
• Get to the starters. Arizona's starters behind Webb are all shaky, but the Diamondbacks' bullpen is strong, so the best way to beat them is to score off their starters, either building up a big lead early or getting the Snakes' lesser relievers involved. The Rockies' lineup -- especially its first five hitters -- is strong enough to make Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez pay for their nibbling.
It's easy to see an outcome in which Webb pitches three times and Arizona just has to sneak out one win under any of its other starters -- Micah Owings would be my bet, especially if he matches up against Josh Fogg -- but it's more likely that Webb will lose one of those games, and then it's harder to see Arizona even getting to a Game 7. Colorado's offense is good, and Davis and Hernandez are not; Arizona's bullpen might not get enough of a chance to do its thing.
Colorado in six.