Dodgers, Phillies meet again in NLCS 25 years later
They are two teams, each playing extremely well, each with plenty of time to set their pitching and rest their bones.
They are the Dodgers and Phillies, and each swept a four-game series from the other in August. This will be the fourth time they have played in the National League Championship Series, but the first time since 1983. They dispatched the two Midwest teams, and now the NLCS will go coast-to-coast for the right to advance to the World Series.Here are five questions heading into the series:
How good is the Dodgers' pitching?Very good. The Dodgers led the NL in ERA, posting a 3.15 ERA in September, and they held the Cubs, the highest-scoring team in the NL, to six runs in three games in the NLDS. Derek Lowe is a seasoned postseason pitcher who has learned not to get flustered when things don't go his way, as he did in Game 1 with a very tight strike zone in the early innings against the Cubs. Lowe has been as good as any pitcher in the game over his past 10 starts. No. 2 starter Chad Billingsley is one of the game's most underrated pitchers, and Hiroki Kuroda was brilliant in the clincher against the Cubs in Game 3. Plus, he started twice against the Phillies this season, allowing four hits, two runs and two walks with 12 strikeouts in 13 innings. Plus, the Dodgers' bullpen is loaded with power arms.
Do the Phillies have a good offensive club?It's hard to tell. They scored 799 runs this season, second only to the Cubs in the NL. They have three dynamic offensive players in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, as well as Pat Burrell (33 home runs) and Jayson Werth (24 homers). And yet they go through stretches, some more than a month in length, when they don't hit. They didn't hit in the first three games of the NLDS against Milwaukee, scoring all their runs in just three innings, and going 5-for-31 with runners in scoring position. But they scored 43 runs in eight games against the Dodgers this season. Will they hit well in this series? That is anyone's guess.
How important has been the return of Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal?Extremely important. Before he got hurt May 5, he was their best player, hitting .366, running wild and playing great defense. "He means as much to the Dodgers as Derek Jeter means to the Yankees," one scout said. Furcal isn't the player he was in April because he has missed so much time, but his speed was evident in the Cubs series when he extended a crucial inning with a two-out bunt hit. He went 4-for-12 with three walks in the series, and his speed on the bases gives the Dodgers another weapon. Plus, he is their leadoff hitter, meaning Matt Kemp and Russell Martin don't have to hit there, and might have more RBI chances.
Is it Cole Hamels' turn to establish himself as a big-time, big-game pitcher?Absolutely. He was so good in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Brewers, one scout said, "The Brewers saw changeup after changeup after changeup, but they couldn't stay back against it. They really tried, but they couldn't. And when they looked changeup -- which you can't do -- he threw his fastball by him.'' Hamels didn't pitch well in his first postseason appearance last year against the Rockies, but like all good pitchers, he learned from it. Now he appears to be the best starting pitcher in this series, which is saying something. And he might be needed twice -- maybe three times -- in the series.
Is it Russell Martin's turn to establish himself as a big-time, big-game player?Definitely. He pounded Cubs pitching in the LDS, going 4-for-13 with three doubles and a home run. He has always been a good hitter, but with the arrival of Manny Ramirez, he is getting even more to hit, which was clear in Game 2 against the Cubs when Carlos Zambrano had to throw Martin a strike on 3-1 with the bases loaded and Ramirez on deck. Martin rifled it to left-center for a three-run double. Martin is determined to be a great player -- so determined, in fact, that when he made an out in an exhibition game last spring, he fired his bat in anger. Two springs ago, one Dodger said Martin had a chance to be "one of the best catchers of all time. His focus is incredible.'' He lost some of that this year, one teammate said, but now it appears he has it back -- just in time for the biggest games of the year. Prediction: Dodgers in 7. 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 became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.
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