Can anyone stop the Phillies?
This won't be a postseason-predictions post. We'll get to that early next week. Heck, at this point, we don't even know what the match-ups will be in any of the four first-round series. (If the season ended right now, it would be Rangers at Rays and Yankees at Twins in the AL, and Reds at Phillies and Braves at Giants in the NL.)
About the surest thing anyone can say about the playoffs is that the Phillies look like the team to beat. While everyone else is dealing with some sort of major issue, the Phillies' biggest problem seems to be figuring out how to line up all their impressive talent: Should their rotation go Roy Halladay-Cole Hamels-Roy Oswalt, or maybe Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels? Should Jimmy Rollins be the lead-off hitter, or should Shane Victorino?
The Phillies are 45-18 since July 21. Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels have combined to go 13-1 with a 2.13 ERA in September. Closer Brad Lidge has only one blown save and a 0.79 ERA since the beginning of August. And with Rollins's return from a hamstring injury, the Phillies' offense is back at full strength.
How important is that last fact? While most people would look at the Phillies' offensive production this year and argue they are simply not as potent as in years past, because of injuries Manager Charlie Manuel has only been able to write out his optimum lineup -- SS Rollins, 3B Polanco, 2B Utley, 1B Howard, RF Werth, LF Ibanez, CF Victorino, C Ruiz -- nine times this season.
By virtue of having clinched the best record in the NL, the Phillies were able to pick which Division Series they wanted to play -- and of course, they chose the one with the extra off-day between Games 1 and 2, which will allow them to use only three starting pitchers in the first round. Even if forced to play the maximum number of games (19) throughout the postseason, they can use Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt (on full rest) in 17 of them.
So, can the Phillies be beaten? Of course. No matter how good you are, the postseason is largely a crapshoot. And the Phillies won't admit it, but the team they don't want to see in the first round is the San Francisco Giants -- the only team that can come close to matching the Phillies' starting-pitching dominance. It isn't too much of a stretch to envision Tim Lincecum and/or Matt Cain stealing a game, or even two, off the Phillies. And with three good left-handed starters behind Lincecum and Cain to choose from -- Jonathan Sanchez, Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner -- the Giants can exploit the Phillies' historic weakness against lefties.
But here's hoping the Giants hold off the Reds for the No. 2 seed in the NL bracket, thus providing the opportunity for a Giants-Phillies best-of-seven match-up in the NLCS. That could be epic.
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