Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Should the Phillies Really Want to Beat the Braves?

Let's face it, watching the Phillies run out makeshift lineup after makeshift lineup while losing a season-high 8 straight games was painful, and even a little bit concerning. Certainly you want the team well-rested heading into postseason play, and with homefield advantage all sewn up, it would be foolish to trot out the regular lineup every day for the remainder of the regular season. But it's also not exactly encouraging to go stumbling into the playoffs.

That's why winning the last two games — Sunday against the Mets and last night vs. Atlanta — to get to 100 regular-season victories for just the third time in franchise history was very encouraging. It's good to see that when this team puts its best players on the field, they look just fine.

But now the question remains … should the Phillies really want to beat the Braves in this series? As it stands right now, the Braves are hanging on by a thread with a one-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card, a lead that at one point seemed insurmountable. If the Phillies go out and sweep Atlanta or even just win one of the two remaining games, the Cardinals have a chance to take over that Wild Card spot, either winning the thing outright or pulling even with the Braves to force a one-game playoff.

That's where things get interesting. If Atlanta can stave off an epic collapse and secure the Wild Card, the Phillies will host either the Brewers or Diamondbacks in the best-of-five first round since teams from the same division cannot meet in the first round by MLB rule. If the season ended today, it would be Arizona coming to the City of Brotherly Love, but the Diamondbacks are only one game behind the Milwaukee in the standings so that has not been officially decided yet. But if the Cardinals overtake the Braves and win the Wild Card, then the Phillies will host Albert Pujols and the Cardinals in round 1.

If you were the Phillies, would you rather face the Brewers/Diamondbacks in a short series, or the St. Louis Cardinals? Now perhaps the Phillies don't really care one way or the other. After all, they have been the best team in baseball practically since day 1 this season, they have far and away the best starting rotation of the possible postseason teams, and the roster is full of guys with playoff experience. But if I was them, I'd still rather see Milwaukee or Arizona over St. Louis in the first round.

That is not to say the Brewers or Diamondbacks are not formidable foes who could pose major problems. They are. Milwaukee can bash the ball with MVP-caliber players like Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, to go along with very good offensive players like Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, plus a pitching staff that has plenty of talent. Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo have as good a stuff as anyone, Shaun Marcum is a good number 3, and we know Randy Wolf isn't afraid of the big moment. But still, Greinke has had issues with pressure in the past, Gallardo is the type of guy the Phils could hit, and Marcum is more of a contact guy. I just don't really see both Halladay and Lee losing back-to-back games even against this lineup, and I'll take Cole over Marcum any day of the week.

Arizona has shown it is a team not to be taken lightly, but when you really take a step back and look at the playoff picture, this would be the ideal team to face. Ian Kennedy has had a fantastic year, but he's really the only starter that scares you for Arizona, and truthfully, I'd take all three of the Phils' top three starters over him. And the lineup, outside of Justin Upton and his MVP-worthy year, doesn't exactly blow you away either. This team has all the makings of a "just happy to be here" type of team. Again, doesn't make them a pushover, but I'd feel pretty confident going against the Diamondbacks.

Conversely, the Cardinals scare the living crap out of me. In fact, had Adam Wainwright been healthy this year, St. Louis was the team I thought would challenge the Phillies the most in the National League this season. Even without him, it's the team I probably would want to face the least. Chris Carpenter is a former Cy Young winner who can shut down anyone at any moment. He hasn't had a great season overall, but after a disastrous start, he's looked a lot more like the Chris Carpenter we're used to seeing the second half of the year. Jaime Garcia is the type of left-hander that has given the Phils fits in the past, and Kyle Lohse is an ex-Phillie, meaning there's a good chance he'll find a way to screw them over. It just seems to go that way all the time.

Then there's this guy by the name of Albert Pujols, who is better than everyone else on the planet at hitting a baseball. And Albert is not alone. Lance Berkman has had a renaissance this year and is a veteran who knows how to hit, and Matt Holliday is back, another force at the plate. Throw in an impressive season from John Jay and Yadier Molina throwing darts from behind the plate, and this team is capable of some great things. I know I wouldn't want to see Albert Pujols in the first round.

Of course, there is the matter of the St. Louis bullpen, which has been laughably horrible this season. The Cardinals have gone through about 800 closers and still can't hold down leads in the 9th. That bodes very well if the Phils do have to face them, seeing as the Phillies have made it a habit over the past five seasons of absolutely crushing late-inning relief pitchers. So maybe playing the Cardinals wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Still, I'd rather avoid Pujols and company in round 1, and the only way to do that is to have the Braves hold on and win the Wild Card. So again, I ask: Should the Phillies really want to beat the Braves here the next two nights?

I know Charlie Manuel would say yes, and he's probably right. The Phillies shouldn't and I'm sure aren't scared of anyone. But as a fan, I'd still rather play the Diamondbacks or Brewers over the Cardinals.

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