With each round of baseball's postseason, the stakes get higher, the competition gets better and advancing gets a little tougher.
At least that's the theory. The Los Angeles Dodgers haven't held up their end the last two seasons in the National League Championship Series. A team that was supposedly stung by its quiet, five-game dismissal in 2008 was going to come back with a mission this time.
Perhaps the mission was different, but the outcome looked about the same. The Phillies clinched the pennant last night with a routine 10-4 win. They jumped around, sprayed champagne and beer, and toasted a return to the final round of baseball's annual tournament.
That's the good news, and certainly better news than the Dodgers took home with them. Los Angeles, which had the best record in the NL this season, gave up 34 runs in its four losses. The one game in which the Dodgers were able to hold down the Phillies' offense was their only win.
"We have to pitch better," Los Angeles manager Joe Torre said. "That exposes you more than anything else. You have to be able to get those outs."
Outs are difficult to come by against the Phillies' offense and, fair and square, the Phils are in the World Series for just the seventh time in their history and their first-ever consecutive appearance. Their 100th win of the season was a microcosm of how they play when they play well. They hit the ball over the fence, pitched well enough to keep the opposition at bay and made their spotty bullpen a moot point.
All of that is the good news and was worth savoring as the Phillies saluted the crowd, accepted the roaring approval in return, and once again walked to the Harry Kalas sign in left field and baptized the memory of their broadcaster after another step toward a championship.
On the streets of Philadelphia, where losses have walked side-by-side more often than wins, city workers had thoughtfully greased some of the light poles in South Philly to prevent young men from clambering atop them as they had after the World Series clinch a year ago.
Each greasing, according to the city is good for either five days or one rainfall, which ever comes first. So if the Phillies put themselves in position to capture a second straight title at home, there will have to be a regreasing effort. They should be so lucky.
But that, if one must look ahead, might also be the bad news. The team that will be standing between the Phillies and their third World Series title ain't the Tampa Bay Rays this year.
If the New York Yankees can finish off the Los Angeles Angels tonight, the Phillies will need to do more than just score runs in the next round. They are going to have to pitch a whole lot better than they have thus far, and the scary part is they enter the World Series with only one consistent starter in the postseason.
"We need more consistent starting pitching," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We're capable of doing that. I know we can win another World Series, but things have got to be right for us."
As they opened the playoffs, Manuel borrowed J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton from the rotation in order to strengthen his faltering bullpen. Both Happ and Blanton ended up getting one start each, as did Pedro Martinez. Happ and Blanton didn't pitch well enough to win. Martinez was fine, but his ability to reprise that effort is questionable.
Cole Hamels, who started last night's game and didn't get through the fifth inning, is 1-1 in three starts, having pitched to a 6.75 ERA that didn't make anyone forget his 10-11 record during the regular season.
The only inspiring pitcher in the rotation is Cliff Lee, who shook off some late-season inconsistency and is 2-0 in the postseason with a no-decision in another Phillies win. He has allowed just four earned runs in 241/3 innings, a 1.48 ERA.
As it would set up now, the Phils have a tough decision ahead. They will certainly start Lee in Game 1 on Wednesday and, if they choose to work him twice on three days' rest, could have him start three games of the World Series. If not, then he and Hamels would take only four of the seven potential starts and only two of the first four.
Who would fill in the rest of the starts is a good question. Whether it really matters if the non-Lee starters continue to work to a 4.99 ERA is another. The Yankees are good enough to beat good pitchers. They make short work of bad ones.
That is worth considering now that last night's celebration has dried upon the clubhouse floor, and the last pole-climber has slipped to the sidewalk. Getting this far a season ago was spectacular fun, and it has been that way again. Getting further turned out to be pretty easy in 2008, but that might not be the case again.
The Phils have won five postseason series in these two years with a combined record of 18-5 and each of the opponents managing exactly one win. Sooner or later, they have to be tested. Sooner is a very good guess.