THE PHILLIES are everyone's National League favorites now. A two-time World Series team that added two aces and reclaimed another since the end of the last postseason has achieved what seemed impossible just a few months ago.
No one is talking about Cliff Lee anymore.
Well, not as much.
Instead, the Phillies are the overwhelming NL World Series pick of the national media, based on conventional thinking surrounding starting pitching and the postseason.
Halladay. Hamels. Oswalt.
No National League contender can match up with the Phillies in a five- or seven-game set.
Maybe no American League team, either.
But before we get too giddy, some cautionary tales. This year's St. Louis Cardinals, despite three starters with earned run averages below 3.10, probably won't even make it to the postseason. You wonder if the fates might have changed if the Cardinals had been able to trade for Oswalt.
Then again, three aces should be enough, right?
The Phillies won the 2008 World Series with only one, really, with a starting staff that was, statistically at least, inferior to that of the Tampa Bay Rays. The 1988 Mets won 100 games and featured Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez. They lost in the National League Championship Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers and their sublime ace, Orel Hershiser.
The Dodgers' No.2 man in the postseason? Tim Belcher.
And then, of course, there were those great Braves teams that ruled the regular season for more than a decade. All together now: A team that featured three men headed to the Hall of Fame won just one World Series in the time they pitched together.
The Braves' postseason ledger is riddled with late-inning collapses. Mark Wohlers. John Rocker. In 1998, the Braves won 106 regular-season games and Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz led a staff that completed 24 games. Key members of their bullpen included Kerry Ligtenberg, who led the team with 24 saves, 43-year-old Dennis Martinez and the 23-year-old Rocker.
In Game 1 of the NLCS with San Diego, Smoltz left a 1-1 game in the eighth, but Rocker, Martinez and Ligtenberg couldn't hold off the Padres, who won in 10, 3-2. Glavine allowed one run over six innings in Game 2 and lost, 3-0. Maddux made it through five innings in Game 3 and a 2-1 deficit became a 4-1 loss. The Braves even used Maddux in the ninth inning to stave off elimination in Game 5.
It's almost always the relief that gets you in the postseason. And while closers take the blame, it's usually the middle guys who cost you more.
Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz might even have been victims of their own excellence, and escalating cost. Their propensity to pitch complete or near-complete games during the regular season reduced the need to use, or to spend good money on, middle relievers.
But in the postseason, at-bats become more precious, foul balls and long counts more prevalent. Then, adrenaline sometimes becomes a nemesis too, draining men who already have logged in excess of 200 innings. Check the box scores and you will see that Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux were no October chokers. But when the Braves needed bullpen help an inning or two earlier than they had for most of the season, trouble often followed.
The Phillies reached the World Series the last two seasons by facing teams lacking pitching depth in a short series (Milwaukee, Colorado) and a team lacking hitting depth in the longer one (Los Angeles). Tampa Bay's 2008 pitching staff might have been more talented than the Yankees' 2009 staff, but not as seasoned. And there was no Mariano Rivera at the end of it.
Which is why Tuesday's 2-1 victory over Florida was a thing of beauty for Phillies fans. The Marlins' pitching staff is a mess, but their lineup is still playoff-caliber. And on a night when the Phillies could not knock in runners if you put the ball on a tee, Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge combined to make Cole Hamels' 13-strikeout masterpiece hold up.
It's not a stretch, especially in this season of now-you-see-the-offense-now-you-don't, to weigh those three as important as the aces to the Phillies' postseason success.
It's also why you probably should sweat how J.C. Romero pitches down the stretch more than you sweat Kyle Kendrick or Joe Blanton. Because as much as it would have been great to have this year's Cole Hamels last October, a balky bullpen was more to blame for their World Series loss to the Yankees.
And as great as it is to have Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt this fall, the back end will have a lot to do with how it ends this year, too.
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