King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NLCS preview: A stealth series way out west should be a dandy, with Diamondbacks pitching cooling off the red-hot Rockies bats.


King Kaufman
October 11, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

For all the talk of the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, they finished tied for the most wins in the National League this year, the Diamondbacks winning the Western Division, the Rockies ending the year as the hottest team this side of the Hades Hornets.

They'll meet in the National League Championship Series beginning Thursday night in Phoenix, and we couldn't ask for a better matchup. Game 1 will be on TBS at 8:30 p.m. EDT.

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The Rox and D-backs, both dating only to the 1990s, lack the angst-filled back-stories of the teams they defeated in the first round to get here, the Chicago (no World Series wins since ought-eight) Cubs and the Philadelphia (10,000 losses and counting, with a grand total of four pennants and one title over the last 105 years) Phillies.

But if you don't have to worry about filling air time on a pregame show, and it doesn't offend you to your very core that two teams west of the Central time zone will play each other for the pennant, the Rockies and Diamondbacks are the way to go. The over-under on a nationally prominent typist writing a "who cares about the Rockies and Diamondbacks?" column is Friday at noon.

EDT, of course.

You know the story of the Rockies, who won an astounding 13 of their last 14 games to tie San Diego for the wild card, then beat the Padres in a play-in game that would be on an endless loop on its own dedicated cable channel by now had it been contested by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, then swept Philadelphia in three to gain the NLCS.

Before that streak started, the Rockies had gone 7-9, or, if you'd like to take a longer view, 15-16. They had been ambling along on their way to a fourth-place finish in the West. That would have been 10 straight years finishing either fourth or fifth in a five-team division. To say this club came out of nowhere in the last two weeks of the season is to vastly overstate the proximity of nowhere.

The story of the D-Backs is that they came into the season with a hot, sexy young team with up-and-coming studs like shortstop Stephen Drew and outfielders Chris Young and Carlos Quentin, plus ace pitcher Brandon Webb and returning former ace Randy Johnson. So a bunch of hipsters and poseurs picked them to win the West, but Johnson's back fell off, the young studs had disappointing years and the Diamondbacks got outscored by their opponents.

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And won the West.

The Diamondbacks got another huge year from Webb, who at one point was sniffing at the heels of Orel Hershiser's record for consecutive shutout innings, plus a career year from well-traveled outfielder Eric Byrnes and big contributions from rookie pitcher Micah Owings and third baseman Mark Reynolds. Young and Drew had their moments, the bullpen was fantastic, and various non-stars like pitcher Doug Davis and second baseman Orlando Hudson -- who's out for the playoffs with an injury -- did solid jobs.

Webb will start Game 1 for the D-Backs against Jeff Francis, a lefty who passes for an ace in Colorado but would be a nice No. 2 most places. Webb threw seven sharp innings at the Rockies Sept. 28 in Denver, handing them their only loss in the last 18 games, which is the good news for him. The bad news is that in five previous starts against them this year, he'd gone 0-3 with a 6.47 ERA.

If the Diamondbacks are going to slow the Rockies down, Webb will have to be his Cy Young self and their other starters -- Davis, Livan Hernandez and Owings -- will have to keep things close through the middle innings so Arizona can turn the games over to its dynamite bullpen of Jose Valverde, Juan Cruz, Brandon Lyon, Doug Slaten and Tony Pena.

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That's a tall order. Colorado's offense is formidable. MVP candidate Matt Holliday is the anchor but he has lots of powerful help from Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins, Troy Tulowitzki and even Ryan Spilborghs, who took over in center field for the injured Willy Taveras late in the year and provides far more sock. During their 18-game hot streak, the Rockies have scored at least nine runs eight times. Taveras has been activated for this series and will start.

The Rockies are expected to start Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales and Josh Fogg. Jimenez and Morales are both rookies in their early 20s who finished the year strong. Jimenez added a fine start in the Philly series, Morales got knocked around.

It's not a particularly intimidating group, but it doesn't have to be. The bullpen, led by Brian Fuentes and Manny Corpas, is similar: No big studs out there, but good enough given the Rockies' offense.

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Baseball's new off-daytastic postseason schedule could come into play in both League Championship Series, though it might have a bigger effect here. The new regime adds a day off between Games 4 and 5. That means a team willing to send its ace out for Game 4 on three days' rest can bring him back for a third start in Game 7 on full rest.

In the ALCS, the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians both have a pair of aces, so such a move can be countered, but in the NLCS, nobody comes close to Webb. Having him start three times in a seven-game series rather than twice is a huge difference. Whatever would have happened in the first six games, handing the ball to Webb for Game 7 would figure to be very comforting for the Diamondbacks.

And if you're wondering how Webb has pitched on three days' rest in his career, keep wondering. He's never done it, according to the gamelogs at Baseball-Reference.com.

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It looks like a good boxer-puncher matchup, one that has a great chance to be a terrific series, which will be too bad for the Eastern half of the United States, which will mostly ignore it. Hey, more for the rest of us.

The Diamondbacks have better pitching but their offense is about what you'd expect from a lineup whose first two hitters, Young and Drew, had on-base percentages of .295 and .313. The Rockies can score a ton but their pitching, while not terrible, is just OK.

Their ballpark still favors hitters, by the way, but not to the crazy extent it did before the advent of the famed baseball-storage humidor. Arizona's stadium favors hitters too. The parks shouldn't be much of a factor.

The six-day layoff after the end of the first round might serve to cool off the red-hot Rox. Then again, it might not. There just isn't enough precedent yet to draw conclusions about what such a long wait does to a team, if it does anything.

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This column suspects it'll throw both teams off, but since any pick of the Rockies would be largely based on how hot they are -- they had that big offense three weeks ago, after all, when they were in fourth place in the wild-card race, seven and a half games out -- the layoff should swing the ol' Predictometer south toward Phoenix.

That's where the Predictometer went in the first round, south. It was spectacularly wrong on three of the four series, Arizona being the exception. My picks were so bad, I had to retroactively invent the Predictometer to take the blame. Bad Predictometer, bad!

The pick here was going to be the Diamondbacks anyway, since this column pegged them to go to the World Series in its season preview, so why give up now? Webb, the bullpen and the layoff make me feel a little more confident about that pick, meaning I think they should ice the champagne in Denver, but they shouldn't pop the corks just yet.
Prediction: Diamondbacks in 7

Previous column: TBS report card

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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