The Los Angeles Dodgers tied the Florida Marlins for the seventh-best record in the 16-team National League this year, but as they begin the N.L. Championship Series Thursday night against the Phillies in Philadelphia, it's hard to argue against them as one of the two hottest teams in the league. The Phillies are the other. The Phillies are hotter.
The Dodgers, retooled at the trading deadline with Casey Blake and also some other guy -- maybe an outfielder? -- went on an 18-5 run following an eight-game losing streak in August. That run clinched the very clinchable N.L. West. They lost three of four meaningless games once the division was secured but picked up where they left off when the games counted again, sweeping the Chicago Cubs in the first round of the playoffs.
The Phillies ended the season on a 13-3 run, dusting the New York Mets in the process and then taking care of the Milwaukee Brewers in the playoffs, three games to one.
It's well documented that the Dodgers have been a different team since the deadline trade that brought Manny Ramirez -- that's the guy! -- to town. But he's not the whole story. The Dodgers also have deadline pickup Casey Blake providing a solid bat at third base and a healthy Rafael Furcal back at shortstop.
Their late-season hot streak began the day aging second baseman Jeff Kent went on the disabled list and was replaced by rookie Blake DeWitt. Coincidence? Maybe not entirely. And most of the at-bats that were going to Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones in the first half of the season were going to Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in the second half, a big improvement.
If you know nothing else about the Phillies -- and of course you know a lot -- you know that their two big sluggers, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, are struggling at the plate. Utley went 2-for-15 with a double and four strikeouts in the Milwaukee series. Howard went 2-for-11 with a double and five strikeouts, though he did walk five times.
Howard put up a 1.200-plus OPS over the last month of the season, and also over the last week. And the last two weeks. And the last three weeks. It's a safe guess that his slump against the Brewers was momentary. He still had a .438 on-base percentage with all those walks.
The TV people keep talking about Utley's late-season power outage. He did go almost a month without a home run before he finally hit one on Sept. 21, and he didn't do a whole lot else with the bat in that time. But in the week's final season he went 9-for-23 with three doubles and two home runs. It's not quite accurate to say he's been slumping for six weeks. Five out of six, though.
Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth did most of the hitting in the divisional series, but the Phillies won that with pitching, holding the Brewers to nine runs in the four games.
The pitching, like a lot about these two teams, looks just about even. Both clubs have solid rotations and very good bullpens.
Derek Lowe of the Dodgers and Cole Hamels of the Phillies, who'll meet in Game 1, are both pitching like aces. The day off after Game 4 -- don't get me started on what a terrible thing that is -- gives both managers the chance to bring their ace back on three days' rest for Game 4 and then regular rest for a possible Game 7.
There have been no reports so far that either Joe Torre or Charlie Manuel plans to do that, but it'd be a better idea for Manuel, whose fourth starter is Joe Blanton, than for Torre, who'll choose between Clayton Kershaw and Greg Maddux. Wouldn't be a terrible idea for Torre either.
The other starters are Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda for the Dodgers, Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer for the Phillies.
The Phillies have a better offense, but not as much better as the season stats -- 4.93 runs per game for the Phillies, 4.32 for the Dodgers -- would lead one to believe. The Phillies are also slightly better fielders and base runners.
Both bullpens are strong. Brad Lidge has been the best reliever on either team, and the Dodgers will miss the injured Takashi Saito. Jonathan Broxton has been shaky as a closer, though generally good. He was fine against Chicago in relatively low-pressure situations. The Dodgers also have two effective lefties, Joe Beimel and Hong-Chi Kuo, who'll be important in matching up against Utley and especially Howard.
It's more even than not anywhere you look. Most of the small advantages, including home-field advantage, are with the Phillies. But I think the difference will come down to the starting pitching. If I were a Phillies fan -- and for this series, I am one -- I'd be worried about head-case Brett Myers, hittable geezer Jamie Moyer and journeyman Joe Blanton taking the ball three times out of every four. There are too many ways something can go wrong there.
The Phillies-Dodgers history gives us a lesson in how the regular season matchup doesn't necessarily mean anything, a lesson the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels also just gave us. In 1983, the Dodgers went 11-1 against the Phillies, outscored them 49-15. The Dodgers shut the Phillies out five times in those 12 games and held them to one run three other times. But in the playoffs, the Phillies won three out of four, scoring seven runs in each of the last two.
Fortunately, we don't need that lesson. The teams split eight games this year.
Prediction: Dodgers in seven