I'd like to extend Major League Baseball a rare "thank you" for scheduling its postseason games so haphazardly.
For most people, the random start times bring nothing but consternation and frustration. But for me, it offers up a bit of strategizing that's been severely lacking since fantasy baseball ended.
"Alright, the game's at 5," I'll think. "That means I need to get out of work precisely on time, grab food, maybe pick up some beer -- if I can fit it in -- and get onto the couch by at least five past five." Because it's the playoffs, you guys, and missing something crazy like a leadoff homer might mean missing the game's most crucial play.
Luckily, yesterday unfolded just as I hoped. I busted out of work at 4:28 PM (cushy life, I know) and the race was on. A quick walk to Subway for a footlong (it's Anytober!), a dash to the Metro when I spotted my train pulling into the station, a very brief stop at the market attached to my apartment complex for a six-pack of beer, and bam. Home at 5:05 PM on the nose, ready for the game.
And what a game. Jaime Garcia mowed the Phillies down, just like everyone expected, but Cole Hamels battled through 117 pitches and kept the game at zeros until Ben Francisco's miraculous homer. Cole had a bit of trouble putting some Cardinals hitters away, but so have a lot of the pitchers in this series. The most important thing was limiting the damage; giving the Cardinals a lead, with Garcia rolling and the ballpark going wild, might have crushed any team's spirit. Luckily, the battle-tested playoff ace gave them no such chance.
But he did only go six innings, which the Phillies need to avoid as much as possible throughout this postseason run. Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo and Brad Lidge don't inspire much confidence; Worley's stuff isn't exactly perfect for the bullpen, Bastardo still looks a little shaky, and Lidge walks that tightrope every single time he steps onto the field. One day, all those runners won't end up stranded.
I don't want any of the three on the mound for any more than one inning with anything less than a two-run lead, and they're our best non-Madson bullpen guys by far. Luckily, the Phillies have enough stud starters to limit that concern.
Tonight, that "pitch long and well" responsibility falls on Roy Oswalt, who is gonna be asked to give the Phillies at least seven innings. And you know what? I think he will. I know his numbers against Albert Pujols are pretty darn awful (26 for 86 with 5 homers, a more-than-reasonable sample size), but I doubt many pitchers could force one by big Albert at this point. His slash line for the series, .538/.571/.769, is "Manny Ramirez in the 2008 NLCS" all over again.
The key is controlling Allen Craig before him and Lance Berkman/David Freese after him. In 2008, Manny was smashing doubles off the wall and dingers into the seats with nearly every at-bat, but he never had anyone on in front of him or hitting behind him. One slugger -- unless you're Ben Francisco -- rarely wins a baseball game by himself. And while Albert is mashing, he has only two NLDS runs and one RBI to his name. If Oswalt can keep that up, he'll bring home the game and the series.
I told Phillies fans not to worry two weeks ago, I mentioned it again yesterday afternoon, and I'm telling you once more right now: Do not worry. When the Phillies get into an elimination game, I'll get a little nervous. But even the best teams don't always sweep their opponents, especially when they're as pesky and talented as St. Louis.
It shouldn't matter after tonight anyway, as the Phillies have their foot on St. Louis' throat. Every ball the Cardinals put into play drops for a hit; every ball the Phillies smoke gets snagged by a Cardinals defender; their "ace" for the series absolutely decimated the Philadelphia offense for six innings yesterday...and they still lost. Their would-be savior is Edwin Jackson, but his career xFIP isn't much better than Kyle Kendrick's (4.38 versus 4.65). He's a back-end rotation guy, and a righty to boot. He can get wild; he can be knocked around.
A good team (and the Phillies are a very good team) will smell blood in the water and feast. This isn't like facing the Giants last year, a buzzsaw of a team with a hot offense and aces on the mound. This is a solid foe that's just a little bit worse than the Phillies, and it's starting to show. I predicted the Phillies in 4, and I'm still very much expecting some champagne to be sprayed tonight in St. Louis.