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October 15, 2008

Prospectus Preview

NLCS Game Five

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Phillies (92-70) at Dodgers (84-78), 5:22 p.m. PT, FOX
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (227 1/3 IP, 3.52 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 196 K) vs. Chad Billingsley (200 2/3, 3.41, 1.34, 201)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA); Los Angeles, 87-75 (700 RS, 648 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #5; Los Angeles, #11
Series Favorite: Phillies, 84.9% (Up 3-1)
Prospectus: After Monday's stunning comeback, the Phillies can secure their sixth berth in the Fall Classic with a win tonight, and pull down the curtain on the drama of Manny Ramirez's remarkable run with the Dodgers. Ramirez has of course helped overcome such a disadvantaged position before, as a member of the Red Sox in both the 2004 and 2007 ALCS. Those Boston teams were two of the 10 clubs that have come back to win three in a row after going down 3-1 in a best-of-seven. There have been 70 opportunities for such a reversal, putting the success rate at 14.3 percent, very close to the 15.1 percent chance which Clay Davenport has assigned to Los Angeles as a result of his current Monte Carlo simulation.

Billingsley's Game Two start was the worst single start in his three seasons in the big leagues, as he gave up a career-high eight runs before being lifted with one out in the third. What was bewildering about the outing was how suddenly and unexpectedly the storm arose: Billingsley struck out two in a scoreless first, then set down Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth on called third strikes to open the second, before he was beset by five consecutive hits, two of them coming off the bats of light-hitting catcher Carlos Ruiz and even lighter-hitting pitcher Brett Myers. Billingsley's day got even worse following the game, as some of his teammates took exception to his lack of retaliation after Phillies' starter Myers threw behind Ramirez in the first inning, and some in the media interpreted his explanation for the rough outing (poor pitch selection) as shifting the blame to catcher Russell Martin, which was not Billingsley's intention. The Phillies, meanwhile, seem well set up to celebrate in the visitor's clubhouse for the second straight series, for their ace Hamels has given up just two runs in seven innings in each of his three starts versus LA this year, including the Game One victory last Thursday.

Shane Victorino was one of the Phillies who jumped on Billingsley in the second inning of Game Two, as he capped his team's rally with the fifth consecutive hit to drive in a pair of runs. Victorino tripled in two more an inning later, and continued his outstanding postseason with the eighth-inning game-tying two-run homer in Game Four, his second long ball this October and third of his playoff career. That blast gave him 11 RBI for the postseason, which broke Philadelphia's franchise record of 10 set by Lenny Dykstra during the Phils' run to the World Series in 1993. Dykstra and Victorino have a good deal more than just Philly October heroics in common: both Nails and the Flyin' Hawaiian are short center fielders (5'10" in Dykstra's case, 5'9" for Victorino) with speed (Dykstra stole 37 bases in Philadelphia's pennant-winning '93 campaign, and Victorino nabbed 36 this year) and occasional home-run power, and both endeared themselves to Philadelphia fanatics with their scrappy play. The main difference between the two is batting eye: Dykstra drew 129 walks in '93, still a franchise record, while Victorino managed just 45 this year. Dykstra was one of the greatest post-season players of all time-he averaged a home run every 56 at-bats in the regular season during his 12-year career, yet hit 10 in 112 AB over five October series with the Mets and Phils.

If Victorino is reprising the role of Dykstra in the 1993/2008 Phillies' team parallel, then playing the part of John Kruk as the portly left-handed source of power is Matt Stairs. Stairs came off of the bench to deliver the game-winning, eighth-inning two-run homer off of Jonathan Broxton in his first at-bat of the NLCS on Monday. The colossal blast to right made Stairs the oldest player to hit a pinch homer in the postseason, at 40 years of age. The feel-good narrative of Stairs' heroics also calls to mind the last pinch-hit homer in October at Dodger Stadium, which was of course Kirk Gibson's walk-off shot to right off of Oakland's Dennis Eckersley that won Game One of the 1988 World Series. Stairs and Gibson, two lefty sluggers, possess remarkably similar career totals: Stairs has 254 regular-season homers and 864 RBI in 16 seasons, while Gibson finished with 255 and 870 in 17. If the Dodgers are looking for some sort of cosmic sign pointing to a win tonight, they can find it in the fact that today, October 15, is the 20th anniversary of Gibson's immortal blast. The baseball gods might therefore demand that a gimpy-kneed Jeff Kent hobble out of the dugout to face the unhittable righty reliever with the devastating slider-Brad Lidge, this time around-should LA find itself again down by a run in the ninth.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

Related Content:  Philadelphia Phillies,  Lenny Dykstra

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