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October 2, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Matchup: Brewers (90-72) at Phillies (92-70), 6:05 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: CC Sabathia (253 IP, 3.02 RA, 1.12 WHIP, 251 K) vs. Brett Myers (190, 4.88, 1.38, 163)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 87-75 (750 RS, 689 RA); Philadelphia, 93-69 (799 RS, 680 RA)
Final Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #9; Philadelphia, #5
Series Favorite: Phillies, 65.4%
Prospectus: Sabathia will make his fourth consecutive start on three days of rest tonight. Before the 6'7" left-hander's late-September heroics, no pitcher had thrown three straight regular-season starts on short rest since Esteban Loaiza and Danny Graves did so back in 2003. Since 1990, there have been only five pitchers to go on three days' rest four times in a row during the regular season-Dave Stewart in 1991, Randy Johnson, Chris Bosio, and Salomon Torres (now Milwaukee's closer) in 1995, and Graves in '03-so there is not much recent precedent at all for what Sabathia has been asked to do. At some point, all the extra work might wear him down, but there's been no indication that has been the case, for thus far the big man has thrived while carrying his teammates. Sabathia's last two outings have been overpowering: he beat Pittsburgh with a one-run, seven-inning performance with 11 Ks on September 24, and then held the Cubs to an unearned run in a complete-game two-hit effort to clinch the wild-card spot for Milwaukee on Sunday. Sabathia threw 122 pitches in that game, his major league-leading fifth Category 4 start of the season, and pushed his yearly innings total to 253, more than any pitcher has thrown since Livan Hernandez tossed 255 in 2004. There will be a great deal of pressure on Sabathia tonight, not just because he is the ace and expected to pitch the Brewers out of a 1-0 hole in the short series, but also because of how he performed in October last year, when his ERA was right around 9.00 in three playoff starts for Cleveland.

Sabathia has not faced the Phillies this season, while Myers pitched a complete-game two-hitter in his one start against Milwaukee back in mid-September. The Brewers run into engine trouble facing right-handed pitching; their 738 OPS against the starboard-siders ranked 18th in the majors this year. Philadelphia, meanwhile, slugged .464 against left-handers, tops in the National League, and led the majors with 74 home runs off them. Tonight's lineup facing Sabathia will likely look the same as yesterday's, excepting the replacement of catcher Carlos Ruiz with Chris Coste; Coste is Myers' personal backstop. As Jay Jaffe mentioned in the preview of the series yesterday, Milwaukee will likely switch from Rickie Weeks to Ray Durham at second base and from Bill Hall to Craig Counsell at third to attack the right-handed Myers, who since toasting the Brewers has been shellacked in back-to-back outings for 19 hits and 16 runs in 8 1/3 innings. Those two brutal outings to end the season ended a 10-start stretch of dominance in which he allowed 15 runs in 75 innings (1.68 RA) with a sub-1.00 WHIP and 67/12 K/BB ratio after returning from a minor league demotion.

One thing to consider if tonight's Game Two ends up being the low-scoring battle that the starting-pitcher matchup promises, is the ramification of Charlie Manuel's decision to use his closer yesterday. Cole Hamels was suffocating the Brewers lineup, having shut them out on two singles and a walk through eight innings on a reasonable 101 pitches. He had retired the last eight Milwaukee hitters to face him, and thrown just five pitches in the seventh and 11 in the eighth in doing so. Philly's 3-0 lead created a save situation, however, so Brad Lidge was summoned, and he proceeded to bring the Brewers within a single of tying the game before icing Corey Hart on a 93 mph fastball down the middle to end it. All's well that ends well for the Phanatics, of course, but Lidge needed to expend a season-high 35 pitches to get through the ninth, which could hamper his availability for tonight's game. Even a fatigued Lidge might still be a better bet than Torres to close out a lead, however, for the Brewers' stopper has given up 12 runs on 17 hits over 8 2/3 innings during his last 10 outings.

Matchup: Dodgers (84-78) at Cubs (97-64), 8:35 p.m. CT, TBS
Probable Starters: Chad Billingsley (200 2/3 IP, 3.41 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 201 K) vs. Carlos Zambrano (188 2/3, 4.05, 1.29, 130)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 87-75 (700 RS, 648 RA); Chicago, 98-63 (855 RS, 671 RA)
Final Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #11; Chicago, #2
Series Favorite: Dodgers, 61.8%
Prospectus: Entering this October, there had been 52 five-game series played in major league post-season history dating back to the advent of the league championship series in 1969, and the team that took the first game went on to win 35 of those, almost exactly two-thirds. (Oddly enough, the first-game winner has captured 23 out of 26 NLDS since the playoffs were expanded in 1995, while their junior circuit counterparts have gone just 12-14 after winning the opener of the ALDS.) That doesn't quite capture the challenge that Chicago now faces, however, for it has lost the home-field advantage and still has to play two in Los Angeles-in the old days, all the way through 1997, the favored team opened up with two games on the road before coming home for the final three, and in that 2-3 format losing the first game was not quite as stressful for the favored squad.

Now having dropped seven straight post-season contests, the Cubs will have to get after Billingsley, who was the 10th-best pitcher in the NL this year, to avoid facing elimination at Dodger Stadium on Saturday. They will also need to rely upon Zambrano, who has taken flakiness to a new level lately. In his first start after missing a turn due to shoulder soreness, Zambrano tossed a no-hitter while striking out 10, then allowed three hits to the first three batters he faced in his next outing, ending up with eight runs on his ledger in less than two innings. Zambrano did little to allay worry over his balky rotator cuff in his last trip to the mound eight days ago, for he walked four Mets and gave up a grand slam to Carlos Delgado before leaving in the fifth inning. Things really haven't been right for El Toro since early August-from the ninth of that month onward he sports a 7.93 RA in 42 innings over eight starts, five of which saw him allow five or more runs. On the season, Zambrano ranks second among qualifying NL pitchers in Flake rating, behind the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda (who the Cubs will see on Saturday), so the old cliché of "which 'Player X' will show up tonight" is apt in anticipation of Big Z's Game Two effort.

In the series preview, Christina Kahrl wrote that Mark DeRosa should be moved to right field, Mike Fontenot to second base, and Kosuke Fukudome to the bench for Chicago's playoff push, as "between Fontenot's slugging and the reverse gaijin's terrible second-half slump, it's really a no-brainer." Unfortunately for Cubs fans, it appears that Lou Piniella doesn't see it that way, for he put Fukudome in right field and the two hole and kept Mike Fontenot on the bench for Game One. If the second-half reality of the two players' offensive merits needed further emphasis, it was provided by the 0-for-4 night from Fukudome and the pinch-hit single from Fontenot. Fukudome ended the season with his batting average having declined in every month: from .327 in April, it fell to .293, then .264, .236, .193, and finally .178 in September, and his OBP dropped each month as well. This drum has been beaten before, but Fontenot did nothing but hit in his 284 plate appearances, leading the 13 Cubs players with 100 or more PA in OBP and MLVr, yet he got only 115 PA after the All-Star break.

On a night when the wind blew in at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles-which ranked 13th amongst NL teams in homers this season-used a surprising barrage of long balls to silence the Wrigleyville crowd and pick up its second victory in a playoff game since its 1988 championship season. After quickly falling behind in the count 0-2, at 1-2 James Loney wound up hitting the third grand slam in Dodgers post-season history-the first two both came in the 1977 NLCS against Philly, and were hit by Ron Cey and Dusty Baker-while Manny Ramirez golfed a ball out to left-center to give the Dodgers a 5-2 lead, and Russell Martin followed with another solo shot. The homer by Ramirez was his 25th of the postseason, extending his major league record. Ramirez also collected a single, which gave him 97 post-season hits and moved him past Chipper Jones into a tie with Kenny Lofton at third on the all-time list behind Derek Jeter (153) and Bernie Williams (128). Ramirez is also second in post-season RBI, third in total bases, third in extra-base hits, and fourth in times on base. Of course, Ramirez has also had the fifth-most playoff at-bats in which to rack up those numbers.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Mike Fontenot

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