Previewing the Fall Classic with Phillies writer Chuck Hixson.
After Cole Hamels, there seems to be a considerable drop off in the starting rotation. Do you agree?
Chuck: There is a drop off, but I wouldn’t say it’s considerable. After returning from a stint in the minors to “find himself," Brett Myers was one of the best pitchers in baseball, posting a 3.06 ERA with two complete games after the All-Star Break. Jamie Moyer struggled against the Dodgers, but he has also pitched well and is one of the smarter pitchers around. While Joe Blanton’s numbers aren’t great, he generally keeps the Phillies in the game and has pitched well in the postseason.
The Phillies’ bullpen has been excellent all season. Brad Lidge gets a lot of credit (deservedly so), but which relievers are overlooked?
Chuck: Ryan Madson has had a big season for the Phillies and pitched them out of some very tight spots in the NLCS. He’s at a point in his career where he could possibly be a closer on another club and would take over that role in Philadelphia if not for Lidge. Another key has been Scott Eyre, who the Phillies picked up from the Chicago Cubs. He’s given them a second strong left-hander to compliment J.C. Romero out of the pen.
Does Ryan Howard need to pick it up in order for the Phils to win it all?
Chuck: The Phillies have enough weapons even without Howard. Early in the season, Howard’s numbers were hideous. He didn’t go over the Mendoza line to stay until May 22, but the Phillies were 27-21 (.563) and they went 65-49 (.570) the rest of the way. There’s no doubt that they’re a much better team when Howard is hitting, and if you look at September when Howard hit .352, the Phillies were 17-8 (.680), but Howard isn’t the only piece of their offense.
Howard is garnering some serious consideration for National League M.V.P. Is this justified?
Chuck: I think it’s justified in that you can make an argument that without Ryan Howard’s bat in September, the Phillies might not have made the playoffs. However, the critics will say – and I think they’re right – that it’s tough to give the MVP honor to someone who hit just .251 on the season, which would be the lowest average ever for an MVP winner.
Who on the Phillies do you expect to turn in a surprise performance in the World Series?
Chuck: Here’s a name for you; Greg Dobbs. It’s likely that he’ll get some at-bats as the DH and he’s got a nice swing. Word is that if Pat Burrell leaves via free agency, the Phillies will consider moving Dobbs to left and have him play everyday in left field. The problem with that is that he’s a left-handed hitter and the Phillies have enough of them. He could be a good name to remember. Of the regulars, I think Shane Victorino is under rated and can catch some people by surprise. His brush with Hiroki Kuroda in the NLCS ignited him and the Phillies and he can do a lot of damage both offensively and defensively.
Which facet of the game is the Phillies’ biggest area of strength/weakness?
Chuck: The strength is how they can keep getting after a team. They have a great stolen base percentage and play aggressive ball. You can never count them out of a game and there is a lot of fire and passion in this club. As for the weakness, the Phillies sometimes miss opportunities to put another club away. They’ll get into a key spot where a big hit would break the other club’s back and they can’t get what they need.
What do the Phillies need to do most in order to win the series?
Chuck: I think it’s what both teams need; starting pitching. If the starters can keep Tampa Bay from doing much damage, the bullpen is lights out as long as they don’t have to be used too much.
What will hold the Phillies back?
Chuck: Lack of hitting with runners in scoring position. As I said earlier, they’re sometimes unable to put a team away at key points.
Chase Utley is a stud. He got off to a fast start, but cooled off a bit towards the end of the summer. When you consider his defense, he is the most valuable position player on the Phils, in my opinion. Is that a fair statement?
Chuck: I think that is a fair statement. Let’s put it this way. There have been rumors throughout Ryan Howard’s career that maybe the Phillies would be best off trading him and he has in fact been dangled as trade bait a few times, but Utley has never been put out there, even when he was a young player coming up through the system.
Carlos Ruiz had a poor offensive season. Is his defense behind the plate strong enough to justify giving him so many at-bats? Will he be the Phillies’ starting catcher in 2009?
Chuck: The Phillies pitchers will tell you just how important Ruiz is behind the plate. I can almost guarantee that at some point in this series, and maybe a few times during the series, he’ll snap a throw to first to try to pick off a runner and will either get him or at least come very close. He calls a good game and even veteran pitcher Jamie Moyer has said that Ruiz knows what he’s doing. There was a key game late in the season when Ruiz went out to Moyer on the mound and let him know that he wasn’t getting the job done and Moyer credited Ruiz with calling him out at a key time. Will he be the starting catcher, that’s an interesting question. The Phillies have two young catching prospects – Jason Jaramillo and Lou Marson – and both appear to be ready to play in the majors. Catching could be a battle ground next Spring.
Shane Victorino is a tremendous defensive center fielder. Going on defense alone, would you take him or B.J. Upton?
Chuck: Wow, tough call. Maybe a slight edge to Victorino, but it’s very slight and I really couldn’t argue with anyone who would choose Upton.
If the Phillies lose Game 1 with Hamels on the mound, how concerned should they be?
Chuck: They should be concerned, but it’s not life or death. You always want your ace to win, but as I said earlier, the rest of the rotation is pretty good, so it won’t be panic time.
Hamels has had an excellent run in three postseason starts? What should Rays fans expect out of him, stuff-wise?
Chuck: Hamels has one of the best change-ups in the game and he’ll throw it at any time. He’s the kind of pitcher that you generally need to get to early and I think that will be especially true for Game 1. Once he settles in, he can be absolutely dominating. His fastball isn’t great, but it’s got late movement and he throws a breaking ball that can keep hitters guessing. He’ll mix his pitches well and out think hitters.
What is one thing that Rays fans should be most scared about when thinking about the Phils?
Chuck: The fact that they can beat you so many ways. They can win 1-0, they can get into a 10-8 hitting battle with you. They have power, they have speed and they will find a way to win ball games.
Back in 1993 when the Phillies made last made it to the World Series, Whoomp There It Is was the team’s theme song? Do they have a similar song this year?
Chuck: No, there really isn’t one song that epitomizes this team this year.
Brad Lidge has been perfect in 46 save opportunities, but he leaves Philadelphia fans on the edge of their seat. Do you see him giving up a run in the series?
Chuck: Coming into the series with the Dodgers, I predicted that Lidge would blow one of the games, because he looked a little shaky coming into the series. He didn’t blow any and seemed to find his second wind. It will be interesting to see what the week-long layoff does to him. It may have given him a chance to rest, but my concern is that he had too much time to rest.
What do the Rays have to do, in your eyes, to take home the trophy?
Chuck: Against both Milwaukee and Los Angeles, the Phillies' philosophy against the big guns – Prince Fielder and Manny Ramirez – was to keep the guys ahead of them in the lineup off the bases, to minimize the damage that the power bats could do. With Upton and Evan Longoria both being so hot, the Phillies have a lot of work to do in that department and if they stay hot, it’s going to be an issue for the Phillies. Also, just as the Phillies have to block out the noise in the dome, the Rays are going to be hit hard by a loud and yes, obnoxious crowd in Philly. Their young players have to be prepared for that and not let it get to them.
What is your prediction? How many games?
Chuck: I think the Phillies in six games. The Phillies have a more veteran ball club and I think it’s going to be tough for the Rays when they hit Philly, although I think they’ll handle it well enough to take the series back to Tampa Bay. One key is that rain is predicted for Saturday night in Philly and the Phillies are generally not a good team in sloppy weather, so that could give the Rays a bit of an open door to steal one if that game is played.
Chuck Hixson is the lead writer and publisher for PhillyBaseballNews.com.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.