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Bullpens could be the difference in NL Championship Series matchup between Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers

They're on a familiar path, facing the Dodgers for the second straight year in the National League Championship Series, but this time the Phillies don't know how it's going to end.

Whereas manager Joe Torre's overpowering Dodgers bullpen appears automatic, the Phillies' is on Manuel — subject to the gut feelings, and stomach churnings, of manager Charlie Manuel.

Brad Lidge had been the Phillies closer until he wasn't. Then he was again in the final two games against the Rockies, but he might not be. Then again, he's probably — 11 blown saves, 0-8 record and 7.21 regular-season ERA aside — still the best option they have, better than Ryan Madson, Scott Eyre, Pedro Martinez or Chan Ho Park (who may be added).

"I've always stuck with (Lidge)," Manuel said, with perhaps just a bit of misremembering. "I never once gave up on him because I've always known that he could always get back to where he was at."

So as the teams with the NL's best regular-season records begin best-of-seven play tonight for the right to be massive underdogs to the Angels-Yankees survivor, the contrast in the bullpens looms as the most significant difference.

Torre's gang isn't particularly well known, but it's very effective and quite overpowering — leading the majors with a 3.41 bullpen ERA, .233 batting average against and 1.25 WHIP, the average of walks and hits per inning. (But also 26 blown saves, second most.)

From the back forward, there's closer Jonathan Broxton, the 6-4, 240-(cough, cough)pounder who throws in the 96-99 mph range and was the hardest pitcher to hit in either league, allowing a .165 average. Then dominant lefties in (former O's closer) George Sherrill (two runs allowed in 30 games since the trade) and Hong-Chih Kuo, and power righties in Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso.

"Our bullpen," Dodgers Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw said, "speaks for itself."

Knowing the end of the games may be exciting, here are five other things to look for:

This old man: Yes, that's the Jim Thome, the 39-year-old 564-home run hitter, lurking in Dodger blue for a key pinch-hit opportunity. And he's joined by a handful of other familiar names, veterans who have accepted their limited roles and can be key contributors, on the deepest bench around: Infielders Juan Castro, Orlando Hudson and Mark Loretta (who won Game 2 of the NLDS), outfielder Juan Pierre and catcher Brad Ausmus. … The Phillies bench includes its own conversation piece: 35-year-old infielder Miguel Cairo, an original Ray.

Leaning left: The Phillies are going right when their three lefty sluggers — Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez, the second lefty trio in MLB history with 30-plus homers — are locked in.

How the Dodgers handle them, with lefties Kershaw, the 21-year-old sensation, in the opener and crafty veteran Randy Wolf bumped back to Game 4, and Kuo and Sherrill lined up in the pen, will be key. (The Phillies, were an NL-best 29-16 vs. lefty starters.)

It also will be interesting to see if Manuel decides to mess with success and split them up — they typically hit 3-4-5 — either bumping up Jayson Werth (who hit .302 with 14 HRs vs. lefties) or dropping down Shane Victorino.

Is Manny the man? The Dodgers don't know which Manny Ramirez is going to show up; heck, Ramirez may not even know. The one who appeared disinterested and didn't produce much (.255, 34 RBIs in 68 games) in the second half of the season? The one who showed some signs of the life against the Cardinals? The one who hit .533 with seven RBIs in last year's NLCS? The one who walked out of a doctor's office with a prescription for a women's fertility drug, leading to his 50-game suspension?

Cool Papa Cole: Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels was dominant through the postseason last year — as if Rays fans need a reminder — but hasn't been as sharp this season. He was ineffective in Game 2 vs. the Rockies, excused perhaps as his wife was set to give birth to their first child. Now six days into fatherhood, he's set for Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, where he's 2-0, 1.17 ERA in three starts, including last year's Game 5 NLCS clincher, his second win of the series.

Those young Hollywood stars: The Dodgers are tradition and history and Torre and the same stories Tommy Lasorda has been telling for decades, but they have a wave of young talent that is sensational and a big reason for their success. That includes outfielder Andre Ethier, who hit 31 homers (including four walkoffs) and drove in a team-high 106 runs; outfielder Matt Kemp, who hit .297 with 26 homers and 101 RBIs; first baseman James Loney, who drove in 90 runs; and catcher Russell Martin, a two-time All-Star by age 26.

Data points: Dodgers won season series 4-3. … Phillies beat Rockies in four games to advance; Dodgers swept NL favorite Cardinals. … By adding right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (who missed the first round with a neck injury), the Dodgers are expected to move Chad Billingsley to the pen and drop Jon Garland. … Martinez and Werth are former Dodgers; Vicente Padilla, Thome and Wolf former Phillies.

topkin Prediction: Dodgers in 7.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

NLCS

Dodgers vs. Phillies

Game 1: at Los Angeles, 8:07 tonight, TBS, 1040-AM

ALCS

Yankees vs. Angels

Game 1: at New York, 7:57 Friday, Ch. 13, 1040-AM

Bullpens could be the difference in NL Championship Series matchup between Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers 10/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 11:31pm]
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