It would have been easy for the Phillies to play complacently this weekend. It has certainly been the habit of the other postseason-bound franchises. Minnesota has been giving away games since the moment they clinched. Even the Yankees and Rays, playing for home-field advantage and a division title, have seemed uninspired of late, as though it matters little to them where or whom they play in the ALDS. Fair enough.
Charlie Manuel and his Phillies, however, realized, facing a three-game finale with the division rival Braves, that if they didn't attempt to put the stake in Atlanta's heart, they might very well regret it. They were, after all, just 8-7 against the Braves entering the weekend, and Atlanta has been near unbeatable in their home ballpark all season. If the Braves managed to clinch the Wild Card they could very easily become a "team of destiny" playing in front of retiring manager Bobby Cox and be Philadelphia's opponent in the NLCS.
Though that scenario is still possible, big wins behind Kyle Kendrick and Antonio Bastardo made it significantly less likely, as the Phils send Cole Hamels and his 2.28 ERA in the second half to the mound on Sunday looking to send Atlanta home for good. If the Braves lose and the Padres beat the Giants, Atlanta's season will be over, as both West Coast team will advance. If the Padres and Braves both lose, they would be on track for a one-game Wild Card playoff.
Both Atlanta and San Francisco could've made the playoff picture a lot simpler by winning a single game this weekend, but their four losses combined have opened up the possibility of not only a Game 163, as we've had in each of the last three seasons, but possibly the first ever Game 164. If the Braves and Padres both win tomorrow, than the Giants will have to remain in San Diego to play a fourth game to decide the NL West Champion on Monday. The loser of that game would then have to travel to Atlanta for a one-game showdown on Tuesday for the NL Wild Card.
Obviously, as a baseball fan, I'm totally psyched about this, as these "win or go home" games have proved absolutely scintillating, but such a road would probably spell doom for the teams involved, as they would be unable to set their rotation for the NLDS, which begins on Wednesday. The Giants, for instance, would probably throw Tim Lincecum on Monday, which would rule him out for the first two games of the NLDS and limit him to just one start in that series. On Tuesday, the Braves would likely turn to Derek Lowe, who won every one of his September starts (5-0), thus making him similarly limited in the first round, were they to advance.
All three of these teams are built on pitching. San Francisco and Atlanta are particularly dependent on their frontline starters. If they are unable to take advantage of that strength, they are almost a synch to get rolled over by a superior, balanced team like the Phillies or Reds.
As a brief aside, the correlation between wins and good fortune has been fervently debated lately, thanks to the truly ridiculous fact that Felix Hernandez has only 13 victories, despite being far and away the best pitcher in the AL this season. We can add a little fuel to that fire by pointing to the year of Ubaldo Jimenez, which ended today with eight inning of three-hit ball against the Cardinals (he left the game tied at zero). Because Jimenez had 15 victories at the All-Star Break, yet will finish with just 19, many will conclude he scuffled in the second half, perhaps even suggest his first three months were flukish. A closer look however shows that Jimenez has made nine quality starts in his last thirteen outings, yet has only the four victories to show for it. On three separate occasions he went 8 innings, yet took a loss or a no decision. His strikeout rate has actually gone up in the second half, while his homerun rate has gone down. Jimenez may have been a little lucky before the break, but he has more than made up for it with bad luck after the break. Don't be fooled.