Sadly, there only will be room for one Cinderella at the ball.
The Philadelphia Phillies just pulled off a rather amazing trick. They beat two higher-seeded teams for their first playoff series wins in 12 years, mostly while living out of a suitcase, and brought it all home for a raucous celebration on their home field against a very dangerous division rival (and the defending World Series champ), the Atlanta Braves.
That would seem to make them a team of destiny, if not for the fact the team they’re playing in the National League Championship Series just pulled off something even more impressive.
The two lowest seeds entering the National League postseason meet to kick off the NLCS at 8:03 p.m. ET Tuesday, with the San Diego Padres installed as ever-so-slight favorites (-116 at FanDuel) as they try to reach just their third World Series in franchise history. All the Padres did to get here was travel three time zones to beat the 101-win New York Mets, then vanquish their longtime tormentors, the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers, in four games.
Never mind that Major League Baseball’s bean counters might not be delighted to see the Nos. 4 and 27 media markets vying on prime time for a trip to the World Series. This series has the potential to be as close as the odds imply and to send one of these teams into the next round as that always dangerous right team at the right time.
Bullpen depth, fielding favor Padres
Not only are these teams evenly matched, they’ve shown similar styles to get here. It starts with elite starting pitching, with the Padres riding Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove, and the Phillies getting excellent work from Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola.
The length of this series could favor the Padres’ pitching depth, as Musgrove clearly is the better option than the Phillies’ No. 3 starter, Ranger Suarez, who walked five batters in his only postseason start thus far.
The Padres also have the better, deeper bullpen. San Diego relievers just held the mighty Dodgers to one run over 16 innings and have a collective 2.19 ERA and 0.85 WHIP this postseason. The Phillies’ bullpen is improved, but not as deep, with a 4.15 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. In a seven-game series, bullpen depth will be more crucial, but Noah Syndergaard could go a long way toward helping the Phillies bridge the gap to their late-inning guys if he can continue to pitch well in relief.
San Diego also has the better defensive team, a weakness the Phillies have thus far been able to mask. They’ve allowed just one unearned run this postseason, but the more games they play, the more likely Philadelphia’s lack of athleticism in the field could show up. By outs above average, the Padres were the third-best fielding team in MLB this year, while the Phillies ranked 29th.
Alternate view: star power
Neither lineup has been particularly consistent, but that is in keeping with the suppressed run-scoring environment around baseball this postseason.
The Phillies have been the second-best hitting team thus far in the postseason, yet their OPS in seven games of .717 is barely above the league average for the regular season (.706). In keeping with the modern style, both teams have made the most of their hits, with the Padres having mashed nine home runs and the Phillies having hit six.
If the Phillies pull this off, it feels like it will be because Bryce Harper simply wills them to victory. He has been the best hitter in the game this month with 10 postseason hits — six of them going for extra bases, good for a 1.437 OPS. If you’re going to take the odds and play the Phils, it probably also makes sense to nab Harper to hit more than 1.5 home runs in the series (+230 at DraftKings).
Props to consider
While the Phillies have gotten great production from their best hitter, Harper, the Padres are still waiting for Juan Soto to break out this postseason. He was a wrecking ball for the Washington Nationals in the 2019 playoffs, but thus far he has been held to just one extra-base hit (a double) in 31 plate appearances.
Still, Soto is +900 to lead the series in home runs. That’s too high for a guy this good who is showing signs of getting hot. While Soto had just two hits in the last 10 balls he put in play against good Dodgers pitching, seven of them were hit with exit velocities exceeding 100 mph. He’s due.
With two hot pitching staffs and offenses this opportunistic, it feels inevitable that this will be a hard-fought series. The hunch here is it could go seven games. While the Padres might be a slightly stronger team, it won’t be easy to put down Harper and a pitching staff with a knack for getting strikeouts. Taking San Diego to win in exactly seven games (at +450 at DraftKings) feels like a strong play that could lead to more than a week’s worth of action.
Photo: Eric Hartline/USA TODAY