Let's start with the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals, who like the Rays, surged their way into the playoffs, beating out the Red Sox brethren in the art of the collapse, the Atlanta Braves. It wasn't a good year for the Cardinals up until late August, then Albert Pujols turned around his year, and Tony La Russa started taking a firmer role with the pitching staff and bullpen once Dave Duncan left the team to be with his wife. It's been tough for the Redbirds without Adam Wainwright all year, and they have patched together a staff led by Chris Carpenter, and a bullpen that only recently started to gel. Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia have been decent, but will have to be extraordinary to match the Phillies arms. The Cardinals bats don't have as much to match; they still have Pujols, plus Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. They arguably have the better lineup when compared to their opponents.
Meanwhile, the Phillies lineup continues to get older and less productive (aside from Shane Victorino). Jimmy Rollins is the NL-version of 2010 Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard is more and more becoming a feast of famine hitter and Chase Utley just can't stay healthy for a full year. You'd be more worried if not for the fact that the Phillies can trot out the best pitching rotation since the 90s era Braves. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are as formidable a quartet of arms as any in history. I mean Hamels carried the Phillies to the title in 2008 and he's now the number 3 starter. Doc shows up in postseason play last year, and all he does is throw a no-hitter. Lee has swung the pennant for the last two years with his pitching, particularly last year. And everyone forgets Oswalt because his last postseason play before last year was in Houston back in 2004-05 as well as the fact he's struggled with injury this year. One last thing about the Phillies, the bullpen is not weak. Ryan Madson has filled the role of closer superbly and it appears the Brad Lidge is back as a setup man, which for some reason, I think can work out. If the Phillies go down, it won't be against the Cards. This should be like their series with the Reds last year and I see a sweep.
The final first round series is the one that's starting within an hour as the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks will take on the powerful Milwaukee Brewers. Power is the word for the Brewers in their approach to hitting and pitching. The Brewers three-headed monster of Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum are as good as any trio not named Halladay, Lee and Hamels. They are also supported with a vastly improved bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez as the setup man and John Axford as the closer, who's been a gem this season. We all know the Brewers lineup with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder as the biggest threats, but once you start rattling names like Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks, then you have the most formidable lineup in the NL and one any team would be wary to face, especially at Miller Park, where the Brewers have a majors leading 57-24 record at home.
That's the challenge for the Diamondbacks, who seemed to win the NL West with ease after back-to-back losing seasons. The story most of the nation knows about Arizona is pitcher Ian Kennedy's breakout season which saw him win 20 and Justin Upton as the dominant bat in the lineup, but that's not fair to Kirk Gibson's team. They have Miguel Montero, who's just as much a run producer as Upton, despite lesser power. You also happen to be dealing with arguably the best fielding team in baseball, and just so happened to score more runs this year than Milwaukee. The pitching staff for the DBacks are solid behind Kennedy, with Daniel Hudson as the best of the rest. The real pitching story is the improved bullpen that they have. This team had the worst bullpen in baseball the last few years, but led by closer JJ Putz, David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler, they are impressive. Just not impressive enough to outlast the Brewers with home-field advantage, as Milwaukee will win a hard-fought 5 game series.