The Phillies will begin their final regular season series tonight, taking on the Braves in Atlanta for three games before heading off into the playoffs, with Cliff Lee taking the hill in the first game. They find themselves in a very strange position in this series. Though they’ve already secured the division title and home field advantage, they can still put a heavy influence on their playoff run with how they perform against Atlanta.
Right now the Braves have been sputtering and have limped through the final weeks of the regular season. Their poor play has allowed St.Louis back into the playoff picture, and the Braves hold just a one-game lead over the surging Cardinals for the Wild Card spot. The Cardinals play the lowly Houston Astros to close out their season.
Should the Phillies fear the Cardinals if they can sneak into the playoffs? Absolutely. Too often in baseball, a hot team is capable of upsetting a team that outclasses them in the talent. The Phillies have gotten a taste of this lesson twice in the last four years.
In 2007, the Phillies drew the Colorado Rockies as their first-round opponent. The Rockies rode a late season surge into the playoffs, and not only swept the Phillies in the NLDS, but also swept the NLCS before losing to the Red Sox in the World Series.
Just last season, the Phillies ran into the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. The Giants pitching performed at an unbelievable level, and their offense, led by the likes of Cody Ross, Pat Burrell, and Edgar Renteria provided timely hitting to beat the Phillies, and eventually win a World Series.
Not only would the Cardinals be a hot team entering October, but they have a roster filled with playoff-savvy veterans (including the likes of Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman), and a pretty good pitching staff that has had good success against the Phillies throughout their careers.
I believe that it would be in the best interest of the Phillies to play their regular starters as little as possible, and put the Braves in the best possible position to win these games. They could end the threat of the Cardinals before it starts, and would likely draw the inexperienced Arizona Diamondbacks for the NLDS. However, I don’t believe that the Phillies will take such an approach. They won’t go into a hole for three games to try to avoid an opponent, regardless of how dangerous they may be. They’ll use these three games as a final tune up for their regulars, and get themselves as prepared as possible for whoever their first-round opponent is. Hopefully it won’t be a decision that they end up regretting.