If there were a series that the Philadelphia Phillies could put some of the early-season missed opportunities behind them and inject themselves into the conversation as a contender in the NL East, the four-game set starting Monday in Los Angeles against the 12-7 Dodgers would be a good place to start. After a wild win to close out a series with the Rockies the Phillies, despite sitting in last place in the division, sport an acceptable 8-10 record. With the teams ahead of them each dealing with their own separate set of issues, a series win against one of the top teams in baseball in their stadium could be a nice boost to close out the month of April. It is also worth mentioning that, for the first time in 2014, the Phillies will have their projected pitching rotation set for their tangle with the NL West-leading Dodgers.
The return of Cole Hamels, who is projected to start Wednesday evening against Cy Young contender Zack Greinke, is as good of news as Phillies fans have received this season. The team has done a relatively admirable job stemming the tide without their prized southpaw, but missed opportunities and sloppy play have prevented them from building up any sort of momentum in the early portions of the season. Nevertheless, they sit just a game behind the 3rd place Mets and two and a half behind the Nationals for second in the division. Needless to say, at just two games under .500, some of the scouts claiming the Phillies to be among the worst teams to ever take a Major League Baseball field were apparently a bit overdramatic when putting Philadelphia to the ‘eye test’.
A major step in the right direction for this team would be a series win against a team many feel will represent the National League in the World Series. The boys in blue are coming off taking two of three at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks to pump up their record to 12-7. In fact, seven of their 12 wins have come against their floundering division foe as they sport a 5-6 record against the rest of their schedule. Los Angeles is 4-4 at home this season and the Phillies will be fortunate enough to not have to deal with 2013 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw as he recovers from a slight back injury.
Even without Kershaw, the foursome set to take the hill for the Dodgers against the Phillies top-of-the-rotation should make for some strong matchups. In the opener, Cliff Lee (2-2, 4.00 ERA) will try to replicate his last outing, albeit with a different result in the win-loss column, against Los Angeles lefty Paul Maholm . Maholm is 5-3 in his career against Philadelphia and has been a serviceable fill-in for Kershaw as the prized lefty attempts to return to the rotation. A.J. Burnett, in his second start since being diagnosed with a hernia, will look for his first win as a Phillie as he squares off with Hyun-Jin Ryu. In Kershaw’s absence, the South Korean starter has gone 3-1 with a tidy 1.93 ERA and 25 strikeouts. Ryu has only a no-decision in his one career start against Philadelphia, but did so while pitching seven innings and giving up two earned runs. The Hamels-Greinke showdown will serve as the spotlight game of the series on Wednesday night. The two teams will wrap up the set on Thursday, when Kyle Kendrick and Dan Haren, whom the Phillies faced four times last season when the righty was in Washington, square off.
The Dodgers once again sport one of the more formidable lineups in the NL to go along with a pitching staff that, when healthy, is perhaps the best in baseball. Shortstop Dee Gordon, who appears to have shaken the label of a floundering prospect unable to stay at the major league level, has done marvelous work setting the table for the Dodgers run-producers. With a .409 on-base percentage and 10 stolen bases to go with his .367 batting average, Gordon is among the most dynamic surprises of the season for a team already loaded with weapons. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been the team’s primary source of power in the early going, blasting five home runs and driving in 17 runs. Though Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig have yet to hit their stride like last season, the contributions of Juan Uribe, Andre Ethier, and even Matt Kemp (three home runs) have sufficiently kept Don Mattingly‘s club among the most potent at the plate in the league.
Much like the Phillies, the Dodgers bullpen can provide angst for a team short on apparent weaknesses. Despite closer Kenley Jansen already locking down seven saves and Chris Perez, from whom the team brought over from the Indians, looking like one of the top acquisitions of the offseason, there are still chinks in the armor of the Los Angeles back-end. Their $10 million investment in former Giant closer Brian Wilson has not yielded strong early results, as ‘the Beard’ currently sports a 10.13 ERA in four appearances. That said, relievers J.P. Howell and Chris Withrow have been almost unhittable for the Dodgers giving up a combined two earned runs in over 17 innings of collective work.
What has perhaps been most apparent about this year’s Phillies team is that, as expected, they will only go as far as their big players take them. If Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins are producing at a favorable clip, it tends to have a contagious effect on the rest of the team. Even with the bullpen struggles, temporary power outages, and issues in the field; one would probably think the Phillies would be worse off than their 8-10 record might indicate. If nothing else, scattered amongst their eight victories, the Phillies have shown they can win in a variety of fashions. Ryne Sandberg still appears to be gathering his ‘sea legs’ as a manager, but has remained a strong figurehead for the organization throughout the first few weeks of the season. At the very least, a four-game split with the Dodgers would keep the hand off the panic button for the time being. Taking three or four games from the long-time Phillies rival would be a much-needed shot of confidence prior to the team wrapping up their west coast swing against a Diamondbacks team struggling to find an identity.