Phillies (22-23) at St. Louis Cardinals (25-19)
8:15 p.m. on PHL17
The Phillies hit the road for seven games beginning Thursday night and the first stop is St. Louis.
The Phils lost the 2011 NLDS to a Cardinals team that looked markedly different than this one. Gone are Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa. Shelved are Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman.
In for St. Louis, though, is Carlos Beltran, who is having an MVP-type season through his first 42 games. Beltran is batting .292 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .618 slugging percentage. He has 14 home runs and 37 RBI, eight more than any Phillie.
The Cardinals also have the services of Matt Holliday, who was available for just 10 weak plate appearances last October because of injury. So pretty much everything about that particular series can be thrown out.
The Cards have played at a very high level so far in 2012 because of a stacked offense. St. Louis has scored 231 runs to lead the NL, and the closest team (Atlanta, with 221) has played one more game.
Perhaps the scariest part about St. Louis is that it's scored plenty of runs and won plenty of games without Holliday performing up to his standards. He has a .817 OPS this season compared to .925 for his career. The Cards used a hot April from David Freese (who is batting .176 in May) and the rejuvenation of .339-hitter Rafael Furcal to make up for Holliday and the loss of Berkman, which has reached 30 games already.
Joe Blanton (4-4, 3.74 ERA) faces Jake Westbrook (4-3, 2.41).
Westbrook is on pace for the best season of his career, but his luck could change at any time. The notable differences in the 34-year-old sinkerballer are his reduced walk rate hes walking 2.2 batters per nine innings compared to 3.3 in 2010-11 and avoidance of home runs. Westbrook allows 18 home runs per season; hes on pace for fewer than 12 this season.
Westbrook throws his 90 mile per hour sinker 64 percent of the time and a slider 18 percent. The remaining 18 percent of his pitches are curveballs, changeups and straight four-seam fastballs.
The Phillies have seen him three times in the regular season, and Westbrook is 1-1 with a 3.52 ERA. Westbrook shut the Phils down last May, allowing one run over seven innings despite just one strikeout. Then in September, his control eroded and he walked five batters in addition to allowing five hits over 3 13 innings. The Phils won that game, 9-2.
Blanton struggled in his last start at home to the Red Sox, but has been very consistent so far in 2012. He has the Phillies only complete game and shutout, and has five quality starts (with one near-miss) in eight tries.
Blanton has gotten Beltran out throughout his career, but he hasnt particularly dominated him. Beltran is 3 for 16 off Blanton but only two of those 13 outs were strikeouts.
Holliday, meanwhile, is 3 for 8 off Blanton with two doubles and a home run.
Its all going to begin and end, though, with Furcal. If Blanton and the pitchers that follow him can keep Furcal off the bases, the Phillies have a significantly higher chance of winning this series. The Cards are eight games over .500 when Furcal reaches bases and three games under when he doesnt.
For the Phils, a key matchup is Hunter Pence vs. Westbrook. Pence is 7 for 12 in his career against Westbrook with six singles.
Jimmy Rollins, who will be available for Thursdays game after missing three games while on paternity leave, has also thrived vs. Westbrook. He is 5 for 9.
Overall, the Phillies are batting .324.401.453 off Westbrook.
Notes of interest
-The Phillies are 9-15 in games against teams .500 or better, and 13-8 against teams under .500. Theyll have to start winning some games against good teams, as the next 17 are against clubs with winning records.
-St. Louis has a 3.23 starters ERA and a 4.26 bullpen ERA. Forcing Westbrooks exit prior to the seventh inning is a key.
Which team do you think is the best in the National League right now?
E-mail Corey Seidman at email@example.com