After 159 games full of twists, turns and unexpected developments, the Phillies find themselves in a very interesting position as they enter the final series of the regular season.
They have a chance to pull a few levers to enhance their chances of getting the first round opponent that they want come the end of the week. They've got three games with the Braves and the outcome of those games will decide who winds up winning the Wild Card. If it is the Braves, the Phillies will likely play the Diamondbacks. If the Braves continue their epic choke, the Phils will meet the Cardinals.
The first option is the better one for the Phillies. The Diamondbacks are short on both the lefty hitting and lefty pitching that could create problems for the Phillies in a short series. They are also the callowest of the teams in the playoff mix, something that should play right into the hands of a team throwing a Cy Young-caliber pitcher every night of the week.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, have beaten the Phillies six of nine times this season. In Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, they have a middle of the order than give trouble to the best of rotations and their pitching staff is deep enough to make every late inning at-bat a matchup nightmare for the Phillies.
They are also a veteran team that is peaking at exactly the right time. That should sound familiar to the Phillies after running into just such a team in the Giants last season. Those teams don't just believe they can go on an extended run, they know they can because they've been around long enough to see it happen.
The Phils can only do so much to impact the outcome of the Wild Card race. If the Cards don't beat up on the Astros, it doesn't matter what happens to the Braves. That said, there are things the Phillies can do to get the desired outcome.
Play starters in the games to keep them crisp, but remove them after five or six innings to make sure they also get plenty of rest. Cliff Lee pitches enough today to assure no rust and Cole Hamels makes a relief appearance at some point, but there's no need to push any pitchers too far in the next three games. Let the late innings look like Spring Training games, in other words, and don't lose too much time worrying about whether or not the Braves wind up winning games.
Keeping the throttle at about 75 percent serves all interests. You're not laying down and you're not taking undue risks with your players. The first few innings of the games will be the same as always and if the Phillies can't take advantage late, then they don't deserve to be in the playoffs anyway.
The Phillies have fought this long to earn the top spot in the playoffs. They might as well do what they can to make sure they like the team they're playing.