1) Give me your thoughts on Brad Lidge. Have his struggles been overblown this season? Are you confident with him as closer, or should the job go to someone else?
No, no, and sort of. Lidge's struggles have absolutely not been overblown; if anything they've been underblown (invented word!). His 7.21 ERA could actually have been higher if not for the fact that several of his worst outings were interrupted by the opponents' celebrations at home plate after he served up a walk-off of some kind.
He's been atrocious and there's no way to mitigate it. I'll always love him for 2008 and remain optimistic that he can recapture some of his previous magic... in 2010.
I don't think the Phillies can afford to anoint a "closer" given the struggles of all of the back-of-the-bullpen guys (including nominal New Closer Ryan Madson). They need to play matchups, and with Scott Eyre's appearance in the ninth inning of Game Four versus Colorado, we might be getting a sense that Charlie Manuel intends to do just that.
2) From afar, Cole Hamels looks like the same pitcher as last season based on his peripherals, yet his ERA is over a run worse (4.32 vs. 3.09). Have you noticed any differences between the 2008 and 2009 versions of Hamels that would help explain his rise in ERA?
It's mostly been rotten luck, like you implied. He's still missing bats, he's not walking anyone, but his BABIP is appreciably worse than in 2008, when it was abnormally low. Part of the explanation might rest on the hangover from last season, when he threw a combined 262.1 innings between the regular and postseason, nearly 80 innings more than his previous season high. He's still capable of dominance, but now we're taking it on a game-by-game basis, rather than expecting brilliant outings every night.
Also, in case people forget: Hamels is just 25 years old! He's still a young pitcher, still learning on the job.
3) Since it appears Joe Mauer will win his first MVP award this season, does Chase Utley assume the mantle of "best player without an MVP" or "player better than MVP-winning teammates, yet without an MVP"?
I guess you could say Derek Jeter, if you wanted to acknowledge him in an Al Pacino "Scent of a Woman" way. But yeah, you're generally right on. Chase Utley inhabits that weird limbo where he's widely acknowledged and appreciated for his greatness, but he never had and may never have that one eye-popping season that makes the awards voters take notice. If he ever pops 40 homers, or hits .340, we might have something, but as it is I think we're just going to have to enjoy they guy as he somewhat quietly continues his Hall of Fame level career. That said, he's the best player on the Phillies, has been for several years, and it's not really even close. Season to season, he's pretty consistently the 3rd to 6th best player in the National League.4) What Phillies player or players are the key(s) to winning this series?
The aforementioned Cole Hamels. If he can dominate, and help the Phillies steal Game One in Los Angeles, and pitch well in a likely Game Five start, he could singularly chart the Phillies' course to the World Series. Cliff Lee covered the NLDS; it's on Hamels to take charge of the NLCS.
On the offensive side of the ball, former Dodger Jayson Werth. Werth demolishes lefty pitching (1.080 OPS), which the Dodgers will be piling on primarily in an attempt to neutralize Ryan Howard. If Werth can rake against the likes of Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw, it'll soften or eliminate the impact of Ryan Howard's relative incompetence against them.
5) What Dodger player or players do you fear the most?
Pitching-wise, Clayton Kershaw. When he's on, he's as good as anyone in baseball. Best strategy against him is to make him work and try to get into an admittedly strong bullpen, where at least you stand a chance.
On offense, Andre Ethier. I'm still pretty traumatized from that series in L.A. earlier this season.
6) Who could eat the most Subway sandwiches in a 10-minute span: Ryan Howard or Jonathan Broxton?
I was and remain appalled that a guy who plies his trade in Philadelphia does ads for Subway. It's the City of Subs (or "Hoagies" to use the local term). Jocking for a terrible national chain joint is disappointing.
That said, Howard has dropped about 25 pounds since last season and has become an unstoppable force on the basepaths (eight steals!). Broxton, on the other hand, just looks like he's gotten fatter. I guess I'll take Howard based on his familiarity with the product, and the knowledge that if he lost the contest, Jared would murder his family. It's a great motivator.
7) Dodger fans seem to get singled out from national announcers for arriving late and leaving early, despite evidence of fans of other teams doing the same. Are there any national perceptions of Philadelphia sports fans that you take issue with?
Where to begin? The booing Santa Claus thing needs to die, yesterday. "Santa" was a drunk college student in a rotten costume, and it dates to the Frankin Field days of the 1960s. It was a poor effort from an awful Eagles franchise and deserved booing. I have no defense for throwing batteries at J.D. Drew. It happened, but again arose from Phillies management's miserable handling of the negotiations with Scott Boras back in 1997.
None of this is to say that Philadelphia fans haven't engaged in some awful, savage behavior -- oh yes, they have (read about their racially-motivated mistreatment of Dick Allen in the 1960s) -- but most of it is in the distant past. The general perception that Philadelphia fans are the worst and only fans to engage in such behavior is what gets to me.
In sum, it's unfair to paint all Dodgers fans with the "arrive late, leave early!" stereotype, just like it's not right to assume that all Phillies fans are baby-eating savages.
8) John Kruk: lovable and revered ex-Phillie, or national buffoon?
Both! He was very good but odd player, a smart hitter, but I always wonder how great he could have been if he had taken care of himself. He spent a season or two in the broadcast booth as the Phillies' color guy and did a pretty good job; he's funny, relaxed, and confident. The problem arises when you try to extract meaningful, astute analysis. He bats about .200 in that regard.
9) What is your prediction for this series?
Phillies win in 6 (you expected something else?). The Dodgers are better than last year, no doubt, but I'm confident in the Phillies' lineup's ability to put runs on the board, and the starting pitching between Hamels, Lee, and your choice of Joe Blanton and Pedro Martinez gets a slight edge over the Dodgers.
Thanks, Peter! Here's to a good series.