For a couple of weeks, the Phillies prepared to play the upstart Diamondbacks or the Brewers, who won their first division title since 1982. Instead, out of nowhere came the Cardinals, red-hot, full of momentum, playoff tested and one of only two teams (the Nationals were the other) to finish this season with a winning record against the Phillies. The Cardinals won't necessarily make it easier or harder for the Phillies, just a little different.
Here are five questions about the series:
1. How good is the Phillies rotation?
This staff is the MVP of the National League. The Phillies' starters had an ERA of 2.86, the first team with a starters' ERA under 3.00 since the 1992 Braves. The Phillies nearly became the first team since the 1985 Dodgers to have four starting pitchers (at least 20 starts) to have an ERA under 3.00, but rookie Vance Worley finished at 3.01. Worley also went 11-3, but he likely won't get a start in the postseason because the Phillies have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Oswalt had been the relative weak link, but now that his back is feeling much better, he is back to throwing like the Oswalt of old. Plus, he has the highest career winning percentage of any active pitcher in the second half of the season, and in September/October. Plus, he is 5-1 lifetime in the postseason.
2. How hot are the Cardinals?
They came from 8.5 games back in September to win the wild card, tying the NL record for the biggest September deficit overcome by a team that went to the playoffs. And they are in no danger of being satisfied with a remarkable comeback. This is a veteran team that knows how to win at this time of year. And because the Cards know what October is about, they were able to recover from some of the worst losses you've ever seen down the stretch. The only thing working against them is that their best starting pitcher, Chris Carpenter, who was needed to pitch Wednesday night (a two-hit shutout over Houston) to get the Cardinals into the playoffs, won't pitch until Game 3. They hope that won't be too late.
3. What is the status of the Cardinals' bullpen?
It is amazing that they are in the playoffs with the bullpen issues they've had this year: They have 13 walk-off losses this year, tied with the Angels for the most in the major leagues. They've been through multiple closers, including Ryan Franklin, who was released after amassing too many blown saves. They used Eduardo Sanchez, then Fernando Salas, and now hard-throwing Jason Motte, who recently became the first pitcher since Ralph Beard in 1954 to allow four runs in an inning without allowing a hit. Manager Tony La Russa is one of the best at handling a bullpen, but it's tough to win in the postseason without a proven closer.
4. How much better are the Phillies than they were last year?
By the numbers, not much. But by the construction of the lineup, it is clearly better due to the addition of Hunter Pence. He provides protection in the lineup behind Ryan Howard, giving them another right-handed hitter in a lineup that had become a little too left-handed. Chase Utley isn't the offensive force he was a few years ago because of his injuries, but his presence in the lineup makes the Phillies a better offensive team whether or not he produces in a big way. The Phillies were knocked out of the playoffs last year by the great pitching of the Giants. They won't be as susceptible to great pitching this year.
5. How much pressure is there on the Phillies?
A tremendous amount. The assembling of the famed starting rotation made this season one in which the Phillies have to win the World Series, or else it will be viewed as a disappointment. Sometimes that drives players, as it likely does a veteran team such as the Phillies. But it can also work against a team. In this case, however, the Phillies' need to avenge last year's loss in the National League Championship Series is stronger than any expectations built up by a great starting staff. It is the only team in major league history to improve its victory total five years in a row, with the beginning of that streak starting with a plus-.500 season. That says they were good, they got better and they keep getting better every season.
PREDICTION: PHILLIES IN FIVE
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN