Quick start, experience are keys for Phillies
Playoff-tested veterans must strike early as NLCS comes home
PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies fought off elimination in Game 5 in San Francisco on Thursday night, and now they return home for a Game 6 with Roy Oswalt on the mound. It has been seven years since a National League team overcame a 3-1 series deficit in the NL Championship Series and 66 years since one claimed the NL pennant in three consecutive seasons.
What do the Phillies need to do to get back to the World Series? Here are five things to watch for this weekend at Citizens Bank Park.
Score early: The team that has scored first has won four of the first five games in this series, and some early offense will sustain Philadelphia's momentum from the Game 5 victory and get the crowd at Citizens Bank Park into it. The Phillies rode early offense to two of their wins in the NLDS, but they don't own a single hit in the first inning in this series -- although they were able to scratch out a run against Jonathan Sanchez in Game 2 with the help of three walks and an error. Getting Sanchez and San Francisco on their heels early in Game 6 could be huge.
"I think the whole thing is momentum," Oswalt said. "You start hitting, everyone starts hitting, seems like it's contagious. ... When you score early, you get momentum on your side. You kind of build from there."
Experienced starters: Make no mistake: Sanchez and Matt Cain are tremendous young pitchers who have bright futures. But neither of them possesses the kind of big-game credentials owned by both Oswalt and Cole Hamels -- the former an NLCS MVP, the latter an NLCS and World Series MVP. The two have combined for an 11-5 postseason record, and each has pitched a gem this month.
Oswalt admitted on Friday that this chance may not come around again in his career, while Hamels is looking to validate his 2008 breakout postseason after disappointing the Phillies last autumn. A Game 7 start would be the perfect chance for redemption.
Big players in big games: If the Phillies are going to complete this comeback, they're going to need to get something out of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. The key cogs in the middle of the Philadelphia order, neither has driven in a run in this entire series. Their less accomplished counterparts, Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey, have combined for five RBIs.
Howard appears fairly productive at the plate with three doubles in the series, but manager Charlie Manuel suggested on Friday that his slugger is "definitely trying too hard" with runners on base and "needs to slow down" and "just hit a couple balls good."
Utley, on the other hand, has been a non-factor, no matter what the situation. He is just 3-for-19 in the series, a season after going 4-for-19 in the NLCS victory over the Dodgers. Utley scored and/or drove in six of the 13 runs the Phillies scored in the NLDS against Cincinnati; the time will likely come for him to step up with a big hit this weekend.
Add on: It's no coincidence that the two games the Phillies have won in this series are the two in which they've done some damage to the Giants' bullpen. In Game 2, Jimmy Rollins' bases-clearing double essentially iced the game in the seventh inning. In Game 5, Jayson Werth's solo homer in the ninth gave Lidge an extra run of insurance.
As good as the Philadelphia bullpen has been, it never hurts to provide that extra support -- something the Phillies, who finished third in the NL in runs from the seventh inning on, were so good at all season long.
Close the deal: The Giants may have entered the series with the bullpen advantage, but Philadelphia's relief corps has been very good in this series, particularly the trio of Jose Contreras, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge. Contreras has been the biggest surprise, tossing three scoreless innings in the series. Madson, meanwhile, was dominant in striking out the side in the eighth inning of Game 5, and Lidge pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for the save.
With their backs against the wall, the Phillies cannot afford to give anything away late to this opportunistic Giants offense.
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.