Monday, October 1, 2007 Updated: October 2, 11:55 AM ET
Rockies' defense, Phillies' offense fueled runs to postseason
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
The top five questions heading into the NL Division Series between the Rockies and Phillies:
Which team has more momentum going in?
It's impossible to imagine two teams entering a playoff series on this kind of high. The Phillies became the third team since 1900 to overcome a seven-game deficit in September, somehow overtaking the Mets to win the NL East. The Rockies finished the season with 14 wins in their final 15 games, the final one an all-time classic in which they beat the all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, with three runs in the bottom of the 13th inning.
"I have no idea how we won this game,'' said Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. No one has any idea how these teams made it to the playoffs, which is why this series might be the best of all.
How good is the Colorado defense?
It's the best in the game. The Rockies made only 68 errors, fewest in the major leagues, 15 fewer than any other National League team. They made 180 double plays, second most in the major leagues. Their improved defense and their speed are the biggest reasons the Rockies made it to the playoffs.
The leader of that defense is Troy Tulowitzki, who made 11 errors and was, perhaps, the best defensive shortstop in the league this year; the last NL shortstop to have as many assists in a season as Tulowitzki was Ozzie Smith.
"He has proved just how special a player he really is,'' said Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd.
In Rockies' history, they've tried every way to win in the thin air of Denver, but the way that has worked the best is to catch the ball better than any team in baseball.
Is the Phillies' bullpen really bad or really good?
The Phils' bullpen ERA of 4.51 was the fourth-highest in the NL. And the Phillies are 14-23 in one-run games, which can suggest either a lack of clutch hitting, or bullpen failures, or both or neither. And yet in the 23 games starting on Sept. 7, the bullpen was 9-2 with a 3.17 ERA and a .216 batting average against.
J.C. Romero has an ERA just over 1.00 in his past 52 appearances. "He's the MVP of their pitching staff,'' one scout said. The Phillies have used multiple closers this year thanks in part to injuries, but their current and best closer, Brett Myers, has been very good lately. And he has done a nice job playing to the wild crowd in Philly.
Can anyone slow down the Phillies' offense?
The Phillies led the NL in runs scored. "I don't know how any pitching staff gets them out,'' said one NL manager. "I haven't seen that good of an offensive team in our league in many years.''
Leadoff man Jimmy Rollins is a dynamic combination of production and speed: 88 extra base hits and 41 stolen bases. Ryan Howard hit 47 home runs and drove in 136 runs, and now he's really hot (nine home runs in the past 13 games). He also has at least one RBI in the past six games, and nine in the past 10. Plus, the toughest out in the Phillies' lineup is second baseman Chase Utley.
The first assignment will go to Rockies' Game 1 starter Jeff Francis, who won 17 games this year. But in two starts against the Phillies this season, he allowed 20 hits and 14 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings.
Is Cole Hamels back as the Phillies' ace after being sidelined with an injury?
Absolutely. Left-hander Cole Hamels was brilliant in his last start, an eight-inning, no-run, 13-strikeout gem against the Nationals on Friday.
"I saw him at his best last year, and I'm not sure I've ever seen him better than the other night,'' one scout said. "His changeup might be the most unhittable pitch in the league.''
Hamels threw 116 pitches, which shows that his endurance and arm strength are back. Hamels is so important because the rest of the Phillies' rotation is far from a certainty. Kyle Kendrick, who was recalled from Double-A this summer to make one start and stayed to win 12 games, will start Game 2. And 44-year-old Jamie Moyer, who pitched the Phillies into the playoffs Sunday, will start Game 3.
Prediction: Phillies in five.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book -- "Is This a Great Game, or What?" -- has been published by St. Martin's Press and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.