— Now that the best night in regular-season history has set the eight-team postseason field, it's time to examine the question of who can beat the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies — and how.
First, the bad news for everybody else lies in the obvious. Even in a season when MLB offense dropped to a two-decade low, the numbers put up by the Phillies staff are special:
Their 3.02 ERA is the lowest in the majors since the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2.95 mark in 1989. The Phillies' ERA also is .61 runs lower than Milwaukee's, .72 lower than St. Louis', and .78 lower than Arizona's.
With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee leading the way, the staff's strikeout/walk ratio of 3.22 is the second-highest in history behind the 2006 MInnesota Twins.
The Phillies' rotation ERA is a major-league-low 2.86; and even more impressively, it was compiled in a major-league-leading 1,064.2 innings. NL rotations leading the majors in innings pitched is freakish, but it can happen when the top three of Halladay (233.2), Lee (232.2) and Cole Hamels (216) fall only about one start each short of a combined 700 innings.
Phillies starters also totaled 18 complete games — or five more than the other three NL playoff teams combined. Six of those were shutouts by Lee. Right down the line — strikeouts, walks, opponents' batting average, etc. — the rotation numbers clearly are all Phillies.
And don't forget about the other half of their pitching-and-defense formula. The Phillies led the NL with a franchise-low 74 errors — 16 fewer than Arizona, 37 fewer than Milwaukee and 42 fewer than the Cardinals, who were tied for 13th in the NL.
But the last half-dozen paragraphs notwithstanding, there are ways to beat the Phillies. And we're not just talking about their after-the-clinch lull that led to an eight-game losing streak. You can forget about that; the Phillies showed their postseason readiness by sweeping the Braves in Atlanta to knock them out and pave the way for the Cardinals.
But let's start with the Phillies' record against playoff teams this season: 12-13. The breakdown: 3-6 vs. St. Louis; 3-3 vs. Arizona; 4-3 vs. Milwaukee; 2-1 vs. Texas. Hardly overwhelming.
Most recently, the Phillies lost three of four at home to St. Louis to slide into their post-clinch funk. The pattern of beating them is clear: Hold down their offense enough to beat them in a low-scoring game.
Milwaukee's Randy Wolf and Arizona's Ian Kennedy started shutout victories over the Phillies in April. St. Louis' Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia started back-to-back 2-1 and 3-1 victories over the Phillies in May.
The final scores of the Phillies-Rangers' series: 3-2, 2-0, 2-0 in starts for Texas' C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison. The three Cardinals wins at Citizens Bank Park in mid-September were by 5-0, 4-3 and 4-2.
So quality starting pitching can hold down Charlie Manuel's lineup, particularly left-handers such as Wilson, Wolf and Garcia — the latter of whom will be Cardinals' starter in NLDS Game 1 and likely Game 5, if the series extends that far.
In stark contrast to their pitching numbers, the Phillies' offensive totals are pedestrian when stacked up against the AL playoff teams other than Tampa Bay.
Overall, the Phillies finished 13th in the majors in runs (713), 11th in on-base percentage (.323), 16th in batting average (.253), and 17th in slugging percentage (.395).
Contrast that to the Cardinals, who led the NL in those four categories, and can mash with the AL power lineups, finishing third in the majors in on-base percentage (.343) and fifth in runs (762) and slugging percentage (.425) — although they may have to do it without Matt Holliday (hand tendon) and Rafael Furcal (hamstring).
How much did the Phillies need to acquire Hunter Pence? Among qualifying NL batters, Shane Victorino (29th at .279) and Placido Polanco (30th at .277) were the highest Phillies' finishers after Pence, who was fourth at .314.
One more thing. The Phillies did lead the NL in converting saves at an 84 percent clip. Manuel deserves credit for wading through a handful of closers after Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras went down, and settling on the highly effective Ryan Madson, who made the move from the setup role.
Antonio Bastardo also has dominating numbers, but he'll likely be the only left-hander in Manuel's pen. That could create the need for Vance Worley (whose numbers are better against lefties than righties) to face lefties in late-inning, high-leverage situations after filling a rotation spot all season.
There are comparable — arguably better — back ends of the bullpen in these playoffs. We submit Milwaukee's John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez; New York's Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano; Texas' Neftali Feliz, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando; Detroit's Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit; even Arizona's J.J. Putz and David Hernandez.
The Phillies should be favored to win it all for the second time in four years. They have the best starting rotation. Nobody has more postseason experience, as this is their fifth consecutive appearance, with two pennants and one World Series title.
Pence and Lee make them better than last year. They have the clear motivation to win again in a small window with this particular group of players. And they will have home-field advantage all the way through the World Series.
But there are better teams than the 2010 San Francisco Giants lurking out there this October.