LOS ANGELES -- This is the part where postseason baseball defies conventional wisdom and any sort of predictability. It is the beauty of the game at its best time of year.
We speak specifically of the National League's postseason. This was, you will vividly recall, supposed to be the October of the Cubs, a drought-breaker, a history-maker.
The Cubs had won 97 games, by far the NL's best record. They were a truly scary 55-26 at home. Plus, it was clearly their turn. No World Series championships in 100 years. No World Series appearances in 63 years.
"The baseball gods reside at Wrigley Field this year, that's all there is to it, I think it has something to do with the 100 years," said a National League manager. This skipper wished to remain anonymous because, you know, nobody wants to go on record as saying the baseball gods are taking care of somebody else's team. But that was definitely the prevailing sentiment about the Cubs; special team, special season.
Boom. Before Game 1 of the Division Series, Cubs management has a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkle holy water in the Cubs dugout in an effort to counteract a 1945 curse from a Greek-American gentleman whose goat was not allowed to attend the World Series.
After two years of manager Lou Piniella making a daily effort to lift their burden of history from the shoulders of players, this surrender to superstition took the Cubs right back into the Dark Ages. And then the Cubs' ensuing play in the Division Series took the entire operation back to the Ice Age. The Cubs were supposed to be the NL's clear postseason favorites. Instead, they placed themselves right back in the role of history's victims.
The Cubs, the best team in the National League, had one atrocious pitching game, one atrocious defensive game, and no games in which they hit the ball with any noticeable effect. The beneficiaries of this collapse, although they were active beneficiaries, were the Cubs' Division Series opponents, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Presto. The Dodgers became the flavor of the week in the land of baseball punditry. Forget their 84-78 regular-season record. They must be a postseason juggernaut, otherwise they couldn't have swept the Cubs. The Dodgers, after all, had the NL's best team ERA. They had Manny Ramirez hitting at a superhuman level. They had a bunch of talented, young hitters maturing at precisely the right time. And they had the indisputably reassuring postseason presence of manager Joe Torre.
The thing is, every single one of those pro-Dodgers sentiments might be completely correct. But they tended to discount the Dodgers' Championship Series opponents, the Philadelphia Phillies.
Around the Senior Circuit
Since 1998, nine different National League clubs have gone to the World Series. This year, the Dodgers or Phillies will be the 10th different team in the past 11 years.
St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
The Phillies had not received anything like universal acclaim for their Division Series triumph over the Milwaukee Brewers. The thought was that the Brewers' pitching was not ready for October prime time. Their second best starter, Ben Sheets, was injured. Their ace, CC Sabathia, had been pitching on three days' rest for a couple of weeks, and even his Herculean efforts were bound to succumb to basic human fatigue. And then, in Game 4 of the Series, the Brewers started Jeff Suppan. The record said that the Phillies could clobber Suppan using Wiffle bats.
And again, all of those elements were not necessarily inaccurate views. But they did not give the Phillies their due. The Phillies had been a power-hitting club of note for some time, but this season, their pitching climbed toward the level of a club that could succeed in October. The eighth-ninth innings combination of reliever Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge, for instance, looks like precisely the kind of lockdown operation that would allow a team to flourish at any time, including a League Championship Series.
And before you know it, two games at Citizens Bank Park and the Fightin' Phils are up, 2-0, in the NLCS. Where once the Cubs were the sure thing, and then the Dodgers were the new big thing, the Phillies are now the two-victories-away-from-the-World-Series thing.
This Series isn't, of course, over, particularly since it moves to Dodger Stadium on Sunday. The Phillies and the Dodgers have played 10 times this year and the road team has not won once. That sort of thing would seem to suggest a Dodgers resurgence over the next several days.
There remains a school of thought that the big-ticket World Series must be Los Angeles vs. Boston, bringing into play as it would the element of Manny Ramirez vs. the team that couldn't stand him anymore, as well as the renewal of the Joe Torre vs. the Red Sox argument.
Fascinating stuff, but that isn't why these October games are played. And it certainly isn't how they are decided. The team that is playing better, especially the team that is pitching better, wins and deserves to win in October. All the previous speculations, calculations and prognostications count for nothing. The drama of October baseball sets it apart. The meaning of the games makes the competition compelling. But the day-to-day, even moment-to-moment unpredictability of what happens, particularly this October in the National League, gives the whole undertaking a unique quality.
Out with conventional expectations and convenient developments. In with let's find out which team actually plays better.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.