For the first time in 24 years, the San Diego Padres are just one step away from the World Series.
It’s the first time in 38 years, and only the second time in franchise history, that they’ll have a home-field advantage for the NLCS. After knocking off a pair of 101-win and 111-win goliaths, the 87-win Philadelphia Phillies will come to town.
Philadelphia snuck into the postseason with the newly added sixth playoff spot. They stumbled out of the gate, with third-year manager Joe Girardi being fired after a 22-29 start. He was replaced with interim (now permanent) Rob Thomson, who went 65-46 at the head of his team, including a 14-2 stretch to start his tenure.
Philadelphia’s offense is headlined by 2021 NL MVP Bryce Harper, who missed 60 games after breaking his thumb on a pitch from Blake Snell on June 25. He returned two months later, hitting just .227/.325/.352 after his return. However, he hit .500 with three home runs in the victory over the Braves in the NLDS. When Harper is at his best, he’s one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, so it’ll be absolutely crucial for Padres pitchers to limit his performance.
Kyle Schwarber’s NL-best 46 home runs pop off the page, but his homer-hungry approach has come at the cost of his rate-based stats. He hits just .218, but his .504 slugging percentage makes him a dangerous hitter. Philadelphia also got 30 homers from first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who hit a huge three-run home run to help the Phillies to their series-clinching win over the Braves. There’s also the speedy catcher, J.T. Realmuto, who can do it all. He hits for power, with 22 home runs and a .820 slugging percentage. He’s speedy, too, stealing 21 bases in 22 attempts while adding an inside-the-park home run in the Game 4 win to clinch the NLDS.
The Phillies, unlike the Padres, have shown an ability to hit well up and down their lineup. They’re top five in home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and hits. The only offensive stat the Padres have the Phillies beat in is walks, so it’ll be a tall task for San Diego’s pitching staff to keep Philadelphia off the board.
Philadelphia has two elite starting pitchers, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. Wheeler, who finished second in Cy Young voting last season, only made 26 starts due to injury this season. However, he’s been very effective on the mound, posting a 2.82 ERA in the regular season before throwing 12.1 innings of six-hit baseball in the playoffs. He’ll likely be the one to match up against Yu Darvish in Game 1, in what will be a battle of two talented pitchers.
Aaron Nola, brother of Padres catcher Austin Nola, struggled in the first two months of the season, but he’s been electric since. He threw 205 innings and made 32 starts this season with a 3.25 ERA. He has a 2.93 ERA over his final 21 starts and just a 2.36 ERA in September. Nola, like Wheeler, made his postseason debut in 2022, and he’s yet to allow an earned run in 12.2 innings. While Nola’s 3.25 ERA is solid, his 2.58 FIP is among the best in baseball. He’s been fairly unlucky, but a significant portion of that is Philadelphia’s poor defense. As a team, they had -33 OAA (Outs Above Average), 25th best in baseball, and worst among the 12 playoff teams. Since the Phillies struggle defensively, it’ll be extra important for the Padres to put the ball in play, as they’ll be putting the pressure on a bad defense.
A major place where the Padres have an edge is in terms of the team’s third and fourth starters. Joe Musgrove and his sub-3.00 ERA would likely match up against Ranger Suarez and his 3.65 ERA. Suarez is a good pitcher, though he’s certainly not an elite one. Another option for the Phillies is mid-season trade acquisition Noah Syndergaard, but he’d likely match up with Mike Clevinger in Game 4. Syndergaard’s ERA is 3.94, as he’s struggled to find his form since a litany of injuries derailed his career. While Clevinger struggled in his loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, he pitched very well in his only start against the Phillies this season. He worked five innings, allowing just one hit and no runs. If San Diego is able to beat either Nola or Wheeler, they’ll have a significant advantage in each of the next two games of the series.
Philadelphia’s bullpen, which has been its Achilles heel in recent campaigns, struggled again in 2022. Their 4.27 ERA ranked 23rd in baseball, dead last of the playoff teams. Corey Knebel, who would have worked as their closer, tore his right shoulder capsule, so he’ll miss the postseason. Brad Hand has thrown 2.2 scoreless innings this postseason, but he dealt with tendonitis in the regular season’s final weeks. Zack Eflin got the only save opportunity of the Phillies postseason, but he struggled, allowing four runs in 4.1 innings. Jose Alvarado, Andrew Bellatti, and Seranthony Dominguez are all talented relievers, who strike out at least ten batters per nine innings, but none of them are untouchable. Alvarado, who had a 1.92 FIP in the regular season, has been a go-to guy for the Phillies, as he’s worked 6.2 innings in six playoff games.
Philadelphia’s bullpen is a big weakness, so it is extra important that the Padres are able to get into it early and often over this series. The two teams could play seven games over eight days, including five in a row. If this series goes the distance, it’ll come down to the bullpens, and that’s a place where the Padres have a distinct advantage.
Philadelphia, like the Padres, is riding a dangerous wave of momentum, so both teams will be desperate to win Game 1 to shut down the wave of their opponent.
San Diego, who has played the underdog role for the last two weeks, will need to find a way to win as a favorite.