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2023 NLCS Preview: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Arizona Diamondbacks

2023 NLCS

(Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK)

The Philadelphia Phillies exemplified how to make the transition from underdog to contender. Now, the Arizona Diamondbacks are looking to do the same. (Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK)

2023 NLCS Preview: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Arizona Diamondbacks

For the second straight year, the NLCS matchup is not exactly one everybody saw coming. In 2022, the No. 5 seed San Diego Padres not only reached this juncture but had a home-field advantage over the No. 6 seed Philadelphia Phillies. Ultimately, though, the Phillies prevailed, winning three straight at home after splitting the first two in San Diego, to send their Cinderella story to the World Series.

The Phillies may be a wild-card team again, but their reputation is different this time around. That lengthy postseason run from a year ago ensured no one would take the Phillies lightly going forward. Yet for the second straight year, the Phillies swept their Wild Card series, then took down an NL East champion Atlanta Braves team in an emphatic four-game NLDS upset.

They’ll once again face an underdog from the NL West, but it’s not a rematch with the Padres. In their place are the Arizona Diamondbacks, No. 6 seed and 5-0 in their first two rounds. A team known for its starting pitching and speed, Arizona’s bats have come alive in October, tallying six runs a game through the first two rounds. They’ve answered some questions and silenced all doubts, emerging as true contenders to win the National League.

It’s another unlikely but intriguing NLCS with no shortage of talents and potential heroes with a chance to represent the Senior Circuit in the World Series on the line.

DateProbable StartersTimeT.V.
10/16Zac Gallen (ARI) vs. Zack Wheeler (PHI)8:07 p.m.TBS
10/17Merrill Kelly (ARI) vs. Aaron Nola (PHI)8:07 p.m.TBS
10/19Ranger Suárez (PHI) vs. TBD5:07 p.m.TBS
10/20TBD vs. TBD8:07 p.m.TBS
10/21Wheeler (PHI) vs. Kelly (ARI)8:07 p.m.TBS
10/22Kelly (ARI) vs. Nola (PHI)5:07 p.m.TBS
10/23TBD vs. Suárez (PHI)8:07 p.m.TBS

Philadelphia Phillies

Overview

The defending NL champs have only gotten stronger since they were on this stage a year ago, adding Trea Turner and amping up their pitching depth. Through six games in this postseason, the Phillies are averaging over six runs a game and hold a league-best 1.53 ERA. They’ve won games leaning on just about every facet. Home runs, stringing hits together, starting pitching, bullpen — you name it, the Phillies can flex it. Just ask the Miami Marlins and Braves about it.

The Good

Homers and high velocity are good things to have in October, and the Phillies have both in spades. Philadelphia launched 11 long balls in the NLDS against a Braves pitching staff full of weapons, including three in Game 4 against the vaunted Spencer Strider. Six different Phillies blasted at least 20 in the regular season, and six have already gone deep in the postseason. That includes multi-homer games from Bryce Harper and (two in a row) Nick Castellanos. Make a mistake, and the Phillies will make you pay — especially at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.

Both teams will feel great about their top two starters, with Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola establishing themselves as big-game pitchers the last two autumns. In four combined starts in this postseason, they have a combined 1.63 ERA and have gone at least 5.2 innings in each outing. Ranger Suárez also gives the Phillies a significant edge in what will be a key Game 3 in Arizona — the first home Diamondbacks NLCS game since 2007 — especially given his steady heartbeat, which should play well on the road. He likely won’t go as long as Wheeler and Nola but can be just as effective.

The Phillies also have some lethal arms out of their bullpen, especially from the left side. The Diamondbacks were tied for 21st in baseball during the regular season with a .711 OPS against Southpaws. José Alvarado, Matt Strahm and Gregory Soto have allowed just one run in eight innings so far this postseason. The emergence of rookie Orion Kerkering and the re-emergence of Seranthony Domínguez gives Philadelphia even more depth behind sometimes shaky veteran Craig Kimbrel. If you can win the matchup game against the Braves, you can win it against anybody.

The Bad

Strengths against one opponent can be weaknesses, or at least muted, against another. The Phillies love to take the extra base and try to swipe bags. They’ve had great success in those regards. But they’ll be facing a Diamondbacks team with only one starter in the negatives for outs above average. Catcher Gabriel Moreno had nine caught stealing above average, three more than any other catcher. Shutting down that aspect of Philadelphia’s game would be huge for Arizona and turn the Phillies into more of a homer-or-bust team.

While this is the case for almost every postseason team, it still isn’t optimal that the Phillies will have to piece their pitching plan together in Game 4. Their two realistic starting candidates, Taijuan Walker and Cristopher Sánchez, haven’t thrown a pitch all postseason. Sánchez came into his own throughout the season, but 2023 was his first as a full-time big leaguer. Walker was a fine innings eater for the Phillies but struggled early in games (7.04 first-inning ERA). In his lone postseason start (Game 1 of the 2017 NLDS with Arizona), Walker lasted just one inning and allowed four runs. Both options certainly have their risks.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Overview

It’s been a rollercoaster ride of a season for the Diamondbacks. Arizona was in at least a share of first in the NL West as late as July 13 and on the outside of the Wild Card picture as late as September 14. They clinched on the season’s penultimate day, then lost 8-1 the next day. They haven’t lost since, outscoring the Milwaukee Brewers 11-5 in the Wild Card Series and the hated Los Angeles Dodgers 19-6. They too have found different ways to win, personifying a similar energy as this year’s Phillies — and last year’s.

The Good

Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly will take the ball up to four times in this series. They alone could be enough to carry the Diamondbacks to the Fall Classic. Gallen has been one of baseball’s best pitchers the last few years and Kelly is going from one of the game’s most underrated starters to a big-game star. Both have solid strikeout rates against a Phillies lineup that will swing and miss. They’re also two different pitchers, with Gallen relying on his heater and Kelly on his offspeed. They play well off each other and can flummox even the most daunting offenses.

Though the Phillies’ outfield defense is better than in years past and J.T. Realmuto remains a strong defensive catcher, the Diamondbacks have speed to burn. They led baseball in triples and were second in steals during the regular season. Corbin Carroll, who made his MLB debut last August against the Phillies and immediately wreaked havoc, was the club leader in both. The Diamondbacks also have some decent power. Four players hit 20+ homers in the regular season and the team has 13 so far in the postseason. The latter figure is tied with the Phillies for most in the league.

Christian Walker quietly launched 33 round-trippers during the year, which coupled with bounce-back years in the power category for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Ketel Marte (who rebounded across the board following a rough 2022 and injuries in 2021) gives Arizona’s lineup some length. Like the Phillies, they’re an offense that can produce runs in several ways.

The Bad

Though their bullpen has been excellent so far in the postseason, it’s fair to wonder if that will keep up. Kevin Ginkel and trade pickups Paul Sewald and Ryan Thompson are all pretty reliable. It’s fair to wonder if everyone else is just on a hot streak. Arizona really needs 2022 All-Star Joe Mantiply to keep up his strong postseason form. All three of the above names are right-handers, so Mantiply is likely option No. 1 to keep Kyle Schwarber and Harper in check.

Brandon Pfaadt has held things down in two short postseason starts. But his regular season ERA was over five. He’s probably the default choice to start Game 3, which gives even greater uncertainty about who will take the ball for Game 4.

There’s also the level of inexperience, especially given how many young players the Diamondbacks have. Going into Philadelphia in the postseason is no joke, as the Phillies are 12-2 at home in the last two postseasons. No active ballpark has a higher home-winning percentage than Citizens Bank Park. Arizona will probably say that they’ll be happy with a split in the first two games, which is a fine approach. It worked for the Phillies in last year’s NLCS. Doing so is always much easier said than done, but the difficulty will be amped up — just like the noise in the City of Brotherly Love.

Prediction

There’s a reason last year’s Phillies run was so unexpected. You have to go all the way back to 2014 to win the last time the last team in either league reached the World Series, when the San Francisco Giants pulled it off. It’s obviously hard for underdogs to keep winning in any sport. But that’s especially true in baseball, the only sport where the true playoff rounds (excluding the NBA Play-In) aren’t the same length. Shorter best-of-threes and fives are more conducive to upsets. A game war of attritions generally gives the favorites an even bigger upper hand.

That hasn’t stopped past teams like the 2019 Washington Nationals and 2021 Braves. Neither were the last seed in those years but both were counted out for various reasons. The Diamondbacks have faced the same adversity, and they’ve become stronger by weathering it. But the Phillies are simply a further-along version of the Diamondbacks. As Arizona’s young stars rise and they add arms around Gallen and Kelly, a World Series appearance could come into focus. But Philadelphia’s edge on the margins will give them a shot at revenge for last season’s bitter finish. Phillies in six.

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