A Philadelphia Phillies team that lived up to its preseason hype and three unlikely challengers make up the National League playoff field. The two NL Division Series begin Saturday, October 1, with the wild card-winning St. Louis Cardinals visiting the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and the Arizona Diamondbacks traveling to Miller Park to face the Milwaukee Brewers.
The return of postseason baseball to Milwaukee, Arizona and St. Louis has fans there excited and ticket sellers — unsure of the playoff matchups and schedule until a crazy final day of the regular season Wednesday — scrambling. Meanwhile, anticipation of another Phillies’ World Series run has been building all season as the NL East champs romped to a franchise-record 102 wins.
Here’s a breakdown of the two best-of-five NL matchups:
St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies
The upstart Cardinals (90-72) won the wild card by taking advantage of the Atlanta Braves‘ September collapse. While overshadowed somewhat by the Boston Red Sox‘s meltdown that allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to seize the wild card spot in the American League, the Cards’ comeback was no less historic. St. Louis trailed Atlanta by 10 1/2 games on August 25, but finished 22-9 while the Braves went 11-20. The Cards clinched their spot behind Chris Carpenter’s two-hit shutout of the Houston Astros for an 8-0 win this week, while the Braves were completing their free fall with a 4-3, 13-inning loss to the Phillies.
The Cards, with three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols in the middle of their lineup, went 6-3 against the Phillies this season, but few could have foreseen a postseason meeting a month ago.
“They were three [games] out with five to go, so nobody could have expected this,” said Steve Sigel of The Ticket Guys, a St. Louis-area ticket broker. “The last two games in Houston, people started thinking maybe it could happen. People started feeling it.”
Game 3 will be at Busch Stadium on Tuesday, October 4. Sigel said St. Louis winning the coin flip to be the site of a possible one-game playoff Thursday, if the Braves and Cards had finished tied, helped ramp up preparations.
“We’ve been preparing,” he said. “We were ready if there had been a playoff today to decide it.”
The Phillies (102-60), who in the off-season added former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee to an already formidable pitching rotation, were a near-unanimous pick to not only reach the postseason, but at least reach the World Series, which they last won in 2008. So far, they’ve lived up to their billing. Jake Conaway, general manager at Wanamaker Ticket Office in Philadelphia said the playoff opener is part a big sports weekend in Philly.
Conaway said the Phillies success has boosted prices and demand. The Phils led all baseball in attendance, averaging 45,441 a game. “Both are definitely higher,” he said. “How could there not be? In each series, they’ll have the best the pitching. Demand is more because there’s more confidence because of those pitchers [Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt].”
Arizona Diamondbacks at Milwaukee Brewers
The Diamondbacks wrote their own improbable playoff story, going from worst to first in the NL West. Arizona went 65-97 last season, but turned that around with a young team that defied expectations and finished 94-68, including a major league-best 48 come-from-behind victories.
They’ll open the NLDS Saturday in Milwaukee without a starter older than 30 in the regular lineup or rotation and with surprising NL Cy Young favorite Ian Kennedy (21-4, 2.88 ERA) on the mound.
“It’s been a bit of a feverish pickup now that the matchups are set,” Bob Bernstein, CEO of eSeats.com in Scottsdale, AZ, said September 29. “We’ve had corporate clients booking boxes [Game 3 is at Chase Field in Phoenix on Tuesday]. We haven’t seen the playoffs in a while and these are new faces and a new team. The whole town is getting behind the D’backs.”
The Brewers (96-66), also coming off a disappointing 2010 (77-85), capped their turnaround year with their first-ever NL Central title. Milwaukee, led by sluggers Prince Fielder (38 homers, 120 RBI) and Ryan Braun (.332, 33 homers, 111 RBI), returns to the postseason for the first time since 2008, when they were the wild card. The Brewers didn’t clinch the NL’s No. 2 seed and the chance to open at home until the final game of the season September 28, leading to uncertainty in the ticket market.
“Prices are lower than expected because we weren’t sure who, where or when they’d play,” Mike Olsberger of Ticket Connection in Milwaukee said earlier this week. Still, there’s plenty of buzz for this team in Brewtown.
“I think there’s more [excitement than in ’08], because this is a better team,” said Jim Bryce Jr. of Wisconsin-based Ticket King. “The excitement is higher because this team has a better shot.”