Playoff Baseball In September

Tonight, the most important series of the 2008 season kicks off – the Los Angeles Dodgers host the Arizona Diamondbacks for a weekend set that will go a long way in determining who will win the NL West. With just 1.5 half games separating the two, the Diamondbacks lead certainly isn’t safe, and a series win would be huge for both clubs.

Now, generally, a September matchup of two teams fighting for one playoff spot is exciting enough, but this series provides a little extra boost – just take a look at these pitching matchups.

Friday night: Dan Haren (2.98 FIP) vs Lowe (3.34 FIP)
Saturday afternoon: Brandon Webb (3.18 FIP) vs Chad Billingsley (3.13 FIP)
Sunday afternoon: Randy Johnson (3.84 FIp) vs Clayton Kershaw (4.24 FIP)

In the opener, the guy with the second lowest FIP in the NL goes up against the guy with the sixth lowest FIP. Haren and Lowe both have excellent command, while Haren misses a few more bats and Lowe gets a few more groundballs. Both are legitimate frontline starting pitchers – there’s no real advantage for either club.

Game two features Cy Young winner Webb against Billingsley, one of the game’s emerging aces. Webb pitches to contact and throws more strikes, but Billingsley’s stuff is a bit more electric and allows him to be among the league leaders in strikeouts. Webb’s last few starts haven’t been good, however, and there’s questions about how healthy his arm is – due to that question mark, the Dodgers might have a slight advantage in game two.

The rubber match on Sunday is a classic “passing of the torch” type of ballgame, as the best left-handed pitcher of our generation faces off with one of the best young southpaws we’ve seen in a long time. The Big Unit is still going strong, even though he turns 45 next week, while Kershaw is beginning to find the form that made scouts so excited about his future in the minors. Johnson’s not the flamethrower he was, so Kershaw will be the one lighting up radar guns on Sunday, but the difference in command makes Johnson a better pitcher right now. Kershaw’s certainly got the talent to throw a gem, however, so even if Arizona has an edge, the Dodgers can certainly steal the going away game.

If Arizona can pull of a sweep, they’ll probably nail the coffin shut. However, with the arms that the Dodgers are sending to the hill, D’Backs fans shouldn’t be counting on picking up three wins this weekend. A 2-1 series win for one of the two teams is the most likely outcome. Arizona would put themselves in a strong position to win the division if they take the series, but LA can make it a coin-toss if they can pick up two wins.

No matter who you’re a fan of, this should be highly entertaining baseball this weekend.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Johnson is scratched from the Sunday game because of a “sore shoulder.” Max Scherzer will be pitching instead. Looks like the torch has already passed.