PROBABLE PITCHING MATCHUPSScouting Reports from MLB.com

Paul Maholm (1-2, 8.36 ERA) vs. Roy Halladay (3-1, 1.50 ERA)

Maholm is hoping to build off his first win with the Cubs. He held the Reds to one run on four hits over six innings in his last start. He’s 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA in seven starts in his career vs. the Phillies. The way the Phillies are swinging the bats, Philadelphia pitchers have almost no margin for error these days. So Halladay is going to have to be close to perfect in the series opener against the Cubs. Fortunately, he mostly has been.

Randy Wells (0-0, 3.60 ERA) vs. Joe Blanton (1-3, 4.34 ERA)

This will be Wells’ second start in place of Ryan Dempster, on the DL with a strained right quad. In his first game, against the Reds on Sunday, Wells escaped some jams and gave up two runs on six hits and five walks over five innings. Sloppy defense ruined Blanton’s last start last weekend against the Padres at Petco Park, where he allowed six runs (three earned) in six innings. In three starts, Blanton has a 4.00 ERA

Matt Garza (1-1, 3.38 ERA) vs. Kyle Kendrick (0-1, 9.39 ERA)

Garza deserved better in his last start when he gave up two runs over seven innings and didn’t get a decision. He’s struggled on the road, serving up more runs in one start away from Wrigley than three games at home. That needs to change. Kendrick suffered the team’s worst start since 2010 when he allowed seven earned runs in three-plus innings Monday against the D-backs in Phoenix. He needs to pitch much better than that while Cliff Lee is on the disabled list.

Jeff Samardzija (2-1, 4.13 ERA) vs. Vance Worley (2-1, 2.16 ERA)

Samardzija was back on track in his last start. against the Cardinals, striking out a personal high nine over 6 2/3 shutout innings. He’ll miss Wrigley, where he’s given up one earned run in 15 1/3 innings. Worley gutted through six innings Tuesday in a victory over the D-backs at Chase Field. He allowed one run and five hits in six innings, but he had to work for it. But so far he is proving his 2011 rookie season is no fluke.

NOTES FROM THE ENEMY
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Despite scoring 15 runs in their previous two games, the Phillies enter this series mired in one of their worst offensive months in over a decade. They are scoring just 3.32 runs per game with a .650 team OPS, good for 27th and 26th in the league respectively. This is a consequence mostly of slow starts by Shane Victorino (.735 OPS), Hunter Pence (.738), and Jimmy Rollins (.524), as well as the need to rely on glove-first players like Freddy Galvis and Placido Polanco. The only qualified hitter managing an .800 OPS is Ty Wigginton. Juan Pierre has hit at the top of the lineup 13 times in 19 games, and while he’s curently enjoying a BABIP-fueled run of single base hit success, his track record hardly merits a spot on a major league roster, much less on that of a putative first division team. It doesn’t help that John Mayberry, Jr., who racked up 296 plate appearances and absorbed over 500 vital innings in the outfield last season, has thus far been unable to replicate his 2011 success. In fact, he hasn’t had any success at all — he’s hitting .200/.200/.244 and has failed to draw a walk.

Underlying the Phillies’ scoring problems are a striking lack of plate discipline and a near-total power outage. Their 5.3% walk rate is tied for last in the MLB with the Pirates, and only 24% of their hits are for extra bases, fewest in the league. Their qualified leader in slugging percentage, Carlos Ruiz, is hardly known for sustainable power with the stick. The hope is that the Phillies can remain reasonably competitive until Ryan Howard (Achilles surgery complications) and Chase Utley (arthritic knees) are able to return to active duty, but it’s not a given that the Phillies will be able to do so, and it’s not entirely clear when either player will be back. Utley is probably the closest, having rejoined the team in Arizona and taken batting practice before the games. Howard has done nothing more strenuous than fielding grounders in a chair. Neither will see the field in this series against the Cubs. And when they do return, they carry no guarantees of effectiveness.

Needless to say, the high point of the 2012 Phillies, as with the 2011 Phillies, is their starting rotation. They enter this series 4th in the league in ERA (2.80), 3rd in xFIP (3.19), and 2nd in K/BB (3.92). The Cubs, though, will be spared most of its toughest components. True, they must first face Roy Halladay, who, despite some lingering (but likely unjustified) concerns about his velocity and pitch selection in the early going, has thrown 30 innings of 1.50 ERA ball and has not allowed a home run. But Joe Blanton, the scheduled starter for Saturday, has not been able to miss bats in his first 3 starts, and in any case is a far cry from Halladay, Cole Hamels, or Cliff Lee. And Lee, by the way, will miss his second straight start with an oblique injury, making Kyle Kendrick the starter for Sunday. Kendrick had a productive season last year mostly thanks to batted ball fortune, and the Phillies unfortunately took that heart, granting him a two year contract extension covering 2012 and 2013. The inescapable truth is that he has one of the worst strikeout skills in baseball (career 10.6% K rate), and theoretically relies on inducing grounders when in fact his groundball rate is entirely mediocre, hovering at or below league average. In hitter-friendly venues like Citizens Bank Park, the results can be brutal.

One thing to watch: in a series of what are likely to be close games, manager Charlie Manuel will probably have several key decisions to make in late-inning, high leverage scenarios. So far in the season, he has adhered to some bizarre protocols in his usage of $50 million reliever Jonathan Papelbon — an unsavory mix of managing to the save situation and giving him work in blowouts. Already Papelbon has sat on the bullpen bench while lesser relievers have made a mess of the most important moments in games. Consequently, the average leverage index of the most valuable reliever on the Phillies is 0.88. Look for that misuse to benefit the Cubs in big spots this weekend.

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Joe Aiello is the founder of View From the Bleachers and one of the lead writers as well as host of VFTB Radio. Growing up in Chicago, he fondly remembers attending games in the bleachers before that was the popular thing to do. Currently Joe resides in North Carolina with his wife and three kids. Connect with Joe via Twitter / Facebook / E-mail