Baseball

Playing favorite new for Phillies

PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia Phillies find themselves in a new role this postseason.

The two-time defending National League champions are no strangers to big games, having advanced this far in three straight years. The only difference between now and the last two trips to the league championship series is the Phillies are the favorites to win it all this time, thanks in large part to the three proven aces in their pitching rotation.

It’s World Series or bust in Philadelphia. Nothing less is acceptable in a city that’s become spoiled by its baseball team’s success.

Who would’ve thought the losingest franchise in pro sports would reach the point where it’s the one other teams hope to emulate?

The Phillies are trying to become the first NL club in 66 years to win three consecutive pennants, and they’re going for their second World Series title in three years.

Oddsmakers have made them an overwhelming favorite to beat the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. They also give the Phillies an edge over the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers in the World Series.

“It’s a good challenge for you. Expectations should bring out the best in someone,” manager Charlie Manuel said on a rainy Thursday. “At the same time, I like players to have expectations of themselves. That’s even better. I like everything about our players and we think we can play and we think we can play in big, tough games. Last year when we got beat in the World Series, I said I want to go back and play the New York Yankees. That’s what I was talking about.”

For some, higher expectations increase pressure. But the Phillies are a loose, close-knit group that has plenty of experience playing important games in October. They expected to reach this point, even when they trailed Atlanta by seven games in the NL East in late July.

“When you get to talking favorites and what’s expected of you, that goes beyond the realm of what you can control,” left fielder Raul Ibañez said. “We don’t focus as a club on what’s expected of us. We focus on what’s expected of ourselves. We have high expectations of ourselves as a team, regardless of what’s being said outside the locker room.”

Game 1 against San Francisco is Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. It’ll be a marquee matchup featuring Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum going head-to-head on the mound.

The Giants are newcomers to the postseason. They clinched the NL West on the last day of the regular season to snap a six-year playoff drought, and eliminated the injury-depleted Braves in four one-run games to advance past the first round.

Now that they’re here, the Giants also won’t be satisfied unless they win. They appreciate how good the Phillies are, but refuse to be intimidated.

“You don’t really fear any team,” right fielder Cody Ross said.

“As a player you always feel like you’re better than teams and you have to have that sort of mentality that you can go in there and beat them two out of three during the season, but knowing in the back of your mind that they’re a really good team. They’ve had their struggles, though. They had a tough time scoring runs throughout the year at one point. It’s going to be a dog fight.”

NLCS SCHEDULE

Saturday: San Francisco (Lincecum 16-10) at Philadelphia (Halladay 21-10), 4:57 p.m., Ch. 13

Sunday: San Francisco (Sanchez 13-9) at Philadelphia (Oswalt 13-13), 5:19 p.m., Ch. 13

Tuesday: Philadelphia (Hamels 12-11) at San Francisco (Cain 13-11), 1:19 p.m.

Wednesday: Philadelphia at San Francisco, 4:57 p.m.

Thursday: Philadelphia at San Francisco, 4:57 p.m., if necessary

Oct. 23: San Francisco at Philadelphia, 12:57 p.m. or 4:57 p.m., if necessary

Oct. 24: San Francisco at Philadelphia, 4:57 p.m., if necessary

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