Thursday, April 28, 2005

Starts and Stops

A ninth inning rally. Now that’s a rarity.

The Phils received another strong performance from Brett Myers who threw seven innings of shutout ball against the Nationals yesterday. Myers didn’t get the win, but his team did as they scored three runs in the top of the ninth for a 3-0 victory.

Can someone please explain why this game started at 4:35PM? The light was awful for the hitters; witness the fact that both teams failed to score until the Phils broke through in the final frame. Myers was quoted as saying that after he batted for the first time he realized how impossible it was to see the ball. Consequently, he relied heavily on his fastball from that point on.

A glance at the schedule shows the Phils returning home (less than 150 miles from DC) where they have an off day Thursday while the Nationals host the Mets; therefore, the late afternoon start wasn’t made to accommodate the teams’ travel plans. Maybe the Nationals wanted to broadcast a game during drive time in the District’s infamous rush hour. That would certainly produce a captive audience. And with attendance running at less than half capacity at RFK Stadium ever since opening day, maybe the Nationals’ front office figured this was a good way to reach all those baseball-starved citizens in and outside the Beltway.

* * * * * * * *

The St. Louis Cardinals are off to a torrid 14 – 5 start, their best since 1968. Most remarkable is the fact that two of those losses came at home…against the Philadelphia Phillies. And you thought the Orioles’ Brian Roberts was the biggest story of April.

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I think I have finally figured out the Phillies’ plans for Placido Polanco. They plan to play him at all nine positions this season. Thus far our versatile hero has started at second, left and third. With Jim Thome and Mike Lieberthal struggling at the plate, I’d like to suggest that Charlie Manuel give each of them a day off and let Placido take over. Don’t worry, Jim, you are not going to be the next Wally Pipp. (Editor's note: no sooner had I posted this piece when I realized the Phillies' alleged brain trust should be given some credit here. Perhaps their plan is to play Polanco at every position in anticipation of the trading deadline, at which point any club seeking any player will think of Placido first. Clever move, guys.)

* * * * * * * *

Billy Wagner seems to have straightened himself out of late. One reason may be under use. That’s right, Wagner seems to thrive when he doesn’t appear on consecutive days. Of course the Phils alleged brain trust cannot be given too much credit in this case; Wagner hasn’t appeared that often lately because there have been precious few save opportunities. Wagner did pitch the ninth inning in both wins against the Nationals, but his appearances were separated by the loss on Tuesday.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Little Things

The little things are becoming bigger.

At the start of the eighth inning of last night’s game, the Phils were trailing 3-1. Jason Michaels led off with a grounder to short after thinking he had walked the pitch before. The ump thought differently and as usual had the last word. Chase Utley and pinch-hitter Kenny Lofton followed with singles, leaving fans to wonder what might have been with the Michaels non-walk. Mike Lieberthal ended all the speculation by grounding into a double play.

In the bottom of the inning lefty Aaron Fultz got two quick outs. Charlie Manuel decided to bring in right-hander Terry Adams, the man no one wants except the Phillies (twice!!), who promptly gave up two singles and a walk before getting out of the inning. I kept muttering to myself, “If he gives up a home run they should hand him his unconditional release before he hits the top step of the dugout.”

In the top of the ninth the Phils went down meekly.

Charlie Manuel has been managing himself into several corners lately. Last night he started Placido Polanco again in left field for the ailing Pat Burrell. When Lofton batted for third baseman David Bell in the eight inning, Manuel was forced to bring Polanco into third base and insert Lofton in center. Lofton, less a defensive replacement than a last resort, proceeded to overrun a ground ball single in his only chance of the night. He smiled for the camera, though.

With David Bell continuing to struggle, Manuel is quoted in today’s Inquirer as saying he is thinking of giving Polanco a serious look at third base. That would mean centerfield, second base and now third are in constant flux. Add in the abbreviated Gavin Floyd bullpen experiment and a rotation that has already seen six starters and what we have is an unsettled ball club a mere 21 games into the season. Things haven’t gotten ugly yet, but with so many starters struggling and moving in and out of the lineup it will only be a matter of time.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Out of Position

A sidebar in the paper the other day made it clear Placido Polanco wasn’t happy with his part time role. No problem. Left field is now an option.

It’s no secret I like Polanco, but his start in left field last night against Washington, the first time he ever played any outfield position, reveals just how poorly the Phillies’ alleged brain trust has put together the current roster: twelve pitchers, four legitimate outfielders, two second basemen and assorted pinch-hitters and utility infielders. They may get away with playing people far out of position for one game, but that kind of maneuver eventually backfires.

Fortunately, a solution can be found in the minor leagues. Marlon Byrd, who earned a starting role after a torrid Spring only to land in the minors and then the disabled list due to a finger injury, is scheduled to begin rehabbing soon. He deserves a call up.

* * * * * * * * *

Bobby Abreu had another adventure at the wall last night and it lead to a run. Scored a triple, the ball looked catchable from my recliner. We had better become accustomed to Bobby’s aversion to walls. At last report, every major league ballpark had several of them.

* * * * * * * * *

Jim Thome’s batting funk is alarming even if it is just April because in reality his slump stretches well back into last season. Thome, who played with assorted injuries all last year, is hitting .212 through last night. Last year he hit .274 overall but only averaged .240 over the final three months of the season. Moreover, his power figures, which dropped over the last half of 2004, are well off his career average again this year.

* * * * * * * * *

Washingtonians may have pined for major league baseball for more than three decades, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the attendance figures thus far. The Nats are averaging somewhere in the vicinity of 34,000 per game, hardly an impressive number for their first home stand in 33 years. The novelty of a new stadium may be missing for now, but a brand new team should be attraction enough. Things should only get worse when the city empties out in mid-summer.

Meanwhile, up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the first-place Baltimore Orioles (break up the O’s!!!) are seeing an increase in their attendance. So much for Peter Angelos’ contention that a major league team in Washington would hurt his club. And, oh, by the way, the surge in attendance at Camden Yards proves another thing: put a winner of the field and people will come. Are you listening, Ed Wade?

Monday, April 25, 2005

What Happened?

I went away for a long weekend and returned to discover disarray.

One might suppose the Phillies three straight losses in Atlanta would head the list, but no. Rather, I am struck by the complete about-face by the Phillies’ alleged brain trust on the status of Gavin Floyd, who is being sent down to AAA. Charlie Manuel is quoted in today’s Inquirer as saying (I paraphrase here) Floyd needed to know he was starting every fifth day both for his sense of equilibrium not to mention his command.

Why is it every blogger, cab driver, hotel doorman and hot dog vendor knew this was the best decision for Floyd’s future weeks ago? Let us hope the two week misadventure in the bullpen didn’t completely undermine Floyd’s self-confidence. It is noteworthy the usually accessible youngster declined to speak with reporters following his latest disaster in a relief role. Ed Wade & Co. deserve a hearty round of boos for this blunder.

I didn’t see a single inning of any of the losses in Atlanta and can only rely on reports and box scores. They suffice for me to conclude that the other note of special alarm was rung by Randy Wolf. Randy is officially a major source of concern now. He isn’t fooling anyone with his assortment of breaking stuff and average fastball. Even our cab driver, hotel doorman and hot dog vendor could hit him now.

In less than two weeks the Phils have gone from an embarrassment of riches on the mound to an embarrassment period. In less than two weeks the Phils bats have fallen silent. In less than two weeks players have used words like “panic” in their conversation, albeit only to insist there is no need for it…yet.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


After sixteen games a few patterns have emerged.

Charlie Manuel appears determined to give playing time to everyone on the roster. Whether you are the hero or goat, the next day your spot could be taken by someone who swings from the other side of the plate. Nothing personal. Far from it. Just need to get everyone involved and play the percentages.

While some may question the merits of such a strategy, it does keep the entire squad happier than one on which players sit week in and week out. On the other hand, sitting David Bell after he finally starts to find his stroke after a miserable start is a highly questionable decision.

The Phillies need to work on their base running. In Wednesday night’s game Jim Thome was doubled off second on a soft liner caught by the shortstop in shallow left field. In Thursday’s game, Bobby Abreu wandered too far off second and should have been picked off except the Colorado pitcher threw to the wrong man covering. Earlier in the season Jason Michaels ran the Phillies out of a bigger inning trying to reach third on a ball hit to left field. He was out by the proverbial mile. There have been a few other blunders I cannot recall at this writing. The most disturbing aspect of these lapses is the number of times players have used poor judgment on plays in front of them. That shouldn’t happen at this level.

John Lieber is more than the staff ace thus far; he’s been their stopper. When the Phillies need a pitcher to right the ship, Lieber is there. He isn’t flashy and he certainly isn’t overpowering. But he take the ball, works fast and always seems to have a plan. Lieber is also pitching deep into each outing since the season opener and that counts a great deal given this team’s bullpen woes.

Re-signing Todd Pratt was a great decision. During Spring Training there were hints he would be released and A.J. Hinch would be the backup. Pratt was reported to be very upset about that prospect and grew testy when the subject was broached, walking out in the middle of one TV interview. (He might be excused for being touchy about his own future, but Pratt doesn't appear to like questions from reporters on any subject.) He has always handled the pitchers very well and from all indications is the sort of presence whose influence is very positive. He may look like he will screw himself into the ground on every other swing he takes, frequently ending those violent swings by stumbling across the plate to the other side, keeping himself upright only by sticking the end of the bat into the ground like a cane, but he gets his principal job, catching and calling a game, done well. And every once and a while he comes through with the bat to the great joy and surprise of everyone, especially himself.

Re-signing Tomas Perez was another excellent decision. In the Thursday win over Colorado he played third base and started a crucial double play on the sort of hot smash that tends to handcuff David Bell. Perez can play any infield position very well and does. And every team needs a shaving cream pie expert.

A Game of Picas

An old family friend once described a particularly sensitive person we knew as someone “always willing to meet an insult more than half way.”

I recalled her observation more than once as I perused the NL East standings published over the last few days in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It is customary when listing the home team to place them in the uppermost position when tied with other clubs, but the editors at the Inky have consistently placed the Phils at the lowest position even when they have the same record as teams listed above them. A trivial matter, to be sure, but telling. This hasn’t been a baseball town for years, especially in the Inquirer.

Maybe I'm being too sensitive.

* * * * * * * * *

It may be early in the season but indications are that Ryan Madson is experiencing some sophomore blues. Madson has been violating the cardinal rule of relievers, giving up runs consistently, inherited runners and those of his own doing. In the process his ERA has ballooned to 7.71.

The Phillies could afford the luxury of waiting for Madson to work his way through this rough stretch were it not for the fact that the rest of the relief corps has been equally unimpressive. With the exception of Billy Wagner, whose numbers may be good but whose luck is the far more telling statistic, the Phils relievers are giving up runs at an alarming pace. Tim Worrell’s ERA is 9.00; Gavin Floyd’s is 11.48; and Rheal Cormier’s 9.00.

It is fair to say the Phillies would have a better record if their relievers could hold the line.

* * * * * * * * *

It would also be fair to say the Phils would climb higher in the standings if they would hit with runners in scoring position. Last night they stranded eleven base runners. One clutch hit early in the game when the opportunities were ample would have changed the complexion of the game significantly. Chase Utley must have stranded more than half that total all by himself. His open stance leaves him vulnerable to breaking stuff in and major league pitchers are quick to take advantage, busting him inside. Utley is going to have to adjust. He is striking out nearly once every fourth at-bat (six times in 28 appearances).

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Not Quite An Embarrassment of Riches After All

So much for what to do with all of those quality starters.

Vicente Padilla’s 2005 debut wouldn’t have had to share top billing for the disaster du jour with Gavin Floyd’s inaugural outing as a relief pitcher if both of them hadn’t given up eight runs. Padilla might get the nod only because he allowed five home runs while Floyd held the Mets to a mere two.

It is difficult to assess Padilla’s performance given that this was his first big league start since suffering biceps tendonitis. Watching catcher Mike Lieberthal set up on the outside only to have Padilla come inside clearly indicated he lacked command at this stage. He also didn’t appear to have that much zip on his fastball, when he threw it. One start, no matter how terrible, provides insufficient data with which to evaluate Padilla’s recovery. The next start should tell all of us a lot more.

Gavin Floyd’s performance was another matter. We can endlessly debate whether or not it was a wise decision to relegate the youngster to the bullpen (I vote an unequivocal “no”), but two things are indisputable. One, this is his second straight poor performance, marked in large part by a complete lack of command of all of his pitches. Second, Floyd’s mechanics and delivery look all screwed up to this observer. He seems to be laboring in his delivery, pushing the ball up to the plate and following through in an awkward manner. In sum, he looks uncomfortable on the mound and the results show it. On the job training is bad enough; working fitfully out of the bullpen rather than on a predictable every fifth day is worse. The prediction here is that Floyd will be sent down to AAA where he can work regularly and out of the glare of the big-league spotlight. Let’s just hope he sees the “demotion” for what it should be, namely, a chance to gain more experience. The Phillies continue to be lousy at managing players’ psyches.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

All of Those Quality Starters

Welcome aboard, Randy. You’re next, Vicente.

Prior to last night’s appearance against a good hitting NY Mets team, Randy Wolf had struggled in his first two outings, his numbers inflating the Phillies starters’ overall ERA. Not anymore. Wolf used his assortment of big, slow curves, sneaky fastballs and change of speeds to hurl shutout ball through eight plus innings. Then he allowed three straight singles and a run to begin the ninth inning and was relieved by Tim Worrell.

Wolf’s performance was critical to him as well as the team. The Phillies only left-handed starter and senior member in terms of tenure on the club, Wolf is being counted on heavily. This outing was vintage Wolf as he kept Mets’ hitters off balance all night until he tired to open the ninth inning.

By the way, Worrell came in with two runners on and yielded a 3-run homer to Cliff Floyd making the game close. For his less than impressive effort, Worrell recorded a save. Something needs to be done about that sort of miscarriage of statistics. And something else needs to be done about Worrell’s ineffectiveness. The sight of him coming into a game hardly inspires confidence anymore.

Tonight, Vicente Padilla makes his 2005 debut following a lost Spring with biceps tendonitis and a stint on the Disabled List to open the season. Padilla will be watched very closely in his first few starts. If he falters, Gavin Floyd’s stint in the bullpen, a terrible decision in the first place, will be over and Padilla’s time in a Phillies uniform may be drawing to a close. In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Jim Salisbury writes that those close to Padilla, a very small group by any standard, say he looks sharp and is ready to fulfill his potential.

Padilla has suffered many of the same problems that plagued Brett Myers prior to this season: a short fuse and shorter attention span. Myers has made huge strides in both departments and is off to a tremendous start. Now comes Padilla’s turn to prove he can shrug off adversity, maintain his composure and learn to pitch not just throw. If he comes through, the Phils will be faced with a pleasant dilemma, namely, what to do with all of these quality starters.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Bailed Out

Placido isn’t going quietly. Neither is Chase. And apparently Billy intends to use all of the ballpark for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Bobby still approaches the wall as if it intends him bodily harm. And Brett has arrived.

It was quite a weekend series with Atlanta.

After Friday night’s meltdown, it appeared the Phils were slipping into a serious funk. They looked lethargic and outclassed by a Braves team that entered the game with an anemic offense. Five home runs later, the Phils had a three-game losing streak and the Braves had their two best pitchers on tap.

But the Phils had their two best pitchers scheduled as well. John Lieber, unflappable and largely unhitable thus far just takes the ball, throws strikes, works quickly, and departs a winner. At 35 years of age he has become the Phillies elder statesmen chronologically and temperamentally.

Brett Myers used to be at the opposite end of the spectrum on both of those counts, but no more. There is little doubt that when the season began, Myers was the great unknown of the starting rotation. Possessed of youth and great stuff, Myers only lacked the emotional maturity to work through difficult spots. Whether by osmosis or a change in pitching coaches or the arrival of Lieber or all three, Myers has been outstanding in April. Though 1 – 0, he could easily be 3 – 0. The bullpen cost him one win and a lack of support cost him another. Not only has he pitched brilliantly, he has also pitched deep into each game. And he appears more comfortable and confident.

Charlie Manuel seems determined to stick with the platoon setup at second base. Chase Utley’s heroics on Saturday, at bat and in the field, didn’t earn him another start with lefty Mike Hampton pitching for Atlanta. Utley did enter the game as a pinch hitter in the ninth with a chance to make it two-for-two in the heroics department, but he failed to deliver. So Placido Polanco seized the opportunity and knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the tenth.

With no rumors to suggest either player is unhappy with the situation at present, it appears Manuel is sticking to his guns and playing each strictly by the book.

Billy Wagner, working for the third day in a row, again made things interesting. He gave up a one-out double to Brian Giles and then ignored him allowing Giles to steal third. After striking out Chipper Jones, Wagner induced Andruw Jones to hit a slow roller on which David Bell made a fine play to end the threat. The double by Giles might have been caught by a right-fielder who is able to play the wall better than Bobby Abreu can; as it was, the ball was a few feet from being a back-breaking home run. After serving up two warning-track fly balls the day before, Wagner is developing quite a tight-rope act. Last season he was overworked by Larry Bowa early in the year and ended up on the DL twice. Saturday’s performance, his second in two days, could hardly be attributed to overwork; yesterday’s might be another matter. But nothing can excuse ignoring the runner at second base and allowing him to steal third with one out. Fortunately, his infield bailed him out defensively for the second game in a row and then, an inning later, bailed out the entire team offensively.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

He'd Rather Be Luck Than Good

Make no mistake about it. Billy Wagner would absolutely rather be lucky than good. And he was. For the second time in three outings Wagner was far from dominant as he gave up two hits, two long fly ball outs, a wild pitch and one sinking liner that second baseman Chase Utley dived for to record the final out as the Phillies hung on to snap a three-game losing streak by beating Atlanta 2-1.

Wagner is beginning to remind me a little of former Orioles relief pitcher Don “Full Pack” Stanhouse, so named because he allowed too many base runners or ran too many full counts in the opinion of O’s manager Earl Weaver, who allegedly smoked a full pack of cigarettes just during Stanhouse’s appearances.

Either Wagner has lost something on his fastball or batters are starting to catch up with it, but whatever the explanation, he has been hit hard in two of his last three appearances. Fortunately for him and the Phils it was Utley’s turn to start since right-hander John Smoltz was on the mound. Utley made the most of his opportunity going two for three, driving in a run and preserving the win with his glove. He earned the right to start tomorrow night when the Phils face left-hander Mike Hampton on national television in the series finale. And it’s time for Charlie Manuel to throw away the book on platooning and give the kid a chance to play every day.

Not Overburdened

Uncanny. Once again, the Phillies’ alleged “brain trust” is true to form.

After last night’s disastrous outing by Gavin Floyd, but not due to it, the Phils announced the young starter would be taking up new digs in the bullpen to make room for Vicente Padilla, who returns from the Disabled List.

Thus, faced with a choice of sending Floyd down to AAA where the youngster could get regular work as the starter he is or sticking him in an admittedly shaky Phillies bullpen where he has absolutely no place being, the baseball men who run this organization made the wrong choice. Normally, one might say the odds were even they’d make the right one, but “normal” isn’t in the cards where Ed Wade et al are concerned.

For his part, Floyd seems to have accepted his new assignment with an equanimity belying his youth. I hope his agent is less sanguine and raises a ruckus.

* * * * * * * * *

Last night against the Braves, Jimmy Rollins blew a chance to lead the Phillies right back into the game after Floyd surrendered four runs in the top of the first inning. Rollins was on second base and Placido Polanco was on first when Bobby Abreu hit a shot off the left centerfield wall. Rollins misjudged how far the ball was hit and retreated to second base preparing to tag instead of playing it at least half way. Even Andruw Jones had no chance to make the catch, but he did play the carom perfectly (maybe he could offer Kenny Lofton some lessons), threw a perfect relay to Raphael Furcal who gunned Rollins down at the plate. Had Rollins not retreated to within a few steps of second, he would have beaten the throw. Instead of having one run in, men or second and third and no outs, the Phils settled for two runs when Jim Thome followed Abreu and doubled.

Rollins blunder, a momentum buster despite the rbi double by Thome, recalled Jason Michael’s poor base running against the Nationals two weeks ago that also proved costly. It may be early in the season, but these are the fundamentals good teams are supposed to have worked on in Spring Training and execute right out of the gate.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Give Us a Break

ESPN’s obsession with the Yankees and Red Sox continues unabated. As is frequently the case in our society, cable television takes a cultural phenomenon, in this case an historic rivalry that over the years moves in and out of the nation’s consciousness, and overexposes it until the majority of the country resents everything about it.

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes how out of proportion the whole preoccupation has become than the focus on Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, which at various times is reported headed either to Cooperstown or to Ebay. Does anyone really care, except, of course, Schilling?

MLB accommodated ESPN and scheduled Boston and New York to meet in six of their first nine games. Viewers were [mis]treated to endless replays of Alex Rodriguez swatting the ball away from Bronson Arroyo in last year’s playoffs and, after last night’s contest, will no doubt be [mis]treated to endless replays of Gary Sheffield tussling with some of the Boston faithful in the stands.

The long-suffering and insufferable fans of Boston have been granted their championship at long last. Now, how about granting the rest of us a respite from hearing all the bloody details?

* * * * * * * * *

No one has been a bigger fan of Placido Polanco than I. On merit he should be a starter on some major league team. I have come to the conclusion, however, that team shouldn’t be the Phillies at this juncture. It is time to give Chase Utley a chance to play every day rather than shuffling him in and out of the lineup. How else will he find his groove at the plate and, more importantly, in the field? If that means throwing him in there against a Dontrelle Willis, so be it. The best every day players have to learn to hit all kinds of pitching.

As it stands now, Charlie Manuel has focused on centerfield and second base as his platoon positions. He is hardly the first manager to employ such a strategy. Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver are two notable managers who thrived on platooning. But it is too early in Utley’s career to use him as a part-time player.