Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Who's Number One?

Ladies and gentlemen, the Phillies finally appear to have their No.1 guy.  

Brett Myers threw eight strong innings against the Nationals, lowering his ERA to 2.80 in the process.  The big right hander limited a good Washington lineup to just three hits and two earned runs and in the process gave most of the bullpen the night off.  Tom Gordon, who needed the work, pitched the ninth inning for his fifteenth save.

Everyone associated with the Phillies has always maintained Myers had the stuff of aces but not the temperament.  Lately, these same people attribute his success to his ability to control his emotions and put bad calls and fielding lapses behind him.  Watching Myers one always has the feeling he never seems quite as dominant as a Pedro or Clemens or Oswalt, but he is clearly meeting or exceeding the quality start criteria.  That 2.80 ERA doesn’t lie.

Now, if he could only overcome the one lingering bad habit, giving up home runs to all those Marlon Byrd types, he will have put it all together.  For their part, it would be nice if his mates provided him with more support in recognition of his new status.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Preliminary totals are out for the NL All-Star balloting and Chase Utley currently trails Houston’s Craig Biggio by roughly 17,000 votes.  A seven-time All-Star, the 40-year old Biggio is having a fine year for the Astros, but he ain’t Chase Utley.  That isn’t parochialism speaking.  Utley is the best second baseman in the game today and other than Albert Pujols the first player I’d select to build a team.

Ryan Howard has a much tougher row to hoe to make the squad.  Currently in sixth place in the balloting, Howard trails Carlos Delgado, Lance Berkman, Derek Lee and Nomar Garciaparra.  Understandably, all of them trail Pujols by a total roughly approximating that of the earth’s entire population and can expect to do so as long as King Albert puts on a uniform.  Delgado, currently in a big time slump, still has good offensive numbers for the year and, of course, plays in New York.  Berkman is a terrific player.  Lee, a great hitter and fielder, is on the Disabled List.  It always warms the heart when fans choose guys who not only cannot play but haven’t played for weeks if not months.  Wasn’t it Tip O’Neil who said all All-Star balloting was local?  Garciaparra is also having a fantastic comeback year in Los Angeles at his new position.  First base may be the most loaded position in the league right now.  Still, Howard’s numbers put him right up there with all of them except Pujols.  Heck, Lou Gehrig wouldn’t beat out Albert.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Up and Down

An 11-2 win is nothing to sneeze at but the overall numbers are the ones that don’t lie. With slightly less than a third of the season in the books, the Phillies are two games above .500. Average. Win one; lose one.

Putting it all together hasn’t been easy for this year’s installment of the Phillies and despite the lopsided totals last night, the bigger picture continues a disturbing trend.

Following another poor start in April, the Phillies turned things around in early May winning twelve of thirteen. During that stretch it seemed every night a different player stepped up and made a difference. Then came the swoon during which it was just a likely that every night a different players let the side down.

The first few innings of last night’s game were prime examples of this pattern.

Batting from the right side, much-maligned Jimmy Rollins doubled to open the game. Since returning to the lead-off spot three games ago J-Roll has been on a tear. Chase Utley moved him to third on a ground out to the right side and Bobby Abreu followed with a ground out to short, scoring Rollins. There were a few rarities in that half inning of play: Rollins entered the game only hitting .189 versus left-handers and the Phillies almost never score playing small ball.

Unfortunately, in the next half inning a far more commonplace occurrence followed. Jon Lieber promptly served up a long home run to the first batter he faced, Ryan Zimmerman and the score was knotted at one all. Phillies pitchers in general, starters particularly, have surrendered leads in the next half inning with alarming frequency. If nothing else, it has to be deflating to the offense.

This particularly night, however, another unexpected hero stepped up. Clay Condrey, on the roster because Cole Hamels is on the Disable List, came on in relief when Jon Lieber suffered a groin injury at the end of the second inning. Condrey had been on the Phillies’ roster briefly earlier in the season but for all intents and purposes he hadn’t spent significant time on a big league roster since his tenure with San Diego in 2003. Condrey pitched four innings of one-run (unearned) ball to earn the win.

In the sixth and seventh innings the Phillies broke the game wide open including Ryan Howard’s 12th opposite field home run and 18th overall for the season. The three-run blast was, in Howard’s own words, atonement for the throwing error earlier in the game that allowed Washington to again tie the score at 2 all. It was Howard’s eight error of the season, making him the guy who stepped up and let the side down all on the same night. That’s what I am talking about.

* * * * * * * * *

Generally speaking I like Larry Andersen’s commentary, especially when he wonders out loud why pitchers are afraid to throw certain pitchers when ahead in the count or why so many batters fail to recognize the game situation. He tells it like it is.

That said, however, if I hear him say one more time that given the heat and humidity the ball is going “fly out of here” at Citizens Bank Park I am going to turn off the sound for him as well. Jon Lieber’s gopher ball to Ryan Zimmerman had absolutely nothing to do with the heat and humidity. He threw what looked like an 86 mph fastball right down the middle of the plate and Zimmerman crushed it. That was not telling it like it is, Larry.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Dumb Baseball

The catalog of mental errors grows daily and contributes in no small measure to the Phillies’ mediocre record as summer begins.
Base running.  Batting.  Pitching.  Fielding.  In all facets of the game these Phillies continue to stumble and bumble their way through virtually every game and the fault, dear fans, doesn’t only lie with the players.
Here are a few examples from yesterday’s game, a rare win over Milwaukee.
The first batter in the bottom of the second inning had walked.  The next batter was hit by a pitch.  After the third batter popped up the next batter was also hit by a pitch to load the bases with one out.   Up came the pitcher, who was 3 for 12 for the season, a good mark by any standard.  But what was the proper “play” in this situation?  Your opposite number has just faced four batters, walking one and hitting two.  Obvious conclusion?  The guy is having major problems with his control.  So, do you swing at the first pitch?  No way. Not a chance;  unless, of course, you play for the Phillies.  So, Ryan Madson is presumably given the green light here, and if he was on his own someone should have sent a clear signal he emphatically did not have a green light.  But Madson swung, tentatively, at the first pitch and the appeal said he went around.  A few pitches later he went down on strikes, swinging.  Jimmy Rollins followed and popped out to end the inning and bail out the Milwaukee pitcher.  Three runners left on base.  No runs.  No hits.  Several errors, one egregious, all by the offense.
Let’s jump ahead two innings.  The Phils trailed at that point 2-0.  Ryan Howard led off with a single and moved to third on a double by Aaron Rowand.  Men on second and third and no outs.  David Bell follows with a grounder to third.  Howard, apparently under orders to go on contact, breaks for home and is gunned down at the plate.   What is the world were Charlie Manuel, Bill Dancy, and Howard possibly thinking here?  A slow runner breaks for home on a ball virtually hit directly at him, no force play on and no one out and is thrown out at home.

Don’t talk to me about the double by Ryan Madson that followed two batters later (after Sal Fasano flied out), scoring two runs.  If the Phillies are counting on their pitchers for extra base hits that drive in runs it is going to be an even longer season than it has been to date.  Had Howard stayed at third all kinds of things could have scored him, even with one out.  Virtually the only play that couldn’t was the one on which he ran.

As mentioned in my previous post, too many Phillies pitchers get ahead of batters 0-2 on breaking stuff or changeups only to try and sneak fastballs with nothing on them by the batter for the third strike.  Some may call that an aggressive approach, going after the batter.  I call it dumb baseball.  Sure, a fastball is going to look like 190 mph after a 68 mph curve, but the batter and everyone else in the 215 area code knows what’s coming, and unless that fastball really is clocking in a 190 mph and has some movement, most major league batter will be sitting on it and cream it.  The pitcher can’t afford another breaking ball when he’s ahead in the count 0-2????  

Dumb baseball.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

How Much Longer?

How much longer are we, to say nothing of his teammates, going to have to endure the Gavin Floyd experiment? I thought the minor leagues were the place where pitchers learned the basics of their craft.

For the umpteenth time, Floyd gave up a home run in the opening frame and before half the promenading fans had taken their seats at CBP, the Phillies were down 2-0. For the remainder of his brief and untidy tenure on the mound, Floyd threw (not pitched, mind you) in trouble, allowing 11 base runners in 4.1 innings. At no time was his performance more baffling and infuriating than when he had Carlos Lee 0-2 only to try and finish him off with a fastball, the one that has absolutely no movement on it. The results were predictable. Major league hitters can handle the fastball, especially one that arrives in the low ‘90’s and is belt high and right down Broadway. Maybe we should also blame Floyd’s personal catcher, Sal Fasano, the guy who is allegedly a steadying influence on and all-around cheerleader for the fragile right-hander.

Floyd may yet develop into the pitcher the Phillies envisioned when they drafted him number one, but it won’t be any time soon and it may never be here. Frankly, if the Phillies insist on more on-the-job training for young hurlers at the major league level, why not bring up Giao Gonzalez? Could he be any worse? And make absolutely no mistake about it; the Phillies are experimenting with Floyd. Charlie Manuel said as much as week or so ago when he decided to leave Floyd in to see how he would handle a tough situation.

Enough about Floyd. Literally.

Then there is Ryan Franklin. In his case we are far beyond on-the-job training. Instead, we are witnessing regression to the mean. Franklin arrived in town with a reputation as a guy who gives up home runs and fly balls. For a while he toyed with us, but lately he has lived up to his advance notices, yielding back-breaking home runs to Jose Reyes against the Mets at midweek and a devastating pair of home runs to the Brewers in last night’s latest come-from-behind collapse.

From the opening frame last night the Phils seemed poised to drop their fifth straight game to Milwaukee, trailing 2-0, 2-1, 4-1, 4-2, and 6-4 before Ryan Howard delivered a dramatic game-tying two run homer in the seventh inning. But Manuel decided to bring in Franklin and with two outs (same scenario as against the Mets), the right-hander gave up two long home runs and it was all over.

Following the second home run, I announced to my party I’d had enough and was leaving, and since I was the one who drove to the game, they pretty much had to fall in line. No one balked.

Friday, May 26, 2006


The Bobby Abreu trade rumor mill is cranking up again and I am left asking myself, why are we even talking about trading a career .300 hitter who is only 32 years old?

The glib answer, of course, is: have you seen him play right field lately, but I know that cannot be the whole story; after all, Bobby has played a tentative right field for years now.

The renewed speculation is due almost entirely to Shane Victorino's imminent return to the bench after filling in admirably for the injured Aaron Rowand. Victorino’s “demotion” is an unfortunate and perplexing development given how well he played. Rowand is no Wally Pip, however, and his return to the starting lineup is eagerly anticipated.

A few things are clear. Abreu continues to be an on-base machine thanks in no small part to his propensity to draw bases on balls and his somewhat resurgent batting average. Frankly, I find those numbers somewhat deceiving. Bobby isn’t driving the ball well (yesterday’s home run notwithstanding) and still looks uncomfortable at the plate. Victorino, on the other hand, cannot languish on the bench and continue to develop. The Phillies need to know if he is the sparkplug we’ve seen over the last few weeks or the two-time Rule 5 player he has been. Currently, the Phillies are carrying six outfielders though Chris Roberson may return to the minors when Rowand is activated. Rather than recapitulate all the possibilities and suggestions in this space, follow this link to this thread at Beerleaguer where everyone with an opinion weighed in.

* * * * * * * *

Brett Myers came through yesterday just when he looked like he wouldn’t. Staked to an early 3 – 0 lead, Myers immediately gave them all back when he surrendered a three-run homer to the heretofore unknown slugger Jose Reyes. It was Myers’ ninth gopher ball of the season and had the potential to utterly deflate his mates, but the young right hander settled down after that and gave the Phils seven strong innings. Afterwards, he acknowledged he didn’t have his best stuff, especially his fastball, which according to Myers wasn’t moving at all.

That is the mark of a maturing pitcher: to pitch well without his best stuff. By going deep into the game (“deep” hardly seems sufficient to describe the efforts of any starting pitcher who goes seven innings these days) Myers allowed Charlie Manuel to “only” use two relievers, Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon. As it was, much was made of Gordon’s pitching for four outs rather than three. Come on, guys: Gordon had only pitched about two innings total over the last ten days or so.

Inquirer beat writer Todd Zolecki noted this morning that Manuel has a plan regarding his closer:

Charlie Manuel tries to take special care of his closer for the first couple of months of the season.

The Phillies manager hopes that no more than one-inning saves keeps him fresher later.

While this might not necessarily be a bad plan with a 38-year old closer who has had arm problems in the past, need we remind the manager that wins and losses count from April 5th on?

* * * * * * * *

I probably shouldn’t post the following in case any Mets’ fans are lurking nearby and the comment section below suddenly becomes a chat room, but here it goes:

Has anyone ever heard a noisier, more annoying stadium than Shea during a night game? I am not talking about airplanes overhead, none of which I heard during the telecasts Tuesday or Wednesday. Instead, I speak of the strange sound effects the PA system inflicts on everyone along the Eastern seaboard between every batter let alone every inning. I struggle to describe one sound in particular: it sounds like two synthesizers clapping.

At times it was impossible to hear Harry and LA, the only announcers for whom I do not normally turn off the sound in the first place.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Next Life May Offer Some Relief

Life can be filled with regrets.

Should have practiced the piano more. Should have eaten my spinach. Should have bought that stock when it was at 4.

And should have worked more on that splitter in little league.

All I know is I want to come back in the next life as a relief pitcher. Take one Arthur Rhodes for example. Here is a sixteen year veteran who has thrown a total of 981 innings or 61.31 innings per year. His salary for 2006? $3,700,000 or roughly $60,0349.05 per inning of work.

Of course, some innings are tougher than others, especially when you cannot always find the strike zone. On May 21 Arthur came in and threw 30 pitches against Boston while allowing four hits and two earned runs in one inning. On May 23, however, he only needed 7 pitches to dispense with the Mets in his lone inning of work. Presumably, he was paid the same $60+K for each of those appearances.

We are living in an era of one-inning relief specialists. Set-up man. Closer. There are even some guys who are called Situational relievers; they aren’t even required to pitch an inning; instead, they come in to face one batter. Naturally, those are the hardest jobs to come by.

There’s not much use bemoaning this development or the consequences it holds for starting pitchers let alone their managers. Nothing in baseball’s history suggests trends of this magnitude are ever reversed.

So practice those scales, boys and girls, and eat your vegetables. But don’t neglect that splitter. It won’t exhaust you and you can retire at age 39 with a pot of gold and look forward to many years of not working harder if at all ever again.

Stronger Measures

Last night’s game had it all: the poor starting pitching; the blown leads; the sloppy fielding; the lack of clutch hitting; the unreliable relief pitching; the impatient batters.

And all of that came after the Phillies put their young phenom Cole Hamels on the 15-day Disabled List. Hamels had been scheduled to start the game. Now there are those inside and out of the organization wondering if he is ever going to pitch regularly for this team.

To say the Phillies had the Mets on the ropes last night after only five batters is to not know your local history. New York sent out Alay Soler to make his major league debut and the Cuban right hander walked the bases loaded before Pat Burrell delivered a run-producing single to left and Ryan Howard followed with a ball through the five hole at second base for two more runs. Five batters and the bases were still loaded with nobody out. So, up comes Shane Victorino, who promptly swings at Soler’s first offering before he strikes out looking. If that isn’t a paradigm for this season I don’t know what is. David Bell followed and flied out. Sal Fasano looked absolutely pitiful in striking out to end the inning. (Side note: Fasano caught the entire sixteen innings Tuesday night but was in the lineup last night because Jon Lieber was the Phillies’ starter. Talk about inflexible managing. It isn’t as though this combination is producing great results. It’s time for Manuel to tell Lieber who his catcher is going to be.)

Sitting in my easy chair watching the proceedings I told myself, “They had the bases loaded with nobody out and couldn’t score any more. Lieber has to go out there and shut the Mets down in their half of the inning.” Lieber promptly surrendered a home run to Carlos Beltran and that sinking feeling picked up momentum.

It isn’t too late to shake this team up. The problem with such a notion is that we are forever thinking this team needs to be shaken up.

A number of those commenting in this space and on other blogs have suggested two prime candidates: the manager and the right fielder. Both are good guys, which only makes the decision harder for Pat Gillick. However, one suspects the GM is not a sentimentalist and will pull the trigger when he feels the moment is right and the returns (for Abreu) sufficient. Manuel doesn’t pitch, hit or catch the ball, but he makes decisions that affect the outcome of the game and anyone who believes the manager’s role is more neutral than that is kidding himself.

An outfield of Burrell, Rowand and Victorino might not be as productive offensively, but it can be argued Abreu lost two games in a row with his poor fielding. Speaking of poor defense, after Ryan Howard’s latest adventures in the field Tuesday night, it’s time for Manuel to pull him from a game when the youngster blows an easy play again. If Howard feels shown up, too bad. If anyone on the bench is talking to him about his lack of focus, it isn’t working. Stronger measures are called for, and not just for him.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

To The Point

You stop by here for commentary and analysis. Let me be brief today:


You want more? A beleaguered Ryan Madson makes what could arguably be called the relief appearance of the decade by any pitcher and still ends up losing on a walk-off home run. The long ball remains his nemesis.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

How's He Doing?

I noticed a little item in this morning’s Inquirer indicating the Phillies are on a pace to win 87 games this season, one less than last year and six games behind the target new GM Pat Gillick set when he was hired.

This projection made me wonder just how Gillick has done in helping the Phils achieve his goal.   In no particular order:

Alex Gonzalez retired out of the blue Sunday and slipped out of town under cover of a…well… bright blue sky.  His departure came as a complete surprise…at least until we thought about it, at which point it came as welcome news.

Fellow infielder Abraham Nunez is still reported to be in residence, however, seated somewhere along the bench at Citizens Bank Park.  To say that he is the forgotten man on this roster would be an understatement; generally, it is easier to find people in the Witness Protection Program.

Pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez, acquired in the Vicente Padilla trade, never even made it to town in the first place; the Phillies released him toward the end of Spring Training. His whereabouts are a little harder to pin down but it does not appear he caught on with any other club.

Arthur Rhodes is very much in evidence in the bullpen when he isn’t on the mound issuing roughly one walk per inning, not the most endearing trait from a relief pitcher.

Jullio Santana is on the Disabled List after suddenly developing elbow problems at precisely the moment when the Phillies needed a roster spot.  Pure coincidence.

David Dellucci is beginning to find his stroke as he adjusts to his role as a very part-time player.

Sal Fasano has somehow become the personal catcher for Jon Lieber and Gavin Floyd, two pitchers who could not be more different if they set out to be so.  As far as I can tell Fasano is their only common denominator.

Closer Tom Gordon has performed very well indeed, saving 13 out of 14 opportunities and pitching very badly in only one outing, which, unfortunately, was his most important one to date, a loss to the Mets.

Ryan Franklin has pitched decently, giving up almost a hit an inning (20 in 21.1 innings), surrendering a home run (3) every seven innings and yielding nearly the same number of walks (9) as strikeouts (11).  His advance notices were far worse than those numbers would indicate.

The trade that sent Jim Thome to Chicago for Aaron Rowand and two young pitching prospects may be Gillick’s crowning achievement to date.  Rowand has been everything advertised and more; the two young hurlers are doing well; Ryan Howard continues to flourish as the sole first baseman; and,  Jim Thome has made an astounding comeback in Chicago.

What does this all add up to?  It may be too early to say, but this much is known:  Gillick seems to have improved the starting lineup while further fouling up the bench.  He hasn’t necessarily improved the bullpen compared to last year, but no one should fault him for letting a certain Virginia-born loudmouth closer move further north.

Monday, May 22, 2006

What To Do About Bobby

Tom Goyne of the always informative and entertaining Balls, Sticks, & Stuff has an interesting piece today on PrOPS, or predicted OPS, a measure devised by JC Bradbury that attempts “to create a way to determine just which players were the victims of bad luck and which players had come down with a touch of Midas.”

It makes for interesting reading including the surprising “scary” conclusion. What most caught my attention, however, was that Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins all showed up in a list of the 50 unluckiest players thus far this season. From my distinctly non-sabremetric perspective none of these guys looked particularly unlucky to me. Shows what I know…I guess.

Much has been made of Abreu’s statistical “anomalies” this season prior to the last five games. Until then, Abreu was struggling for base hits, power and rbi’s after a good start in all those departments, yet he was among the NL leaders in OBP due to his league-leading number of bases on balls. In the last five games Abreu has turned things around, going 9 for 18 with six walks and eight rbi’s, five of them in the 10 – 5 win over Boston yesterday. Particularly harsh critics will also have to acknowledge that he went back to the wall on a long fly ball Saturday night and made a very good catch, something heretofore not part of his repertoire, last year’s Gold Glove notwithstanding.

Abreu’s up and down season is a microcosm of his struggles since the home run derby extravaganza at the All-Star game last July in Detroit. Ever since putting on an awesome power display there, the always consistent Bobby has struggled at the plate. Between July and October of 2005 his batting average dropped roughly fifty points. After starting off well this season, he went through quite a long stretch that again saw his average drop precipitously before starting to turn it around in the last five games.

It’s no secret the Phillies shopped Abreu during the off-season despite a career .303 average with a .412 OBP. Abreu has also been a consistent rbi man, knocking in more than 100 runs in four of the last five seasons. What he hasn’t been is a fan favorite. The locals want more intensity, not just consistency. Give them an Aaron Rowand every time. Despite Abreu’s overall career numbers, the local blogosphere has joined the debate with some arguing Abreu’s value will never be higher than it is now at age 32.

Recently, the injury to centerfielder Rowand and his stellar replacement thus far by Shane Victorino has underscored the dilemma the Phils face going forward. No team wants to give up a player with Abreu’s offensive history, but the time may be ripe to consider such a move again with the apparent emergence of Victorino. The Phils still have pressing needs in the starting rotation and bullpen and could also use an outstanding young catcher in the Brian McCann mold should the Carlos Ruiz experiment fizzle.

A few things are certain: the Phillies are not going to give Abreu away though they wouldn’t mind shedding some of his salary. Management also recognizes no one on the current roster is likely to bring more in return than Abreu. Unfortunately, no one is more likely to bring such consistency in return.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sampling The Margin of Error

As goes Jimmy Rollins so go the Phillies, and right now none of them is going well.

J-Roll is back to his old habits – impatience and swinging at the high ones – while his mates continue to fail in the clutch and their losing streak is now five games and counting. Three days ago Charlie Manuel tried a one-game experiment and had Shane Victorino leading off. So much for experiments. Someone should tell the Phillies’ skipper that one game does not a sample make.

At the start of the season two things seemed certain: this team was going to score runs and it would catch the ball. Pitching was the troubling prospect. As of last night’s loss to Boston, the Phils are not scoring runs, especially when opportunities present themselves, and they are booting the easy plays. Overall, their pitching has been erratic but in a number of instances the starters have pitched well enough to win some of the games the team is losing. See the Milwaukee series for a three-game sample of such tendencies.

Last night’s game was billed as a match-up of young studs Brett Myers and Josh Beckett, whose career numbers are reasonably similar (44- 34 with a 4.34 ERA for Myers and 47 – 35 with an ERA of 3.52). Through five innings the game proved worthy of its advance billing, but in the sixth inning things fell apart for the Phillies and Myers. The box score will show Myers only gave up two earned runs in 6.1 innings, but that isn’t the whole story let alone necessarily the true one.

Jimmy Rollins, who an inning before had made a terrific stop on a ball absolutely scalded by David Ortiz, made a two-base throwing error on a routine one-out grounder by Alex Gonzalez in the sixth inning. Then Myers gave up a single to pitcher Josh Beckett, batting for the second time in 2006, and the Red Sox had their first run. On the next play David Bell could not handle a catchable ground ball by Kevin Youkilis (the play was charitably scored an infield hit) and the flood gates opened. By the end of the frame, the Red Sox had scored four runs and the Phillies’ fate was sealed.

Later in the game, Myers gave up another hit to Beckett, this one the second home run of his career. If Myers has any troubling tendencies they are his inability to work through bad plays behind him and allowing home runs to soft batters. Those two earned runs do not tell the whole story for Myers this night. Let the record show among other things he failed to get out his opposite number twice!

The fantastic recovery of early and mid-May during which the Phils won 12 of 13 is now a distant memory, soured by the failures that have plagued them all season. Local columnists are again highlighting the differences between the Red Sox, a confident team, and the Phils, a team with no discernible identity or direction. Worse, once again the Phils are playing in front of sell-out crowds at home, a sizable portion of which probably went to college in the Boston area and is rooting for the Sox, and failing to win the hearts and minds of the local citizenry.

Just one more example of failing to deliver in the clutch. And let the record show there are years if not decades from which to sample that tendency.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sorry, Charlie

It never takes very long around these parts.

Three tough losses in a row and already the columnists are trotting out the Billy Wagner stories…again. You know, the ones that talk about his “going off” on his teammates a year ago for not knowing how to play let alone win. Jim Salisbury refers to that tirade as “much warranted” in a piece he wrote this morning about the Red Sox visit to town. It’s a tired story at this point, Jim, and off the mark.

The sweep in Milwaukee wasn’t pretty, to be sure, especially when one considers the Phils had good leads relatively late in two of the three games. Lousy relief pitching was a big part of the problem. A lack of clutch hitting was an even bigger part. But poor management was the biggest part.

Not only am I not ready to anoint Charlie Manuel manager of the year, I remain convinced he isn’t going to last out the entire campaign as the Phillies’ skipper. Charlie is overmatched as head man. He may know hitting, but even that doesn’t translate into clutch hitting. The problem with Charlie remains that he doesn’t know strategy and, worse, he doesn’t know how to handle a pitching staff or manage his bench.

Some have argued he was right to leave Gavin Floyd in the other night to see how the kid could handle adversity. That sort of on-the-job training is a luxury few if any teams can afford, especially on the road. In this case, the decision flew in the face of all evidence up to that point. After giving up a first inning home run Floyd may have retired 12 batters in a row on this particular night, but his short resume suggests that when he falters, he falters in a big way. Manuel decided that was the time for a little education. His pupil got the failing grade, but the teacher was the real culprit.

Later, he brought in Arthur Rhodes. From here I will let Brian Peoples of the always insightful and informative Philling Station pick up the analysis:

Of course, one might argue that the Phillies might have been better off bringing in Tom Gordon with the meat of the Brew Crew lineup coming up in the bottom of the ninth. Rhodes committed the cardinal mistake of walking Jeff Cirillo to lead off the inning. Then with one out and Cirillo on second, Charlie Manuel intentionally walked righty Bill Hall to pitch to lefty Geoff Jenkins. Charlie's manual (apparently) instructs him that it is always better to have lefty on lefty, but this ignores the fact that Rhodes is tougher on righthanded hitters (1.80 WHIP .222 BAA vs. right/ 2.18/ .375 vs. left, and it was even more pronounced last season). Jenkins stroked a double over the head of Shane Victorino to plate Cirillo and propel Milwaukee to their third consecutive walk-off victory.

Meanwhile, the bullpen situation we all thought was beginning to straighten itself out has reverted to early season form, that is to say, unreliable. Reports are that Manuel no longer trusts Aaron Fultz on merit. Add Ryan Madson to that list following the second time in a week he has relieved Cole Hamels and blown the lead, save and possible win. Madson is beginning to look like Floyd on the bench: shell-shocked. His fastball is also starting to look just like Floyd’s: straight down the middle with no movement on it.

At the start of this season the Phillies were convinced they had improved their bench measurably over last year’s collection of so-called “professional hitters” such as Jose Offermann. Abraham Nunez and Alex Gonzalez were signed. David Dellucci was acquired in a trade. Shane Victorino joined the 25-man roster for good.

At this stage of the season it is nearly impossible to figure out whether or not Nunez is any good. He appears seldom, almost always as a left-handed pinch-hitter. He hasn’t been effective in that role but I would guess it is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable role for him. Most of us thought he was signed to sub for David Bell against right-handers. Even when Bell started off slowly, however, Nunez sat. Gonzalez has been a complete bust with three hits in 34 at-bats. The other night Charlie brought in Gonzalez to pinch hit in the ninth with Pat Burrell also available on the bench. Burrell, who had been struggling mightily (though not 3 for 34), was sitting this one out so that, as his manager put it, he could “think”. That doesn’t mean Charlie also gets the night off to not think. The results were predictable as Gonzalez grounded out and the rally was over.

* * * * * * * *

I didn’t set out this morning to pick on Inquirer columnists, but Frank Fitzpatrick deserves special mention for his contemptible attempt at humor regarding the Duke lacrosse team and the allegations of rape involving three of its players. For whatever reason, Fitzpatrick thinks the situation in Durham provides just the right occasion to try a little of his special brand of humor. Not only is the situation in Durham anything but funny, Frank, in general any attempt at humor in a ongoing criminal case shows unusually poor taste and judgment.

I must assume Fitzpatrick is at a point in his career where his columns no longer require an editor. More's the pity.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Two For One

There is no truth to the rumor the Phillies are planning to scan Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson, combine the two layers in PhotoShop, flatten them, and try to create at least one decent pitcher out of the mix.

No truth, but there ought to be.

For the second straight start by Cole Hamels, Madson came on in alleged relief and cost the rookie left-hander a chance at victory.  The first time, in Cincinnati, Hamels left leading 2-0.  In came Madson, who promptly surrendered two home runs in a game the Phils eventually won 8 -4.  Despite his lousy effort Madson was awarded the win when the Phils scored the go-ahead runs while he was still the pitcher of record.

Today, Hamels left the game leading 4 – 3 whereupon Madson came in and gave up the tying run (charged to Hamels) and the winning run thereby recording both a blown save and loss.

I would assume Madson will also be stricken from Hamels Christmas list.

Conventional Wisdom

Not being a sabremetrician the following remarks should be considered hunches rather than hard facts.

It appears that when the Phillies lose they tend to give up a big inning nearly every time rather than be nibbled to death by one or two runs every few innings.  If the statistics bear me out in this observation, one obvious place to begin looking for answers would be the manager’s decision on when to lift a starter.

Last night is a case in point.  Though he had been sailing along nicely after yielding a first inning home run to Geoff Jenkins, starter Gavin Floyd has a tendency to suddenly and dramatically collapse as his command continues to plague him.  Entering the sixth inning last night, Floyd had been staked to a 4 – 1 lead by his teammates.  It all came apart at that point as he gave up three hits and a walk in rapid succession.  For the evening Floyd threw 81 pitches in less than six innings of work, 36 of them balls.  As Larry Andersen is fond of pointing out, that is a lousy ratio.

So, why did Manuel stick with him as long as he did in that fatal sixth inning?  Lefty Rheal Cormier, who until last night had not yielded a single earned run this season, had warmed up.  Manuel’s response after the game was:  "I wanted the kid to pitch there.  It was time for him to pitch there."

Sorry again, Charlie, but history, especially Floyd’s personal history, suggests it was actually time to get him out of there about one or two batters earlier.  But Charlie is only a human manager, and as such, he goes with his hunches and the percentages.  Righties vs. righties.  Lefties vs. lefties.  It doesn’t matter if the particular righty is imploding right before our eyes if not his.

Of course all of this speculation on my part may not have been necessary if the Cormier who showed up after the horse was out of the barn had done even a reasonable impersonation of the Cormier who had been showing up heretofore.  But on this night, lefty Cormier yielded consecutive base hits to lefties Prince Fielder and Corey Koskie en route to 2/3 of an inning pitched, two inherited runners allowed to score, two hits and his first earned run allowed in 2006.

Later, when the Phils rallied to tie the score late, it was lefty Ryan Howard who delivered a key hit against lefty Brian Shouse.

So much for conventional wisdom.  And before anyone points out to me why conventional wisdom is conventional, I am talking about when other indicators suggest conventions are not the answer.

Oh, and by the way.  The game winning hit by Jenkins, a lefty, came off of Arthur Rhodes, another…you guessed it…lefty.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hits, Shifts and Breaks

Frankly, I had them penciled in for a loss last night. They just seemed to be due for a lugubrious effort and, sure enough, they delivered, as it were. The fact is, they aren’t hitting all that much at precisely the moment their biggest worry, starting pitching, has come around and been nothing short of tremendous. And then there is the fielding, which continues to haunt them.

It all added up to a 3-2 loss that wasted a good start by Cory Lidle, who needed one, and an inning of effective relief by beleaguered Ryan Madson, who needed one even more. The loss went to Ryan Franklin, who gave up a leadoff double in the ninth, an intentional walk and a game-losing throwing error on a bunt by Brewers’ catcher Damian Miller.

The lack of hitting is coming from a few quarters the Phillies absolutely depend on. Bobby Abreu has not been a productive hitter for nearly an entire season stretching back to last year’s All-Star game. He may be walking a lot, but he sure isn’t hitting. He isn’t driving the ball or getting good swings. Jimmy Rollins is in a huge funk following the end of his hitting streak, and, as we all know, Jimmy doesn’t walk. As for Pat Burrell, always streaky, he is in one of those funks where he looks lost at the plate, taking a lot of called strikes.

Marcus Hayes put is this way in his Daily News piece this morning:

Phillies leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins and cleanup hitter Pat Burrell have been especially lacking as the offense has sputtered.

Burrell is 1-for-12 in his last three games, with six strikeouts in his last eight at-bats. He was 0-for-4 last night. He twice struck out with runners on base and he also grounded into a doubleplay. It is the sort of mini-slump Manuel likes to nip in the bud.

"He might be getting into a little funk," Manuel allowed. "It might be time to rest him. Let him think about it."

Rollins is 1-for-19 in his last four games. He hasn't scored in the last three.

"I'm not saying I won't change the lineup," Manuel said. "Jimmy gets us going."

Not lately.

Burrell needs to think about it? Sorry, Charlie, but Pat needs to stop thinking about it and hit what is thrown. Failing that, he should at least swing now and then. As for Jimmy, he is back to his old habit of swinging at the high ones, especially when batting right-handed. Just when everyone thought J-Roll had learned his role and some plate discipline, he reverts to his old form. It's time to make some tough decisions about Jimmy. This lack of production out of the lead-off spot cannot go on forever and in Shane Victorino the Phils may have a solution.

* * * * * * * * *

Commenter extraordinaire George S. noted in an email that the Phils gave up three hits in last night’s game when they were in a “dramatic shift” and that all might have been outs in a more conventional alignment.

The reality is the Phillies have been employing “dramatic shifts” for quite some time now against players such as Carlos Delgado, Barry Bonds, Adam Dunn and Geoff Jenkins among others. Once in while the shift might be called for, but not every series let alone every game.

Who is responsible for this, ah, shift in strategy? (Sorry about that.)

* * * * * * * * *

The medical report on Mike Lieberthal is not good. An MRI confirmed he has a deep bone bruise and “minimal, stable fracture” of the knee. I don’t know how “minimal” or “stable” a fracture has to be for a catcher to recover quickly, but given Mike’s history neither he nor the team can be much consoled. The only good news here is that the ligaments and tendons are not affected. After the best start he has had in years this is an unfortunate break for Mike, who may be out two more weeks…or longer.

It also means Sal Fasano and Carlos Ruiz will be splitting the catching duties for the foreseeable future.

Last night we got to see Fasano at his best and worst. His block of the plate on a throw by Burrell was impressive. Getting picked off first base was not, especially when he’d just watched slightly more nimble Chase Utley almost get picked off. This is what we can expect from a journeyman catcher: good one moment and terrible the next. If he were more consistent he wouldn't be a journeying sort of man.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Oh, To Be Young Again

The transition that has been underway for more than a season is picking up steam. Overall, with the exception of the back end of the bullpen, the Phillies are getting younger, not older. Much younger.

Except for David Bell (33) and Abraham Nunez (30), the entire infield is in its twenties. The outfield’s older generation consists of Bobby Abreu and David Dellucci, both 32. After that, Aaron Rowand is 28; Shane Victorino, 25; Chris Roberson, 26; and Pat Burrell, already a veteran of six seasons, is 29.

Three fifths of the starting rotation are particularly young. Hamels is 22. Floyd is 23. Brett Myers is 25. Randy Wolf is only 29. The bullpen is the one area where age dominates with the exception of Ryan Madson, 25, and Geoff Geary, 29.

Mike Lieberthal and Sal Fasano are both 34, but Carlos Ruiz is 27.

Looking over the starting lineup from Sunday’s game in Cincinnati, only David Bell and Alex Gonzalez were over 30 years old as things got underway, and by day’s end Ryan Howard was back at his usual post, hitting home runs and lowering the average age.

No word on how old the Phanatic is, but we know this is at least the second generation to inhabit that outfit.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Who'd Have Thunk It?

Nothing could keep the Phillies off the front page this morning!

After all, it isn’t every day your latest hero spent the previous night in an emergency room receiving treatment for food poisoning, began the day on the bench, came in as a pinch-hinter late in the game, socked the tying home run in his first at bat and the winning one four frames later in the twelfth inning.

And it certainly isn’t every day that your winning pitcher is a guy named Geary who had just been demoted two days earlier to AAA not, in should be pointed out, because of ineffectiveness, au contraire, but because he had an option remaining and the guy who edged him out for the last roster spot, one Julio Santana, did not.   The second chapter of this unlikely tale had the guy who stayed giving up three walks and two earned runs in less than an inning of alleged relief only to be put on the DL two days later.  So Geary, who as it turned out had 72 hours to report to Scranton and spent much of that time mulling his options in Philadelphia, gets the call to report instead to Cincinnati, where in the final chapter of this saga he picks up the win on Sunday.   Far be it from me to question the legitimacy of Santana’s elbow injury.  Manipulate the system?  Why that wouldn’t be kosher!!

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

It’s impossible to look over at the American League without noting with pleasure that Jim Thome is back.  Gentleman Jim hit his fifteenth homer of the season last night, going 2 – 5 and driving in his 38th run as the Sox beat Minnesota 9 – 7.   Meanwhile, Ryan Howard has hit 12 homers with 27 RBI’s in his sophomore season.  Still, no regrets about the deal that sent Thome to Chicago.  The feeling here is Howard will be around for a longer time and will only get better.

And, of yeah, some guy named Rowand and two excellent pitching prospects were also part of the Thome deal.  Isn’t is nice when everyone is happy?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I am not here to pick on Bobby Abreu, but I cannot ignore the potentially game-saving catch his substitute Chris Roberson made at the fence in the eighth inning.  That is precisely the sort of play that gives Bobby fits.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Prior to Sunday’s game I spoke with Jason Weitzel about Brett Myers and made the point that yesterday’s start was one of the most important of Myers’ career to date.  The team had been winning despite losing several position players to injury; the starting pitching had come around with the exception of Cory Lidle, and; furthermore, Myers had finally begun to assert himself as the team’s ace and needed to consolidate that role.

So Myers goes out and holds the previously potent (until the Phillies arrived in town) Reds’ offense to a single run on four hits in seven innings in, need we remind you, a hitters’ park.   (During the three game series the Phils allowed three earned runs.)

As they say, Myers could sue his mates for lack of support, but he isn’t complaining as the Phillies march on, sweeping the Reds in their ballpark and moving to within a single game of division leading New York.

For the season Myers is “only” 2-1, but his ERA now stands at 2.73.  His maturation along with the arrival of Cole Hamels and the stellar performance by Jon Lieber Saturday night give the Phillies much to cheer about.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Bottom Line

We are forever being reminded that baseball and its coverage by newspapers are businesses.

No matter how much we speak of sport, in the final analysis nearly everyone who runs the game views baseball as “entertainment” and understands job one is to assemble the best product and compete for the public’s “entertainment dollars”. One of the biggest issues facing baseball for many years running has been how to re-establish the game’s central position as America’s pastime. There are many people, myself among them, who believe that status has been permanently usurped by football. Moreover, with basketball and hockey playoffs extending deep into the spring if not early summer and soccer an ongoing enterprise around the globe, baseball can no longer rely on its traditional seasonal exclusivity and concomitant claim on the public’s entertainment dollars.

The newspaper business isn’t any different when it comes to economic objectives. No matter how much we speak of information and opinion, at bottom the people who own newspapers want to sell their product and make a profit for their owners and shareholders. The biggest issue confronting the people who run newspapers these days is how to expand advertising in and readership of its print editions while exploiting the internet, which is draining off the former in the form of Craig’s Lists and Ebay (among other sites) while attracting the latter in larger, unpaid numbers. The main story in today’s Business section of the Inquirer addresses these issues in depth.

Despite my recognition of these operating principles, it was with particular dismay that I opened my Sunday Inquirer only to discover that Jon Lieber’s gem in Cincinnati the night before, easily the most impressive performance by a Phillies’ starter this season and entertaining to boot, was relegated to page 7.

Instead, the lead story was the Eagles’ mini camp. Other stories making page one were the Dad Vail regatta and the decision by some St. Joseph University seniors to forego graduation and row for the gold, and the upcoming Preakness. I have to conclude the editors of our only seven-day-a-week newspaper determined it was in their best business interests to bury the Phillies deep within the Sunday edition convinced as they were that their morning toast was best buttered by the ongoing obsession of Eagles’ fans with Donovan McNabb and the post-T.O. Birds.

Plenty has been written and spoken about the Phillies’ failure to capture the hearts and minds of the local citizenry after years of on-field failure and disappointment. The most frustrating residue of those years of dashed hopes is that when they finally put together an exciting team, too few people seem to notice. Even following The Catch by Aaron Rowand and its aftermath, precisely the kind of story fans relish and, frankly, public relations people exploit, the Phillies can’t get much respect in their own backyard. Undoubtedly the story and accompanying pictures sold a lot of newspapers, but a few days later it was back to, well, page seven.

What do the Phillies have to do? Win twelve out of thirteen games?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Every Night A Different Hero

Cole Hamels’ major league debut may not have been exactly the Cy Young performance everyone was fantasizing about, but it certainly hinted at great things to come.

Five innings of one-hit ball with seven strike outs on the road in the cold and drizzle against a very good offensive club in a hitters’ park. As for those five walks he surrendered, three of them in one inning, even a veteran can overthrow the ball when his adrenaline is pumping overtime. The important thing here is that Hamels overcame them with no damage; in fact, he never acted like he was in trouble. No one can teach that!!

He shook off fellow rookie Carlos Ruiz more than a few times, a further indication Hamels had a plan. He worked very quickly, perhaps a little too quickly at times, but his pace can also be attributed to the other prevailing circumstances: friends and family hurried to Cincinnati from Southern California to witness his debut and cheer him on; the Phils had just seen Aaron Rowand literally sacrifice his body for the team the night before; the Mets were losing.

Hamels left after five innings when Charlie Manuel decided to pinch hit for him with the bases loaded and the Phils holding a 2 – 0 lead. No quibble here. Hamels had thrown a lot of pitches and the Phils had a chance to bust open the game. Abraham Nunez failed to deliver, however, and the next inning Hamels got a no-decision for his efforts as Ryan Madson imploded once again. More on that later.

After the game, Hamels spoke with and joked with reporters, his demeanor a far cry from that of fellow traveler Gavin Floyd. On and off the field, the kid is smooth. It’s just one start, but it was impressive.

Not so impressive was Ryan Madson, who was dropped from the rotation when Hamels arrived and returned to the set-up role he had filled the last two seasons. Madson was rocked for two home runs and looked appropriately shell-shocked on the bench afterwards. Going back to mid-season of last year, Madson has not been impressive. Hitters are sitting on his fastball, which has little or no movement on it. It just so happens that Madson was the pitcher of record when the Phils scored the go-ahead and eventual winning runs next inning so he gets the win despite pitching terribly. There oughta’ be a rule change about that.

Speaking of poor outings, Julio Santana was equally terrible in so-called relief, walking three batters and surrendering two earned runs in a third of an inning. This is the guy the Phillies retained instead of Geoff Geary on the sole basis that he had no options remaining and Geary did. Geary has to be upset about being demoted after pitching well recently including just two nights before against the Mets, the only guy by the way who acquitted himself well in the 13 – 4 shellacking they took. For their part, the Phils’ alleged brain trust continues to show a remarkable penchant for mishandling many of their pitchers. Right now I’d rather hand the ball to Geary than Madson. Santana wouldn’t even be an option, pun intended.

Ryan Franklin, Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon also appeared in the game and pitched extremely well. At least two of them should have had the night off if Madson and Santana did their jobs. But enough about the bullpen for now. Last night was Cole Hamels’ moment to shine and he did.

Last, but not least, Shane Victorino stepped in for Rowand and had a brilliant evening, going four for four with a home run and playing a terrific centerfield. It is worth noting the Phillies continue to win even with their starting catcher and centerfielder on the DL. In the past, those losses would almost certainly have proven crippling, but this club appears to be different as every night a different hero emerges en route to their eleventh win in twelve outings.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Catch

They already loved him around these parts before The Catch, so it’s difficult to imagine how the fans are going to feel about Aaron Rowand now.

He arrived in Philadelphia with a reputation as a guy who would run into walls for his team and that is precisely what he did last night in making one of the most spectacular catches ever seen here or elsewhere.

As soon as Xavier Nady hit the ball Harry Kalas also went into action.  “Driven to deep centerfield,” the voice of the Phillies began with characteristic emphasis.  The camera picked up Rowand’s back from that point as he raced toward the fence in front of the Phillies bullpen.  Glancing once or twice at that fence with utter disdain, Rowand accelerated, always keeping his eye on the ball.

He reached out and grabbed it just over his shoulder and simultaneously crashed into the railing, face first, running so hard there was no time to brace himself.  Had the fence not been there his momentum probably would have carried him as far as Packer Avenue.

He immediately crumpled to the ground in obvious pain but had the presence of mind to raise his glove just long and high enough to prove he not only made the catch but held onto it.

No one in the park was happier than Gavin Floyd, who had walked the bases loaded after getting two quick outs in this, the first inning.  Rowand had saved the day and, as it turns out, the game, which was called after four and half innings with the Phils holding a slim 2-0 lead.  Had Rowand failed to make The Catch, three Mets runs would surely have scored.

Rowand, bloodied but unbowed,  was immediately taken to the hospital where a fracture was diagnosed.  He will have surgery today and probably go on the DL for a stretch.  The bet here is he won’t stay on it a minute longer than mandatory.

Meanwhile, Floyd settled down after that shaky opening frame and pitched better than he has to date.  He finally mixed his pitches well and had the curve and change working for him.  Other than the three successive walks in the first inning his command was better than it had been in any other start to date.

Larry Andersen opined at the start of the game that no one would benefit more from the arrival of Cole Hamels than Floyd.  I had previously written that Hamels’ presence should take some of the pressure off of Floyd who would no longer be the young kid on the block, but Andersen went further and said he thought the decision to keep Floyd on the 25-man roster and in the starting rotation would do wonders for his confidence.  That, and the fact that Floyd and Hamels are good friends apparently, having come into and up through the organization more or less together.

And, oh yes, the hero of the game other than Rowand?  A guy named Utley, who belted a first inning home run that proved to be the game winner.   Where would this team be without Utley?  Don’t ask.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Due For A Stinker

When the end of the streak came it wasn’t particularly surprising; after all, nine games in a row ain’t too shabby.  Nor was it especially surprising how one-sided the loss was.  They were due for a stinker.  But it didn’t have to be this ugly.

The Phils shot themselves in the collective foot last night.  Cory Lidle had nothing on the ball or his throws and Ryan Howard committed two errors, the first one a fatal miscue that opened the flood gates in the opening frame as the Mets scored two runs en route to a 13 – 4 rout.

It’s time for Charlie Manuel to take Howard aside and have a talk with him about something other than hitting.   The kid is a good fielder, but he clearly loses his concentration far too often.   Last night, he allowed an admittedly wicked shot by Carlos Beltran to go right through his legs and from that point on the Mets were off and running.  Later, he threw away a ball that led to more scoring by the Mets.  For the season Howard has six errors.  In the seventh inning he hit his ninth homer of the year, a solo shot off Tom Glavine, but for the evening Howard’s balance sheet was definitely in the red.

Apart from the atrocious fielding, the loss highlighted the ongoing concern about starting pitching.  Lidle appeared to be throwing batting practice out there as line drive after line drive flew in every direction.  Need I remind you for the umpteenth time this is the profile of a career .500 pitcher?  Good starts followed by bad starts.

Aaron Fultz relieved Lidle in the third inning and did his best, well, Cory Lidle imitation as the Mets pounded him for seven hits and four earned runs in three innings.  Geoff Geary relieved Fultz and pitched three innings of one-hit ball.  Julio Santana pitched the ninth inning in what was probably his audition for this Friday’s roster move when Cole Hamels is officially added to the 25-man count and gave up two hits and run.   Let’s just say he didn’t help his own cause.

The loss also underscored just how potent this Mets lineup is.  They can run, hit, field and pitch better than anyone else in the division if not the league.  They have balance, power and speed throughout the lineup.  Adding insult to injury, Glavine also got into the offensive act, raising his batting average to .500 for the season including a double to deep left centerfield that drove in two runs.

The best thing the Phils can do now is forget this one and remember the nine preceding games.  But that isn’t going to be so easy with the starting pitching so unsettled and the fielding so erratic and undependable.  

Against this backdrop Cole Hamels makes his major league debut on Friday in Cincinnati.  I cannot recall as much excitement over a promotion in the 28 years I have lived in Philadelphia.  If this kid can pitch in the big leagues the Phils will have plugged their biggest hole.
It remains amazing the Phils have stuck this close with the starting pitching they have had to date. 

One person who might benefit from Hamels’ arrival is Gavin Floyd.  I thought Floyd's last outing provided grounds to be more optimistic about him.  The presence of Hamels should take a lot of pressure off of Floyd, who will no longer be the young kid on the block on whom all hope is pinned.  Hamels seems built to better shoulder those expectations, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Hamels has thrown about 300 pitches at AAA and already there is a tendency to see him as some sort of savior.  Let’s just hope he doesn’t see it that way.  

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Round One

Good teams make their own luck

The Phillies’ nine-game winning streak is alive following a tense and dramatic ninth inning comeback win over the Mets and the kudos should be spread around the roster liberally.

Bobby Abreu, who is struggling at the plate, got the game-winning hit (though it was ruled an error) when he topped the ball in front of the plate with the bases loaded and was safe when pitcher Aaron Heilman fielded a ball catcher Paul Lo Duca would have had the better chance with and through wildly to first.  

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  These late game heroics would not have been possible without starter Brett Myers, who pitched like the staff leader he is becoming.  Myers worked quickly, as is his habit, and mixed up his pitches very effectively yielding two runs and five hits over eight innings.  And that isn’t even the good news.  The best parts of Myers’ performance were matching and out-pitching Pedro Martinez step-for-step, remaining relatively calm when things got tight, and working with a brand new rookie catcher.  In the past any one of those things might have thrown Myers off his game but not this night.

Speaking of rookie catchers, Carlos Ruiz, a long-time Beerleaguer favorite, looked like a veteran behind the plate in his second big league start.  Close-ups during the game showed Ruiz glancing up constantly to see where the batter was positioned in the box. Harry Kalas and the color analysts all gave him credit for setting a great target and framing the pitches like a seasoned pro.  To top off his night, Ruiz got his first big league hit off Martinez and scored a run.  If the kid can hit in the big leagues the Phils’ future catching questions will be solved.  Heck, if he can hit in the big leagues their present catching problems could be solved.

Every night a different hero

Then there was David Dellucci, who hasn’t had the easiest transition from nearly full-time player in the AL to infrequent part-time player in the NL.  Dellucci kept the Phillies’ ninth inning hopes alive with a two-out triple and eventually scored the winning run.  If Dellucci had been feeling like the odd man out on this club, his place and role are now secure.

You want more?  How about part-time outfielder Shane Victorino who looked like a dead duck on a play at the plate until he decided now was the time to lower his shoulder and try out his best tight-end imitation.   Victorino bowled over Lo Duca and gave the Phils a two run cushion.  The run and the collision proved crucial when an inning later Carlos Delgado smoked a two-run homer off of previously invincible Flash Gordon to knot the score at four all and set up the dramatic ninth inning victory.

For the first time in recent memory the Phils scored all their runs without aid of the long ball.  In the other dugout, all of New York’s scoring came on home runs.  The Mets lineup is intimidating.  Throughout the late innings, every time batters three through seven came to the plate one had the feeling the game’s complexion could change on a single swing.  And twice it did!!

Yesterday I wrote that on balance I thought the Phillies’ lineup was superior overall to that of the Mets and commenter kuff6 disagreed on a few of my points.  After watching last night’s game I am inclined to agree with him.  From top to bottom the Mets have a potent lineup with few holes.

But as a long-time Orioles fan before moving to Philadelphia nearly 28 years ago, the 1969 World Series always serves to remind me that the better team doesn’t always win.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

First Things First

The Mets and upwards of 10,000 of their vocal supporters will be in town each of the next three nights and this late Spring match-up is clearly being viewed by all parties concerned as crucial for a number of reasons.

A sweep by either side would put further distance between the first place Mets, who lead the second place Phils by four games, or narrow the gap considerably.  As significantly, it will establish the tone for future games between the division rivals.

After struggling at home and abroad through April, the Phillies returned to the Bank, swept Atlanta and San Francisco, and evened their record there to 10 – 10 while winning eight straight overall.  The just-concluded  raucous weekend series with Barry Bonds and the Giants drew more than 100,000 people and reminded sports fans throughout the region that the Phils are not merely the only game in town right now, they are potentially the most exciting one going forward as well.  The series with the Mets can go a long way toward creating a lasting buzz about this team.

Make no mistake about it, these Phillies are not your older brother or sister’s Phillies of recent yesterdays.   The quiet intensity of Chase Utley and obvious passion of Aaron Rowand have not been seen in these parts for a long time.  Only a month ago this team wasn’t fun to watch.   That is no longer the case.   Even Pat Burrell is getting into the act, giving interviews and, can it be, appearing to enjoy himself??!!!  Different heroes step up each night, the mark of a club that is beginning to believe in itself.

Lest we get carried away, there are still concerns about the starting pitching in particular, but a look around the division doesn’t reveal too many clubs other than the Mets who can throw out two or more top line starters.  After Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, the Mets don’t have much depth in their rotation and the question always remains how healthy Martinez can remain deep into the summer months.  After those two pitchers, the Phils match up very well against the Mets.  Other than third base, the Phils have the clearly superior infield.  The outfield is no less than a toss-up with the Phils holding the edge.  The Mets have the better catcher.  The Phillies bullpen is equal to or better than that of the Mets and we all know about the closers.

The joker in the deck isn’t even on the roster.  Enter Cole Hamels?  While none of us outsiders is in a position to know how much is enough seasoning for a young pitcher, there are a few things we can know.   Hamels has pitched just over 195 innings in the minors.   That works out to roughly 21 plus nine-inning games so the guess is he has made something on the order of between 25 – 30 starts.  In the past, some pitchers signed out of high school or college made the jump directly to the majors.  Granted, not many, but it has happened.  Others have signed out of college, played the remainder of that spring and summer in the minors and made the jump to the majors the following season.  It isn’t unheard of.   In Hamels’ case the biggest obstacle to his advancement has been his health and his off-field adventures.  If he remains healthy and controls his temper, there is no reason to suppose he cannot make the jump to the majors this season.  Certainly his first three starts since arriving at AAA have been spectacular.  

I would imagine the Phils will give him at least a few more starts at Scranton before deciding.   If they continue to stay close to the Mets, it will afford them the luxury of waiting a little longer before calling Hamels up.   If they falter, however, the pressure will be tremendous.   Should Hamels be called up, he would likely replace Ryan Madson in the rotation rather than Gavin Floyd.  Madson can fill a role in the bullpen while Floyd cannot.  Additionally, Floyd appears to be gaining confidence from his last few outings and might yet develop into a solid number four or five guy.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  The first order of business is to take at least two of three from New York.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Next Up

Weekends like the one just concluded are difficult to summarize but one comment stood out to me more than any other.  Pat Burrell, not previously known for being loquacious or particularly fan friendly had this to say:  "It's been spectacular, all the energy."

“Spectacular” indeed!!

While all the focus was on Barry Bonds, the Phillies stole the spotlight including a convincing win on Sunday night before a national audience.  Heretofore, the Phils have not exactly been ready for prime time players including last season when their few coast-to-coast appearances didn’t turn out so well.  But last night they jumped all over a shaky Matt Morris on their way to a 9 -5 victory and their eighth straight victory.  No doubt more than a few baseball fans around the country tuned in to watch syringes fly and boos rain down.  They were disappointed as the local fans comported themselves quite civilly.

Enough of the Bonds carnival.  Back to what matters.  

A few short weeks ago many of us were ready to throw in the towel and declare the Phils DOA.  Shows what we know!

The heroics have been distributed across the entire roster during their streak but no group has been more important than the bullpen.  Every man in the pen has performed admirably and some spectacularly.

Offensively, the Phils continue to rely a little too much on the long ball and in last night’s game the generosity of the opposing pitchers, who issued a few bases loaded free passes.   It is worth noting once again that Jimmy Rollins set the tone from the first at-bat of the night and Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand supplied the bulk of the offense.  Even David Bell got into the act with three hits.

The Phils’ streak sets up the three game series with the first-place Mets that begins tomorrow night at the Bank.   As if the standings were not enough, Billy Wagner added more fuel to the fire by attacking the entire Phillies squad for conspiring against him last season.  If nothing else, Wagner’s timing suggests that he believes the best defense against the anticipated fan hostility towards him is a good offense.   Having already blown three saves this season, Wagner is looking for some relief to his suffering and what better place to begin, he believes, than in Philadelphia.  

Nice try, Billy, but you are going to have to prove yourself on the field, not in the media.  Bonds' perceived "crime" was against the game, but Wagner has made it very personal and the good citizens of  Philadelphia will not take that sitting down.  Expect approximately a 1:1 ratio of security to fans at the bullpen railing during the next few nights.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Four Stars Out Of Four

When the schedule first came out the date was rated G for general audiences, but as game day approached the ratings changed almost daily. First PG, then R, finally even an X in some quarters.

Extra security was laid on. National pundits dusted off their booing Santa stories and other lurid tales from the Philly vault. One local columnist advised parents to leave their children home. Seriously.

And in the end, as is almost always the case, the event itself was an anticlimax, at least that part of it that had caused all the ruckus in the first place.

Barry Bonds did play left field and bat cleanup last night for the Giants. He was a non-factor as far as the outcome of the game was concerned, popping up, walking, grounding into a double play and striking out to the assembled masses' delight.

From my perch in the left field bleachers I had an excellent view of Bonds ample back. He rarely turned toward the fans throughout the evening and when he did so he stared blankly through them.

For their part, many of the bleacher fans came loaded for Barry with signs and full voice. Few of the signs were clever except for the fellows who held up small ones with a simple asterisk on them. Most of the people carrying the signs mugged for the cameras, which were in there in force from as far away as San Francisco. Seated in front of the huge scoreboard, bleacher fans were forever turning in their seats to see replays, stats and grab shots from throughout the stadium. Those carrying signs turned to see if they had made it to the big screen. During the course of the evening the wedding march suddenly came over the loud speakers and, sure enough, the screen featured a young bride-to-be in Phillies regalia, and her soon husband-to-be proposing on his knee in front of 37,000 plus of their new-found friends. Naturally, some of the bleacher bums yelled “Just say “NO”!”

Fellow blogger Tom Durso of Shallow Center and I never heard a single curse word throughout the evening. Once in a while we heard a clever barb. On the whole, we enjoyed ourselves immensely as did everyone around us. The crowds came to say what was on their minds, see the greatest hitter of his generation, and, of yeah, watch their local favorites put together a sixth straight win. Anyone who tells you how tough this crowd behaved was not there.

In the other dugout the Phillies’ youth movement again carried the day. Tom and I speculated that in Chase Utley’s case we were watching a player who would be an All-Star fixture for years to come. His first home run in the bottom half of the opening frame got the Phils even after Gavin Floyd served up a homer to Omar Vizquel, who began the night with 69 dingers in seventeen years.

Utley threw in another homer later in the game and for good measure topped off his evening with a neat backhand stab of a hot shot in the ninth inning. Everyone knew Utley was a great hitter and an intense, throw-back type of player. What has sneaked up on all of us is his fielding, once considered his weakness and now definitely a great asset. He may not be the slickest second baseman to come along, but he is quick, fearless and determined to make himself a great fielder.

Ryan Howard, the other half of the Phillies’ vaunted youth corps, also stroked two home runs in the game and capped off his evening with a neat underhand toss to Geoff Geary to end the game. In two successive nights Howard has handled the glove and the bat well.

There were a lot of players to cheer about, all of them wearing Phillies uniforms.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Lucky Or Good?

Every time a runner arrives at first or third base and the coach walks over to him, places his arm on his shoulder and points somewhere on the field I ask myself, “What could they be talking about that the player doesn’t or shouldn’t already know?”

Now, I realize a rookie or veteran new to the league might need some instruction.  So-and-so has a gun for an arm so make sure the ball is hit deep enough.  They’re playing back, conceding a run.  Go on contact.  Something on that order.  But what instructions does a veteran need?  Play it half way on a fly ball?  Well, I guess if that veteran is Pat Burrell he needs more coaching than I ever imagined.

Considering Burrell’s many base-running adventures of the recent past, I would suggest the Phils just let him hit not run.  I’m sure in the late innings that is precisely what we will see.  Speed, of course, is not my point.  Keeping his head in the game is.

All of this preamble is really about the mistakes the Phillies continue to make.  At the plate, on the bases, and especially in the field.

The horrible fielding continues to mystify everyone.  Stupid mistakes.  Endless mistakes.  Costly mistakes.  Guys not communicating.  Guys not concentrating.  And guys simply not executing.

There are some bright spots despite all the gaffes.  Once again, when Jimmy ignites this team, they win.  Any talk of moving him out of the leadoff position is premature at this point.  Yes, his OBP is lousy for a lead-off guy.  That will change.  The Phillies haven’t been losing primarily because Jimmy has been struggling until recently.  They have been losing because their starting pitching has been struggling.  But when Jimmy is rolling this team catches fire.

There is good news, too.  The relief corps has been largely outstanding.  Even MIA Aaron Fultz showed up last night and pitched well.  And Flash Gordon must have sent a note in from the bullpen that, yes, he loves to pitch all the time, but on second thought maybe he should skip a day now and then.  So in steps Arthur Rhodes who records his first save since 2004.

The five game winning streak is great.  Back at sea level for the first time since the season began.  All that can be said is the Phillies are happy to be lucky rather than good.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Curiosity Got The Better Of Me

Long time readers of this blog know I am unlikely to ever appear on Barry Bonds’ Christmas card list.  Despite my well-documented scorn for Bonds’ supplement-induced power output of the last seven or eight years,  I have gratefully accepted the invitation of another fan to attend tomorrow night’s game against the Giants.

Frankly, I am looking forward to seeing Bonds play.  He is a great player albeit an as yet unindicted cheater.  I am understandably far less enthusiastic about his ever hitting another home run in his career let alone against the Phillies over the next few games.  A couple of harmless, non-run-producing line drive hits would be OK but nothing dramatic let alone record breaking.

As I ruminate about Bonds’ chase of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron a few new thoughts occur to me.

Babe Ruth played 22 seasons, the first four of which were exclusively as a pitcher.  Throughout his entire career a season consisted of 154 games.   The additional eight games that are standard now began in 1961, well after Ruth had retired and, coincidentally, the same year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.   The season was increased to 162 games due to expansion.

Assuming Ruth the pitcher started every fourth day in his era and hit for himself, he would have had roughly 154 at-bats if he pitched the entire nine innings of each start he made.  In fact, Ruth averaged 382 AB’s for his career, but in those first four years (1914 – 1917) he averaged just a shade over 90.  By 1918 the Red Sox realized what kind of hitter Ruth was and his AB’s for that season soared to 317 from the previous year’s 123.  That season, his last in Boston, Ruth split his time between the outfield and pitcher’s mound before being sold to New York.

Bonds, on the other hand, has averaged nearly 460 AB’s per season during his twenty year career.   Henry Aaron averaged a whopping 537 AB’s for his 23 year career.

Aaron finished with 12,364 at bats or 3966 more than Ruth and 3224 more than Bonds to date.  

During his career Ruth walked 2062 times, Aaron 1402 and Bonds an astonishing 2311 and counting.  It is safe to say that Bonds never got to swing at any pitches during a lot of those AB’s resulting in walks, especially during the last several years.

We could endlessly debate how much impact travel by plane versus train, day versus night games, flannel uniforms versus modern fabric, spitters versus splitters, the advent of relief specialists and changes in the overall quality of starting pitching have had on batters not to mention race relations, but a few things still remain very clear to me when comparing these great sluggers:  

  1. No one has ever questioned how Aaron achieved his record total.

  2. Ruth achieved his totals in substantially fewer at bats than either Aaron or Bonds.

  3. Bonds achievements have come under a cloud of suspicion.

Is it any wonder so many fans in and outside the dugouts feel such ambivalence toward Bonds?  

Is it any wonder I am curious to see him despite my misgivings?

Billy Who?

Who can blame Charlie Manuel for going to the well over and over again when the water is this sweet!?

Clearly Tom Gordon doesn’t object.  Let’s just hope his body goes along for the ride.

For the fourth straight game the 38-year old Gordon earned a save as the Phils returned home and beat Atlanta at the Bank last night.  This isn’t Hoyt Wilhelm out there, folks, serving up 58 MPH butterflies.  Mr. Gordon is bringing serious heat and benders every time out.  In the process he has taken over the NL lead in saves with nine.  And, oh, by the way, the guy he replaced, what’s his name, blew his third save of the season last night though his team eventually won in 12 innings.

The other feel good story is the continued heroics of Aaron Rowand.  The Phils knew they had acquired a terrific centerfielder in Rowand, but the concern was could he regain his batting form after a somewhat disappointing 2005 that included too many strikeouts.  Thus far Rowand has hit well including the game-winners two nights in a row.   But his defense and offense may not be Rowand’s greatest contributions to this team.  Listening to interviews with him and reading his comments in the paper it is abundantly clear this is one upbeat guy, a quality not found in great quantity on this mostly dour team.

The Phils win last night against John Smoltz featured a key element when facing the great Atlanta right-hander:  score on him early.  Smoltz had his wicked slider working from the get go, but every time he tried to sneak a fastball by someone the Phillies were all over the pitch.  When he was removed in the seventh inning Smoltz appeared to be getting stronger not weaker.

On the other side, Brett Myers pitched well except for a hanger Andruw Jones deposited somewhere just south of Trenton.  Myers was staked to a three-run lead by his mates and managed to hold the fort before surrendering the home run to Jones that knotted the score a three apiece.   By all standards it was a good outing for Myers who now holds the distinction in this rotation of being the only guy who consistently keeps his team in the game.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

There Should Be No Place Like Home

Having taken two straight from AAA Florida, the Phillies return to the heretofore less than friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park with two objectives:

  1. Win at home on something approaching a consistent basis; and,

  2. Beat teams comprised largely of major league players.

If that assessment seems unduly harsh, so be it.  Let the Phillies earn more respect.

A number of aspects of the Phillies overall performance to date remain troubling:

They continue to field poorly.  Very poorly.  Prior to the start of the season this was one area where the Phils were expected to improve not decline.  Aaron Rowand was an upgrade in centerfield.  Ryan Howard was an upgrade at first base.  Sal Fasano was not considered a downgrade, at least defensively.  The other starters remained the same, except for Chase Utley, who continues to make himself into a very good second baseman.   Heck, Utley continues to make himself into a great ball player period.

Rowand has played more or less as advertised defensively though he seems to play a little too shallow at times and has trouble going straight back on the ball.  Nevertheless, he is a very good centerfielder.   His arm, considered a weakness, has been dependable.   Howard has made far too many miscues and the majority of them seem to stem from a lack of concentration not ability.   A scatter plot of his breakdowns in the field would cover the lot:  throwing, receiving, scooping, catching.  He has to improve his defense.   Fasano is all over the lot, too.  If the Phils believed his fire would replace Todd Pratt’s they forgot one thing:  Pratt backed up his fire with the ability to call a good game and play decent defense.  Fasano is not an upgrade in any of those departments.  The one area where he might be helping is in giving Mike Lieberthal more time to recuperate between starts.  But any good catcher could do that…including Chris Coste.

Another troubling area is the bullpen, or specifically Charlie Manuel’s overuse of some of its key members.   Tom Gordon has appeared in three straight games and, frankly, his personal history suggests that kind of use can come back to haunt the Phillies.  Of course, this is what happens when your team hangs on against a AAA club and always seems to be one batter away from surrendering the lead.  Still, Manuel is going to have to use someone else as an alternative in the closer role every now and then or Gordon will be burned out by mid summer.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

J-Roll To The Rescue

Charlie Manuel auditioned for his fourth inning ejection by second base umpire Angel Hernandez by a public and prolonged harangue of his entire team in the dugout after they gave up a sloppy run to Florida in the bottom of the first inning of last night’s game.

The normally placid Manuel strode back in forth in the dugout engaged in an animated monologue as players looked past him or stared out into space.  No one appeared to be listening but given Manuel’s performance doubtless everyone within earshot heard him. Some would argue the long overdue rant awakened the slumbering Phillies and propelled them to their 8 – 5 comeback victory over the Marlins but I am not among them.  

The Phils won last night because of a little luck, a little pluck and the Marlins’ own brand of bonehead defense.  In the process, they pulled out another improbable win over a dominant Dontrelle Willis.

Jimmy Rollins’ dash home when Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla took his sweet time returning the ball to Willis following a bloop hit that had already scored two runs was the key moment of the game.  Give J-Roll credit for seizing that moment and, probably, ignoring third base coach Bill Dancy.  

As Jimmy goes, so go the Phillies.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The Phils’ chances of landing Dontrelle Willis when the left hander becomes available are probably somewhat on the order of persuading Steve Carlton to appear in a ESPN reality show.  Too bad.  If nothing else, they could use Willis’ bat off the bench.  He is some kind of ball player whether pitching or faking a bunt and swinging away.  The guy has serious moxie.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Long And Short Of It

Apparently, all it took was a little hair off the ears.
A newly shorn Gavin Floyd pitched 6.2 innings Sunday allowing a solo homerun as the Phillies avoided a sweep in Pittsburgh by defeating the Pirates 5 – 1.
Call it greater confidence if you will, or better mechanics if you must, but don’t call it better command.  Floyd allowed eleven base runners during his stint, walking five and surrendering six hits.  Give the youngster some credit for mixing up his pitches more effectively than during any other start this season and rejoice that he had his curve and changeup working more today than in the past.
Floyd wanted to go out there and think less and pitch more and he succeeded to a greater extent than any other start this season.  But in the end let’s give credit where it’s due:  Floyd’s barber.  He lightened the load upstairs.

In other news….
Pat Burrell was named Chevrolet Player of the Game (you were expecting a generic winner???) for driving in two runs including a solo home run leading off the second inning, but the at-bat that sticks with me came in the top of the fourth inning when Burrell struck out looking with the bases loaded.  Burrell never took the bat off his shoulder the entire AB.  I cannot imagine a player failing to swing in that situation but Burrell managed it.  Incredible.