Sunday, September 17, 2006

Home Is Where The Wins Must Be

Randy Wolf pitched well enough, Mike Lieberthal homered twice, Pat Burrell’s base-running blunder didn’t figure in the final score, Ryan Howard hit his 58* round tripper of the season (*only 57 count) and the Phillies swept the Astros in Houston to complete a 7-3 road trip and remain one game back in the Wild Card.

Wolf pitched very well for five innings but fell apart in the sixth as the Astros touched him for three hits including two home runs. Still, pitching on three days rest for the first time in his career to say nothing of the first time since returning from major surgery, Wolf pitched effectively and intelligently, using his fastball much more, mixing up his pitches and resorting to his curve only occasionally. Significantly, when he did throw the curve, it was the tighter one rather than that big sweeping bender that starts out in shallow right field and ends up near the visitors’ dugout. Someone (Larry Andersen???) or perhaps a committee spoke to Wolf after his last outing, an utter disaster, and to his credit he listened!

Mike Lieberthal continued with the hot bat since coming back from his latest injury. Lieby had three hits Sunday including the two home runs. The first one came just moments after Pat Burrell was picked off first base and gave the Phils a 4-0 lead at the time. Lieby's blast was also probably the only thing that stood between a lynch mob and a call going out to convene the We-Hate-Pat-Burrell crowd over at the Comments section of Beerleaguer.

Howard’s home run to the opposite field, his 29th of the season (tying Mike Schmidt’s club record for most home runs on the road), was undisputed unlike the one his lost yesterday and moved Mr. Clean within four of breaking Roger Maris’ legitimate single-season record. To his everlasting credit, Howard has obviously already moved on from the disappointment while continuing to show the world just how quickly he can adjust.

In the first two games of this series pitchers were working him outside, mostly with breaking stuff, and Howard, showing more than a little frustration and impatience at times, was flailing away at balls clearly out of the strike zone. With Howard, however, it is only a matter of time before he adjusts to whatever pitchers are giving him and, if necessary, goes the other way. This quality, more than any other, is not only what makes him a power hitter but someone who hits for average.

Howard started off the season hitting a lot of home runs to the opposite field; indeed, he hit most of his 22 homes runs as a rookie to left and left center. Lately, however, he had been pulling a lot more balls to right and right center, but if pitchers are going to stay away from him he will and can adjust. The home run that wasn’t on Saturday was also hit the other way. If Howard is going to widen his strike zone effectively it is very likely he will be walked intentionally even more frequently as the season winds down.

It certainly was a different Phillies team in the land of Big Oil, Bigger Heat and Biggest Humidity than the one that collapsed against the Astros there and at home last season. The sweep just concluded was due in no small measure to the absence of Roy Oswalt, the Astros best starter, and Andy Petitte, and to the diminishing skills (every Rocket must fall to earth eventually) of Roger Clemens. The Astros have had trouble scoring runs for a few years and this year’s installment is no different or better. Of course, they ran into superb pitching by Cole Hamels on Saturday sandwiched between some good pitching on Friday and Sunday by Brett Myers and Wolf respectively.

Other than Hamels, the real heroes on the mound were the Phillies’ bullpen, who were fantastic all three days with the lone exception Sunday of Geoff Gerary, who surrendered a home run to Lance Berkman. Geary could be excused: 40 other pitchers before him had been victimized by a Berkman long ball and Geary, who has already set a personal high for innings pitched this season, was working in his third straight game. He has been tremendous down the stretch.

So, it’s back to Citizens Bank Park, which hasn’t been all that hospitable this season. The Phillies have a sub-500 record at the Bank but with seven of their remaining thirteen games at home, there is still time to fix that mark. As a matter of fact, they’d better fix it if they want an eighth game at home.


dane said...

if the phils take care of business they should win the wildcard. they have very winnable games against the nationals and cubs along with games against the marlins. i smell october baseball in the air.

RickSchuBlues said...

Agreed with your observations on AB in particular sticks in my mind from yesterday, the pitcher (Rodriguez I think) threw him a series of junkers, and Howard either laid off or fouled them off and had the count at which point he was thrown a slow curve that wound up on the ground, and he chased it for a K. It was a recognizable pitch, but Howard got anxious and wanted to do something with the bat. I actually don't think that kind of aggressiveness is necessarily such a bad thing at times - we don't want another Abreu who refuses to go out of the strike zone - but once Howard can keep that anxiousness in check (and he has been improving in doing so), he will bne even more of a force.

Interesting features on Liberthal this morning - apparently he doesn't think he'll be asked back, even as he admits he still wants to be. Let me tell you, in case you didn't see for yourself yesterday: that mutha can still *hit*. That screaming liner to the right-center field gap was even more impressive to me than the two homers. Lieby's looked like he was done at various parts of the past few seasons, but that bat still has quite a bit of life to it. Remember when he had no homeruns in July? Now he's got nine, and hitting around .280. If he doesn't come back, it may well be because someone else will want him to be a starter.

Tom Goodman said...

RSB: What bothered me most was the way the Phils handled the news that Lieberthal "didn't figure in [their] plans". He heard it on radio or TV or read about it. That's some way to treat the most senior player on their roster, one who has played through a tremendous amount of misery over the years and still comes back. He could have said he'd had enough a long time ago given the number of serious ailments and injuries he has endured, but to his credit he did not. I don't think for one minute the issue was money, either. Though one can never count someone else's money, I would assume he wanted a shot at playing in the post-season and took at look at this exciting bunch of youngsters and figured they must might make it.

Look at his attitude now, having experienced such debilitating back pain. (I can speak from experience. Back spasms can literally fell a person. I suffered them frequently many years ago and once was literally unable to get up.). Lieberthal is excited about playing in the post-season at last and wants desperately to contribute toward that end. My hat is off to him.

Does that all add up to bringing him back for another year? Not necessarily so, unless he would accept a distinctly backup role. But based on service alone, he deserved better than Gillick gave.

Gillick may not be a sentimentalist, which is fine, but there is the matter of simple decency to consider here.

Oisín/Wizlah said...

I've felt similarly about Gillick's responses to questions about wolf, but I think the bottom line is he won't commit to what he perceives as more marginal players right now. Although Gillick didn't come out and say I'd like lieby back, I'm guessing he's said to lieby on the side 'look don't take those comments the wrong way - its all up for consideration'. As much as gillick seems to be fairly tough about his hirings and firings, you don't hear about him badly treating players in personal dealings.

RickSchuBlues said...

I agree, Lieberthal is by far the senior member of the team and definitely deserves better than that. Gillick doesn't seem to be the best communicator in the world, does he.

Tom Goodman said...

Oisin: You can't get much more personal than hiring and firing, can you?

The Phils didn't exactly handle Abreu well prior to the start of the season either.

Again, I don't require sentiment, but I do think there is a right way and a wrong way to inform someone of a situation affecting his life prior to going public with it.

J. Weitzel said...

It's obvious to me anyway that Gillick is going out of his way not to coddle players. This was a necessary step, I feel, after the way Ed Wade handled the club. I've read countless stories citing officials from around baseball about the team's complacency over the years, stemming from overly long deals to the way prospects were being pampered. Gillick stepped over the line a bit regarding Lieberthal, but I'm thrilled he so easily cut losses with Bell, Fasano, Cormier and was willing to shake up the mix with Abreu.

Oisín/Wizlah said...

Tom - my point is rather that he's not coming out with reassuring sounds on the radio which will soothe a player. He's not saying you're fired on radio before the player hears it.

It might sound like splitting hairs, but if he's already said to the player in question nothing's definite and we'll talk at the end of the season, then what more can you as a player complain about?

I will admit that talking about 'bringing in a veteran' sounds a bit more like lieberthal has been given the shove already. I am however surprised that no one in the papers made similar noises in the papers about wolf when gillick wouldn't commit in the Q&A which Jason's friend covered for Beerleaguer. It makes me wonder whether Lieberthal is just fishing for media leverage.