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.