It appears Houston never received the memo, the one that was supposed to remind them they had their shot last year but this time around the Phils were going to the post-season. Come to think of it, did anyone remember to send that memo to the Phillies?
Ask any team and they’ll tell you the last thing they want is to spend a precious off day at this stage of the season flying half way across the country to make up a rained out game, but the Astros not only showed up, they played like they had something at stake. In fact, they do, mathematically speaking, as the St. Louis Cardinals continue to stumble toward October in the NL Central, while the Astros, winners of six straight, now trail them by 2.5 games.
The Phils’ have plenty to play for but they didn’t act like it last night. The loss dropped them into a tie with the idle Dodgers for the Wild Card lead. To some of us phloggers in attendance at sold-out Citizens Bank Park, it looked like the Phillies were the ones who had to travel as they sleep-walked through much of the game, showing little patience at the plate against nearly half of Houston’s pitching staff. It’s difficult to comprehend how they could waste such a golden opportunity to take a full game lead in Wild Card, especially with the Bank rocking with a playoff-like atmosphere. Once again, so much for home field advantage. Following their comeback win Sunday over the Marlins when the Delaware Valley did it’s best imitation of South Florida in hurricane season, I guess there wasn’t sufficient time to install a retractable roof and pretend they were at Minute Maid Park.
Randy Wolf got the start last night and pitched well overall as long as he stuck with his fastball and mixed in the occasional breaking ball. Unfortunately, he works too many deep counts these days, running up his pitch total, struggling to set the side down in order. By the sixth inning he was relying more on that sweeping curve of his and Houston was having none of it. When Jason Lane, who entered the game hitting .203, homered in the top of the sixth to tie the score at 2 apiece and Humberto Quintero singled two batters later, Wolf’s night was over. The late home run is another pattern with Wolf; still, at that point the Phillies were in the game though not mentally...at least not most of them.
In the bottom of the frame they answered right back and retook the lead, 4-2, as Jimmy Rollins hit his 25th home run of the year. It any Phillie deserves to play on the national stage at this point he is J-Roll. The home run was his third in as many games. He is simply doing everything right: hitting, fielding, running and, Jimmy being Jimmy, speaking non-stop to his teammates, opposing players and the press. Utley and Howard have deservedly received much praise, but if Jimmy isn’t hitting the Phillies aren’t going anywhere…ever. No one had to remind him what is at stake!!
The top of the seventh proved the Phillies undoing and provided plenty of ammunition for second-guessing Charlie Manuel. Rick White, the first of four Phillies relievers in the seventh, began the inning by inducing the dangerous Willie Taveras to ground out. Morgan Ensberg walked. Manuel summoned Matt White to pitch to and turn around Lance Berkman and the move worked as Berkman struck out. But Smith walked Luke Scott and Chris Burke on close calls. From our 90 degree angle to the plate it looked like Smith was squeezed, but there was no real squawking from the Phillies. Out went Charlie. In came Geoff Geary who surrendered a bases loaded single to pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro. Two runs scored and more significantly, Burke moved up to third on Pat Burrell’s throwing error. Next, Mike Lamb pinch hit and singled, driving in Burke with what proved to be the winning run. Out went Charlie. In came Aaron Fultz to finally retire the side.
Manuel has used Smith sparingly since his call up and the 27-year old left-hander acquired in the Abreu deal has been very effective. His role in last night’s game was to turn Berkman around, which he did successfully. After walking the next batter, however, it was time to make another move to a more experienced hand. Charlie hesitated, and he who hesitates…. Managers like Manuel love to talk about experience and working under pressure, but in the end they are more likely to go with their hunches. He guessed Smith could work his way out of trouble and he guessed wrong.
The Phillies had good scoring opportunities in the fourth and fifth innings and a last gasp in the 8th and though they plated two runs in the fifth, they failed to capitalize further when they could have put the Astros away. Over the last week or so the Phillies have not been wasting scoring opportunities in general, but they chose to revert to earlier season form this night and it proved fatal.
The 8th inning was particularly perplexing as Pat Burrell led off with a walk. Michael Bourn ran for him. Mike Lieberthal followed and tried to lay down a bunt, which he fouled off. Lieberthal hits into his share of double plays, but lately he has been swinging a hot bat. On the next pitch, Bourn took off for second on a straight steal and Lieberthal bunted again. This time it was successful, if by that we mean he was credited with a sacrifice. To most of us it looked like Bourn had the base stolen and the bunt was not only unnecessary, it was ill-advised. Did Bourn or Lieberthal miss a sign? Why give up an out under the circumstances? It is highly unlikely Bourn was running on his own. For his part, Lieberthal has probably bunted 5 times in 12 years…if that.
Now, it’s on to Washington for a three-game series between a team with absolutely nothing to lose and one with everything to gain. By this time next week the whole matter of a post-season appearance for the Phils will be settled. In between, a lot of people are going to be nervous wrecks.