Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Trio For The Ages

Hamels to Howard to Utley.

Not quite the ring of Tinkers to Evers to Chance – that “U” throws off the rhythm – but the Phillies’ trio has a chance to make a much greater mark in baseball history. (If memory serves me, the Chicago troika completed a “mere” eight double plays, a rarity before them, en route to immortality.)

All that stands between the Phillies and the post-season is their bullpen and on that count, Rick White and rookie Matt Smith acquitted themselves very well yesterday. Thank goodness for roster expansions because many of those who have been residence in the bullpen throughout the season are wearing down or just coming back from wearing down. Word has it Fultz’s shoulder is bothering him. Geary looks spent. Rhodes should be the choice of last resort…if that. Gordon is just off the DL. Madson has never made a believer out of me.

On the other hand, the starters have been on a roll. Hamels threw seven strong innings yesterday, the only flies in the ointment being the 17th and 18th home runs he has allowed this year. Both appeared to come on change-ups. While that remains his bread-and-butter pitch, batters know that, too, and are looking for it. Hamels’ fastball is decent and looks even better after batters see a 78 mph change, but in order for Hamels to be a dominant pitcher he has to believe more in his curve. The pitch Aubrey Huff hit for a long home run was a change down in the zone. Huff had to be looking for that pitch. He probably wouldn’t have been looking for a curve. I don’t know how many breaking balls Hamels threw yesterday but the count has to have been low. He needs to throw that pitch more. He needs to be a three-pitch hurler.

Meanwhile, back at the plate, the mark of a great player is that he can deliver even when he is tired and scuffling. Utley has been struggling mightily since his 35-game hitting streak ended. Always something of a streak hitter anyway, Utley hasn’t been getting good swings lately. But when his team needed him in the first game Saturday, he was there. And when they absolutely needed him yesterday afternoon, he delivered. He’s the kind of player who would take his hacks with one arm in a sling.

What more can we say about Ryan Howard? Plenty! While Howard continues to slug home runs at a prodigious rate, he has “quietly” put together a 14-game hitting streak of his own, an astonishing accomplishment for a power hitter, and raised his season average to .309. If the word was out on him following the Home Run Derby at the All-Star game, it has now been posted on every dugout wall and pitching coach’s clipboard: Don’t even think of throwing this guy a strike. Indeed, as Tim Hudson can attest, even when you “waste” a pitch on Howard he is going to go out there, get it, and deposit it in some fan’s souvenir kit. You want respect? The Astros intentionally walked Howard to lead off the bottom of the 9th inning yesterday.

Howard has inserted himself into the thick of the MVP chase and strictly on merit should now be the leading candidate. That race, too, should go down to the wire.

* * * * * * * * *

It has become commonplace in baseball following a walk-off home run for the player to lower his head and plow into the waiting arms and fists of his teammates, who invariably gather at home plate to celebrate and pound the conquering hero into virtual submission. Some players approach the dish gingerly, lower their heads and plow into the waiting gauntlet. Others pause just before the plate, toss off their batting helmets in a moment of ill-considered bravado, and take a flying leap into the tumult that awaits them. It’s all highly entertaining and good-natured, but it looks a little rough, too. I, for one, am always waiting for the hero to emerge on the other side without having to head straight for the Disabled List.

The other feature of this new ritual that fascinates me is the picture of the waiting throng. Who’s right in the center? Who looks eager to begin the pummeling? Who is stone-faced? Whose face shows pure glee?

No decent-sized image file of yesterday's gathering was available online so I invite readers to look at the printed one on the front page of the Sports section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. There is Jimmy, right in the middle, standing just behind the plate waiting for the conquering hero, right where the always-joyful shortstop should be. Shane Victorino is also there , just to Jimmy’s right, fists poised, eyes wide, an almost demonic glee on his face. He’s going to enjoy this!! Ryan Howard? He’s there, of course, just off to Jimmy’s left, the widest grin imaginable on his face. Who’s that in the back row, way off to the left of the picture? It’s David Dellucci, who struck out an inning earlier with the bases loaded, thus setting up this marvelous scene. David looks stone-faced, as well he should. Just in front of him is Carlos Ruiz. He may be a rookie, but when it comes to celebrating walk-off homers all players, regardless of tenure, are invited. Is that Chris Coste off to the left, hand wearily raised, shin-guards still on? Chris is happy, but he’s tired, too. Is that Joe Thurston standing behind Shane? He looks on with bemusement, as well he should, too, having failed to get down a key bunt that might have ended it all sooner.

They’re all there, in character, especially the only guy with his back to the camera.


Oisín/Wizlah said...

On a similar note, I noticed a couple of things from last nights game. One was that Victorino has become our bench's version of Miggy. Remember the sox a's playoff game a bit back where he was bouncing off the floor, the ceiling, his teammates? Also, as utley ran throw the crowd, rollins was after him, doing a number on what are no doubt very, very tense neck muscles. It underscored how much utley must have been pressing of late.

Finally, utley himself. I saw Zidane: A 21st Century portrait recently and one of the things that struck all of us that watched it is that through 90 minutes, Zidane allowed himself one smile and a laugh, about the 88th minute or so, when the game was near the end. Utley brings a similar intensity and focus to the game (He didn't smile once going through that crowd), and I can think of no better accolade.

Maria said...

It was nice to see Chase get the walkoff HR since he's been in a slump lately. Cole Hamel's just doesn't seem to dissapoint. Ryan Howard is indescribable.

J. Weitzel said...

In case you missed it, Hudson offered a nice back-handed slap in the post-game interview, dropping hints that Howard owes a lot to a small home park.

And so the naysaying begins, which is why it is our duty as Phillies fans, and baseball, to get behind Howard as much as possible. He's everything baseball wants and needs. Humble. Exciting. And most importantly, legit.

By the way, Hudson. Howard is hitting just as many bombs away from CBP as he is at home. Send us your email address and we'll send video of the second-deck home runs to deadaway center field at RFK.

Tom Goodman said...

Precisely, Jason. At least Hudson did admit that the third homer, the opposite field one, was hit on a pitch that he never expected Howard to reach let alone deposit in the stands.

These guys can complain all they want about CBP but they should keep in mind that the Jones boys, Francoeur et al didn't hit too many while in town.

Oisín/Wizlah said...

can I sound a note of caution here? (or rather, a note of healthy skepticism). If the steroid era proves anything, its that anyone will cheat to get ahead in a game where there are no strict punishments for cheating. (Hell, even a one-year ban followed by a lifetime ban will not stop people from trying.)

I noticed that Stephen A. Smith was saying howard is a hero in the post-steroid era. Really, we shoudn't be assuming that he has or hasn't. Its too much to put on one guy's shoulders. Just be prepared to shrug your shoulders if he has. And not make any excuses for the guy.

The rumours will exist regardless - its the same in any field of athletic endeavour these days - so I'll happily ignore them until I see concrete evidence to the contrary. But I wouldn't be surprised if it happened. We assume that people cheat just to win or for the adulation that comes with success (which makes them either bad, unhealthily driven or vain/insecure in some way), but there's loads more reasons for cheating than that - so its not like howard's character is some kind of guarantee of a straight shooter.

(apologies, jason, if what you meant by legit was just a legitimately great player)

Maria said...

Oisín/Wizlah, that's what baseball has become. It's sad though really. But like you said, until there's evidence I'll continue to root for Ryan.

RickSchuBlues said...

Oisin, I don't think that we really have to abide by a guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset for Howard. Look at the size of this guy, and I'm talking natural build. He's the last person on earth who would need steroids. Also, you'd have to be pretty devious and stupid to even consider doing such a thing in light of how exposed players (other than Giambi) have taken a merciless public thrashing. Howard is neither of these.

And if Tim Hudson is trying to intimate that CBP has helped Howard, frankly, he's on crack. Each of those three homers hit off him are out anywhere. He doesn't get many first row-David Bell type cheapies. Saying the park has helped him hit 50 homers is nearly as insulting as the whispers that he's 'on' something. Let's all try consulting our powers of observation here.

Tom, agreed that Hamels throwing that changeup a bit too much. Hopefully a lesson was learned from the sources of those two homers yesterday. He could stand to vary his pitch location a bit more as well as his selection; he's still in the middle of the plate more often than he ought to be. Though, really, I'm not complaining. He has not at all performed beneath the highest of expectations which preceded him.

Oisín/Wizlah said...

couldn't disagree more, RSB. If its not steroids, it could be something else. MLB, like cycling and athletics before it, has decided on a lenient policy regarding performance enhancers. Its better than it was before, but its hardly strict. So the culture will persist, and therefore people will still try and cheat.

There's a lot of different reasons to try and cheat using performance enhancers. You don't have to be devious, or stupid enough to think you'll never get caught. Maybe you're desperate to please, or maybe self-doubt plagues you enough that you take something just to be certain that you will always be that good.

In an age where athletes are not called to answer for it anywhere except the public arena (and occasionally professionally), it will always be a factor if the culture has not been checked by the sport's ruling body.

This is not to question Howard particularly. My point is no one is free of the taint, and probably no longer can be, because the problem was never tackled aggressively and head on.

RickSchuBlues said...

Well, we just don't agree here. I don't believe that 'no one is free of the taint'. Every individual is different - I choose not to see Howard as a mere part of a hopelessly corrupted 'culture' - and doesn't deserve to experience skepticism based on projections from what others have done, in my view.

Corey & Carson said...

We did a very similar post on this day...great minds think alike.