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.