The game came down to two throws, one ill-advised, the other perfect.
The ill-advised one was thrown by reliever Ryan Madson to Lance Berkman.
Madson had two strikes on the dangerous Berkman with the bases loaded and two outs, but instead of trying to finish him off with a fastball or his best pitch, a changeup, Madson hung a curve and Berkman cleared the bases with a double just inside the third base line. It was a poor pitch selection in a situation that already begged a number of questions. Why wasn’t Abraham Nunez guarding the line with two outs even though a left-handed batter was up? (Yes, I know, he was pulled over toward the hole with a lefty batting. Wouldn’t his positioning also be determined by the way Madson would pitch Berkman? What, precisely, was the plan with Berkman?) More to the point, why was the right-hander Madson facing Berkman in the first place since he is a switch hitter whose best side by far is from the left? Up until this point, the Phillies had been turning Berkman around to the right side at every opportunity, successfully, I might add!
Charlie Manuel’s post-game explanations don’t hold much water. He couldn’t use Aaron Fultz because his elbow is bothering him. Likewise, lefty Arthur Rhodes was not on the short list because he “wasn’t ready” and has a sore shoulder. (Few would have greeted that choice with glee anyway.) Manuel still had two other lefties to call on but rejected the idea of using Fabio Castro for the same old tired reason he has offered before: too young. (A batter later, Castro aged sufficiently to come into the game.) He also declined to use lefty Eude Brito, but no reason was offered. Probably not too young, not too old and most assuredly not just right.
Instead, Manuel stuck with Madson for another inning even though the record shows the tall right hander is more than likely to give up some runs sooner or later, unless, of course, his ERA just a shade under 6.00 is misleading. I, for one, am tired of watching Madson blow up. After the game he remarked that no one hit the ball hard that inning, but, lo and behold, when it was all over the Astros had scored three runs.
Despite the good starting pitching the Phils have received over the last few weeks, they have lost ground in the Wild Card chase, largely but not exclusively because overall their bullpen is failing to protect leads or ties. Throughout the season Larry Andersen has questioned a number of decisions by Phillies pitchers, particularly when he believes they try to be “too fine” instead of going after hitters. As a group, Phillies pitchers don’t impress me as knowing how to pitch. While I would agree games are as likely to be lost as won, Phillies pitchers make what appear to be more than their fair share of mistakes leading to losses. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Charlie? Rich Dubee? The catchers? Everyone? I noticed Madson called Carlos Ruiz out to the mound at least two or three times during the fatal ninth inning. Frankly, I was under the impression Ruiz’ English was limited, but the two did seem to be communicating. Nunez also visited the mound briefly that inning, but only after Ruiz departed, meaning he wasn’t there to offer consecutive translation. Presumably, he was asking what the pitch was going to be and positioned himself accordingly. If so, that might explain why he was playing off the line when Berkman laced that double into the left field corner. I cannot recall if the visit came just before that pitch, but if it did, Madson made two mistakes: hanging it and throwing it to begin with!!!
The second critical throw of the night will also be debated, but from my perspective there is little to discuss.
With Nunez and David Dellucci on first and second respectively and one out, Jimmy Rollins laced a hard shot toward the right-centerfield gap. Centerfielder Willie Taveras cut the ball off nicely as Nunez scored and Dellucci stopped at third. Jimmy, running all the way, was gunned down by Taveras on an absolutely perfect throw to second. As it was, replays showed it was a bang-bang play and that Rollins was out. Jimmy did the right thing even though his was the second out of the ninth inning. Trying to stretch the play would have taken away the force and put men at second and third with one out. The ball he hit looked like it was headed for gap all the way and according to the announcers, Rollins never hesitated rounding first. Only a swift cut-off and textbook perfect throw on the fly nailed him. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he makes it to second base. Unfortunately, the one time he wouldn’t was last night.
So, another late game collapse, their fourth in three consecutive series, leaves the Phils tied with the Marlins, three games behind the Padres. Like the late inning losses to Washington and Atlanta, this was a crushing defeat. Had the Phillies hit in the clutch earlier in the game when they twice loaded the bases against Andy Petitte, the outcome might have been different. Lost in all the excitement of Ryan Howard’s explosive hitting over the last month or so is the fact that Chase Utley, three home runs recently notwithstanding, is slumping badly. If the Phils expect to make a run of it from here on out, Utley has to rediscover his stroke immediately.
After the loss, the Phils left town last night for a four-game set with Florida in Miami. Until a year ago the Phillies couldn’t buy a win in south Florida but lately they have played well there. They are going to need their best game because right now Florida is the best team in baseball money didn’t have to buy. They are getting timely hitting and great pitching from their young staff, capped off by last night’s no-hitter by 22-year old rookie Anibal Sanchez. The Phils play Florida ten times in the remaining 23 games.