Thursday, September 14, 2006

What's Not To Like?

They refuse to go away.

Coming off two tough losses in Florida and facing a doubleheader with a bullpen that looked spent recently and a lineup that had stopped hitting in the clutch if at all, the Phillies version 2006.5 tightened the Wild Card race last night by sweeping the Braves in Atlanta. They now trail leader San Diego by 1.5 games with 17 games remaining.

With crunch time decidedly upon them, the Phils offered a microcosm of this season’s most inconsistent facet of their game, starting pitching. By the same token, they also displayed their most consistent facet, resilience.

Randy Wolf was simply lousy in game one, yielding six hits, 2 walks, and five runs (4 earned) in two innings of labor. One of those hits was a home run by his opposite number, Kyle Davies, his first hit of any kind this year. Clearly, Wolf didn’t get the job done, again. Commentator Larry Andersen, who invariably offers good insights despite the self-deprecating style he affects, had this to say when Wolf was in trouble early: [I paraphrase but not much.]

If you see a right-handed batter foul a fastball off over the first base dugout why would you come back at him with soft breaking stuff on your next pitch? I don’t get it. The guy isn’t getting around on your fastball, so why help him out by speeding up his bat?

Right-handed batters say they have trouble picking up the ball from Wolf? Why help them out?

Why indeed?

This is a recurring theme with many of the pitchers on this staff, starters and bullpen alike. Again one has to wonder, who is responsible? Is it the pitcher, catcher, pitching coach or whoever is calling the pitches from the dugout? Are all of them equally at fault? Without hard evidence I would choose the pitching coach. He is the one who presumably spends time with his charges not only going over individual batters but theory in general. While I am quick to acknowledge the coach can only present a game plan and the players must execute it, Dubee doesn’t seem to be getting through to these guys, especially but obviously not only the youngsters.

Jon Lieber, who by this point in his long career had better know how to pitch, continued his fine late season performances as has been his custom. Lieber gave the Phils 7.1 strong innings marred only by two home runs.

With Wolf failing to go even five innings in the opener, the bullpen was called on early and often and acquitted itself spectacularly. Eude Brito was the man of the hour, relieving Wolf in the third innings and throwing four innings of no-hit ball. His successors, Rick White, Aaron Fultz and Tom Gordon followed suit as the pen combined to no-hit the Braves for the final seven innings of the game. Since his call-up Brito had only been used once, on September 2, in a 16-4 blowout of these same Braves. Perhaps this outing will encourage his manager to use him more often. Certainly, with lefty Arthur Rhodes gone for the season, Brito and fellow MIA Fabio Castro should be seeing more action.

In the nightcap, Fultz, Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson followed Lieber and also shut down the Braves. Fultz’ performance in both games was particularly heartening considering the left-hander had been awful recently and was suffering from a “dead”arm.

Offensively, a lot of guys contributed, none more than Jimmy Rollins. Jimmy had an awful weekend series in Miami, futilely swinging over the top of far too many pitches, but he quickly recovered in Atlanta, setting the table, hitting his 20th home run of the season, and playing his usual stellar defense. After the game his manager commented that now that the 20th home run was out of the way, Jimmy could concentrate on his batting stroke, a not too subtle reminder that when Jimmy gets in trouble it is usually because he is swinging for the fences.

Jeff Conine was the batting hero of game one. What can we say about Conine other than to give praise where due to GM Pat Gillick for making this most important late-season pickup? Conine is a pro in the best sense of the word. He never appears to get too high or low and always plays under controlled intensity. Listening to interviews with Conine since his arrival one gets the distinct impression he is here to help get this team to the post-season. At 40 years of age the fire still burns within.

At the beginning of the season if you had told me the Phillies would be without their three opening day starting outfielders by September, I wouldn’t have given them any chance of contending. But Conine’s arrival coupled with Shane Victorino’s continued excellence, has breathed new life into this club. Victorino continues to get on base and provide the kind of speed and excitement seldom seen in these parts. Moreover, he is a superior centerfielder to Aaron Rowand by a long shot. He goes back on balls much better than Rowand, covers more ground and has a far stronger and more accurate arm. He has earned the right to keep the job next season despite Manuel’s unwritten law that starters don’t lose their jobs due to injuries.

Mid-September and they are still in the hunt. What’s not to like about these guys?


J. Weitzel said...

Great summary of the twinbill, Tom. All points covered, and agreed on all of them.

Matt said...

Since his call-up Brito had only been used once, on September 2, in a 16-4 blowout of these same Braves.

I don't mean to imply that Brito is the second coming, but I think you're minimizing the Sept. 2 outing a little too much. If you recall, that was the game that saw Mathieson go down in the first inning, so Brito didn't have mop-up duty in that game. He was effectively the game's starter for the Phils. His line was pretty solid, too:
4 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 4K

Tom Goodman said...

Good point, Matt. I didn't mean to suggest it was mop-up duty but the way I said it hardly gives him credit for coming into a game early and working several innings. Still, the real point is that Manuel hasn't been using him enough, relying instead on Rhodes, who is shot.

Lake Fred said...

Nice write-up. I slipped over here on the Beerleaguer tip. I always liked Conine. Now that he's a Phillie, I like him even better. It's ashame he's 40.

RickSchuBlues said...

Who cares if Conine's 40? He's a tremendous presence on this team. Moyer and Conine were truly impressive late-season acqiositions by Gillick; they've given the Phillies a far better chance at staying in the race. I look forward to watching them play next season as well.

Wolf seems to be a little too crafty for his own good sometimes. His fastball is a better pitch than he believes - he doesn't throw it all that hard, of course, but hitters swing through it with surprising frequency when he's locating it well. He needs to stop over-thinking out there; his mix-and-match approach, never throwing the same pitch twice, seems to have a bad effect because he can never take the time to establish command of any one pitch early in a game.

RickSchuBlues said...

Incidentally, 'acqiositions' may not be a word you know well, but it got me 128 points in Scrabble last night.

Tom Goodman said...

RSB: That must have been a Fantasy League Scrabble game! I assume you don't penalize players in your league if a word they put down is challenged!!

The irony about Wolf in light of my criticisms is that you are also correct: he thinks too much in some respects and not enough in others. LA has been saying that since Wolf's return. What troubles me most is that he has been around long enough to know better. Maybe he is afraid to use the fastball too much in light of his surgery, but he hasn't said that. For all I know, the curve puts more strain on his repaired elbow than the fastball.

Dick Richards said...

The next couple of weeks will tell us whether they are "good enough" or not, but you are right, Tom, they are "likeable."