Thursday, August 31, 2006

We Believe

Cole Hamels is one intense guy.

The young left-hander has taken to talking to himself on the mound lately. No, he isn’t the second coming of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. When Cole speaks to himself the language appears to be x-rated. Take, for instance, the at bat by his opposite number, Ramon Ortiz, leading off the third inning. Hamels started him off with three straight balls. Keep in mind, we are not talking about Carlos Zambrano here. Hamels came right back at Ortiz and struck him out. Afterwards, he walked off the mound and could be seen clearly delivering himself a lecture. I’m no lip-reader but he appeared to be saying “What the #@&!! are you doing here!!!????”

Hamels always works fast. He doesn’t come off as impatient, like Brett Myers can be; rather, he has a plan, knows what he wants to do on the next pitch, and sees no point in wasting time throwing it. I am surprised batters haven’t started stepping out more on him. Heck, I’m surprised his own catcher doesn’t step out on him occasionally.

For the night Hamels line read: 8 innings, 1 earned run, 4 hits, 2 walks and 3 strikeouts. Afterwards, he told reporters “I would have been happier if I hadn't given up a 500-foot home run [to Alfonso Soriano].” The kid goes deep into the game, yields a lone run but isn’t entirely satisfied with his effort. Overall, however, he doesn’t lack confidence.

"I definitely feel like I'm part of the major leagues. I feel like I'm here to stay, and there's no doubt in my mind I can be a top-of-the-line pitcher."

We believe you, Cole.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Coattails Available

If the Phillies are going to make it to the Promise Land, they are going to have to do it astride the broad shoulders and back of Ryan Howard. Not Chase’s, mind you; not Jimmy’s, either.

To be sure, J-Roll is vital to their success, setting the table, scoring runs and, yes, even showing some serious pop at times. Utley is the cornerstone of the franchise, providing intensity and leadership by example. But it is Howard whom they’ve come to rely on for consistent production.

Frankly, Chase looks awful at the moment. He is even running up in the batter’s box on the first pitch and taking far too many terrible swings. He is in a real funk, but he has always been fairly streaky. He will come out of just as suddenly as he fell into it. He tends to wear down as the season wears on, a mark of how much effort he gives on even the most routine plays.

As is his wont, Jimmy always rallies in the latter third of the season, picking up his average, OBP, and overall game. If Jimmy is not on base, all notions of run production are academic. Howard, on the other hand, is never streaky. A slump for Howard is rarely more than an intra-game affair. He adjusts. He maintains an even temperament. He never falls into bad habits. And he is a big man with big power numbers who also hits for average. One of the keys to Howard’s game is his approach to batting practice, well documented since the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game. He doesn’t try to put on a show during BP. Instead, he works on his swing, meeting the ball, head down. Make contact and the home runs will come; and, of course, they have.

Howard trailed Mike Schmidt’s franchise record for home runs in a season by a single swing when play began last night. Watching him you knew number 48 was coming. So, apparently, did Frank Robinson, who ordered him intentionally walked in the first inning. Such is the growing respect and reputation of Howard. Despite the big ballpark there was little doubt Howard was locked in. He had homered in three consecutive games in New York and would have had more had the wind been more favorable. When he hit the record tying blast he paused at home plate for a moment before heading down the first base line. No serious styling, just a brief moment to watch the flight of the ball. Afterwards, Howard was his usual humble self. The records are nice, but he wants his team to play in the post-season.

There can be no greater tribute to this young star than that from Schmidt himself, who praised Howard to the media and in a conversation with the young slugger and noted that Howard was a much better hitter at his age than he had been at a similar stage in his Hall of Fame career.

You don’t have to tell the Phillies that.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

No Time For Amateurs

Youth will be served but with a side of age.

Ever since the Phillies defied logic if not expectation and went on a tear following the trade deadline sell-off, most of us have looked to the youth movement as the key to the future, immediate and beyond.

Pat Gillick was as stunned by the sudden turn-around as the rest of us and instantly converted to a buyer, signing one aging veteran after another and telling everyone within earshot these ancient mariners, literally and figuratively, would be a steady influence on the field and in the clubhouse.  It’s baseball cliché #6 in action:  there is no substitute for experience, especially of the post-season variety.  Frankly, I’d opt for a younger guy hitting .300 if given the choice.

The alleged brain trust can bring in all the gray beards and wise old heads it wants, but Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Shane Victorino remain the key players on this ball club and the Phillies will go as far as this sextet of twenty-somethings takes them.

Jamie Moyer is a nice addition but at age 43 should engender few expectations at this point in his long journey.  Jeff Conine is another solid veteran but at age 40 his best days are behind him as well.  Likewise, Jose Hernandez is in the twilight of a career that has seen him hit .253 over 14 seasons.  As Assistant GM Ruben Amara Jr. likes to say, the latter two are “professional hitters”.  That’s a relief.  This sure ain’t the time for amateurs.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Complete Package

While everyone, myself included, marvels and rejoices over Ryan Howard’s ascension to the most elite club in all of baseball – feared hitter – we should not forget there is a lot more to his game than his bat.

All season long I have argued the 6’4”, 252 lb, Howard is unusually nimble for such a big man, and is an excellent base runner who is also very good with the glove. Those early season fielding and throwing errors were merely growing pains, signs of a lack of concentration and experience rather than skill. As the season has worn on his scoops, dives and throws have saved the Phillies’ bacon more than once.

Last night we were treated to the full Howard package. He drove a sacrifice fly deep into the teeth of a strong wind in the first inning to plate the Phillies’ first run of the evening and followed two innings later with a no-doubt-about-it 2 run homer, his 45th of the season, into the Mets’ bullpen.

In the bottom of the third Howard made a terrific diving stop of a hard ground ball with two out and runners at the corners in what turned out to be the play that preserved the Phils 4-3 win. Pitcher Randy Wolf, the beneficiary of Howard’s largesse, patted his first baseman on the back not once but twice as they trotted off the field.

After the game Wolf had this to say to reporters about the NL leader in home runs and rbi’s:

"For what it's worth, he's got my vote for MVP," Wolf said of Howard, who is not usually mentioned in a speculative National League MVP race between Beltran and Albert Pujols.

"It's how he treats his success," Wolf said. "How he's always the same guy. How he's always trying to get better, always trying to get the edge and help our team win."

As a further sign of the respect with which Howard is viewed by the opposition, in his next plate appearance Howard was intentionally walked, a strategy that worked out for the Mets as they escaped a lead-off triple by Shane Victorino without giving up another run. Last week Howard was intentionally walked three times in the same game.

In only his second season Howard joins a few other players – Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and occasionally still Barry Bonds – as the guys most likely to receive a free pass in a crunch. This is baseball’s version of discretion as the better part of valor and it normally isn’t applied to one so young, but as Wolf noted, Howard is well ahead of where most sophomores find themselves not only in the box score, but in the dugout and most significantly, in his temperament.

Those of us who watch him every day are very fortunate to be along for the ride.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Are We Having Fun Yet? Darn Right!!

Who can blame us if we were getting a little ahead of ourselves? The hits were falling in, the fielders could do no wrong, and the pitchers were hitting their spots. After months if not years of mostly desultory play, the Phils were exciting to watch and we, the fans, were throwing caution to the wind.

Then came yesterday’s reminder that the pitching staff is still a work in progress, especially considering the mix of youth, age, rehabilitation and erratic behavior.

You have to say one thing about rookie Cole Hamels’ performance in Chicago, if he doesn’t have it, he makes that clear from the get-go. When Hamels has all three pitches working he is a sight to behold; when he doesn’t, he looks like Ramon Hernandez in Detroit or Pittsburgh. Yesterday was home run derby day.

Nine runs, six earned, in two innings. Balls flying all around Wrigley Field. The Cubbies were jumping on everything he threw up there. I found myself thinking those guys must be sitting in their dugout wondering what all the fuss was about. This is the kid whom everyone is talking about?

Hamels has melted down before and bounced back. I am not worried about this latest setback because the kid has tremendous confidence and ability. But we have to remember he is also a year removed from mid-level minor league ball and still has a lot to learn. Could the pitch selection have been better? Probably. Even Chris Coste admitted as much after the game. Still, the bigger problems were Hamels’ command, especially of his breaking ball, which was utterly absent, and a fastball that had nothing special on it. As everyone is fond of reminding us, major league batters can hit the fastball.

Now, frankly, comes the bigger test: Randy Wolf faces the Mets tonight in New York. Wolf’s last outing was decent, nothing more, and included two home runs allowed. Greater things may be expected of Wolf now that he has shown his elbow is healthy than they are currently of Hamels, who is by definition still developing. Wolf will be facing a resurgent Carlos Delgado, who has four home runs in his last few games, as well as all the other bangers in the Mets formidable lineup.

Reality has a way of coming right back at you with little or no warning. Fine. All the same, it has been a helluva lot of fun to watch these guys.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Philly Ball

In the weeks following the deal that sent Bobby Abreu to New York it was reasonable to expect Phillies’ fans were paying more than normal attention to the box scores of Yankees’ games to see how their former star was faring.  One wonders if Bobby were doing the same thing, keeping tabs on his old teammates.  If not, he sure has been missing something special.

The magical ride continued unabated last night with a taut 2 – 1 victory over the Cubs in Chicago, the Phils’ fifth victory in a row.  The cast of heroes changes daily but the results are generally the same: the Phils are getting timely hits, excellent  pitching and solid defense.  There’s no other way to say it:  they’re playing Philly Ball.

Last night’s game not only had all of the ingredients that have propelled the Phils back into the thick of the Wild Card race, it foreshadowed the future.  The youngsters and the new leadership stepped up and the key to the starting rotation, Brett Myers, tossed a terrific game when his team and especially he needed it most.  The Wild Card leading Cincinnati Reds had lost in an afternoon game and the Phils took the field knowing they could make up ground with a win over the Cubs.  

For Myers it was his most critical start of the season if not his career, coming as it did on the heels of two very poor outings.  He stepped up big time holding the Cubs to one run on four hits, nine K’s and a single walk, which happened to be a four pitch pass to Juan Pierre leading off the game.  Anyone who reached for the dial following that inauspicious opening was rewarded for staying tuned.   Previously, Myers might have self-destructed after throwing four straight balls to start the game, but he settled down immediately and was in control for the rest of the night.

Prior to last night, Ryan Howard had looked awful at Wrigley, going 1 – 9 with five strikeouts in the first two games.  The key things about Howard are that he never gets down on himself and he is always adjusting.  In his first two at-bats last night he crushed the ball but both were outs.  In the first AB he broke his bat, the head flying into the stands, and still managed to hit the ball to the warning track in left.  In his next AB he lined a hard shot straight at centerfielder Pierre.  Howard was clearly locked in and a home run seemed only a matter of time.  Right on cue he delivered his 44th round tripper of the season and the Phils had a 1 – 0 lead.

After the Cubs tied it on a home run by Matt Murton the Phils came back led once again by Jimmy Rollins.  The box score will show Bobby Abreu that Rollins drove in the winning run with a two-out double that scored Abe Nunez, but that would hardly be the whole story.   Let the Inquirer’s Todd Zolecki pick it up from here:

"Just get the win," Rollins said [to Myers] before the Phillies batted in the ninth. "Let somebody get the save."

"I really didn't care if I personally got the win or not," Myers said afterward. "I just wanted to win the game. But it's kind of funny that he said that to me."

It's funny because Myers pitched brilliantly in eight innings to pick up the win, a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs. It's funnier because Rollins provided the clutch two-out double to right-center field to score the go-ahead run, just minutes after he said it. That's after Abraham Nunez worked a two-out walk and pinch-hitter Joe Thurston hit a bloop single to right field for his first big-league hit since May 25, 2004, to keep the inning alive.

"That's playing winning baseball," Rollins said. "Doing what we can to win. Nobody trying to be the hero."

Jimmy wasn’t through, however.  After Arthur Rhodes came in to start the ninth and got the dangerous Pierre to fly out, Charlie Manuel called for Geoff Geary to face right-handers Phil Nevn and Aramis Ramirez.  Manuel handed Geary the ball and departed.  Rollins followed him to the mound and spoke to Geary at length.  This was no just-throw-strikes pep talk.  Geary, as pitchers are wont to do these days, covered his mouth with his glove and spoke with Rollins.  (Geary was facing towards left-field at the time and one can only wonder exactly who he was concerned might be reading his lips, but that’s another story.)   Whether Rollins was going over the probable pitch selection or giving his own scouting report we can only guess.  But there is no doubt that he took control of the situation as a leader should.

Chase Utley and Howard have received most of the press and justifiably, but Jimmy remains the heart and soul of this club.  If he isn’t getting on base or delivering a key hit or defensive play the Phillies aren’t going anywhere.  Rich Hoffman said it best in his fine piece on Jimmy in today’s Daily News:  “He goes, they go.  It really is like the day following the dawn.”

And I might add, like one win following another.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The View From Above Sea Level

For the first time since mid-June the Phillies are breathing the rarified atmosphere above sea level. To say it hasn’t been easy would qualify as the understatement of the year.

During the long trek back to average, the Phillies have sold, traded or lost through injury their starting third baseman, right-fielder, center-fielder, closer, top middle reliever, number 1,2 0r 3 starter depending on how you value consistency and assorted others due to on and off-field adventures.

And yet they are still in contention for the Wild Card as September looms. In fact, they are playing better and with more heart than at any other time this season. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, the Phils are getting better, so much so they went out and acquired 43-year old Jamie Moyer to help their cause. Clearly, Moyer had an advance copy of the script prior to his arrival because he went right out there and won his first start in a Phillies uniform.

Something’s happening here.

This may not be a completely rag-tag outfit, how could it be with Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on the roster, but it sure ain’t your 1980 Phillies either. Who can explain why a team undergoing such turnover could get better not worse? The clues are everywhere.

Chris Coste is on a magical mystery ride. A guy whose best position wasn’t supposed to be catcher is suddenly the prime guy. As Beerleaguer told me the other day, it also doesn’t hurt that he is hitting a ton. Abe Nunez has finally been given a chance to start every day and in the process has raised his average nearly 50 points, a Herculean undertaking at this late juncture of the season. His defense has been tremendous. With each outing Cole Hamels further establishes himself as the genuine article. His strikeouts are up; his walks are down; his confidence and poise are the stuff of seasoned veterans. One gets the feeling the Phils are going to win whenever he takes the ball.

Shane Victorino is battling Jimmy Rollins for the honor of being the team sparkplug. He brings an intensity and excitement to the game rarely seen in these parts. Case in point: last night he singled only to be picked off first base. So, where did the camera find him after his embarrassing moment? Not sulking underneath a towel on the bench. Instead, he was talking with bench coach Gary Varsho, no doubt going over what he did wrong. Victorino has been playing regularly of late but will now be an every-day player for the rest of the campaign following Aaron Rowand’s injury. Frankly, he represents an improvement.

With each passing day Jimmy further establishes himself as one of the most dynamic shortstops in the National League. He is scoring runs, hitting with power, fielding superbly and leading his team. The Phils could not be doing it without him.

We needn’t recapitulate our awe and admiration of Utley and Howard. Suffice it to say that every few days I pinch myself and repeat, “And they are all ours for years to come.”

However it turns out in the end, and realistically their chances diminish with the bullpen they can currently throw out there, these Phillies have been more fun to watch than any version in recent memory.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Boston Massacre

The latest Boston Massacre is history but the crowing will go on for some time yet.

Sweeps on the road are difficult enough, but the Yankees latest march through Fenway Park was positively Shermanesque.  No team in major league baseball had swept a five-game series on the road in over a decade.  No Yankee team had swept a five-game series in Boston since 1951.  It just isn’t supposed to be done, but, after all, these are the Yankees.

New York’s mauling of Boston had something for everyone, except, of course, if you were a citizen of the vaunted Red Sox Nation.  At varying times they showed off an overwhelming offense, solid defense, and dominating starting pitching.  More importantly, throughout the entire series they showed off supreme confidence.

From our little parochial perspective, the player receiving much of the credit is one Bobby Abreu.  Since arriving in New York Bobby has fit right in; and why not?  He is no longer being asked to lead or to even be the go-to guy.  He can play his game at his pace in his way and feel appreciated for it. “This is the right team.  This is the right time.”  I assume it isn’t worth pointing out that Abreu was admired and appreciated for much of his career in Philadelphia because, regrettably, he will probably only remember the last year and a half including the utterly contemptible booing he received on opening day this year.

Meanwhile, the race in the AL East isn’t over – larger margins have been overcome – but the series exposed Boston’s pitching, especially but not exclusively its middle bullpen, as the disaster area it is, and it highlighted the absence of the Red Sox’ most critical leader, injured catcher Jason Varitek.  Boston manager Terry Francona is going to be second-guessed into the next millennium as only Beantowners can for failing to bring in closer Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth inning of game 4, but he went strictly by the numbers on that call.  Yesterday’s genius is today’s average Joe.

Speaking of geniuses, we haven’t heard as much lately on that subject regarding Theo Epstein, the boy genius and wunderkind of the executive suite who resigned in a pique as GM before the start of this season and came back shortly thereafter.

Epstein is being criticized in some quarters for allowing the Yankees to outmaneuver him in acquiring Abreu and pitcher Cory Lidle.  (The critics would be better off directing their censure at Pat Gillick.)  Epstein’s response was to fire back, "That's not our dynamic. We're not going to have an uber-team every year. We're going to try to build an organization that can try to sustain success over the long run."

An “uber-team”?  Looks like the boy genius has been reading more than Bill James lately.

Of Crashes

[Update: Rowand’s ankle is broken. He is expected to miss at least five weeks.]

Harry Kalas said it all, over and over again.

“Oh, no. Oh, no.”

Aaron Rowand and Chase Utley had just collided violently chasing a pop fly ball and both went down hard. Utley immediately bounced up and appeared shaken but uninjured. Rowand, who took an awkward head-over-heels spill, lay on the ground face down for a minute or two before getting up with the help of two teammates and limping off the field. If he “only” sprained his ankle as preliminary reports indicated, he is very fortunate indeed after landing hard on his head. The temptation to note the unusually solid construction of that body part is great, but this constant testing of its durability precludes any levity.

Rowand plays the game all out, making him a fan favorite wherever he goes, but his abandon is dangerous to himself and others. Utley clearly signaled for the ball but the hard-charging Rowand either didn’t see him or, if Utley was also yelling, didn’t hear him. Once fired up, Rowand looks unstoppable. Teammates beware!! There have been numerous near collisions and mix-ups throughout the season apart from The Catch and last night’s came closest to having disastrous consequences for him as well as one of the team’s two franchise players.

Rowand isn’t going to change the way he plays the game. The larger question the Phillies must address at some point is whether or not his style benefits the club. Rowand’s overall play has been a disappointment this season. He has struggled at the plate at times and, frankly, in the field. He gets to nearly everything in front of him but hasn’t impressed this observer when going back on the ball. He plays too shallow for Citizens Bank Park. His arm is erratic.

The guess here is he will remain with the club at least next year. David Dellucci is not likely to re-sign; the Phils seem determined to move Pat Burrell; and the kids in the minor leagues are not ready to step in.

* * * * * * * * *

Speaking of collisions, Pat Burrell did his best fullback impersonation last night as he lowered his shoulder and bowled over the Cubs’ Henry Blanco in another violent collision, this one at home plate.

Burrell is an enigma. Generally, he shows little emotion on the field other than the pained expression he exhibits when he strikes out looking or pops up with men on base. Once in a while he will smash his bat on the ground when he fails to deliver in the clutch. For the most part, though, he plays things close to the vest.

Burrell has seen his playing time cut dramatically lately and his popularity with the fans hit an all-time low. The boos grow louder and more constant at Citizens Bank Park with each passing appearance. That may be why last night’s game was so notable. Not only did he crash into the opposing catcher on a play at the plate, he made a terrific diving catch in the outfield that proved critical as the Cubs rallied from a 6-0 deficit before falling to the Phillies 6-5.

Burrell may be better off playing on the road permanently.

* * * * * * * * *

The Inquirer’s Todd Zolecki had an interesting note on Jimmy Rollins in this morning’s paper:

We wrote here Aug. 8 that Jimmy Rollins' speed makes him a much better leadoff hitter than people give him credit for.


His ability to steal bases, score from first, break up potential double plays and cause other havoc on the bases makes him more dangerous than a leadoff hitter like David Eckstein, who has a higher on-base percentage but can't run nearly as well. For proof, nobody other than Pujols has scored more runs than Rollins since 2004.

Perhaps surprisingly, John Dewan, a noted sabermetrician who works closely with Bill James and helps crank out The Bill James Handbook every year, agrees.

"You'd like to see your leadoff hitter have an on-base percentage of about .370, but Jimmy has above-average speed and his on-base percentage is average or just above the league average," Dewan said. "So that probably makes him a better than average leadoff hitter."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Pitchers Come, Pitchers Should Go

Count previous skeptic Pat Gillick, of all people, among those who think the Phils have a chance to reach the post-season.

Gillick was baseball’s biggest seller in July, a status that all but announced to everyone concerned that the Phils’ GM considered this year was all over but the shouting. Someone forgot to remind the players who remained, however, and ever since the surprising and energetic Phillies have been winning and in the process propelled themselves into the thick of the NL Wild Card Chase. As many have pointed out, the Phils remaining schedule is entirely against clubs with losing records save a single series with the Mets. The same folks have also noted the Phils have a losing record as well. Clearly, it is going to pay to be first among the least.

Gillick made a surprise late-season acquisition over the weekend, acquiring 43-year old southpaw Jamie Moyer to help the Phils bolster their starting rotation. It would be hard to say whether Moyer is fortifying the middle or back end of said rotation since that pecking order seems to be in perpetual flux. For the record, Moyer takes the place of rookie Scott Mathieson, who all agree has a bright future but is not yet ready for prime time. In reality, Moyer is really taking the place of Cory Lidle, traded along with Bobby Abreu to the Yankees.

Moyer’s name never appears in print at this stage of his career without the modifier “crafty” attached to it. If his assortment of off-speed junk works well on first encounter with National League hitters, the move was a good one. Whatever the outcome, he didn’t cost much; moreover, he wanted to come to Philadelphia. That’s a rarity these days.

Moyer joins a staff that includes a suddenly ineffective Brett Myers, a still rehabilitating (and it showed yesterday against Washington) Randy Wolf, veteran Jon Lieber, who is putting on his usual late season rush, and nominal staff ace Cole Hamels. Of all of them, Brett Myers may be the least reliable at this juncture.

Myers is running out of second and third chances as well as gas. This has been his wont over the years and, his protests notwithstanding, his stamina and conditioning are unacceptable for a big leaguer, especially one who had some time off recently following his assault of his wife in Boston.

Myers has struggled through two disastrous consecutive outings during which he surrendered home runs to five of the six batters he faced between the end of one start and the beginning of another. It should be clear to the Phillies he is never going to be the ace they envisioned. Stuff is not enough to get by in the big leagues and though everyone connected with this organization loves to point out how good his is, the sooner the Phillies admit to themselves he doesn’t have what it takes upstairs the sooner they can begin working out a trade to bring an established quality big leaguer in return.

In a perpetually pitching-starved world, Myers certainly remains good enough to fetch the right-handed bat the Phils need to provide some protection for their left-handed bats in the middle of the lineup, especially Ryan Howard. As always, the questions is whether to trade Myers now to a club that is in the pennant race or wait until the off-season?

Whatever they decide, the Phillies don't need prospects in return. They have too many holes to fill and too few commodities other team's want. Brett Myers represents one of the few valuable commodities the Phillies should be willing to part with. Much as they would like to have his youth and his stuff in their starting rotation for years to come, they have to face reality. Myers isn't going to produce in a Phillies' uniform. The bet here is they will hold onto to him until the Wild Card chase plays out. After that, regardless of the outcome, they should move Myers.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Formidable...Or Not

I was one of several bloggers who received an email this morning responding to the use of the word “formidable” regarding the Phillies pitching staff.  The author, one of the smartest and most thoughtful in the blogosphere, wrote that the use of the word in relation to the Phillies’ pitching staff was “delusional”.  

Coincidentally, Jason Weitzel at Beerleaguer had also used the term in his post yesterday.  Actually, I used the word "formidable" in conjunction with the word “becoming” in my post.  I wasn’t yet willing to say the staff had arrived, just that they might be turning things around.  The email contained the following observations:

The reality is that the Phillies do not have a single reliable pitcher on their entire staff. Hamels at this stage is as close as you get. When any other pitcher on the Phillies current staff takes the mound, it's a crap shoot (except for the ones like Rhodes and Mathieson that you KNOW will get scored on). There are maybe 2 quality arms in the whole sorry lot. Use of the word 'formidable' for this starting rotation is delusional. Two rookies, a headcase, a guy just coming off a year's re-hab for arm surgery and the pear-shaped one.  

What is clear is that Cole Hamels has grown stronger with each outing and, contrary to the normal pattern with phenoms, he didn't start out like Sandy Koufax only to return to earth; rather, he began his major league career with some hard lessons before he began to settle down and pitch very effectively.  Randy Wolf has also grown stronger with each outing.   His progress is just that.  It’s hard to say where it will lead but the direction is certainly good.  Jon Lieber has pitched very effectively over the last few weeks as well, another late season rally as is his wont.  Unfortunately, the season starts in April, Jon.  That is why I used the word "becoming".  I grant that by using the word "formidable" I may be guilty of over optimism, but I don't know if I have fallen into delusional yet.  On the other hand, I am a Phillies fan, so by definition….

The author of the email also made an in-game comment during yesterday’s finale with the Mets in which he decried the decision to send Scott Mathieson out to start the fifth inning when it was clear he didn’t have it.  Sure enough, Mathieson was tagged for back-to-back home runs and the Phillies’ 2-run rally a half-inning before was neutralized.

The decision to send Mathieson back out there when it was clear to nearly everyone except, perhaps, Mrs. Mathieson, that he didn’t have it raises all sorts of questions about the handling of rookie pitchers on this staff.  Gavin Floyd is the poster boy, but there have been others.  Jim Salisbury wrote a fine piece in this morning’s Inquirer, the sub-headline of which said it all:  Balancing act: Let players develop or chase wild card?  Mathieson is in the rotation precisely because when he arrived several weeks ago the starters were hardly formidable.  Indeed, they were in nearly complete disarray.  He remains there because management still doesn’t see a formidable staff and believes it needs another young live arm on it, both to see how Mathieson can handle big league hitters and because they need the bodies with Ryan Madson having moved back to the bullpen and Cory Lidle to New York.  What is clear is that the players as well as management are still trying to make the post-season, which, of course begs the question why did Charlie leave Mathieson in there to take such a beating?

Mathieson hasn’t shown much since his arrival other than a game attitude, which won’t substitute for a good changeup and breaking ball.  He has a good fastball, which, as we all know isn’t sufficient to be a big league pitcher.  There was speculation in a few quarters this morning, including Mathieson himself, that he may have been tipping his changeup, which hung beautifully for more than a few Mets’ hitters.  As is always the case, there is more to this than meets the eye.  Early in the game Larry Andersen noted that Mathieson had Mike DeFlice in an 0-2 hole on fastballs and tried to get him out on a changeup.  “Why speed up his bat?” Andersen asked.  At best, Andersen continued, DeFelice would foul off another fastball since it was clear he couldn’t get around on the first two he saw.  So, who made the decision to throw the change?  Mike Lieberthal?  The bench?  Mathieson himself?  Whoever is to blame, the net result was a dumb pitch and a base hit that extended a rally.

In arguing yesterday for Charlie Manuel’s retention next season I considered his handling of the pitching staff.  A number of commenters pointed out this was his most glaring weakness and I do not necessarily disagree.  I cannot determine how active a role Manuel takes with the pitching staff.  Has he turned the entire matter over to Rich Dubee or does he keep his hand in it?  Dubee, for his part, has been virtually invisible during his tenure.  He clearly doesn’t have the presence if not authority of a Leo Mazzone or, as George S. pointed out, a Dave Duncan.  He might be very effective, but we don’t know that.  Charlie may overrule him or keep his distance.  We don’t know that either.  

What we do know is that good pitchers make good pitching coaches.  Mazzone was a legend in Atlanta and has feet of clay in Baltimore.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

One That Didn't Get Away & One That Shouldn't

Ah, yes, the trades not made.

Jon Lieber, all 240 pounds of him, was on the bubble July 31 as he took the mound for a 1PM start versus the Florida Marlins with the 4PM trade deadline looming. It was hot and steamy that day and Lieber, recently off the DL, had been very ineffective in his recent outings. Still, as a veteran pitcher with post-season experience, he was the subject of numerous trade rumors, a valuable commodity for some team trying to reach the post-season. Lieber threw a wrench into those plans, however, choosing that precise moment to submit to a public flogging by the Marlins, surrendering thirteen hits and nine earned runs in a mere 4.2 innings of work. All of the scouts in the stands that day simply folded their notebooks, put the caps back on their pens and signaled to the hot dog vendors they were ready to buy what they were offering instead.

Boy, were the Phillies lucky that day.

Ever since the deadline passed, the veteran right-hander has been his usual late-season self, pitching to an ERA of 1.80 over three starts including last night’s 3-0 complete game shutout of the Mets, the first by a Phillies pitcher in nearly two years. Had it not been for a fielding lapse on his part in a 4-3 loss to the Mets a few weeks ago, his record might be even better. Last night, Lieber’s command was tremendous, as good as it has been since his arrival in Philadelphia. What’s more, following strong outings by Cole Hamels and Randy Wolf, the veteran right-hander served notice that the Phillies’ once-shaky rotation was becoming formidable. Ironically, the most unreliable pitcher over the last few weeks has been putative ace Brett Myers; everyone else has been a world-beater lately with the exception of rookie Scott Mathieson, hardly an unexpected result.

As it turns out, last night Lieber was more than happy to share the spotlight with and give credit to his catcher, Cinderella Man Chris Coste. (Coste was the subject of a fine piece by Ben Shpigel in yesterday’s New York Times. Be aware this link is probably only active for six more days at the Times site.) Coste hit a two-run homer off Tom Glavine in the second inning and added two more hits to raise his batting average to .359. Everyone thought Coste would hit (though not this much), but his catching has been a welcome surprise, especially to the starting rotation. The Phils may have solved one problem for next season with the emergence of the 33-year old rookie. At the very least he should be able to share the catching duties. Reading about Coste’s hard-scrabble upbringing and his dogged determination to continue playing professional ball despite the setbacks and disappointments makes his magical season all the more satisfying to observe. If he never gets another hit in the big leagues he will have achieved a great deal.

* * * * * * * *

For those of you who might find my timing a bit suspicious in light of my latest anti-Dallas Green post, I want to go on record as having told Beerleaguer several weeks ago that I was in favor of bringing Cholly back next season. While it’s true ya’ gotta’ like a guy who can wag a finger in Dallas Green’s face and tell him where to get off, Charlie’s value to this club was becoming more evident with each passing day long before that incident.

The Phillies need him as much as he needs them. Maybe more.

When virtually an entire roster starts to hustle and play up to its potential good things happen and the players naturally get all the credit. When they don’t, the manager is usually the first to hear it. Manuel deserves a lot of the credit in the turnaround.

It is clear from everything one reads that the players like him. He has become more accustomed to the style of play in the National League including the double switch, a move that gave him fits in his first season. But most important, he has undergone a seismic shift in his attitude towards veterans and younger players, recognizing the need to inject the lineup with new energy and blood. He watched David Bell, his kind of player, depart and has stuck with his replacement, Abraham Nunez, when everyone was calling for a change, any change. Nunez has struggled all season at the plate, but is 10 for his last 30 since hitting rock bottom a few weeks ago.

Manuel has benched Pat Burrell more often than not, giving more playing time to David Dellucci and Shane Victorino. Early in the season he made it clear Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were going to play every day, whether or not a left-hander was starting against the Phils. He resisted all the clamor to move Jimmy Rollins down in the order, a move some still want to see. Jimmy has been on fire since the trading deadline.

The Phillies are facing a host of off-season changes as they try and fill several holes in their lineup and bullpen. The last thing they need now is a new manager. The current one has earned the right to oversee the next stage in the team’s development.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Praise For Some....

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard clearly represent the most public faces of the Phillies now, but Jimmy Rollins remains the heart and soul of the club.

During the course of this seesaw season J-Roll has become the de facto team spokesman, the player the media inevitably turn to whenever they want to take the pulse of the club, and the always obliging and affable shortstop is a more than willing interview. He has never shied away from addressing the realities, including his own role in them.

Whatever frustrations Jimmy engenders as a leadoff batter, and there have been plenty, there is no mistaking his tremendous value as a defensive player and his virtues as the team’s ignition switch. True to form, as the season wears on Jimmy heats up at the plate, raising his overall average by fifteen points in just the last fourteen games. He has already set a club record for home runs by a shortstop (18) with 44 games remaining and is on a pace to equal his career high in rbi’s. He is third in the league in runs scored (trailing Utley by three) and has stolen 27 bases.

It’s hard to believe the 27-year old Rollins (he’ll be 28 in November) has been with the club for six seasons already. To put those numbers in perspective, Jimmy is a month older the Utley and a year older than Howard.

Whenever the camera zooms in on Jimmy, in the dugout or on base, he is invariably chattering away with teammates or opposing infielders, a wide smile on his face. He loves the game and it shows.

* * * * * * * * *

How about that Randy Wolf? Prior to the game I spoke with Jason Weitzel of Beerleaguer and both of us were pulling for Wolf to have a good night. Some night, eh? Seven innings, four hits, two walks, two strikeouts and two earned runs. Oh, and two hits and two rbi’s. I hope Wolf played two’s in the lottery before the start.

Wolf will be a free agent after this season. Beerleaguer has speculated he will be likely to return to the Phils out of a sense of loyalty to the club that stood behind him as he underwent Tommy John surgery and rehabilitation. Certainly he is making a strong case for himself, showing marked improvement in each of his four outings since his return. A revitalized Wolf would certainly help anchor next year’s rotation.

* * * * * * * * *

What should the Phillies do about David Dellucci? The guy is on a monster tear ever since he was given a chance to play regularly. That’s all he ever asked of the club. Dellucci is “only” making $950,000 this season, a relative bargain for a veteran. He becomes a free agent after the season and the guess here is he will be far more difficult to sign once he hits the open market than he would be now. No one is ever going to mistake him for Gary Maddox, but he gets to balls well and isn’t afraid of the fence. His arm is his only glaring defensive liability.

When Dellucci spells Pat Burrell in left, Shane Victorino usually starts in right. Victorino is one exciting ball player. He runs down everything in the outfield and has a terrific arm. When he took over in centerfield following Aaron Rowand’s injury, he hit for average. Upon Rowand’s return, Victorino was again relegated to a part-time and pinch-hitting role and his average dropped. Now that he is playing more or less regularly again, his average has begun to climb. He has also shown some pop lately, hitting two home runs while driving in five in his last two games. Victorino is an exciting player to watch, especially when he runs the bases.

An outfield of Dellucci, Rowand and Victorino would be short on arms but long on heart.

This alignment would once again underscore the dilemma of what to do with Pat Burrell. Many people argue a guy who hits 25 – 30 home runs and drives in 85 – 100 runs is too valuable a commodity to deal, but it is quite clear the Phillies want to do just that. They tried to move Burrell prior to the trade deadline but found few takers. One rumor had them sending Burrell to Baltimore, but he reportedly exercised his no-trade clause. Other rumors indicated Burrell would only consider a trade to the Yankees or Red Sox. Who can blame him or, frankly, them for passing?

The best chance to move Burrell might come if the Phils package him to an acceptable warm-climate contender with fading phenom Gavin Floyd. Floyd’s stock has not risen much at Scranton, where he remains inconsistent. It is doubtful another year at AAA is going to help him get over the hump, but Floyd is a starting pitcher and as such remains a member of the most coveted group in baseball today. There should be plenty of clubs who are willing to take a chance on a former number one pick who is still in his early ’20’s.

* * * * * * * * *

Dallas Green. What can we say about him that might diminish him further? How about this: can you induct a fellow into the team’s Wall of Fame one week and fire him the next?

Once or twice a season, Green can be counted on to open his big mouth and publicly ridicule some player. This time, however, the Big Mouth took aim at Charlie Manuel, whom he criticized on a radio show. Yesterday, as reported by Jim Salisbury, Green was on the field prior to the game when Manuel walked by. Apparently, Charlie went over to the Big Mouth and gave him a piece of his mind, finger wagging and all. The whole thing was over quickly and according to Salisbury, Green didn’t respond as it happened.

Green, of course, was enshrined for something he accomplished 26 years ago this October. There are many, including several of his former ballplayers, who have publicly stated that the 1980 team won the World Series despite or to spite him. Regardless of how one views that magical season of long ago, Green has done nothing since to endear him to fans or players alike. The only memorable event that comes to mind was his brief tenure with the Chicago Cubs during which he managed to land a Phillies prospect named Ryne Sandberg as a throw-in as part of a trade. There are many who believe Green was less than honest with all parties concerned in that deal. Incredibly, the Phillies ownership didn’t see it that way and invited him back.

Since his return as a senior advisor Green has remained in the background for the most part save the occasional sally forth to utter some public ridicule.

Once again, Mr. Montgomery, the debt to Mr. Green has been paid in full. Consider the enshrinement your final payment and do the right thing. Tell the Big Mouth goodbye.

By the way, does the wall plaque show him with his mouth open?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Moving Up On The Depth Chart

Cole Hamels has officially moved up on the depth chart with last night’s impressive performance against the Mets.

The game offered a highly attractive match-up between Pedro Martinez, the aging star, and Cole Hamels, who has “star written all over him” according to no less an authority than Atlanta’s Bobby Cox, who has seen a few good pitchers in his time. As it turned out, only Hamels lived up to his advance billing this night as Pedro hit two batters and balked in a runner with the bases loaded while allowing six runs in one inning of work before departing with a strained calf muscle. The guess here is Pedro has more problems than either he or the Mets are willing to acknowledge. Throughout his one inning of work, during which he faced nine batters, Martinez failed to throw more than a couple of fast balls and those were only in the mid to upper 80’s. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn his shoulder is giving him problems as well.

But enough about the past, this post is about the future, specifically of Cole Hamels, who is suddenly the Phillies’ number one starter if by that we mean a pitcher who can take the ball every fifth day and pitch with consistency and confidence and, oh yes, win the game. This was Hamels’ fourth straight strong outing. As Marcus Hayes’ summarized things, [Hamels] began his career 2-5 with a 5.98 ERA in 11 starts. He is 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA in his four starts since, with 34 strikeouts and five walks in 28 1/3 innings.

Hamels arrived a bit prematurely in Philadelphia, summoned in desperation to fill out a rotation in tatters. He pitched decently in those early starts, showing flashes of brilliance, while making rookie mistakes, not the least of which were discovering that major league hitters are very good indeed at hitting the fastball. While he has three excellent pitches, he could not consistently throw two of them for strikes in those initial outings, especially his breaking ball, as he walked far more batters than was his custom. When he tried to sneak the fastball by batters, they turned them around eleven times for home runs in his first seven starts. In his last fours starts, however, he has yielded a lone round tripper. The key has been a complete command of all of his pitches, which he has mixed up masterfully.

Hamels works quickly, establishing his rhythm from the first pitch of the game. As of yet, opposing teams haven’t taken to stepping out of the box on him as much as they almost certainly will to try and upset his pace. His look is all business on the mound and at the plate, where he takes his hacks with obvious gusto. Even in the dugout he is just as likely to be pacing as sitting. The kid has a lot of energy and competitive fire, much different in its expression but similar in character to that of fellow youngster Chase Utley.
Comparisons to another tall lefty in Phillies history are inevitable and, one hopes, Hamels’ career will follow a similar path.

When Hamels is on the mound he, Utley and Howard constitute what is arguably the most exciting trio of youngsters in the game today.

Monday, August 14, 2006


An addendum to the post below….

I finally caught up sufficiently to read the details of yesterday’s game.  In them I noticed an all-too-familiar pattern with Brett Myers.  After he got into trouble in the sixth inning, throwing home run balls to three consecutive batters, he did what he normally does under difficult circumstances:  he hit someone.

Short Stuff

An extended weekend in the vibrant metropolis of Chicago prevented me from closely following the Phillies, not an altogether unfortunate situation given the results of their “crucial’ head-to-head meeting with Wild Card leader Cincinnati.

Perhaps lost in the shuffle of the series loss to the Red Legs was this little note:  with their 59th and 60th defeats of the season the Phillies officially fell short of the five additional wins GM Pat Gillick sought for the current campaign.  Gillick, no doubt, chose to forget about that milestone a long time ago.

The culprits in the losses were the usual suspects:  starting pitching, relief pitching and a lack of clutch hitting.  Hey, wait a minute, what else is there?  Fielding.  Not having seen the games I cannot comment on the details though I note the Phils made three errors over the weekend.

I can comment on Brett Myers’ latest debacle, however.  The nine strikeouts may look good on the season stat sheet, but the seven hits, five earned runs and three home runs, back-to-back-to-back, speak louder.  Myers never steps up in big games; he simply doesn’t have it in him.  At some point in virtually every outing he is going to implode.   Afterwards, Myers had this to say:  "I couldn't locate my fastball. I was trying to fight my body."  Ah, yes, that body of his.  All he needs to develop is a big slow, sweeping curve and he is on his way to looking more like a right-handed version of David Wells.

*   *   *   *   *    *   *    *

During the weekend I caught a few minutes of Comcast Sportsnet’s Chicago installment and I must say it is fascinating to watch the highlights or lowlights of another Cubs loss followed immediately by a recap of the White Sox game.   Baseball all around, leading off the show.  The Bears played a pre-season game, too, but didn’t receive top billing.  Compare that to Philadelphia, where training camp let alone an exhibition game (“we’re talkin’ practice”) would be headline news.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Glimpse Of The Future

A lot of reasons have been offered for why the Phillies, given up for dead and committed to unloading as many veterans and their remaining salaries as possible, should suddenly win nine of thirteen overall since those trades including six of nine games on a road trip through some tough towns and be talking, improbably, about the NL Wild Card.

Forget notions of knowing how to win, one line of reasoning that makes sense to me is that this team is now fielding a lot of youngsters – Utley, Howard, Hamels, Mathieson, Victorino et al - who don’t really know much about losing and aren’t about to accept defeat.

Gone is patient Bobby Abreu, who for all his walks and high on-base percentages, wasn’t swinging away enough, trying to drive in runs and ignite his team. In his spot in the lineup we now find Chase Utley, who is a much better number three hitter at this stage and can be counted on to do whatever it takes to win. Yesterday's dash home from second base on a chopper by Ryan Howard was pure Utley.

Cory Lidle departed and took with him the much quoted conviction his teammates weren’t committed to playing hard behind him. In his stead we have Hamels and Mathieson, young, confident and glad to have the opportunity to pitch for the big club.

There are also a number of veterans who have known adversity but who haven’t let it affect their game. Randy Wolf, who is making a determined effort to come back from Tommy John surgery, is quoted as saying he likes the way his teammates are playing right now. The feeling here is Wolf is dedicated to the Phillies, who have stood behind him. Yesterday’s fine outing in Atlanta was extremely encouraging to both parties.

David Dellucci is one of those veterans who didn’t get enough playing time in his mind prior to the trade deadline and who when presented with the opportunity is making the most of it, delivering clutch hit after clutch hit. He never sulked throughout the season.

Thirty-three year old rookie Chris Coste would throw batting practice if he thought it would help this team win and him stick with them. As it is, he is playing his second best position, catcher, with considerable skill while hitting a robust .341. He noted the other day starter Jon Lieber only shook him off twice in seven plus innings of work.

This blend of youngsters and veterans is probably not good enough to make the post-season, even among the mediocre clubs scrambling for the Wild Card, but they offer a glimpse of the future and it isn’t gloomy.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Right Stuff

With each successive outing Cole Hamels gives further indication he is the real deal. The strikeouts are impressive. The bases on balls continue to decrease. The home runs are coming less often. His command of all three pitches grows. Most impressive, however, is his poise and confidence. This kid never lacked the latter and with each start demonstrates the former. Not only does he belong in the big leagues, he knows it. Speaking to reporters after last night’s start in Atlanta, he had this to say: "I feel comfortable out there. I feel like I'm meant to be out here. My routine is down. There hasn't been too many days off, which has been nice. And I think I just feel more focused."

There are more than a few veteran pitchers on this staff who might take note. As is always the case, major league pitchers rarely get by on stuff alone; what’s inside matters in the end. When Hamels was brought up in June, the company line was there was nothing left for him to learn at the minor league level despite his brief exposure there, a tenure made even shorter by the number of injuries he’d suffered. Here was yet another kid thrown into the breach, forced to learn on the job as the Phillies literally scrambled for healthy, reliable starting arms. The most notable failure on that front was Gavin Floyd, awarded a starting job out of spring training but clearly never up to the task once he faced a steady diet of big leaguers. Fortunately, it turns out the alleged brain trust was right in their assessment of Hamels’ skills and character.

* * * * * * * *

I needn’t write of Ryan Howard’s prowess with the bat (see Jason Weitzel’s Beerleaguer for a superb poetic take on that subject), but it is worth mentioning two other facets of his game. Howard’s defense has improved considerably since the early season when a lack of concentration, not skill, plagued him. He routinely makes the tough scoops and his throwing is much more consistent. He handles foul balls near the railing with considerable skill as well.

The other facet is his base-running. For a big guy Howard shows remarkable speed and agility. Though he was thrown out at third last night trying to stretch a double into a triple, he made the play close. Only a perfect throw to the cut-off man and his perfect relay nailed him. Howard cuts the bag with the agility of a small man and his slides, head or feet first, are equally adept. There aren't any holes in this kid's game except for the high number of strikeouts, which will come down with experience.

* * * * * * * *

I remain convinced the Phillies have little or no chance of signing David Dellucci, but it is becoming more evident they should try to talk extension with him before the season concludes. Dellucci has started nearly every game since Bobby Abreu departed, mostly in right but occasionally in left spelling the slumping Pat Burrell. As his playing time has increased, so has his offense, though scouting reports suggest his historic weakness against lefties limits his effectiveness as an everyday player. Defensively, he doesn’t have much of an arm but at least he is fearless, which makes him as good if not superior to one of the guys he has replaced.

Based on his performance to date and his relatively cheap salary, Dellucci can expect to receive a lot of interest in the off-season. That prospect alone makes it unlikely the Phils will have much of a chance to re-sign him if they cannot get a deal done prior to the end of the season.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Quick Hits

I shudder to think where the Phillies would be without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, but if pressed I would have to believe the team would be somewhere near the bottom of the standings in the Cape Cod Baseball League. One or both of the youngsters have picked their team up more times this disappointing season than we can count.

* * * * * * * *

Fabio Castro, our favorite Phillie in the Witness Protection Program, was sighted again Sunday night pitching against the New York Mets. He worked two innings allowing a single hit while lowering his ERA to 1.93. Fabio then disappeared.

* * * * * * * *

Charlie Manuel is no different than the rest of us when it comes to making decisions based on personal experience. A career .198 batter in portions of six big league seasons, Manuel is understandably a players’ manager, especially if that player is a beleaguered veteran. Asked why he wasn’t using Chris Coste’s hot bat at third base instead of the continually struggling Abe Nunez, Manuel replied that the club had traded David Bell with an eye toward giving Nunez a chance to show what he could do as an every-day player and they were going to stick with that plan out of fairness to Nunez. Most of Coste’s experience is at third base, not catcher, but he isn’t the peer of Nunez with a glove. Still, how long can the Phillies afford to start a player who is hitting 34 points below his own weight?

* * * * * * * *

The other Brett Myers showed up again last night in Atlanta, the one who couldn’t throw strikes and worse was handed a big lead and went right back out there and surrendered a good portion of it. Pitching after two straight losses to the Mets, Myers wasted yet another opportunity to show everyone he is the Phillies’ stopper. He isn’t and never will be.

* * * * * * * *

Add Ryan Franklin to the list of players who blame their own inadequacies on a perceived failure by their team to use them properly. Franklin claims he signed with the Phillies because he expected to be a starter and that the club then reneged on that promise and used him exclusively as a reliever, a role to which he was by his own account ill-suited.

Franklin should count himself lucky Pat Gillick has a fondness for former employees; otherwise, he never would have been signed in the first place. On the other hand, the fact that the Cincinnati Reds just did the Phils a favor and agreed to a trade for Franklin (the Phils will receive a minor leaguer in exchange and agreed to pay a portion of Franklin’s remaining salary) suggests that the dearth of quality major league pitching right now almost certainly would have guaranteed Franklin a job somewhere for the balance of this season.

Is Terry Adams still available?

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Dose of Reality

The word is out around the league:  if you want to beat the Phillies, hit it to their pitchers.

For the second game in a row a throwing error by a Phillies pitcher sealed their fate.  Rookie right-hander Scott Mathieson sailed through the Mets batting order without incident the first three innings, but the second time around nearly every batter he faced figured him out.  Either that or he was just throwing fastballs and breaking balls that didn’t break right down Broadway, a location most welcome to all major league hitters.  Still, Mathieson could have limited the damage to a few runs instead of a monster inning had he not picked up a ball and thrown high and wide to first base, nearly getting Ryan Howard seriously injured in the process.

For their part, the Mets sure do know how to celebrate good news.  Having just signed the left side of their infield to long, lucrative contracts, the Mets watched Jose Reyes and David Wright deliver again versus the Phillies.  Wright lined a double to get the scoring started and Reyes hit a grand slam to cap the seven-run fourth inning and send the Phils to a second straight defeat.

Clearly, many of us were getting a little ahead of ourselves with the euphoria over the mini winning streak of last week.  True, the Phils are sporting a new look and, yes, there is reason for optimism, but whenever a team runs rookie pitcher after rehabilitating pitcher after aging out-of-shape hurler out there, bad things are going to happen as often as good ones.   And then there was the offense.  Except for Ryan Howard’s three-run homer on Saturday, the offense has reverted to early and mid-season form, failing to hit generally and in the clutch particularly.  On the latter count, no one was more inept with runners in scoring position than Pat Burrell, the former Mets killer who no longer seems a threat to anyone but his own team.

Among the many tasks facing Pat Gillick this coming off-season is the urgent need to address a lack of consistency from the right side of the plate.  Overall, Aaron Rowand hasn’t been much better than Burrell in the clutch though he has picked things up a little over the last week or so.  Mike Lieberthal put on a little spurt last week as well, but there is no chance or desire that he will return next season.  Indeed, with hot-hitting Chris Coste on the bench last night, the Phils could not send one reliable right-handed batter up to the plate.

It’s hardly a revelation to point out the Phils are getting most of their production from the left side with Utley, Howard and Dellucci, but I seriously doubt the latter will return next season.  Every time the camera pans the dugout and picks up Dellucci he looks grim and uncomfortable.  He has that David Bell look about him.  Why would he sign with a rebuilding club when his bat will be in such demand this off season and his current salary makes him very attractive?

Reality, on vacation most of last week, has returned.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Tough Loss

With veteran Jon Lieber on the mound yesterday, the Phillies lost for the first time since, well, Jon Lieber last pitched. That earlier game saw the portly Lieber (don’t you just love those classic baseball tags?) get torched for 13 hits and 9 earned runs in 4.2 innings of work of the cruelest kind. Yesterday, Lieber threw well to home plate but let the side down with his errant throw to first base, a fatal play that opened the gates for the Mets’ 3 run rally in the 6th inning that eventually provided the winning margin in the 4-3 loss.

In the same inning Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins failed to get their act together on a pop fly by David Wright that dropped between them and Endy Chavez, (Endy Chavez for pete’s sake!) doubled in the tying and go-ahead runs. As a Phillie, Chavez was the sorriest excuse for major league batter I’d ever seen, pitchers included. With the Mets he is a world-beater, among the league leaders in outfield assists and driving in 27 runs, all as a part-time player. Still, the misplay on Wright’s "hit" was the killer. Todd Zolecki wrote Burrell took a step back before coming in for the ball. Rollins, for his part, broke in the right direction from the moment the ball left Wright’s bat. After the game, Burrell made the expected statements without ever taking full responsibility for a play that was clearly his to make:

"That ball has to be caught. You can point your finger at a lot of things that happened in the game, but that ball has to be caught right here."

"There's no excuse. With Wright, I'm playing deep. We pinch him a little bit. The ball went up and I didn't get a good break on it. I kind of got in no-man's land there where I thought I wasn't going to be able to make the play."

This was the first sloppy loss by the Phils in a week and spoiled an otherwise redeeming effort by Lieber and a three-run first inning homer by Ryan Howard off of lefty Tom Glavine. Howard leads the league in home runs with 38, is among the leader in rbi’s with 99, and, oh yeah, is inching toward a .300 batting average. Let the record also show he stroked that homer off a lefty, his ninth of the year against southpaws, and capped his afternoon with a single off of another lefty, Billy Wagner. Chase Utley also singled off of Wagner in the ninth, but Wright, who is fast assuming Mike Piazza’s role as chief Phillies nemesis on the Mets, snared a hard hit ball by Mike Lieberthal to end the game, the second time Wright has victimized Lieby in a crucial situation.

Today’s game should separate the men from the boys. Can the new-look Phils put this tough loss behind them and regain their winning ways?

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Chase Utley’s consecutive game hitting streak has ended and I haven’t anything to add to all the praise he has deservedly received regarding his marvelous skills and emphasis on team rather than individual accomplishments. But I do want to note that Mets’ fans were the only ones to boo him throughout the streak, most of which was accomplished on the road. Every time Chase came up in what turned out to be the final game of the streak, the so-called knowledgeable fans in Shea Stadium greeted him with a chorus of boos. What a classy bunch.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Life Of The Party

A sweep in St. Louis!

Last year the Phillies began their push for the Wild Card with an impressive road trip to the West Coast. Could their short hop to the Midwest portend another late season dash? With much of the National League treading water, the Wild Card remains very much up for grabs with the Phils trailing the DBacks and Red Legs by 2.5 games.

Regardless of the answer to the above question, one thing is clear: the new-look Phils are suddenly fun to watch. There are several subplots unfolding beginning but hardly ending with Chase Utley’s hitting streak. No storyline is more intriguing and heartwarming than the continued emergence of 33-year old rookie Chris Coste. Making his fifth start behind the plate in the last seven games, Coste began his night by throwing out the dangerous David Eckstein attempting to steal in the first inning, raised his batting average to .375 with four singles, and called a good game with fellow rookie Cole Hamels, ten years his junior, on the mound. Can Coste fill the hole at catcher for next season? Why not, inquiring minds want to know?

Hamels had a second straight strong outing, going seven plus innings, striking out twelve batters for the second time in three starts and keeping the Cards off balance all night. He had all three pitches working and he mixed them well, further tribute to Coste as well as the young left-hander himself, who did not appear to shake off his catcher often. The Hamels we’ve been anticipating is clearly emerging. If Scott Mathieson can keep pace, the outlook for the Phils’ starting pitching will brighten considerably.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Phillies’ bats have come alive, especially at the start of the game. Nothing helps a pitcher more than to be handed an early lead. For much of this season, the Phillies came to bat trailing. Worse, if they cut a deficit or even managed to take the lead, their pitching invariably went out and handed it right back to the opposition. Nothing demoralizes a team faster.

The new lineup still has Jimmy Rollins leading off with David Dellucci batting in Chase Utley’s old number two spot. Dellucci continues to get on base and deliver in the clutch. Chase has dropped down in the order to Bobby Abreu’s old place while Ryan Howard has moved up a notch to cleanup with Pat Burrell dropping down to number five. Utley may be seeing better pitches with Howard right behind him than he did when Abreu was batting third. It’s one thing to face a guy who is more than likely to walk as opposed to one who has 36 home runs. The Black Hole, RIP, has brightened considerably with Chris Cost providing most of the illumination at number seven between Aaron Rowand and Abe Nunez.

Given up for dead a mere week or two ago and baseball’s biggest sellers at the trade deadline, the Phillies are suddenly the life of the party. The three-game set in New York this weekend should go far in determining whether the ride will continue.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Still Playing In 2006

Judging by Arthur Rhodes’ comments about Cory Lidle’s internet habits, it seems likely one of the former Phillies right hander’s first orders of business upon settling in the Big Apple was to open a cable account.  If so, let’s hope he went for the full package – internet, TV and VOIP – and recorded the first two games his former mates played in St. Louis.

If he did, he’d discover someone apparently failed to remind these guys there was no point to putting out for the remainder of 2006.

For the second night in a row the Phillies got lots of offense from their new-look lineup and pounded the Cards in brutally hot Busch Stadium.  If it’s any consolation, it wouldn’t have been any cooler back home, boys.

David Dellucci continues to deliver in his new starting role.  Chris Coste continues to deliver clutch hits.  Jimmy Rollins continues to provide ignition, spanking the second pitch of the evening for a home run and delivering another one late in the game.  Jimmy also seems to be feeding off Chase Utley’s pursuit of his team record consecutive game hitting streak.  Speaking of the streak, which Utley assiduously avoids doing himself, the Phils’ All-Star second baseman topped a ground ball to the pitcher in his fourth at bat of the game and beat it out for an infield single.  As they say, it looked like a line drive in this morning’s box score.  The official scorer originally ruled Utley reached on a fielder’s choice, but the ruling was changed to a hit.  All of this became moot when Utley singled again in his last at bat of the evening.

One interesting side note to Utley’s pursuit of history was an item in a piece by Jim Salisbury in this morning’s Inquirer noting that Utley’s silence on the streak extends to conversations with his best friend on the team, fellow southern Californian Mike Lieberthal.  I mention this because only a week or so ago, a grossly irresponsible commenter on another blog “reported” his “source” informed him Lieberthal was “despised” in the Phillies’ clubhouse.   Let’s just say it is highly unlikely the heir apparent to the role of team leader would consider a pariah his best friend.

Cole Hamels goes tonight for the Phils.  The start should be considered a big one both for the young left hander and the Phils.  If they can sweep the Cards in their own backyard they will have a lot of momentum as they head to New York for a weekend series with the Mets.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Looking Back And Forward

First, something old.  Later, something new.

Cory Lidle’s ill-considered and timed remarks in which he criticized the effort of some of his former teammates have touched more than a few nerves among fans not to mention those former teammates.  Predictably, several commentators have likened the criticisms to Billy Wagner’s protracted parting shots, which actually began while he was still pitching for the Phillies.

Lidle subsequently apologized for his remarks and insisted he was only referring to a few players who were understandably feeling in limbo as the trading deadline approached, but the damage was done.

The whole petty matter begs one question:  who were the guys who didn’t give their all, Cory?  As I look at the current roster I am hard-pressed to figure out who’s been dogging it and who hasn’t.  The only name that ever consistently came up regarding effort was Bobby Abreu’s, a current teammate of Lidle as it turns out, and everyone who watched Bobby over the years knows he gave his all except near the outfield wall.

The current Phillies play hard and want to win.  They just aren’t good enough…yet.  That brings me to the “new” part.

This team may not be as far from contending as some of us thought.  The key, as always, is pitching.  Last night we got a glimpse of some help that may be on the way.  Scott Mathieson is young, inexperienced and clearly in development, but there are many encouraging signs.  As Jason Weitzel pointed out in a conversation with me, he has beautiful mechanics and throws a hard, heavy, sinking fastball suited to Cititzens Bank Park.  Mathieson also looks very poised on the mound.  Here is how reviewed him in February, 2005:  Still, whispers were of a tremendously talented youngster with a strong mound presence who was burdened with a weak lineup and several bad breaks. Scouts who saw him pitch spoke not of the numbers but of the crackling fastball, solid curve and changeup, and of the mysterious but oh so real "mound presence." Plainly spoken, Mathieson just looked like a pitcher who knew what he was doing, even at the age of 19.

Mathieson earned his first major league victory last night against the Cardinals in their steamy new stadium under The Arch.  Game time temperature was 100 degrees.  If Mathieson continues his development, he may join Brett Myers and Cole Hamels as a formidable three-some.  Apart from the youngsters, the real joker in the deck may very well be Randy Wolf.  We should know much more about his comeback by the end of the season.  Wolf has never been suited to Citizens Bank Park, but, then, how many pitchers are?  In the period before he underwent Tommy John surgery, he was relying on a lot of slow stuff mixed in with the occasional middling fastball and he wasn’t getting by on that combination.  How much of his lack of success was due to his elbow problems will only become evident as he works his way back.  At this juncture, command is more of an issue than stuff.  Once they come together with more work, we will see the real Randy Wolf, good or bad.

As much as we want to wallow in their underachievement, there are many things to like about these Phillies, not the least of which is three quarters of their infield.  With his hitting streak in tact, the entire nation now knows what we have known about Chase Utley for a long time.  He is the kind of player who comes along once in a generation.  Ryan Howard is another one.  It is astonishing to remind oneself that Howard has been a starter for just over one year now.  It seems as if he’s been with the club much longer.  He has the poise, talent and intelligence to become a great one.  His timing ain’t bad either as he made his professional debut in front of his hometown family and friends last night in St. Louis and responded with a league-leading 36th home run to put the Phillies ahead for good.  It is also worth noting that Howard’s fielding has been superb lately.  He made a terrific scoop on a double play relay over the weekend and has been fielding flawlessly for quite a long stretch now.  His errors earlier in the season were due to a lack of concentration, not skill.  This kid is the whole package.

Then, there is Jimmy.  Rollins is now one of the most senior Phillies and in some ways the face of the team.  His love of the game is obvious and infectious.  His sense of responsibility and leadership has grown significantly during the course of this trying season.  One need only look into the dugout during a game to see Rollins, animated and in perpetual motion, cheerleading.  He remains a frustrating leadoff batter but a decent overall hitter.  His defense is superb.

Finally, how about Chris Coste for ongoing Cinderalla story of the season.  Jason Weitzel emailed me this AM with the following data:  I had to look it up this morning on Hardball Times, and my hunch was correct: Right now Chris Coste is one of baseball's best offensive catchers. They have a stat called runs created per game, which is useful for players like Coste who haven't played all season. He's second in all of baseball in runs created per game, behind Josh Bard and currently AHEAD of Joe Mauer.

By all accounts, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Too Hot To Do Anything But Blog

Castro lives! No, not that Castro; our Castro! Fabio just made appearances in three consecutive games against the Marlins and lived to tell about it. He isn’t in the Witness Protection Program as previously thought, just the Phillies bullpen. Our man Fabio (a mere child, really) threw 4.1 scoreless innings of relief over the past three days and 8.1 overall since his arrival. Watch out, Fabio, they might be bringing you along too quickly.

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Arthur Rhodes has replied to Cory Lidle’s shots across the Phillies’ bow and wasted no time in using the “S” word to describe the former replacement player. Rhodes also accused the former Phil of preferring ice cream to workouts (hey, what’s wrong with that?) and of being obsessed with flying and gambling.

Cory, you just should have picked up your chips in Philadelphia (assuming you still had some) and taken the Acela north without further comment. It has always struck me as particularly unseemly that some players who are traded from losing teams to contenders cannot resist a few parting shots despite the improvement in their fortunes.

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Today’s brutal heat raises the question why did the Phillies decide to give Randy Wolf his first start since returning from Tommy John surgery during the day game Sunday instead of the night game of the twin bill? Wasn’t it going to be tough enough for him without having to worry about withering in the mid-day sun?

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Instead of watching what Billy Beane and John Schuerholz are doing, baseball executives should pay much more attention to the Florida Marlins. In thirteen years the Marlins have gone from expansion team to World Champions to Extreme Sellers to World Champions to Extreme Sellers to an exciting young team whose entire payroll this season is $15 million, or the amount of money Bobby Abreu will make next year in the Bronx.

Different Strokes

We are constantly reminded just how mortal ballplayers are when they speak up following a trade.

David Bell regretted he could not help the Phillies reach the post-season during his four years here. He left town knowing he had made a number of lifelong friendships among his former teammates. “It's [being traded] always a surprise. You know there's always a chance, that it's part of the game. I'm disappointed to be leaving my teammates and disappointed because we didn't win. That's why I came here - to be part of a winning team. I'm disappointed mostly that we didn't make the playoffs while I was here, but I made a lot of great friends for life here.”

Rheal Cormier enjoyed his five years in Philadelphia and also lamented the team did not reach the post-season during his tenure here. “I had a good time here. I just wish the best for the players here, the young players like Chase [Utley] and Ryan [Howard] that they're going to build around."

Cory Lidle saw things a little differently. "I'm the kind of player that goes to the field every day expecting to win, and unfortunately over the last few years I haven't had a clubhouse that expected to win with me. So, we'd go to the field on the days I'm pitching, it's almost a coin flip as to know if the guys behind me are going to be there to play 100 percent."

"The expectations are going to be a lot different [in New York]. That's why I'm most excited about it. Sometimes I felt I got caught up kind of going into the clubhouse nonchalantly sometimes, because all of the other guys in the clubhouse didn't go there with one goal in mind. Sometimes there was mixed signals. Sometimes it seemed like winning was all that mattered and sometimes it didn't seem like winning mattered at all."

Oddly, two years earlier, after Lidle had been acquired by the Phillies at mid-season, he had this to say about returning to the club in 2005: "I knew Philadelphia was the place I wanted to be. What I found in this game is that it's hard to find 25 guys that get along as well as the 25 guys do on this team. That's big to me. I've been on teams that were supposed to be good and didn't get anything done because there was no chemistry. I like what I see here. It's something I want to be a part of. We have the caliber to get to the playoffs, and hopefully go all the way."

In between those comments and his blast yesterday, Lidle took a leave of absence from the Phillies last season for personal reasons right in the middle of the chase for the Wild Card. No explanations were ever offered publicly and, as far as I can determine, no recriminations took place. The other 24 guys on the roster respected his privacy and accepted him back. It is highly unlikely, however, that he made many friends for life, especially after his comments yesterday.