Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bobby's Slide

Around these parts Bobby Abreu's name still comes up when fans want to debate some of Pat Gillick's biggest moves. Far be it for me to recapitulate the arguments in all of their glorious details; suffice it to say I am with the camp whose chief complaint is over what the Phils got in return rather than the decision to move Bobby in the first place.

Despite hitting .330 for the 2006 Yankees over the last 58 games of the season, Abreu's power production continued to decline after he left Philadelphia and more telling, his OBP fell as well as he drew fewer walks. A quick glance at the current stats for Abreu would certainly support those who felt his career was already headed south when the Phils decided to part company with him. Abreu is batting an anemic .228 through yesterday (72 points below his career average) with a paltry 2 home runs and 22 RBI's. Worse, his OBP is .313, his SLG is .289 and he has walked 24 times in 50 games. The Yankees certainly didn't pick him up for his glove.

Abreu's decline dated from the Home Run Derby contest he won at the 2005 All-Star game but no matter what that dubious spectacle did to his swing, if anything, it shouldn't have affected his eyes. Abreu could always be counted on to walk 90 - 100 times a season but he is unlikely to reach that level at the current pace. Only 33 years old, the rate of Abreu's decline has begun to accelerate rapidly.

Not Good

As the cameras scanned the crowd, the faithfuls' collective expression said it all. Clutching their heads in stunned disbelief, mouths agape or staring blankly at the field where only moments before all seemed possible, the ending failed to register at first. "What happened?", they all seemed to say, looking first at the field and then at each other for some explanation.

What happened was the Phils had been phutile all night, managing a lone hit prior to the ninth inning and trailing Arizona by a score of 4-0. Three outs away from being swept at home. Three outs away from falling below .500 again. Three outs away from erasing the good vibes and momentum of their own sweep of the Braves in Atlanta the previous weekend.

Then, at the eleventh hour, they awakened and scored three runs. A hit batsman, error, triple, single and stolen base followed and suddenly the fans were on their feet. Trailing by a run now with one out and the fleet Michael Bourn at second base, Ryan Howard was summoned to pinch-hit. Several weeks earlier the big guy had responded to a similar situation against the same team with a pinch-hit grand slam home run. This night, frankly, all his mates were looking for was a single. Howard battled D-backs closer Jose Valverde to a 3-2 count before smoking a line drive toward what would normally be the whole between first and second base. The shift was on, however, and three D-backs were positioned on the right side of the infield. D-backs second baseman Orlando Hudson snared the liner and easily doubled off Bourn, who ran on contact. Just like that the game was over. Just like that the rally died. Just like that the Phils sank beneath sea level. Again.

Jamie Moyer had started the game and after yielding a lead-off, first-pitch home run to Eric Byrnes (his first of two round trippers this night), the veteran lefty settled down until the eighth inning. Then everything fell apart for him as he allowed two more home runs and nearly a third one. Meanwhile, his teammates had that lone hit and no runs against starter Randy Johnson and one reliever until Brandon Lyon and Valverde entered the game. Then things got interesting. Unfortunately, they stopped at "interesting". My wife is forever reminding me that when I describe something as "interesting" it usually means "not good". She's right.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Booted Back To Sea Level

I confess: I watched and they lost. In my defense, I wish I hadn't. Lousy pitching, lousy defense and wasted scoring opportunities sent the Phillies back to sea level against a bunch of no-name Arizona Diamondbacks, this year's version of the Florida Marlins.

Charlie Manuel continues to work Greg Dobbs' bat into the lineup. Unfortunately, this isn't the AL so consequently Dobbs brings a glove along as well. Mental errors, throwing errors, fielding errors; Dobbsey has shown them all over the last week or so. It isn't as though the Phillies defense is so impressive overall that Manuel can afford Dobbs over Nunez, who by the way, is hitting nearly as well as Dobbs though not with nearly the same power. As last night's game proved once again, lest anyone has forgotten, defense still matters.

So, of course, does pitching, and when Jon Lieber absolutely melted down in the second inning and allowed seven hits and five runs, the camera showed Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee talking but, significantly, not removing Lieber. It was early, I guess, and the Phils didn't want to get into their vaunted bullpen any sooner than necessary. Seven hits and five runs must not equal "necessary" from management's perspective.

The Diamondbacks weren't exactly hitting bleeders and bloopers either. Most of their hits were shots, in the alley, off the wall, up the middle. Anyone who notes Lieber more or less settled down after that is missing the point. By the end of the second inning the game was lost. As it was, Lieber hung around for 6.2 innings and yielded thirteen hits. Yoel Hernandez got the final out in the seventh and Geoff Geary was touched for five runs in less than an inning of work in the eighth. In his defense, none were earned though he did yield two hits and a walk. Still, if his mates had fielded the ball cleanly the damage would have been limited and the Phillies late and aborted rally might have meant something.

Gone after a mere two days was the heady feeling of having swept the Braves in Atlanta. It would be one thing to lose to teams with the likes of Reyes, Wright, Beltran, the Jones boys and John Smoltz in the opposing dugouts, but not to a team I've watched for two straight nights and still cannot name more than two players.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Uh Oh, I Am The Variable

I spent the Memorial Day weekend in New York celebrating the marriage of my niece and thus missed all three broadcasts of the Phillies' stunning sweep in Atlanta. I returned to Philadelphia in time to view the last part of their loss to Arizona. Clearly, I have to stop watching for the Phillies to win, a nearly impossible predicament for a devoted fan.

Ryan Howard has returned from the DL with a vengeance. Not having seen the games I must rely on the box scores alone, which provided much evidence of the return of his power stroke. I did note with delight his home run last night was to the opposite field, where nearly half of his round-trippers went last season. All good signs.

Greg Dobbs also continues to produce in the clutch, last night delivering a dramatic pinch-hit home run. Pat Burrell, however, is not producing and is sitting as the Phils give Michael Bourn more opportunities to show whether he can hold down a starting job. Thus far, Bourn hasn't hit and Charlie Manuel has rotated Jayson Werth with him in left field.

Abraham Nunez is also getting regular playing time, which he has earned over Wes Helms.

Freddy Garcia pitched his best game as a Phillie last night but took the loss. Ryan Madson deserved to be the loser but escaped on a technicality. Rules of reason vs. rules of administration. Madson has been so unpredictable and unreliable over the last few seasons it is difficult to imagine him sharing the closer role as the two pitchers who would normally be holding down that spot reside on the DL.

Speaking of one of the real closers, an article in this morning's Inquirer by Todd Zolecki makes a strong case that Brett Myers was not being overused by his manager when he suffered his strained shoulder. Zolecki uses all kinds of numbers in making his case but ultimately he isn't convincing because the one factor he does not adequately explore is that Myers was performing in a new role and could not have adequately prepared himself for its demands. For Myers to say he throws a lot all of the time and was thus not being over-taxed does not address the different preparation and recovery periods for a starter vs. a reliever. Others have argued he hurt himself trying to literally overthrow one final pitch (throw it "through" catcher Carlos Ruiz is how one person put it), but the number of times he appeared over a two week period remains the number one suspect from this viewer's perspective.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Goats Galore

Goosebumps? Try hives.

These guys just aren't very good as their fourth unsuccessful attempt to rise one lousy game above .500 amply demonstrates. Hordes of runners left on base including a golden opportunity to take the lead in the eleventh inning when they loaded the bases with one out and, you guessed, failed to score.

On top of that, bad feelings erupted again between the Marlins and Phillies as starters Jon Lieber and Dontrelle Willis each threw behind the other. Typical baseball posturing followed with dugouts emptying, shoving and pushing and no doubt lots of unkind things said. It's all so boring at this point. Does Dontrelle Willis really think Lieber was trying to hit him or show him up?

There were lots of goats in last night's loss but Wes Helms gets the prize in the Player Category for bonehead play of the night, failing to get a good jump from second base on a single by Carlos Ruiz in that fateful eleventh inning that would have given the Phils the lead. Instead, Helms ends up at third base where he dies along with the rest of his team. Remind me again what it was Helms was going to bring to this team? He cannot run, has a stone glove and phenomenally erratic arm, has failed to hit a single home run from a power position and, let us not forget, in a ballpark that encourages such displays.

We aren't quite finished handing out awards for this evening. The prize in the Coach Category goes to third base coach Steve Smith. Let the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki describe the winning entry:

The Phillies tied the game in the eighth, but should have scored one more. Chris Coste, who had two hits, walked to start the inning. Manuel sent Michael Bourn to pinch-run for Coste and pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs doubled to right-center field. Bourn had to stop at second to make sure the ball dropped, but once it did he left for third. Centerfielder Alfredo Amezaga played the ball perfectly off the wall and threw quickly to cutoff man Dan Uggla. There seemed to be no reason to send Bourn because the Phillies would have runners on second and third and no outs.

But third base coach Steve Smith sent Bourn anyway.

Uggla threw a strike home and Bourn, who is the fastest runner on the team, was out by several feet.

Smith knew immediately he made a major mistake. He confirmed that afterward.

"It was a bad play. Bad play. Terrible," Smith said. "I feel bad for these guys. They played their (butts) off and I made a decision like that."

Don't worry, Steve, there is a strong tradition in recent years of miserable decisions coming from the third base coaching box. Really, you fit right in.

Then there was Charlie Manuel's nightly tinkering with the lineup. JRoll was back at his accustomed spot at the top of the order and promptly responded by giving his team a jump start, singling, stealing second and scoring the first run. Heretofore Charlie had buried JRoll in the three hole for what seemed like weeks. On this night, Charlie also decided to give Chase Utley a night off, one game after the team's most reliable player went 3-5 with a home run and a triple. Great decision, eh? Manuel has lost it completely. Hot hand, stone cold hand. It no longer matters. Either he's playing hunches no one else can decipher or he's reading tea leaves. Instead of Utley, Manuel used Abraham Nunez at second and started Helms at third and Chris Coste at first. Nunez had to leave the game after being hit in the face by the catcher's hand by the follow through on a throw to second. So, naturally, Chase Utley came into the game. For the moment we will leave out the whole matter of whether or not Manuel has wrecked Brett Myers' shoulder. Why speculate about what might happen when Manuel provides so much ammunition from what does happen!

These guys aren't much fun to watch any more and the bet here is things could sour much more as the weather turns hotter.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lucky Not Good

Journalists and bloggers throughout the realm will struggle to write their ledes this morning after a bizarre night of baseball in south Florida. No, their abilities will not have suddenly deserted them; rather, too many issues and events will compete for top billing. For what it's worth, here is one blogger's decision:

After days of overuse by his manager, closer Brett Myers, the only reliable relief pitcher on the staff, may have injured himself mopping up in a game in which he had no good reason to be appearing in the first place. To literally add insult to injury, Myers blew a four run ninth inning lead and had to be removed from the game clutching his right shoulder. The Phillies went on to win the game in the top of the 10th inning despite themselves. More on that later.

Myers had appeared in games on May 12, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20 and 23 before last night's game. The issue of his heavy workload had been raised in several quarters but Myers brushed off the questions insisting he has a rubber arm and felt great. Like the poor handler of pitchers he has always been, Charlie Manuel listened. Worse, he leaned heavily on the young right hander who had never pitched in relief before this year, trotting him out there at every opportunity whether appropriate or not.

Myers is scheduled to return to Philadelphia for a MRI on the shoulder. Meanwhile, his predecessor, Flash Gordon, continues to recuperate from his own arm miseries. Suddenly, a bullpen made up entirely of righthanders is missing its top closers altogether.

As for the game, the Phillies squandered numerous opportunities to blow it wide open before they scored three runs in the top of the ninth and appeared to have put the Marlins away. In came Myers and the hits, some bloopers and some hard shots, started falling. Throw in a walk and hit batsman and suddenly you had lots of base runners and a closer on the ropes hanging on desperately trying to finish the game out. The Phils still might have escaped the inning with a two run margin of victory had substitute first baseman Greg Dobbs not inexplicably thrown home on a bunt when taking the sure out at first was the only legitimate option. Afterwards, Dobbs was at a loss to explain his mistake, probably because no explanation would have made sense. Both runners were safe and suddenly the four run lead was down to one. Myers almost worked his way out of this jamb striking out the dangerous Miguel Cabrera but he hit the next batter to put two men on with two outs.

The next play was one for the books. The categories are: (1) worst play by a catcher in the ninth inning of a game when leading by a run; (2) worst play by a catcher no matter what the score and inning; and, (3) worst play by a catcher who is presumably in the game for his defensive abilities. Aaron Boone singled off Myers to left and Hanley Ramirez headed for home from second base. Jayson Werth scooped up the ball and threw a perfect strike to Rod Barajas, Hanley was a dead duck but inexplicably Barajas fielded the throw and stood up instead of blocking the plate. Replays showed Hanley clearly slid under the tag and was safe. The throw had arrived so far ahead of Hanley that Harry Kalas was calling him out even while the umpire was signaling safe and Chris Wheeler was gently correcting his partner in the background.

Manuel raced out of the dugout to protest as did Barajas. Both were wrong and both were shortly gone.

One good thing about this game is that this sort of last minute collapse almost always deflates the Phillies but they came back in the top of tenth to score a run and win the game thanks to Abraham Nunez, who has frankly played his way into the starting lineup (which means Manuel will probably sit him as soon as Ryan Howard rejoins the club tomorrow). Chase Utley also had a productive game while Jimmy Rollins continued to slide, swinging anxiously and desperately at pitches nowhere near the strike zone.

It was a game marked by mental and physical mistakes by some of the players some of the time and one huge mental mistake by their manager for the umpteenth time. They were lucky to escape with a win.

If Myers' injury turns out to be serious, place the blame squarely on Manuel, who has a tendency to go to the same well far too often.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Still Mediocre At The Quarter Pole

The Phillies can't stand success, at least as they define the word. Three times they have climbed back to dead even for the season and three times they have lost the succeeding game to fall one under. To make matters worse, last night they had a two run lead going into the sixth inning with their ace on the mound. You have to win those sort of games.

Cole Hamels struck out eight batters but didn't appear to have his best stuff. There were a lot of long, loud, hard outs prior to his meltdown in the sixth inning when the balls coming off the Marlins' bats continued to be long, hard and loud but not out. Hamels surrendered four runs in that fateful half inning and the game was lost.

Prior to that, Jason Werth was given the start in right field and homered in his first two at-bats to account for all three Phillies runs. The rest of his teammates accounted for a mere three hits among them and threw in two errors (by Wes Helms and Chase Utley) along the way. Colorless analyst Sarge Matthews noted that the two-run pinch-hit double by 37-year old journeyman infielder Jason Wood, who entered the game batting .200, might have been catchable had Aaron Rowand not been playing so shallow. Replays failed to confirm or deny this point because they never showed just how shallow Rowand was playing. Nevertheless, this is an ongoing issue raised here many times before. Rowand simply does not go back well on the ball, The Catch notwithstanding. The only other positive on the evening was the return from the DL by Ryan Madson, who threw two scoreless innings of relief. The Phillies have now played more than a quarter of the season and have never been over .500.

Charlie Manuel continues to shuffle players in and out of the lineup with Abraham Nunez and Greg Dobbs seeing considerable playing time lately and Werth getting a rare start, too. Shane Victorino sat last night (he did pinch hit) and Helms started at first. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins' average continues to fall in his new role as the number three hitter. Manuel apparently doesn't notice or doesn't care.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Short Hops

The Phillies need a healthy, productive Ryan Howard when he is due to come off the Disabled List this Friday. Without some semblance of the Howard of late 2005 and all of 2006, the lineup remains in flux with a number of batters hitting in unaccustomed and inappropriate slots. Jimmy Rollins can then return to the leadoff spot and Chase Utley to the three hole. Aaron Rowand may be having a terrific season at the plate, but he is no leadoff hitter. He should be batting sixth or seventh.

* * * * * * * *

Pat Burrell was the biggest difference between a successful 7-3 home stand just concluded and more mediocrity. In this morning's Inquirer Jim Salisbury notes his resurgence coincided with the public chiding by Pat Gillick of the numbers 3-5 hitters. I prefer to think Burrell rediscovered his power stroke when I publicly chided him on Beerleaguer. You make the call.

* * * * * * * *

It's remarkable the Phillies "only" trail the first place Mets by 6.5 games and second place Atlanta by 4 given the deep April hole they dug themselves. If they win two of three in Florida beginning tonight, it will set the stage for the holiday weekend series in Atlanta and a chance to move up in the standings. Cole Hamels, coming off a terrific outing against Milwaukee, gets the ball against the Fish. He will be opposed by Scott Olsen, who beat the Phils in early April

* * * * * * * *

Barry Bonds hasn't hit a home run in two weeks and there are reports his knee is the problem. After a torrid start he seemed certain to break Hank Aaron's record by some time in June or July at the latest. He still would appear to be a lock to break the record but in this little corner of the baseball world there is some joy in seeing him delayed.

* * * * * * * *

There is also some joy in seeing the Yankees struggle. Going into the season it appeared the best team money can buy lacked the starting pitching to top the Red Sox and thus far that has clearly been the case. When the Red Sox get Josh Beckett back the gap will widen even further. The re-signing of Roger Clemens is widely expected to close that gap somewhat, but it says here Clemens will fail to win more than three or four games in his latest incarnation as a Yankee and will finally retire for the good at the end of this season.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Up And Down Except Where Charlie Is Concerned

The recent "run" versus Chicago and Milwaukee masked the unmistakable reality of this Phillies team: they remain stuck on average, winning and losing with equal amounts of enthusiasm and ennui. The Toronto series underscores their mediocrity as they split the first two games, hanging on for a 5-3 win in the opener despite only managing three hits and getting shellacked the next night 13-2 while banging out four hits. Rarely, if ever, does the 2007 installment put it all together in consecutive games.

Jamie Moyer faced a familiar foe from his long stint in the American League in the Blue Jays and the boys from Canada greeted him like a long-lost relative, thrilled to see him again. After Moyer surrendered seven runs in three plus innings of genuine labor, Clay Condrey came on in relief and provided absolutely none as batting practice continued to the tune of six more runs. It was a good night for fans to plan an early exit from the Bank's notoriously slow-to-empty parking lots.

One reason among many the Phillies are simply treading water these days is that Jimmy Rollins, their true spark plug, is struggling mightily since Charlie Manuel made the colossal mistake of dropping him from lead-off to third in the batting order. Among Charlie's many liabilities, his constant tinkering with the lineup is a glaring one. Rollins belongs at the top of the order period and every time Manuel gets it in his head to shift J-Roll around the results are disastrous. Rollins, who is more than willing to assume a leadership role on this team, sees himself as the guy who sets the tone as well as the table for his teammates. Batting in the three hole he can do neither. Manuel will last another season here but only because GM Pat Gillick sees little financial or other incentives to make a move now. From this observer's perspective, however, it behooves me to call for Charlie's head again while the team is winning and losing in equal parts rather than wait for the next losing streak. Even an interim appointment would be better.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Average Pitcher On An Average Team

So much for .500.

One day after floating to the surface after a season-long stay beneath sea level, the Phillies dipped beneath the waves again following a 3-2 loss to Milwaukee. In their defense it's difficult to sweep any team especially one with so many tough outs, an outstanding starter in Ben Sheets and this year's leading closer in Francisco Cordero. On the other hand, it's equally difficult to figure out what more incentive they required to give extra effort.

Pat Burrell, whose power has come alive this home stand, gave the Phils a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning and nearly tied the game with a drive off the top of the fence in the bottom of the ninth which was inches from going out but was correctly ruled a double. The next two batters failed to deliver, however, and pinch runner Michael Bourn was stranded at second base to end the game.

The other notable development in this game was the effort by starter Freddy Garcia, who pitched 5.2 innings, yielding seven hits and two earned runs. That isn't a bad outing overall but Garcia threw 114 pitches before being lifted by manager Charlie Manuel. Not only did the big right-hander look displeased when Manuel took the ball from him during the game, afterwards he made no bones about his displeasure to anyone with a microphone and pad. Garcia has yet to look comfortable in red pinstripes though his performances have improved since the beginning of the season. Still, his fastball remains MIA and he is working a lot of deep counts, both of which are connected as Phil Sheridan among others points out in his column today in the Inquirer. Garcia is signed only through the end of this season and it's a fair assumption that both he and the Phillies are not making any commitments for the future at this stage in their relationship. Garcia began the season with loud whispers about his declining velocity and a sore arm that required him to miss his first start. Since then he has hardly quieted the doubters as he lost for the third time in four decisions.

Garcia joins a growing list of big-name pitchers who have arrived in Philadelphia in recent seasons and made it clear almost immediately they aren't likely to stay. Kevin Millwood, Billy Wagner and now Garcia have at various times complained about how they were being used or treated. We can't lay the blame for this latest discontentment at Charlie Manuel's feet; Larry Bowa was in charge when the first two pitchers started making noises. Unlike the Millwood and Wagner acquisitions, however, the Garcia trade carried a warning label from the beginning. Yes, he finished last season with a flourish, but too many American League scouts were already questioning his arm for the Phillies not to have been more cautious. Three months later he is sidelined briefly with arm troubles and after more than a month into the current season he appears to be laboring. The best that can be said about him is that he makes a credible fourth or fifth starter. In this pitching-starved era I guess that is considered about average.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The View From Sea Level

It took a nearly perfect performance by Cole Hamels to bring the Phillies back to average but they have finally made it to sea level seven weeks into the campaign. Wipe the slate clean, boys, and let's start the season from here.

Hamels set the tone for the evening right out of the chute, striking out the first four batters he faced. On the evening he struck out eleven in his eight innings of work, notably most of them swinging. When a pitcher is fooling that many big league batters, especially the lineup Milwaukee puts out there these days, he has something working. Charlie Manuel and his opposite number, Ned Yost, agreed. Yost called Hamels' performance one of the best one is likely to see all season.

Aaron Rowand continued to hit in the clutch, too, striking the big blow, a three run homer. Hamels only mistake of the evening came when he surrendered a two-run shot to J.J. Hardy, the first hit of the game from the Brew Crew. Hardy, a shortstop who has never hit more than nine homers in a season during his three years in the majors, has now stroked a MLB-leading thirteen already this year, so it's a little difficult to call that pitch by Hamels a mistake under the circumstances. It seems everyone is making mistakes when Hardy is at the plate.

One of my favorite moments of the game came in the sixth inning when Carlos Ruiz, the hero the night before, dived for a foul popup in the sixth inning trying to preserve Hamels' perfect game to that point. The ball glanced off the heel of Ruiz' glove but he got kudos for the supreme effort. After Brett Myers closed the game in the ninth with a strikeout, he patted Ruiz on the top of the mask/helmet twice in obvious glee and affection. The pitching staff loves this "kid".

Milwaukee came to town one of the hottest clubs in all of baseball, sporting the best record in the NL. The Phils can sweep them with a win this afternoon and more significantly, rise above .500 for the first time this year.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Home Is Where The Pounding Is

Battery-mates Carlos Ruiz and Adam Eaton were the stars of the show last night as the Phils staged another dramatic comeback in beating Milwaukee 4-3.

Eaton turned in his second straight fine outing with 7.2 innings of four-hit one earned run ball (and made a great diving tag on a bunt by Tony Gwynn) and after heretofore untouchable closer Brett Myers yielded a game-tying home run to Johnny Estrada in the top of the ninth inning, Ruiz crushed a two-out walk-off home run in the bottom of the frame for the win.

There are a lot of exciting plays in baseball -- the triple, leaping catch at the wall, and squeeze bunt among them -- but for pure exhilaration these days nothing quite matches the greeting at home plate that awaits the player who smites a walk-off round tripper. His teammates rush from the dugout en masse and circle home plate as the conquering hero rounds the bases. By the time the batter passes third base the other 24 guys are waiting to literally pound him as he approaches the plate.

For their part, the more prudent batters pause as they near the dish and wait for the throng to clear enough space for them to leap into the air and land home. Meanwhile, the umpire, still on duty, lurks just outside this inner circle watching to see that the hero of the hour does indeed touch home. Good luck, I say. Fifty pairs of feet scrambling to occupy the same cherished piece of real estate! Under the circumstances, what aribiter is going to rule a guy missed the plate? As far as I know, no one has landed on the DL yet as a result of one of these organized melees but it almost seems inevitable as some serious pounding does take place. One imagines the conquering hero might feel a bit mixed about the roughing up that inevitably awaits him but no, it appears they all reach their destination with a look of pure glee upon their faces.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


It has been a very long time since Phillies fans and players rejoiced over a win versus the Milwaukee Brewers but, then, a new order obtains in some precincts of baseball these days and at least a few of the historically have-nots are currently haves with the still notable exception of the local franchise.

Last night's comeback win against the Brewers came unexpectedly against their strong late-innings relief and was aided by manager Ned Yost's inexplicable decision to stay with Derrick Turnbow when it was clear to everyone else he didn't have it on this particular occasion. Trailing by four runs going into the bottom of the eighth inning, the Phils sent eleven men to the plate and tallied six runs to win the opener of a four-game set with Milwaukee, which entered the game tied for the best record in baseball. Such comebacks are a statistical rarity for any team and the result might be salutary going forward. One never knows with the Phils, however, whose inconsistency in 2007 is about the only thing that is, well, consistent about them.

Jamie Moyer didn't have his best stuff last night but as has been the case with him virtually all season, when the ancient one starts a game the Phils have a better than even chance of winning it. Meanwhile, Brett Myers has cinched his role as the team's closer, saving his fourth game. With much of the starting rotation pitching well and the back end of the bullpen otherwise a shambles, Myers is unlikely to leave the pen. Odds are he is thrilled.

Pat Burrell, whom this blogger lambasted in a comment over at Beerleaguer recently, hit his fourth home run of the season and third in four games. It's nice to know the Reverse Curse is alive and well.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

One Year Later

What a difference a year makes.

Not only has Ryan Howard returned to earth, he has crashed landed on the Disabled List with an assortment of ailments. It's still far too early to predict doom and gloom but one has the uneasy feeling his season is in some jeopardy. He will doubtless return to the lineup, but can he climb out of the chasm into which he has fallen? Meanwhile, Flash Gordon is gone, too, his return to the Phillies anything but certain. Perennial ace-in-the-making Brett Myers has moved to the bullpen and become the team's closer. Indeed, he has become the team's savior as the rest of the pen, especially anyone who is a southpaw, continues to stumble. Who would have predicted that turn of events? Not I.

Chris Coste's storybook season in 2006 earned him nothing more than a return trip to that hotbed of baseball, AAA Ottawa, where he struggled until his recall over the weekend, no doubt brooding over what it takes to impress the parent club. The plan is for him to see limited playing time as a pinch-hitter, that is until he starts a game and goes 4-5. Here's hoping he makes the decision tough for Charlie Manuel.

One player about whom the decision shouldn't be all that difficult is Carlos Ruiz, who not only continues to hit but has been stellar defensively on a number of tough plays at the plate. I still haven't watched enough of him as a receiver to comment on his skills handling the pitchers. Earlier in the season there were questions about his shoulder, which if it still continues to bother him will clearly limit how many consecutive games Ruiz starts, , but he is clearly superior to Rod Barajas offensively and appears to be more than holding his own defensively. If healthy, he has earned far more playing time.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Sphinx Without A Secret?

Pat Gillick has spoken as only Pat Gillick speaks these days, that is to say, with tempered, measured words that barely reveal what he might really be thinking rather than the famously scalding rhetoric of former GM Dallas Green, whose thoughts and feelings were always an open book. From Gillick's perspective, players aren't "killing" the Phillies; they are simply failing to perform their day-to-day jobs up to the level expected. Who's to say which is the better approach when it comes to results on the field? One thing is clear, however; Gillick expresses little passion on the subject. He is "disappointed" while the legions of fans who entered this season with great expectations are depressed. In a lengthy piece in today's Inquirer by Jim Salisbury, Gillick gave himself a "C" (the word he used was "average") for his performance. Everything about the man smacks of "average" with the exception of his taste in shirts.

Gillick's first state of the union, mid-season division, sees problems in the middle of the batting order and in the bullpen, or precisely the same spots he warned needed fixing prior to the start of festivities. Are we to assume Gillick tried to fix these spots and failed to find adequate value or are we to assume he spent too much time nibbling around the edges with players from his past stops in Baltimore and Seattle? Probably both and something else.

As I've written in the past, Gillick appears to be one helluva detached GM who is coasting on past successes in a game that appears to have passed him by. The "game" in question is not the one played on the field; there's little doubt he knows that aspect of his job. When it comes to negotiations, trades, free agent, waiver and Rule 5 signings, however, Gillick no longer appears to be able to keep pace with his younger, more savvy brethren. Nor does he appear to have much interest in rebuilding an organization from the top down to remedy things. As was pointed out by a commenter over at Beerleaguer, the personnel manning the top posts in this organization have changed very little over the years and the results reflect that lack of imagination and fresh ideas. Need we remind ourselves the assistant GM as well as the directors of player development, scouting, et al serve at the pleasure of the GM?

In the end, it's hard to define what precisely that pleasure might be for Gillick. By all accounts including his own broadly dropped hints this stop will be his last hurrah. When that day finally comes the cheering will have long-since ceased.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Comfort Zone

Ryan Howard's first-pitch pinch-hit grand slam home run provided quite a lift for this fan but not nearly as much as reading about it this morning in my first opportunity in nearly two weeks to sit down with a hard copy of the newspaper.

No amount of bookmarks, toolbar icons, hyperlinks or aggregators can substitute for sitting at the dinning room table with a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper. Thumbing through the pages, scanning the headlines and images, I felt reconnected to the Phillies and Philadelphia itself as I hadn't since suspending home delivery in anticipation of our move into town. This familiar and comfortable feeling was akin to the one I always experience upon returning from a long trip and turning on KYW 1060 to hear the weather, traffic or just the familiar voice of Harry Donahue.

As for the game itself, the Phils looked over matched again through six innings as Randy Johnson befuddled them. The ancient left-hander opened the game by striking out the first six batters. He continued to dominate the Phils until the seventh when he surrendered a single, hit batter and walk to load the bases and set up Howard's dramatic pinch-hit.

Johnson's opposite and equally ancient number, Jamie Moyer, turned in another fine performance. Where would the Phils be without this steady, dependable senior citizen? Somewhere closer to the woeful Washington Nationals no doubt. Brett Myers relieved Moyer to begin the eighth inning and pitched two solid innings to record his third save and, more importantly, further consolidate his spot as the team's closer. I had been dubious about Myers' shift to the bullpen, fearing his temperament was ill-suited to the pressure, but he has convinced this doubter he can fill the role.

The Phils return home from a 4-6 road trip to the not so friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park. A quick look at the NL East standings shows four of the five teams have either losing or .500 records at home. Only Atlanta has a winning record in their own ballpark.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

April Showers Bring May Showers

What we have here is a routine failure to put things all together in the same nine inning game. An unexpectedly effective start from Adam Eaton was wasted as the Phillies could muster only five hits against Diamondbacks' rookie Micah Owens en route to a second straight loss in Phoenix. Eaton could have used more support but truth be told he surrendered two home runs to an Arizona lineup that featured six batters hitting .236 or below. The long ball continues to plague Eaton, who has yielded an average of one per start.

Charlie Manuel dramatically shuffled his lineup again with Aaron Rowand leading off, Jimmy Rollins in the three hole, Chase Utley batting cleanup and Greg Dobbs subbing for Ryan Howard at first. Abraham Nunez started at third. This kind of tinkering smacks of desperation precisely because it is! If we've seen anything resembling consistency it has been at the top of the order with Jimmy Rollins leading off. That debate -- is Jimmy a good lead-off hitter -- should have been put to rest by now but Manuel is trying to save his job if not the season and appears willing to upset what little balance there is.

The lack of hitting last night was only trumped by the second three-error game in three nights as the Phillies stumble their way eastward. Any thoughts of another poor April start are being banished by an almost equally woeful May.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Easing Back In

I'll dip my toe in the commentary waters but cannot pretend to be up to-date with all the Phillies' goings on. I haven't seen more than a smattering of innings via television and I suspended newspaper delivery during our move. I cannot say I've been reading the blogs faithfully either though I have checked a few posts when I wanted to learn about the previous day's outcome. I would also catch an occasional summary here and there on television whenever possible but in conclusion I can hardly say I have my finger on the pulse... if I ever did.

What strikes me as I survey the carnage of early April, the win streak during the latter part of that month, and the up-and-down start to May is that the Phillies are malfunctioning on many levels some of which were predicted by nearly everyone and a few of which are stunning surprises. I did manage to watch six innings of last night's victory over the Giants and nearly all the strengths and weaknesses of this club were on display.

First, the stunning surprises. Ryan Howard remains mired in a horrendous slump, his strikeout ratio alarming ahead of last year's prodigious rate. His woes at the plate are affecting his performance on the base paths and in the field. It would be an understatement to say his presence in the lineup is hurting the club because the damage is far greater. He was the national face of the Phillies last year as well as the team's leading rbi man and batter for average. Sitting him probably won't help. Sending him down to Ottawa as one email I received last week suggested would have disastrous consequences for his relationship with the team. He is either going to play his way out of his funk or not.

Shane Victorino's abandon on the bases and in the field are both a plus and a minus. He made a terrible base running blunder last night and somehow managed to get away with it when the umpire ruled he'd been obstructed during a run-down when he'd been picked off first. Shane got away with one on that play as he, not Omar Vizquel, was the guilty party when Victorino clearly ran out of the base path and into Vizquel. Still, he has tremendous energy and can be electric in the field. The only other player on this team with that sort of power to excite is Jimmy Rollins, who remains the leader of the Phillies in every respect.

The fourth infielder, Wes Helms, strikes me as an earnest, dedicated professional who gets the most out of his abilities, which are reasonable at the plate and very limited in the field. Apparently his biggest problem is his throwing. He gets to balls though his range is certainly modest, but once he arrives he cannot do much with them. His six errors to date translate into a long season, especially for pitchers.

April may be cruelest month for the Phillies but Pat Burrell always hates to see it close. Pat invariably gets off to a hot start when the weather is chilly and then cools down considerably as things start to warm up. Suffice it to say Pat is on track again toward another mediocre season at the plate. He has one home run to date to go with his eleven rbi's. Pat's bat still remains on his shoulder an awful lot. Someone in the local blogosphere wrote he looks like someone trying not to make an out or mistake. It's a little early to play defensively, even for Burrell.

Aaron Rowand has been more than a pleasant surprise at the plate, he has been astonishing. I labeled him a .246 hitter in an email to some of the bloggers last month and I remain convinced his average will be closer to that level than the lofty .363 levels of today. That said, there is no reason to backtrack, even temporarily, when it comes to his fielding. Rowand remains a fearless and mediocre centerfielder overall. He cannot go back on the ball, does not play the angles well, has a pop-gun of an arm and tries to compensate for most of these failings by playing too shallow. Other than that, he's great.

Tom Gordon is finally officially disabled rather than just nominally so. Brett Myers has been auditioning for the closer role and should soon receive the official title when it becomes clear Gordon cannot resume his place. Goeff Geary has been very reliable; Ryan Madson has been more or less reliable; Antonio Alfonseca is becoming less reliable; and everyone else is unpredictable.

Among the starters Jamie Moyer has been the most pleasant surprise. Once again, I predicted lesser things in his case and so far have been absolutely wrong! Cole Hamels has pitched well though he has labored some times such as last night, when he was either wild high or relying too much of the change. He seems to have all but abandoned his curve, not a good decision. Batters are sitting on his change. Worse. virtually no starter can rely on two pitches in the big leagues. Adam Eaton has turned out to be just the sort of pitcher everyone except, apparently, Pat Gillick and/or Charlie Manuel thought he would be. He starts off very poorly and generally settles down only after the entire herd is out of the gate and pasture. Maybe he should begin his pre-game warm-ups in the pen about a half an hour earlier and get those first two bad innings out of his arm before things become official.

It's hard to assess what sort of job Charlie Manuel has done without watching more games. On the other hand, nothing he did when I was watching impressed me much and I cannot imagine he got better in my absence, unless of course, it was for spite, and Charlie doesn't impress me as that sort of fellow. I remain convinced Pat Gillick doesn't particularly care what happens to this team. For all intents and purposes he is semi-retired.

A final note: Don't take this post as a sign I am back full time. I have boxes piled high as an elephant's eye in nearly every other room and only one working television and that one is sitting on the floor of a giant walk-in closet. I have yet to resume delivery of the Inquirer though we started the Times up again. (What does that say?). Still, I hope to gradually return to something approximating regular posting. After all, Jason Weitzel once said Swing was the closest thing to a morning edition in the local blogosphere and I wouldn't want to disappoint my good friend.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Reports Hint Temporay Hiatus To End Soon

We have moved from the near suburbs to the heart of Philadelphia and lived to tell about it! Next, we pick our way through all the boxes. Meanwhile, the dogs are adjusting remarkably well (as predicted by my forever wise and calm wife) and so are we given how many details require our immediate attention.

Swing and a Miss will return to normalcy soon. I leave the definition of that state to you, the readers.