Saturday, August 02, 2008

Not Aces

Suddenly their ace isn't looking too good.

Throughout the pre-season and to this day the big concern about the Phillies has always been their starting pitching. Adam Eaton couldn't get people out. Brett Myers couldn't get the ball over the plate. Kyle Kendricks couldn't always keep the ball down. Jamie Moyer couldn't turn back the clock (though he really hasn't had to). Only Cole Hamels seemed a sure bet...if he remained healthy.

Despite their acquisition of Joe Blanton, aka the Innings Eater (man, do I hate that expression!) , the Phillies looked thin in the starting rotation. Still, most of the rumors surrounding the team as the trade deadline approached focused on a lefty for the pen and another bat in the outfield. More than one person said if Brett Myers continued to come back, as he did the other night against Washington, the team had for all intents and purposes acquired another starter. It may be far too early for that judgment, but Myers return to form won't nearly be enough if their ace continues to struggle.

As far as I can tell Hamel's is healthy though he seems to have lost a mile or two per hour on his fastball. Asked whether or not he was OK he said, "I'm not hurt. I'm fine." Despite his ready answer on the health front he's been getting hit very hard the last few times out. The Phillies alleged brain trust is clearly concerned about his stamina and health. The slim left-hander has been babied by the Phils -- given extra time off immediately after the All Star break, sent to St. Louis a day ahead of his teammates to get more rest -- but those measures haven't helped him his last two outings. He's giving up lots of home runs and hits and though his mates rallied the other day against Atlanta to stave off a loss they couldn't catch up last night against the Cardinals as Hamels took the W. There has been a lot of talk about excusing Hamels from energy-sapping day games, saving him only for the relative coolness of the night. (Game time temperature at Busch Stadium last night was 86 degrees.)

Hamels and his catcher, Carlos Ruiz, both said he's been leaving his bread and butter pitch, the change, up in the zone. Three starts ago he pitched very well against the Marlins in a no-decision the Phillies ultimately lost, 3-2. He had a game plan, relying mostly on his curve and change against the fastball-feasting Marlins, only occasionally mixing in the heater. Afterwards, he complained despite his superb eight-inning performance that the extra time off following the AS break hindered, not helped him, that he couldn't get his arm stretched out enough. But in the last two outings he hasn't seemed to have much of a plan instead relying on his change and fastball and all but abandoning the breaking ball. The results show he hasn't benefited from this approach. Big league hitters can sit on a pitch. Their chances improve considerably if the hurler isn't using his entire repertoire.

In the end, the Phillies were coming off a five-game winning streak, admittedly against some mediocre opposition, but their ace let them down in a relatively big game against a good but not great opponent. He didn't do his job.

Speaking of letting the side down, Ryan Madson has been terrible his last three outings, continuing a career pattern of breaking down in the second half. Madson's fastball has about as much movement on it as the Slowsky turtles. Right about now I'd bet Charlie Manuel is starting to feel very reluctant about summoning Madson in a tight game. I know I shudder when I hear his name.

Speaking further of pitching, the Florida Marlins have gotten back two talented but injured young starters and right about now look pretty formidable. Though too early to tell how they will hold up, the initial signs are good. The Marlins also acquired Arthur Rhodes who may or may not be the solution to the Phillies' left-handed batters. Arthur has been very good this year with Seattle, but we all know he is capable of melting down at a moment's notice. Still, Florida refuses to go away and should be there all the way to the end. I would not be surprised to see them take the division. With all the head-to-head meetings between the top three team in the NL East, whoever wins the majority of those games is going to take the crown. Those kids can hit a ton and now they just might have the strongest pitching.

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