Saturday, May 31, 2008


Like many an eagerly awaited boxing match, this bout was over quickly. Each team traded punches early but it was the wily veteran club that landed the knockout blow in the second round as the Phillies pounded the upstart Marlins 12-3 to move into first place.

The Fish came out swinging from the opening bell jumping to a three run lead against struggling Brett Myers. In all fairness to Myers, Pat Burrell misjudged a fly ball into two of those runs. Normally, that sort of defensive lapse is sufficient to throw Myers off his game, but after that disastrous opening frame the big righthander surprised everyone, himself included no doubt, reached deep within to reserves few if any thought he had, and pitched marvelously for the next seven innings. Let it be said here, by one of Myers' chief critics, that he stepped up big when his teammates needed him.

Meanwhile, the Phillies offense continued to lay waste to any pitching staff in its way as Chris Coste, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard all homered. Utley is on a pace to hit 52 home runs. While unlikely he will continue that torrid pace as the summer gets hotter and he wears down a little, he is already drawing raves from baseball insiders who admire everything about his game, especially the way he plays it.

The amazing Coste has become Myers' personal catcher. One suspects Myers simply feels more comfort with Coste handling duties behind the plate rather than Carlos Ruiz. Whatever the reason, it cannot be very difficult for manager Charlie Manuel to pencil Coste's name in the lineup given the way he hits. Nor can it be too difficult to rotate the two catchers continually, keeping each fresh for the long grind about to begin.

Game one of this important three-game set is in the win column. A second win tonight or tomorrow, we would be sufficient statement on who intends to be left standing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Save A Few

Gadzooks, they're hitting.

Don't look now but the offense everyone predicted would be among the league's best is beginning to heat up as temperatures climb. Nearly everyone's favorite whipping boy Pedro Feliz has been on a tear, raising his average to .271. Chase Utley set a career mark for rbi's with six. Chris Coste continues to make it difficult forCharlie Manuel to sit him very long. Ryan Howard has been above the Mendoza line for nearly a week. So Taguchi, who has hit some balls hard all season but at people, saw three of them drop in for a change as he got a rare start. Shane Victorino is also making it hard to Charlie to give his job in centerfield away.

The 20 hits they stroked last night were against a Colorado club that is missing many of its key players from last year's extraordinary [and anomalous?] run. The anticipated rematch between MVP competitors Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday never materialized as the latter was on the Disabled List. The Rockies were also missing their starting shortstop, rightfielder and third baseman. Whatever. Twenty hits is a ton no matter who's out there. As my father used to say, it's too bad they couldn't save a few of them for the next game

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Don't Blame Eaton For This One

It's easy to blame Adam Eaton for last night's loss, but that wouldn't tell the whole story by a long shot. Eaton pitched well enough to win but Ryan Howard's failure to come up with a very catchable ground ball in the bottom of the seventh cost them a run and Ryan Madson, who is just as likely to pour gasoline on a fire as to put it out, surrendered the winning run in the bottom of the eighth. Madson has the most deceiving 4.38 ERA in the game today.

By today's lowered standards for "quality" starts, Eaton certainly delivered one, going seven innings while allowing eight hits and three earned runs. The only Astro to give him real trouble was rightfielder Hunter Pence who belted two home runs off him. Otherwise, Eaton deserved better.

The play Howard blew can be directly attributed to the big first baseman's lack of nimbleness in the field. He dived to his right for the ball hit on the ground by ex-Phillie Michael Bourn but did not get his glove down. The ball rolled right under it. Oh, and Howard's vaunted emergence from his slump hit a bit of a speed bump as he stranded five runners while going hitless on the night.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


It's a funny game, isn't it?

Ha ha ha ha ha.

The Phils finally get a laugher after weeks of close shaves that went either way. More important, they won a series on the road against a team that has given them fits after getting shut out the first game. That sort of comeback is the mark of a good team. Let's see if it lasts.

Cole Hamels set the Phils back on track with his masterful performance Tuesday night. Jamie Moyer, ageless Jamie Moyer, followed Hamels with six shutout innings of his own. Quietly, Moyer won is 234th career victory. Some people wrote him off ten years ago. Others, like myself, were busy writing him off earlier this season. Fortunately, Moyer doesn't read his own press notices.

Ryan Howard had his best game of the season, belting two home runs, one a moon shot, and a double to knock in four runs. Afterwards, he had this to say to reporters: Confidence-wise, I'm fine. It's just a matter of balls falling in. I have to keep taking it at-bat to at-bat and get the momentum going. Not to rain on his one-day parade, but it's more than "just a matter of balls falling in" when you are striking out three times a game. It's a matter of getting his bat on the ball. Last night's game was certainly fodder for the camp that argues a strikeout is not just another out. I'm with those who believe getting a bat on the ball is better than not.

On DNL last night Ken Rosenthal opined that many people believe Howard's weight is a problem. Rosenthal also noted Howard, always an average first baseman at best, is hurting the Phils with his poor play in the field, too. If he really is on the road to straightening himself out at the plate, the fielding will probably pick up.

Shane Victorino also had a good night at the plate and, hopefully, convinced his manger to leave him permanently in centerfield. Odds are that Manuel will, for now. He always goes with a hot bat. Victorino is clearly Werth's superior with the glove. After last night, their batting averages aren't far apart though Werth's power numbers are clearly superior.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Beltway News

The Phillies are one Cole Hamels away from the NL East basement.

It's hard to imagine just how bad things would be without their only reliable starter. Indeed, Hamels is now one of the league's elite pitchers, capable of shutting down the opposition every time he goes out. The scary thing about Hamels is that he's still learning, by his own admission, and getting smarter about how to pitch. He's always had the ability and the confidence; now he's gaining the experience. It's too bad his mates don't give him any run support, but the way he's been pitching, he doesn't need much.

Still, he deserved more than a no-decision last night as the Phils scratched out a lone run in the top of the ninth inning to beat Washington 1-0. Greg Dobbs, pinch-hitter extraordinaire, delivered the key hit, a blooper to left center. Brad Lidge converted the save though not without some dicey moments in the ninth as he walked two batters.

* * * * * * * *

Has anyone else noticed the horrible camera angle for televising the games from the Nationals' new park? The centerfield camera shot is the standard one, but anything seen from behind the plate is from a perch high aloft. The sharp angle looking down is unpleasant and distorting. On Monday night Harry Kalas noted at the top of the first telecast from Washington that they were sitting "high" above Nationals Park. No kidding.

During the game Monday Ryan Zimmerman chased a foul ball to the top of the steps in the Phillies' dugout but chose, wisely, not to descend the steps in final pursuit. Chris Wheeler noted how steep those steps were. I guess all of this goes to show no one is immune from mistakes when designing a new ballpark. Of course, the big complaint with Citizens Bank Park, indeed the only consistent one, is how cheap the home runs come. Compared to camera angles and steep steps, that's a biggie!

* * * * * * * *

It's official: Ryan Howard has not broken out of his slump. In fact, he is on a pace to shatter his own record for most K's in a season. Every time he hits one out or even to center or left centerfield, the hopeful jump on the occasion pointing out he is finally breaking out of his season-long slump. Not so fast, boys. He still looks uncomfortable at the plate, especially when it comes to knowing his strike zone.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley has seen his average drop dramatically. It seems to this untrained eye that he is having trouble staying off the high pitches. Chase is notoriously streaky and will snap out of his funk. It wouldn't seem so critical lately if it were not for the fact that Pat Burrell has also fallen to earth, Howard continues to struggle, and apart from J-Roll, all the other regulars are scuffling.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Running In Place

These guys sure don't look like they are focused. Last night's white-washing makes three straight losses during which they stranded a week's worth of base-runners. In a division ripe for picking, the Phils are unable to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the contenders. Frankly, I think the manager shares a great deal of the responsibility.

Only yesterday Charlie Manuel was quoted as saying Jayson Werth was going to be his every-day centerfielder. So, naturally, Shane Victorino started there last night. Now, Victorino was the proper choice given the Phils were facing a right-hander who gives them fits, but the timing of Manuel's remarks reveals if nothing else he has trouble thinking ahead a day or two let alone an inning or two. There were other questionable decisions last night including starting Pedro Feliz against a righty when Greg Dobbs was available and hot. Yes, it's nice to have Pedro's glove in there, but right now it's the offense that is sputtering, not the defense.

Brett Myers started the game and though credited with a "quality start", one of this era's most offensive stats, he looked less than impressive, especially early. He is far from working out whatever problems have reduced him to a less-than quality starter. He was in constant trouble through the first three innings and was down a run before his mates came to bat in the second inning. Having spent time on the DL last season, it's time to send him for an MRI even if the medical and pr staffs cannot agree on an interpretation of the results.

The Phillies bunched together a lot of hits early against Tim Redding but failed to get a single clutch one. They also wasted two inning-leadoff doubles by Geoff Jenkins, starting against the right-handed Redding.

At this juncture, the quarter pole, the Phillies look like the mediocre team their record reflects. Only the bullpen, less than stellar lately, has surprised on the plus side thus far this season. The offense is down; the defense is down; and the starting pitching is down. Only two games over .500, the Phils have dropped to third place in the division, 1.5 games behind the surprising Florida Marlins. No one appears to be running away with the division, but the Phils, running in place, aren't making a move, either.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Easing Back In

Random thoughts....

Jimmy's back and doing what he does best, sparking the team. While he was out of action the Phils played well enough, but with him back in the lineup they are simply a much better team. In two weeks he's demonstrated why he was the MVP.

* * * * * * * *

One by one, the young stars of baseball are signing long-term deals. Chase Utley, David Wright, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Braun, et al.

But not Ryan Howard.

Neither Howard nor anyone advising him has ever forgotten or forgiven that $900,000 salary following his MVP year or this year's arbitration hearing. A testiness has settled over the relationship and nothing seems to improve the situation. A .181 batting average is also unlikely to improve the atmosphere. Nearly $11 million salary in a two year period and he and the Phillies are further apart than ever. He is never going to sign a long-term deal here. Look for the Phils to sign Cole Hamels to one, however.

* * * * * * * *

The American League has been the scene of some strange happenings this season. First, Detroit, picked by many including yours truly to run away with their division despite some questionable pitching, started horribly, rallied mightily, and then tanked astonishingly. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals have neared the .500 mark after many seasons of losing nearly twice as many games as they won.

The Yankees are a mess, which really comes as no surprise. The Orioles are competitive, which comes as a big surprise, and the Rays are the toast of the AL East, which is surprising if for no other reason than their top pitcher missed most of the first month plus of the season. Despite playing better than at any time in their woeful history, the Rays still cannot attract fans. Neither, of course, can the Marlins, who are the big surprise of the NL East. South Florida is the worst state for professional baseball. Even a franchise in North Dakota would outdraw the teams in the Sunshine State.

* * * * * * * *

The NL is going to win this year's All-Star game, not that I would care except for this nonsense about home-field advantage in the World Series. The balance is starting to shift when you look at the number of young stars (see long-term contracts above) who ply their trade in the Senior Circuit.

* * * * * * * *

My Reverse Curse has never been as on target as recently. Upon my return from Spain, I read a number of blogs to catch up. I posted a comment over at BS&S regarding Jayson Werth and his trouble getting jump on balls in centerfield and his declining batting average. Boom. Boom. Boom.

I knocked Howard in this space more than a few times and he has started to hit, at least one a game for eight games, along with two home runs in consecutive games after I mocked his power. (I'm still not convinced he's back, by the way.)

But nothing I could say or do is going to RC or RRC Brett Myers.

* * * * * * * *

I continue to read comments by players about how tough Philadelphia fans are. Howard has said he hears the boo birds and understands...because it's Philadelphia, not because he is striking out a new record pace. Even Jayson Werth said so in a transcript of a blog Q&A prior to his big night with the bat. Asked about the difference between playing in LA and here he said the ballpark, which is better here, and the fans, who are not. In fairness, he was also quoted after last night as saying how grateful he was for the curtain calls.

It's just a reflex action with athletes at this point. Philadelphia could turn out to be the most understanding and forgiving atmosphere for professional athletes in America and they'd still be saying how tough the fans are.

Myths die hard, but when you're reading through the obituaries, imagination dies first.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

While I Was Away

Arriving in Philadelphia after ten days in Spain, we took the Schuylkill home. Along the way we passed a billboard with a picture of Ryan Howard and a tag line advertising something about year-round power. A quick check of the Phillies stats on my last morning in Madrid seemed to strongly suggest the year-round in question must have begun in mid-October and ended in mid-March.

So, what happened to the Phils while I was away revisiting my youth? In no particular order, it appeared that:

Pedro Feliz must have started hitting.
Chase Utley tread water.
Jimmy returned.
Carlos Ruiz must have found some offense, too.
Pat Burrell tailed off.
JC Romero gave up a key home run.

In essense, the guys who hadn't been hitting started to and the guys who had stopped or stood still. And Ryan Howard remained below the Mendoza line with a quarter of the season under his belt. [Editor's note: The Reverse Curse apparently travels well as Howard hits home runs on consecutive nights after your faithful Iberian itinerant singles him out for displeasure.]

The Phils surprised with two wins in four games in the desert but dropped two of three to the Giants. No real surprise in the city by the bay; they nearly lost two of three to the Giants a week before in the city of brotherly love.

It doesn't appear anyone else in the division made much headway either unless you consider the Florida Marlins who continue to surprise. My bet is they tail off after mid-summer a la the Nationals in their inaugural season.

Meanwhile, it came as no surprise that Spanish newspapers don't carry MLB results. They are too interested in futbol, jai lai, tennis, cycling, and auto racing.

The Spain I first knew as a student in Granada and Madrid is long gone. Back then it was a police state, ostracized by the West for Franco's "neutrality" in WWII. Politically and religiously conservative, it hardly benefited from the largess of the Marshall Plan, unless of course, you consider the location of a major American airbase and sub base on its soil beneficial to the local economy.

Today, it can be argued Spain is the most liberal country of Western Europe in many respects. Vibrant, progressive, thriving, vital. One sees it everywhere from the sophistication of Madrid, which mere decades ago was a dowdy capital in name only, to the extensive public recycling and conservation projects.

Forty-two years ago when I first landed in Spain, the generation that fought its Civil War, a conflict that inflamed world passions every bit as much as Vietnam did in ours, was exhausted and spent. By comparison, today's youth have grown up without a dictator. Reminders of the Civil War are present in unexpected places, the Reina Sofia Museum with its Guernica being one of them (in an adjoining room a propaganda film from the war pleads the Republican cause; in another, Robert Capa's pictures from the Civil War fill the walls.); but for Spain's worldly youth, that war is not really that much closer than the Peloponnesian War. Their war is the global one on terror and in Madrid, especially, they know its effects all too well. And in the north of Spain, ETA continues to wreak havoc. The day we departed, ETA assassinated a civil guard in a bomb attack.

In the Spain of 1966, 27 years after the Civil War ended, the streets were still filled with beggars, the blind, the disabled and the walking wounded (less politically correctly referred to then as "mutilados"). They are largely gone now, too, most from old age and disease, but no state can simply banish the disabled from its midst. Today the state has developed a sophisticated health care system (what Western European nation today is not offering better health care for ALL of its citizens than the US?) that doesn't simply warehouse people in the streets. There were two big lottery systems back then, the national and the one benefiting the blind. The latter has been replaced by ONCE, an organization that uses proceeds from lottery sales to provide employment for the disabled. Their kiosks have replaced the wooden stools of four decades ago.

All of Spain still partakes of the paseo, the evening stroll during which every ambulatory inhabitant of the peninsula seems to be on the streets. Even today, one can see the physical evidence of Spain's evolution by watching these strollers. The oldest generation invariably features a man and a woman of small stature and, most interesting, almost equal height. The middle-aged generation, on the other hand, will be taller with the differences in height between men and women more pronounced. And the younger generation? Much taller, with the full range of body types and heights (though very little obesity). They look like, well, everyone else their age throughout the Western hemisphere and Europe.

Spain has literally grown.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Everyone Contributes

Better to be lucky than good.

The Phils got a few breaks Sunday from the umpires and the Giants themselves as they took two out of three games from San Francisco, both in their last at-bats, to finish the home stand 4-2.

The Phils faced two of the weakest offensive clubs in the NL during the home stand but still struggled to prevail in part because they faced some tough pitching and in part because their own offense disappeared. Other than Chase Utley and Pat Burrell, no one is hitting consistently. On the other hand, they are exhibiting one quality of all successful clubs: a new person steps up each day to be the hero. Once every man on the roster feels he can and will contribute, the feeling spreads and the momentum builds.

That momentum will be sorely tested in the next several days as the Phillies wing their way west to Arizona and a rematch with the Giants in San Francisco. Arizona is one of the best teams in baseball right now, especially with its potent starting pitching. To hope that the bulk of the Phillies' Mendoza-line treading starters will break out in the desert is a lot to ask.

[Editor's note: I am off to Spain today so posts will be suspended as I visit the haunts of my student youth. Back to Granada and Sevilla for the first time in 40 years.]

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Magic Carpet Ride

Pat Burrell is on some kind of magic carpet ride. So is Chase Utley.

Aaron Rowand tried drafting both of them last night in his first game back at Citizens Bank Park since signing with the Giants, but Burrell shook him off at the end. Pat the Bat is in some kind of groove, hitting for average, power and in the clutch. The only issues I have with his performance last night are minor quibbles indeed: he concluded his walk-off homer with one of the lamest cap tosses at home plate ever seen in these parts. It almost seemed to be an after-thought. Then, he seemed to emerge from the pummeling adulation of his teammates gathered at home plate with a strange glad-that's-over-with-and-I-survived look. Finally, in his post-game interview with Tom McCarthy he didn't exactly seem to be enjoying his moment.

Whatever, as they say. He's being paid to hit not preen.

Meanwhile, Utley is putting together an extraordinary ride. He leads or is near the top of virtually every offensive category in the major leagues. He has turned around his early-season fielding woes. He is constantly talked about by current and former major league players as one of the best in the game today. Utley is well on his way to earning a perpetual pass to ride the carpet.

Ryan Madson is not on a magic carpet ride. In fact, he's either got a thread-bare tire that's as good as blown out or he has nothing on his pitches. When he comes into a game he's more likely to pour gasoline on the fire, not in the tank. The Phillies keep talking about adding a left-hander to the pen but another right-hander wouldn't hurt either.

JC Romero has been on a magic carpet ride all season, albeit bumpy at times, and last night's home run ball to Rowand can be excused on three counts: he'd worked four straight games; he was closing, not setting up; and see "drafting" above. One suspects Rowand was going to hit one out no matter who was pitching.

Ryan Howard can't decide whether or not he's on the carpet or off. His vaunted "seeing the ball better" phase of the trip lasted one or two short legs at most. Last night he was back to befuddlement, striking out in key situations and bitching and moaning about his futility sufficiently to get himself tossed in a tight game. Not too smart, Ryan.

Jayson Werth has temporarily left the magic carpet ride he was on. He continues to look bad at the plate as his average sinks daily. Lately, he has put together some of the worst swings seen around here in a long time.

Jimmy Rollins doesn't even have firm reservations for the carpet ride at this juncture. No one seems to know (or at least no one wants to say) whether or not he is getting closer, further away or somewhere in between in his recovery from an alleged ankle sprain. I say "alleged" because I suspect there is more damage than originally thought...or admitted.

Through it all, the Phillies have ridden to the top of the NL East. Their chief rivals have had all kinds of injury problems themselves and the Marlins have surprised everyone with their performance to date, everyone, that is, except the good people of South Florida who continue to stay away in droves.

Friday, May 02, 2008

In No Particular Order

In no particular order....

The Phillies are a better team when Shane Victorino is in the starting lineup. Yes, he made mistakes last night, especially the base-running gaffe when he was doubled off first on a line drive out to centerfield. And, yes, he has that hitch in his swing. But he is a much better centerfielder than Jayson Werth and he's a sparkplug on a team with little other speed (especially with Jimmy still out.) There were several scouting reports lately suggesting his arm lacks strength and consistency from centerfield, less from right. He hasn't played centerfield long enough for those conclusions to be reached.

Jayson Werth has looked absolutely terrible at bat since the last game of the Pittsburgh series. Bad swings. Tied up often. He simply lacks consistency. If anyone should be platooned, it is Werth, not Victorino.

Everyone in the world knows Pedro Feliz is a complete sucker for a first pitch fastball and for the high fastball in general. Everyone, that is, except Feliz himself. Last night Gary Matthews predicted a strikeout on a high fastball and, bingo, Feliz obliged.

Speaking of Matthews, he might be the worst "color" analyst to come down the pike in decades. And I offer this opinion despite hitting the mute button for 75% of his appearances. He is both master of the obvious and platitude. Tom McCarthy isn't much better. He's dull and canned. Once Harry takes a break from the mike it's easier to just turn off the sound and imagine he's still there.

Ryan Howard may indeed be emerging from his funk. He hit the ball the other way again last night (or at least he didn't pull it dead to right every time) and blasted the game-winning home run. Howard claims he is seeing the ball better. His manager claims he is waiting longer on the ball. Whatever it takes, if he starts hitting the Phils lineup will be that much more dangerous. Now, we just need J-Roll to come back and get on base ahead of him, Chase and Pat.

Brett Myers has relented and is soft-tossing. However, he is still very defensive about his weight and overall conditioning. Look, Brett, no one is asking you to plunge your arm into a barrel of rice for god's sake, but anyone who continues to cite his weight and insist it isn't a problem is just kidding himself, not us.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Operator: We'd Like A Wakeup Call At 7:05 PM!

[Editor's note: don't bother reading the following in you are already in a lousy mood.]

So much for Pat Gillick's vaunted team "intensity".

For the second time in three games most of your 2008 Philadelphia Phillies looked like they'd missed their wakeup call as they went down meekly to the San Diego Padres, 4-2. Only Chase Utley and Geoff Jenkins seemed ready to play. Maybe the Phils should watch tapes from the Flyers series versus Montreal if they want to learn something about intensity. Or maybe they should just return their paychecks for games missed.

Compounding their misery, the Phillies continue to butcher the baseball with their gloves and arms. Though only charged with two errors on the night, they really committed at least three, two (one official) by substitute shortstop less-than-extraordinaire Eric Bruntlett. A first inning throw in the dirt was generously scored a hit. Ryan Howard was unable to scoop the throw either though the official scorers hardly ever charge the first baseman with the error. Bruntlett has now started 20 games for the Phils and with the exception of one or two of them done little to impress. Bruntlett's poor showing coincided with the return to the local scene of Jimmy Rollins. Unfortunately, after testing his injured ankle Rollins announced he still feels pain when turning on it, pushing back his return to the lineup to who knows when. Why do we have the sinking feeling his ankle is going to be imaged again with a different result in the offing?

Jayson Werth, who looked terrible at the plate, also made an error when he dropped a fly ball. Of course the regular centerfielder, Shane Victorino, was still on the bench getting ready to pinch hit as Charlie Manuel continued to juggle [read: misuse] his lineup.

Local sportswriters and the manager also noted that while Ryan Howard went 0-3, he "hit the ball hard". Even in this era of stats inflation there isn't one for hard-hit least not yet.