Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Rally Falls Short

SWING and a Miss and the ball game is over.

Still The Name Of The Game

At this point in his career, does anyone really expect more than what we've seen thus far from Brett Myers? His velocity has never consistently returned to its highs prior to his shoulder injury. His command has always been suspect. He falls out of love with a pitch faster than a veteran should. He leads the major leagues in home runs allowed. Ah, but he pitches for a team that knows a thing or two about bringing the lumber.

As of this writing, the Phillies starting rotation remains largely in a state of disarray. Joe Blanton's outing Monday night was one of the soundest efforts of the season for this beleaguered group. Cole Hamels looked to be on the road to recovering his former magic when a couple of freak injuries derailed him, momentarily we hope. The rest of the staff remains mired in less than mediocrity. Myers cannot be honestly regarded as more than a fourth starter and, then, that is only because the Phils continue to run Chan Ho Park out there as the number five.

Tonight the Phillies face a genuine number one in the Mets Johan Santana. A pitcher who inspires a lot of respect and more than just a little bit of anxiety as teams prepare to face him. A starter against whom opposing batters seek extra motivation. The Phillies don't have anyone like that including Hamels.

What they do have is a lot of offense and it was on display again last night. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the big difference between this year's club and last season's is plate discipline. Overall, the Phils are striking out much less, especially but not exclusively,Ryan Howard. They are getting very good production from Pedro Feliz. Shane Victorino, who led the club in average last season, is again hitting well. Utley is Utley only healthier. Jayson Werth is a streaky but dependable hitter. Raul Ibanez is a big upgrade over Pat Burrell. Carlos Ruiz doesn't need to hit for average. Only J-Roll is struggling though over the last week or so he appears to be finding his stroke.

But they will go as far as this group can carry them because right now, they cannot pitch.

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A few game notes....

Shane Victorino is sporting a hot bat but he was picked off first base for at least the second time this season I witnessed.

The Phils have been running themselves out of some bigger innings too much this season. Raul Ibanez misjudged a line drive to center last night and was easily doubled off second base.

A month ago I suggested in a comment elsewhere that Jayson Werth's arm was erratic. That play at the plate against the Mets last weekend was a good example of a throw off the mark, up the line. Carlos Ruiz saved Werth's and everyone else's bacon with his great positioning, grab and swipe.

Chase Utley sat again nursing a sore foot. He's got to stop taking ones for the club. The other worry is management's history of less than forthcoming information on injuries. His foot has yet to be imaged properly.

I looked at the box score this AM (having gone to sleep in the eighth inning) and saw Lidge pitched the ninth and gave up a run. Something told me it was going to be deja vu all over again time and, sure enough, he surrendered a home run to old nemesis Albert Pujols. That should do wonders for Lidge's confidence, which has to be shaky at this point no matter how much he says he's found the flaws in his mechanics.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Home Sweet Home Away From Home

Joe Blanton picked a fine time for his best outing of 2009 and Ryan Howard picked up where he left off during his recent visits to his native St. Louis as the Phils beat the Cardinals 6-1 in the opener of a two-game set.

Blanton worked out of a big jam in the sixth inning to post a strong outing. Though he threw a lot of pitches and his strike/ball ratio wasn't impressive, Blanton was around the plate all night (getting squeezed occasionally by Jim Wolfe), especially with his hard sinker. At the risk of beating a dead horse (hey, this is only my third reference to the subject in less than a week) I expect great improvement from the Phils' starting rotation now that first-string catcher Carlos Ruiz is back behind the plate. Right now, no catcher in the big leagues blocks balls better or handles his staff better. Ruiz also came up with another tag at home plate that would probably have been dropped by Chris Coste.

Jayson Werth and Howard provided all of the offensive power with a two-run and grand slam homer respectively. Nothing brings out the best in Howard quite like family and friends in the stands in abundance. While Howard always hits well against the Cards in St. Louis we are witnessing quite an overall maturation of the big fella wherever he plays. Everything about his game has shown marked improvement this season. He is fielding well, swinging well, showing good plate discipline, going with the pitch, and cutting down on the K's. Maybe it's the mouthguard?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

All Hail The Returning Receiver

A win is a win for all that but it sure wasn't pretty. The Phils beat the Mets in a contest of walks and missed opportunities that left this fan convinced pitching, or more to the point, a lack of it, will plague both of these houses throughout the season.

The Phils' Jamie Moyer might have been squeezed just a little on occasion by the umpire, but the home run balls he surrendered back-to-back in the sixth inning were of the no-doubt about them variety. Meanwhile, Oliver Perez might have walked himself out of the starting rotation with his six free passes though to this viewer's eyes he wasn't that far off the plate on a few pitches that cost him.

When I periodically relented and did not mute the drone of the laughably misnamed fair and balanced [sic] network's Joe Buck and Alex Karros, I could agree with the latter that the Mets don't show much fire. The most pesky of the New Yorkers, Jose Reyes, has been largely invisible in the first two games of the series. Most of the rest of his teammates seem to be sleepwalking through the games. Carlos Beltran may be having a fine season but his expression never changes no matter what the circumstances. Most of the Mets seemed grim and determined.

For the Phillies, the hero of the game was Carlos Ruiz, who held onto Jayson Werth's throw up the line and then reached back to tag a sliding Omar Santos in the eighth inning with what would have been the go-ahead run. Chris Coste would have dropped the ball, for sure. The return of Ruiz, the mainstay of this staff, will be critical if the pitching is to improve. Whatever he hits, and today he was popping up in key situations just like last season, will always be a bonus. The guy makes a huge difference behind the plate.

Enough Already

Chan Ho Park's continued presence in the starting rotation is no mystery if one considers his manager's history of, well, player management. Charlie Manuel believes jobs are won through fair and open competition and, more importantly, held through thick and thin. There are no hidden agenda with Manuel. In Charlie's world, players don't lose their spots due to injury or a few bad outings. Benefits of the doubt are always given and second, third, even fourth chances are the rule.

Park's spot in the rotation is also consistent with the fact that the defending World Champs are a veteran team built to win now. Look at their roster and there are few youngsters to be found period. Furthermore, he was declared the winner in his Spring Training competition with a much younger J.A. Happ.

Ah, but Park has pitched poorly nearly every time out including last night when he gave up four quick runs to the Mets before many patrons were even in their seats. Park had nothing on his "fastball" and couldn't locate his breaking ball. Chris Wheeler opined that Park was "pitching away from bats", i.e., he was trying to avoid letting the Mets hit the ball and allow his defense to work for him. Tell that to Daniel Murphy, who stroked a two-run homer in the first inning on a pitch that could charitably have been described as right down Broadway with nothing on it. As Park labored through a succession of free passes interspersed with a home run here and line drive there, he also exhibited the kind of body language that his pitching coach Rich Dubee hates to see, a combination of the deer-in-the-headlights look and slumped shoulders and deep knee bends.

How much longer can his manager stick with Park? After the game Manuel said "I'm not ready to say Chan Ho Park is not going to get any more starts. I'm not ready to say that." Presumably he didn't poll the 43,000 plus in attendance at last night's game not to mention 23 of the 24 other members of the roster. Happ would recuse himself.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Hardly Pushovers

It's popular right now to cast the Mets in something of a funk. David Wright is striking out a lot. The starting rotation after Johan Santana is undependable. Overall, they aren't catching the ball.

I'm here to tell you that this is a dangerous team, never more so than when they face the Phillies. Overall, the Mets are hitting .282 as a team. Any club with Jose Reyes leading off is potent. Carlos Delgado is a charter member of the Phillies-killer club. Carlos Beltran is hitting a ton. Their new closer, Francisco Rodriguez, has been everything the Mets asked for. Until he blew a save the other day, so had J.J. Putz.

The starting rotation is a mess, but I wouldn't exactly crow on that front if I were a Phillies' fan. The Mets can hit and right now, frankly, the Phillies starting rotation can be hit.

Forget their record in April. The Mets will be tough.