Saturday, September 26, 2009

And Then There Were None










Countdown has ended.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cold Comfort

Brad Lidge has put together back-to-back memorable seasons over the last two years but we're sure he'd like to forget the most recent one.

2008 was perfection;2009 isn't!. For his major league leading eleventh time, Brad Lidge blew a save last night, turning a certain Phillies victory into another crushing defeat as the Marlins scored two runs in the ninth inning to take two of three games in the series. With the loss and blown save Lidge has now directly contributed to or been solely responsible for nearly 20% of the team's losses this season.

We've all heard Lidge, his pitching coach or his manager speak optimistically every time the Phils closer seems to have regained his 2008 form only to watch a debacle like last night throw cold water on the situation. The truth is, sports fans, he's lost "it". Whatever precisely "it" is that closers possess, and surely one thing is the ability to stop the opposition in its tracks, Lidge no longer has it in sufficient quantity. The harsher truth is, there isn't anyone else the Phillies can turn to. As if we needed further reminder that Ryan Madson isn't the answer, Madson gave up a run in the eighth inning preceding Lidge's meltdown. Madson opened the door; Lidge invited the Marlins to stay.

At this point no one, especially the other eight guys on the field at the time, wants to see Charlie Manuel hand the ball to Lidge. Frankly, I'd bring in Clay Condrey or Sergio Escalona. What, you ask? To which I'd reply, "What, they are going to do worse than Lidge?" Just tell them it's the seventh inning. After all, that's about as far as the bullpen fears to tread anyway.

Talk about squaring into shape as the season winds down.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Forget Who's On First! Who's In The Rotation?

Normally at this juncture of the season starting rotations and bullpens are set barring injury. Roles have been defined and routines have been established.

Not in Philadelphia.

Kyle Kendrick thew something of a monkey wrench into an already unsettled situation and Pedro Martinez continued to mess with the order of things as the Phils swept the Mets in a day-night doubleheader yesterday.

Kendrick pitched very well in the day game; Martinez pitched even better under the lights. Oh, and Brad Lidge pitched poorly again while Brett Myers flashed some of the form that had him leading the majors in home runs allowed. Meanwhile, newly crowned closer Ryan Madson got crowned but good in blowing a save Saturday afternoon.

Kendrick joined six other pretenders for the starting rotation (Lee, Hamels, Blanton, Martinez, Moyer) by mixing his pitches just like the Phillies hoped he'd learn to do when they sent him down to AAA for the year. All thatPedro did was win his fifth straight game without a loss.

At this point in September teams in playoff contention are beginning to think about setting up their rotations in anticipation of the initial round. Around these parts the question looming largest is who is going to be in that rotation in the first place?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Next?

Who's next?

New setup man Brett Myers gave his best imitation of his home-run derby delivery yesterday and new closer Ryan Madson blew his sixth save of the season, no small feat given he isn't the regular closer, as the Phils dropped an ugly game to the New York Mets, 10-9.

Rather than solving their problems at the back end of the bullpen, the Phillies wake up Sunday morning with bigger ones than ever. If last season saw them peaking as the regular season drew to a close, this season finds them scrambling around, their starting pitching erratic, the bullpen an utter mess and their offense sputtering.

The only outcome likely to come from yesterday's debacle is that Brad Lidge is going to get another chance to close a game...real soon...as in probably today with a day-night doubleheader looming.

Myers and Madson surely knew the twin bill was scheduled for today, but that didn't help them limit the exposure of the bullpen in yesterday's come-from-behind loss. After sporting the Mets a big lead, the Phils roared back to take a big lead themselves only to watch David Wright launch not one but two home runs, the final one the killer. Meanwhile, Florida won to move to within five games of the Phils. With a tough schedule looming including six games against the Marlins, this thing is far from over.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wall Of Worry

The Phillies return to soggy Citizens Bank Park Friday night sporting a 2 - 5 record from the roadtrip through Houston and Washington and, worse, all sorts of problems and inconsistencies.

The finale of the trip saw previously reliable Joe Blanton get rocked while the nearly always slumbering offense waited until the ninth inning to show some life before Ryan Howard grounded into a game-ending double play that halted the rally a run short. They didn't deserve to win this one, though just desserts are never the point.

So, where do we stand with the lead over those pitching-loaded pesky Marlins at five games and dwindling?

Right now Pedro Martinez looks like the sharpest starter and that's not something to be happy about. Blanton, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all showed signs of inconsistency on the trip. J.A. Happ is out with an oblique strain, which depending on the source you read is one of the most difficult injuries to recover from quickly or, in his case, is mild enough not to cause too much concern. Given the Phillies poor history on the forthcoming-about-injuries front, we'll just say there are better than even odds he is going to take some time to come back.

Lee's problems may simply be too much pitching. In his first five starts for the Phillies he threw two complete games and pitched deeply in the others. Now, he is getting rocked early, a clear sign he is fatigued. Hamels has been inconsistent and immature all season. If he doesn't get a grip on his emotions soon, he is always going to be one blown call or play away from self-destructing. It's never a good sign when, after the game, your pitching coach talks about "body language", as in, well, his body language wasn't too bad. To whom is his language speaking, Rich?

The struggles on offense remain the chief concern because, frankly, the Phils were always expected to overcome pitching deficiencies with their bats. Jimmy Rollins remains stuck in the .24o's, going after first pitches and swinging up too often, always looking for lift. Those 18 home runs he's hit don't do anyone any good. Chase Utley continues to wear down at the end of every season, his admirably intense approach to everything about the game a virtue to all who watch him and a liability to his own body. Shane Victorino has also been slumping, perhaps due to his nagging knee injury or just because he, too, goes all out all the time. The rest of the offense is muddling along with Raul Ibanez showing some signs of life but still vulnerable to too many pitches.

It's to worry about.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Getting Closer To A Closer?

It's too early to say the Brett Myers or Ryan Madson era has begun but it's late to be saying Brad Lidge can no longer be counted on to close games.

The Phillies beat Washington last night on the strength of Pedro Martinez' good outing and solo home runs from Raul Ibanez (2), Jayson Werth, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley. The homers gave the Phils four players (including Ryan Howard) with 30 or more home runs.

Still, that achievement nearly came to naught as Lidge loaded the bases with Nats in the bottom of the ninth before Madson came in to get the final two outs. Lidge was his usual 2009 self, that is to say, wild and unreliable. He gave up a hit, hit a batter, threw a wild pitch and walked a batter. For once, Charlie Manuel saw enough just in the nick of time and summoned Madson before victory became defeat. Madson struck out the dangerous Ryan Zimmerman and induced the equally dangerous Adam Dunn to ground out. The thought of Lidge facing either batter was literally frightening to his manager.

The five home runs by the Phils came in bunches and, as usual, accounted for all but one of their runs. The solo shots were the 13th in their last 14 round-trippers, as clear an indication as one could want that people are not getting on base.

Instead of rounding into playoff shape, a lot remains unsettled with this club. Several pitchers remain sidelined with injuries and some of the starting position players are walking wounded. Chief among their concerns remains the matter of who closes, not going forward but tonight if needed!!!

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Second Time Wasn't Charming

I had to correct the post below ("So Many Holes...") after originally having mistakenly written the Phillies had been swept by the Astros Sunday afternoon when I realized a Monday game remained. Now I can write it.

The Phillies were swept by the Houston Astros Monday.

The scenario was so familiar I should have just said see the post dated such-and-such. The Phils got a good starting pitching effort but wasted it as the bullpen failed to hold a lead. They didn't score often and when they did most of their runs came via the long ball. They failed to capitalize on critical scoring chances. Blah blah blah.

Next up are the Washington Nationals, normally the panacea for all that ails the Phillies. Right now, however, it's hard to feel confident let alone cocky about their chances against anyone. They look terrible.

So Many Holes Have Opened

Nearly all the signs coming out of the Phillies dugout these days are lousy. They aren't hitting much. They aren't scoring many runs and when they do it is only via the long ball. They aren't getting consistent pitching from their starters. They can't finish off games consistently.

After taking two out of three at home from the Giants by the slimmest of margins, the Phils went to Texas where they have promptly dropped three straight to the Astros. Cliff Lee was bombed. Brad Lidge blew another save. Cole Hamels followed two fine starts with a bad outing. The Hamels performance was particularly galling because once again he lost his composure, something, frankly, he rarely did when he had his command. For a guy with his major league experience to have to walk behind the mound to take a big, public moment to calm down is disturbing. In today's finale they will depend on J.A.Happ, who has lost two straight, to salvage a game.

At a time of year when the Phillies should be putting the finishing touches on their edifice, they are faced with cracks and fissures everywhere one looks. While they are still capable of the odd offensive explosion here and there, for the most part they are fizzling. Whereas two weeks ago the starting rotation looked to be rounding into perfect form, this morning there are more questions than answers. If they playoffs were to begin tomorrow, I wouldn't like their chances.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Time For A Change

Any moment now we should find out if Brad Lidge still believes Charlie Manuel is "the most supportive" manager for whom he's ever played because the skipper has no choice but to replace Lidge with Brett Myers in the closer's role. What does Manuel have to lose? Another game!

Lidge blew his tenth save of the season last night ruining a good effort by Joe Blanton and Brett Myers to say nothing of a struggling offense. The walk-off loss to his former teammates was ugly but, then, all blown saves and resultant losses are ugly by definition.

No matter what the explanation for his ineffectiveness this season, Lidge has been given more chances than he probably deserved. The final month of the regular season is hardly the time to be auditioning Myers, just off the forever Disabled List following him surgery, but Lidge has left the Phillies with no other choice. Manuel isn't considered a players' manager for nothing; he is extremely loyal, especially to veterans. But he doesn't like losing, either, and every time he summons Lidge the chances of such an outcome increase. No one can be loyal to losing.

* * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, the injury bug has bitten two of the Phils key players, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino. Thus far the Phils have largely been immune from the bug with the notable exception of Myers and some of the relief corps. Utley fouled a ball off the same foot hit by a pitch earlier in the season. Victorino is favoring the same knee he landed hard on more than a month ago. Now is the time to sit these guys. Utley already has; it appears Victorino is about to.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Cause For Concern

Uh, oh.

For the second straight outing Cliff Lee looked more than a wee bit mortal as the Phils continued to not knock the cover off the ball in losing to the Astros 7-0. This was the second time in their last four games the vaunted offense was shut out.

Lee gave up six runs in three innings and though the Astros were not teeing off on him quite as lustily as the Braves did last week, they did slice and dice him pretty good. Now, suddenly, the picture at the top of the rotation has gotten a little bit more confusing. Cole Hamels, putative ace until the acquisition of Lee, has pitched two straight strong games while Lee has been raked hard. Charlie Manuel would probably settle for something more in the middle from his top two guys. Compounding the concerns, J.A. Happ has lost two straight starts though in his case both loses came suddenly, in a single inning, when he grooved a few pitches that left the yard.

Of far greater concern is the collapse of the offense. No one is hitting consistently and many are not hitting period. The Phils have roughly 30 games to turn it around before the post-season and they'd better start soon.

Friday, September 04, 2009

I Digress

I might as well make myself perfectly clear from the get-go: Roger Goodell is a jerk. The guy who essentially absolved league darling Bill Belichek for spying on opposing teams and allowed the evidence against him to be destroyed has handed down a decision regarding Michael Vick that can be charitably described as vindictive.

The matter of Vick's reinstatement and redemption is not my concern here; rather, I am addressing the commissioner's handling of the case post facto, i.e., after Vick had served his sentence, been released from prison and signed by the Eagles. It is appalling that Goodell would first allow Vick to resume his NFL career, endorse the Eagles' signing of him, then dilly-dally about how long his banishment from full reinstatement would last and finally rule he had to sit out the first two weeks of the regular season after playing in the preseason. What are those two weeks going to prove to anyone, least of all Goodell? Will Vick be a better man for those additional 14 days of NFL probation? Goodell is a classic holier-than-thou type who professes charity as long as he isn't required to practice it.

* * * * * * * *

An Oregon running back participated in a pre-game handshake at midfield with his opponents from Boise State, played on the losing side and proceeded to sucker punch an opposing player who at worst tapped him on the shoulder and said something less than sportsmanlike (unsubstantiated) to him afterwards. What should the punishment be? Ban him for the season. Send a real message for a change. Now, let's see just how sportsmanlike team and league officials really are.

* * * * * * * *

Much has been said about the relative lack of buzz about the U.S. Open if not professional tennis in general these days and most seasoned observers think it is not so much a lack of quality among the top players as a lack of charisma among them, especially of the controversial kind. It's hard to argue with those who say tennis misses the petulance of a John McEnroe or the fiery demeanor of a Jimmy Connors. I never cared for McEnroe's antics but I'm sure those people who like car wrecks and fights at hockey games paid the price of admission just to wait for an outburst. For my inexperienced and inexpert part, I don't much care for booming serves playing a much greater role in the outcome of matches on both the mens' and womens' sides.

* * * * * * * *

Tiger Woods is showing his mortal side lately, blowing a final round lead in the PGA Championship then missing a putt that would have tied him for the lead in regulation in a recent tourney. On top of that, a piece on NPR was far from flattering about his demeanor and language on the course, away from the TV cameras for the most part. The lords of the networks are hardly going to show the Golden Goose acting more like an Ass, but that's how he came across in the article. How disillusioning!!

* * * * * * * *

Shane Victorino is remembered by a lot of fans around the nation for pointing to his ribs not his noggin' after nearly being deliberately beaned last season in the playoffs against LA, so it isn't surprising he was the first Phillie to try the new batting helmet. Player response to the far more protective device has been extremely negative when it hasn't been outright derisive. The Mets David Wright, who was beaned recently and suffered a serious concussion, tried the helmet, too, but gave up on it after a few days because he didn't like being the brunt of his teammates' jokes and barbs. If anyone should be literally interested in a tougher skin it is Wright. Bad move, David.

Message Delivered

As I settled in to watch Pedro Martinez face Tim Lincecum last night I said to myself, "Pedro's going to throw a fastball to begin the proceedings and if I am the first guy up I am swinging away."

That was the last time I was right all night as Martinez and the rest of the Phillies fooled me in delivering quite a message to San Francisco and the rest of the National League, to wit: talk all you want about our sluggers, we can pitch with anyone!

The Phils only managed four hits against Tim Lincecum and the bullpen but they made everyone count when you also throw in a HIT batsman. Jayson Werth rocked Lincecum in the second inning for a mammoth home run and Chase Utley, the aforementioned hit batsman, scored from first on a double by The Piece himself.

Meanwhile, Martinez didn't let his first pitch faux pas ruin his evening as he settled down to deliver a game that should ease the minds of Phillies fans going forward and put to rest for the foreseeable future any question of where Jamie Moyer fits in the rotation, doubleheaders excepted.

If the night belonged to Pedro, he must share the spotlight withWerth, one of my favorite whipping boys. Werth has had a season to remember and it ain't over. Finally given a chance to see his name in the lineup every day, collars the night before notwithstanding, Werth has delivered career highs in every offensive category while fielding his position well, at times very well. He may make the occasional bonehead mistake on the base paths, his powerful arm can be erratic and he still seems to have some problems going back to the wall, but Werth provides the Phils with a potent bat behind Ryan Howard, something the Phils desperately need as Raul Ibanez sinks further.

What makes the Phillies triumph in two out of three games against San Francisco's stellar staffall the more astonishing is that they scored all of three runs in winning those two games. Talk about making the most of opportunities!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dirty Socks Just Wanna' Have Fun

ESPN reports Curt Schilling is "interested" in filling the Senate seat of Ted Kennedy.

One reason he would: The Republicans are desperate.

Two reasons he would not:

1. He has no qualifications; and,
2. Massachusetts voters may hold Schilling in high regard as a pitcher with a bloody sock but they are historically the most liberal electorate in the United States and aren't about to elect someone of his persuasion.

Schilling is also quoted as saying "'[Running] would be fun'" Great, Schill. Just the kind of comment I'd expect from a ballplayer. How many times have we heard "we go out there and just try and have fun."?

Having fun is not normally listed by U.S. Senators as one of the reasons they run for elected office and even in this declining Republic, it isn't normally listed among the reasons people vote for one candidate over another.

Tell you what, Curt. Stay home. Write your blog. Collect your pension. Chime in with your usual opinions straight from the hip. But stay away from public office. The country is already in enough trouble without your helping things along.

Wither Runners In Scoring Position?

The increasingly ugly truth is the Phillies have stopped hitting. Going back a few weeks now they've been mired in a collective slump save the occasional long-ball assault led largely by Ryan Howard.

Chief among the fallen is Raul Ibanez, who looks terrible at the plate. Since returning from the DL in the Summer, his average has dropped more than fifty points and is now in real danger of falling below .270. How much longer can Charlie Manuel run him out there instead of the far better fielder and certainly no lighter hitter than Ben Fancisco?

J.A. Happ took last night's loss, his second straight in which he pitched well until suddenly self-destructing and serving up long balls. No doubt it would help to know he was getting some support, but he has only himself to blame for serving up fat pitches. Commentary by Gary Matthews correctly suggests part of the problem is pitch selection. When he had Juan Uribe down 1-2 in the count it was no time to throw him a fastball up in the zone. Aaron Rowand followed with a home run off a pitch that could be charitably called right down Broadway with nothing on it.

Everyone is regressing to their personal mean at the same time. Pedro Feliz has stopped producing. Shane Victorino is slumping. Jimmy Rollins' march to respectability has hit a speed bump. The aforementioned Ibanez is falling below his career average. Jayson Werth remains streaky. Chase Utley is hitting but hovering around the .300 mark, too. Up one day a point or two, down the next. Howard is the only one who is hitting including singles and doubles, but, alas, there's no one on base ahead of him.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Welcome Back, Cole

Let's face it, Cole Hamels is a big game pitcher, especially when it's a really big game. The young left-hander's march through the playoffs and World Series last year earned him an MVP trophy, a big new contract and the adoration of fans throughout the Delaware Valley.

Most of his performances since then have earned him a barrage of questions, only some of which he has chosen to directly address.

In his last two outings he has been superb, particularly last night in one of those really big games. Why was it so big? Let us count the ways:

1. He was facing a potential playoff opponent.
2. He needed to show the last outing against a lesser opponent was not a fluke.
3. He was opposed by a young stud who'd thrown a no-hitter this season.
4. He had to convince his teammates he was back on track.
5. He had to convince the Giants he and the Phillies knew a thing or two about pitching, too.
6. He had to prove he could win without much run support.
7. He had to establish his command, which had been shaky most of the season.
8. He had to throw a third pitch every now and then.

He did all of those things, though he still relied mainly on the fastball and change. The result was a two-hit shutout of the Giants. Coming two days in advance of facing arguably the best pitcher in the NL, Tim Lincecum, Hamel's stellar performance re-established him as a top of the rotation pitcher, which, frankly, he hadn't been since, well, last October. You can be sure the Giants noticed.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Pepper

There is still plenty of baseball left in the regular season and plenty to play for besides personal glory.

A piece in today's Inquirer outlines the tight race for home field advantage between the Phils, Dodgers and Cardinals. Finishing with the best record carries much more than bragging rights; the top team gets home field advantage. In point of fact the Phils, among the three teams, have by far the best road record, so playing at home isn't necessarily an advantage for them. Still, if you were to ask anyone in the organization, he'd rather have 45,000 fans screaming for rather than against him.

* * * * * * * *

Untouchable Kyle Drabek has been shut down completely for the season after everyone in the organization determined he'd pitched enough innings, especially for a guy recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Phillies brain trust insisted they'd shut him down strictly for precautionary reasons and that he was in fine health, but some observers noted he'd not pitched well of late and seemed to have lost a lot on his fastball.

Given their track record on health issues and the truth therein, it's difficult to take the Phillies at their word.

* * * * * * * *

Old friend Jim Thome is on the move again. The White Sox traded him to the Dodgers yesterday, one of several moves the Chisox made in capitulating for this season. It's hard to figure out where Thome fits on a National League roster, but the Dodgers obviously feel he can come off the bench for an occasional Matt Stairs imitation, 2008 edition that is!

For their part, the Phils did absolutely nothing at the deadline, no doubt because they saw no one available who would improve them. Hard to argue with that strategy. Of course for every five Brad Pennys available there is one John Smoltz. Go figure. The same organization gave up on both of them despite needing starting pitching and who could blame them given how each performed. So Smoltz goes to St. Louis and is dominant in winning his first two starts while Penny lands in San Francisco and will start against the Phils tomorrow night. He'll probably shut them down.