Saturday, April 30, 2011

April Showers Bring Lots of Surprises

Yo, new month.

April was hardly the cruelest month in these parts.

Placido Polanco ended the month with 41 hits. F O R T Y O N E H I T S!! That is a club record.

Roy Halladay went 4 - 1.

The Phils won a club record 18 games.

They did all this without their unofficial leader, Chase Utley, at least on the field. Given how dedicated Utley is, even though he has yet to play a single inning in 2011, he has been in the dugout for every game.

They did this without their regular closer. Heck, they did some of this without their backup closer.

They did this without Jayson Werth. They also did it without his heir-apparent.

They did this despite being rained out only once in the wettest Spring in memory.

And most significantly, they did this with yours truly constantly nipping at their heels, complaining to all who would listen they couldn't hit.

Pitching And Hitting

Two kinds of pitchers give the Phillies fits: good ones and unfamiliar ones. Mike Pelfrey is neither.

The Phils crushed the Mets last night, 10-3, behind emergency starter Vance Worley, who pitched six strong innings. In the process they chased Pelfrey after 4.1 innings, getting eight of their ten hits for the game and four runs.

The Phils carried a shutout into the ninth inning when David Herndon yielded two home runs to account for all the Mets' runs. Over his last few appearances Herndon has shown the world why he was a Rule 5 player and doesn't belong on a major league roster. The Phils carried him on the roster last year for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the rule that would have forced them to return Herndon to his original club if he did not stick on the major league roster. This year there are no such excuses. The Phils may be undermanned in the middle of their bullpen, but Herndon's batting practice presence isn't going to solve the problem.

Worley, on the other hand, showed why he does belong. The young right-hander was filling in for Joe Blanton, who suddenly went on the Disabled List with an elbow impingement. Blanton was probably feeling slightly left out in the Phillies injury parade and wanted to make an appearance on the DL to show he belongs.

Worley pitched well, yielding two hits, walking four and striking out five thanks to mixing speeds well and a slightly generous strike zone at times. To cap off his evening, Worley also flared his first major league hit.

The batting heroes of the night were Ryan Howard, who belted two home runs including a grand slam for six rbi's and Placido Polanco, who set a new team record with his 39th hit in the month of April. He has one more game to add to his new record, which he previously shared with Chase Utley. Howard took over the league lead in rbi's with his evening's work. He struck out later, again with the bases jammed, losing a chance to add to his total. Oh, well, we shouldn't be greedy just because the offense is starting to show a little fight. Ben Francisco also had two hits and two rbi's for the evening, quietly raising his average to .272 and his rbi total to 18.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rolling Polly

Wednesday afternoon was a typical day for the 2011 installment of our favorite baseball team. The hitters broke out; the pitchers were stellar; and another regular went down with an injury.

Carlos Ruiz, mired in a horrible slump at plate but not behind the plate, hurt his back swinging in his first at bat of the day. He was replaced by Brian Schneider. Now we will wait and see as the Phils' inimitable medical staff and PR department keep us guessing as to the extent of his injury.

One player who's health previously worried us but no longer is Placido Polanco, who raised his average to an MLB second best .389 with a four for five day. The one time he failed to reach safely he sent the centerfielder deep. Polanco is all that stands between complete offensive ignominy and something approaching major league respectability for this club. He just gets his bat on the ball. While that doesn't seem to be such a big deal for guys who make their living playing baseball, one need only look at Raul Ibanez on the other side of the equation for a prime example of not getting one's bat on the ball. Ibanez pinch hit in the seventh inning yesterday and swung futilely at some pretty mediocre offerings. Ibanez head isn't exactly screwed on right now; indeed, he seems to be leading with his head on every pitch. Surely there is someone in the minors who can at least put his bat on the ball occasionally.

Cole Hamels pitched effectively yesterday. Antonio Bastardo yielded his first earned run (a solo homer) of the year. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard all homered for the previously punchless Phils. It remains to be seen how the Phils will fare against serious pitching. Yesterday's opponent, Joe Saunders, looked like he was throwing batting practice.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Not Too Soon To Worry

The Phillies' bats awoke last night. The pitchers went to sleep.

Roy Oswalt lasted three innings in the Phils' 7-5 loss to the Diamondbacks, their second straight defeat in the desert to a team that began the series with a losing record.

The Phils managed twelve hits but the starter and most of the relief corps couldn't solve the Dbacks.

Going into the game, the Phils had hit a combined .200 for their last fourteen games. TWO HUNDRED, as in, the Mendoza Line. If that futility wasn't cause enough for concern, two of the Four Aces lost the last two nights.

Folks, it isn't too soon to worry. Indeed, I for one started in January.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Power Rankings???

You can't face the Padres every night.

Still, if you have to settle for second best, Arizona would seem to have been a good choice. Nevertheless, the Phils anemic offense caught up with them as Ian Kennedy, heretofore never mistaken for Tom Seaver, shut them down on three hits while whiffing ten.

A quick perusal of the Phils' offensive stats shows a steady decline over the last two weeks. If Placido Polanco were not included, the Phils would collectively be flirting with the Mendoza line for the period in question. No one has been productive save Polly.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, good pitching won't be enough to overcome a nearly total lack of offense.

But that ain't the worst news.

There's trouble in paradise as GM Ruben Amaro seemed to suggest manager Charlie Manuel was overusing Jose Contreras, leading to an injured elbow. Amaro later backed off and said Cholly was handling the staff fine, but before this "retraction" Manuel bristled at the suggestion. While he was at it, the manager also complained in the press about Ryan Madson's request for a night off from pitching duties due to fatigue. Fatigue, Manuel wondered aloud. In April?

Charlie Manuel has never used the press to air his displeasure with a player. Make no mistake, this was a momentous turn of events, especially on an aging team that is, frankly, showing its age at the plate.

It isn't too much of a stretch to suggest the Phils will be awaiting the return of Domonic Brown with greater anticipation than ever. Ben Francisco has been an adequate replacement at best at the plate while in right field he has been fairly awful. Raul Ibanez' bat has slowed so badly over the last year and a half it wouldn't surprise me to see him become the most expensive pinch-hitter in MLB soon. The good news is he hasn't slowed in the outfield over the same period because, frankly, he already was slow. When Brown returns, he is going to get every opportunity to take the job in right. Francisco will then switch to left where he will platoon with another right-handed bat, John Mayberry. Let's face it, this is a bad outfield.

As long as we are facing "it" we should also note Ruben Amaro has made two very bad decisions over the last two off-seasons: letting Cliff Lee go the first time for very little in return; and, letting Jayson Werth go without replacing his bat and glove. If the Phils fail to make or advance in the playoffs this season, their GM's failure to shore up the offense will be the chief reason.

Meanwhile, back at the third hole, Jimmy Rollins has two rbi's out of this crucial spot in the batting order for the entire season! We should enjoy Jimmy's next four months in red pinstripes because at the current pace, it does not appear he will be with us next season. "As goes Jimmy, so go the Phillies" has long been the mantra around these parts. Looks like someone may be going.

Reports that Chase Utley has been running and taking some grounders are encouraging, but his availability is so shrouded in mystery one cannot count on a target date, if any exists, for his return. Instead, we are fed the occasional tidbit he's doing some running, taking batting practice and some ground balls. Put me down in the I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it column

Cliff Lee hasn't exactly set the world on fire in some of his starts, but no matter what he does, he cannot win if his teammates don't score.

I noticed yesterday the Phils had reclaimed the number one ranking in ESPN's Power Rankings for the week. Good thing the voting took place before last night's futility in the desert. How the term "Power Rankings" could apply to this team is beyond me!!!!

Monday, April 25, 2011

No Apologies Necessary.

I was out of town or asleep for every one of the four-game set in San Diego but I've read a few commentaries suggesting the Phils' overall record is in large measure testament to the inferior records of most of its competition to date.

Well, here's my response to that interpretation: never offer an apology for beating up on the mediocre clubs. The Yankees made a habit of doing that throughout the fifties and they made out all right. Indeed, all winners play the tough clubs more or less evenly while crushing the second division squads. That's how winners manage a clip of .600 or better on the way to a championship. A team that wins 90 plus games loses around 70 other ones.

So the Phils, who aren't hitting much themselves, managed to outscore the Padres thanks in large measure to their superior pitching and somewhat better hitting. And that's what will carry the Phils throughout 2011.

The only question that remains is whether or not this combination will be sufficient. With the news Jose Contreras has injured his elbow and been placed on the 15-day DL pending further examination, the Phils have already lost two closers and it isn't even May yet.

Ryan Madson, a reluctant closer heretofore but perennially the closer-in-waiting, has taken on the role by default. It's time to see just how ready the lanky right-hander is.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reverse Curse Update

Dashing here so no time for a lengthy post but I couldn't resist noting the reverse curse is alive and well. No sooner did I lament Ben Francisco's recent decline than the quiet right fielder hits a home run to lead off the second inning in last night's 3-0 white wash of San Diego. The hit obviously proved to be the game winner.

Also of note, Charlie Manuel looks like a genius for deciding to rest Carlos Ruiz last night. Second string catcher Brian Schnieder followed Francisco with a solo shot of his own as Roy Oswalt improved to 3-0 and 11-2 lifetime against the Padres.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

State Of The Club

Two days, two aces, two different results.

Roy Halladay hasn't really looked all that sharp thus far this season. Yes, he's thrown a complete game and struck out plenty of batters, but he's been hit reasonably hard at times and hasn't appeared dominating.

Tuesday night he was hit early and often by the Milwaukee Brewers and had to be taken out of the game in the seventh inning. The bullpen then entered the fray and poured gasoline on every square inch of the playing surface it could find. Meanwhile, the Phillies' bats turned to sawdust on the way to a 9-0 shellacking.

Wednesday afternoon Cliff Lee took the hill and was also less than dominating, surrendering three runs, two earned, in six innings of work. This time, however, the Phils managed something of a rarity this season: they hit two home runs in a game, sufficient to propel them to a 4-3 victory.

Ex-Phil John Kruk, who always seems to bend over a little backwards in attempting to appear impartial when it comes to the subject of his former team, told the truth when he said this team just isn't the same one which relied on power and offense in the past. Without Jayson Werth and Chase Utley, and with a diminished Ryan Howard and fast-sinking Raul Ibanez, the Phils cannot score the old-fashioned way. And without enough situational hitting from Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins, they are going to have trouble manufacturing runs. Only Placido Polanco seems to get it.

Meanwhile, Ben Francisco's hold on the right field job appears to be tenuous at best. As soon as Domonic Brown has recovered, look for the youngster to get plenty of opportunities to win the job he lost in Spring Training. Francisco has made Bobby Abreu look like a Gold Glover (what?!! He was one?!!)and his recent funk at the plate clearly indicates it didn't take long for pitchers to get the word on him. Super sub Wilson Valdez has had his own adventures in the field lately, too. Expect John Mayberry to see more playing time in left field as Raul Ibanez plays out the string on his three year contract. Ibanez' bat always looks a little late these days. Choking up won't help.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Big Leaguer

If it is safe to say every time one of the Phils' Four Aces starts his teammates believe they will win, it is equally safe to say that every time Charlie Manuel gives the ball to Kyle Kendrick his teammates believe they will lose.

Last night was proof positive.

Kendrick had a line that included wild pitches, hit batsmen, intentional walks, unintentional walks, base hits, throwing errors and full responsibility for the national debt. Oh, sorry, that last one was intended for another blog.

Kendrick was appearing in the twelfth inning of a game the Phils tied twice before losing so one can assume he was in there because the club had run out of other options. After the game Manuel noted Kendrick hadn't pitched in ten days. Small wonder. He isn't a big league pitcher by normal standards. Correction, he isn't a big league pitcher by any standards!

Had the Phils' bats come out of their recent doldrums a little earlier things might have been different. Indeed, they almost took the lead in the bottom of the 7th inning when with the score tied at two apiece, Placido Polanco hit a screamer back at the pitcher with men on first and second. The ball ricocheted off the pitcher's back and up into the air where a diving Yuniesky Betancourt grabbed it and turned to double off Michael Martinez. That was one snake-bit play if you were a Phil.

Joe Blanton, whose first two starts were awful, pitched well last night and deserved a better fate, but the Phils cannot generate any offense lately. Ben Francisco is mired in a pretty good slump, going 0-6 last night. Everyone except Polanco is scuffling pretty good while the starting pitching has been excellent.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reversion To The Mean

A few weeks into the season and the Phillies seem to be settling down into expected patterns.

A chart in today's Inquirer tracks the progress thus far of the Four Aces. With the exception of two horrendous outings, one each by Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, this quartet of pitchers have performed pretty much as expected. They are a combined 7-2. Lee and Hamels have righted themselves and are pitching very strongly. Halladay has been...well..Halladay, throwing complete games, pitching effectively though not dominating. Roy Oswalt has had two good outings.

The offense got off on a tear to begin the season but is also reverting to the mean lately, scrambling for hits and runs.

The bullpen began 2011 on such a high note there was nowhere else to go but down. Some middle relief is showing cracks, especially Denys Baez who doesn't belong on a big league roster any longer. Emergency closer Jose Contreras has done a fine Brad Lidge imitation on occasion, especially yesterday afternoon versus the Marlins, but he has gotten the job done. How well he'll hold up as the days get hotter and calls to put out fires get more frequent remains to be seen.

The bench also began the season on an extraordinary binge, delivering key pinch-hit after pinch-hit. They, too, had nowhere to go but down and have begun to do so.

Supersub Wilson Valdez has performed well in the field and at bat though he hasn't shown the range he did last year.

With the pitching staff performing as expected in the main, and pending the extent of Oswalt's injured back, the Phils will always be in the hunt. The big questions, hitting and relief pitching, remain. It's early, but not to early to be playing to form.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Exception To The Rule

You could see this one coming from miles away.

Roy Oswalt was cruising through five innings, nursing a no-hitter. Meanwhile, the Phils had scored two runs against Javier Vasquez and hit a number of long, hard outs. History tells us a two run lead against the Marlins is never enough. History has a way of repeating itself.

Sure enough, Logan Morrison smoked a long home run to right center field in the bottom of the fifth and the Marlins were on the way back. Oswalt would leave the game an inning later with a back strain following a bunt attempt. If you have a history of back troubles, you can throw it out at any time, doing anything. Reaching down for the soap in the shower is all it takes. Oswalt went to the Disabled List in 2009 with back problems. His preliminary prognosis was hopeful. This, he said after the game, was a mid-back rather than the lower back strain that sidelined him before. Let's hope he is the second Doc on the staff.

Meanwhile, back at the game we saw coming from miles away, the bullpen failed to hold the young Fish in check as they came back for a 4-3 victory. J.C. Romero did nothing to quiet skeptics and Denys Baez did even less. Of course in Baez' case, there are no skeptics any longer. Anyone who has ever watched baseball knows this guy has been cooked for more than a year now. His continued presence on a major league roster is testament to the stubbornness of baseball insiders who think a guy who throws hard is always capable of getting outs. I'm here to tell you Baez is one of many exceptions to that rule!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Efficiency Expert

There is something soothing about Cliff Lee. He works quickly and efficiently. He shows little emotion other than to sprint on and off the field in a manner uncharacteristic of the fraternity of hurlers, who prefer to stroll.

Lee doesn't fret publicly. When he was rocked in Atlanta last week, he neither offered nor made any excuses. Rumors about possible injuries or arm slot issues received as much confirmation from Lee as they would from Chase Utley; maybe even less!

In last night's start Lee took the ball, threw it back to his catcher quickly, struck out twelve Nats, and hurled a three-hit, complete-game shutout.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Doc & Polly

The doctor, fortunately, is always in.

Roy Halladay is, as Mike Schmidt correctly observed recently, not the intimidating presence of a Bob Gibson or Nolan Ryan. No, he's just your ordinary, garden-variety superb pitcher who begins with a plan, works quickly to implement it, commands his pitches and knows himself.

All of that adds up to a status as the ace of aces on the Phillies staff, indeed in the game itself. As Paul Hagen pointed out in his piece this AM, Halladay takes the ball and gives his team the feeling they will win every start he makes. It is difficult to find many pitchers in baseball, past or present, who afford their mates such comfort.

* * * * * * *

Had lunch with good friend Jason Weitzel yesterday and I opined that Placido Polanco is one of the true professionals to come along in a long time. It was difficult to see him leave several years ago when Chase Utley was coming into his own; it was a pleasure to see him return. Polanco gives the Phillies an excellent glove (ask Roy Halladay about his third baseman's performance just last night)and a contact hitter who never gives away an at bat. He always is in the game, aware of the situations defensively and offensively.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Blanton Watch Has Begun

Jason Werth certainly has a flair for the dramatic, but one has to wonder why he wasn't more grateful to rather than vengeful of his old mates. After all, didn't they allow him to walk away and into all those riches?

Werth was the hero in his new home town last night as the Nats beat the Phils handily, 7-4. Joe Blanton was again the goat. We can assume the Phils' alleged brain trust is already ramping up its monitoring of a replacement for Blanton. From this observer's perspective, Kentucky Joe has only a couple of more starts to get his act together before the Phils bail on him. The worst part about Blanton's rotten season to date is that his trade value is diminishing with every pitch.

Meanwhile, Livan Hernandez looked very good against the Phillies last night, a very sad commentary. When a pitcher can get you out on a 61 MPH curve, you know you are in for a long night.

Werth entered the game with his batting average exactly on the Mendoza line. He then proceeded to get a few hits including a line drive home run and a walk against his former team. The Inquirer headline read "Werth 1, Phillies 0" but the truth is the score was really Werth 1, Blanton 0. Things might have been different if a few Phillies could have delivered key hits in key situations, but they didn't.

So, the guy who has been touted since his arrival a few years ago as an "innings eater" was again the prey not the hunter. We aren't going to have Blanton to kick around much longer judging from his two starts in 2011. Past performance, as the brochures warn, is no guarantee of future returns but with Blanton it may sadly be the case.

Monday, April 11, 2011


I was out-of-town last weekend and missed seeing any of the Phillies-Braves series live. Instead, I depended on the usual second-hand sources (ESPN, local newspapers) for reports. On balance the Phils enjoyed a good weekend in Dixie, taking two of three from the Braves including an encouraging rebound by Cole Hamels, who bested Derek Lowe on Sunday.

Cliff Lee appears to have had a rocky start that still might have been salvaged had Shane Victorino caught Chipper Jones deep fly ball that knocked in three runs. Reports in various sources suggested the ball was catchable.

Still, if the Phils can go on the road and play .667 ball, they're going to be fine. Thus far this early season the offense has been more than a pleasant surprise while the pitching has varied between expected pleasure and rough patches.

Next up is Washington and old friend Jayson Werth, who is struggling along exactly even with the Mendoza line as of this posting. All those millions might be salve enough for Werth as he longs for even some of the pitching his former team throws out there on a nightly basis...but I'd be willing to bet the losing will get to him.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Who's Ahead?

There's a reason Joe Blanton has been the forgotten man in the Phillies' starting rotation and it was on display for all to see last night. Staked to a 7-0 lead, Blanton imploded in the fifth inning allowing the Mets to tie the game. The Phils' offense bailed him and the rest of the team out by tacking on three more runs for a 10-7 victory.

Kentucky Joe has a reputation as an innings eater but over the last one plus seasons it sure has looked more like the innings are eating him! Strong at the beginning of the game, as the innings wore on Blanton left more and more pitches up in the zone and the Mets started taking batting practice. I write "as the innings wore on" but the hard truth is he fell apart in the fifth inning, hardly deep into the game.

Besides the offense, which collected 16 hits, the middle and back of the Phillies' bullpen was outstanding including JC Romero, Antonio Bastardo, Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras. In essence, everyone did his job in the pen as they halted the hemorrhaging and allowed the offense to take over.

Speaking of that offense, the Phils have certainly provided far more of it at this early juncture of the season than was expected. Let's see what happens when they face good pitching. The only certifiably good pitcher they've faced thus far is Brett Myers, who stymied them but good! Meanwhile, the Phils' starting pitching has given up fourteen runs to the Mets in two nights.

Tell me again, who is supposed to be ahead at this point in the season, pitching or hitting?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

A Real Stinker

One of them had to lose sooner or later and Cole Hamels drew the short straw, 2 and 2/3 innings in length to be precise.

Hamels began the Spring on such a high note his pitching coach and manager said his first outings looked like he was in mid-season form. He ended the Spring on a much rougher note. Tuesday night he looked like he'd been left behind in Florida.

The Phils had an opportunity to start the scoring in the first inning, but could not deliver against Chris Young, hardly the second coming of Cy least before last night.

OK, so the Phils gave their fans a stinker. No one expected 162 - 0 and no one expected the quartet of aces to win every time out.

Let's see what the forgotten man, Joe Blanton, can do to correct matters.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Could It Be The Glass Is Half Full?

Being a glass-half-empty leaning sort of guy, I thought to myself after the Phils swept the Astros this weekend, "Well, pretty good start but they really only faced one good pitcher, Brett Myers, and he stymied them."

Then I thought to myself, "Yeah, but these guys swept them four straight last summer and have the best record against the Phils of any NL team over the last several years."

So, you negative so-and-so, lighten up!

These were good wins on many fronts. Three-quarters of the Four Aces more than lived up to expectations. Ben Francisco had a few adventures in right field, but he was very solid at the plate and, one hopes, with more regular playing time will get the hang of the defense. He made a real nice albeit awkward catch against the fence yesterday.

Ryan Howard is off to a torrid start and the doubters who think he's become a singles hitter must have been at the concession stands when he homered in the first inning. Jimmy Rollins is also off to a torrid start.

Shane Victorino injured a calf and came back a day later to play half a game very bat and in the field.

Minny Mart, as Jason Weitzel calls him, got his first big league start and first big league hit.

Placido Polanco was his usual solid self. Kyle Kendrick was not. (Just in case you were beginning to think this entire post was beer and skittles.)

The Mets come to town tomorrow. They'll be fired up to derail the Phils opening week express. Having taken two of three from the Marlins in Florida, the Mets would like to think they're pretty good. They aren't.

The pressure is now on Cole Hamels to keep up the pace of the first three starters.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Heck Of A Start

Dead in the water for seven innings and lifeless for most of the game, the Phillies rallied for three runs in the ninth inning against Houston, stringing together six singles, to take the season's opener 5-4.

Roy Halladay started and went six innings while yielding one earned run on five hits. He also beat out an infield hit in the third with Wilson Valdez on second , but was called out by Bob Davidson, killing a potential rally that might have seen him remain in the game beyond the sixth. Replays showed he beat the throw. No matter. JC Romero and David Herndon surrendered three runs between them in so-called relief and the Astros took what looked like a solid 4-0 lead behind Brett Myers. Myers wasn't really all that impressive, but he managed to keep the free-swinging Phils off-balance sufficiently. When they did tag a few solid balls off the former Phillie, they were hit right at people.

New rightfielder Ben Francisco had an adventurous day, bobbling a ball for a two-base error that didn't lead to a run. In the ninth inning Francisco had a key hit driving in Jimmy Rollins for the first of three runs to get the scoring started in the winning rally. That hit more than atoned for the error; it made Francisco a key part of the team from day one. John Mayberry drove in the winning run on another single, helping to cement his place on the team as well. Nothing quite makes a player feels he belongs quite as much as driving in the winning run on Opening Day in a comeback victory!

Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins had two hits apiece to pace the offense, 60% of which came in that eventful ninth inning.

The Phils lineup featured Shane Victorino in the leadoff spot and JRoll batting third, where Utley normally hit. The oddest decision was to put Raul Ibanez in the five hole instead of inserting the righty Francisco between the lefties Howard and Ibanez. Hard to say whether or not Charlie Manuel didn't want to put too much pressure on Francisco or just felt Ibanez is the more proven rbi man.Correction:  The explanation for the batting order was simple yet eluded me:  Myers throws right-handed.  The next night when Houston started a lefty, Manuel flipped Francisco and Ibanez in the order.

It was a solid way to begin a season in which starting pitching was expected to dominate (Halladay wasn't dominant but he was good), the relief corps was suspect (it still is) and the offense was a big question mark (one inning doesn't yet erase the doubts.)