Friday, September 29, 2006

Deja Vu All Over Again

I want to make that start [this coming] Saturday.  I want to ruin the Phillies' season. – Scott Olsen, starting pitcher, Florida Marlins

Get in line, Scottie, the Washington Nationals beat you to the punch.

The Marlins’ rookie left-hander, who surrendered three home runs in his last appearance against the Phillies and then hit a batter to cap off his memorable day, has opened his big mouth on the eve of the final series of the regular season.  It appears he isn’t the only one with some sort of grudge against the Phillies:

"I don't like them.  I don't want to see them get in…. At this point, that's our only motivation - to not let the Phillies get in." --  Taylor Tankersley, relief pitcher, Florida Marlins.

Someone ought to tell these kids there is more to life than grudges.

Someone else ought to tell the Phillies there is no more life after Sunday if  they don’t turn things around beginning tonight and the Dodgers cooperate by losing at least two out of three in their final series.

The only good thing that can be said about last night’s loss to the Nationals is hardly anyone saw it, including the Phillies hitters.  The start of the game was delayed 4.5 hours by rain and didn’t end until past 2AM.  The Phils dropped two of three in Washington and barely won the middle game.  Not exactly a killer instinct.

So, it’s déjà vu all over again: that elusive post-season appearance hangs in the balance of a weekend series against the Marlins.  The Phils have been there before.  Will the results be different this time?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Jimmy Rolls On

Jimmy isn’t going quietly.

The Phillies may be stumbling toward the finish line, but J-Roll is firing on all cylinders. At least that’s what I learned after the fact because, truth be told, this old hand was fast asleep by the fourteenth inning last night. Of course, I awakened well past midnight, anxious to find out what happened, and tuned in just in time to see the replay of Jimmy’s game-winning triple.

The contest featured a boatload of missed opportunities, blown saves and, of course, players, 47 in all. By the time it ended, the guy who is the real heart and soul of the Phillies came through once again. Ryan Howard is getting the national press; Chase Utley is winning the hearts and minds of local fans; and Jimmy is putting on another of his patented late season pushes. In the final analysis, the Phillies remain his team. Without him, they aren’t going anywhere and to a man his teammates are quick to say so.

The evening began with a familiar look nearly five hours earlier when the Phils took an early lead on a walk to Shane Victorino and Utley’s double. Utley took third on the throw but was stranded when Howard and Jeff Conine went down in the first of many wasted scoring chances.

Cole Hamels got the start but didn’t bring his A-game with him. Washington scored twice in the bottom of the second to take the lead. Later, Hamel’s cause wasn’t helped when Chase Utley threw away a double play ball in the bottom of the third inning to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead. It was Utley’s second error in two nights, both of which led to runs.

The Phils clawed their way back almost despite themselves and by the end of regulation time handed Flash Gordon a one-run lead to save and protect. Gordon couldn’t find the strike zone and blew the save plain and simple. The Phillies retook the lead in the top of the tenth but an overworked Geoff Geary blew that save as the Nationals tied the score again. The score remained tied until Rollins’ heroics in the top of the fourteenth inning, but this being the Phillies, the excitement wasn’t quite over. Fabio Castro, unseen nor heard since September 6, came in and gave up two hits and threw away a sacrifice attempt to load the bases. Ryan Church delivered a sacrifice fly to close the gap to 8-7 before Castro induced Brian Schneider to hit into a game-ending double play.

Four games remain in the regular season and none of them will be easy, especially with the bullpen so overworked and unpredictable. The phlogosphere is alive with lineup and bullpen suggestions, most of which Charlie Manuel is unlikely to take. (Charlie, I know you avidly read our posts daily.)

Many observers continue to suggest lineup changes that will give Ryan Howard more protection. Pat Burrell is no longer a viable candidate for the role and while Jeff Conine has risen to the occasion a few times since his arrival, the 0-7 collar he took last night hardly inspires confidence going forward. The lone remaining alternative Charlie has at his disposal, David Dellucci, is seeing nothing but breaking stuff since opposing pitchers realized he couldn’t hit them, and he has been more than accommodating.

One suggestion that cropped up was to move Chase Utley to fifth. Utley has 32 home runs, 33 if you want to count the foul pole shot of Tuesday evening, and is batting .312. Those totals along would seem to qualify him as protection for Howard. It is worth noting, however, that while Washington may have intentionally walked Ryan several times in the first two games, they have also pitched to him several times. With Frank Robinson managing, they are going to challenge hitters whenever possible and in Howard's case he did see pitches he could have hit far more than he is likely to see in Florida this weekend. But as noted in an earlier post (See Swing Quartet below), if Rollins, Victorino and Utley are getting on base, opposing teams cannot walk Howard. I wouldn’t tinker with the top of the lineup now.

The bullpen is another matter. Gordon appears to be cooked. Geary is clearly tired. (Despite having a fine year, it should be noted that Geary gives up more than a hit an inning.) Nearly everyone else has been working overtime as well except for one guy, Matt Smith. He would be my candidate to pitch in a pressure situation because he’s handled himself well, Monday night’s performance notwithstanding.

A few days ago the Phillies held their fortunes in their own hands. They led the Dodgers in the Wild Card chase and were facing a team with the worst record in the division. Boy, destiny sure has a way of changing its course, doesn’t it? Just don’t tell Jimmy.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Plenty of Blame To Spread Around

I cannot speak for the good people of Mudville, but when it comes to anxiety and despair, they have nothing on us.

The Phillies squandered another lead and, more important, another opportunity to stay ahead of Los Angeles in the Wild Card race as they lost last night to the Nationals 4-3.  Coupled with the Dodgers win in Denver, the Phils are now a full game back.  The entire affair was a team effort with virtually no one immune to second-guessing or worse except Chris Coste.

As a group the Phillies are no longer doing the little or big things that propelled them into the chase in the first place.  Chief among their failings is the mounting number of wasted scoring opportunities, a feature of much of their play throughout the spring and summer.

In this morning’s Inquirer Brett Myers is quoted assuming responsibility for the loss and writer Todd Zolecki just as quickly absolved him:

"I've got one thing to say," Myers said. "I cost us the game."

Hardly. The offense did. Maybe the umpire's call did.

Not exactly, Todd.

The Phillies staked Myers to a two-run lead in the first inning on the road with their putative ace on the mound and he came right back in the bottom of the frame and handed the Nationals one of those runs.  He then waited two more innings before walking two runners and allowing a double to finally surrender the lead for good.  I don’t care how his pitching line reads in the end, his early performance was hardly stepping up.  Think ace on some other staff and just imagine anyone else handling the situation as Myers did.

Myers wasn’t helped in that third inning by some questionable fielding on the part of Pat Burrell, who might have been able to make the play on the ball but didn’t, but at the outset he simply didn’t do his job.  Through three innings he gave up a stolen base (he never even appeared to look at the runner), two walks and three hits and Washington capitalized on every one of them.

Meanwhile, the Phillies were just getting started squandering scoring opportunities of their own against a pitcher tied for the most losses in the league this season and one who never met a pitch down Broadway he wasn’t willing and able to throw.

Lots of Phillies failed to deliver, most of all our good friend Burrell, who had himself quite a night again, striking out twice with runners in scoring position.  Burrell has become the four-tool player management envisioned when they made him the first pick in the draft lo those many years ago…only in reverse.  He cannot run at all, hit when it counts, field in general or throw accurately any longer.  He deserves some sort of mercy treatment at this stage.  If not, we do!!

The phone lines, chat rooms, in boxes and newspapers will be filled with fingers pointed regarding the apparent blown call on the home run that wasn’t by Chase Utley, but no one protested when it happened and that’s about all you can say.   His may have been the biggest missed opportunity to win last night, but it wasn’t the only one.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Take A Memo, Please

It appears Houston never received the memo, the one that was supposed to remind them they had their shot last year but this time around the Phils were going to the post-season. Come to think of it, did anyone remember to send that memo to the Phillies?

Ask any team and they’ll tell you the last thing they want is to spend a precious off day at this stage of the season flying half way across the country to make up a rained out game, but the Astros not only showed up, they played like they had something at stake. In fact, they do, mathematically speaking, as the St. Louis Cardinals continue to stumble toward October in the NL Central, while the Astros, winners of six straight, now trail them by 2.5 games.

The Phils’ have plenty to play for but they didn’t act like it last night. The loss dropped them into a tie with the idle Dodgers for the Wild Card lead. To some of us phloggers in attendance at sold-out Citizens Bank Park, it looked like the Phillies were the ones who had to travel as they sleep-walked through much of the game, showing little patience at the plate against nearly half of Houston’s pitching staff. It’s difficult to comprehend how they could waste such a golden opportunity to take a full game lead in Wild Card, especially with the Bank rocking with a playoff-like atmosphere. Once again, so much for home field advantage. Following their comeback win Sunday over the Marlins when the Delaware Valley did it’s best imitation of South Florida in hurricane season, I guess there wasn’t sufficient time to install a retractable roof and pretend they were at Minute Maid Park.

Randy Wolf got the start last night and pitched well overall as long as he stuck with his fastball and mixed in the occasional breaking ball. Unfortunately, he works too many deep counts these days, running up his pitch total, struggling to set the side down in order. By the sixth inning he was relying more on that sweeping curve of his and Houston was having none of it. When Jason Lane, who entered the game hitting .203, homered in the top of the sixth to tie the score at 2 apiece and Humberto Quintero singled two batters later, Wolf’s night was over. The late home run is another pattern with Wolf; still, at that point the Phillies were in the game though not least not most of them.

In the bottom of the frame they answered right back and retook the lead, 4-2, as Jimmy Rollins hit his 25th home run of the year. It any Phillie deserves to play on the national stage at this point he is J-Roll. The home run was his third in as many games. He is simply doing everything right: hitting, fielding, running and, Jimmy being Jimmy, speaking non-stop to his teammates, opposing players and the press. Utley and Howard have deservedly received much praise, but if Jimmy isn’t hitting the Phillies aren’t going anywhere…ever. No one had to remind him what is at stake!!

The top of the seventh proved the Phillies undoing and provided plenty of ammunition for second-guessing Charlie Manuel. Rick White, the first of four Phillies relievers in the seventh, began the inning by inducing the dangerous Willie Taveras to ground out. Morgan Ensberg walked. Manuel summoned Matt White to pitch to and turn around Lance Berkman and the move worked as Berkman struck out. But Smith walked Luke Scott and Chris Burke on close calls. From our 90 degree angle to the plate it looked like Smith was squeezed, but there was no real squawking from the Phillies. Out went Charlie. In came Geoff Geary who surrendered a bases loaded single to pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro. Two runs scored and more significantly, Burke moved up to third on Pat Burrell’s throwing error. Next, Mike Lamb pinch hit and singled, driving in Burke with what proved to be the winning run. Out went Charlie. In came Aaron Fultz to finally retire the side.

Manuel has used Smith sparingly since his call up and the 27-year old left-hander acquired in the Abreu deal has been very effective. His role in last night’s game was to turn Berkman around, which he did successfully. After walking the next batter, however, it was time to make another move to a more experienced hand. Charlie hesitated, and he who hesitates…. Managers like Manuel love to talk about experience and working under pressure, but in the end they are more likely to go with their hunches. He guessed Smith could work his way out of trouble and he guessed wrong.

The Phillies had good scoring opportunities in the fourth and fifth innings and a last gasp in the 8th and though they plated two runs in the fifth, they failed to capitalize further when they could have put the Astros away. Over the last week or so the Phillies have not been wasting scoring opportunities in general, but they chose to revert to earlier season form this night and it proved fatal.

The 8th inning was particularly perplexing as Pat Burrell led off with a walk. Michael Bourn ran for him. Mike Lieberthal followed and tried to lay down a bunt, which he fouled off. Lieberthal hits into his share of double plays, but lately he has been swinging a hot bat. On the next pitch, Bourn took off for second on a straight steal and Lieberthal bunted again. This time it was successful, if by that we mean he was credited with a sacrifice. To most of us it looked like Bourn had the base stolen and the bunt was not only unnecessary, it was ill-advised. Did Bourn or Lieberthal miss a sign? Why give up an out under the circumstances? It is highly unlikely Bourn was running on his own. For his part, Lieberthal has probably bunted 5 times in 12 years…if that.

Now, it’s on to Washington for a three-game series between a team with absolutely nothing to lose and one with everything to gain. By this time next week the whole matter of a post-season appearance for the Phils will be settled. In between, a lot of people are going to be nervous wrecks.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Let's Run The Table

Having pushed their home record above .500 for the first time this season with a win on Saturday, the Phillies stepped onto the field Sunday in sultry, tropical-like Citizens Bank Park and could have been excused if they thought their game with the Marlins had been hijacked overnight to South Florida. And sure enough, when a torrential downpour arrived in the top of the seventh inning, delaying the game and sending the sold-out crowd for cover, even the weather man seemed to be in on the old switcheroo.

In between, the Phils watched the Marlins jump out to a quick 4-0 lead against Jamie Moyer before most fans had taken their seats only to roar right back with seven runs of their own in the bottom of the third en route to a 10-7 win. Then, it was on to scoreboard watching, and what a experience that turned out to be. First, the Padres maintained their 1.5 game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West with a 2-1 win against the Pirates and later Nomar Garciaparra added his name to Los Angeles’ wall of fame but most assuredly not to the Phillies Christmas card list by hitting his second walk-off home run of the week, this one a grand slam, as the Dodgers beat Arizona 5-1 to remain half a game behind the Phils in the Wild Card chase.

Speaking of the Wild Card, a few ploggers and I will be at Citizens Bank Park this evening for the final regular season home game. In anticipation of attending, I informed my wife I would not be home for dinner.

“How are they doing?” she asked in blissful ignorance.

“They’re a half game ahead in the Wild Card chase,” I replied.

“What is the ‘wild card’?” she inquired.

After I explained the finer points, my wife’s take on the whole matter was this:

“So, let me get this straight. They’re playing for fourth place and the best possible outcome at this stage won’t even see them on the medals’ stand. Am I correct?”

I started to say, well, no, not exactly but stopped myself short. Leave it there, I told myself, and with that, any thoughts of inviting her to join me at the game vanished.

After a long pause, she looked at me and must have guessed what I was thinking. “Have a good time at the game, dear.”

Back at the Bank, Sunday’s affair featured the continued torrid hitting of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, a near home run by Ryan Howard (who had two hits), and the daily Abraham Nunez show at third base. Nunez is routinely turning in three or four outstanding plays a game at the hot corner and, temporarily, making everyone forget his anemic batting average. As a matter of fact, in yesterday’s win with the Phils trailing 4-0 after only one inning Nunez started the first rally of the day with a solid single in the hole. After Moyer sacrificed him to second, Jimmy Rollins smote a home run to left and the comeback was on. Utley followed with the first of his two home runs of the day and Chris Coste capped off the rally with a three-run blast. Later, Coste told reporters it was the “biggest home run of my career” and he wanted “to do cartwheels around the bases.”

Nunez is still not the likely answer at third base next year, but his continual astounding play in the field and his slow, inexorable climb back to respectability at the plate may induce the Phillies to believe he can man the fort for one more season while they fill other holes.

For his part, Utley’s sense of timing is as marvelous as his overall approach to the game. He’d been scuffling for weeks until this current home stand, but ever since his average temporarily dipped below .300 during Wednesday night’s game he has been impossible to retire, raising his average in the process to .309 including 31 home runs and 98 rbi’s. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s home run was his 24th and the two rbi’s raised his total to 76, both career highs. He also has 183 hits and 122 runs scored.

So the Phils are in the position of controlling their own destiny. No matter what the Dodgers do this coming week, the Phillies can keep them at bay by playing as they have for the past week. A short while ago Charlie Manuel declared the team that got hot would win the Wild Card. Right now the Phillies are that team. All they have to do now is remain so.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Keystone Chrysler Jeep Key To The Season

The only moving part most of us have been worried about lately threw a rod Saturday afternoon as the Phillies held on to beat the Marlins 8-6. Ryan Madson and Flash Gordon made a comfortable late-inning lead mighty uncomfortable by serving up three home runs between them in the eighth and ninth innings.

Why Charlie Manuel felt compelled to bring in Gordon with a four run lead after the veteran right-hander had worked the night before is a mystery to me. Gordon isn't that far removed from a stint on the Disabled List for shoulder problems. Surely there were alternatives that could have allowed the Phils to avoid using him for a second straight game while saving him for the two games ahead, but that would have meant thinking outside the box, not a strong suit with most baseball managers, especially this one.

Until Madson and Gordon melted down, the little red engine was humming along quite nicely. The top of the batting order was getting on base, the middle and bottom of the order were driving them in, and the starting pitching continued the trend of going deep into the game, at least by modern standards. Brett Myers even went deep into the game the other night by ancient standards, throwing a complete game.

Jimmy, Shane and Chase banged out ten hits in 15 AB’s in the victory. Chase has rediscovered his batting stroke at precisely the right moment. Ryan Howard had one hit in two official at bats. He was hit by another pitch and intentionally walked twice. Interestingly, the Marlins did pitch to him twice with all those base runners ahead of him. The first time he struck out. The next and last time up, men were on first and second when Howard swung and missed at a pitch that got by catcher Miguel Olivo for a passed ball. When the runners moved up to second and third, Joe Girardi ordered Howard intentionally walked. It was the right if locally unpopular move. The fact remains the Marlins did pitch to him, or intended to, twice in a row underscoring the notion Rob Parent made this morning in the Inquirer and I elaborated on. (See the post below.)

Jeff Conine also contributed significantly to the outcome after coming in as pinch-hitter. Following years of watching Conine the Marlin drive a stake into the Phillies’ collective heart, it more than a little satisfying to see him turn the tables on his former team. Conine had two hits and three rbi’s on the day. (As an aside, Miguel Olivo seems to be bidding to replace Conine as the resident Phillies-killer.)

Carlos Ruiz also had a fine day at bat and behind the plate, going 2 for 4 and driving in two runs to pad the Phils’ early lead after Rollins, Victorino and Utley hit consecutive singles to open the game. In the bottom of the third he doubled home another run.

A lot of people have been clamoring for Ruiz to play more. Last year, Chase Utley was the cause celebre as everyone begged he be given the starting job at second base. Once that wish was fulfilled, the cry went out to get Ryan Howard’s bat up to the big leagues permanently and into the every day lineup.

After watching the latter two develop into frontline stars, literally since both were named All Stars this past summer, it is difficult to fault the Phillies for the way they bring some players along.

The exception to their cautious approach is Cole Hamels. Of course two things dictated his call-up: the Phillies were desperate for starting pitching and Hamels seems to have exhausted whatever minor league batters or pitching coaches could teach him.

It may be a cliché to write this, but right now a lot of different players are stepping up and contributing to the Phillies’ success. It would be a real shame if they fell short this time. The feeling remains the bullpen holds the key.

Swing Quartet

Rollins, Utley, Hamels and Howard

The more these names appear at the heart of the story line, the better. Last night the foursome took center stage for the umpteenth time as the Phils opened their last regular season series at home by beating the Florida Marlins 5-2 before a packed house at the Bank.

Rollins got things started with a double in the first inning, moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Shane Victorino and scored on Utley’s first of three singles.

Hamels threw 6.1 innings of one run ball, striking out ten and lowering his ERA to just a shade over 4. The rookie left-hander improved his record to 9-8 and his overall standing in the eyes of his opponents to ace in waiting.

As for the big guy, he sent a tracer over the left field wall for his 58th home run (*59 including the one that was stolen in Houston), tying him with the legendary XX, Jimmy Fox, for most home runs hit by a Philadelphia player. Fox hit his 58 in 1932 for the A’s. (Every time I read or hear about the A’s I wonder what it would be like to have two major league teams in town. Ah, well, we’d all take sides anyway and be rooting for either the Phils or the A’s.)

Howard didn’t see many pitches worth swinging at last night, but when he did he took full advantage. A few weeks ago Howard burned the Marlins badly and they vowed never to throw him anything in the same zip code when they met again. The pitch Howard hit wasn’t that bad, but it had enough of his zip code for him to send it to the adjacent one. Once that was done, the Marlins went back to plan B, issuing him intentional walks. Howard isn’t going to see many more pitches this season, especially from any team managed by Joe Girardi.

Everyone in town has been fretting over who will bat behind the big fella, the baseball orthodoxy being that the better the bat behind your power guy the more it forces the opposition to pitch to, not around him. However, as Rob Parent points out in this morning’s Inquirer, the more often the guys in front of Howard get on, the tougher it will be to issue him a free pass or try and pitch around him. Sure enough, Jimmy’s two doubles and Utley’s three singles meant as much if not more last night than the prospect of facing Dellucci, Burrell or Conine. In fact, Howard’s home run came at the precise moment in the game that Florida’s brain trust was on the fence about how to pitch to him. Once Howard decided matters by putting a pitch over that fence, the whole point was moot.

Bobby Abreu

Lost in all the excitement about the Phillies’ post-season aspirations was the fact that the Yankees clinched the AL East the other night meaning Bobby Abreu will be going to the playoffs for the first time in his admirable ten year career. Hats off to Bobby!

Aaron Rowand & Shane Victorino

A piece in this morning’s Inquirer noted that Aaron Rowand had his cast removed the other day and was in the clubhouse making noises that he’s trying to get back in time for the post-season. While Rowand’s desires are well-known and admirable, it says here that should he return, manager Charlie Manuel should forego his normal policy that starters don’t lose their jobs due to injury and stick with Shane Victorino in centerfield. When it comes to desire and all-out hustle, Rowand has nothing on Shane. When it comes to everything else, Victorino is the superior fielder with better range and a far superior arm. As for batting, Victorino is at least Rowand’s equal overall and a far more dangerous base runner. To cap things off, whenever a bunt is called for, Victorino lays one down, as he did last night to push Jimmy Rollins to third in the first inning. Jimmy then scored the first run of the game on Utley's single.

Howard's Glove & Feet

That was a great play by Howard and Gordon in the top of the ninth. He is a far better fielder than some give him credit for and he is likely to improve further with more experience.

His is also one heck of a demon on the base paths for such a big guy. The only thing that worries me is that he always slides head first. He must think he's Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins. Got to stop that.

A lot of people talk about his gut but it looks pretty flat to this "big-frame" observer. Howard is much more nimble than your average 6'4" 250 lb. guy.

Matt Smith

Local fans greeted the arrival of Matt Smith with their usual skepticism, believing he was little more than a throw-in when the Yankees swiped Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle from the Phils. They might be right down the road, but for now he's performed sparingly but very effectively. Charlie Manuel has an obvious tendency to mistrust newcomers and rookies unless forced to use them so Smith has not had sufficient opportunities to show his stuff, but from what I've seen he deserves serious consideration next year for the role Arthur Rhodes performed so unreliably this past season. His numbers are very good and what's more he seems poised and confident in tight situations.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Games That Matter

Dust off those clichés about marbles, tomorrows and monkeys on backs, ladies and gentlemen, this is what we’ve all been waiting for: meaningful games as the calendar strikes autumn.

The Phillies begin a three game series tonight against the Florida Marlins and find themselves a half game behind the Dodgers in the Wild Card chase with ten games remaining.

It is only fitting in this season of youth movements and passing of the torch that the Phils hand the ball to 22-year old rookie Cole Hamels to get things started. Like all supremely confident athletes who believe in themselves, Hamels wants the ball with the season on the line.

This year marks the second straight season the Phillies have relied heavily on the younger generation to get them to the Promise Land. Last year, Ryan Howard arrived in June and took up the power slack when Jim Thome was sidelined for the remainder of the season. Though Howard would eventually win the Rookie of Year award, the Phils fell one game short of Houston in their bid for the Wild Card. This year, Hamels arrived in May and immediately drew raves from opposing managers and players as he showed the kind of poise normally associated with veterans and in the process began his ascent toward the top of the Phillies starting rotation.

If it all seems like déjà vu all over again, it is. Nearly every year in recent memory the Phils square off against the Marlins with so much on the line. And for the second year in a row, the Astros, who spoiled the Phils’ run last year by sweeping them in Philadelphia and Houston, figure in the stretch run when they fly into town Monday for a makeup game.

The Phils may have drawn a huge break by avoiding the Marlins’ Dontrelle Willis for this series. There have also been reports that slugger Miguel Cabrera may miss some time with a shoulder injury. The Phillies are also banged up at this stage of the campaign, especially in the outfield where Shane Victorino appears to be nursing a bruised wrist and Pat Burrell continues to limp along with assorted nagging injuries. The chief concern remains the bullpen, which is overworked and erratic and which is short on experienced hands. On balance, however, the Phils are in good shape with an offense that scores runs in bunches and a starting rotation that may be peaking at just the right time.

You have to like their chances. Cole Hamels does.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Time Is Now

It’s time for the majority of Philadelphia’s sporting public to wake up and recognize the most exciting team in town and the one which most deserves their support currently plies its trade across the street from the Linc, not inside it.

Instead of obsessing ad nauseum about knees and dropped passes and every body part and decision in between, these fans should direct their energies towards the Phillies, who have risen from the nearly dead and put on a late season rush worthy of their hometown’s support if not affection. All of this endless hand-wringing and compulsive analysis of the Eagles every week has grown completely out of proportion. The only thing that seems to stop the unending post-mortems following each Sunday’s game is the realization by, say, Tuesday, that it’s time to start obsessing about next week’s opponent.

Don’t give me the same old tired excuse that the Phils have let you down too many times in the past. Every team in town has contributed to your misery including the Eagles on more than one occasion. I don’t want to hear the rationalization for your absence that only the NL’s mediocrity has permitted a team barely over .500 to contend at this late date. The Florida Marlins went from Wild Card to World Series champs a few years ago. Think of the Phillies as peaking at just the right moment.

Ask yourselves this: when was the last time the entire nation, from sea to shining sea, was talking about a Phillies player? Mike Schmidt never drew such attention. Silent Lefty certainly didn’t. Pete Rose was past his prime when he landed in town. Ryan Howard, on the other hand, has captured the entire sporting world’s attention and he’s all ours to enjoy and cheer on. No one wants to be standing in front of the refrigerator when Howard comes to bat.

So reprogram that remote control this weekend or, better yet, take yourself out to the ballpark and try cheering for the other team in town. As Erik Grissom of Philliesflow so aptly headlined his post the other day, P-H-I-L-L-I-E-S.

What's In The Forecast?

Several “wrongs” were righted at The Bank last night. Where do you want to begin?

The Phillies' confounding inability to consistently win at home may finally be coming to an end, and not a moment too soon with only four regular-season games remaining there. Of course the following explanation may be stretched a bit thin for some: the weather man made them do it.

Facing the Chicago Cubs in the rubber match of a three-game series, the Phillies simply imagined they were on the road. The weather man cooperated in this chicanery by producing a stiff wind and brisk falling temperatures befitting Wrigley Field. Voila! Pretend you are on Lake Michigan and play on! My companion at the game was Dan Rubin, author of the Inquirer’s blog and a graduate of Northwestern University. Dan arrived at the game wearing a light sweater and can attest to the Chicago-like weather from personal experience.

In the process, the Phils overcame another bugaboo, their struggles closing out a series with a win. Their 6-2 victory following a 4-1 win the night before gave the Phillies the series 2-1 and propelled them into a tie with the Dodgers for the Wild Card lead.

Brett Myers was the biggest hero of the night and not a moment too soon. Previously, Myers hasn’t always stepped up in big games, but on this evening he answered the call and tossed a complete game six-hitter while striking out twelve. Just as critically, he gave the overworked bullpen the night off. With no game scheduled today, the relief corps should be relatively well-rested when the Marlins come to town Friday.

Poor Pat Burrell, subject of an excellent lay analysis yesterday by John Smallwood in the Daily News, walked and scored twice and stroked his 26th home run of the season. The glass half-full crowd hope this latest home run will finally get Burrell untracked; the glass half-empties, whose ranks are much larger, will see it as another late-inning home run when the game was already in hand. Fortunately for Burrell, the 35,000 plus fans at the Bank last night overwhelming gave him the positive reinforcement he desperately needs.

Chase Utley also came through with a big home run just as his average was about to dip below .300 and stay there, at least overnight. The phlogosphere has been abuzz with consternation regarding Utley’s declining fortunes at the plate. Some even suggested he sit a game or parts of one just to collect himself for the final stretch. I can only imagine the cold stare that would have greeted Charlie Manuel if he had approached Utley with that idea!

With the Marlins arriving for a three game series I only have one question: is there a chance a hurricane is in the forecast?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Proud Parents

To say Jamie Moyer is rejuvenated is to seriously understate his current state of grace. More accurately, it can be said the 43-year old veteran is living his second childhood. Not only did Moyer move very late in baseball life from a second division club going nowhere to a team that has a chance to go to the post-season, but for the first time in his professional life he’s playing regularly in front of his mom and dad as well as other relatives and friends in the town where he grew up.

On top of all that, he’s making a big difference.

Moyer pitched the Phillies to a 4-1 win over the Cubs last night, his third win in red pinstripes and undoubtedly one of the team’s most critical at a time when every game carries that designation. Moyer went seven strong innings a day after the Phillies had returned home only to be walloped by Chicago 11-6. The win kept the Phillies one game behind the Dodgers in the Wild Card standings.

Moyer arrived in late August with 211 career victories earned over 19 seasons with seven different clubs. He was acquired by GM Pat Gillick to provide more than stability to an erratic staff; he was brought in to win. Crafty, wily, deceptive, experienced; all these and other labels were affixed to Moyer’s suitcase. Fortunately, we can add damned good to the list. Moyer knows how to pitch, fields his position extremely well, takes his hacks better than a lot of pitchers who have been allegedly hitting their entire careers in the National League, and adds a wise old head to the dugout.

It’s enough to make his parents real proud.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


There was an unscheduled give-away last night at Citizens Bank Park.  All Cubs players 40 and under in attendance received a game courtesy of their hosts.

The home team’s generosity began right out of the gate as Jon Lieber, applauded for his late season cool and experience, bobbled a ball hit right into his glove by the always-dangerous Juan Pierre.  One pitch into the contest and the rout was on.  Chris Coste then bobbled another pitch and was unable to even make a throw down to second as Pierre glided in.  Ryan Theriot followed with a bunt single (Coste’s throw was a little wide and late) and Aramis Ramirez boomed a home run to left field.  Three batters, three runs.  Lieber wasn’t quite finished for the night as he served up another home run, this one to Pierre leading off the third inning.  It was the slugging centerfielder’s third round tripper of the season.  The Cubs weren’t done either, especially Ramirez, who hit another three run homer in the top of the fourth, this one of Eude Brito.  So much for the latter’s long relief prowess.  By then, the Phils trailed 8-0.

No one in a Phillies uniform not named Jose Hernandez acquitted himself particularly well last night.  Hernandez came in as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fourth inning with the bases loaded and hit a grand slam, bringing the Phils to within two runs at 8-6.  Unfortunately, the rest of his mates failed to deliver in the clutch, including Ryan Howard who struck out twice with runners on.  In all fairness to Howard, most of the Phillies failed to deliver against a string of Cubs’ relievers.  What can you expect when facing a team whose record coming into the contest was 61-89?

Despite the general ineptitude, the Phils were still in the game when Brian Sanches yielded a home run to Scott Moore to give the Cubs a 9-6 lead.  Even so, one had the hope if not suspicion the Phils could mount another comeback, that is until Ryan Madson came in to start the ninth inning and poured more gasoline on the fire, surrendering two more runs to the Cubbies.  For the month of September Madson sports an era of 9.64.  For the year, it sits at 5.84.  Unreliable as a starter and unreliable as a reliever.

So much for momentum.  So much for home cooking.  So much for capitalizing on Eagles’ fans hoping to find solace across the street.  When do the Phils leave for their next road trip?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Home Is Where The Wins Must Be

Randy Wolf pitched well enough, Mike Lieberthal homered twice, Pat Burrell’s base-running blunder didn’t figure in the final score, Ryan Howard hit his 58* round tripper of the season (*only 57 count) and the Phillies swept the Astros in Houston to complete a 7-3 road trip and remain one game back in the Wild Card.

Wolf pitched very well for five innings but fell apart in the sixth as the Astros touched him for three hits including two home runs. Still, pitching on three days rest for the first time in his career to say nothing of the first time since returning from major surgery, Wolf pitched effectively and intelligently, using his fastball much more, mixing up his pitches and resorting to his curve only occasionally. Significantly, when he did throw the curve, it was the tighter one rather than that big sweeping bender that starts out in shallow right field and ends up near the visitors’ dugout. Someone (Larry Andersen???) or perhaps a committee spoke to Wolf after his last outing, an utter disaster, and to his credit he listened!

Mike Lieberthal continued with the hot bat since coming back from his latest injury. Lieby had three hits Sunday including the two home runs. The first one came just moments after Pat Burrell was picked off first base and gave the Phils a 4-0 lead at the time. Lieby's blast was also probably the only thing that stood between a lynch mob and a call going out to convene the We-Hate-Pat-Burrell crowd over at the Comments section of Beerleaguer.

Howard’s home run to the opposite field, his 29th of the season (tying Mike Schmidt’s club record for most home runs on the road), was undisputed unlike the one his lost yesterday and moved Mr. Clean within four of breaking Roger Maris’ legitimate single-season record. To his everlasting credit, Howard has obviously already moved on from the disappointment while continuing to show the world just how quickly he can adjust.

In the first two games of this series pitchers were working him outside, mostly with breaking stuff, and Howard, showing more than a little frustration and impatience at times, was flailing away at balls clearly out of the strike zone. With Howard, however, it is only a matter of time before he adjusts to whatever pitchers are giving him and, if necessary, goes the other way. This quality, more than any other, is not only what makes him a power hitter but someone who hits for average.

Howard started off the season hitting a lot of home runs to the opposite field; indeed, he hit most of his 22 homes runs as a rookie to left and left center. Lately, however, he had been pulling a lot more balls to right and right center, but if pitchers are going to stay away from him he will and can adjust. The home run that wasn’t on Saturday was also hit the other way. If Howard is going to widen his strike zone effectively it is very likely he will be walked intentionally even more frequently as the season winds down.

It certainly was a different Phillies team in the land of Big Oil, Bigger Heat and Biggest Humidity than the one that collapsed against the Astros there and at home last season. The sweep just concluded was due in no small measure to the absence of Roy Oswalt, the Astros best starter, and Andy Petitte, and to the diminishing skills (every Rocket must fall to earth eventually) of Roger Clemens. The Astros have had trouble scoring runs for a few years and this year’s installment is no different or better. Of course, they ran into superb pitching by Cole Hamels on Saturday sandwiched between some good pitching on Friday and Sunday by Brett Myers and Wolf respectively.

Other than Hamels, the real heroes on the mound were the Phillies’ bullpen, who were fantastic all three days with the lone exception Sunday of Geoff Gerary, who surrendered a home run to Lance Berkman. Geary could be excused: 40 other pitchers before him had been victimized by a Berkman long ball and Geary, who has already set a personal high for innings pitched this season, was working in his third straight game. He has been tremendous down the stretch.

So, it’s back to Citizens Bank Park, which hasn’t been all that hospitable this season. The Phillies have a sub-500 record at the Bank but with seven of their remaining thirteen games at home, there is still time to fix that mark. As a matter of fact, they’d better fix it if they want an eighth game at home.

Game Quotes & Notes

In Philadelphia, fans know how they feel about Ryan Howard’s chase of Roger Maris’ ”clean” home run record so it was refreshing to read a similar take by Lance Berkman of the Houston Astros after Howard lost his 57th round tripper of the season yesterday on a call replays clearly showed the umpire blew: I hope it doesn’t cost him the steroid-free home run record. You know you’ve made quite an impression when opposing players are rooting for you!

The only thing standing between Cole Hamels and greatness would probably be Hamels himself. For the third time this season the young left-hander flirted with a no-hitter, this time blanking the Astros though 7.2 innings. Afterwards Hamels told reporters he’d never thrown a no-hitter, not even in high school. I think most of my no-hitters in high school were broken up with my ego. Little things would make me mad, and, all of a sudden, I would do something, and I’d give up a hit. Hamels, you may recall, has also been known to throw an errant punch with his pitching hand, sidelining him for quite a spell. The good news is that at a tender age he knows he’s apt to lose his cool. The really good news is he has a lot of cool to work with. This is one smart kid with a lot of confidence. Throw out a terrible outing in Chicago a few weeks ago and you have the most consistent, reliable and dominant starter on this staff.

Speaking of which, today’s starter, Randy Wolf, will be going on only three days rest, an unusual situation for a guy just coming back from Tommy John surgery. Wolf, however, is making the early return because he only lasted two innings in his previous outing. It is safe to say today’s start will be the most important of his career as a Phillie. Wolf is a free agent after the season and a good showing today, coming at a critical juncture in the Wild Card chase, would do much for his confidence and even more for management’s in him.

Chase Utley’s average now sits squarely at .300 for the season. It would be nice if he could keep it at or above that magic level but the signs haven’t encouraging. Ever since his 35-game hitting streak ended, Utley has been struggling at the plate, his average down 32 points from his season high. Frankly, he is getting lousy swings more often than not, sometimes just half-swings as if he’s had second thoughts midway through. His strikeouts are also up and he is beating a lot of balls into the dirt. Charlie Manuel would probably like to give him a day off, but neither he nor the team can afford to do so. Then, there would be the small matter of telling Utley he would be sitting one out. I can only imagine the cold stare that would elicit.

Could the Phillies be foolish enough to hire Lou Piniella if they dismiss Charlie Manuel at the end of this season? Apprehensive fans want to know. Sweet Lou, so-nicknamed for his swing not his mood, was clearly auditioning for the part during Saturday’s nationally-televised game on the *OX sports network. Piniella had nothing but good things to say about the Phillies, especially looking forward to next season.

RichSchuBlues, frequent commenter extraordinaire, domestic division, had this to say about Piniella in a comment over at Beerleaguer:

Piniella (presumably the spit to [Scott] Graham's intolerable polish) is on one of those broadcast intervals that ESPN and Fox seem to provide as a service for veteran managers between gigs.

Let’s hope Piniella’s connection to the Phillies stops there. The frightening thing is Pat Gillick knows him from Seattle and we all know Pat likes familiar faces.

* * * * * * * *

In other news....

Ichiro Suzuki is one of the best players of this or any other era and unquestionably the greatest player no one talks about on anything approaching a regular basis. (When is the last time you thought about him?) Unfortunately, he plays on the West Coast for Seattle, which has fallen on hard times lately, and he specializes in small ball at a time when the public clearly still clamors for home runs.

Yesterday, Ichiro stole his 33 consecutive base, a major league record. He also reached 200 hits for the sixth consecutive season, another major league record. Between his years in Japan and in the U.S., the 32-year old Ichiro has stroked 2609 hits and counting. Anyone who wishes to discount those 1278 hits achieved in Japan should look up the winner of the inaugural World Baseball Classic before making his case.

* * * * * * * *

Isn't it refreshing for once that the current Yankees-Red Sox series is "meaningless" in the standings? Instead of promos every half an hour on ESPN and *ox Sports intoning the curse of the Bambino and visions of Armageddon, we can focus on games that really matter to the rest of us.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Seeing Vs. Seizing

Redemption may not be a grand slam away for most of us, but for Pat Burrell it might be.

Burrell’s slam off of Roger Clemens in the first inning provided all the runs and the winning margin as the Phils hung on to beat Houston 4-3, their first victory in that jurisdiction since 2003. Coupled with San Diego’s loss to the Dodgers, the Phils moved to within 1.5 games of the Wild Card leader.

Burrell has been having the most miserable 25 home run, 88 RBI season imaginable and recently had suffered the ignominy of being benched for long stretches despite the Phils’ desperate need for a big bat, preferably right-handed, that could protect Ryan Howard. Last night, however, when his mates needed him most, the struggling left-fielder delivered. In a brief post-game interview Burrell acknowledged his frustration while stating Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins had carried the team all season and it was time for someone else to step up.

The game was vintage late season 2006 Phillies baseball. The Phils got only five hits, kicked the ball around too much, got an up-and-down performance from their starter, and still managed a win. In the top of the fourth the Phils had men on second and third against Clemens with no outs and later the bases loaded with one out but failed to score. Phillies’ fans have seen that scenario all too often this season and could have predicted what would come next. Sure enough, in the bottom of the frame Brett Myers underscored that failure to capitalize by grooving not one but two fastballs right down Broadway that Morgan Ensberg and Luke Scott deposited in the stands to cut the lead to 4-3. That’s where the game ended but not without an adventurous ninth inning that included errors by Howard and Jeff Conine (the official scorer changed the ruling on the Howard play twice, finally declaring it a hit) before Tom Gordon closed the door for good.

The Phils look like they are pressing right now and well they might be with only fifteen games remaining. During the first two series on this three city road trip they have gotten out of the gate quickly winning the first two contests in Florida and Atlanta before dropping the final two against the Fish and one against the Braves. San Diego currently has a game in hand and Florida and San Francisco are only a game back of the Phillies. With so many teams bunched together (Cincinnati is also in there, only two games behind the Phils) playing .500 ball will get you nowhere and .600 won’t do the trick either.

The consensus is the WC will go to the team that gets hot and puts together a long winning streak. Wasting scoring opportunities by failing to hit in the clutch isn’t going to make that happen. Between Ryan Howard’s prodigious home runs at home against Atlanta two weeks ago and in the opening games in Miami last week and Burrell’s shot in the first inning last night, the Phils have been stranding runners at an alarming rate that is high even for them.

They are seeing opportunities, but they rarely seize them.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Timing Is Everything

Jason Weitzel of Beerleaguer paid me a very gratifying compliment yesterday when he wrote that Swing And A Miss is “the closest thing to a morning edition in the Phillies’ blogosphere”, yet here I am a day later failing to deliver a morning post at all let alone on time.

As it turns out, my wife and I have had long-standing plans to visit New York today to see the Rembrandt prints and drawings exhibition at the newly-renovated Morgan Library.

I will be back at my usual post either this weekend or certainly no later than Monday morning.

What's Not To Like?

They refuse to go away.

Coming off two tough losses in Florida and facing a doubleheader with a bullpen that looked spent recently and a lineup that had stopped hitting in the clutch if at all, the Phillies version 2006.5 tightened the Wild Card race last night by sweeping the Braves in Atlanta. They now trail leader San Diego by 1.5 games with 17 games remaining.

With crunch time decidedly upon them, the Phils offered a microcosm of this season’s most inconsistent facet of their game, starting pitching. By the same token, they also displayed their most consistent facet, resilience.

Randy Wolf was simply lousy in game one, yielding six hits, 2 walks, and five runs (4 earned) in two innings of labor. One of those hits was a home run by his opposite number, Kyle Davies, his first hit of any kind this year. Clearly, Wolf didn’t get the job done, again. Commentator Larry Andersen, who invariably offers good insights despite the self-deprecating style he affects, had this to say when Wolf was in trouble early: [I paraphrase but not much.]

If you see a right-handed batter foul a fastball off over the first base dugout why would you come back at him with soft breaking stuff on your next pitch? I don’t get it. The guy isn’t getting around on your fastball, so why help him out by speeding up his bat?

Right-handed batters say they have trouble picking up the ball from Wolf? Why help them out?

Why indeed?

This is a recurring theme with many of the pitchers on this staff, starters and bullpen alike. Again one has to wonder, who is responsible? Is it the pitcher, catcher, pitching coach or whoever is calling the pitches from the dugout? Are all of them equally at fault? Without hard evidence I would choose the pitching coach. He is the one who presumably spends time with his charges not only going over individual batters but theory in general. While I am quick to acknowledge the coach can only present a game plan and the players must execute it, Dubee doesn’t seem to be getting through to these guys, especially but obviously not only the youngsters.

Jon Lieber, who by this point in his long career had better know how to pitch, continued his fine late season performances as has been his custom. Lieber gave the Phils 7.1 strong innings marred only by two home runs.

With Wolf failing to go even five innings in the opener, the bullpen was called on early and often and acquitted itself spectacularly. Eude Brito was the man of the hour, relieving Wolf in the third innings and throwing four innings of no-hit ball. His successors, Rick White, Aaron Fultz and Tom Gordon followed suit as the pen combined to no-hit the Braves for the final seven innings of the game. Since his call-up Brito had only been used once, on September 2, in a 16-4 blowout of these same Braves. Perhaps this outing will encourage his manager to use him more often. Certainly, with lefty Arthur Rhodes gone for the season, Brito and fellow MIA Fabio Castro should be seeing more action.

In the nightcap, Fultz, Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson followed Lieber and also shut down the Braves. Fultz’ performance in both games was particularly heartening considering the left-hander had been awful recently and was suffering from a “dead”arm.

Offensively, a lot of guys contributed, none more than Jimmy Rollins. Jimmy had an awful weekend series in Miami, futilely swinging over the top of far too many pitches, but he quickly recovered in Atlanta, setting the table, hitting his 20th home run of the season, and playing his usual stellar defense. After the game his manager commented that now that the 20th home run was out of the way, Jimmy could concentrate on his batting stroke, a not too subtle reminder that when Jimmy gets in trouble it is usually because he is swinging for the fences.

Jeff Conine was the batting hero of game one. What can we say about Conine other than to give praise where due to GM Pat Gillick for making this most important late-season pickup? Conine is a pro in the best sense of the word. He never appears to get too high or low and always plays under controlled intensity. Listening to interviews with Conine since his arrival one gets the distinct impression he is here to help get this team to the post-season. At 40 years of age the fire still burns within.

At the beginning of the season if you had told me the Phillies would be without their three opening day starting outfielders by September, I wouldn’t have given them any chance of contending. But Conine’s arrival coupled with Shane Victorino’s continued excellence, has breathed new life into this club. Victorino continues to get on base and provide the kind of speed and excitement seldom seen in these parts. Moreover, he is a superior centerfielder to Aaron Rowand by a long shot. He goes back on balls much better than Rowand, covers more ground and has a far stronger and more accurate arm. He has earned the right to keep the job next season despite Manuel’s unwritten law that starters don’t lose their jobs due to injuries.

Mid-September and they are still in the hunt. What’s not to like about these guys?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Time To Take Some Chances

These late season doubleheaders aren’t helping the Phillies’ worn-to-the-bone bullpen and might finally force manager Charlie Manuel to use all available hands a little more liberally.  The corresponding argument would be that the untested youngsters he likes to avoid cannot do much worse than the overworked arms Manuel has called on repeatedly.  Of course, everyone – young and old – would benefit considerably if the starters could give them six, preferably seven innings of work each time out.

Randy Wolf and Jon Lieber get the calls tonight as the Phils face the Braves twice.  Wolf is in the odd position of being the freshest arm in the starting rotation by virtue of having only recently come back from surgery.  He has yet to go deep into a ballgame but not as far as can be determined because of tenderness.  In nearly every one of his outings Randy has gotten off to a rough  start, throwing a lot of pitches early, and while he has generally settled down in innings 2 – 5 to pitch well enough, he is clearly on a pitch count that runs up too early too fast.  Nothing would help him or the Phillies more than a few 1-2-3 innings tonight.

Of all the Phillies’ starters lately, Lieber can be counted on to go deepest into the game.   Lieber is scheduled to start the second game but were I managing this club, I would flip-flop the two of them and let him pitch game one.  It might save the bullpen a little more.  Just playing the percentages.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

It’s also too late for Charlie Manuel to “dance with who brung us” in his starting lineup for these remaining nineteen games.  At the very least he should shake the lineup up a bit.  The blogosphere and conventional press have been alive with discussions about how to protect Ryan Howard.  The consensus is he will not see many pitches to hit for the remainder of the season, thus taking the hottest bat in baseball out of his hands.

Many observers have suggested moving Howard to the three hole and letting Chase Utley bat fourth.  While I am sympathetic to such a move, in the end I don’t like it as much as leaving Utley and Howard in their current spots and having Jeff Conine bat fifth.  Despite showing signs of regaining his eye and stroke lately, Utley has been struggling for nearly a month, generally not getting good swings.  If he does start hitting consistently, he is likely to do more damage out of his normal spot with Jimmy and Shane Victorino ahead of him.  Conine is a contact hitter and still a dangerous one; moreover, he is on a mission, determined to help project his new team into the post-season.  I like his veteran presence behind Howard.

The top of the order could stand a real change and towards that end Manuel should move Victorino into the leadoff spot and drop Jimmy down a notch.  Victorino makes things happen and is more of a threat to drop a bunt or beat out an infield hit than Jimmy is, and while he is unlikely to draw a base on balls, he cannot be any worse than Jimmy is in that department.  The Phillies need to put pressure on the opposition right out of the chute and, frankly, right now Victorino looks more capable of doing that than J-Roll does.

The next spot in need of serious remodeling is wherever, five or six, Pat Burrell might get a start.  If he isn’t 100%, and indications are he is far below that number, sit him now and get a fresh face and bat in his place.  I would not object to seeing Michael Bourn get a shot.  He clearly doesn’t have Burrell’s power (when Pat himself has it) and he is another left-handed bat, but he would fit nicely between Conine and Chris Coste and once again give the Phils some speed between two lumbering guys.

The remaining spot that must be shuffled is the one occupied almost nightly by Abraham Nunez.  When the Phils were hitting they could afford the luxury of Nunez’ glove, but he has become an automatic out in a lineup that isn’t producing overall.   While neither Jose Hernandez nor Danny Sandoval is an exciting alternative, Manuel has to gamble they will hold their own in the field and deliver much more at the plate.

With only nineteen games remaining, Charlie Manuel is going to have to take some chances with his bullpen and his lineup.  Despite what the players say, there isn’t much time left.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What's On My Plate?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I like my humble pie served room temperature.

As argued here before, the Bobby Abreu trade was good…at least for Bobby...but it has made the question of how to protect Ryan Howard more difficult to solve.  Several astute observers have suggested moving Chase Utley into the four hole and batting Howard third.  While I momentarily agreed with them as recently as yesterday afternoon, I forthwith withdrawal my support.  Howard needs someone like Abreu in front of him in order to even consider having Utley bat behind him.  The Phils do not have sufficient players on their current roster to solve this problem.  It remains to be seen whether they will address this issue in the off-season given the number of holes they have to fill overall, but it is a very big problem.

I could be considered a charter member of the Charlie-Manuel-is-doing-a-decent-job fan club.  I am turning in my card effective immediately.  Charlie isn’t doing a good job in those few instances per game where strategy and game management matter most.  Charlie is a good guy who knows hitting (presumably) and creates a nice clubhouse atmosphere.  That and $3.00 will get you a medium coffee at a ubiquitous coffee emporium.

I like Jimmy Rollins a lot and have argued his best position in the batting order remains lead-off.  I am wrong.  As commenter extraordinaire George S. has pointed out in some emails to me and others, Jimmy is a wonderful player who simply isn’t suited to bat lead-off for reasons we all know:  he isn’t a patient enough hitter and he rarely drops down a bunt.  George S. calls this type of player “uncoachable” by which he means unwilling or unable to alter his game for the betterment of himself if not the club.  George is quick to point out this is not a question of bad attitude or lack of hustle; he, too, likes Jimmy.  The problem is the Phils need a more prototypical lead-off man than Jimmy and years of waiting have largely been in vain.  The good news is they may already have one or two players on the roster now in the persons of Michael Bourn if he can hit and Shane Victorino, who can do everything one expects of a lead-off man except for the all-important patience issue.  Shane is definitely always up there taking his hacks.  Whether one of the other is the answer will likely have to wait until next year.  

This next one is a toughie.  It’s no secret I am not a big Brett Myers fan.  Some days, he can pitch extremely well; others, he comes up small when needed most.  Since returning from his mini-exile, however, the huffing and puffing burly right-hander has pitched as effectively or better than every other starter on the team..   Reluctantly, I acknowledge the Phils should probably (see:  still hedging even now) keep rather than trade him given the uncertainties in the rest of the rotation.  I’ll just swallow my moral indignation for once and pretend baseball exists in a vacuum.

A month or so ago I argued that if the Phils wanted to re-sign David Dellucci they probably should have acted then, prior to the end of the season, before he became a free agent.  My earlier enthusiasm was seriously premature.  Since then, the formerly torrid-hitting outfielder with limited range and absolutely no arm has fallen back to earth at the plate, “hitting” at a clip far below his career batting average of .269 let alone the 335 clip of this late summer.   In his defense, Dellucci has been banged up, but after watching him swing over the top of more inside breaking stuff than I can count, Dellucci’s return, at least as a starter or even platoon player, is no longer desirable.  

Yes, I’ll have fries with that.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Wanting It

“You’ve got to want it.”

There you have it.  Charlie Manuel’s summation of what ails the Phillies and what they need to do.  Desire, that’s what Charlie thinks is missing here.

Sorry, Charlie, but I would rephrase that assessment.  You’ve got to have it.

Let me put it another way, Charlie.  You’ve got to have a third baseman who can hit his weight.  You want more?  You need a multi-millionaire left fielder who can swing at a pitch every now and then instead of pulling that tired old stunt of raising his arms, thrusting out his butt and trying to convince the home plate umpire the ball right down Broadway he just took was really inside.

Still not with me, Charlie?  You need to stop worrying about the alleged fragile egos of some of your youngest pitchers and concentrate instead on the egos of the millions of fans who’ve stuck with the Phillies and who just might wake up this morning and read about the Eagles.  Trust me, Charlie, not every twenty-something hurler has the intestinal fortitude of a Gavin Floyd.

"We could be the Houston Astros of last year, but I don't know if these guys realize it. That's the way I'm thinking, but I don't know if they are. We didn't hit a ball hard today."

Listen, Charlie, a few of the Astros had near-career years at the plate last season, but the real reasons they made it to the post-season were guys named Clemens, Petitte, Oswalt and Lidge.  You do not have those guys or a rotation that approximates them.

“You’ve got to want it.”???

“Wanting it” is what Dontrelle Willis showed you yesterday, Charlie, not what Brett Myers trotted out to the mound the night before.

No, Charlie, I don’t think most of these Phillies lack desire.  There are simply too many of them who lack the skill to be champions.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Look Out Below!

Brett Myers came up small again when it counted. That is Myers’ MO more often than not. Two batters into the game and he and the Phillies were behind 2-0.

All of this wouldn’t have mattered as much if someone other than Chase Utley had delivered, but this was not the case, especially with RISP, as the Phils managed to strand 17 runners last night, three shy of a franchise record. Suffice it to say, teams don’t normally win under those circumstances. They didn’t. Still, you cannot put your team in an instant hole if your are the putative ace.

An opportunity was missed to gain ground on the Wild Card-leading Padres, who also lost. Instead, the Phils are now tied with the streaking Giants.

Enough baseball for the moment. I’ll pick up again tomorrow.

* * * * * * * * *

I digress.

What is this business with state troopers, Smokey the Bear hats in plain view, escorting more and more head coaches across the gridiron at the end of football games? I could more or less understand it when Bear Bryant was the top man at Alabama; after all, he was considered a demi-god in that neck of the woods, a much more important figure in the minds’ [sic] of that state’s general population than any governor, George Wallace included. I could also imagine had there been a shortage of manpower when the call went out to the police barracks that the Tide were playing that weekend that The Bear would have had first dibs on any available detail.

These days, however, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a headset and clipboard gets an official police escort. Is this post-9/11 thinking or is it merely a recognition that football coaches make a lot more enemies than friends these days? (Another option is the number of people with a few loose screws attending sporting events these days, but we'll leave that subject for another post.)

Speaking of football, which I do infrequently with good reason, it was a tough day to be a Division 1A Pennsylvania football team yesterday. The Nittany Lions were smoked in South Bend. Yes, they made too many mistakes, but Notre Dame moved the ball through the air almost at will. We can expect some people to begin questioning Joe Paterno’s fitness at his advanced age though in reality he is only six months older than the same coach who was being touted at the end of last season for returning State to glory. The simple truth is his current squad may not be good enough on offense to keep the talented defense off the field.

Meanwhile, back at the Linc, Temple fell to, nay, were beaten into submission by nationally ranked Louisville, 62-0. The loss, their second of the season under first-year head coach Al Golden, is sure to bring new cries for Temple to drop further thoughts of Division 1A football, if not for their fans then for the players, who do not deserve to be the sacrificial lambs on other teams’ schedules.

Villanova made the move several years ago and has continued to play competitive and exciting football ever since. Temple needs to do the same. These endless lopsided losses are taking too heavy a toll on everyone and it should not continue. The holdouts for big-time football on North Broad Street have been appeased long enough.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

How'd They/He Do?

Two questions vie for the top spot each evening:

Did the Phils win?

How’d Ryan Howard do?

Lately, they go hand-in-hand. The big guy keeps delivering and the Phils keep on keepin’ on.

Howard is now the talk of the nation. Having averaged more than a home run every two games since the All-Star break, the sophomore first baseman has single-handedly revived the legendary chase of the only marks that still matter to most of the sporting public, Babe Ruth’s 60 and Roger Maris’ 61. The other so-called records are justifiably viewed as tainted. Mere asterisks don’t do them sufficient injustice.

Despite the innuendo of the past week that Howard cannot possibly be producing so many souvenirs un-abetted, most rational thinkers see him for what he is: a rare talent with enormous skills, chief of which seems to be the ability to adjust quickly to whatever the latest book on him is. A lot of National League pitchers, old hands and young studs alike, are shaking their heads. His latest victims, the Florida Marlins, admit to having pre-game meetings in which the main topic is to not let Howard beat them. Time to reconvene, fellas.

The guess here is that in the coming days Howard is going to see fewer and fewer pitches to hit anywhere. For their part, the Phillies are trying to improve his odds by having Jeff Conine, a contact hitter of long-standing, bat behind him instead of Pat Burrell, whose ability to put the bat on the ball diminishes by the day.

Amidst all this maneuvering, Howard’s name is now also prominent in discussions involving the MVP title in the NL. His chief competitors, Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran, are also worthy, but at this point in the season with roughly 20 games remaining for every team, Howard’s recent surge has projected him to the front of the pack. Lest we forget, Howard is leading the majors in rbi’s and home runs while batting a remarkable .311.

The problem with the MVP vote is that is has been hijacked by those who maintain the winner must come from a team that makes the post-season. Rarely do winners come from teams that finish out of the money. That’s too bad, because while Howard is the toast of baseball (even in New York except at Shea Stadium) his team remains a long-shot to make the post-season.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Game Notes

The two teams entered the contest tied for second in the Wild Card chase but, for the moment, on very different paths. The Phillies had managed an average of six hits per game in dropping two of their previous three contests while the Marlins had won five of six including a no-hitter the night before.

Any resemblance to their recent histories was long gone by game’s end as the Phils pounded out 17 hits and 14 runs to take the opener of a four game series in Miami, 14-8.

Details of the game are available elsewhere so I won’t bother to recapitulate them here. Throughout the game, I made notes, some of which I offer here almost verbatim:

Yikes. Three runs right out of the chute. This could be a long night. Lieber throwing the ball right down the middle.

Harry observes Florida fans giving Conine a warm reception. Yeah, all eleven of them. If I owned the Marlins I would be contemplating a Bob Irsay departure. You know, load up the vans under cover of darkness and sneak out of town before daylight. These kids are facing the team with whom they are tied for second in the WC chase and coming off an emotional high after last night’s no-no and there can’t be more than a few thousand people in the stands. Disgraceful. Don’t care if Dolphins playing Pittsburgh in NFL opener (in Pgh). This town has never supported baseball.

Watching telecasts from Miami always a unique experience. They must have mikes buried behind home plate and all along the stands. Really hear pop of ball into mitt, crack of bat and calls by umpire more clearly here than anywhere else in MLB. Best place in baseball to hear a game. Must explain poor attendance. People stay home to watch on TV. Poor FL players. They must have routinely seen more people in stands in AAA. Clearly hear guy seated in first row behind home plate clapping. Almost like he’s next to me. Maybe sound so clear because stadium empty. Reminds me of sounds Robert Redford made when he first took batting practice in The Natural. Stadium was empty there, too.

Chris Coste won’t let the magic go away. Two-run double. Glad for him. Now Jimmy. Wow. Game tied. This is going to be a slug-fest. Last man standing type game.

Number 54!! Cannot believe they didn’t pitch around him or at least carefully. Johnson just challenged him and lost. Typical young stud. All stuff no brains. Howard almost hit one out in first AB but didn’t quite get under it. Hitting for average and power. Love the kid.

Way to go, Chris. Home run. The story continues. Pat pops up. He has become forgotten man. Almost feel sorry for him…but don’t. There it is!!! Home run, Chase Utley. Looks like he may be finding his stroke. Couldn’t come too soon.

Why does Charlie stick with Nunez? His glove? There has to be another warm body on the bench who can play third. Nunez always bailing out. Explains number of ground balls and foul pops to opposite side. He’s killed virtually every rally he’s been in the middle of. Play him occasionally, Charlie, but for God’s sake get someone in there who can hit!! Ran himself into rally-killing third out. Can’t run. Can’t hit. Nowhere to hide him but Charlie will try.

What a pickup Conine has been. Hey, how ‘bout that Randall Simon?! Talk about a free swinger. Winds up and lets it rip, bat twirling around his head at follow through. Quite the flourish!! Quite the character. No wonder he swung at sausage. Looks like he swings at anything that moves.

Uh oh! Arthur coming in. Hope George S. isn’t watching. Stay away from sharp objects, George. Hey, wasn’t his shoulder bothering him only last night? Quick recovery for an old guy. Well, what do you know?! Rhodes with a 1-2-3 inning. OK to watch again, George.

Gordon looks rusty. Also looks pissed. He and ump in staring contest. Umps calls looked good to me. Two men on. Long inning. Needed work but cannot think this is good in a 14-8 game. Probably cannot pitch tomorrow if needed. Another questionable decision by Charlie.

Game over. Reversal of fortunes. Phils are last men standing.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Two Throws

The game came down to two throws, one ill-advised, the other perfect.

The ill-advised one was thrown by reliever Ryan Madson to Lance Berkman.

Madson had two strikes on the dangerous Berkman with the bases loaded and two outs, but instead of trying to finish him off with a fastball or his best pitch, a changeup, Madson hung a curve and Berkman cleared the bases with a double just inside the third base line. It was a poor pitch selection in a situation that already begged a number of questions. Why wasn’t Abraham Nunez guarding the line with two outs even though a left-handed batter was up? (Yes, I know, he was pulled over toward the hole with a lefty batting. Wouldn’t his positioning also be determined by the way Madson would pitch Berkman? What, precisely, was the plan with Berkman?) More to the point, why was the right-hander Madson facing Berkman in the first place since he is a switch hitter whose best side by far is from the left? Up until this point, the Phillies had been turning Berkman around to the right side at every opportunity, successfully, I might add!

Charlie Manuel’s post-game explanations don’t hold much water. He couldn’t use Aaron Fultz because his elbow is bothering him. Likewise, lefty Arthur Rhodes was not on the short list because he “wasn’t ready” and has a sore shoulder. (Few would have greeted that choice with glee anyway.) Manuel still had two other lefties to call on but rejected the idea of using Fabio Castro for the same old tired reason he has offered before: too young. (A batter later, Castro aged sufficiently to come into the game.) He also declined to use lefty Eude Brito, but no reason was offered. Probably not too young, not too old and most assuredly not just right.

Instead, Manuel stuck with Madson for another inning even though the record shows the tall right hander is more than likely to give up some runs sooner or later, unless, of course, his ERA just a shade under 6.00 is misleading. I, for one, am tired of watching Madson blow up. After the game he remarked that no one hit the ball hard that inning, but, lo and behold, when it was all over the Astros had scored three runs.

Despite the good starting pitching the Phils have received over the last few weeks, they have lost ground in the Wild Card chase, largely but not exclusively because overall their bullpen is failing to protect leads or ties. Throughout the season Larry Andersen has questioned a number of decisions by Phillies pitchers, particularly when he believes they try to be “too fine” instead of going after hitters. As a group, Phillies pitchers don’t impress me as knowing how to pitch. While I would agree games are as likely to be lost as won, Phillies pitchers make what appear to be more than their fair share of mistakes leading to losses. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Charlie? Rich Dubee? The catchers? Everyone? I noticed Madson called Carlos Ruiz out to the mound at least two or three times during the fatal ninth inning. Frankly, I was under the impression Ruiz’ English was limited, but the two did seem to be communicating. Nunez also visited the mound briefly that inning, but only after Ruiz departed, meaning he wasn’t there to offer consecutive translation. Presumably, he was asking what the pitch was going to be and positioned himself accordingly. If so, that might explain why he was playing off the line when Berkman laced that double into the left field corner. I cannot recall if the visit came just before that pitch, but if it did, Madson made two mistakes: hanging it and throwing it to begin with!!!

The second critical throw of the night will also be debated, but from my perspective there is little to discuss.

With Nunez and David Dellucci on first and second respectively and one out, Jimmy Rollins laced a hard shot toward the right-centerfield gap. Centerfielder Willie Taveras cut the ball off nicely as Nunez scored and Dellucci stopped at third. Jimmy, running all the way, was gunned down by Taveras on an absolutely perfect throw to second. As it was, replays showed it was a bang-bang play and that Rollins was out. Jimmy did the right thing even though his was the second out of the ninth inning. Trying to stretch the play would have taken away the force and put men at second and third with one out. The ball he hit looked like it was headed for gap all the way and according to the announcers, Rollins never hesitated rounding first. Only a swift cut-off and textbook perfect throw on the fly nailed him. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he makes it to second base. Unfortunately, the one time he wouldn’t was last night.

So, another late game collapse, their fourth in three consecutive series, leaves the Phils tied with the Marlins, three games behind the Padres. Like the late inning losses to Washington and Atlanta, this was a crushing defeat. Had the Phillies hit in the clutch earlier in the game when they twice loaded the bases against Andy Petitte, the outcome might have been different. Lost in all the excitement of Ryan Howard’s explosive hitting over the last month or so is the fact that Chase Utley, three home runs recently notwithstanding, is slumping badly. If the Phils expect to make a run of it from here on out, Utley has to rediscover his stroke immediately.

After the loss, the Phils left town last night for a four-game set with Florida in Miami. Until a year ago the Phillies couldn’t buy a win in south Florida but lately they have played well there. They are going to need their best game because right now Florida is the best team in baseball money didn’t have to buy. They are getting timely hitting and great pitching from their young staff, capped off by last night’s no-hitter by 22-year old rookie Anibal Sanchez. The Phils play Florida ten times in the remaining 23 games.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Happy & The Unhappy

While everyone with the exception of Theo Epstein is congratulating the Yankees on their heist in broad daylight of Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle, a few pundits have noticed the guys left holding the stickup note haven’t fared too badly themselves since that day.

It would be an exaggeration to say Abreu had worn out his welcome in Philadelphia. After all, career .300 hitters are hard to come by, especially ones who can also steal a base and draw bases on balls at an astonishing rate. I prefer to say Abreu was in serious need of a change of scenery. Bobby was a very good player during his days in red pinstripes, but in the end he wasn’t the sort of player his team needed. He was admired and respected by his teammates but it is highly doubtful they looked to him for leadership. That concept may seem like an overworked and unsubstantiated factor in a team’s ultimate success, but a quick look around the majors reveals that most successful teams possess just such a player or players. The consensus was that Abreu would thrive in New York, which already had plenty of stars and leaders to deflect those expectations from him, and, the majority was correct. Far from being the straw that stirs the Yankees, Abreu has quietly gone about his business of hitting, drawing bases on balls and fielding adequately.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, the mantle of leadership was quietly passing on to the next generation, even while Abreu was still in town. All that was needed to consolidate the transition was his actual departure. Once he was gone, the Phillies no longer thought reticence at the wall or patience at the plate were paradigms. That didn’t mean they suddenly became free swingers over night or careened recklessly into barriers or each other (at least not most of the time). But it did mean a new tone would be set, that standards would include busting it down to first base on ground balls and barreling over catchers on plays at the plate. The free pass was still esteemed, in its place, but the preference was to take one’s hacks.

The end result was a more exciting team than the one Abreu left. A far more exciting team.

* * * * * * * *

Some people aren’t happy unless they are unhappy.

How else can we explain the whispers and outright accusations that Ryan Howard is using illegal substances. Jason Weitzel has written a superb repudiation to such nonsense at Beerleaguer and Tom Goyne reminds us over at Balls, Sticks & Stuff that these home runs are nothing new, but with every home run Howard hits the discontented come out of the wood work.

I am not required to presume Howard’s innocence because never, for one nanosecond, have I entertained his guilt.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Decent-Sized Image Found

A decent-sized image of the greeting at home plate has been found.

A Trio For The Ages

Hamels to Howard to Utley.

Not quite the ring of Tinkers to Evers to Chance – that “U” throws off the rhythm – but the Phillies’ trio has a chance to make a much greater mark in baseball history. (If memory serves me, the Chicago troika completed a “mere” eight double plays, a rarity before them, en route to immortality.)

All that stands between the Phillies and the post-season is their bullpen and on that count, Rick White and rookie Matt Smith acquitted themselves very well yesterday. Thank goodness for roster expansions because many of those who have been residence in the bullpen throughout the season are wearing down or just coming back from wearing down. Word has it Fultz’s shoulder is bothering him. Geary looks spent. Rhodes should be the choice of last resort…if that. Gordon is just off the DL. Madson has never made a believer out of me.

On the other hand, the starters have been on a roll. Hamels threw seven strong innings yesterday, the only flies in the ointment being the 17th and 18th home runs he has allowed this year. Both appeared to come on change-ups. While that remains his bread-and-butter pitch, batters know that, too, and are looking for it. Hamels’ fastball is decent and looks even better after batters see a 78 mph change, but in order for Hamels to be a dominant pitcher he has to believe more in his curve. The pitch Aubrey Huff hit for a long home run was a change down in the zone. Huff had to be looking for that pitch. He probably wouldn’t have been looking for a curve. I don’t know how many breaking balls Hamels threw yesterday but the count has to have been low. He needs to throw that pitch more. He needs to be a three-pitch hurler.

Meanwhile, back at the plate, the mark of a great player is that he can deliver even when he is tired and scuffling. Utley has been struggling mightily since his 35-game hitting streak ended. Always something of a streak hitter anyway, Utley hasn’t been getting good swings lately. But when his team needed him in the first game Saturday, he was there. And when they absolutely needed him yesterday afternoon, he delivered. He’s the kind of player who would take his hacks with one arm in a sling.

What more can we say about Ryan Howard? Plenty! While Howard continues to slug home runs at a prodigious rate, he has “quietly” put together a 14-game hitting streak of his own, an astonishing accomplishment for a power hitter, and raised his season average to .309. If the word was out on him following the Home Run Derby at the All-Star game, it has now been posted on every dugout wall and pitching coach’s clipboard: Don’t even think of throwing this guy a strike. Indeed, as Tim Hudson can attest, even when you “waste” a pitch on Howard he is going to go out there, get it, and deposit it in some fan’s souvenir kit. You want respect? The Astros intentionally walked Howard to lead off the bottom of the 9th inning yesterday.

Howard has inserted himself into the thick of the MVP chase and strictly on merit should now be the leading candidate. That race, too, should go down to the wire.

* * * * * * * * *

It has become commonplace in baseball following a walk-off home run for the player to lower his head and plow into the waiting arms and fists of his teammates, who invariably gather at home plate to celebrate and pound the conquering hero into virtual submission. Some players approach the dish gingerly, lower their heads and plow into the waiting gauntlet. Others pause just before the plate, toss off their batting helmets in a moment of ill-considered bravado, and take a flying leap into the tumult that awaits them. It’s all highly entertaining and good-natured, but it looks a little rough, too. I, for one, am always waiting for the hero to emerge on the other side without having to head straight for the Disabled List.

The other feature of this new ritual that fascinates me is the picture of the waiting throng. Who’s right in the center? Who looks eager to begin the pummeling? Who is stone-faced? Whose face shows pure glee?

No decent-sized image file of yesterday's gathering was available online so I invite readers to look at the printed one on the front page of the Sports section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. There is Jimmy, right in the middle, standing just behind the plate waiting for the conquering hero, right where the always-joyful shortstop should be. Shane Victorino is also there , just to Jimmy’s right, fists poised, eyes wide, an almost demonic glee on his face. He’s going to enjoy this!! Ryan Howard? He’s there, of course, just off to Jimmy’s left, the widest grin imaginable on his face. Who’s that in the back row, way off to the left of the picture? It’s David Dellucci, who struck out an inning earlier with the bases loaded, thus setting up this marvelous scene. David looks stone-faced, as well he should. Just in front of him is Carlos Ruiz. He may be a rookie, but when it comes to celebrating walk-off homers all players, regardless of tenure, are invited. Is that Chris Coste off to the left, hand wearily raised, shin-guards still on? Chris is happy, but he’s tired, too. Is that Joe Thurston standing behind Shane? He looks on with bemusement, as well he should, too, having failed to get down a key bunt that might have ended it all sooner.

They’re all there, in character, especially the only guy with his back to the camera.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Back To Square One

Forget the starting pitchers, Ryan Howard should sue for support!!

Every time the phenomenal sophomore performs another prodigious feat, his mates try their best to ruin the occasion.  In the last five games they have succeeded three times and in the process the Phillies’ Wild Card chances diminish and Howard’s big moments are overshadowed.  

The simple truth is the Phillies are not quite good enough to get over the hump.  The reasons are many, but we can start with a third baseman who cannot hit, a right/left fielder who has fallen back to earth, a bullpen that is overworked, and a closer who can’t.  Despite Chris Coste’s magical season, catching is another problem area if for no other reason than it is a revolving door at precisely a spot in the lineup that begs for constancy. Throw in Chase Utley’s continued funk (despite two home runs Saturday his average has dropped 23 points since his consecutive hitting streak ended) and you have all the ingredients for a mediocre (read .500) team.

Those who looked at the remaining schedule a week ago and licked their chops at the prospect of playing all of those sub-.500 teams neglected one point:  the Phils aren’t much better.  As if to underscore their own average profile, the Phillies blew late leads in two games for the first time in 62 chances this season.  Killer instinct is not a description associated with a pedestrian club.  The secret to success has always been to play .500 ball against the top teams and dominate the mediocre ones.

It hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to change.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Only One Game?

Instead of champagne all around to celebrate Ryan Howard’s achievement, they probably served beer, warm and flat.

Instead of tying for the Wild Card lead with the Padres, they trail by a full game.

Instead of winning their 61st straight game when leading after eight innings, they suffered their first defeat of the season.

Instead of concluding their road trip on a high note, they headed up I-95 on a supreme downer.

And now they head home to face the Braves, but the forecast for the next few days is so dismal with hurricane Ernesto bearing down, the Phillies are likely to be sitting around their clubhouse for quite a stretch brooding over the one that got away.

Last night’s loss ranks right up there with the Billy Wagner home run ball to old pal Craig Biggio. It hurt. It stung. And it sure didn’t have to happen.

Unfortunately, whenever Charlie hands the ball to Arthur Rhodes, however, bad things are just as likely to happen as good ones. (All I could think of as Rhodes loaded the bases was George S. sitting half a world away stewing.)

Yes, yes, the clichés came out right away. Gotta’ put this one behind you. It’s only one game. We’re still in this race. Well, let me remind the Phillies they only finished one game out of the playoffs last year, so, sure, it’s only one game but upon reflection will it turn out to have been the only one game?