Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reversal of Fortunes

C'mon, guys, you are making all of us early-panicking, here-we-go-again naysayers, anti-Pat and Cholly types, and blogging-in-our-pajamas know-it-alls look bad. Very bad.

Two laughers in a row. Three wins in a row (shoulda' been five). Jimmy Rollins walking the walk, or more precisely running the trot. Brett Myers moving to the pen for the good of the team. Shane Victorino still defying the sophomore jinx. What's next? Dallas Green sending the players posies after each win?

Throughout the early going the little engine that could has. Right now it's hard to think of a better all-around shortstop than J-Roll. He hits, he runs, he scores, hits for power and, oh yeah, still fields among the best. Without him the Phillies would be trailing the Reading Phils. And let's not forget one more thing about Jimmy: he clearly enjoys playing the game. The impish smile is always there when things are going well for the Phils. Perhaps more notably, he never gets too low when things aren't going well and lord knows he's had plenty of opportunity to feel low in 2007.

Two other major pistons in the Phillies engine, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, are taking different paths at the moment. Utley has finally found his stroke and is hitting home runs, some prodigious, while raising his average. Utley's fielding remains steady if unspectacular and always dependable. Howard is still looking for some consistency at bat and in the field. He is striking out too much and continues to look uncomfortable at the plate. His average continues to hover closer to the Mendoza line than not. His stance is more upright than last season nor does he hold the bat out in front of himself as long as he did last year. These were no idle gestures. The bend at the knees and bat outstretched enabled him to achieve balance and relaxation. His weight seemed much more evenly distributed. This year he appears tense, his weight forward. He is lunging more at the ball. In the field he continues to make lazy mistakes, his concentration clearly lacking.

Finally, the Phils won at home against a team, Houston, that has become something of a nemesis the last few years. Last night's win was only their second one in seven tries at Citizens Bank Park in 2007. Throughout their 3-year tenure at the Bank the Phillies have barely broken .500. Home cooking just hasn't agreed with them, but if they can start to win at home consistently the fans will come.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Nothing like a couple of wins and three consecutive well-pitched games from your starters to lighten the mood around these parts to say nothing of in the Phillies' clubhouse.

Speaking of the clubhouse, no matter what else Wes Helms does this season he's already a favorite of mine. I loved his description of the closed-door meeting Charlie Manuel held just after the heartbreaking loss on Friday night and prior to Cole Hamels' stellar performance the next evening. Helms characterized the discussion as "...more or less like a family dinner. You just sit there and talk. What do we need to do to make things better? It's not one person. It's not two people. There are 25 of us. We had about 10 different players talk. It was a Thanksgiving dinner conversation. There was no yelling. It was just talking about what we've got to do."

Talk about taking things in stride! Who needs Charlie Manuel's folksy ways when the Phils have Wes Helms? Come to think of it, I'd bet Helms knows how to make the double switch.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Robbing Peter....

The Brett Myers decision represents the nadir of Charlie Manuel's tenure as the Phillies skipper. In less than a month the starting rotation has gone from one of the better ones by most accounts -- an overestimation in my opinion -- to one of many mediocre ones -- potentially an understatement.

Can a rotation be called one of the better staffs in the league when it sports a 44-year old junkballer, a 37-year old whom they tried to get rid of, a nearly 31-year old who just came off the DL and has clearly lost a lot off his fastball, a 29-year old whose medical records are more extensive than his pitching charts, and a 23-year old phenom who still has less than a year of big league experience? Need I point out that the glowing consensus pre-season assessments assumed Brett Myers would be one of the five?

Now Myers is in the bullpen for what may be a long time and even now there are clear indications his role has yet to be defined. Will he be the setup man to aging Flash Gordon, whose own recent medical history leaves much to be desired? (At least one scout is quoted in today's paper as saying Gordon appears to have abandoned his curveball, a sign he may be trying to put less strain on his arm.) Or will Myers eventually be converted to the closer? For his part, Myers is being given a lot of credit in many circles for doing whatever is necessary to help a desperate team when in fact that help was and remains the responsibility of management. The failure to shore up a clearly inadequate bullpen is a poor excuse for punching holes in a less than spectacular starting rotation.

Orioles legend Jim Palmer once said of his equally famous manager Earl Weaver that all the latter knew about major league pitching was that he couldn't hit it. Charlie Manuel may have had a little more success than Weaver against big league pitchers, but it didn't translate into any more knowledge about them.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Playing The Hand They've Been Dealt

The Baltimore Orioles, formerly the team of my affections (RSB suggested I reconsider the "formerly" label), opened the 1988 baseball season with a major league record twenty-one losses in a row.

The current team of my affections, the Phillies, cannot match that mark because they have stumbled and bumbled their way to an occasional win in the first three weeks of the 2007 season. As of this morning, however, they do own the worst record in baseball, 3 - 10, 36 percentage points behind the Kansas City Royals. In the course of their futility the Phillies have yet to win two games in a row.

Now they have embarked on a major shuffling of their pitching staff, dropping opening day starter and Putative Ace Brett Myers from the starting rotation and inserting erstwhile starter, trade bait and reluctant reliever Jon Lieber in Myers slot. There is no question the much-maligned bullpen needs help, but this move smacks more of desperation than grand design. Still, if the Phillies' batters would even occasionally deliver with men in scoring position -- they lead the majors in futility in that department -- things might look better.

There is more than enough blame to spread around. The nucleus of the team - Chase Utley and Ryan Howard - continue to struggle. Howard, in particular, looks lost at the plate. Nearly every AB now ends with a pained expression of futility, confusion, despair and frustration. Last year's NL MVP might find some solace in looking at runner-up Albert Pujols, the best hitter in all of baseball, who is also having a miserable Spring, but not much. Howard is whiffing one out of every three at-bats and, worse, failing to go the other way when he does connect. Last year, more than half of his homers were to center or left field.

Other than last night's 0-6 collar, shortstop Jimmy Rollins has been the lone bright spot on the entire roster. Now best known for having labeled the Phils the team to beat in the pre-season, Rollins, too, cannot really catch a break. In an article on ESPN's web site, Jimmy was referred to as "the outspoken Phillies shortstop". Rollins is many things, but outspoken is hardly one of them. He uttered one sentence expressing confidence in his teammates and suddenly he is "outspoken".

The turmoil isn't confined to the playing field as the dust-up between manager Charlie Manuel and so-called journalist Howard Eskin attests. Nearly the entire fan-base from Vietnam (commenter extraordinaire Far Eastern Division George S.) to Valley Green is calling for Charlie's head, but GM Pat Gillick has stated "we're behind [him]". Frankly, it's hard to imagine how removing the manager will set this team on the right path. Unless management caves in to the pressure and decides they have to "do something", the Phillies will have to play the hand they've been dealt. A mere month ago that hand was considered sufficient to go all in; now, they've been done in by a nearly total collapse.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Team To Beat

J-Roll was correct. The Phillies are the team to beat...and everybody's doing it.

They are playing the least inspired ball I've ever witnessed, worse than teams who are thirty games out in late August. Occasionally a player will roll his eyes or cock his head slightly at a call that didn't go his way but there is little if any fire.

The youngsters on whom the Phillies rely heavily are scuffling badly. Nearly all the veterans with the exception of Rollins appear helpless to pick things up.

The long-awaited debut of Freddy Garcia went pretty much as expected, that is to say, unimpressive in the main.

The good-natured but impotent skipper is baited into a shouting match by Howard Eskin, one of the least estimable so-called reporters on the local sports scene.

The GM is silent.

The season is slipping away.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Thoughts While Waiting For Spring

As if their cold start in the standings weren't bad enough, the Phillies, their fans and virtually every team east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line are enduring an unusually soggy and cold Spring. Pitchers have been blowing on their hands with the blessings of the umpires, batters have been wearing long Johns and turtlenecks and groundskeepers have been calling on every trick in the trade to make their little corners of the earth playable. It's difficult to work up a lot of enthusiasm for the summer game when you are forced to retrieve the snow shovel from the basement after storing it there for what you believed was good!!

* * * * * * * *

Freddy Garcia makes his first start in a Phillies uniform tonight...if the weather cooperates. Suffice it to say this is going to be a big game for Garcia and his new team. If Freddy's arm holds up and his fastball approaches at least the upper 80's, everyone will be delighted...if he also manages to tame the Mets. If, on the other hand, he fails on any of these counts, the recriminations will begin. Even Jim Salisbury, as fair a man as is covering the Phillies these days, wondered aloud in his column this AM whether or not Garcia is damaged goods.

* * * * * * * *

Old friend Randy Wolf is 2-1 with a 4.00 ERA for the Dodgers. Battery mate Mike Lieberthal only has five AB's and is batting .200.

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An excerpt from Bill Giles' ghost-written book appears in today's Inquirer along with this picture:

The incident was the ill-fated attempt by Kite Man to deliver the first ball on Opening Day in 1972. What struck me was not KM's veering off course a la the ill-fated ski jumper of ABC's Wide World of Sports promo fame, but the willingness of the Phillies to eliminate so many seats adjacent to the runway from sale for a game that is normally a sellout. This was only the second opening day at the Vet and one would have thought tickets, and therefore seats, were hard to come by. Meanwhile, 35 years later, if the current residents of Citizens Bank Park don't pick up the pace soon, Giles can reschedule another appearance of Kite Man with one major change: he can widen the runway extensively.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Still Raw After All These Years

When the Phillies drafted Brett Myers they probably told themselves they had a young, raw talent who would mature into a front line pitcher. And when he debuted at Wrigley Field in July, 2002, against another highly touted young hurler, Mark Prior, and won 4-2, they must have congratulated themselves on their good fortune. No doubt they still saw Myers as young and raw, but he was on his way.

Well, five years later Myers still has raw talent but he hasn't harnessed it . Worse, he never will. This is a guy whose stuff everyone falls over himself praising. "Best stuff on the staff," more than one scout, pitching coach and manager has been heard to say. Yet, Myers remains an unpredictable and unreliable force. He is just as likely to go out there and surrender home runs in bunches as he is to blow away batters. He can be handed a lead and give it back the very next inning. He can lose focus in the blink of an eye. He can try to out-muscle a guy with his fastball when something off-speed or breaking would be a better, dare we say, wiser choice.

I'm sure his teammates are getting tired of the roller coaster ride of playing behind him. I can imagine Chase Utley, who even when he struggles with one part of his game picks up the other parts, said to himself, "here we go again" when Myers was handed a 3-0 lead like last night and gave it up in the next two successive innings.

Myers was the putative ace of this team. He was handed the opening day assignment probably more as a confidence-booster than a reward. He was coming off a very so-so 2006 season in which he had serious off-field problems as well as his usual Jekyll and Hyde on field performances. Long criticized for his poor conditioning, Myers arrived at Spring Training a lighter man by 30 pounds and armed with a new contract. Moreover, he felt grateful for the fan support if not forgiveness he perceived following those off-field troubles.

All of that good will amounted to a respectable opening day start against Atlanta in which he blew the lead with two outs in the eight inning when he tried to sneak just one more fastball by Edgar Renteria. In his next two starts, against Florida and Houston, he was bombed. It wasn't even close against Houston. His teammates have struggled badly since Opening Day and desperately needed a stopper, but instead they got an implosion. They'd be well-advised not to count too heavily upon him going forward because while Myers may possess that raw talent, the Phillies never know which pitcher is going to show up on any given evening.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Look Out Below!!

You know things are bad, really bad, when Pat Burrell is talking in mid April. The normally taciturn outfielder spoke of "putting ourselves in a tough situation, just like we have the last couple of years" as the Phils dropped another game to the Mets to fall to 2 - 7, half a game in front of AAA, er I meant, division rival Washington.

The Phils blew another lead and wasted consecutive home runs by Jimmy Rollins in last night's loss. I don't care what people say about how tight this team is, J-Roll, who was on the hot seat more than any other player on this team for reasons that bear no repeating, handled himself just fine, thank you. Pressing? Not Jimmy.

So, what's going wrong? Here are a few lowlights:

1. Wes Helms arrived in town with a reputation as a lousy fielder and he's turned out to be even worse than anticipated.

2. Beginning in the Spring, word out of Florida was that Ryan Howard looked uncomfortable at the plate. Well, he does look uncomfortable to this eye. In fact, he isn't crouching/bending at the knees and waist as much as last year. He appears to be a little more upright, which has thrown him off balance and screwed up his swing. It would be reassuring to say this has happened only as his average and contact with the ball have dropped, but he has stood more upright since day one of this season.

3. The starting pitching has been erratic to say the least. Brett Myers continues his Jekyll and Hyde impersonation, a world-beater one day and a batting practice pitcher the next. If he continues this pattern, tonight's outing should be a good one. Or not. Adam Eaton certainly redeemed himself the other night but it's going to take a lot more consistency before I become a believer. A whole lot more. Freddy Garcia has been missing in action. Jamie Moyer looked like a 43-year old pitcher last night. Only Cole Hamels has pitched well. Bottom line: the starters have hardly been in a position to pick up their no-hit, lousy defense mates.

4. Shane Victorino is struggling. So is Aaron Rowand. So is Michael Bourn in limited appearances. Only Burrell has been hitting and I don't think that is going to last. Overall, the outfield stinks! It could be the worst in the division except for Washington. Maybe.

5. The catching situation appears to be a bit confused, too. Carlos Ruiz deserves to start but Rod Barajas is going to be in there because Gillick and Manuel didn't bring him in as a backup. He looks like a slightly less lumbering Sal Fasano to me.

6. PR. Leave it to the Phillies to completely botch the handling of Chris Coste, who did everything asked of him last year. And I thought Manuel didn't demote veterans due to injury??? At a minimum Coste deserved to stick with the parent club and come off the bench. Who else currently riding said bench produced as much as he did last year? Frankly, it's too bad he can't get his release and sign elsewhere. He certainly deserves better than he's gotten.

7. Finally, Ruben Amaro, who continues to not impress, is quoted as saying that the Phillies had better start winning or they are going to be selling suntan lotion come the post-season. He's right to an extent, of course, but he forgot to look in the mirror when he spoke of "the Phillies" who had better get their act together. What, exactly, has he contributed?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Where's Freddy & Why Is His GM Still Here?

Has anyone seen or heard from Freddy Garcia lately?

Pat Gillick's biggest off-season move has yet to take the field let alone pay off for the Phillies. His rehabilitation start in Clearwater was scheduled for last night but the game was rained out. There hasn't been any word out of the parent club when we can expect Freddy to take his spot in the rotation.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be exaggerating to say the guy who brought him here accepted his own job under somewhat false pretenses. Gillick has sent all sorts of signals he was looking forward to retirement before his seat was even warm here. Nowhere is that more obvious than a review to date of his tenure in Philadelphia, which has been marked by his incessant dwelling on the past. The problem with Gillick's nostalgia has been that he's allowed it to influence the present as he reacquires player after player from his previous stops along the way.

The death watch alluded in the post below should also include Gillick but it won't because there are too many senior fellows on the list. Charlie Manuel is clearly over his head. He hasn't a clue about pitching staffs, is a terrible in-game strategist and apparently cannot motivate players. That last point may been seen as overvalued in some quarters (professional athletes shouldn't need motivation according to one camp), but the best managers like Jim Leyland know how to mix in game management with management of human nature. Pro athletes don't need a friend, which by all accounts Charlie is; they need someone who is in control, which by all appearances Charlie isn't!!

I cannot figure out what David Montgomery et al want from their senior management team but this much seems clear: their choices remain out of step with the prevailing approaches of the more successful GM's and field managers in baseball for reasons only they can provide. Come to think of it, this franchise has always been out of step. The spate of Jackie Robinson articles appearing everywhere again make it abundantly clear Philadelphia has resisted change at every turn, socially and professionally. The venom spewed at Robinson during his first encounters with the Phillies, in Brooklyn as well as the City of Brotherly Love, remain a legendary stain on the Phillies' history. People also forget the owners who preceded the current group, the Carpenters, weren't exactly liberals either. Ruly Carpenter got out of the game when he saw management could no longer bind players to teams like the serfs and indentured servants they had been. He looked free agency in the eye and blinked it away. Under their ownership, racial quotas remained institutionalized here as well.

The Phillies have always been slow to look at foreign players. They have eschewed money ball and sabremetrics. They have botched nearly every important public relations opportunity. And last but hardly least, this year they had an opportunity that comes along once in a generation if that, to capture the hearts and minds of the sporting public in their home town, and they are blowing it. The players aren't performing well right now and share significant responsibility for the profoundly disappointing start to the 2007 season, but let's get something straight: the real fault lies at the top of the organization and it's going to be difficult to correct those mistakes in one or two transactions.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Death Watch

As of this posting the Phillies are an easy team to evaluate. Only one guy is performing better than expected, second half man Cole Hamels. Pat Burrell is also surprising to the upside, as is his wont in the early going, but he'll soon fall back to earth. Shane Victorino is hitting as is Carlos Ruiz. The rest of their mates are laboring through various states of catatonia.

There's little to be gained by obsessing about the bullpen. Suffice it to say manager Charlie Manuel is even pleading publicly for some help. Speaking of Manuel, the death watch has begun though the suspicion here is things have already gotten out of hand and secretly GM Pat Gillick is nodding to himself and saying, "I knew this would happen." Manuel is forever being given credit as a players' manager for creating a positive attitude in the clubhouse. That and a $93 million payroll will get you second place.

Meanwhile, poor Jimmy Rollins is the literal toast of the town in New York after declaring the Phils the team to beat in the division during Spring Training and then failing to walk the walk. His first appearance in the Big Apple was a disaster as he grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and then booted a ball that opened the flood gates to a Mets' 7-run inning. Frankly, all of the pre-game brouhaha over his remarks is just predictably good old fashioned hype. He remains the engine that drives this team. Unfortunately, the Phils 1 - 6 April start is also predictable.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The View From The Cellar

Esteemed blogger Erik Grissom of Philliesflow is already worried about my mental health following the dire post below. Admittedly it was a glum response to the Phillies annual stumble-fest in April, but I stand by the gist of it, that Pat Gillick has done a miserable job as GM.

The Phils are already in a deep hole as they move to Shea Stadium and the first series with their chief rivals. The NY faithful will be waiting for Jimmy Rollins, who in the pre-season anointed his team the one to beat, and one can be certain they won't be blowing kisses his way. It would all be good fun if indeed the Phillies were arriving in a good humor, but the mood in their clubhouse must certainly be foul.

In this morning's Inquirer the dreaded notion has already appeared in print that the players might be "pressing". No more astute an observer than Gillick himself wondered if this were the case. Nothing annoys me more than to read that sort of balderdash. These guys are supposed to be professional athletes. If they weren't prepared coming into the regular season they can start by blaming themselves and go right up the ladder through manager Charlie Manuel and GM Gillick. How much more lead time did they require to prepare for the coming season? What, exactly, has happened in the first week that was unexpected? If the Phillies failed to deliver on offense or on the pitcher's mound, whom do we point at and wonder? If fourteen base runners are stranded in a single game is that a case of "pressing" or simply a lack of discipline if not skill? If relief pitchers throw home run balls on successive nights is that a lack of preparedness or simply a lack of talent?

The Phillies have enough proven hitters that they should come around on offense sooner or later. Their defense is another matter. It's adequate at best overall with holes at too numerous spots to reiterate once again. (I will acknowledge I have officially given up the campaign on behalf of Ryan Howard's glove.) As for pitching, Brett Myers followed up a decent first outing with a miserable one, the same sort of on-again/off-again performances we've come to expect of him while Freddy Garcia, the fellow who was supposed to be the missing link in this rotation remains on the DL. Having missed his first start in a Phillies uniform, there is no word regarding his next one. Was Garcia damaged goods when the Phillies acquired him from the White Sox? Hard to say "no" at this stage. One thing is certain, however, and that is the Phillies don't know or won't say exactly what his real prognosis is. Let's just say his status is anything but "routine", the word the Phillies used to describe Garcia's unexpected trip north in March to visit a doctor.

Cole Hamels opens for the Phils in New York and we can only hope his first outing, an outstanding one last week versus the Braves, was not an aberration.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Who Lost The Phillies?

The party line is to put the opening series sweep behind them and concentrate on winning in Miami this weekend. Frankly, I'm waiting for the inevitable comments about the pressures of playing in Philadelphia. When they come, I'll turn a deaf ear. The good citizenry of Philadelphia, more than eager to embrace this Phillies team, was very excited about the coming season. If that's too much pressure for some of the players, they are in the wrong business, not the wrong city.

If we choose to point fingers at this early juncture, let's put the right folks on the target range. Pat Gillick has done a miserable job of preparing this team for 2007. Looking back over his comments from last year, we should have known this was coming. Gillick wrote off 2007 in public utterances in 2006 but most people chose not to believe him. The Phillies' surprising stretch run after the July trade deadline must have further convinced us if not him the Phils were close to being a playoff team. Yet, fully aware of the team's major weaknesses, Gillick did nothing to correct them in the six months that followed. Why? One possible explanation is that Gillick's heart isn't in the job. The near-absentee GM spends more time away from town than in it. From the day he was hired he made it clear to those paying attention he wasn't going to be in the job that long. He seems resistant to the more modern aspects of the business -- sabremetrics -- and at the same time very bound up by ties to old teams and personnel. It wouldn't be unfair to say the game has begun to pass him by.

The help they need is not around the corner. It isn't in the farm system. It's unlikely it will come in a trade with some other team. Don't count on the waiver wire. And it most definitely doesn't reside on the 40-man roster.

Gillick built it. The fans came. The team went nowhere.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

True To Form

Thus far the Phillies are doing nearly everything I expected. Starting pitching has been better than anticipated. Relief pitching has been horrendous. Hitting has been anemic. Base-running hasn't improved, Davey Lopes notwithstanding. Charlie Manuel remains clueless about his batting order and use of the bullpen. And the Phils have stumbled out of the gate.

It isn't easy to be 2.5 games out of first place having only played two games yourself, but, ladies and gentlemen, these are your 2007 Philadelphia Phillies.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Spring Notes

Random thoughts while waiting for the season to get underway...again.

What's with this day off between Opening Day and game two? I've heard several explanations, none of which are remotely convincing. The most often-repeated one suggests that iffy early Spring weather is the reason some teams take a break between the inaugural pitch and game two. A quick check of the weather in Philadelphia Monday, Tuesday and today suggests MLB knows as much about the weather as, well, the weatherman! Monday and Tuesday were gorgeous with weather in the low to mid 70's. As of this writing Wednesday, the heavens have opened up and a cold, brisk wind is promised for later with evening temperatures in the '30's.

* * * * * * * *

Old friend Randy Wolf made his first start in a Dodger uniform yesterday and looked an awful lot like the guy who wore red pinstripes for so many years. Wolf pitched six innings and yielded four earned runs including two home runs. Plus ca change....

* * * * * * * *

The Barry Bonds apologists are out in force already headed by Steve Philips, the fast-talking ex Mets GM who rarely makes any sense even on a good day. Philips says we should forget the man and the controversy and just sit back and admire the achievement he believes will inevitably come around mid-season. Thanks, Steve, just what we needed: another feeble reminder urging us to separate the individual from his behavior and responsibilities.

* * * * * * * *

C'mon, everyone, it's still early and the Phils have only played one game. Ah, yes, but if they lose tonight (or don't play at all given the downpours in the area) they will already trail the Mets by two games. Don't tell me those guys in the clubhouse aren't already watching the scoreboard. Oh, yes, and by the way, they'd also trail the Braves by two games and some of the best bloggers out there figure the Braves are just as much a threat to win the division as anyone else. All I know is I don't want to see Adam Eaton take the mound with the Phils down two games.

* * * * * * * *

A table the other day listed the 2007 Phillies salaries and it made for interesting reading. Of the top five salaries on the team, two belong to players the Phils tried to get rid of (Burrell and Lieber), one to a reclamation project of sorts (Eaton), one to a guy who will be a free agent at the end of this season (Garcia), and one a guy who is 43 years old. The next five include a fellow who is one pitch away from being disabled (Gordon), three guys who with Ryan Howard form the nucleus of the team (Rollins, Myers, Utley), and one more guy the team is shopping (Rowand).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

It All Seems Familiar

Yes, yes, we know it's only one game and there are 161 left, but Opening Day was emblematic of what ails the Phillies.

All during the Fall and Winter everyone throughout the organization spoke of getting off to a good start in April, a failing that not only has plagued the Phils the last few years but directly cost them a chance at the post-season each time. So winning on Opening Day is far more than symbolic, it counts in the standings!

No topic received more scrutiny this past off-season than the questionable debate centering on who bats behind (read: protects) Ryan Howard. No sense repeating the entire debate here; everyone knows the principals. So right out of the chute manager Charlie Manuel neuturalizes the Pat Burrell factor by flipping Howard and normal three hole batter Chase Utley. Voila! Now we know who's going to protect the MVP. If Manuel was out to prove he can adjust or think outside the box, he chose a strange way to show it. Naturally, his move left everyone scratching his head. Why didn't he try this during Spring Training, we wondered? To make matters even more confusing, Utley is as pure a number three hitter as there is in all of baseball and they don't make cleanup hitters any better than Howard. What did Manuel prove with this move? Hard to imagine.

Oh, well, on to pitching.

Brett Myers is a very good pitcher. By all accounts he has the best stuff on this staff. If he has failed to reach his full potential during his career to date it's because he hasn't always had the mental toughness nor physical conditioning to weather tough spots. S0 this Spring he came to camp a lighter man by 30 pounds and seemingly more confident than ever in his abilities. He had by all accounts squarely faced his off-field family problems and made no bones about thanking Phillies fans for giving him a second chance.

Manuel rewarded these changes with an opening day start and Myers pitched decently, holding a 3-2 lead over Atlanta going into the eighth inning. He got the first two outs quickly and next faced Edgar Renteria, who has a history of killing the Phils no matter what uniform he is wearing. When a tired Myers had him 0-2 you hoped in your heart of hearts he wouldn't groove one, instead throwing him some nasty breaking stuff. But Brett grooved it and Renteria turned it around in a hurry and tied the game in a single stroke. "I always look fastball," a grinning Renteria told reporters after the game. It's a macho thing with Brett. He may be a new man on the outside, perhaps, but he's still a dumb one on the inside.

The game was still tied but the Phils had let the Braves and starter John Smoltz off the hook.

Up to that point the game had unfolded more or less according to form. J-Roll showed early impatience but later locked in to homer and double. Wes Helms delivered with his bat as we hoped he would. Ryan Howard had two hits but made an error with his glove that wasn't costly and a base-running one that was. Aaron Rowand again proved he is an overrated outfielder when he allowed a double off his glove because he was playing too shallow. At least two other Phillies outfielders would have tracked it down with ease.

And then there was the bullpen. No other facet of this team received greater scrutiny this off-season and no other group produced more agita. Nearly every scribe, blogger and cab driver around figured the Phils' bullpen was their weakest link and sure enough newly-anointed set-up man Ryan Madson didn't wait long to prove everyone right. Madson served up a two-run homer to Renteria and game one of the 2007 season was in the loss column.

Monday, April 02, 2007

And They're Off . . .On The Wrong Foot

When all is said and done, nine out of ten pundits weren't wrong when they worried about the Phillies' bullpen.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Real Deal

Practice time is over and not a moment too soon for Mssrs. Eaton, Hamels and Howard. Beginning Monday the Phillies play for keeps.

Some of the squad hope to sustain the momentum of these exhibition games. Chase Utley had a fine Spring. So, too, did Jimmy Rollins, Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms. Brett Myers had a superb training camp for which the Phillies should be grateful given the mess the rest of the rotation and bullpen find themselves in.

Touted before the start of the Grapefruit League as one of the league's best group of starters, the five or six men being counted on to finally propel their mates into the post-season pitched to decidedly mixed results in Florida. Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber had to be put on the DL to start the season. Jamie Moyer quietly pitched effectively if not spectacularly. Adam Eaton failed to quiet one single doubter other than himself that he can pitch effectively. Eaton pooh-poohed his rocky practice results in a manner that while it fell far short of Allen Iverson's infamous protest was no more convincing as he was bombed nearly every time out. Cole Hamels surrendered an awful lot of home runs balls in most of his outings and despite his candor about experimenting throwing inside to batters, Hamels propensity to serve up long balls is nothing new nor encouraging.

Ah, but Brett Myers, the fellow we've been waiting for over several seasons now, clearly stamped himself as the top gun in this rotation. Newly trimmed down, sporting a beard, more talkative in front of the cameras and, best of all, seemingly confident he has put his personal and professional problems behind him, Myers looks like he is ready to lead this staff.

Ryan Howard had an awful spring by all accounts. He struck out at a considerable clip, looked awkward, at times lost, at the plate and even showed a little impatience with all the attention he's received over the last several months. If it's possible to come to camp from an off-season of supposed rest and look tired, Howard managed to do that. Of course, constantly flying from one media event, award ceremony and photo shoot to another will do that. He'd probably like to be the reigning rookie of the year rather than MVP all over again if he could, but that isn't in the cards. Indeed, he is now seen by many inside and out of the organization as one of the chief spokesmen of the game itself. That's a lot of pressure on a guy who still only has 1.5 seasons in the big leagues altogether!! No one expects Howard to repeat the numbers he put up last year, but no one expects the Phillies to be in the hunt if he falls far short. One thing that has always impressed about Howard is his ability to adjust. Now, he is going to see even fewer pitches to hit and he must adjust to being more patient and taking what he's given. The biggest flaw in his game reamins his high strikeout rate. His team could do with fewer home runs and more contact this season. The other flaw in his game was defense and on this count reports out of Florida suggest he has shown considerable improvement. I, for one, thought the ability to field was there (are you reading this, Erik?).

The Phillies bench is improved. Catching will be improved over last season if Carlos Ruiz can remain healthy and gets a substantial number of starts and hits.

The bullpen and outfield remain the weakest links which won't be overcome unless everyone else puts up numbers like last year. That's a lot to expect; too much, frankly, is the suspicion here.