Friday, June 29, 2007

We Are The Lucky Ones

If you are a long-time Phillies fan than you know there is no greater pleasure than watching Jimmy Rollins come through in the clutch. He follows the flight of the ball, drops his head slightly, runs down to first pumping his fist once and the smile begins to appear. By the time he reaches first base all of the lights are on: the twinkle in the eye, the wide grin, the pure joy. He touches his finger to his lips and points skyward and all is good.

Rollins never lets the lows get him down. He's constitutionally incapable of wallowing when things aren't going well. Last night he came through in the clutch not once but twice when his team was down a run and in danger of dropping a second straight game to Cincinnati. Each time Jimmy stroked a shot to the right side, the first one a triple when the Phils were down to their last out and the second a shot in the gap that plated the winning run in extra innings.

When pinch-runner Jason Werth crossed the plate with the winning run a number of teammates were there to greet him with a modified version of the walk-off celebration at home plate. Werth obliged by approaching the dish gingerly and then tossing his cap at the final moment. A shortened version of pounding followed but the entire celebration adjourned quickly only to reconvene near first base where the smiling Rollins took off his cap and was greeted by a bear hug from Ryan Howard. Then the backslapping and head-patting followed.

In a post-game interview in the dugout Jimmy responded to questions from Harry Kalas and even managed to avoid the brunt of a shaving cream pie, exclaiming that he was also veteran enough to handle that dubious hero's treatment as well.

A few weeks ago Rollins told the press he smiled too much to be the villain New York Mets' fans tried to make him following his now-infamous off-season declaration that the Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East. Jimmy knows himself well. We are lucky to know him at all.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Wanted: Relief. Send Applications C/O Phillies, CBP

Bullpen. Bullpen. Bullpen.

With apologies to the popular real estate maxim, it isn't just about location; it's about the quality of the product and as everyone has been saying since day one, when it comes to relief pitching the Phillies have a terrible product.

Of course location does matter when one of your relievers hits a batter, but let's not quibble. That one mistake by Brian Sanches pales when compared to the ongoing horror that is Geoff Geary, who has now allowed eight of the last fifteen runners he's inherited to score. Some might argue that Charlie Manuel once again pulled a starter too early, but you won't find much support for that notion here this time. Jamie Moyer was done this night and if he didn't know it, his manager did. Moyer's tendency isn't simply to run out of gas, chugging and lurching along. He just stops dead. Last night he was cruising along with a no-hitter through 6.2 innings and then just like that he gave up two hits and a walk and all of a sudden the bases were loaded. A few weeks ago he was also cruising along before he yielded back-to-back home runs against the D-Backs. It was time to head for the showers. Unfortunately, it was also time to summons help from the Phillies utterly unreliable bullpen corps and on this night a succession of fireman poured gasoline on the flames.

Overshadowed was another home run by Ryan Howard, the 100th of his career and a booming shot that traveled an estimated 505 feet to dead center. This was Howard's second home run in as many nights. Other than that, he has struck out seven times in his last nine at-bats. So, it's back to feast-or-famine with the Phils first baseman. Howard also made not one but two fine stabs of ground balls with nice tosses to Jamie Moyer covering. These were overshadowed by his error in the ninth inning that preceded a two-run home run by Adam Dunn. Feast or famine.

Following the series finale with the Reds tonight, the Mets come to town for a weekend series that includes a day-night double header. The Phillies will trot out not one but two inexperienced starters for this series, one a genuine rookie and the other for all intentions a rookie, against the most potent lineup in the division. The Phils will likely need their offense to step up big time, but, then, what's new?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Can They Hang On?

In March the Phillies starting rotation was generally viewed to be one of the strongest in the division if not the league. By late June three fifths of that rotation was out of commission, two of them likely lost for the year and the third, moved to the bullpen to shore up that tattered unit, currently on the Disabled List. The remaining bullpen hasn't fared much better with the closer disabled most of the season and his replacement, the aforementioned former starter, also on the shelf.

Meanwhile, their MVP first baseman has struggled most of the year and is only recently showing signs of coming out of his funk while their left-fielder, once the hope of the organization but long-since a major disappointment, has lost his starting job altogether. Still, with slightly more than a week to go to the mid-point of the season, the Phils are in second place trailing the Mets by three games. After a three game set against the Reds that begins this evening, the Phils will host the Mets for a weekend series and have a chance to move up. How have they done it?

Parity? Not in the conventional sense because in truth the Mets have the best starting nine in the division. But if we understand the term to mean the leveling that results when every team has suffered a rash of injuries and pitching problems the answer is a resounding yes.

Can the Phillies hang on? It seems highly unlikely, especially if their rivals get healthy and/or pick up some pitching. As the season wears on the absence of starters and the unreliability of a patch-work bullpen will take their toll no matter how many runs the Phillies score. The Phillies have already started calling up minor leaguers before their time in large part because they simply need bodies to take a turn in the rotation given the number of forced absences. The projected starter for one of Friday's two games, J.D. Durbin, will be appearing with his fourth team this season alone!

Meanwhile, the offense really isn't that explosive. Apart from Chase Utley and Aaron Rowand, no one has hit consistently all season. Jimmy has gone through a number of rough patches generally brought on by being moved down in the order. If he stays at the top, where he belong, he will hit. Third base remains the Black Hole as commenter extraordinaire George S. labeled the position when David Bell [under]manned the post. Shane Victorino has been performed well as a starter though he will never take up the power slack normally associated with corner outfield positions and left field has become a position-by-committee with Burrell's demise though Michael Bourn may soon become the starter. The catching position continues to rotate between the competent Carlos Ruiz, who deserves to be the starter, and the veteran Rod Barajas, who deserves not to be.

There's plenty of baseball left as the pundits and player like to say, but the Phillies' pitching well looks pretty dry just when the weather gets hot.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Thanks But No Thanks

It would be difficult to identify the low points in recent Baltimore Orioles history but surely one would have to be today's news that Joe Girardi has turned down an offer to manage the team. Not too many eligible skippers out there would pass up an opportunity to get back in the game, but, then, these are not ordinary times in the baseball life of the Queen City of the Patapsco drainage area. Once among the most admired franchises in all of sport, the Orioles have slowly but inexorably fallen from grace throughout the reign of Peter Angelos, arguably one of the worst owners in the recent history of the game. Season after grinding season of losing has been accompanied by a revolving door in the manager's office. The same revolving door has turned more slowly, but it has turned, in the GM's office where currently not one but two men split that post. Angelos cannot do anything straightforward.

As long as Angelos and his family run this team the situation in Baltimore will only continue to deteriorate. A trial lawyer who earned his millions litigating asbestos cases, Angelos knows little about baseball but that hasn't keep him nor his children, who have been given senior management positions in the organization despite a lack of qualifications, from meddling in operations. After a decade of losing Angelos admits he does not enjoy owning the team but his dissatisfaction pales when compared to the legions of fans who no longer come to Camden Yards not to mention the players who are stuck playing there. During their glory years the Orioles were so admired players jumped at a chance to play with Brooks and Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and the like. These days, most players go out of their way to avoid landing in Baltimore.

As today's news makes clear, the avoidance syndrome now reaches into the manager's office as well. For his part, Girardi has already had personal run-ins with interfering ownership, having been fired after one year in Miami despite what was generally viewed as a tremendous job handling a team made up mostly of youngsters. Apart from Angelos' presence in Baltimore, there also would have been the not so small matter of taking over a club with few if any prospects of improving anytime in the near future.

Girardi won't have to wait long to be interviewed for another post. He is at or near the top of the wish list for every team seeking a manager and will have plenty of other opportunities. (It wouldn't surprise me if he landed in Philadelphia next season.) As for the Orioles, there are plenty of men who will still jump at the chance to take the position despite the current owner. (My bet is on former Oriole Rick Dempsey.)

No fans. No prospects. No clue at the top. Joe Girardi strikes me as having a pretty good grasp of reality.

Far Afield

You've gotta' hand it to Jon Lieber, he's pretty darn consistent. In three of his last four outings the hefty right-hander lasted less than six innings and yielded ten hits each time. The only "blemish" on his record was a three-hit complete-game shutout he threw against Kansas City, for which he no doubt apologizes.

In all fairness, we can't lay all of the blame for last night's live batting practice exhibition on Big Jon. He had help from Ryan Howard, who did his best impersonation of Dick Stuart at first base throughout the evening, and a bullpen that was unable to stem the Tribe when it counted most. So the Phillies dropped two out of three in Cleveland and thus lost consecutive series to the top teams in the AL Central. Anyone tempted to view these two series as a yardstick of the Phils' progress toward the post-season has to conclude they came up short.

Howard's lack of concentration in the field is no longer a running joke between me and the estimable author of Philliesflow, Erik Grissom. I hereby publicly acknowledge Erik recognized the young Dr. Strangeglove long before I did. Every ground ball hit to first with a man on has become an adventure for Howard, but last night he didn't stop there as he bobbled what seemed like every ball hit or thrown in his direction. One strongly suspects the mix-up last week when with Lieber again pitching Howard backed off from covering the runner at first and Lieber threw over to no one was also Howard's fault. Don't be surprised if Lieber starts to take it personally though, truth be told, he isn't exactly the second coming of Jim Kaat with a glove either. Watching Lieber field, or more precisely, attempt to bend over, retrieve a ball and then throw, is as painful as watching Howard these days. Still, Lieber might have escaped last night's debacle had Howard's head if not glove been more in the game.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Reunion 2007

It's old home week in Cleveland as a lot of ex-Phillies and Indians mix it up. Last night Jose Mesa, who will forever be seen as the arch villain by generations of Cleveland fans for blowing a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1997 World Series, came in to stop an Indians' rally dead in its tracks and preserve the Phillies lead and eventual 9-6 win. Moments earlier, ex-Phil Jason Michaels, who replaced ex-Phil David Dellucci when the left-fielder blew a hamstring earlier in the game, had delivered a two run single to cut the Phillies lead and set up Mesa's saving appearance. Are you following this?

While all of these alumni were figuring mightily in the outcome of the game, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard sparked the Phils with their bats. J-Roll led off the game with a surprise bunt single and eventually came around to score the first of three runs in the opening frame. Howard knocked in four runs with a single, double and home run. It was reassuring to see a "vintage" performance by Howard who since returning from the DL had more or less either homered or struck out in the majority of his plate appearances. His single over the first baseman's glove in the first inning and the later line-drive double must have felt as good if not better to him than the second-deck blast that traveled an estimated 451 feet.

Rookie Kyle Kendrick earned his first big league victory in his second start by pitching six quality innings as defined by today's standards, six innings and 3 or fewer earned runs. Frankly, by the standards set by somel Phillies starters of late, Kendrick's performance was true quality.

Tonight, Jon Lieber, who sandwiched a complete game shutout victory over Kansas City with two horrendous outings in which he gave up 11 earned runs in 10 innings while yielding 20 hits, gets the start in the rubber match. He will be opposed by one of the American League's premier pitchers in C.C. Sabathia, who brings a 9-2 record into the game.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Is there a doctor in the house? Not for what ails the Phillies on the field. We know pretty much what the cure is for that. No, we're talking about the front office and medical staff.

An interesting piece showed up in this morning's Inquirer regarding Indians' reliever Joe Borowski, whom the Phillies nearly signed last off-season before declining on advice of medical counsel.

CLEVELAND - The Phillies could have used Joe Borowski.

They actually had him, but they decided after a physical in November that his shoulder did not look sound and backed off a two-year, $9 million contract with an option for a third season. Borowski eventually signed a one-year, $4.25 million contract with a $4 million option for 2008 with the Cleveland Indians. He is 0-3 with a 6.33 ERA with 20 saves in 22 opportunities this season. His ERA is high, but drop two bad appearances, and it is a respectable 3.18.

Borowski said he was happy with the way things turned out, but that doesn't mean he's not puzzled by what happened with the Phillies.

"My physical was just the doctor [Michael Ciccotti] pretty much hanging off my arms and not moving me whatsoever," Borowski said. "That's the funny part. He said I did so-so on my physical. What else does he want me to do? Jump through hoops?"

"With all due respect to the player, he's free to speak as he sees fit," said Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phils' assistant GM. "We are fully supportive of Dr. Ciccotti and his ability to diagnose our players and free agents. We are very confident in his findings."

The Phillies had Borowski undergo an MRI exam on his shoulder.

"They came back with another offer," Borowski said. "Then everybody knew that same day that I supposedly failed my physical when it was supposed to be hush-hush. There were a lot of funny things. That's why I think it worked out for the best. You don't want to be involved in stuff like that."

Borowski stopped just short of flatly declaring the Phillies leaked the results of his physical, but his message is unmistakably clear. It's difficult to know what their motive might have been, but Borowski is happy to have landed on the shores of Lake Erie instead. Did the front office wish to justify their decision not to offer Borowski a deal with misinformation or were they simply bargaining? As we all know n0w, under different circumstances the Phillies declined to have Freddy Garcia undergo an MRI prior to trading for him and his shoulder "pathology" despite ample reports about a declining fast ball and a known history of high mileage. It appears they ordered an MRI for the wrong guy.

Then there is the Tom Gordon situation. Some reports have indicated the veteran closer failed to let the Phillies know how bad things were with his ailing shoulder at the end of last season and during the Spring. It's one thing to expect your average patients to be responsible for their own health maintenance and an altogether different situation regarding professional athletes who have state of the art facilities, trainers and doctors available year round and should be monitored by the teams who invest heavily in them. What good is a medical staff if they cannot closely monitor players with a history of visits to the Disabled List? The Phillies have also signed a number of lesser players over the last few seasons who turned up in short order with arm miseries. Is the scouting department failing to do its homework? Does the medical staff only get involved when big dollars are at stake? Or is this part of the front office's pattern of deliberately ignoring health issues, preferring to gamble that one of these days they will find a diamond in the rough? This is a complicated issue involving large doses of disclosure and concealment on both sides. Generally, how many players, especially ones in a contract year, are willing to acknowledge serious medical problems on their own? On the other hand, it would appear obvious that any team willing to spend a lot of money or trade players or prospects would go to great lengths to insure the commodity they are receiving is medically sound. The Phillies appear to have played that game pretty loosely when it suited them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Here's One For The Folks In Kearney, NJ

The weekend just past provided an excellent opportunity to play against one of the best teams in baseball in front of sold out crowds at home. The Phillies didn't rise to the occasion. Oh, they had their moments, scoring eight runs Friday night albeit in a losing effort, winning Saturday night, and taking a lead into the seventh inning Sunday afternoon against Justin Verlander before the bullpen imploded, but in the end the Phils dropped two out of three against the Tigers and failed to make up more ground on the badly slumping New York Mets.

The three game series also underscored the Phillies ongoing major weakness, the bullpen. Friday night's anti-hero was Francisco Rosario, who followed up his one inning of work during which he gave up three hits, a walk and four earned runs with a trip to the Disabled List. Unofficially, the Phillies must lead the league if not all of MLB in placing pitchers on the DL after they've stunk up the joint, not, unfortunately, before! On Sunday, Yoel Hernandez was the goat. As of this writing he hasn't been placed on the DL. Sunday's loss was particularly dispiriting because starter Adam Eaton again pitched extremely well and deserved a better fate. What's more, he was lifted while still appearing to be throwing very well because Charlie Manuel didn't like his "numbers" against Gary Sheffield. What's the matter with judging a pitcher on his numbers at the time???!!!! If nothing else, Charlie should have left Eaton in to bat since he did drive in the Phillies third run of the day.

Some position players also had mediocre weekends, most notably, Ryan Howard who despite a home run on Friday night otherwise failed to deliver in the clutch on several occasions and was badly fooled a few times when striking out. Aaron Rowand, on the other hand, continued to deliver offensively but once again made several poor decisions in the field, taking bad routes to the ball or leaving his feet needlessly. Pat Burrell all but disappeared...even when he was in the lineup.

Now, it's on to Cleveland to face the Indians, who just happen to be leading the Central Division over the Tigers.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Off Day Wrap Up

Old favorite Placido Polanco is one of many stars leading the Detroit Tigers into Citizens Bank Park for one of the marquee match-ups of interleague play this season. The Tigers boast great pitching, great hitting and great leadership in the dugout. In the Phillies they face the National League's hottest team since April. More than 125,000 fans should be on hand for the series.

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What gives with Bud Selig? Is he really so ill-informed if not intentioned that he is going to carry through on his strong arm tactics with Jason Giambi? How, exactly, do you punish a player for alleged infractions that took place prior to the agreement between players and owners that implemented the rules? You don't, pure and simple, unless you are Selig and you want a show "trial" of sorts. There isn't any good solution to past ills other than in the court of public opinion and everyone on the planet except Selig seems to realize this. The only course of action for baseball is to rigorously apply and indeed tighten the new standards going forward. As for all the suspected abusers in the past, suggestions that there be a general amnesty that would provide the cleansing needed to move on might work but only if the Commissioner's office were less vindictive.

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Pity the poor Baltimore Orioles, the team of my youth. They were just swept by geographically natural rival Washington, no mean feat, and have fallen into last place in the AL East. Notoriously meddlesome owner Peter Angelos must surely be getting ready to fire someone at this point and manager Sam Perlozzo is the most likely candidate.

Meanwhile, former Orioles great Eddie Murray was fired as hitting coach by the LA Dodgers yesterday. I always wondered how the publicly taciturn Murray could coach anyone, but former teammates always said he was great in the clubhouse just not in front of microphones. Will Angelos bring him back to Baltimore in some capacity for the third time if for no other reason than to try and capture some of the magic from a former era? Angelos has tried that maneuver before and it has always failed. Whatever happens, Murray is not managerial material. He'd last about one half of one post-game press conference before clamming up for good.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Things Are Looking Up

Four games over .500, huge adoring crowds, a different hero every night, rookie pitchers stepping into the breach, a guy who began the game on the bench with a rare day off driving in five runs including a grand slam homer, two games out of first place and one of the best teams in baseball about to arrive for a big series. It doesn't get much better than that.

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Buried within Jim Salisbury's usual fine commentary on the Phillies was an interesting remark by reliever Yoel Hernandez: "It's nice [the Phillies are] showing confidence in the young guys," Hernandez said. "A couple of years ago, the Phillies didn't do that. I've been with the Phillies eight years. They don't usually take players from double A."

Indeed, the Phils have been looking to Reading not Ottawa for pitching help these days despite the presence of most of their experienced pitchers on the latter roster. Eude Brito has struggled all season but Matt Smith's record looks good. Is it a question of remaining options in the case of Smith or do the Phillies believe they've seen enough of him for a while and it's time to give some other kids a look? Kyle Kendrick would certainly fit the latter scenario. Some more seasoned players on the Ottawa roster have been fighting injuries, too, so the big league club's decisions are in part being dictated by that state of affairs. Given the circumstances, it isn't at all clear the Phillies have much choice in calling up players from AA rather than AAA but if it helps boost their confidence as Hernandez suggests, it cannot hurt.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Dynamic Duo

Despite this season of ups-and-downs the Phillies have somehow managed to creep back into the NL East race. As Todd Zolecki points out in his piece in the Inquirer this morning:

"...the Phillies improve[d] to 34-31 [with their win last night], the first time this season they have been three games over .500. They have the best record in the NL since April 20, after they started the season 4-11. They are 30-20 since then, but the New York Mets still had an 81/2-game lead over them in the NL East on June 2."

Not now, they don't.

New York's lead is down to three and the second place Braves are a single game ahead of the Phils. While the Phillies have struggled to find consistency and to remain healthy their chief division rivals have also struggled. The Mets and Braves have seen their share of injuries and inconsistencies and, of course, the Phils have made up considerable ground against them both in the best possible way, going head-to-head, having swept their recent series in Atlanta and New York!

Throughout their roller coaster season two players -- Chase Utley and Cole Hamels -- have remained remarkably consistent and productive and last night against the Chicago White Sox the same pair led the Phillies to victory. All of us have run out of superlatives for Utley, but that doesn't stop us from trotting out more. When Utley came up the only "knock" on him was his defense. Being Chase, he worked on that facet of his game and has become a very good second baseman. If you asked the other member of this consistent duowhat play by Utley impressed him the most last night, he probably wouldn't say it was the two-run homer or two-run single but the diving backhand behind second base and throw from one knee that caught the runner at first (with a mighty assist from a Ryan Howard's long stretch).

Hamels and Utley are intensely competitive but there the similarities end. Where Hamels is expressive and talkative, Utley just grimaces and plays on. Hamels is quick to tell listeners what he did wrong and others behind him did right. He is unabashed in his ambitions to play with the best and be considered among the best, but there isn't the slightest bit of strutting associated with his cockiness. Utley, on the other hand, says little about himself, literally letting his actions speak for him. Already an All-Star, Utley again leads all NL second baseman in the voting this season. Opposing teams may discuss ways to avoid having Ryan Howard beat them with one swing -- applying shifts, intentionally walking him, busting him inside over and over -- but they haven't come up with a strategy to stop Utley.

If Hamels has one weakness it is his tendency to give up the long ball, sometimes in bunches. But it is his ability to shake off those momentary lapses that singles him out in this, only his second season in the big leagues. After surrendering back-to-back home runs in the first inning of last night's game, he settled down to yield only four more hits over eight innings, striking out eight en route to his league-leading ninth victory of the season. Afterwards, he praised the defense behind him. No doubt Chase Utley just shrugged.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Due Diligence & The Freddy Defense

JRoll should sue Freddy Garcia for impersonating a pitcher and inducing him to proclaim the Phillies the team to beat. "Freddy made me do it."

AS Bill Conlin wrote in his column yesterday in the Daily News, the Phillies clearly failed to perform due diligence with respect to Garcia. Worse, what "diligence" was done was provided not by the Phillies vaunted scouting department but by AL scouts who publicly questioned Garcia's arm at the end of last season, winning record notwithstanding. Worse than that, Pat Gillick went with his instincts and previous itinerary in acquiring a player from his own past, a habit he cannot seem to break, much to the detriment of his current employers. And worst of all, this organization is now using the DL as a post-facto instrument for stating the obvious, i.e., pitchers who clearly are laboring go on the list later rather than sooner. So, Garcia delays reporting to the doctor's office until he is utterly tattooed once again and only then goes on the DL, for the second time this season. None of Garcia's outings have lasted very long. In some of them he threw more than 100 pitches in less than six innings. The conclusion is inescapable: he was damaged goods when Gillick trumpeted the deal that brought him here. Today's report he has a "frayed" rotator cuff is old news.

But wait, Phillies fans, it gets even worse. The Phillies just drafted a pitcher who's had surgery on his pitching shoulder, calling his name even after 18 clubs drafting ahead of them passed on him. Afterwards, senior management had the unmitigated gall to say Joe Savery would have gone even higher had he not had the surgery. Wake me when this is over.

Unfortunately, the condition in the Phillies' front office is chronic. Their recent history of acquisitions and trades is not a pretty picture and the pieces are in place for more ugliness as the current edition of the club struggles to play .500 ball. This organization has a tendency to acquire players to fill needs at the expense of creating new ones. No trade better illustrates this tendency than the Johnny Estrada for Kevin Millwood deal. Millwood was a frontline pitcher at the time and the Phils considered themselves lucky to get him. Estrada, however, was not only the catcher of the future, he was the catcher of the then present as Mike Lieberthal struggled through a series of crippling injuries. What gain is there in filling one hole by opening another? The Jim Thome deal, not the original signing but the trade for Aaron Rowand, left the Phillies partly hamstrung going forward as they assumed a significant portion of Thome's remaining salary. Coupled with their obligations to Pat Burrell and the amount of Bobby Abreu's salary they had to assume in giving him away to the Yankees, the Phillies were reduced to signing second and third tier free agents with the funds they still had available. Gillick's solution was a never-ending series of signings of players from his past, some of whom no one else wanted.

The Garcia trade fits right in with the pattern. In giving the White Sox two young pitchers, the Phillies figured at the worst they had rented a workhorse for one season. They didn't even get a half season out of him, however, and in the process gave up an admittedly fallen angel in Gavin Floyd and a potentially good pitcher in Gio Gonzalez. And what commodity are they now desperately starved for? Pitching. Had they done their homework they wouldn't be in this mess. It's unlikely Garcia will pitch again this season, at the end of which he is a free agent. There is no hope of moving him prior to that; Garcia is damaged goods and now even the Phillies' alleged brain trust acknowledges it. The Phils will have received nothing for the young pitchers they traded and will still need a starter to take Garcia's spot. Subtraction by addition: it's the Phillies way.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Mediocre Through & Through

In our hearts we knew it was coming. As soon as the Phils completed their improbable sweep of the Mets at Shea Stadium and headed to the Midwest for a weekend series with the lowly Kansas City Royals, nearly every Phillies' fan asked him or herself, "Are they going to blow the momentum just like they did two weeks earlier following their sweep of the Braves in Atlanta"? You wanted to believe they'd finally found their rhythm, but deep down inside you feared the worst.

Losing two out of three to the most inept team in baseball might have been the worst, but when every precinct had reported, the 17-5 shellacking they took yesterday was the the clear winner for lowest of the lows.

The Royals took batting practice Sunday against our pitchers, not theirs. It was humiliating. Jamie Moyer lasted less than two innings and looked like the 43-year old pitcher he is. After the game, Jimmy Rollins pronounced the road trip a success (in so many words) with the Phils winning four of six games. It sure felt like a downer from where I sit. Freddy Garcia was hammered again the other night and then landed, conveniently, on the DL. Frankly, they could give him his release as far as I am concerned because they aren't likely to get much for him at this point and he's just taking up roster space. Why is it we always learn he has arm miseries after a bad performance? Ryan Madson was hammered. Jose Mesa, yes, that Jose Mesa, was completely ineffective. On and on it went.

There's little point to analyze what ails this team because it's all been said countless times and in the end doesn't matter. The facts are simple: erratic starting pitching coupled with poor relief pitching coupled with an inconsistent offense add up to mediocrity. If reaching (or falling back in this case) .500 isn't mediocrity I don't know what is.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Coping With The Ups & Downs

Go figure. The Phillies sweep the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta, return home for seven games only to lose five of them including being swept by Arizona and hit the road again beginning at hostile Shea Stadium where the proceed to sweep the Mets. What are we to make of these guys? One thing is undeniable: the three games they won in New York were among the most entertaining and exciting the Phillies have played in a long time home or away. Most impressive was the way they came back to win all three of them either in extra innings or after trailing late in the game. Naturally, Chase Utley was in the middle of every rally. Equally impressive was the second straight save by newly anointed closer Antonio Alfonseca.

Hard as it is to imagine, the Phils only trail first place New York by five games and second place Atlanta by one and half. They open a weekend series against Kansas City in Missouri, where the lowly Royals have the worst home record in all of baseball. Watch out!

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My uncanny ability to invoke the reverse curse when it comes to Pat Burrell is starting to become a little freaky. Every time I point out his many deficiencies Burrell comes through. Last night was no exception as he homered off old teammate and antagonist Billy Wagner, the lefty closer's first blown save since August of 2006. Burrell's home run tied the score and set up the winning rally. Just to show how player-specific the RC has become, Wes Helms, who also took his lumps in this space recently, struck out in his only potential clutch appearance last night.

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I'm sorry, but with all the holes they have to fill why did the Phillies draft a pitcher who's already had a bone spur in his shoulder and a slight tear of the labrum? And spare me the buzzwords. I don't care how athletic this guy is or how high the ceiling for him is. He's a pitcher whose already had two separate injuries to his arm, you know, that thing he throws with! What a great time in the organization's history to gamble. I particularly love the comments that he was projected to go even higher had he not had the injuries and subsequent operation in July, 2006. No kidding. I guess the 18 teams drafting in front of the Phillies were unimpressed enough to pass, but not Arbuckle and Co., who, naturally, claimed to have done their medical homework. If things work out and Joe Savery has a successful career in Philadelphia, I'll happily eat whatever crow I'm served. In the meantime, I didn't believe this organization could surprise me further on draft day, but they did.

Rollins In A Nutshell

Asked whether he was a New York villain in the mold of "Reggie Miller...John Rocker... or pretty much the entire Red Sox team", the Phils Jimmy Rollins had this to say in a fine piece by the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki: "I think I smile too much," Rollins said, naturally, with a smile. "Maybe if I was a mean guy I'd make for a good villain. But I enjoy playing the game. Eventually you get tired being mad at a happy guy."

That's J-Roll in a nutshell. No one could have said it better. Even when he was scuffling badly last month after Charlie Manuel jerked him around yet again and dropped him from the lead-off spot in the lineup, Rollins refused to sulk, scowl or kick the dirt. That sort of demeanor just isn't in him. His love of the game and his good nature always win out in the end and if Manuel and the rest of the Phillies' alleged brain trust could just stop tinkering with him and leave him at the top of the order all will be OK. Rollins remains the ignition switch for this club and when he's firing they will win their share of games.

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Draft day is upon us and the Phils have a good number of picks in the first few rounds. It has been nine years and many millions of dollars since they made Pat Burrell the number one overall pick in the draft. In his first seasons with the Phillies management looked like geniuses and Burrell looked like a sure bet to become a star. We all know what has happened since then. By now Burrell's stock is at an all-time low at home and abroad. His remaining salary, declining bat speed and questionable health make it nearly impossible to move him for much. His no-trade clause doesn't help either, but if he were smart (a big "if") he'd waive it for a chance at a fresh start somewhere -- anywhere -- else.

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Just when you think Antonio Alfonseca was another one of Pat Gillick's questionable pickups, the veteran right-hander shows us there's life yet in the portly body and high-mileage arm. His third save of the season came last night against the Mets. The only question now is he can hold on until reinforcements arrive? Tom Gordon's return is not imminent let alone guaranteed at all, and Brett Myers hasn't really tested his ailing shoulder sufficiently to assure his return when his original stint on the DL expires soon.

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Wes Helms is becoming the forgotten man on the Phillies. Signed to provide "protection" behind Ryan Howard and solve the "black hole" problem at third base, Helms has done neither. With no home runs and 19 rbi's the question in this observer's mind is this: does Helms represent an improvement over Chris Coste in any department, especially the "feel good" and justice ones?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


The great thing about Chase Utley, and there are many great things, is that he treats every day, every inning, every at bat as the most important of the rest of his career and never seems to dwell on past performances.

A day after his uncharacteristically poor decision to bunt in the first inning of an 8-1 loss to San Francisco helped nip a rally in the bud, Utley moved on and powered the Phils to a 4-2 win over the Mets, driving in the first two runs in regulation play and the winning run on an opposite field homer in extra innings.

Utley has suffered through his share of funks during his short tenure as the premier second baseman in the National League, but if he is scuffling at the plate or in the field he never lets those rough spots affect his overall game. When most people call someone a "throw-back" player they aren't referring to baggy pants or wads of tobacco stuffed in one cheek; they mean to describe a player whose love for the game transcends all other concerns -- the money, the endorsement, the celebrity -- and who sets an example by what he does not what he says. Utley is today's Pete Rose without the unrelenting need to draw attention to himself, a much cleaner version who runs just as hard, slaps a tag down on runners just as sharply, who will barrel into an opposing player with the intent to score not maim, and whose fire within burns just as fiercely.

The Phillies can and have muddled along without a Ryan Howard or Brett Myers for periods of time, but they couldn't do without Utley for more than a day or so, if that.

Monday, June 04, 2007

...They're Down

They're Up, They're Down, They're Up!

Ah, the Phillies. They thrill us and they torment us, usually in equal parts. Yesterday, they did a lot of both, giving up an early lead, taking it back, giving it up again, taking it back in dramatic fashion, giving it up yet again and then finally winning with a walk-off home run by Shane Victorino.

The Phils got another poor starting performance from Freddy Garcia and a poor job from emergency "closer" Ryan Madson but managed to hit four home runs and overcome their mound deficiencies. Garcia surrendered nine hits (including two home runs), two walks, and seven runs (six earned) in 5.1 innings. He labored as usual and did absolutely nothing to improve his standing with the team or its fans. Look for the Phils to trade Freddy at the July deadline because this is one declining pitcher who has absolutely no intention of re-signing with the Phils when his contract expires at the end of the year. GM Pat Gillick's only task when it comes to Garcia should be to try and get something of value for him, a task made all the more difficult by Garcia himself, whose value plummets with each outing. [Addendum: I just read this AM's article in the Inquirer in which Garcia is asked about not running out the ground ball to first and the boos that followed. When reporters asked how he felt about it he said he hit the ball, saw the fielder catch it and throw and he made an abrupt right turn toward the dugout. "For me, it's not a big deal. For people here, everything is a big deal." Ah, yes, the sore loser's favorite whipping boy, the "tough" and "unforgiving" Philadelphia sports fans. Imagine the nerve, booing a guy who pitches poorly nearly every time out and doesn't even bother to run to first base the few times a year he gets wood on the ball and actually has to run at all. It's the fans' fault, Freddy, because they expect far too much from a guy who makes $10 million a year to pitch every fifth day and hit even less often.]

As for Madson, he walked two batters to start the ninth inning and one came around to score the tying run. Madson has killed enough rallies or surrendered enough leads over the last two plus seasons for the Phillies to reach the conclusion he will never be reliable. The problem is they haven't got anyone else to trot out there these days.

On the plus side Chase Utley, Aaron Rowand, Ryan Howard and Victorino all homered to account for seven of the Phils' nine runs and Wes Helms delivered a crucial pinch-hit double during a five-run rally in the seventh. Howard's three-run shot to dead center field gave the Phils the lead that Madson latered surrendered, but Victorino's opposite field homer to left made the Phils winners. The usual suspects gathered around home plate in anticipation of the conquering hero's arrival and the picture shows an especially gleeful Howard, Victorino's close friend and buddy, ready to deliver the usual pounding that accompanies such feats. Also noteworthy in the picture is the presence smack dab in the middle of the throng of Carlos Ruiz, who has not only arrived as this club's primary catcher but also as a critical team member.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Something To Cheer About

Cole Hamels is all that stands between the Phillies and the Washington Nationals. The young left-hander won a league-leading eighth game of the season last night and in the process pitched his second complete game of the year and stopped the Phils' four-game losing streak. That's the kind of performance a team needs from its ace and make no mistake about it, Hamels has assumed that mantel on this club.

The Phillies continue to scuffle for their hits, notching only six of them (that makes eleven hits total in their last three games), but for the first time this home stand they made the most of their anemic production and actually took and held onto a lead. The Phils also beat a left-hander, a rarity this season, and climbed back to within one game of .500 for the umpteenth time.

This night belonged to Hamels, who capped off his evening with a dramatic confrontation with Barry Bonds at the plate in the top of the ninth. With one out and one man on and the Phils leading by a score of 5-2, the situation was hardly dire, but the crowd loved it just the same, roaring with every pitch as Hamels struck Bonds out. Finally, something to cheer about, in the stands and, frankly, in the dugout. According to catcher Rod Barajas, Hamels threw Bonds five straight changeups during that at-bat and the veteran receiver marveled that while big league hitters generally and great ones in particular can adjust the second or third time they see the same pitch, Hamels' change isn't just any ordinary pitch.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Home Is Where The Hits Ain't

In 1938 Johnny Vandermeer pitched no hitters in two consecutive starts, a record that is unlikely ever to be broken, especially in this era of five-inning starters. Undaunted, your Philadelphia Phillies tried a new twist this past week, namely having two consecutive no-hitters thrown against them. But, alas, as with every other endeavor by this mediocre team, they failed. Just when it looked like they might not manage to scratch out a single base hit someone spoiled the party.

On Wednesday Randy Johnson limited the Phils to one hit over six innings. Last night Matt Morris did the same. The Phils made Wednesday's game interesting by rallying in the ninth inning and nearly coming all the way back were it not for Michael Bourn's base-running gaffe. Last night the Phils were out of it after two innings, trailing 5-0 on their way to being embarrassed 13-0.

There were exactly two highlights for the Phils last night and both came in the first inning on the same play when Shane Victorino gunned down his eight base-runner of the season and Carlos Ruiz made the tag at home. Ruiz never drops a throw to the plate unlike his predecessor Mike Lieberthal who, it seemed, dropped every other one. By the second inning the Giants weren't taking any chances as they smoked bomb after bomb against Adam Eaton and a succession of so-called relief pitchers.

Eaton almost escaped that fateful second inning when it appeared he'd struck out Morris, but he didn't get the call and Morris responded with a base hit (one of three on the night). Three batters later a grand slam home run unofficially ended the evening. It would take seven more innings of phutility to put an official seal on the procedures.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Loose Translations

Yiddish is a wonderfully expressive language best heard not read. Take, for example, the expression ferkrimpter ponim, meaning "a twisted-up, scowling face", or sometimes more loosely translated as a "prune face". An alternative translation I've heard, not normally offered in any Yiddish dictionaries, is "someone who wears a constant expression like he's just smelled shit." Now, take a look at these two images from today's Inquirer:

Maybe not worth a 1000 words, but surely a few well-chosen Yiddish ones.