Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas comes ear-LEE

Cole Hamels is now a No. 4 starter.

Let me repeat that.

Hamels, the crafty left-hander with a career ERA of 3.53 while pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball, is the fourth-best starting pitcher in his team's rotation.

Most teams are happy if their No. 4 reaches the sixth inning, but the Philadelphia Phillies really won't have to give the sixth inning a second thought in 2011 after they pulled off the deal of the century Monday night. Cliff Lee, the most pursued player in the offseason, is returning for his second tour of duty with Philadelphia. He helped us reach the World Series, and exactly one year after we sent him packing, he turned down more lucrative deals with the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers to come back for five years and $120 million.

Things like this just don't happen, do they? It's like getting a winning lottery ticket, losing it and the lottery printing you a another copy of the winner.

OK, it wasn't quite that easy for Ruben Amaro and the rest of the Phillies brass, but it's not everyday in this present climate that you offer a guy less money than the competition and end up with him. Lee has not only proven himself as an elite pitcher, but an elite human being who unlike some others (ahem...Jayson Werth) considers multiple factors in a potential deal over just dollars and cents.

In an odd twist of fate, we have Amaro to thank for setting up this "fearsome foursome" of pitchers that may provide enough of an edge over a wildly inconsistent offense. Had he traded for Roy Halladay and kept Lee before the 2010 season, it's likely he wouldn't have traded for Roy Oswalt at the deadline. Sure, he would've saved himself a lot of grief, but things could not have worked out better for him or the team.

Lee made it clear several times over the past year that he didn't want to leave Philadelphia after the 2009 season. He loved his teammates, he loved his coaches, he loved the fans and so did his family.

And my fellow Phillie fans, pay your respects to Kristen Lee, Cliff's wife. She reportedly had just as much of a say in this decision, and why shouldn't she? I mean really, where would any of us be without our wives? She loathed the poor treatment she received from Yankee fans during the ALCS in October, while the Lee's most fond memories during the last two years of frequent city-hopping were apparently made with Philadelphia.

The best part: all of the high-prized free agents are gone, and the Yankees didn't land any of them. In the end, their bottomless wallets got the shaft from Lee twice in less than six months, and he returns to the place he never wanted to leave.

Welcome home, anointed one, and hang your red stockings with cheer.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Brushing off the nats

The world made a lot more sense to me before Jayson Werth ended his brief status as a free agent by signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals.

Werth was one of the most sought-after players on the market, but this deal made a pathetic splash in a pool drained by years of sucking. The former Phillies right fielder allowed one World Series ring on his finger to pay lip service to his conscience before he finalized the humongous payday.

Maybe the Boston Red Sox could've given Werth a similar contract, and they probably would have before the Nationals jumped the gun, but they made the right move grabbing Adrian Gonzalez first. Gonazalez is three years younger and is a more proven commodity.

I'm not going to pretend that any other person in Werth's position would turn down the exact contract he and agent Scott Boras were looking for, but he can't expect his experience on the field to be as enjoyable either. A doubling in salary will prove a substantial price to pay.

In a division as competitive as the NL East, the Nationals are easily still a few years away from finishing better than fourth place. Werth will impress his teammates with his enviable blend of power and speed, but the response to his big blasts out of the yard won't stir the same frenzy in the half-empty Nationals Park.

Werth will also deal getting beaten by his former team 10-15 times out of the year, and given the fairly short distance between Philadelphia and D.C., he'll hear plenty of boos when the Phillies are the visiting team.

Werth isn't a savior that the Nationals are banking on. He's presently on the slow rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery. Werth may sell a few tickets before Stephen Strasburg's return, but in a baseball sense, everyone's getting screwed from this deal. The Phillies lost a key right-handed bat in the middle of their lineup, the Nationals are losing money that could've been better spent on the pitching they desperately need, and Werth is losing those special extra games in October he's grown so accustomed to playing over the last four years.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Werth out of the yahd

Good news for Jayson Werth: it sounds like he’ll be able to keep the scruff after all.

The New York Yankees have more immediate concerns than the free agent right fielder – who just declined arbitration – such as shoving their cold shoulder into Derek Jeter’s mouth and luring Cliff Lee into a pitching rotation that was supposed to get them another World Series title. Werth didn’t get one either with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010, but with the numbers he’s put up over the past three years, he’s the best outfielder on the market that money from another contender can buy.

And said contender will likely jack up its payroll for the purchase. The question is whether or not the bearded slugger is ‘Werth’ the amount hardball agent Scott Boras will demand.

A nine-figure payday would be unlikely even if Werth was still south of 30, because he’s not a big enough name to attract that kind of dough in the present economic climate. But Boras will work his magic to replace his own pupils with dollar signs, while an emphatic “ca-ching” escapes from his mouth.

Werth will then sit comfortably with his new team, likely with a multi-year deal making nearly double per season than he did in 2010 with the Phillies (7.5 million).

The "right" offer could send Werth anywhere from Beantown to Chi-town or Hollywood, and he will be paid too much to play in any one of those places. Business deals are never without an element of risk, and Werth is most definitely a risk.

His resume is impressive, but it lacks a monster season that warrants 15 million. Any ballclub spending that much is paying for a versatile outfielder who will put up blinding offensive numbers for approximately six weeks out of the season, while tolling the Mendoza Line during the other four months. That team must also endure countless at-bats during which Werth will lunge unsuccessfully at a 3-2 pitch out of the zone with runners in scoring position.

However, buyers are looking at more than Werth’s box scores, and despite the previously mentioned end result, he works the count full better than anyone in the game. In this era of over-protectiveness concerning starting pitchers, Werth is the kind of batter that will drive up pitch counts.

Werth’s OPS has also increased in each of the last three years, and he surpassed 100 runs scored for the first time in 2010.

Among all the teams with a chance to make the postseason, this is a match made in heaven for the Red Sox. Werth is a sabermetric goldmine to Boston GM Theo Epstein.

The Red Sox were hurt even more than the Phillies last season and still managed to lead all of baseball in team OPS (.790). Not only will Werth fit right in with a lineup full of patient sluggers, but Boston can cover Boras’ ridiculous asking price.

Werth’s bat would replace the recent hole left by Victor Martinez, and his right-handed swing is a good complement to lefty David Ortiz. His swagger and long locks will woo the ladies, and his blasts over the Green Monster will encourage all of Red Sox Nation to chant his name. It’s an easy and inviting image that will be hard for Epstein to dismiss from his mind heading into the Winter Meetings.

Boras can make those daydreams a reality, and Werth will soon get a visit from another bearded fellow. Santa is coming early this year and he’s wearing a Boston cap.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Well deserved

Much like his stature, Roy Halladay's performance on the mound in 2010 was heads and shoulders above his peers. It stood out to the point that the announcement of his selection as this year's National League Cy Young Award recipient on Tuesday seemed more like a formality than a surprise.

Honestly, if this vote went any other way, I would have been shocked. Throughout the postseason I even heard broadcasters saying repeatedly he was the likely winner.

For those few still scratching their heads, Doc led the league in these categories: wins (21), innings pitched (250 2/3), complete games (9), shutouts (4), walks per nine innings (1.1) and strikeout/walk ratio (7.88). He also posted career bests in ERA (2.44) and strikeouts (219).

It's hard to believe Halladay's perfect game at the end of May became somewhat overshadowed by several similar achievements from other hurlers, but in the so-called Year of the Pitcher, he was still the best. In fact, he became the first pitcher in 87 years to walk just 30 batters in 250 or more innings of work.

The BBWAA proved the prognosticators right, giving Halladay all 32 first-place votes for his second Cy Young. Though such a landslide was not unprecedented, the choice hasn't felt this crystal clear since the heyday of Pedro Martinez.

You can't just leave this decision to numbers, though. Halladay provided the Phillies with more intangible support. Before this season, the team built its success around its high-powered offense, but in 2010, pitching maintained the pulse. Halladay was the leader of a pitching staff that carried the Phillies through the middle two months of the season when the offense endured its longest lull in years. When nothing was going right, it was up to the veteran to ascend that hill and pitch his heart out for those 1-0 and 2-1 victories.

And this guy thrived off pressure. Consider that his overall opponents' batting average during the season was .245, but with runners in scoring position, that dropped to .173. With a guy pitching around the plate as much as Halladay does, hits are going to happen, but once guys get on base, they'll likely run back to the dugout from that same base when the inning ends. Other pitchers, even some of Halladay's closest Cy Young competition, tend to lose focus when they allow a few baserunners, but he amazingly becomes even more locked in. That's not something you can teach.

Halladay is humble almost to a fault, and he would've gladly traded in this great honor for a World Series title. While that should be the most important goal of any player in the game, Halladay may not have realized that if he didn't give the Phillies this incredible season, they probably wouldn't have made the playoffs.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

All Good Things...

Pat "The Bat" Burrell is headed back to the World Series, but unfortunately for the white-rally-towel twirlers, not as a member of the Phillies.

Brotherly love wasn't enough for the boys in red pinstripes as they saw their season end with a 3-2 loss in Game 6 of the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants, who needed to beat the San Diego Padres on the final day of the regular season just to make the playoffs.
Now the two teams that were expected to meet again in the World Series for the second straight year will both be watching from home. An offensive blackout led to the demise of the both the Phillies and the Yankees, though the writing was on the wall for Philadelphia.

Injuries took a heavy toll on the Phillie hitters for a significant part of the regular season. While the addition of Roy Oswalt led to a dramatic turnaround over the last two months and another NL East title, that same old magic that carried the team through the previous two postseasons was nowhere to be found. And playoff teams that boast some of the best pitching in baseball took a note from the Yankees on just how to handle such a dangerous lineup.

It was no surprise, then, that Ryan Howard was the strikeout victim who ended Philly's 2010 dreams.

Howard is now first or tied for first for the most strikeouts in two separate postseason series, and drove in nary a run from the clean-up spot this October. Since his infamous whiffing in the 2009 Fall Classic, the Big Piece has struck out in 30 of his 56 playoff at-bats. That means that in more than half his trips to the plate, the man who is paid $20 million per year to crush balls over the fence didn't even put the ball in play. Of the 26 times Howard managed knock the ball between the lines, only one left the yard.

Ironically, Howard was the only starter in the lineup to hit better than .300 in the postseason this year, though he was typically all alone on the basepahts. Raul Ibanez was a distant second with a .226 average. Carlos Ruiz, who had never hit below .262 in any previous postseason, was dead last at .192.

As Charlie Manuel explained, the Phillies were too concerned with working the count, rather than being selective. They stood and stared at too many fastballs down the middle of the plate, making it easier for pitchers to get them to chase at breaking balls that tailed out of the zone. Combined, Cincinnati and San Francisco held Philadelphia to 3.7 runs per game - compared to 4.6 in '08 and 5.5 last year - and not even the likes of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels can carry you to a championship with that kind of production.

The beleaguered Phillies pitching staff still consistently put the team in a position to win. Aside from Game 3, each one of Philadelphia's losses in the NLCS could have gone the other way. It was basically the Giants coming up with the big hits, and some would add Halladay not getting the start in Game 4. No one can predict what would've happened in that scenario, but as close as each game was, such decisions loom very large.

But the shadows cast on the end of this season will quickly fade, as the sun shines brightly on a new day for the Phillies in 2011. All three elements of H2O are returning, as well as the entire starting lineup, aside from the likely departing Jayson Werth. Should the corner outfielder follow in Burrell's footsteps and find his way back to the Fall Classic with another team, the Phillies hope that when he gets there, they will be staring him down from the opposing dugout.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Can Phillies complete comeback?

What Roy Halladay did Thursday night is not unprecedented.

Some fans remember well, and others would love to forget, Curt Schilling's gutsy performance in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. With the Boston Red Sox facing elimination, Schilling led them to victory while sutures struggled to hold together a ruptured tendon in his right ankle.

Admittedly, a strained groin is not the same as a bleeding ankle, but Halladay adjusted to the pain and the sinking fastball he was forced to abandon. After the Philadelphia Phillies took the lead in a crazy third inning, Halladay made it stand up as his team went on to win 4-2 and send the NLCS back to Citizens Bank Park.

The law of averages tells us that the Giants will win one of the next two games and advance to the World Series, and the way this series has gone for the Phillies, that's a good bet to make. The hitting just isn't there like it was in 2008 and '09, but then again, teams have a way of rallying around a wounded teammate. Boston did it in '04 and the New York Yankees seem to be doing it in the ALCS for Mark Teixeira.

Either way, this is turning out to be a thrilling postseason. It's the first time since 2004 that both LCS's have reached Game 6. And with both teams that were down 3-1 winning Game 5, it makes an improbable comeback in one of the series seem more likely.

How likely is it for the Fightin' Phils? Of the six times it's been done since the LCS went to the best-of-seven format in 1985, three have come in just the last seven years, and three of the six teams won the last two games on the road. The latter fact doesn't hurt or help the Phillies, but their success in the postseason centers around playing well in their own digs. Since 2008, Philadelphia boasts a 15-4 playoff record at home. That's the kind of clout the Texas Rangers wish they had right now.

Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels (if it gets that far) will do their jobs, but the offense must do theirs. Manager Charlie Manuel can help that along - and atone for a plethora of bad choices in Game 4 - by putting Jimmy Rollins back in the leadoff spot for Game 6. He's proved that he's at least close to where he was before his latest injury setback. Since Game 2, he's 5-for-15, and he swiped second and third base in the seventh inning of last night's triumph. Shane Victorino, meanwhile, is clogging the top of the order with a measly three hits in the series.

If the Phillies continue hitting at their present .190 clip, their season will end at Citizens Bank Park. That hasn't happened yet in the postseason (their playoff runs in '07 and '09 ended on the road) and for a hostile fan base so used to seeing their team succeed in October, it won't be a pretty sight. It's in the Phillies' best interests and the well-being of Philadelphia to reward Halladay's effort, stun the Giants and punch their third straight ticket to the World Series.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reds get a lump of Cole

It wasn't that long ago when the Phillies experienced the hurt they just put on the Cincinnati Reds in the Division Series.

It was 2007 and a fairly young Philly team made a surprise trip to the postseason for the first time in more than a decade. Leading the way was experienced manager Charlie Manuel, who was in the third season of a job that finally paid the dividends the higher-ups were hoping for. Just as quickly as the Phillies realized their dream, it was snatched away by a three-game sweep.
Since then, Philadelphia has done nothing but win in the playoffs, and it showed an untested Cincinnati team and its veteran manager how it's done.

Twenty-six-year-old Cole Hamels locked up his team's third consecutive trip to the National League Championship Series with a pitching performance on Sunday that arguably exceeded any of his stellar starts during the 2008 postseason. He allowed just five hits and struck out nine in a 2-0 win. Hamels threw the second complete-game shutout for the "Big Three" in the series, proving that even if two of the three are dominating, the Phillies are still unbeatable.

Hamels often found himself on the wrong side of these kind of games during the regular season, but the October Phillies are a different breed from the first-half Phillies. They come up big when it matters the most. Shane Victorino made a game-saving grab, Chase Utley hit his 10th career postseason home run and Hamels took care of the rest.

The crafty left-hander said after the game that his overwhelming success at the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark - he's now 7-0 there - could be partially attributed to that fact that it was the site of his first big league start back in 2006. The Reds have improved a great deal since then, but they ran into an even more refined Hamels. The perfection of his cut fastball in the latter half of this season added a new weapon to set up his deadly changeup, which had Cincinnait's right-handers hitters fooled all night.

As good as their pitching has been, the Phillies would be the first ones to admit that they're still not firing on all cylinders. Nearly half of their 13 runs scored over the three games were provided by the opposition. The shallow dimensions of Great American were barely enough to take Utley's homer, the first long ball of the postseason for Philadelphia. The team knows it can hit much better than this, and a better outing from Roy Oswalt also wouldn't hurt. His first playoff start in five years turned out like his first start as a Phillie, but he went 7-0 after July 30 so a better outing in the NLCS is very likely.

The players in Philly know to ignore all the great hype surrounding them, but thus far they're on track to prove the prognosticators correct. The Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants - two other teams that have returned to the playoffs after long absences - are in the midst of an uncomfortable battle, and whichever group advances, they know the road only gets harder against a dangerous Phillies team that's now won six of its last seven series on the big stage.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Braves tripped up

Philadelphia Phillies fans from Mars hate the Atlanta Braves more than ever now after one of their own got taken out.

The Phillies may have won Monday night to stretch their winning streak to eight games and take a four-game lead in the division. Cole Hamels may have continued his second-half brilliance. Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz may now be one of the most beloved catchers in all of baseball for his barrage of clutch hits.

But the night belonged to Braves left fielder Matt Diaz. The hot corner was moved back about 200 feet, as Diaz made a sensational diving catch in the first inning, and then caused a nutty Philadelphia fan covered from head to toe in a red, skin-tight outfit to take a dive in the seventh.

The Golden Rule for players when fans run onto the field is to steer clear, lest they run with violent motives in their head. Diaz chose to ignore the rule and took matters into his own hands, running up on the guy from behind taking him out with a nudge and a trip. He could see the taser-less security guards weren't going to catch up to the fan, and really, where could he have hidden a weapon in that get-up?

Jayson Werth and Brian McCann laughed in appreciation of Diaz's fearless act after watching from home plate, and Philadelphia fans in the left field seats gave him a standing ovation. During the heat of a postseason race, it was a perfect gesture of solidarity and sportsmanship. Fans and players alike can't stand when some fool further delays a game so many people already call too slow. It disrupts the flow of the action and breaks the players' concentration. All they can do in a situation like that to express their contempt is stand and stare at the offender with their hands on their hips. Diaz finally decided to utilize his hips in another way, and more power to him.

Diaz also collected one of the six hits allowed by Hamels in a game that could've easily ended in a 3-1 win for the Braves, rather than 3-1 the other way. With a runner on in the top of the seventh inning, Martin Prado missed a towering three-run homer by about a foot down the left field line. Hamels got him to ground into a double play - one of the three on the night - on the very next pitch to end the threat. Errors by Jason Heyward and McCann led to two unearned runs for Philadelphia in the fifth. Those proved to be the difference.

The Phillies stayed true to their formula of looking lost at the plate against a rookie. The momentum of scoring at least five runs in each of their last four games couldn't help them against the untested arm of Brandon Beachy, who was called up to make his major league debut after a sore knee made Jair Jurrjens a late scratch. Beachy surrendered only an RBI double to Ruiz before the mistake-prone fifth inning led to his exit.

The Atlanta bullpen, which boasts the second-best ERA in the majors (3.02) behind San Diego, pitched 3 2/3 innings of one-hit ball. The Braves' bullpen is their big advantage over the Phillies, but they hope the relievers won't be needed as much over the next two games of the series.

The Philly offense has failed to score more than three runs in 16 of Hamels' 31 starts this season, but he has won his last four and though the numbers weren't on their side tonight, the Phillies won their eighth straight. They also won their 90th game and with 11 left to play this season, it's the quickest they've done so since 1993. It's got to be hard not to imagine the glory of yet another division title as the reality of that comes more into focus with each passing day.

In the meantime, the Phillies will gear up for the second game of the series, tip their hat to Diaz and ban all Martian landings in Citizens Bank Park through the rest of the year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Milestone madness

In the glory years of a professional team, several standout players often eclipse the standards set by past legends on the path to the team's ultimate goals.

New marks were achieved by both Ryan Howard and Brad Lidge in Saturday's 5-2 win over the Washington Nationals. With his 1-2-3 ninth inning, Lidge tied a member of the previous Phillies "dynasty," Tug McGraw, on the all-time team saves list with 94. Ryan Howard's two-run, opposite field shot in the third inning put him one ahead of Pat Burrell on the Phillies career list with 252. Burrell was the longest tenured Phillie when he helped this present successful group win a World Series in 2008.

The names Howard and Lidge aligned themselves with are connected in another crazy way. McGraw got the last out of the 1980 World Series, while Burrell's last hit as a Phillie set up the winning run in the clincher of the '08 Classic. As this team edges closer and closer to the reality of an unprecedented fourth straight division title, it's natural for these positive reminders of the past to sprout up like the beautiful green grass on the field.

While some milestones are being reached, Howard is writing his own history, raising the bar even higher for future Phillie sluggers. His homer on Saturday not only passed Burrell but gave the big man his 30th of the season. He is the only player in Phillies history to reach 30 homers and 100 RBI in five straight seasons. This feat also places him in the ranks of active players like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Not even Mike Schmidt managed to reach such a level of consistency.

Howard and Lidge both realize how fortunate and unique they are to play this game at a high level over a long period of time. Milestones are nice, but the only number that matters to them at the end of the night is three, as Philadelphia's sixth straight victory kept it three games ahead of Atlanta in the NL East. At the worst, the Phillies will be two games in front when they open the most important three-game clash of the season against the Braves on Monday.

Teams on a magical run need the support of players in a class by themselves, but guys like Wilson Valdez are also proving how vital they are to the equation. The 32-year-old boasts a .260 average out of the eight hole with more than double the at-bats from any previous season due to Jimmy Rollins' multiple injuries. He's provided more than his fair share of productive games, and Saturday was a prime example. Valdez posted his third three-hit game of the season with a pair of doubles, including one that put the Phillies ahead for good in the second inning. If the team was to enter the postseason without Rollins, it doesn't have much to worry about with Valdez at short.

It also helps that Shane Victorino is riding an 11-game hitting streak since his return to the leadoff spot.

The Phillies were also glad to see Kyle Kendrick finally hold the Nationals to less than five runs this season. He escaped a big jam in the first and pitched six innings for the first time in four starts. This is the Kendrick Philly wants to see - the kind who will minimize damage when his back is up against the wall. It's a mental toughness Kendrick has struggled with throughout the year. He'll still have to earn his spot on the postseason roster with the two or three starts he has left, but tonight was a step in the right direction.

Joe Blanton will be starting in the playoffs no matter what, so the Phillies would like his string of solid outings to continue. He pitches for the sweep today before the big three, a label that's becoming more and more common with each passing day in Philadelphia, lay it all on the line. All they need to keep in mind is that history is on their side.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Philadelphia twilight

This is one ham the Philadelphia Phillies wish wasn't tender.

Jimmy Rollins tweaked his right hamstring while legging out a double in Wednesday's game against the Florida Marlins, a scene that has been played out in 2010. He gingerly rounded first base and then painfully limped his way home on a single rather than immediately coming out of the game and saving the fans the agony of witnessing this unpleasantness twice in one inning.

After four days, Rollins is still not in the lineup, which is completely necessary and won't hurt the team in the short run. It's unfortunate because he had just recently begun showing shades of his former speedy self, swiping bags at a frequency he hadn't enjoyed all season. That unfettered speed is a key component of the Philly offense, and it is something the team will need in the postseason.

J-Roll hasn't been the only issue this season as anyone who has paused for a few minutes on just one Phillies game all season can tell you. Of the team's big contributors - excluding Roy Oswalt who's only been with the club since the Trade Deadline - only Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels have avoided serious injury. Given so much adversity, it's astounding the Phillies are tied for first place with 19 games left to play.

They are on the verge of their fourth straight playoff appearance, however, which is what the organization expects of out this talented group. Halladay has certainly been an invaluable addition in 2010, but the anyone associated with the Phillies will say the heart and soul of the team lies with its home crop core of Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. The boys up top have invested hundreds of millions to keep these three together to provide an atmosphere of unity, particularly after all this success. But with each passing season, it's seeming more and more like the organization is getting in too deep.

Consider that the mean age of the Phillies starting lineup is presently 31.9, compared to 28.6 in 2007. Many of the players are nearing the point when their numbers start to decline, and their bodies can't handle the strain of a 162-game season.

Rollins is the most glaring example. He's made three trips to the DL since 2008, and his numbers in that time (.258/.321/.417) have suffered, especially for a leadoff hitter. They're a noticeable dip from his output from 2004-07 - .288/.341/.475. As J-Roll has struggled to stay on the field this year, it's hard not to think about past stars of the game who started to fade once they entered their 30s, like Ken Griffey, Jr., Frank Thomas and Juan Gonzalez. While Utley's and Howard's injuries were purely accidental, some fans have to be wondering when their bodies will start to fail them.

Such troubling thoughts are not on the players' minds right now, but they've gotten so used to winning. Should they not reach the World Series or lose their grip on the postseason altogether, you can bet they'll be mulling over an uncertain future during the offseason. This run can't last forever and all of these big trades in recent years have made it difficult to build another core of J-Rolls, Utleys and Howards.

Twilight is starting to fall over Philadelphia, but the Phillies hope to hold on to that setting sun as long as possible.

Just call me Cy

Step aside, John Denny.

Younger Phillies fans won't remember the aging right-hander, who enjoyed the best year of his career in his first season with the club in 1983. He went 19-6 with a 2.37 ERA, winning his first and only Cy Young Award and guiding Philadelphia to its second World Series in four seasons.

Roy Halladay is putting together similar numbers in his first year as a Phillie, though his career is far from over and has followed a much more impressive path. Doc became the first Philly hurler since Denny to win 18 games in a season during the Phils' 8-4 win over the New York Mets on Friday that kept them a game ahead of the Braves in the East.

Halladay already has his first Cy Young and is gunning for his second. His 18th win tied for the NL lead in that category with Ubaldo Jimenez and Adam Wainwright, and he surpassed the 200-strikeout mark for the fourth time in his career. He only needs eight more to eclipse his career high of 208 that he set last year.

Before Friday's win, Halladay was tied with Shane Rawley (1987), Curt Schilling (1997) and Jon Lieber (2005) for Phillie pitchers with the most wins in a season since '83. Two more will give him his third 20-win season and first for a Phillie since Steve Carlton won 23 in 1982.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Phinally!

It took 100 days, but the Phillies believed that they would eventually find themselves back on top in the NL East because...well, that's just the way it's supposed to be.

They started erasing the seven-game deficit much earlier than they did in 2007 (late July, rather than late September), and the changing of the guard came while the Braves were falling apart against the Pittsburgh Pirates, of all teams. There wasn't much conventional about the switch for Philadelphia either on Tuesday night.

In a bizarre contest that saw the Phillies end as 8-7 victors over the pesky Florida Marlins, it seemed like they did everything wrong AND everything right in the game. As we've so often seen this season, Joe Blanton was not at his best, but he left with a lead. The Philly bullpen and defense coughed that lead up, but Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco worked some two-out magic in the bottom of the eighth inning. Ryan Madson was credited with a blown save, but wound up getting the win.

If you prefaced the explanation of this game with the fact that Chase Utley and Jayson Werth combined to go 0-for-8 while stranding five runners, chances are, most people would assume a loss. However, offense was what won this game for the Phillies, and they got plenty from everyone else. Victorino can deny it all he wants, but Charlie Manuel seemed to remember that his speedy right fielder excelled in the leadoff spot earlier this season when Jimmy Rollins was on the DL. He's now 5-for-10 since Manuel put him back at the top.

Ryan Howard dusted off his Mr. September cap, as he launched a solo shot the other way. Raul Ibanez did the same and fell a double short of the cycle. The offense as a whole put runs on the board in five different innings. It's fair to say Atlanta should be panicking right now.

The Phillies did hit an offensive lull recently while Utley and Howard rediscovered their timing after stints on the DL, but this one only lasted a week instead of two months. The full lineup is back and in a great position to cause some real damage. It's all divisional opponents from now until the end of the regular season, and the team's only objective is to add to its lead before hosting a three-game set against Atlanta Sept. 20-22.

And for the sake of the coaching staff's sanity, make the wins a little easier.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Forbidden touch

“I think Michael and I would have felt something if we touched.”

So many immature college students could run that comment down multiple inappropriate paths, but in a completely different sense, the touch that Michael Young and Texas Rangers third base coach Dave Anderson did not feel was the clasping of hands to celebrate what could have been an amazing come-from-behind victory over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday.

Instead, third base umpire Alfonso Marquez penalized Anderson and Young for making contact with one another too early, resulting in the final out of a 6-5 loss that swept the Rangers out of Target Field.

On the play in question, Vladimir Guerrero hit a sharp grounder back up the middle with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the ninth inning. Orlando Hudson managed to snag the ball with a back-handed lunge behind second base to keep it in the infield, and fired to third to try and nail Young. Christian Guzman scored the fifth Texas run, while Young barely made it back to third ahead of Matt Tolbert’s tag. However, Marquez determined that Anderson touched Young before he retreated back to the bag – an illegal assistance according to the Official Rules of MLB – and Young was called out to end the rally. He would’ve been the potential tying run, but instead, would-be hero Nelson Cruz was reduced to the role of dumbfounded spectator in the on-deck circle.

Upon closer inspection of the somewhat blurred video of the play in question, Young makes his turn around third and slows up as he approaches Anderson. Both of their right hands overlap one another in the shot, but whether or not they actually touched each other is inconclusive. What plunges this decision into even more doubt is that at the point of “contact” Marquez’s head isn’t even facing the two of them. At best, he had a peripheral view, while his main focus was on Hudson’s throw. This makes the call more of a guess than anything, which drives the human error factor past an acceptable limit. Umpire crew chief Tim Tschida said this was only the second instance of coach’s interference he’d seen in 30 years. The other one he saw should have remained the only one.

Considering the contact was two bare hands, Anderson and Young would’ve felt that immediately. We have to believe them when they say they didn’t feel anything. On the other hand, it was dangerous for them to be that close to each other in the first place. The close proximity of a player and coach during that particular situation is such a rarity to see for an umpire, he might just assume contact.

But this is just the way September is starting out for Texas. Before Sunday’s game, the Rangers lost Josh Hamilton for an unspecified amount of time due to the bruised ribs he suffered crashing into the center field fence after making a leaping catch the day before. Cliff Lee was also scratched from his Tuesday start. His back is reportedly feeling better, but Texas doesn’t want to take any chances.

With these issues weighing heavily on the team, C.J. Wilson picked a bad day to end his personal seven-game winning streak on the mound. He allowed six earned runs for only the second time this season and first since he allowed seven on May 18 against the Angels. The Rangers actually won that game 8-7, but winning has not been so easy in the past week.

There’s no way to know if the Rangers would have completed the comeback even without the interference call, as Cruz had just four hits in his previous 21 at-bats (.190). The team would love to see production earlier in the game so it’s not trying to dig its way out of a four-run hole in the ninth inning.

Anderson and Young would especially like to see that because now they know to wait until after a win is in the books before slapping hands.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bitter Sweet 16

note: My role as an MLB writer for sportshaze.com has increased and shifted to the AL West. Considering this new position and my regular sports writing job, I must unfortunately curtail my blog postings about the Phillies. Time simply will not allow me to continue to do so at the rate I have been all summer. I'll still post when something monumental happens, but those one or two of you who were getting their Phillies news from me, you'll have to choose another outlet. Thanks to all of my readers, regardless of frequency. As always, GO PHILS!

Charlie Manuel may have been able to pencil in his entire starting lineup for Tuesday night's game, but he never would've guessed what the lineup would look like by the end of it.

Ryan Howard single-handedly wrecked the night for my Fantasy Baseball offense with his 0-for-7, five-strikeout performance. His final strikeout on an attempted check swing to end to the bottom of the 14th resulted in just the second ejection of his career. With Raul Ibanez moving over to first base in the top of the 15th, Manuel figured Roy Oswalt may as well face his former team in some capacity, so the good sport ace trotted out to left field to replace Ibanez.

Naturally, Oswalt then made the first put out of the frame, and the consummate professional couldn't help but crack a smile at the absurdity of it all.

The smiles didn't last long as Houston took a 4-2 lead in the top of the 16th, and Oswalt failed to come through with a walk-off, three-run shot in the bottom half to keep Philadelphia in sole possession of first place in the Wild Card.

The loss also continued a frustrating trend, holding the Phillies exactly 2.5 games behind the Braves in the NL East for the eighth consecutive day. Both teams are 5-4 in their last nine games and each has picked up every win and loss on the same day. The scenario is pretty intriguing, but mostly just annoying.

Unfortunately, the Phillies seem to be returning to their late-May swoon, as they've managed more than two runs in a game just once since their 8-2 win over the Giants a week ago. Howard and Chase Utley have been non-factors since their return from the DL, making the basepaths a lonely place for hot-hitting Jimmy Rollins.

As J-Roll used to say, Philadelphia still is the team to beat in the division, and the National League. Its pitching rotation is as good as any in baseball, and a strong September is still in the cards for the offense. As long as Howard doesn't get thrown out of anymore games and the Phillies start winning when the Braves lose, the baseball universe will unfold as it should.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Slim Pickins

That's the toughest seven innings of shutout ball I've ever seen anyone pitch.

Roy Halladay weaved in and out of trouble in one his most eventful outings of the year. In the end, the Nationals couldn't break through. Usually eight hits and three walks will get your base runners a few high fives from the guy in the on-deck circle, but Halladay is of that special breed of pitchers who become more un-hittable when guys get on base. Two double plays from one of the best defenses in baseball also helps.

Amazingly enough, the Phillies have now played in seven 1-0 games this season, and three in just the last 12 games. Friday's win made them 4-3 in such contests. It's another symptom of the Year of the Pitcher.

Halladay is just as responsible for that as any other hurler. Since the Phillies' resurgence, he's done nothing but win. He's won each of his last six starts, posting an ERA of 1.37 over that stretch. The Cy Young-worthy group continues to be cramped in the NL, but none of the other names can match Halladay's durability (200 innings, 8 complete games) or control (1.1 BB/9, 7.2 K/BB).

The only run of the game came in the third inning on Raul Ibanez' hot-shot double off the glove of Adam Dunn. It was a play that most first basemen (maybe even Ryan Howard) would make, or at least knock down to prevent the run from scoring. The Phillies benefited, though, and it's all they would get off Jason Marquis.

When Dunn stepped to the plate in the top of the ninth inning with a man on second and two out, the pessimist inside of me though, "It's about time for Brad Lidge to blow a save, and Dunn has the pop in his bat to do it." Dunn's teammate Ryan Zimmerman had already done the same to Lidge three weeks ago. However, Lidge got Dunn to do something he does a lot more of than hit home runs, as he whiffed on a slider in the dirt to end the game.

Though I'm wary of the fact that Lidge will be the closer if the Phillies make it back to the postseason, he's been a big part of this turnaround. He's converted his last seven save opportunities and has saved 10 of Philly's 21 wins since July 22. His light is flickering back on at the right time.

Getting back to the 1-0 phenomenon, the Phillies have scored in just two of their last 17 innings. That's not the best way to enter their first game against Stephen Strasburg. Then again, the rookie sensation has been anything but sensational in his two starts since coming off the DL. He didn't pitch past the fifth inning in either one and allowed a total of seven earned runs. The Phillies don't have a good track record this season against pitchers they've never faced, regardless of that pitcher's recent performance, so a change in that trend is definitely in order.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bad timing

Mike Sweeney notched his first big hit in a Phillies uniform Thursday night. Stepping to the plate with two on and two out, he yanked a 1-2 offering from Sergio Romo past a diving Pablo Sandoval (the ground shook as Kung Fu Panda fell upon it) for a two-run double.

Had this been either one of Cole Hamels' previous two outings, it would have been a walk-off hit.

Instead, Hamels put the Phillies in an early 5-0 hole - not even providing them a chance to try and give him support - and they failed to pick up any ground on the Braves, who lost earlier in the day to the Nationals. It was just the third time this season Hamels allowed at least five earned runs. Hopefully, he wasn't scoreboard watching, because if this was his nervous response to pitching in an important game, it's going to be a bumpy road through September.

Hamels did not look comfortable on the mound, as San Francisco knocked him around to the tune of three runs on four hits. Rookie phenom catcher Buster Posey hit the first of two RBI doubles off him, and the damage could have been even worse had it not been for an inning-ending double play. Hamels made it through just five innings and 86 pitches before Charlie Manuel pulled the plug. Setting the Giants down in order in his final frame didn't make any difference.

Jonathan Sanchez took the Gaints rotation off life support, taking a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning. The only guy who gave him trouble was Shane Victorino, who went 2-for-3 with a walk. It wasn't until he was lifted that the Phillies finally started to show their own signs of life, and it was too little, too late for the fans who made up the 100th consecutive shutout at Citizens Bank Park and biggest sellout crowd of the season. They all had a big reason to come out and support their team, which sported baseball's best record (20-5) since July 22, and the second-best home record of the season behind Atlanta. Instead of celebrating, 45,000 exited the stadium scratching their heads.

It is just one loss, which is unavoidable in this game, but in the climate of playing from behind at this stage in the season, each defeat is magnified and dissected and feels like a momentum-destroyer. It's the playoff itch that can't be satisfied until the winners are decided. Until then, raw skin will be the result.

Luckily, some positive news concerning Ryan Howard may provide some ointment. He has been cleared to start his rehab assignment with Class A Lakewood and could rejoin the team as early as Sunday. The Phillies can't wait to get him back into the cleanup spot, as his .292 average is the highest since his MVP year in 2006 and his 81 RBI were leading the NL went he went down. Keeping fingers and toes crossed, the Big Man's return will give Philadelphia its full starting lineup for the first time since May 21.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I love to ride my bi-cycle

Jimmy Rollins may have fallen a double short of the cycle on Wednesday night, but the Phillies collectively hit for the cycle two times over in their ongoing quest for their fourth straight division title.

The Philly bats teed off against San Francisco Giants pitching. Ryan Howard is not expected to return until next week, so the Phillies continued to share the load. An offense potent by reputation enjoyed one of its most balanced games of the year, as seven of its 11 hits went for extra bases, including two homers, three triples and two doubles. Four Phillies had at least two hits and six drove in at least one run.

J-Roll led the way with a 3-for-5 night, making the Giants pay dearly for an error that allowed him to step to the plate with two on and two outs in the fourth inning. He golfed a Matt Cain slider into the right field seats for a three-run shot to give Joe Blanton all the support he would need.

Though Average Joe continues to struggle in the first inning, he's putting together a solid second half as he tends to do every year. While he's only 2-1 in that period, he's given the Phils five quality starts, and they've won four of the last five games in which he's pitched.

Carlos Ruiz continues to rake the ball, as he added two more hits - including just the fifth triple of his career - and raised his average to .297. This is becoming a more popular phrase in Philadelphia with each passing day: Chooch is the man.

Domonic Brown gave us another glimpse of the future when he pinch hit in the eighth inning and cranked a no-doubter into the second deck off Guillermo Mota. Though it will be sad to see him go when Howard comes off the DL, we'll get Brown back in September when the rosters expand. Judging from the curtain call the fans demanded after tonight's blast, his name will be a welcome sight in Phillies box scores through the rest of the season.

About the only satisfaction the Giants received in this game was watching Pat Burrell go yard against his old team for the second straight night. I admit it was nice to see Pat the Bat make his first return to Citizens Bank Park since he helped the Phillies win a World Series. I'm also glad he's a enjoyed a resurgence since coming back to the National League. He finds himself in a playoff hunt, but if the Phils complete a sweep tomorrow to further pad their lead in the Wild Card, his contributions may not mean that much.

Personally, I'd rather see the Giants battling the Braves for the Wild Card, but as Philly has kept on winning, so has Atlanta. The Phillies' deficit in the division has teetered between one game and three games over the past two weeks. The Braves have been in first place every day since May 31, and with a game remaining against the Nationals, followed by a three-game set against the Cubs, that string will probably continue. As I've been reminding myself at least five times a day, at least it's only August.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The K stands for Killer


Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez may wish he had his at-bat back in the top the ninth inning in Saturday's game against the Mets. He couldn't hold up his swing on a pitch out of the zone, ending the Phillies' shot at a little more insurance in a game they wound up winning anyway. Considering it was Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez on the mound, Ibanez should be glad that last pitch didn't end up lodged in his forehead. K-Rod had already learned by that point that his fist wasn't strong enough to do the job.

That strike three wound up being Frankie K's last of the 2010 season, as the New York Mets just revealed that he will miss the rest of the season due to a torn ligament in his pitching hand. In a weird twist of fate, the injury was likely suffered during his alleged thrashing of his girlfriend's father, Carlos Pena, three days previous. It's no wonder he injured his hand, considering that he was trying to ram it through the skull of another human being, belonging to the grandfather of his children, no less.

Apparently, this whole fight was precipitated by Pena talkin' about K-Rod's mother. I'd sooner expect such an exchange to occur on an elementary school playground, and it wouldn't end with someone in handcuffs.

Maybe Rodriguez recently read a tutorial on tough love and took it much too literally, and we've all seen him flex his muscles and scream his head off after every save. Getting knocked around by those cannons can't be much fun, and the only message I would derive from such a shellacking is, "Get me the hell away from this guy, now!" Pena and K-Rod's girlfriend, Daian Pena, agreed with such a stance and had K-Rod arrested right there at Citi Field. A judge later ordered Rodriguez to stay away from the two of them.

And what was his punishment from an embarrassed Mets organization? Two games. A penalty of $125,000 can barely be considered a slap on the wrist for a guy making 12.2 million. K-Rod did not only commit third-degree assault on a member of his own family, but did so at his place of work. Pictures of the shackled closer being escorted from the stadium by police were splattered all over the Internet. If that happens at almost any other job, that's the last time he would be seen on the premises.

Maybe if Rodriguez had been punching a dog, the penalty would've been more severe.

The Mets end up looking like world class idiots, because it turns out K-Rod's crime has made it impossible for him to return to work. In a way, I'm glad he screwed up his thumb. He's now receiving the exile from Citi Field and his teammates he should've gotten from the start. After Rodriguez undergoes surgery to repair the torn ligament, he'll be forced to sit and reflect on what he's done while he waits for his Sept. 14 court date. It took a little time, but justice has been served.

Sometimes, it just takes one

No one will argue that leadership is a vital component for any team in any sport, but after a successful season or a championship run, you will never see a coach or manager crediting him/herself. Even for the best teams, particularly in a 162-game Major League Baseball season, the randomness of the game takes hold. A few lucky bounces can make the difference in key games, and no one person will affect the outcome all that much.

However, so often in the game we see the acquisition of a new coach or a new player, and it's like someone flicked on the light switch. Guys who weren't hitting are suddenly scalding the ball, and pitchers who couldn't throw strikes are suddenly getting everyone out. What's the big change?

Any major league player will tell you that baseball is 95 percent mental. If your mind isn't going the right way, you're not going to perform. That's why you often see managers and coaches getting replaced in the middle of a long slump. If it's the overall atmosphere that's causing the failure, then maybe a change in personnel will create a winning mentality.

So far, the changes are helping the Phillies and Orioles. Since Philadelphia fired hitting coach Milt Thompson and brought in Greg Gross, the team has gone 17-5, while Baltimore is 9-4 since the hiring of new manager Buck Showalter.

When Showalter entered the picture, the Orioles sported the worst record in baseball and had long abandoned the pipe dream of contending down the stretch. Their main problem - as has been the case for a decade - was lack of starting pitching. Three starters in the rotation had double-digit losses, and Jeremy Guthrie was the only one with an ERA below 5. He also led the rotation in victories with four.

Since no-nonsense Buck took the reigns, Baltimore is not looking so lost. The team rattled off nine wins in 11 games, seven of which were on the road. Over that stretch, the starters went 6-1 with an ERA under 3. If the Orioles stay on their present course, they'll achieve their first month with a winning record since June 2008.

Showalter has a reputation for bringing a sense of order to teams with no direction, like the New York Yankees teams of the early 1990s and the brand new Arizona Diamondbacks a few years later. He's not telling the Orioles how to hit or pitch, but as Guthrie explained, he's helped change their mentality.

"It's not a coincidence that we've turned it around since Buck showed up," he said. "He hasn't done anything necessarily different to make us win games, but we know what he expects. No magic formula, but maybe a kind of a good shift for us in gears."

The Philadelphia Phillies offense was in dire need of a shift in gears early in the second half. The hitters had been stuck in neutral for the better part of the season, and the team went 2-6 on its road trip after the All-Star Break, falling six games behind the Atlanta Braves in the division.

With injuries suffered to nearly every position player at different points in the year, the team was in uncharted territory, and management felt someone needed to take the blame. Thompson had guided a healthy offense through two trips to the World Series, but he was apparently ill-equipped to help the hitters adjust to so many injuries.

Since Gross took over hitting instruction, the offense has kicked it into high gear, averaging 5.2 runs per game, more than a run better than it managed under Thompson since mid-May. What's more impressive is that the team continued to hit after losing Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino.

While the Phillies are the ones hitting and not Gross, he probably helped bring them a fresh perspective. During last night's game against the Mets, Gross said he tried to focus on the differences hitters displayed when they were hot or in a slump - whether it's a difference in stance at the plate or their swing - and remind them of those changes whenever they weren't hitting well. Gross basically described the job of every hitting coach, but the Phillies must like what he has to say.

Now if Gross could unlock the mystery of how to hit when Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels are pitching, then we'd really be in business.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Run, Forrest, Run

It's fair to say that Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino aren't impressing anybody with their batting averages, but they made a rebound effort by Kyle Kendrick stand up in the Phillies' 3-1 win over the Mets Sunday night that gave them a series win and moved them into a tie for first place in the Wild Card with their next opponent, the San Francisco Giants.

The speedy pair swiped three bags, all of which factored into go-ahead runs for Philadelphia. J-Roll gave us a sense that he has fully returned to health, stealing second and third base three pitches apart in the third inning, and making it easily each time. Though Rollins doesn't get on base nearly as often as he should, this is what we expect to happen when he does.

In years past, we saw the Phillies scrape out wins like this more often. Injuries have prevented that this season, but with the guidance of first base coach Davey Lopes, the base runners are still ahead of Bill James' curve. In the all-too important goal of not making outs, the Phillies are 67-for-80 in stolen-base attempts this season, a respectable success rate of 83.8 percent. Philly runners tend to make it to the next bag safely when they steal, and that can make the difference in games like Sunday night when offense was hard to come by for both teams.

Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge also showed us shades of their 2008 selves with scoreless frames to close out the victory. Sure, two of Lidge's three outs were smoked balls that just happened to be hit right at people, but how many of his saves in '08 were achieved in that fashion? Probably more than we'd like to admit.

The Phillies climbed to 15 games over .500 for the first time this season. Since they nearly snatched first place away from the Braves a week ago, Bobby Cox's bunch are again playing like they want a division title. The Phightins' need to keep the pressure on, and they should thank their lucky stars that Tim Lincecum just pitched on Sunday. He's not exactly having a freak-type year, but there's no need to give Chase Utley (2-for-20, 8 K's against Lincecum) that big of a test in his return to the bigs.

Ecstasy or agony

I discovered not long after Roy Halladay's arrival that he's a pretty boring quote, utilizing every cliche in the book to describe his success on the mound. But the few times when he's asked to chime in on topics outside the pitching realm, he's come up with some real gems. Halladay's two-out hit in the top of the third inning in last night's game against the Mets started a rally that brought the Phillies' 38-scoreless-innings streak at Citi Field to an end, and his description of hitting duality was so spot on, I had to use it to title this posting.

The pitcher-friendly Citi Field has been the site of much agony for slugging Philadelphia this season. Its embarrassing three-game series there in late May started an offensive funk that took two months to escape. New York's R.A. Dickey continued the trend on Friday night with a performance that rivaled plenty of others as the best of the season in this Year of the Pitcher.

Philly did not suffer the same fate on Saturday and received quite a bit of help in its 4-0 victory. Opposing third baseman's legs are becoming more like giant croquet wickets for Phillie hitters. After Casey Blake's miscue led to two runs on Thursday night, David Wright misplayed another potential double-play ball off the bat of Jimmy Rollins in the sixth inning last night, providing a cushion twice as large for a wheeling and dealing Halladay.

Doc kept the Mets guessing all night long. His entire arsenal was working, and Halladay is nearly impossible to hit when he can throw any pitch in any count. He was able to keep his own count down as well with a couple of nice plays from the mound. This was key, as Ryan Madson had us all frantically praying to the baseball Gods in a shaky ninth inning.

Who knows why, but I was watching last night's game with a bunch of New York fans and one of them predicted a game-tying grand slam for the Mets. Knowing the bullpen's track record over the last year-and-a-half, I couldn't bring myself to come to Madson's defense. Sure enough, a nervous Madson loaded the bases, giving one of those base runners a free pass when he plunked Fernando Martinez in the back after getting ahead of him 0-2. My silence ensured I wouldn't be eating any words regardless of what happened, but Madson managed to get out of the jam and preserve the win for Halladay.

I swear these relievers are giving me grey hairs.

Much has been made of the great number of times the Phillies have been shutout this season. Friday's 1-0 defeat brought that number to 10, three more than all of last season. However, Saturday's 4-0 win made it 13 times the Phillies have shut out their opponents, four more than last year. It's a loose measure of success, but it's usually a good sign if a team shuts opponents out more than it gets shut out. Just look at the Tampa Bay Rays. They recently became the first team in major league history to get no-hit or one-hit five times in a season, but they have the same shutout ratio as the Phillies (plus-3) and own the second-best record in baseball.

We can expect a few more shutouts to fall our way before the end of the season with such a formidable pitching rotation. That's some ecstasy all Phillies fans can enjoy.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Another Broxton feast

Just to let all of you know, I've recently become a Philadelphia Phillies beat writer for sportshaze.com. All of my posts here will be placed on that site as well. It's a startup sports site that covers baseball, football, basketball, hockey and the NCAA. I encourage everyone to check it out!

I’m wondering which will happen first: Darrelle Revis successfully renegotiating his contract with the New York Jets or the Phillies reclaiming their lead in the NL East. One thing I know is that the Phillies’ waiting game is much more fun to watch.

From now on when Los Angeles Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton enters a game with the Phillies trailing, I’ll simply say, “The Phils have this one well in hand.” Since Matt Stairs’ moon shot off him in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS, Broxton has just one save in four opportunities and a 9.82 ERA against Philadelphia. Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz provided the walk-off magic this time around, completing the Phillies’ largest comeback victory of a topsy-turvy 2010 season, but the writing was on the wall before Ruiz dented it with his double.

I can’t claim to know the state of Casey Blake’s ankles four months into a long season, but they had to be in better shape than Bill Buckner’s when a tailor made double play ball came bouncing his way off the bat of Ben Francisco. The replay shows he lifted his glove, expecting the ball to bounce higher than it did, which allowed two runs to cross the plate and the tying run to get into scoring position with nobody out. I don’t even care if Mariano Rivera was on the mound, the Phillies’ win expectancy shot through the roof with that error.

Much kudos go to Ruiz, whose hitting is finally catching up with his defense and excellent handling of the pitching staff. Despite some time spent on the DL, Chooch is putting wood on the ball with much more authority this season. His average with runners in scoring position (.293) is just a point lower than his general batting average, and both would be career highs. Pitchers prefer facing the bottom of the order, but Ruiz is making himself comfortable down there and making an already-potent lineup that much more dangerous.

Such an incredible victory covered up another ugly performance from the bullpen, which allowed a total of 14 runs in just 12 innings during the series. Danys Baez was the only reliever to toss a clean frame last night, lowering his season ERA to 5.40. This remains a glaring issue Philly will continue to deal with through the rest of the season.

But as I said before, it will be an exciting finish that makes me happy I’m not a Jets fan.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Kicking and Screaming

"Afterwards, I just turned around and I've got Cueto kicking me in the back with his spikes. It's super unprofessional. I don't know where he learned how to fight."

Anyone shown this quote out of context would think it was some wild form of wrestling or kickboxing, though I can't think of any that allows the wearing of spikes. At any rate, Chris Carpenter was one mad Cardinal after his team's brawl with the Cincinnati Reds last night in the bottom of the first inning. The rivalry is heating up with Boston-New York-type intensity, and if this display is just the beginning, I can't wait for Sept. 3 when the two teams meet up again.

And for the record, Chris Carpenter, your privileged life growing up in New England pales in comparison to the hard, impoverished existence of Johnny Cueto before he became one of the lucky few from the Dominican Republic to ascend the ranks of Major League Baseball. Spikes or no, he could kick your ass in a fight any day.

The Phillies are continuing to show some fight without the meat of their order. Since my last posting, they have gone 2-2 and remain firmly latched onto the coattails of the division-leading Atlanta Braves. Four games is far too small a sample size to measure success, so maybe I should think about taking longer vacations.

Losing a game when you score nine runs is never fun, but Domonic Brown unloaded for his first major league home run. We were all waiting for that one, and if he wasn't just a replacement bat for Shane Victorino, I'd expect that shot to open the flood gates and lead to 15 more homers in the last eight weeks of the season. Hopefully, Ryan Howard can give the lineup that kind of production when he returns. God knows we're all used to it this time of year.

Getting everyone back healthy will be key because in less than a week, the Phillies start a stretch of 24 games in 23 days. As always, I'm sure they'll make things interesting all the way down to the wire.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Temporary Pharewell

Adrian is officially on vacation so all he can say about tonight's game before he leaves the area for four days is it seems like the Phillies did everything they could to lose, but the Marlins and the umpires were having none of that! The road sweep was lovely and it catapulted them into new territory. Philly is 12 games above .500 for the first time this season, laughing in the face of its injuries and the Braves, who are hanging on to their lead in the NL East by a thread.

The Phillies always seem to play well when I'm not following them, so maybe when I return, they'll be sitting in first place. Brad Lidge, is that too much to ask?

Sweeney Swoon

Man, it must suck to be John Mayberry, Jr.

The kid was a highly touted prospect when he was traded from the Texas Rangers before the 2009 season, and he made an immediate splash after a late May call-up when he hit a three-run homer in his first big league game, off Andy Pettitte at Yankee Stadium, no less. Mayberry continued to impress during Interleague Play, getting eight hits in his first 25 major league at-bats, three of them home runs.

National League opponents proved much more difficult for Mayberry, as he managed just four hits through the rest of the season while striking out 16 times in 32 at-bats. Then, this younger and more versatile kid named Domonic Brown out-shined Mayberry and everyone else in the Phillies' farm system, earning his call-up last week after Shane Victorino went on the DL - a move that had all Phillies fans yelling at the organization, "What took you so long?!" Brown is a star in the making and has all but locked down a spot as a starter with the team in 2011.

Mayberry, who has never hit better than .268 in any season in the minors, finally got his shot at redemption earlier this week when Ryan Howard was the latest Phillie to catch the injury bug. Of course, Mayberry has played just four games at first base in his professional career, but the Phillies were gambling that he would flash some of that pop he showed early last season.

Oh wait, the Seattle Mariners just put 37-year-old Mike Sweeney on waivers. Sorry kid, we'd rather take a chance on him.

I understand the Phillies' thinking in this move. Sweeney is a lifetime .298 hitter, who can stroke the ball to all fields, and he's one of the most respected and well-liked players in the game. He was also tearing it up in the minors during a recent rehab stint.

The key word in that previous sentence was rehab. The perpetually sore Sweeney would be a no-brainer as a DH replacement, but for the Phillies his best value is a right-handed bat off the bench. Due to injuries, Sweeney has played just 27 total games at first base since 2006, and now the Phillies expect him to play there every day until Howard's return.

I admit that it'll be nice to see a former Wilmington Blue Rock in a Phillies uniform, but did Ruben Amaro need to make such an impulsive buy? Having Sweeney in the lineup won't make much difference if Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth don't continue to hit like they have been. I've beaten this topic into the ground already, but Amaro could've simply waited for a solid relief pitcher to hit the waiver wire. Whether it's Sweeney or Mayberry in there, it won't change the anxiety we all feel in the pit of our stomachs late in the game when the Phillies' fate lies in the hands of Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson. And unless the relievers hook up a wire to the dugout, they won't feel Sweeney's positive influence from the bullpen.

As of this posting, the Phillies have not yet decided who they're dropping from the 25-man roster to make room for Sweeney. Cody Ransom and Greg Dobbs are possibilities, but they provide more flexibility in the field. Mayberry could only play first base, so there's not much use for him when Sweeney arrives later today. It's the reverse of what happened to Kyle Kendrick last month when he was demoted to Triple-A, but came right back to the big league club before even throwing a pitch for the Iron Pigs when Jamie Moyer got hurt. Mayberry won't complain when he gets the ax, but I'm sure he'd give anything to have Kendrick's good fortune.

Sorry dude, the old man won out.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

You didn't do anything in here!

I reference the words I heard out of my mother's mouth countless times when I was young after every failed attempt (in her eyes) to clean up my room. Each utterance deflated the work I thought I had done, which turned out to be three wasted hours.

Jayson Werth also failed to do any "cleaning up" in last night's game against the Florida Marlins. His line read 0-for-5 with four strikeouts. Werth has now struck out in 10 his 19 career plate appearances batting fourth. He rarely performed so poorly at the plate in one game, even during the two months when he wasn't hitting. I guess Werth got too used to that reassuring feeling every time he stepped into the on-deck circle to see the mighty Ryan Howard digging in at the plate in front of him.

Fortunately, Werth's bad night was the only blemish in an impressive 6-1 win over the Fish. Roy Halladay showed shades of the perfection he enjoyed in his previous start in Florida, and provided his own run support with a two-run single. The bottom of the lineup made it easy for Charlie Manuel to pull his ace after seven innings and 108 pitches. Ben Francisco and Carlos Ruiz bailed out Werth, going a ridiculous 7-for-10 with two bombs. Performances like that can certainly carry the team until the Big Man comes back.

It's early August and we're just two back in the division. I'm hoping Werth can get some lumber on the ball tonight, but I'm liking our chances either way.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Black cats and broken mirrors


Beware, Jayson Werth.

Make sure security keeps an extra eye out for black cats trying to dart across the outfield. Always have some salt handy in your locker to throw over your shoulder before every game. Don't shave off the beard until after the season is over.

The injury bug has now struck every starter in the Phillies lineup this season except for the whiskered right fielder, and the way he's been hitting lately, we can't afford to lose him. Raul Ibanez went down yesterday after hurting his wrist on a slide, and Ryan Howard had to be helped off the field in today's game after spraining his ankle trying to scurry back to second base. It's just one ailment after another and it's getting too hard to remember which players are healthy.

Through all the Phillies' ups and downs, one guy who will remember 2010 as the highlight of his career is Wilson Valdez. He's played almost a full season up to this point, lending his defensive talents in place of Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Chase Utley. Though his .237 average as a starter is a poor substitution, his bunt single in the 11th inning of today's game in Washington sparked a hurting club to a 6-4 win. He risked an injury himself by sliding into first, but we'll excuse him for that.

The only problem is Howard was the only player who had not only avoided injury all year, but had also been hitting well consistently. I'm fearful as to how the offense will respond if he has to go on the DL. My own experience tells me such a trip is inevitable. During my sophomore year of college, I sprained my ankle in a volleyball class. I was walking fine after just two days, but I didn't play again for two weeks. The Phillies need Howard down the stretch more than anyone else, so they're not going to rush him back.

A nice trip home would be a good prescription for this team, but it still has a three-game series in Florida to get through. The Marlins are just as scrappy as the Nationals, so it could be a long journey to Friday without the big man in the middle of the order.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Schmidt or Roberts?


Sorry to my readers for the overload of posts today, but this is one I've been holding for a few weeks. I decided against running it as a column in my paper, and it was ignored by a blogging site, so I'll share it with all of you now. We're no longer preoccupied with the Trade Deadline, and I think this is an interesting topic over which to mull. Enjoy.

Earlier this year, Bob Costas conducted an interview with Phillies great Dick Allen. As predicted, Costas asked him all about playing during the turbulent 1960s, the controversy he often stirred up as an outspoken athlete and his reputation for hitting tape-measure blasts.

At the end of the interview, Allen gave his opinion on who he thought the better Phillie was, Robin Roberts or Mike Schmidt. It’s generally an unfair comparison between a pitcher and position player, but much like he did during his playing days, Allen gave the controversial answer when he said Roberts. Costas pressed him on that briefly, but Allen simply replied that Roberts took the mound for nine innings every time out and dominated hitters.

In retrospect, Allen’s opinion is understandable, considering that he played when Roberts was already a pitching legend and Schmidt wasn’t on the map yet. It’s not surprising Allen would defer to the elder Hall of Famer.

But who really was a greater Phillie?

Several Top Ten Phillies lists found online all rank Schmidt higher than Roberts, though lists like that always tend to favor hitters over pitchers. Schmidt also helped Philadelphia to win its first-ever World Series title, and he added three MVP awards and numerous Gold Gloves. To be fair, Roberts guided Philly to its first World Series in 35 years in 1950, and the Gold Glove and Cy Young awards didn’t exist during his prime.

The only way to truly compare a pitcher and a hitter from two different eras is to see how they match up with their top contemporaries. Roberts’ were likely Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford, while Schmidt’s top competition were fellow third basemen Brooks Robinson and Darrell Evans.

Roberts was widely considered the best pitcher in baseball from 1950-1955, but his career ERA of 3.41 was significantly higher than Spahn (3.09) or Ford (2.75). His winning percentage was also the worst of the three, but he also had the lowest run support.

Allen wasn’t exaggerating about Roberts’ durability. He led the league in innings pitched for five straight years, and his 346 2/3 innings in 1953 are second-most by a Hall of Fame pitcher in a single season after World War II. He threw more than 300 innings in a season six times.

However, Spahn managed to pitch at a high level later into his career. He only threw more than 300 innings in a season twice, but he was still easily cracking the 200-inning mark into his 40s. Spahn pitched more seasons and innings than Roberts, while allowing 71 fewer home runs. That was perhaps Roberts’ biggest drawback; he wasn’t a ground-ball pitcher. He also never struck out 200 batters in a season – not as dominant as Allen originally suggested.

Saber-metrically speaking, one aspect of pitching that Roberts did dominate throughout his career was control. Though Ford posted the highest career strikeout rate of 5.6 per nine innings, Roberts’ strikeout per walk rate of 2.61 was far ahead of Ford and Spahn, who both posted a 1.8 mark. Roberts had the best WHIP (1.17) among the three, and his BB/9 rate of 1.7 is ranked 45th all-time and ninth among Hall of Fame pitchers.

Those final numbers help Roberts’ case, but Schmidt’s comparisons to Robinson and Evans aren’t nearly as hazy.

Robinson, dubbed “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” was a better fielding third baseman than Schmidt, with a higher career range factor and fielding percentage, but Schmidt trumps the other two in nearly every offensive category. Phillies fans know about his 548 home runs, but Schmidt’s career OPS of .908 ranks 27th all-time among Hall of Fame hitters. Schmidt also set all-time team marks in runs, hits, RBI, walks and total bases.

According to the numbers, you can make an argument for and against Roberts’ superiority over his peers, but Schmidt was clearly the best. He also played during one of the organization’s most successful periods, further brightening his spotlight.

Sorry, Dick, looks like you got this one wrong. The best pitcher in baseball for a brief time doesn’t compare to arguably the best hitting third baseman in history, regardless of the discrepancy between pitching every fourth day and playing every day. Maybe Costas should have asked Allen’s opinion about a more sensible pitcher-hitter comparison like Schmidt and Steve Carlton. I put it to all of you to hash that one out.

No longer a priv-Lidge

I had just had my mind warped by the dream maze of Christopher Nolan's "Inception" but my mind has never been clearer about the Phillies' missed opportunities before the elapsed Trade Deadline.

True, Philadelphia pulled off the biggest trade of the week by adding Roy Oswalt, but the problem it didn't solve laughed with glee tonight as Brad Lidge was given the ball in the bottom of the ninth to protect a one-run lead against the Washington Nationals. He recorded just one out before Ryan Zimmerman ended it with a monster three-run shot to center field. It was Lidge's fourth blown save of the season, which isn't that many at this point in the season, but he's only appeared in half the games of most closers. That places his effectiveness right around the level of his 2009 season.

As the Phillies dropped yet another game on the road to a last-place team, other teams had just completed deals to help prevent such deflating results. Back-end relievers Matt Capps, Kerry Wood, Will Ohman, Octavio Dotel and Javier Lopez all recently found themselves in new homes. Even before Philly added Oswalt, it's largest weakness was undoubtedly the bullpen. I can't say for certain how hard Amaro tried to get a reliever, my guess is whenever it was brought up, he would start start babbling in unfamiliar tongues, except for a few select words - "Oswalt....Oswalt....must make them forget about Lee...."

We'll spend the rest of the season cringing when we don't have a big lead late in the game. That's actually not different from the norm, and I see now that I was being too optimistic. I suppose I forgot for a moment that I was Philadelphia fan. The Phillies are on the verge of getting swept by the Nationals, so we have to hope the bats sizzle early and Cole Hamels goes deep into the game. It'll do me good not to see Lidge or Ryan Madson warming up for a few days.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Going for the jinx

It's official: the Phillies starting rotation now touts a Roy double feature, and the rest of the National League has to be squirming in their seats over the power shift. Roy Oswalt finally decided that he wanted to experience the bi-polar, battery-throwing bonanza that will surround the elevated stage of the pitcher's mound at Citizens Bank Park. He wants to devour a cheesesteak and sprint like a mad man up the steps of the Art Museum. More than anything, he wants to ride that victory float down South Street in November and help the City of Brotherly Love celebrate its second championship in three years. I salute you, Mr. Oswalt, and I pray your sensitive back handles the stress because with J.A. Happ bravely trying to fill your shoes in Houston, the Phillies have left themselves few options if you or one of the other starters goes down before the end of the season. But don't pay attention to me, that's just my hometown pessimism shining through. Welcome to Philadelphia.

That's just how it happens. The middle of the order had stirred from its two-month slumber, but the canons didn't go off tonight against the Diamondbacks. But with the Phillies winning like they are, it was the little guys who stepped up to keep the streak going. Carlos Ruiz and Wilson Valdez went 5-for-10 with two RBI out of the 7- and 8-holes, and Valdez played hero in another extra-inning thriller that pulled the team within 2.5 games of first place. In their last five extra-inning contests, the Phils have won them all in walk-off fashion.

The red-pinstriped boys also went 7-0 on their homestand. As they've proven time and time again, when the weather gets warm in Philadelphia, there's no place they'd rather play.

Never put it past me to be cynical, though. The Phillies are hitting a rather light part of the schedule. We thought they might have been back during Interleague Play, but that was when they took five out of six from Toronto and Cleveland. All six of those games were played at Citizens Bank Park. The results were turned on their head when the Phillies played bad teams on the road (2-6 at Pittsburgh and Chicago). Things seem different now that Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez are hitting, and Domonic Brown has made an immediate impression, but the next three series (two on the road and all against NL East opponents) will give us a better idea of just where the team stands.

For now, I will risk the jinx and say that the Phillies are back!

Brown Bomber

Last night while I was at work, a colleague in his 60s found a silly, yet mostly mundane moment hilarious (trust me, it's not even worth repeating), and he wondered why the 23-year-old in the next cubicle wasn't laughing with him. The younger employee simply replied, "I found it funny, but not as much as you did." The old man shot back with sarcasm, "No, you just don't have a sense of humor," followed by a Santa Claus-like chuckle. It occurred to me that the younger man and I didn't laugh because we've been differently conditioned by "The Office," "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy." Our grandkids won't get the humor in those shows either. That might have made both of them laugh had it dawned on me to say it quickly enough for it to be timely to their brief conversation. Oh well...I share it with you all now.

The rookie spoke calmly and confidently (I'm paraphrasing): "You guys print whatever you want, but I'm just here to do what I can to help the team."

What resolve. What conviction. I doubt A-Rod will think to say that after he ends all the speculation with his 600th home run.

Phillies fans finally got what they were looking for, as rookie Domonic Brown made the seamless transition from Triple-A to The Show, and the Phillies made a similar transition from one outfielder to another, stretching their winning streak to seven games in the process.

Brown's two RBI's against the Diamondbacks were enough by themselves to win the game, and Roy Halladay made sure of that. He was his usual brilliant self, and he's got to be thrilled with the incredible run support he's gotten over his last two starts. The Phillies have been scoring a ton of runs no matter who is on the hill, which is what we expect.

Not even the best players in the game can say they started their career with an extra-base hit, and Brown's double was a few feet short of souvenir land in right field. While I was still at work, keeping an eye on the game, I added the rookie to my Fantasy team after his double. It's the most impulsive buy I've made in four years of playing, and wholly unnecessary with three other Phillies sitting in my starting lineup. But I must show respect to the peak of the future of which we all are getting a preview in the next few weeks.

As I watched him during Spring Training, I already felt as if Brown was a part of the major league squad. The spotlight didn't bother him and neither did all the talk of his potential getting stifled by Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez (much like people said about Ryan Howard and Jim Thome). The kid took it in stride like he did with the deafening noise inside Citizens Bank Park Thursday night.

Shane Victorino's injury is a tough break for the team, but it's the break a young star needed, and no offense to Wilson Valdez, Greg Dobbs and Brian Schneider, but Brown is much more than a reserve filling in for a starter. He's getting the exposure at the right time, and it will let the Phillies know how he handles the pressure. Arizona and Washington are small potatoes, but the Marlins and Mets will provide good tests for the kid. Even if he finishes his stint in a slump, it's good to see his name in the lineup. It'll be there for good before we know it.

Really??

It's funny that I started this blog with a post about veteran pitcher Roy Oswalt, and by the end of the day, he may be a Phillie. Much has been going around about his hesitation, making him appear like a whiny, selfish child, but most players in his position must carefully weigh the pros and cons of leaving the one place they've known for so long. I don't doubt Oswalt's desire to win a championship, and he can help more than one team toward that goal. He's a great fit for the Phillies, but they have to be the right fit for him.

Apparently, the only thing left to decide is whether or not Oswalt will waive his no-trade clause. It's hard to believe that this deal could go through without giving up Jayson Werth. JA Happ is good buy for the Astros, but if Ruben Amaro is content with fully depleting our farm system's best prospects, it seems out of touch with the organization's long-term goals. Win or lose this year or next, I love how this present crop of Phillies were mostly home grown. The mark of a successful and respectful team is its ability to groom top prospects and hold onto them when they reach their full potential in the majors. Watching this team turn into the Yankees is not something I'll enjoy.

But who am I kidding? I'll still watch. In any case, aside from my unwitting prediction of Ken Griffey, Jr.'s retirement, much of my crystal ball visions in this blog have been wrong. Oswalt and the Braves could be friends, but he's coming to Philly instead. Then again, there's still plenty to time for this deal to crumble and another team to swoop in like the Rangers did to the Yankees when they snatched Cliff Lee.

Now that was fun to watch.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We will get by

Now THAT was more like it.

The last time Cole Hamels had a shaky outing (June 26 against Toronto) his team scored just one run for him. Tonight, the hitters kept on battling as the lead bounced back and forth.

The Phillies scored multiple runs in four different innings, and a potent, but impatient Diamondbacks lineup couldn't keep up. And the 3-5 hitters in Philadelphia's order, the constant source of scrutiny and frustration since late May? They went 6-for-11 with two bombs, six RBI and five runs scored. Please sir, can I have some more?

Jayson Werth finally went yard again, and you can expect some more of that in the near future. His jacks always come in bunches, and his signature blast is the one that lands in the center field vines at Citizens Bank Park. Raul Ibanez is working on a six-game hitting streak, batting .429 (9-for-21) in the span. He's also driven in at least one run in his last four starts. The 3-hole seems to be agreeing with him.

A 3-0 loss to the Strasburg-less Nationals can't be a good sign for the Braves, as their seven-game lead in the NL East has been chopped in half in less than a week. It's looking more and more like the Phillies will be nothing but spectators as the Trade Deadline nears, so they can't let up.

In the midst of all this success, Philly lost another key piece for at least a few days as Shane Victorino left in the seventh inning with an oblique muscle strain. The way things have been going, I was waiting for the next starter to go down, and I'm not surprised it's Victorino. He made trips to the DL in 2007 and '08 after constantly pushing his small frame to the limit with his blazing speed in the outfield and around the bases. A warning light goes off in my head whenever I hear about an oblique injury. I didn't even know what an oblique muscle was until 2006 when Albert Pujols was sidelined for a month with an injury to his, ending what would have otherwise been a career year (and would probably have cost Ryan Howard his first and so far only MVP award).

The Phillies shouldn't let this stop their current surge, and Jimmy Rollins (sore left foot) should be back on the field by the end of the week. As I alluded to in a post last week, the lineup will do just fine with Placido Polanco hitting leadoff.

The only problem is with Victorino out, Werth is no longer a bargaining chip for an upper-tier starting pitcher, and he's the best one Philadelphia had. Then again, if he really is heating up, would Ruben Amaro want to trade him anyway? The Phillies are still near the top of the list of teams who may land Roy Oswalt, but no matter how interested the Houston Astros may be in J.A. Happ, or how many young prospects the Phillies are willing to part with, I can't see Oswalt wanting to play in Philadelphia. It would give him a shot at another World Series appearance, no doubt, but he can get that much closer to home.

However, if a deal is somehow made and Oswalt becomes a Phillie, Amaro might finally silence his critics.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dog Days ending?

A big congratulations to Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Garza for his no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers Monday night. Holy 1992, that's unofficially six no-nos this year. Offensive numbers in both leagues are down across the board. With nearly two-thirds of the season elapsed, there are still two pitchers (Josh Johnson and Adam Wainwright) with an ERA under 2, and last year's empty barrel of 20-game winners may be filled with multiple names in 2010. Garza got one back for Tampa Bay, as in the first half it endured the dubious honor of getting no-hit twice in less than two months (incredible considering the Rays presently own the second-best record in the majors). I think we can definitely call this the Year of the Pitcher. Step aside steroids, the mound masters are making a comeback to reclaim what you stole. Read more of my thoughts on this topic in a column that will be posted on the Gettysburg Times website Thursday morning.

I've still got a ton of vacation to use this summer, so my blog will continue to provide only general summaries of the Phillies' weekend series. If they keep winning like this from Friday to Sunday, that's just fine by me.

The Phillies finally ran into a team that was struggling at the plate even more than they were, and it's probably a coincidence, but they haven't lost a game since new hitting coach Greg Gross stepped in. Perhaps a serious move like that was the wake-up call the offense needed.

Philadelphia has tied its longest winning streak of the season and scored more than three runs in four consecutive games for the first time in more than a month. Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth both seem to be warming up, which is absolutely vital during Chase Utley's absence. Kyle Kendrick and J.A. Happ did a good job of saving face for the organization, as trade rumors and vicious accusations have been hurled like D batteries from the upper deck.

Perhaps I'm nitpicking at this point, but I still saw some troubling trends which contradicted the look of a team busting out of a slump, particularly in the final two games against the Rockies. The Phillies went just 5-for-27 (.185) with runners in scoring position. In 15 of those 22 outs Philly hitters were either retired on balls in the air or swinging third strikes. To use a tired cliche, they're still trying to do too much at the plate, and it nearly cost them the last two games of the series.

So did Brad Lidge.

Most of the Philadelphia closer's saves have been an adventure this season, and he really got the heart racing in his most recent two. Lidge got the third out in each one with the bases loaded after throwing at least 30 pitches (somewhere, Curt Schilling sat with his head buried in a towel). He's averaging 19.4 pitches per inning and 5.95 walks per nine innings in 2010. Lidge has found the bite on his slider again, which has kept his ERA from approaching last year's horrible numbers, but he's no longer dominating enough to deserve the closer's role.

Charlie Manuel is stubbornly choosing to turn the lights on every ninth inning when he could take the pressure off everyone by going with a closer-by-committee. It's not the ideal situation, but it would work better than leaving it all up to a veteran past his prime. Ryan Madson still has closer-type stuff, while J.C. Romero is getting both lefties and righties out this season.

Fortune remains on the Phillies' side as their next two opponents, the Diamondbacks and Nationals, are both making themselves comfortable in last place. Philly looks like it can actually beat those kind of teams, which should cut even more into Atlanta's lead in the East. As both the Phightins' and I will happily attest, there's plenty of summer left.