Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Oh Pooey

Ok, Wilson Valdez, just hit like that every day for the next month.

Yeesh...this season is starting to resemble 2007 more and more, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Phillies fans woke up today and discovered that half of their infield was on the DL for an unspecified amount of time. The revolving door of injuries is starting to get jammed as Philadelphia was just about to get J.A. Happ back. Once he returns, that still leaves six players who can't take the field.

Losing Utley and Polanco is the biggest blow yet; no question about it. Chase was starting to hit like himself again and Polanco has been the team's most consistent hitter all season. The Phillies had no choice but to recall Greg Dobbs, whose hitting hadn't improved with a demotion to Triple-A.

And yet, the Phillies still won on Tuesday against the Reds with the help of seven combined RBI from Valdez and Brian Schneider. This obviously won't be the norm, but Philly needs its remaining regulars in the lineup to produce now more than ever.

This would be the perfect time for Jayson Werth to enter one of his bizarre home run streaks, and why not? He had one last year right before the All-Star Break. Though his average is right around .300, Ryan Howard needs to start playing like the 125-million dollar man. Ashburn Alley is missing his presence.

With Jimmy Rollins already missing so much time, the Philly lineup has yet to resemble the stability of the last two seasons, but again, I bring up 2007. Utley, Howard, Shane Victorino, Brett Myers and Freddy Garcia (remember him??), among others, all missed time with injuries, and Pat Burell's dismal first half made him an unofficial absence as well. And how did the team respond? It went on to win the division on the last day of the season and advance to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.

Tonight's win was a good start and history lets all of us know that there's still hope.

Grudging Congratulations

I've noticed recently that if a pitcher doesn't throw a fastball in a hitter's count, it means he's not giving in, and if he does throw a fastball then it means he's not afraid. It makes me wish that we could just call pitchers frightened quitters and get away with it.

It was that quick swing and power that we all remember well, but it wasn't for our team.

Instead, Scott Rolen's blast off Kyle Kendrick in the fourth inning ruined his night and foretold the rest of the game. I can't imagine Phillies fans would react with appreciation in Citizens Bank Park, but I admit I'm happy for Rolen that he hit his 300th home run - not just because he's on my Fantasy Team.

Exactly one half of those bombs were hit for the Phillies, and though he's now spent more seasons with other teams (and winning a World Series with St. Louis), I still feel like Rolen is a Phillie at heart. He spent his formative years with us and enjoyed some of his best seasons before injuries took their toll and likely prevented him from possible Hall of Fame consideration.

It's also good to see him finally put up some solid numbers again in the twilight of his career. I don't know how many years he has left in the tank, but live it up, Scotty.

As for guy who hardly ever gets injured, Chase Utley might possibly need to make a trip to DL after he foolishly decided to play thumb wars with second base in tonight's game. The base won hands down and Utley was tagged out trying to stretch a single into a double. The guy who played nearly an entire game with a broken wrist three years ago needed to be lifted in the ninth inning when he couldn't properly grip a bat with his swollen right thumb. This is not promising news.

I was also surprised that Utley slid head-first into second base. It's a sliding technique coaches at all levels discourage for the very reason Utley may have to miss a few games or worse. Utley was one of the few players I'd noticed who usually tried to slide feet-first, and he's so far the ONLY one I've seen do that on the always-dangerous slide into first base. It's one of the reasons why he's my favorite Phillie. Like the Scott Rolen of old, Utley displays a mix of power and speed. His work ethic and approach to the game are admirable, and though he's a star, he shies away from the spotlight and never does selfish things like admire his home runs after they leave his bat (Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino are good about that as well).

Can you tell I'll miss his presence if Chase is forced out of the lineup?

On a final note, it's interesting that the Phillies managed to do so little against a strikeout pitcher that didn't strike anyone out. Johnny Cueto left the magic up to his sparkling defense, easily erasing the nightmare of his previous outing against Philly last year when he allowed nine runs in the first inning. The way they've been hitting lately, it wasn't far-fetched to expect a similar outcome. But Cueto, Rolen and the Reds in general are on fire right now, and the Phils stepped into the flames.

Shame on me for not putting Cueto on my Fantasy Team as well.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Advantage, Average Joes

My Dad never gets tired of telling me that during Matt Stairs' brief but memorable tenure with the Phitins, he considered the two of them twins. They were both 5-foot-8 and of generous girth (Stairs apparently grew tired of the comparison as he shed 30 pounds in the offseason before heading to camp with the Padres). The only major difference between them was the distance the ball would travel when each of them made contact with a major league fastball. My dad's batted ball might barely reach the pitcher's mound if it had a good tailwind, while Stairs' ball would result in a beer shower for the guy sitting halfway up the second deck after it landed in his cup. The chubby MLB journeyman resembled many of his fans, which along with his easy-going personality and timely pinch-hit bombs, endeared him to all in Philadelphia. Having a gut doesn't necessarily mean you can't win big games.

It's been crazy times at Wimbledon with single matches lasting three days, and I just watched a clip of the movie "Dodgeball." The combination of the two to form the title of this blog works so well with the Phillies' most recent game against the Cleveland Indians that I feel like everything in the cosmos may be righting itself. It's clear I don't have enough faith in my team to believe it was capable of returning to its former self without any supernatural intervention.

It's also so easy to forget that the Phillies are actually a game better than they were at this point last year, because four games above .500 was still good enough to claim first place in the division in '09. When Jimmy was no longer rolling and the rest of the team laid down and dared everyone else in the East to try and dethrone them, no one could do it.

That strategy didn't work as well this year, but a little competition never hurt anyone.

Every other Phillies blogger or reporter has already slapped a metaphor on the vicious storm that halted today's laugher in the eighth inning, but who can blame them? This is the first time in more than a month that the Phils brought the thunder and truly beat up on someone, and like Stairs in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS, the chubby guys led the charge.

First, there was Uncle Cholly, who got ejected for the second time in three games in the second inning, causing him to miss virtually all of the Phillies' outburst. His usually calm and collected demeanor fits this team well, but it always helps to see your manager show some emotion. The players are returning to their early-season form, and he doesn't want to see them get cheated. Big kudos.

Then there was Joe Blanton, and there wasn't anything average about his performance today. He threw his second straight quality start after notching just two in his first eight. He's finally gotten control of his sinker, as he's induced 19 ground outs against 11 fly outs over those two starts. His eight strikeouts today were also the most he's collected in a start since striking out 10 Tampa Bay Rays exactly one year ago.

Finally, Dane Sardinha had Phillies scouts booking the next available flight to Hawaii when he belted his first major league homer. Most fans had no clue who this guy was before today's lineup was announced, and now a few nuts will purchase some fish head masks off amazon.com and spend the next few weeks isolated in a section of the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park, gyrating to their own choreographed dance and calling themselves "Dane's Sardinhas."

The slimmer stars did their part as well. I usually look this kind of stuff up myself, the stickler that I am, but I'll simply ask when was the last time Chase Utley and Jayson Werth each had at least three hits in a game? I may hate myself later for saying this, but it looks like the slump is ending. The offense not only piled on the runs, but did so in multiple innings, which had been a problem even before the team's well-documented struggles.

Of course, the Indians are a team the Phillies are supposed to beat, and they finally did so in a manner that we're used to seeing. The bats are finally rewarding some stellar outings by their starting pitchers. I know Roy Halladay is begging for that kind of support, so we'll see what big boys step up for him tomorrow against his old team. At least I'm feeling optimistic again, which should automatically be the case when Doc takes the hill.

note: I noticed earlier today that the recently-improved Phillies are just one of three teams in the NL (the Reds and Padres being the other two) that sport a record above .500 both at home and on the road. Now there's a nice shot of optimism.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Good to be home

Man, I figured I would always be able to think of something to write about in these italicized unrelated introductions, since they're not limited to baseball. I guess I was wrong...

Just like Mr. Ozzie Smith told that high school auditorium full of fans in Cooperstown, "It's all about timing."

It didn't matter that Jimmy Rollins was hitless in his first eight at-bats since coming off the DL. The only important thing is what took place in his crucial ninth trip to the plate tonight with his team down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning to the Cleveland Indians.

First of all, the Phillies are lucky that with a runner at first and nobody out, pinch-hitter Ben Francisco's ground ball didn't result in a double play. That left the tying run on base and gave J-Roll a chance to be a hero.

And I don't think I've ever seen Jimmy hit a ball that hard. All I can say is thank goodness it stayed fair.

It was the first walk-off blast of Rollins' long career, and the Wizard of Oz was sure on to something when he talked about timing. To get a big hit like that just after returning to the club provided his teammates with a glaring example of why he's so vital to their success. J-Roll not only came through in the clutch but also right after committing an error that allowed the go-ahead run to score a half-inning earlier. Maybe the presence of Rollins really can help the Phillies get back on track, or at least not dwell so much on how far they've fallen in recent weeks.

Before I move on to my next topic, I must mention how I "saw" J-Roll's shot. With no access to the live game, I was watching it using Gameday on mlb.com. It's a three-dimensional simulation of the live game, showing the trajectory, speed and break of each pitch right after its thrown. Despite Indians closer Kerry Wood's great difficulty with staying healthy during his career, it was impressive to see that his fastball was still reaching the mid-to-upper 90s.

It's also impressive that no matter how hard a ball is thrown, if it's right down the middle, a professional hitter will crush the hell out of it. Wood's 1-1 fastball to Rollins clocked in at 95 miles per hour, but he could not have hit the center of the strike zone so precisely again if he tried, and Jimmy knew exactly what to do with it. The hit reminded me of J-Roll's walk-off triple in Game 4 of last year's NLCS off Dodgers closer Jonahtan Broxton. That fastball was thrown at 99 mph.

Tonight's win gave the Phillies their sixth win in their last nine games, believe it or not, and many of those games have been against the best teams in the AL. With four Interleague games left, Philly already has more wins than it did in IP last year and in 2008.

The victory also guaranteed the Phils a home series win, something they haven't pulled off since taking two out of three at home against the Braves May 7-9 (it was also their first Interleague home series win in three years). This is the second time I'm referencing the 1997 Phillies since starting this blog, and I hope it's the last. That was the last time Philadelphia played six straight home series without winning one of them. It's a good thing they've thrown in a few road series wins or else they'd need binoculars to catch a glimpse of first place in the East.

Dramatic victories are always fun for a team and after the Phillies' only other walk-off win on May 4, they won nine of their next 11. If that's what's in store for them in the next two weeks, it's going to be a relaxing All-Star Break.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Take the hint, Raul

(Roundtable host to Bob Feller): “In 1940, you threw the only no-hitter on Opening Day in major league history. What do you remember, or what can you tell us about that game?”

Feller: “It was cold as Hell.”

The 91-year-old Hall of Famer then elaborated on his unique feat, saying how happy he was to accomplish it in front of his teammates, fans and family.

Family was the recurring theme of the Father's Day Hall of Fame Classic Weekend in Cooperstown. The nostalgia was as thick as the summer heat, and my dad and I soaked it all in. The Baseball Hall of Fame was easily in the top five of the most incredible places I've ever been to in my short lifetime. As we walked around, my dad and I quickly realized that anyone who wasn't a baseball fan in this town was automatically an outsider. We expected that, but the feeling was still a surprise because it's usually the exact opposite. It was almost like coming home.

I would argue that the gigantic role that baseball has played in his life has kept 'Rapid Robert' going all of these years. All of the great memories and community feel of the sport have kept Feller young. Being surrounded by thousands of other devoted fans (yes, even the Yankee supporters) made us all feel like kids again, too. Feller and the other six Hall of Famers in attendance during the weekend jumped at the chance to recapture that feeling of innocence.

Feller conveniently leads me into my next topic, as tonight Jamie Moyer tied the former Cleveland Indians hurler nearly twice his age on the all-time wins list. He notched his 266th victory with yet another stellar showing on the hill against none other than Feller's old ballclub. The tame Tribe hitters were clueless against Moyer's slow deception, as they managed just two hits off him through eight innings.

Of course, one of those two hits was a moon shot by Russell Branyan to tie Moyer with another Phillie, Robin Roberts, for the most home runs allowed all time at 505. What's even more interesting is assuming Jamie plays out the remainder of his three-year contract as a starter and retires after the 2011 season, he might finish his career surrendering 548 dongs, which would match Mike Schmidt's Phillies-leading career total. It's quite a dubious honor, but obviously chalked up to Moyer's durability in the game, and it won't hurt his Hall of Fame eligibility.

One player who did hurt his own standing was Greg 'fallen-from-pinch-hitting-grace' Dobbs. As the Phils re-activated Jimmy Rollins from the DL, they designated Dobbs for assignment. Philly also ended the second brief, failed experiment with Scott Mathieson, recalling Mike Zagurski in what has to be an attempt to help the bullpen recover from one its worst meltdowns in recent memory against the Twins on Saturday.

It says something about the state of bench when you need to subtract a guy to make it better, but Dobbs has quickly turned from Mr. Dependable into Mr. Expendable. It's a sad result as Dobbs was such an integral component to the postseason-bound teams of 2007 and '08. Before I fully understood the dynamics of the situation, I was actually surprised when Jayson Werth started getting more playing time in the latter half of '08 than Dobbs, who was a better hitter. That is clearly not the case anymore.

The team is presently not making any headway with closing the gap in the division. The All-Star Break and the Trade Deadline are quickly approaching, so other major personnel changes may take place if the Phillies remain on their present course of mediocrity.

Raul Ibanez, take this as your final warning.

The 38-year-old Phillies left fielder hasn't been the player they expected him to be for a year now. He's not seeing the ball well, which was even a fact during last season as a whole when he posted the worst strikeout/at-bat (1/4.2) and ground out/fly out (1.27) ratios of his career.

Ibanez has only managed brief glimpses of his former self in 2010. The latest occurred earlier this month when he went 8-for-20 over five games against the Marlins and Red Sox, but he has returned to his usual output, hitting just 5-for-22 (.227) since. His overall batting average hasn't risen above .267 at any point this season, and his power is virtually non-existent.

I don't know how many more times I can hear Charlie Manuel say that Ibanez will work his way out of this funk. He just might, but we've been waiting for a full season now. Given a healthy number of at-bats, Ben Francisco could provide the Phillies with so much more at the plate and in the field. I'd give Ibanez another week or two at most, and then at the very least bench him for a few games. This lineup can't afford a black hole in the No. 6 spot any longer.

Tonight's win was good, and J-Roll's return was even better. Despite all the griping and negativity, the boys' ride through Interleague Play has turned out a little better than I feared. The toughest part of it is over, so it's time to finish strong. Simply summon your inner-Feller.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nuttier than Victorino

Another short one tonight. They always seem to be short when the Phillies win, but this time I actually have a good reason. I'm driving to and from Altoona tomorrow to cover a state championship baseball game, coming back to Gettysburg to type a sloppy story, then driving to Delaware for some quick zzzzz before getting up Saturday morning to drive five hours north to the Baseball Hall of Fame with my dad. Who said life had to be boring?

All I can say about tonight's game is it's good to see the Phillies win back-to-back games and score more than five runs in each of them. You've got to go all the way back to May 14-15 to find the last time they pulled that off. I almost called it a miracle just then, but these are the Phils we expect to see. This would be the perfect time to turn it all around, while they're still just 3.5 out.

It doesn't get any easier over the weekend, with Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and the rest of the TC crew, hoping to take full advantage of the short porches at The Bank in the Philadelphia summer heat.

On a more serious note, this Hall of Fame trip with the "old man" is something we've talked about since I was a little tyke in a Little League uniform. I've really broken the bank with this Father's Day gift, but I owe my love of the best game on earth to him, and this is something I want to share with him while he's still here and healthy and before all my free time is eaten away when my wife and I decide to have children. Cooperstown is the Mecca for all fans of baseball, and the time for my pilgrimage has arrived.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy to be wrong

Six hits aren't that reassuring, but a win at Yankee Stadium is, and I saw a few other things that stuck out about tonight's game.

Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth went back-to-back right after a four-run inning, which is an important step for home run hitters trying to escape a slump. They got a hold of hittable pitches, rather than swinging late or not at all.

The Phillies as a team stole three bases. That's an aggressiveness they need to show in every single game. They have the speed to beat the pitchers with quick deliveries and catchers with accurate arms. I dare you to try and catch me, Yadier Molina.

Certain Phillies players love to prove wrong what I say about them in fresh posts, but they've all been for the best so keep it up!

Jamie Moyer gets shelled by the Boston Red Sox, then turns around and eats the Yankee lineup for dinner over eight innings of off-speed glory. He seems hit-or-miss, but if we're keeping Joe Blanton in the rotation, then Moyer definitely belongs there.

It remains to be seen whether this will finally be the game that leads the Phillies back to the team we remember from the last two years, or just another glimmer of sunlight in an otherwise stormy sky. I tend to lean toward the second possibility.

Again guys, prove me wrong.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fair & Balanced

I don't typically write about what's going on in the news, because sadly I don't consider myself informed enough. Even when I try to be, details thrown around on any given day end up confusing me, and I just turn right back to ESPN. However, at this critical time for our country, I offer a simple question. I completely understand President Obama's initial decision to allow BP to clean up its own mess in the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone would have; it was their fault. But after how many failures does it take for a president to exercise his executive power to find someone, ANYONE with more intelligence and resources to try and clean up the mess. The entire ecosystem down there is now screwed as this crisis has dragged on for countless weeks. I can't claim to know the Obama administration's plan of action when the spill first occurred, but it's safe to say they waited too long to respond.

Ok, A-Rod didn't play tonight, but it's not like the Yankees needed him anyway.

I'll go on about how this is the beginning of the end for the Phillies (which is still premature to say at this point), but not today. I decided instead to distract myself with another more positive baseball activity.

I just cast my votes for the All-Star Game.

It's really thrilling to have a tiny hand in deciding which ball-bashing superstars - and aging, but still adored veterans - will race onto the field in July's battle of the leagues. To call the process a popularity contest is as obvious as calling Albert Pujols a good hitter, but I try not to concern myself with that too much. The reason for that is I'm just as guilty as everyone else.

I'd like to think that my selections are objective and based on performance from year to year. First of all, I always wait until June to vote so I get a much better idea of the standouts in each league. I then look through each starter's season stats to determine my selections. I make sure to look at the sluggers who have also hit for a high average, in addition to the most successful leadoff hitters. In the case of a tie between two power guys, stolen bases will tip the scale.

Also, players who have superior career numbers, but who are no longer producing (i.e. - Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, etc.) aren't considered.

I undermine this whole process, however, because I also follow two fundamentally flawed and ridiculously unfair rules: vote for every Phillies starter at least once and don't waste any votes on a Yankee.

Fox News, I am ready to send you my resume.

In recent years, I have felt a steadily growing guilt about the former rule, so I've begun to split my votes in the NL between Phillies and other position players I feel are more deserving. This new practice became necessary when I deferred to Ryan Howard's .220 batting average and 90 strikeouts, while King Albert was getting the shaft. I realize my current division approach doesn't help anyone or anything aside from my own conscience, but I can live with that.

There are plenty of other voters out there like me, which is more apparent than ever this season. Despite the Phillies' slide, six of them would be headed for southern California July 13 if the present results were final.

On the flip side, the two New York Yankees most deserving of a start at Anaheim, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, aren't getting any love from me. It's easy to rationalize that move, however, because they clearly don't need my help.

I wish I could claim that above all else, I want to see two teams filled with the best players of the 2010 season lined up on either side of home plate at Angel Stadium next month. But in truth, all I really want to see is as many red-pinstriped players there as possible, so they can show baseball fans around the country just how good they are.

Maybe by then, they actually will.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bad time for a rematch

For the first time in my journalism career, I will be covering a state championship game. Best of all, it's a baseball championship game. Against all odds, one of the area high school teams that we cover at the Gettysburg Times has won every single postseason game it has played for a chance to do something no area baseball team before it has accomplished (at least according to the archives that go back to 1977). Nothing beats Major League Baseball as far as sports are concerned, but it's times like these that I consider myself infinitely lucky to be a professional sports writer.

It's really a shame the New York Yankees won't be facing Roy Halladay AND Cole Hamels in their upcoming clash with the Phillies at Yankee Stadium. Philly fans have been waiting all season long to say that, but it does look like Hamels is finally approaching the dominant hurler he was in 2008.

They'll have to triple the normal security in New York for tomorrow night's series. Plenty of people will be drive up I-95 to see their home team, and considering that they will enter the same place in which the Yankees dethroned the Phillies as world champs last November, tempers will undoubtedly flare throughout every section and every row.

It actually makes me glad I won't be there.

I also wouldn't want to see A-Rod break a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the ninth with a towering home run to right center. I wouldn't want to witness the careless flipping of the bat as he watches his shot leave the yard, throwing one fist in the air and popping the pink bubble gum in his mouth. He'll pop it with authority, basking in his superstar smugness and the knowledge that he is the latest in a long line of spoilers who have denied Roy Halladay's pitching brilliance with a win.

Halladay should be 10-2 right now, and the confidence he gives his teammates should allow him the expectation that they will support him on the other end. But thus far, Halladay as had to be "perfect" to let his success show at least somewhat in his record. Over his last five starts combined, the Phillies have scored a paltry five runs for him. Halladay has gone just 2-3 over that stretch. A complete-game loss is almost unheard these days, and it's even harder to believe that Halladay has one this season, particularly with such a loaded lineup.

Sure, Halladay's one really bad start of the season came against another AL East opponent, the Boston Red Sox, but the Yankees would be foolish to think that they're in for an easy night.

The Phillies offense also can't think the same about CC Sabathia, who hasn't recorded a win against Philadelphia (including the postseason) since June 2007. Sabathia is also off to his usual slow start, as four of his six wins this season have come against the down-and-out Baltimore Orioles. However, the Phillies aren't hitting much better than the O's right now.

The Phils need to kill the scenario playing out in my head because I don't see Kyle Kendrick enjoying much success against the Yankee lineup, and Jamie Moyer still has yet to prove that he can pitch against a hot-hitting club. The A-Rod bomb I'm envisioning will spark a three-game sweep that reduces the Phillies to a doormat for the Twins when they come to town at the end of the week.

Tomorrow night the boys in red will have to make Halladay feel good about only giving up one run to the opposition. Shane Victorino will need to reach base at least twice. Chase Utley will need to rediscover the stroke that allowed him to go deep on Sabathia three times in last year's Fall Classic. Raul Ibanez must maintain his recent surge, and for heaven's sake, Ryan Howard, just leave those tailing breaking balls alone!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Green Monster's name is Oscar

Man, can anything go right for Jayson Werth?

The poor guy gets three hits for the first time in more than a month, and not only do the Phillies lose, but they get crushed by the largest margin of the season to the Red Sox.

To dump another bucket of lemon juice into the gaping wound, Jamie Moyer suffers the worst outing of his 24-year career. I didn't think my prediction would come true, but Boston lit Moyer up like he was in Little League.

Holy freaking God. Make it stop!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wake me when it's the All-Star Break

As far as I'm concerned, my word is absolute law when I say that "Cause and Effect" is the best episode of Star Trek the Next Generation. None of you could dare debate me on such a concrete fact because you have no clue what the hell I'm talking about.

"Just get on with the blog, you big Trekkie dork!"

Very well, Number One. Engage...

I'd feel worse about tonight's pathetic loss if Josh Johnson wasn't on my Fantasy Team. That performance may have just propelled me out of second-to-last place. With Interleague Play upon us, that just may be where the Phillies are heading.

Consider that since 2004, the Phillies have managed a .500 record in Interleague Play just once (8-7 in 2007). They've played particularly poorly against the AL during the regular season recently. In 2008 and 2009 combined, only the San Diego Padres (8-23) had a worse Interleague record than the Phils (10-23). Their three-game set with Boston last month was the beginning of this present breadown, which leaves little room for optimism about the next few weeks.

As recent All-Star Games and World Series have further proved, the AL generally dominates the NL in head-to-head matchups (that's a topic I'll explore in greater detail as the Mid-Summer Classic draws closer). Sub-par teams like the A's and Orioles are beating up on solid clubs like the Giants and Braves.

Looking at Philly's upcoming series, it has to get through New York, Boston and Minnesota before even seeing a sub-.500 AL team (Cleveland). Given that daunting challenge, it's hard to see a road series against the Blue Jays getting moved to Philadelphia as an advantage.
The past month, the Phils have traveled down a path marred with potholes and speed bumps, and now it looks like they're going to crash through the final warning sign and drive right off the cliff (or dare I say, their starship's warp core is about to breech). They haven't been hitting against pitchers they're familiar with, so what happens when they face a bunch of arms they don't usually see?

My only hope is that the two players who recently joined the team after spending significant time in the AL, Roy Halladay and Placido Polanco, can somehow lend some advice and guide them through the rough seas ahead. The duo presently represents the best pictcher and hitter on the team, respetively, so they better start doing some talking. Getting Jimmy Rollins and J.A. Happ back as well wouldn't hurt.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Giving up the Chase

I actually had tonight off from work and was willing to sit through the atrocious commentating of the Washington Nationals' broadcasters so I could see how much last year's No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg would live up to the hype in his major league debut. I was denied his seven-inning, 14-strikeout masterpiece against the Pittsburgh Pirates (yeah, I know, it may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but a big league hitter is a big league hitter), though, because none of the usual sports stations in Gettysburg showed the game. MLB Network also blacked it out, despite this inexcusable error. Eh, at least I'll have plenty of other opportunities this season to catch a glimpse of his 100-plus heat before his arm falls off.

I have no idea if tonight was a random flash of lightning, or the approach of that old Phillies storm that dominated the division last season.

Given the fight of the Phils in Tuesday's series opener against the Marlins, it seems like the latter. The big boys showed some life, and the offense battled back from three different deficits in the game. The 10 runs scored were more than double what Philly had managed in its entire three-game series in South Florida in late May, and the most runs the Phils had scored in a single game since May 17.

If this truly is a new beginning, may the red flood drown the rest of the East and cleanse us all.

One guy I wouldn't mind see returning to his old ways is Chase Utley, and I'm not referring to his recent performance. Since the start of the 2009 season, Utley has fundamentally changed his approach at the plate.

The difference is noticeable when comparing Utley's stats from '08 to '09. He clearly made a concerted effort to be more selective at the dish, as his walks shot up from 64 to a career-high 88. That's usually a good thing for a hitter, but it wound up hurting Utley's production. His OPS remained steady in the low-.900s, but consider the significant drop in other areas: hits (177/161), doubles (41/28), total bases (325/290) and RBI (104/93). Utley's totals in all of those categories except hits were career lows since he became a starter in 2005, as was his .282 batting average.

It seemed like Utley's search for the perfect pitch inhibited his overall ability to hit. He also struck out 110 times in '09, which was six more than he had punched out in '08 in 36 fewer at-bats. Stealing a career-high 23 bases helped maintain his runs scored, but 2010 paints a much drearier picture for the Phillie second baseman.

We all know that Chase will snap out of the team-wide funk, and his two hits tonight were a good starting point. But heading into the second week of June, Utley has swiped just two bags on the year, which aren't nearly enough to account for his deficits in other areas. He's on pace to set a new career high in walks and maintain his above-average power, but the projected 74 RBI fall well below Utley's standards and aren't adequate in the 3-hole of such a potent lineup.

Though most guys would be happy with 150 hits and 30 doubles, this isn't the Utley we're used to seeing.

It's especially key for Chase to abandon his present tactics in order to step up in late-game situations against left-handed relievers. Of the three lefties in the Phillies' lineup, Utley has the most success against south paw hurlers with a .283 average. He can't be content for them to pitch around him, so they can go to town on Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez with a steady diet of breaking balls. Jayson Werth could conceivably save the day with a big hit in between them, but only during the eight random weeks of the season when he catches fire.

I'd love to see Utley recapture his past aggressiveness both at the plate and on the bases. The team needs that spark from him now more than ever.

What planet is this guy from?

I happily hopped into my wonderful Chevy Lumina and made the short drive to Dillsburg, Pa., to cover my first high school baseball state tournament game. One of our area teams was going up against a team that traveled all the way from Philadelphia, a three-hour trip after factoring in traffic. The hometown fans quickly became bored, as they saw their boys jump out to a 7-0 lead in the first inning and beat the Philly boys in five innings via the 10-run rule. It was disheartening to me that this squad was the best the inner city had to offer, and they struggled with basic mechanics you're supposed to learn in Little League. Major League Baseball has been trying to encourage inner-city youth to appreciate and learn the game again. From what I saw, there's still a long way to go...

Speaking of struggling teams from Philadelphia, I temporarily thought last night that I'd have to push back this particular posting when a Phillies hurler was pitching a no-hitter through six innings. Common sense then smacked me in the face, as I realized that pitcher was Cole Hamels.

Hamels no longer possesses the mental clarity to hold a team hitless for nine innings. Hell, he has to fight to keep his team in front when it gets an early lead for him, and the Phils hadn't even managed to do that for what feels like the 20th straight game. Sure enough, the Padres only needed two solo homers to break up the no-hitter and put themselves in great shape to win the game, denying the Phillies their first home series win in a month.

I know the rule is to never talk to a guy who's throwing a no-hitter, but Hamels is one of those guys you almost have to do the opposite. Talk to him about anything that gets his mind off the fact that he's throwing a no-hitter, because he'll think too much about the bite on his curve or the movement of his splitfinger and then bam! You're down 2-0.

One run.

Seriously, guys? I thought we were done with this. And the guy who dominated you on the mound...what's his name....LeBlanc? The only LeBlanc I had ever heard of before last night was the guy who played Joey on "Friends," and we could probably throw him out there and he'd have just as much success against this lineup.

The Utley-Howard-Werth combination is forming a Bermuda Triangle that wipes out all run production. The trio was a dismal 1-for-11 last night, and for the second game in a row, Jayson Werth ended it striking out swinging with a runner in scoring position.

This is starting to feel like some weird baseball horror movie.

LeBlanc's sucess against the Philly lineup reminded me of the all-to-recent scoreless drought of 30 straight innings against a bunch of no-name pitchers. At roughly the same time, early Cy Young Award favorite Ubaldo Jimenez pulled off a stretch of 33 innings without allowing a run. I've had the opportunity to see the wizard work and Praise Jeebus and Holy Hershiser, his stuff is nasty.

It’s too bad we don’t get more physical evidence of the supernatural or else the Phillies could claim that all those other pitchers they couldn't figure out were injected with Jimenez mojo or talent juice, and then the Monstars came down with orders from Danny DeVito to put the enslavement of the human race up for grabs in a contest featuring Michael Jordan and…oh wait, wrong fantasy…

You see how easy it is to get lost in this nightmare? For the love of Bugs Bunny, get out of this funk, Phillies, and get back in first place where you belong!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Moyer is so money...

...and he doesn't even know it!

Mr. All-Business. Dr. Humble. Professor Changeup. Whatever title you throw his way, Jamie Moyer is all those things.

Living up to the innocence invoked by his first name, the 47-year-old won his 100th game over the age of 40 - and 264th overall - in style, tossing a complete game at a time in his life when most major league pitchers are teeing off at the country club or breaking down pitches and at-bats from the broadcast booth.

Most pitchers in their 40s don't reach the number of their age in wins, much less 100. Pitchers in this era are generally afraid to throw even their breaking balls at 80 miles per hour, and Moyer just baffled the San Diego Padres lineup with nine innings of that speed.

Mr. Ageless even added a Kodak moment in the ninth inning when his chest met grass going after a ground ball up the first base line from Jerry Hairston, Jr (flashbacks to Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, anyone?). He flipped to Ryan Howard to get the out and seemed annoyed that it took him so long to get the ball to first after he quickly rose to his feet again. Jamie, a lot of guys your age would need assistance from multiple family members/friends to get up after a spill like that. It just says so much about his great desire to help the team win.

The Phillie bats finally showed their appreciation for their veteran hurler's efforts, scoring more than three runs in a game for the first time since I started this blog (I briefly considered shutting it down and sitting on my cursed typing fingers until the drought was over).

Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth finally realized the bottom of the order couldn't hit above .220 forever, and they broke through against Jon Garland, one of the best pitchers in the league for the past month.

The sluggers also finally accepted the fact that to break out of a slump, you absolutely must hit the ball the other way. All three men did that on their run-scoring hits, and the humid, June air of home sweet home did its part as well. Let's face it, Werth's blast might have been playable for an infielder in April.

This is exactly what I like to see - some good baseball against a first-place team. Work out the kinks now because it won't be this easy against the Red Sox and Yankees later this month. They've got short porches too and batters who will foul off every deceivably slow pitch in the world until they find one to their liking.

That won't stop Moyer from challenging those hitters, just like all the others he's faced over the past 24 years. It's also nothing to him to dive for balls like his much younger defenders behind him do every day. That's why the Phillies keep him around.

And that's why he's so frickin' money.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Jimmy crack corn, and we need him back!

And now a report from hippie-dippie weatherman Al Sleet.

Tonight's forecast: Dark.

Ah, the words from the late-great George Carlin were wondrously prophetic of the Philadelphia Phillies' present state. These are indeed dark times for the Phitins', and they would all welcome even some widely scattered light in their sky.

Sure, the Phillies are over their scoreless spell, but we expected a little more moisture than this. The offense has been atrocious, while the pitching has been a mix of brilliant and so-so. The latter has been the case all season, but the hurlers didn't have to worry that much with the big boys clocking the ball all over the place in April and early May.

To give an idea of just how bad things are going, the Phillies are 2-9 in their current slide. Before the down spiral they had the best record in the National League, but in each of these past 11 games the Phils haven't managed more than three runs, while getting outscored 50-14. The last time Phlly went 11 consecutive games scoring three or fewer runs was their first 11 to open the 1997 season. That year, the Phils finished tied for the worst record in the NL.

It's very hard to imagine that such a potent lineup would be capable of falling to those depths.

Here's an even creepier fact: this freefall began the first day Jimmy Rollins returned to the DL for the second time this season.

I realize the original story of the song I referenced in the title of this posting is about a slave mourning the death of his master. Certainly that doesn't reflect the present day, but it's interesting how J-Roll's absence has seemed to control the Phillies on their present course.

That argument at first glance appears pretty weak, as the team went along fine when Rollins was out for nearly a month earlier this year. However, when J-Roll came back the first time, the Phillies only had their veteran leader and former MVP for FIVE DAYS before he went down again. I'm not a major league player, but such a quick switch from misfortune to fortune and back to misfortune must have been quite frustrating. The roller coaster ride may have affected the players more than they realized, and Placido Polanco recently going down couldn't have helped.

Rollins is recognized as one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, and Polanco is one of the best contact hitters. When they're both out, it can have a negative impact on the offense. The way the Phillies are playing right now, they're probably begging for the return of No. 1 and No. 2 in the lineup.

At the same time, we have to remember that these are veteran major league hitters who have all experienced the loss of key guys before. They should be coping with it much better than they are. The Phillies played just fine when Rollins made his first trip to the DL in 2008, and the team made it to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years while dealing with major injuries during all of 2007.

Given how tightly packed the standings are in the NL East, the Phillies could quickly find themselves in last place if they stay on their current course. Jayson Werth recently tried to put a rosy spin on the situation when he said, "We've played about as bad as we can here the past few weeks, and we're still in pretty good shape. I think sometimes all the negative talk needs to be looked at with the big picture in mind."

I'm sorry, Jayson, but you guys are presently smearing paint all over that big picture like distracted children in art class. You've gotten teacher Charlie so fed up that he's actually using big words like "big-headed" and "cockiness." There aren't any rainbows or sunshine, and the daily lineup is devoid of any gold stars.

It's time to fix this mess and fix it fast. The Phillies need to find themselves just to survive Interleague Play. Crossover games have never been kind to the team, aside from the big exception of the 2008 World Series. The players should try and summon the mentality of that triumph because they're definitely not playing like champions right now.

And just in case that's not enough, Jimmy, please hurry back.

Just call me Miss Cleo

Wow! My Hollywood spin on Ken Griffey, Jr.'s long career turned out to be a prediction of the future. Apparently, I was controlled by other-worldly forces because just 14 hours after my post, Junior announced his retirement after 22 years and 630 home runs in the big leagues.

Not only that, he does it on my mom's birthday and 23 years to the day after he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners as the No. 1 pick. As George Costanza would say, worlds are colliding!

It's clear I possess some supernatural ability, so I will now don a purple cape with gold lining, a pair of 3D glasses, grow out my fro and highlight it with white streaks. I will make appearances at baseball stadiums and sporting goods stores across the country and derive visions of the future with my magical baseball, unearthed from the rubble of the old Yankee Stadium.

Who will win the 2010 World Series? When will the Pittsburgh Pirates finish above .500? Will Jose Canseco sign a deal to appear as himself in his own documentary entitled "Steroids & Me: A Love Story?" These questions and many more will be answered!

Or it was all just crazy coincidence.

Either way, my so-called psychic instincts were clearly out to lunch earlier this evening when I was laying out the front page of the sports section. I managed to fill it completely before 8 p.m. Griffey then decides to announce his retirement, and then a pitcher no one ever heard of was cheated on what would have been the final out of a perfect game, baseball's third in less than a month.

Making just his third start of the season for the Detroit Tigers after initially failing to land the No. 5 spot in the rotation in Spring Training, Armondo Galarraga seemed destined to nail down the first perfect game in franchise history after rookie centerfielder Austin Jackson made a Willie Mays-type catch over his shoulder for the first out of the ninth inning. Two batters later, a ground ball to first base set up what I have to believe would have been the first perfect game in which the pitcher made the 27th putout himself. Miguel Cabrera's throw to Galarraga at the bag beat Jason Donald by at least a half-step, but veteran umpire Jim Joyce called him safe.

Galarraga was the only one who didn't argue the call and remained composed enough to settle for a one-hit shutout. He threw just 88 pitches, 67 of them for strikes. That's perfection in anybody's book.

Joyce confessed to making the wrong call to the media after viewing the replay. The remorse he must have feel is unimaginable. Baseball players, managers and broadcasters all quickly came to Joyce's defense for his human error.

Despite what the replay showed, I do believe that as an umpire, it's your responsibility to keep emotion out of your decision-making on the field. If Joyce felt in that moment that Donald was safe, then he had to call him safe, regardless of what it meant for Galarraga and the Tigers.

However, the tidal wave of media and fan speculation and accusation may force Major League Baseball to finally loosen its grip on the old traditions, join the 21st century with every other sport and implement a full instant replay system.

My only question is can baseball afford to go down that road? I never hear people complain about the tempo of any other sport, and you know managers are going to toss their red flags out onto the field at least five times per game. Baseball may have recovered from the financial crisis it faced 15 years ago, but does it really want to move for something that may turn people away from the ballpark? The die-hard fans it has will stay no matter what, but all the others may not be willing to sit through more delays.

MLB should proceed cautiously through this pressing consideration. Then again, I suppose that's easy for me to say. The umpires got all the calls right in Roy Halladay's perfect game.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Because of the kids!"

I would like to share a fond personal memory:

I was a senior in high school as the new millennium approached (at least what the general public considered the new millennium, which as we all know, actually didn’t begin until 2001), and AOL was asking its users what they felt the Song of the Century should be. The classic rock lovers, I among them, weighed in the heaviest on this question. I cast my vote for Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” which was running neck-and-neck with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” However, as I kept scrolling down through the votes, I noticed that another song had beaten both by long shot. It was John Lennon’s impassioned, secular call for world peace, “Imagine” and this realization brought an understanding grin to my face.

“Imagine all the people living for today. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

The turn of the millennium brought the dawning of a new era for Major League Baseball. New legends were emerging before our eyes, breaking ancient records at an alarming rate.

None of us wanted to believe at the time that the era we were actually witnessing was created by performance-enhancing drugs. Ten years later, the lie and the disease of steroids are still with us.

It’s gotten to the point when the system of innocent until proven guilty no longer applies. Guilty by association has never been a more damning accusation.

And now over the past year, names have been slowly leaking off a supposedly sealed list of positive tests. Every name that’s revealed is followed by varied reactions on a spectrum with shocking at one end complete lack of surprise on the other.

With all the scandal unfolding, it’s natural for us to keep hanging on to some sense of purity and decency in the game.

There’s not much left to grasp, but the media and fans alike believe with deep conviction that one name still represents innocence and natural ability: Ken Griffey, Jr.

Steroids don’t cause people to fall unconscious, and that’s about the only controversy Griffey has stirred during his 21 years in the big leagues. Given the time during which he played and the astronomical numbers he put up as a member of the Seattle Mariners, he should be thankful that the only pressing questions from reporters are about his snoozing activities in the clubhouse during the late innings.

Fifteen years ago, Griffey, along with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, helped wake baseball back up from its nap with his explosive blend of power, speed and defense. He also struck endorsement deals with nearly every sports corporation imaginable. If you ate Wheaties or played Super Nintendo, you saw Junior’s face.

And when people finally started asking questions about these hammering heroes, Griffey was the only one whose physical frame still resembled the one from his rookie card.

The heat was on for the beefed up stars by the time Congress got involved in the steroids investigation in 2005. At the now-infamous hearing on steroids in March of that year, no seat was set aside for Griffey, because everyone knew one wasn’t necessary.

Since 2001, Junior has been crippled by countless injuries that have kept him from the production that made him a star in all but one season. One short-term benefit of steroids is that they help the body heal quickly from injuries. As anyone in Cincinnati can tell you, Griffey was hurt more often than he was healthy.

Junior’s descent from prominence reminds me of the movie “Unbreakable.” Griffey almost seemed like Bruce Willis’ superhero character in the 1990s, but his constant trips to the DL over the past decade have transformed him into Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Elijah, a.k.a. Mr. Glass.

Junior exhibits an interesting duality of those opposing forces in the film. He remains a beacon of light through baseball’s dark times, while he physically resembles a figure worn down by a body which can’t function any longer through the demands of his sport.

And what makes Junior so innocent, anyway? We have recently learned that certain kinds of performance-enhancing drugs or infrequent usage of others won’t drastically affect the physical appearance of the athlete taking them. Just ask A-Rod or Manny Ramirez.

The simple fact is Ken Griffey, Jr., just seems to be too much of an upstanding guy to sink to such a level. To our knowledge, he’s never cheated on his wife or made enemies of teammates or the press. He grew up around the game thanks to his father, who didn’t struggle with the personal demons that Bobby Bonds, Barry’s dad, did.

All Junior has to do is look into the camera and flash that smile that continues to remind us of his squeaky clean image, and he’s maintained that image while dealing with both the positives and drawbacks of being a star for more than half his life.

Regardless of whether or not Griffey was napping in the clubhouse during a game a few weeks ago, the veteran certainly sleeps easy at night knowing that he has given the game everything his body would allow, and nothing more.

And as long as his star shines above us baseball fans, we can all rest easy as well.