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.

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