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


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.