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.