Sunday, July 31, 2011

Shades of the past

"You want to be in a town where it's exciting and people are paying attention."

~Hunter Pence after being traded to Philadelphia

Anyone paying attention to the Phillies in their three-game sweep over the Pirates this weekend received wonderful reminders of 2009, even though Hunter Pence's arrival was a big call to the future.

In each game, a different member of the formally dangerous offense sparked the victory - Chase Utley on Friday, Ryan Howard on Saturday and Raul Ibanez in Sunday's thrilling 6-5, extra inning triumph.

Though his .247 batting average suggests otherwise, Ibanez has been a presence in the lineup. His two bombs on Sunday gave him 16 on the year, already matching last year's total with two months left to play, and his game-ending, RBI double gives him three of the Phillies' six walk-off hits this year. Take out the two weeks in late April when he failed to get a single hit, and Ibanez' average is .275. Sure, that's not eye-popping, but his production is a welcome surprise given his age of 39.

Ibanez also drove in 25 runs in July, which led the majors. In fact, the hottest month of the year was a good one for the Philly bats in general. They hit .272 and averaged 5.5 runs per game, while their 138 runs, 402 total bases and .789 team OPS (coming into Sunday) all led the National League.

Charlie Manuel is notorious for his placating remarks about how good the Phillies lineup will get "when the weather warms up," and they're proving him right. On the eve of a 10-game road trip, the hot-hitting Phillies go in with extra confidence. Pence now mans right field and the No. 5 hole, and Placido Polanco just returned. Don't be surprised if the flashbacks to the recent past continue.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Winning the hunt

Man, this is going to suck three years down the road.

But who has the luxury of thinking about the future? The Phillies certainly won't have to deal with paying for any luxury, that's for sure, but with no World Series trophy at the end of this season, they'll pay with the thunderous boos emanating from Citizens Bank Park.

Enter: Hunter Pence.

The Phillies gave away their final bargaining chips in the farm system - Jarred Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, Josh Zeid and a player to be named later - going all in for what could be their last shot for ultimate glory. The recipient for the second straight July was their old friend, Ed Wade, who sent that key righty bat from the Houston Astros packing.

To be sure, Pence is no Jayson Werth. He's not going to put together any 20-20 seasons or walk once or twice every game. His career OPS of .818 is also a bit underwhelming.

It also would not have been that great of a risk for the Phillies to make no moves before the Trade Deadline and try to win it all with what they had. To this point, their group of players gave them the best record in baseball, and with Chase Utley back and healthy, the offense was showing shades of its former robust self (evidence once again in Friday's 10-3 win over the Pirates).

However, this move means that Shane Victorino will no longer be burdened with occupying the No. 5 hole - a place no one should have expected his presence at any future time when he first came to Philadelphia. A guy with a little pop in his bat (Pence has hit 25 homers in each of the last three seasons) will provide adequate protection for Ryan Howard, and Victorino will no longer have to be the only member of the .300 club.

The big right field issue has also been solved by this trade, as the Phillies are getting an upgrade at the plate and in the field. The Ben Francisco Experiment was DOA, and now the team doesn't need to wait for Domonic Brown's bat to come around. He can return to the bench or build his confidence back up in Triple A. He'll get his chance again next year when Raul Ibanez leaves. I'm relieved the Phillies didn't deal Brown to make this trade work. While some may view the present one as shortsighted, shipping off Brown would have made no sense.

Pence is one of the more amiable fellows playing the game, which will make him popular in Philadelphia. He'll stay long enough to make a good impression, too, because he's not eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season.

It remains to be seen if Pence's bat and glove make the difference in October, but it'll be nice to see a new face in that lineup, and Pence's presence only adds assurance to a fifth straight NL East title. Plus, the guy's name is Hunter. How can you go wrong?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

They can't lose!

This past weekend my friend, Bill, and I were enjoying a wonderfully scorching day in the upper deck of Citizens Bank Park. Halfway through the Phillies' 5-3 win over the Padres, a thunderstorm that I had been tracking on my phone narrowly missed Philadelphia. We saw the dark clouds just east of us, and Bill said it looked like it was about to rain. I mentioned to him that the storm was going to hit New Jersey instead. His instinctive response to that was, "Yeah, Jersey needs a bath." Oh, we inhabitants of the states surrounding the aforementioned location never miss an opportunity to make fun of it - a practice passed down through the generations. This may seem like a mean thing to post, but I have just one Facebook friend from New Jersey, and she's not into baseball. Just in case, a thousand apologies, Jen. ;-)

Say Chase, how is your right leg feeling? Apparently, awesome.

Most guys are lucky to get one inside-the-park home run in their careers. With Utley's race around the sacks in Tuesday's 7-2 win over the Giants, he now has three. The victory was quite a statement to make against the team that denied the Phillies their third consecutive trip to the World Series last year.

And give it up again for that four-eyed, baby-faced, Mohawked rookie. The kid threw his first major league complete game, holding the Giants to just three hits. He's quickly moving himself into Rookie of Year discussions. Since he rejoined the Philly rotation last month, he's 5-0 with a 1.14 ERA. Whatever weaknesses his stuff may have, opposing hitters haven't been able to exploit them yet. Let's hope that lasts the rest of the season.

That's my two cents about the latest in a long row of triumphs. I'd like to try something new and share a link to a Phillies-based column I wrote for the Gettysburg Times:

The column was written in jest about my recent change in luck when attending Phillies games. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Doc's Red Fever

Anyone doubting Roy Halladay's allegiance to his team needn't worry on Monday night. Doc wore the bright, Philly red all over his face.

It doesn't matter how much baseball you watch, you always see something new, and I can't recall a time that a pitcher had to leave the game due to heat exhaustion. Major League Baseball players are used to the elements of every blazing hot summer, but for whatever the reason, Halladay's body bowed down to the boiling, mid-July atmosphere at Wrigley Field. It showed in his delivery, his performance and the fiery complexion which awkwardly contorted with every wince of strain on Halladay's face.

After a successful showing in the All-Star Game, this was not how the second half was supposed to begin. A 6-1 loss to the aimless Chicago Cubs with the best pitcher in baseball on the mound?

It occurs to me that Halladay's struggles pointed to a troubling reality. Perhaps he simply felt the heat of the quickly-advancing Atlanta Braves.

Atlanta has been the hottest team in the NL over the past month, and Philadelphia's comfortable cushion in the East has shrunk to just 2.5 games. Right now, there's just that sense (call it that same old Phillies fan pessimism if you wish) that the Braves are going to be in first place sometime in the near future.

I'm not saying the Phillies won't wrap up yet another division title, but given the way both teams are presently playing, I don't see them maintaining their lead. Consider that last year, Atlanta was in first place for more than half the season, and it has an even stronger team this year.

Both squads have similar make-ups, with strong pitching and sketchy hitting, but the Braves have a better bullpen and they aren't as likely to endure long stretches when their offense is literally incapable of scoring runs.

The Phillies knew this wasn't going to be a walk in the park, and their biggest test may come sooner than they thought. The rest of the team needs to heed Halladay's warning and put that fire out as soon as possible.

Friday, July 15, 2011

It's a wonderful Worley world

All the focus has been on John Mayberry, Jr. driving in nine runs over his past two games, but was anyone happy to see the whole Philly offense sticking it to R.A. Dickey?

Coming into Friday's game, Dickey had a career ERA of 2.25 against the Phillies, his best ERA against any NL team with at least 20 innings pitched. He and his fancy knuckleball shut out Philly twice last year.

It was good to see the Phillies get to him early and go on to beat the Mets convincingly. The Braves are going to keep the pressure on through the entire second half, so every win is huge. Winning this series over New York would also be an important statement to make, as the coaching staff is saving Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee for the Cubs.

And how about that Vance Worley? (I suddenly realized I just uttered a phrase abused far too much by Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy, so I vow never to use it again)

I'm still not sure if Worley's stuff really is that exceptional, or if he simply hasn't yet caught up to the law of averages (Randy Wolf's 1999 season, anyone?). The four walks he allowed in 5 1/3 innings on Friday tell me it's the latter, but reliever Chris Perez came in and shut the door, and Ryan Madson - fresh off the DL - aided the bullpen train that followed in a non-closing role to help tie down another win for Worley. He's now 5-1 this season with an ERA of 2.15.

Worley's high susceptibility to the free pass (3.98 walks per 9 innings) will eventually get him into trouble, but he's done exactly the job the Phillies needed him to do in the absence of Roy Oswalt.

Now if Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco can recover quickly from their ailments, the offense should do its part over the next two-and-a-half months. We can't rely on Mayberry every night.

note: Since 2005, the Phillies have posted a winning percentage of .589 or better in the second half. Last year, they went 50-25 (.667) after the All-Star Break.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Now I've Seen Everything

note: Not only have Netflix' raised rates not inspired me to rebel, but in the best tradition of my mindlessly-follow-the-masses mentality, as well as my shameless loyalty as a Capitalist consumer, I have increased my Netflix viewing. All is not corrupted, however, as my main object of entertainment has been Ken Burns Baseball. You're welcome, Netflix...

My initial overwhelming joy to see the National League pull off back-to-back All-Star victories has been muted somewhat with the realization that a Washington Nationals reliever got the win in each case. It's more that those relievers were the lucky benefactors of an NL offensive surge in an adjacent frame. Still, when the Senior Circuit makes it three in a row next year, I hope the winning pitcher is from a more deserving team.

Well, Phillies, you now have your homefield advantage in the World Series. All you have to do is fend off the Braves in the second half and remember how to hit in the postseason, and another title is as good as yours.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fight Like a Brave

Note: This story is obviously old given the Phillies' awesome walk-off, 3-2 victory over the Braves on Friday night, but it didn't go up on Sports Haze and I'd like to give it some light. The whole Sports Haze experiment, 11 months in the making, has come to an end as I've decided to cut ties with the website. My posts on this blog will start up once again, though probably not nearly as often as last summer. I feel my best work about the Phillies was on here, so when I do post, I hope I live up to those standards. Enjoy!

Just think of this as a warm-up to a title fight.

Back when boxing was mainstream, two top-ranked mashers with similar strength and talent would meet multiple times to decide ultimate dominance, and fans across the country would debate about who was the true champ.

The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves have proven themselves as the elite teams in the National League this season, and their three-game series to close out the first half will give a glimpse as to which team is the best. It’s far from the last meeting between the two clubs, who could clash again in the postseason.

On paper, this series favors the Braves because they’re the hotter team and they’ve won four of their last six games against the Phillies. Atlanta is 14-3 since June 19, shrinking Philly’s lead in the division from 6 games to 2.5. With a sweep, the Braves could be in first place for the first time since Opening Day, and that momentum could keep them there.

Pitching has been the hallmark of both of these squads all season. The ace trios of Roy Halladay/Cliff Lee/Cole Hamels and Tim Hudson/Jair Jurrjens/Tommy Hanson each boast a record of 30-13, while the ERAs only slightly favor the Phillies (2.59 to 2.67).

The offense for both teams is about the same, as each has gone through its fair share of struggles this season.

What the Phillies need to worry about are the stellar relief arms of the Braves. Atlanta’s bullpen ERA of 2.64 is by far the best in baseball, and if the Braves get a one- or two-run lead late, their win probability shoots through the roof.

The Phillies aren’t taking any chances, throwing their big guns in each of the three games. They have the edge in Game 1 tonight, with Halladay going up against the young Brandon Beachy, who has yet to beat Philly in four starts. In fact, all three of his career losses have come against the Phightins’.

The Phillies need to win at least two out of three to maintain their cushion going into the break. This is the first of many challenges to prove that they’re still the best in the land.

Let's get ready to rumble.