Friday, May 02, 2008
Well, the Phillies managed to escape the month of April with a winning record for the first time since they went 16-12 in April, 2003. Their 15-13 record won't make Mets and Braves fans weep, but it is - combined with yesterday's 3-2 win over the Padres - enough to give the Phillies sole possession for first place in the N.L. East this morning, a half-game better than the Mets and Florida Marlins. The Braves sit three back at 12-15.
Last April the Phillies really survived a major crisis when they got off to the 4-11 start and saw the team come close to imploding: they lost their closer, suffered catastrophic injuries and their manager had a major meltdown. This April has been another crisis averted: Brad Lidge went down before the season started, the Phillies saw the 2007 N.L. MVP miss nearly the entire month with injuries, and starting center fielder Shane Victorino missed time too. Still, the team has survived and found itself sitting in first place, displaying real grit and determination.
What of the mighty Mets? Well, Jose Reyes is struggling badly with a .307 OBP and three caught stealings in nine tries. Carlos Delgado has an OPS of .620. On the pitching side, while Johan Santana has been as good as advertised - although his Fielding Independent ERA is 4.00, partly a product of the surprisingly high number of home runs he's allowed this season - the rest of the Mets pitchers are struggling badly. Oliver Perez and John Maine have allowed nearly as many walks as strikeouts and Pedro has made just one start. Looks like the Phillies are still the team to beat.
Keep an eye on the Braves, despite their sub-.500 record. John Smoltz and Tom Glavine have ERAs below 3.00 (2.00 for Smoltz and 2.60 for Glavine) and Tim Hudson is pitching well. As soon as Chuck James (7.62 ERA) works out his issues and the Braves get a little more solid at the plate, they'll start winning and outdistance the Mets. The key, I think, for the Braves is Mark Teixeira. The Braves need him to step up his performance and get more extra-base hits. Once Teixeira begins to produce, the Braves will finally have an offense to match their pitching staff.
The return of Shane Victorino to the Phillies lineup is welcome. As a team the Phillies are really struggling to steal bases and hit triples. At the moment they've stolen just 12 bases in 17 tries and they've hit just three triples. Once J.Roll returns and Victorino gets his groove on, the Phillies will finally have the speed to challenge the opposition. They've already hit an astonishing 42 home runs, but they cannot continue to rely on the long ball exclusively to score runs. One of the keys to the Phillies success in 2007 was that they were ruthlessly efficient in stretching the defense with a lot of successful steals and triples.
Here is a scary thought, Mets and Braves fans: the Phillies success in hitting home runs is partly because Chase Utley (11) and Pat Burrell (8) are on a major tear. Ryan Howard has hit just 6 this season, a low total. Once Howard begins hitting home runs the Phillies could have three 40+ home run guys on their roster. Yikes.
Giants vs. Phillies. The Phillies continue the second half of their six game homestand against N.L. West teams with a three game series against the San Francisco Giants. This will be the first time the Phillies have faced off with former Phillie center fielder Aaron Rowand. The 13-16 Giants are playing well in Year One of A.B. (After Barry.) These are going to be some rough years for Giants fans. They have an old team built around the idea of making a last run on the World Series for Bonds and nearly zero talent in their farm system. Right now they are riding their pitching staff and they are lucky to have some real talent there. Sunday is going to feature a terrific pitching duel between Cole Hamels (3-3, 2.70 ERA) and Tim Lincecum (4-1, 1.73 ERA). Lincecum and Matt Cain (Brett Myers foe Saturday night) are very good hurlers and will help keep the Giants competitive while they rebuild.
Offensively the Giants have moved far, far away from Barryball. They've hit just 16 home runs, but they've stole 33 bases so far. Interestingly, their top base-stealer has just six, so they really run a balanced speed game. As for Rowand: he's hitting .326 but his OBP is only .366. He's also hit just 2 home runs and 14 RBI. His production is going to fall off as the season progresses and he gets less and less lucky in putting the ball into play. The Phillies may miss his intensity, but they won't miss his bat. At all.
Minors Update. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, is off to a 3-24 start - yes you read that right: three wins and twenty-four losses - in International League play. As a team the IronPigs are dead-last in the IL in OPS (at .573 they are over one hundred points worse than the next-worst team, the Columbus Clippers) and in ERA. Travis Blackley is 0-3 with a 6.64 ERA and Jason Durbin is 0-5 with a 9.61 ERA. The IronPigs big power slugger, Brennan King, is hitting .204 with just one home run and five RBIs.
The Phillies two hot prospects at Lehigh Valley, Jason Jamarillo and J.A. Happ, are on different tracks. J.A. Happ is 0-3, but has actually pitched well: he has an ERA of 3.51 and has struck out 37 hitters in 33 and one-thirds of an inning. Happ has largely been done in by the fact that the IronPigs are awful. Happ might still earn a call-up with the Phillies if Kendrick struggles.
The highly touted Jason Jamarillo has some issues: .193 Batting Average, 2 Home Runs, 3 RBI. I'd say that Chris Coste's job as the backup catcher is very safe.
Over in Berks County, the Reading Phillies are 13-12 and sit three games out of first place in the Eastern League's Southern Division. Outfielder Gregory Golson is off to a terrific start: .320 batting average, 6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 home runs and 15 RBI and eight steals in eleven tries in twenty-five games. Jeremy Slayden, the powerful outfielder who I think is vastly under-rated by scouts and pundits, is hitting .310 with three home runs, twenty RBI and seven doubles.
In Clearwater the Threshers are 9-17 and sit in the Florida State League's Western division's cellar. Prospects Adrian Cardenas and Joe Savery are doing well: Savery has a 2.92 ERA and Cardenas is hitting .347. Finally, over at the Jersey Shore, the Lakewood Blue Claws are 13-13.
Monday, April 28, 2008
1. It rains.
2. The Phillies lose.
Case-in-point: the last Phillies - Pirates game I attended was Sunday, August 19, 2007, at PNC Park. After leading the game 4-0 going into the bottom of the seventh inning, the Pirates reeled off seven runs in the bottom of seventh on their way to a 8-4 win. The game took several hours to complete as we sat through several rain delays. A loss and rain.
So last week, for my birthday, my wife handed me two tickets to the Phillies and Pirates. Brett Myers vs. Paul Maholm. The tickets were great: Section 29, right along the third base line.
Rain? Defeat? Would we be greeted by either yesterday?
1:05 PM – My wife & I arrive at PNC Park. Sadly I’ve never been to Citizens Bank Ballpark, but I’ve been to a dozen or so games at PNC since it opened in April of 2001. The ballpark is pretty nice – instead of the concrete bowl that typified stadium construction in the 1970’s (see, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati), PNC is one of the numerous stadiums that correctly chose to utilize an open design to give fans a view of the downtown city area as well as of the Allegheny River. On a hot summer day, when you get tired of watching the Pirates lose, you can turn your attention to watching the boats glide by on the river. My wife & I cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge and enter PNC by the centerfield entrance. Stopping outside the bullpen area, I snap a few pictures of Carlos Ruiz catching Brett Myers before the game. I take the opportunity to don my Pat Burrell jersey. Wearing the opposition’s jersey in a passionate sports town is inadvisable typically – woe be the fool who wears an Eagles jersey to the Steelers game at Heinz Field – but with Pittsburgh’s apathy towards the Pirates in its sixteenth year, I figure I can get away with it. In any case there are legions of people standing around wearing Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels jerseys. We cross underneath the bleachers in leftfield and take our seats in Section 29, along the third base line.
1st Inning – After a 1-2-3 Phillies first, the Pirates Nate McLouth smacks a leadoff home run to rightfield over the head of So Taguchi. Half of my sections stands and applauds while the other half, wearing Phillies jerseys and t-shirts, sits on its hands. Pirates 1, Phillies 0.
2nd Inning – Pat Burrell draws a walk. Forget the 400 foot home runs, this is the play that excites me. Burrell is my favorite player because Phillies fans just don't appreciate what he does. Watching the patient, savvy Burrell work the count off the Pirates Paul Maholm is great stuff. It’s a pity that Burrell never became the next Mike Schmidt and struggled to put up decent numbers in ’03 and ’04. Since he regained his form in ’04, Burrell has been a terrific player. How many other players in baseball hit 30 Home Runs, 95-100 RBI, and have OBPs near .400? Naturally Pedro Feliz grounds into the inning-ending double play. On the other half of the inning Myers gets three strikeouts. Not bad. Still 1-0 Pirates.
3rd Inning – Ruiz walks with one out and the Phillies try to have Myers bunt Ruiz to second, a strategy that fails miserably when Myers bunts into the inning-ending double play. Ouch. Worryingly, I notice that the Phillies have hit into two double plays in three innings and haven’t gotten a hit. It’s not that Pirates starter Maholm is throwing a great game – in reality he’s tossed as many balls as strikes – but the Phillies hitters are grounding and popping out. It’s just not their day. Meanwhile Myers gets McLouth and Jason Bay to strike-out in the bottom half of the inning, his fifth K of the day. 1-0 Pirates.
5th Inning – After a pop-out by Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell doubles to give the Phillies life (see, left). Alas, Feliz, who hits a hard ball to third, cannot advance Burrell. Two outs. Then Bruntlett surprises me with a clutch hit to bring Burrell home. Pirates 2, Phillies 1. Those were the only two hits the Phillies got all day. Bruntlett is caught stealing, but the Phillies are on the board. In the Pirates half of the inning, the wheels come off Myers train. After walking Maholm, Myers serves up McLouth is second home run of the day with a weak shot to the rightfield bleachers. Pirates 4, Phillies 0. With Myers slated to hit in the top of the sixth inning, Charlie Manuel leaves Myers in to try and pitch himself out of this mess, which he does, but not after giving up a single to Bay. Still: Pirates 4, Phillies 1.
6th Inning – Hit the showers, Brett Myers. After Ruiz grounds out, Manuel sends Brad Harman to the plate to bat for him. Harman walks, but Taguchi and Werth both make outs. Myers line for the day: 5 Innings Pitched, 5 Strikeouts, 8 Hits, 1 Walk, 2 Home Runs and – most importantly – four runs allowed. In the bottom of the sixth, Rudy Seanez enters the game and promptly allows two singles by LaRoche and Bautista to put runners at first and third. The Phillies manage to turn a double play – their only of the day – on Rivas, but LaRoche scores again. Pirates 5, Phillies 1.
7th Inning – Ryan Howard walks and Pat Burrell hits a deep drive to centerfield, causing the crowd to gasp and stand up from their seats, but it is an out. Feliz is retired and the Phillies spoil another opportunity to score. The bullpen isn’t making me happy. Ryan Madson is in for Seanez and surrenders a single and a walk. After Jason Bay steals third base, there is a runner ninety feet from home plate for LaRoche, the Pirates struggling slugger. Alas, for Pirates fans, LaRoche strikes out. Still 5-1, Pirates.
8th Inning – Ruiz and Bruntlett fly out. Manuel pulls Madson for a pinch-hitter, sending Chris Coste to the plate. Coste launches a fly ball down the leftfield line that seems to be just inches to the left of the foul pole. Excitement finally builds in the air around the Phillies fans. Alas, Coste strikes out. Mighty Chris has struck out. Incidentially, it was just the second strikeout for Maholm all day. Groans from Phillies fans now coming to the realization that they are poised to have to endure a 300-mile trip on the turnpike with sunburn and a Phillies loss on their minds. Clay Condrey is in for Madson in the eighth and eventually retires the side after surrendering a lead off double to Bautista. Still, 5-1 Pirates.
9th Inning – Last chance. Taguchi lines out to third where Bautista makes a nice leaping grab. Just two outs left. Jayson Werth flies out to the warning track below the rightfield bleachers, prompting a gasp from my wife. Just one out left. Finally, Chase Utley, to a chorus of “M-V-P” chants from the Phillies section, launches a fly ball to the leftfield area. That’s it. Final Score: Pirates 5, Phillies 1. Paul Maholm gets the two-hit, one-run complete game despite allowing more walks (4) than strikeouts (2).
My wife and I gather our stuff and proceed to head towards the exit. On our way out one of the ushers pleasantly asks my wife & I if we want our photograph taken. We pause for a minute while she snaps our picture, then walk around a little to let the crowd thin out a little. (The pic of my wife & I failed to download, but on the left is a pic I snapped moments after the game went final.) I snap a picture of the Pirates fans heading over the Clemente Bridge to catch public transit in the downtown area of Pittsburgh (most Phillies fans are heading in the opposite direction to the parking lot to grab their cars. My wife and I head back to Wood Street to catch the train. With the Penguins and Rangers deep into the third period of a tight game, the train is mostly empty as we ride south to our house. As we sit down I listen to a train rider ask another rider what the score was. At being told it was a 5-1 Pirates victory there is surprise. Probably the only person not surprised is me. The Pirates always win whenever I go see them play the Phillies. No rain, but a big, fat "L" in the ledger.
Back in my house I slather Aloe Vera on my sunburned face and download the pictures from my digital camera. What a nice day. Too bad the Phillies only come over once a year. There’s always next year. Next time, I'll take a little rain.