June 05, 2007

Phillies Add Cassandra to Struggling Bullpen

The Phillies played the final game of their three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks last Wednesday night. This was the game for which Jamie Moyer started for the Phillies and Randy Johnson for Arizona; the media noted that their combined age was the highest ever of two starters.

The game ended with Ryan Howard pinch-hitting, two-outs, and the Phillies down by a run with speedy Michael Bourn on second-base. Howard had sat this game out, going easy on his hamstring, and we in the crowd chanted “M-V-P” as Howard swung for a game-ending homerun. Howard smacked a line-out to second which ended the game when Bourn was doubled-off the base.

The final 4 to 3 score shows the Phillies to have lost by one, and suggests it to have been a close game. It was not close. The game did highlight the talent of the club, the very presence of which causes the limitations to be even more frustrating.

The Phillies had returned home to Citizens Bank Park on Monday night, May 28, after sweeping the three-game weekend road series against the Atlanta Braves. This was an important sweep beyond the Phillies' three wins. It was against the Braves and the Phillies moved two-games above .500 for the first time this season.

The Braves have been the best of the National League since 1991. They won their division every year between 1991 and 2005 except for 1994. Some fault them for winning the National League Championship Series only six times in this 14 year-run and the World Series only once. I do not. I will take 90 to 100 wins a season every year over 70 to 80. But then again I am not George Steinbrenner. Even in second-place in the National League’s East Division, after such a long run, the Braves are a team to beat. The Phillies were in third-place, and to sweep the Braves, the team at whose backs the Phils were peering in the standings, was exciting.

The Phillies opened the 2007 season with high expectations: Howard was the reigning National League Most Valuable Player; second-baseman Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins had developed into All-Star players, each with his own thirty-plus game hitting streak that brought national media exposure; the Phillies had six legitimate starting pitchers.

Then the season came and the Phillies tripped and by the end of day four, they were 0 for the season. On April 20, the Phillies were 4 and 11. Feh. But returning to Philadelphia from Atlanta last Sunday night, the Phillies were two-games over .500, gaining on second-place, and with the Diamondbacks coming to town and the San Francisco Giants behind them, the Phils had a chance to pick up momentum. As I tell myself looking at my fantasy baseball team, it is only the end of May – now early June. There is still a lot of baseball left.

But something happened to the Phillies on the way to the forum.

Freddie Garcia started for the Phils in the opener against Arizona. He gave up three early runs, settled down, and pitched eight innings registering nine strikeouts. This is not a bad outing. After eight, the Phils were down 3 to 1. It is a deficit and two runs are not impossible to make-up.

Ryan Madson came in to pitch the ninth and quickly secured two outs. But then he walked Tony Clark and two doubles later, the Phillies were down 5 to 1. Two runs are doable; four runs are difficult.

The Phillies did three. Greg Dobbs pinch-hit a three-run homerun which brought the Phillies to 5 to 4. Had Madson held the lead, the Phillies would have won. Had Madson given up only one-run, the Phils could have been tied. “Would-haves” and “could-haves” and the Phillies still lost.

I need to read-up on the Official Rules of Baseball. I do not understand how Garcia was credited with the official loss and not Madson.

Tuesday night was similar.

Phillies starting pitcher Jon Lieber gave up five runs in the second inning and Arizona was ahead. The Phils scored one in the home second and two more in their seventh. Entering the eighth inning, it was a 5 to 3 ballgame. Again, two runs are doable.

The Phils brought in Geoff Geary to pitch the eighth. Arizona’s Alberto Callaspo grounded out. Miguel Montero reached on a fielding error and went to second on a wild pitch. Scott Hairston struck out for the second out. But for the second night in a row, the bullpen could not hold it there.

Another Phillies error, a walk, single, hit batsman, and triple later – all of this with two outs – and the Phillies were down 10 to 3. A seven run deficit in the eighth inning in the Major Leagues is pretty bad. The Phillies plated a run in the eighth and again in the ninth for five on the night. By then, the Diamondbacks had 11 and the victory.

Wednesday night was a great game for the first seven innings. Johnson and Moyer pitched like it was 2001. Johnson gave up one hit through six innings; Moyer gave up a game leading-off homerun and then threw shut-out ball through the seventh. Not only was it 1 to 0, but Moyer and Johnson were working fast and going to have us home early from the ballpark.

Moyer retired the first-batter in the Arizona eighth. Eric Byrnes, who had hit the game’s lead-off homer, drove a Moyer pitch deep into left-field and the score was 2 to 0. Again, two runs are doable.

Conor Jackson was the next batter and he smoked a double off the wall in deep left. This was beginning to look like batting practice. Orlando Hudson mercifully flied to right for out number two. We were almost there. So close. Moyer was so very close when Mark Reynolds, the rookie clean-up hitter, drove a pitch into the shrubbery behind the centerfield wall. Two runs are doable; four runs are difficult.

“Look kids, Big Ben!”

I was now ready to beat the crowds and call it a night. My buddy Jake was like – it ‘s only four runs and it’s only the eighth inning – let’s stay! I don’t know, I replied. With another late inning deficit, the Phillies are goingt to rally and fall short – I can’t take it.

But we stayed and Aaron Rowand led off the bottom of the ninth by reaching first on a hit-by-pitch. Shane Victorino grounded the ball through Hudson’s open legs at second so that with no outs Rowand was on third and Victorino on second. Rollins, up next, drove the ball to centerfield. Chris Young came six inches from catching it on the fly, Rollins raced to third, two runs scored and the score was 4 to 2.

The crowd was on its feet, cheering. Utley came to bat and the girls started screaming. If there was a standard dress for the women in the crowd between the ages of 17 and 25, it was short denim-skirt, flip-flops, and a tight red Phillies t-shirt with UTLEY 26 on the back.

Utley flied out but Pat Burrell singled to bring Rollins home and it was 4 to 3. Bourn pinch-ran for Burrell to create the Hobbesian moment for Howard with two-outs and the tying run half-way around.

Sitting, and then standing in the right-field stands, chanting “MVP” for Howard, I felt a little like Cassandra, the mythic figure who can see the future and do nothing about it. I really wanted Howard to deliver; the Phillies had a chance to tie-it if not win the game.

But the game did not have to have come to this. And even if this game, on this night, had had to come to the Phillies fighting back from a deficit in the ninth, it looked way too similar to Monday night and Tuesday night. Even if Howard had drove-in Bourn and even if the Phillies had won it there in the ninth, or later in extra-innings, this Arizona series had exposed the team’s weaknesses.

The bullpen showed itself to be uneven. The Phillies were and are without Tom Gordon and Brett Myers. Gordon was the closer before going down with an injury. Myers stepped-in and was effective in the role before he succumbed to the disabled-list. The team is now carrying seven relief pitchers. No one has been designated the closer in Myers’ absence. Since no one is the closer, no one is the go-to set-up man, which means that no one is the seventh inning man and onward. Little is defined.

More so, with two on the DL and seven pitchers in the pen, rather than five, there is little disincentive for poor performance. I would like to see the Phillies demote two and create an environment in which the relievers pitch with the back-of-the-mind pressure of the demotion to AAA Ottawa.

The weakness of the bullpen adds pressure to the starting rotation. When the bullpen is unreliable, a manager is less likely to pull a starting pitcher in the sixth or seventh or eighth. Moyer may not have had a high-pitch count in the eighth inning on Wednesday night but it is easy to justify turning the game over to a reliever knowing there is a good chance he will be more effective in his one inning than Moyer after six or seven. After Madson’s work on Monday and Geary’s on Tuesday, Manuel was praying that Moyer could have pitched ten innings.

Seven pitchers in the pen also means there are two fewer hitters on the bench. The Phillies have 13 non-pitchers. Eight start and the second-catcher is not used as a substitute, just in case. This leaves four players for pinch-hitting and defense. Two pinch-hitters and a defensive replacement later, and the Phillies have a good shot at entering extra-innings with one position player available to pinch hit. The Phillies used pitcher Cole Hamels as a pinch-hitter in a game earlier this season. Huh?!

I really like the core of players that the Phillies have. Rollins, Utley, Howard, Victorino, and Carlos Ruiz are young and could have long careers with the club. Bourn could be a starting player. This is not a bad team and I took issue with a friend when he compared them to the Cubs this season. I mean, that’s below the belt! It is not like Phillies players are throwing-down fists in the home dugout.

The Phillies are playing like a .500 club, winning like the collection of All-Stars that they can be half the time and dropping the other half in a flurry of deficits and lost opportunities.

Cassandra is a Phillies fan (and she wears a red Phillies Chase Utley t-shirt).


Anonymous Thomas said...

Morris, good stuff. I do enjoy stopping by your blog occasionally and drinking my fill. A question for you: As I write this, the Phils are two behind the NYM and tied with the Bravos. What does Cassandra see for the Phightins? Keep up the very enjoyable writing, and thanks.

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