August 14, 2007

Maybe the Philadelphia Phillies have some fight in them after all

I rode the subway home from Citizens Bank Park on Sunday night after the Philadelphia Phillies had defeated the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies played well in the game and took two of three from Atlanta in the series. The stadium was sold-out and the train was full heading back to Center City from the Sports Complex.

Pity the Braves fans on the car. One wore a white Atlanta jersey with number 10 on the back (for Braves third-baseman Chipper Jones) and Braves cap. He found himself next to an exuberant Phils fan who mocked the Braves and celebrated the Phillies’ assent in the National League, which he promised would land the team in the playoffs come October, and send the Braves home early.

After Sunday’s win over Atlanta, and tonight’s win over the Nationals in Washington, Phillies fans have reason to be excited with one and a half months left in the 2007 season. The two games highlight sources of optimism.

The return of pitchers Tom Gordon and Brett Myers to the bullpen from the disabled list has stabilized both the starting and the relief pitching.

On Sunday night, Phillies starting pitcher Jamie Moyer went into the seventh inning. He gave up two quick runs in the first. He settled down and threw 83 mile-per-hour fastballs and 70 mph changeups past the Braves All-Star lineup. I sat with a good friend behind the Phillies dugout. We played high-school baseball together and faced pitchers in southeast Pennsylvania’s Tri-County League who threw harder than Moyer was throwing.

Moyer had a four to two lead entering the seventh. He ran into trouble when Brian McCann opened with a single. Martin Prado followed with a no-outs double to cut the lead to 4 to 3. A sac-fly moved Prado to third.

There we were, one out in the seventh, the tying run 90-feet away, with the top of the Braves order coming up. Four of the Braves first five hitters are hitting over .300 for the season. The exception is Mark Teixeira who in his young career has averaged over 30 homeruns and 100 RBIs per-year.

This is usually the part in our program where I begin to think about how great the Phillies might be next year. Instead the rejuvenated bullpen saved the game.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel came out, pulled Moyer, and called for Antonio Alfonseca to face the Braves numbers one and two hitters. Alfonseca was signed to be the Phillies set-up man but was pressed to be the closer after both Gordon and his replacement, Myers, were injured.

I am fascinated by Alfonseca.

The man has six fingers on each hand (and foot). This led The Onion to report on October 6, 2005, “Antonio Alfonseca Once Again Leads Major-League Relievers In Fingers.” (See

More so, the man has a body the shape of the Phillie Phanatic. lists him as standing 6’5”. He stands tall even next to other ballplayers, few of whom are what we consider short. He has broad shoulders and a normal chest. It is the man’s belly which juts out like a thick couch throw-pillow, pressing squarely against his jersey. Like the Phanatic, Alfonseca’s belly continues down below his waist into his hips, and then juts back in above his knees. It has to be fake - it has to be! But there he is throwing 90 mph fastballs.

Performing the role for which he was originally signed, Alfonseca struck out both Yunel Escobar and Matt Diaz. Brett Myers might have recorded the official save for the game, but Alfonseca did it right there. Upon nailing Diaz for the third-out, Alfonseca pumped his fist and twirled his body off the mound in celebration. The Inquirer called it a "dance" in yesterday's paper. After he bailed out the team with these two outs, he could have done anything. The fans went nuts.

Phillies relievers worked the rest of the game like clockwork. JC Romero secured the first two outs of the eighth. Tom Gordon, now the set-up man, retired the third. Brett Myers was perfect in the ninth to close the win.

Tonight, Kyle Lohse pitched into the seventh inning for the Phillies. He gave up two runs. Alfonseca entered for the third out. Gordon pitched a scoreless eighth and Myers struck-out the side in the ninth for the save. Again.

Phillies beat-writer Todd Zolecki wrote of the bullpen’s improvement today in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Since July 17, the Phillies’ bullpen has an ERA of 2.30, the fourth lowest in the major leagues in this period.

Even Jose Mesa has re-emerged for the Phillies as a strength in the bullpen. Mesa returned to Philadelphia this summer after posting an ERA of over 12.00 for the Detroit Tigers. I was at Mesa’s first-game back in June when the Phillies hosted the Tigers at Citizens Bank Park. The Phils were losing bad and we booed Mesa. But he has done good and has a 2.52 ERA for the Phils this season.

The strong bullpen is a plus in itself.

It also takes pressure off the starting pitchers. Manuel need not leave tiring pitchers in the game in the seventh or eighth innings for fear of a bullpen, that was until recently, comprised of too many pitchers who should have still been at AAA Ottawa if not for the injuries.

Moyer, Lohse, and Kyle Kendrick are all good pitchers and they are not aces like Cole Hamels. These three can give a solid six or seven innings. This is great when there is a strong bullpen to back them up which is what the Phils now have.

The Phillies hitting is fine. All-Star second-baseman Chase Utley is on the disabled list along with young outfielders Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn. The Phillies miss them and they are not struggling at the plate.

What I really liked seeing on Sunday night was the Phillies’ aggressive-play.

In the bottom of the first, down two to zero, the Phillies had the bases loaded with two outs and Jayson Werth at-bat. Werth drove a single into right-field which scored Jimmy Rollins from third easily. Phillies third-base coach Steve Smith sent Pat Burrell home. The throw from Braves right-fielder Jeff Francouer was a strike to catcher Brian McCann. It was not close, Burrell was out, and the inning was over.

In the fourth inning, Phillies third-baseman Abraham Nunez came to bat with one out and runners on first and second. Pitcher Jamie Moyer, a career .147 hitter with a .197 on-base-percentage, was due up. Nunez singled to right.

What would you do? Would you send Werth, who has decent speed, home to score and try and tie the game? Do you hold Werth at third to bring up Moyer with the bases loaded and a potential double-play? Smith sent Werth and again Francouer hit McCann with a perfect strike. Werth was gone for out number two.

Fans sitting around me cursed Smith for seemingly throwing away not only two outs, but two runners who would have been at third-base.

I disagree. It took two strong and accurate throws from Francouer to nail Burrell and Werth. Had the throws been a couple feet off, Burrell scores easily and Werth likely makes it. They had to be dead on target and Francouer did it. In a close game like that, I like Smith taking those chances and forcing the Braves to make the play.

Smith’s gamble paid off in the seventh.

Jimmy Rollins tripled to lead off the inning. Iguchi grounded to third which kept Rollins at the bag. The next batter, Burrell, hit a fly ball to right. Francouer caught it and Smith sent Rollins. Francouer gunned the ball way over McCann’s head and Rollins scored to give the Phils an extra-run to cushion the lead. The Phils forced the Braves to make a mistake, they did, and made the Phillies’ pitcher’s job one run easier.

This is the way a good team wins.

There may not be a lot of baseball left for my fantasy baseball team, mired in ninth place in a 16-team league, but there sure is for the Phillies. The New York Mets still lead the National League East, three games ahead of Philadelphia. The San Diego Padres are ahead of the Phils in the National League Wildcard race. But the Phillies are right there.

I have been following the English Premiership football league off and on for the past ten years. I had never really followed one team, not knowing enough about individual players or organisations to root for one.

My good friend Gene is a diehard Tottenham fan. His brother played for Tottenham and he grew up in London. He was excited for the season which opened this past weekend. Gene assured me that Tottenham was ready to challenge the big four, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, for the top of the league.

I picked Tottenham. I signed up for news feeds for the club and today followed the action for Tottenham’s match against Everton on Yahoo! Sports UK. Tottenham lost 3 to 1 - which is not as close in English football as it is in say, major league baseball.

If the Phillies keep playing like they have been in July and August, I may not need to find myself a winner across the Atlantic in north London.

The Mets won the division last year. The Braves had won the division every year since realignment in 1995. I was with that Braves fan on the subway on Sunday night, the Phillies have not won anything yet. But these days, they sure are playing like winners.


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