Albert the Great

Pujols Technically speaking, Albert Pujols is having the worst season of his career. Though he leads the National League with 36 home runs, he also leads it in grounded in double plays. Worse, Pujols is only batting .300 with a .371 on-base percentage and a .921 OPS—all the worst totals of his career.

In fact, a quick glance at the numbers Pujols has produced this season proves that he soon will drop to the status of a mere mortal. Of all the years to lead the league with only 36 homers and a subpar .300 batting average, Pujols picked the worse one.

See, Pujols is playing out the last year of his eight-year contract signed before the 2004 season. His salary is $16 million for 2011 and speculation is that it could climb as much as twice that rate in the future. Whether the Cardinals can afford Pujols no matter what the price tag remains up in the air, so it’s understandable that the team is making some contingency plans.

Nevertheless, if the Cardinals lose Pujols there likely will be some fallout in St. Louis. That only makes sense considering Pujols not only is a pillar of the community in his hometown, but also is the best hitter of this generation.

Actually, when all is said and done, Pujols could go down as the greatest right-handed hitter to ever play. He could be the yin to Ted Williams’ yang, or perhaps more apt, the right-handed Stan Musial.

Fact is fact… Albert Pujols is the best hitter I have ever seen.

I only caught the tail end of Rod Carew’s career and I remember seeing him play a few times on NBC’s Saturday afternoon Game of the Week with Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola doing the call in the late ‘70s. Carew had that big old chaw in his right cheek and that crazy batting stance of his. When my friends and I would play ball in the courtyard behind our home in Washington, some one would always imitate Rod Carew or Lee May, who was the DH and star for the Orioles before Eddie Murray came into his own.

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Sixers stand with their closer

Iguodala There was a moment during the 2009 baseball season when the easy move for manager Charlie Manuel would have simply been for him to sit down Brad Lidge as his closer. In fact, it was set up perfectly for Manuel to pull the plug on Lidge after a late-September game in Miami where the closer gave up two runs on three hits and a walk to give one away.

But Manuel would not bail on his guy despite the 11 blown saves and an ERA closing in on 8. Why would he?

“These are our guys. We’ll stick with him,” Manuel said before a game in Milwaukee that year. “Lidge has to do it. Between him and [Ryan] Madson, they’ve got to get it done.  … We’ve just got to get better.”

Of course Manuel said he wasn’t going to depose Lidge as the closer even though he used him just four times over the final 11 games and pushed Madson into the two save chances the team had down the stretch. In other words, Lidge was the closer even though Madson was pitching the ninth inning. That’s what is called “managing” and Manuel had been around long enough to know that if he lost Lidge in late 2009, he might not ever get him back.

Apparently loyalty is a character flaw in the eyes of most sports fans.

Just look at how folks are up in arms about Sixers’ coach Doug Collins putting the ball in Andre Iguodala’s hands at the end of tight game. To steal some baseball jargon, Iguodala is the Sixers’ closer and in a tied game with the clock winding down, it’s up to him to get the team some points any way possible.

“The ball’s going to be in his hands,” Collins said after Sunday’s 114-111 overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Iguodala had the ball with seven seconds left in Sunday’s game and the Sixers trailing by two points. Viewed as the team’s best “playmaker,” this made perfect sense. Iguodala could penetrate, look for an open man, pull up for a jumper or drive to the hoop. It’s nothing new and since Allen Iverson left town, Iguodala has been the closer and succeeded at a better rate than the other A.I.

Actually, according to the advanced metrics that measure such things, Iguodala is 16th in the NBA since 2006 in “clutch” points, which account for performance with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime when neither team ahead by more than five points. Interestingly, Iguodala rated better than All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter.

This season Iguodala’s scoring average in clutch time has dipped nearly 20 points with Lou Williams leading the club with 28.4 points in clutch time. However, based on other advanced stats, Iguodala is still the man to have the ball when it’s on the line. A look at turnovers, shooting percentage and the inscrutable plus-minus, Collins is right to give the ball to Iguodala. Failing that, Elton Brand is the next-best option.

Reality and statistics seldom mesh, though[1]. That’s when perception takes over and often that does nothing more than unfairly marginalize a player. In this area, perception might as well be Iguodala’s middle name.

In some circles, Iguodala is a poor player because he has a “superstar salary” and not a superstar game. The reality is that notion is just plain stupid. Iguodala barely cracks the top 40 in the NBA in annual salary and isn’t even the highest paid player on the Sixers. Is he one of the top 40 players in the league? Yeah, probably. Is he the best player on the team?

Do we have to answer that?

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Reid says everything by saying nothing

Vick_reid Typically, a guy could set his watch during one of Andy Reid’s post-game press conferences. In fact, it usually took just about three minutes after all the throat clearing and injury updates when I would reach down and grab my right shoe and fire it hard as possible at the television set.

Wide left.

Unbowed, it would take a minute more of evasiveness and non-answers until I would grab my left-footed Chuck Taylor with my right hand and do my best impression of some sort of dissident journalist. Luckily my aim was bad.

So out of ammo and not willing to get up and dig into the couch cushions for the remote, I’d watch Andy Reid’s head mounted on the TV screen as if it were a prized trophy elk. The eyes on the thing were almost lifelike as they scan the room to focus a fuzzy gaze on the questioner. Oh, what those eyes must have seen! Babbling brooks, the greenest brush sprawling under a canopy of stately oaks, squirrels and rabbits and birds.

Then here comes the shoe-throwing idiot trying to take him down with some rubber sole to the dome.

Sometimes press conferences just aren’t fair.

Look, Andy Reid didn’t do anything wrong by sitting in front of the cameras and recorders while attempting to deconstruct Sunday night’s big victory over the New York Giants, nor was he exactly revealing, either. However, unlike in the past where his lips would move and sound would emanate from his mouth, the non-words and mish-mash of words that began to sound like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons weren’t that offensive.

I didn’t go for my shoes.

Andy Reid’s verbosity in press conferences is nothing new. In fact, Reid’s brevity is analyzed so much in these parts that it’s a cliché. Sports comedians in Philly have two standard impressions in their arsenal—Charlie Manuel’s Appalachian twang and Andy Reid clearing his throat to talk about someone’s groin injury. Get Charlie away from the cameras and he’ll drop some pearls on you and regale one and all with tales about playing ball for Billy Martin and against Sadaharu Oh in Japan. Reid is probably the same way—get the guy away from the glare and he’s probably brimming with stories and wisdom.

Hey, if the guy doesn’t like to talk to a room full of strangers, what are you going to do?

No, the thing that’s most interesting to ponder is the idea that sports press conferences could imitate those serious affairs with political types. More specifically, think if the local scribes just starting hucking shoes around the first time they got offended. It would be a hail of white sneakers and old loafers flying through the air like moths buzzing an outdoor light. Media folks have a low threshold to begin with, and it’s not just the subjects on the dais with the microphone that should duck and cover. The local media will turn on each other like angry snakes with an empty stomach if given the chance.

So what’s the point? OK, try this… maybe Reid is loosening up. No, it’s tough to tell from the way things unfold after the game, but the color-coded tension level has dropped to something like a warm earth tone. Remember how it was when Donovan McNabb was still the quarterback? Heck, remember how it was after the opener when Kevin Kolb was moved from the starting QB spot and players were sent back into the game despite suffering concussions. Back then, Reid had to bob and weave Sugar Ray Leonard against Roberto Duran in the “No Mas” fight.

Reid seems relaxed these days. Why not? At 7-3 the Eagles just might be the class of the NFC. The interesting part, though, is how it got to this point. It was simple, actually. All Reid had to do yank Kolb in favor of Sports Illustrated cover boy, Michael Vick, duck and cover from the flying shoes and poison pens and hope that everything would fall into place.

It was that simple.

Still, who would have guessed that 10 weeks after the Week 1 debacle that Reid would be riding Vick’s coattails to a coach-of-the-year bid? Better yet, with Vick behind center the conservative coach (with a penchant for gadget plays), is making calls he never made with McNabb. That fourth-down play that turned into a long TD run for LeSean McCoy is not a call Reid would have made with McNabb.

“Michael Vick is playing out of his mind right now, and that’s a beautiful thing,” Reid said during his press conference.

That is the old coach opening up and letting it all out.

Pat Burrell is no Gil Hodges

Burrell_chooch This is the lull. Free agency doesn’t officially begin until Sunday, and the World Series was too painful for many to watch after the Phillies went belly up against the Giants in the NLCS. Of course it didn’t help that the Giants had a pretty easy time with the Rangers, either.

Still, there isn’t much that will be memorable about the 2010 World Series. The pitching duels between Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum didn’t exactly pan out, and the Rangers’ offense that tore apart the Yankees, didn't show up.

Actually, the Giants’ offense didn’t exactly conjure memories of Willie Mays or Willie McCovey or even Will Clark. Edgar Renteria was the MVP because he hit two home runs and got seven hits against a team that had one run in its last three losses.

Hitting-wise the World Series was disappointing, though not an all-time worst. That’s excluding former Phillie Pat Burrell, who not only set a record for the most strikeouts in a five-game series (in four game, no less), but also appeared to be defying physics, geometry and basic biology by failing to put the bat on the ball.

How bad was Burrell?

Let’s take a look…

***

As the 1952 World Series bounced back and forth for a week during a tense, ping-ponging of leads and ties, people in the borough of Brooklyn went to church to light candles and pray for Gil Hodges. Watch any of those saccharine-sweet documentaries about the so-called “Golden Age” of baseball when the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn and the Giants were still in the Polo Grounds in Harlem and invariably there will be a segment about Gil Hodges and the ’52 World Series.

Hodges went 0-for-21 with six strikeouts and five walks during the seven game series against the Yankees, which very well could be the most famous slump of all time. In fact, Hodges’ epic oh-fer is one of those flashpoints in time for a lot of baseball fans. Shoot, even Charlie Manuel has spoken about Hodges not being able to get a hit against the Yankees in the World Series, a moment from his youth he recounted in pre-game chats with the scribes. Manuel was eight during the 1952 World Series and said it was unbelievable to imagine a hitter like Hodges struggling like he did.

Would Gil Hodges ever get a hit? The Brooklyn fans held up their end, including Father Herbert Redmond of St. Francis in the borough who announced during an unseasonably warm mass, “It's far too hot for a homily. Keep the Commandments and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”

With Hodges batting sixth for the Dodgers in the Game 7 at Ebbets Field, he was able to tie the game in the fourth inning on a ground out. But with no outs in the sixth inning and the tying run on first base, Hodges grounded into a double play to further dishearten the Dodgers’ spirits. They got two more base runners for the rest of the game as the Yankees won yet another title.

It’s still easy to wonder how Brooklyn’s fortunes would have turned if Hodges had gotten just one hit in the World Series. Considering he led the team with 32 homers, 102 RBIs and 107 walks, the Dodgers’ success or failure was tied to Hodges’ ability to drive the ball. Strangely, in ’52, Hodges hit 15 fair balls in seven games and not a one of them dropped onto the grass for a hit.

Funny game.

But was Hodges worse than the 0-for-13 with 11 strikeouts Pat Burrell posted for the Giants in five games of the 2010 World Series? Think about that for a second… Burrell went to the plate 15 times, he walked twice, popped out twice and was benched once. So in four games he flailed hopelessly at pitches, rarely putting the onus on the defense to make a play.

He swung and he missed. And then he did it all over again.

Now the extremists in the religion of advanced metrics will tell you that a strikeout is just one out, no different than any other. They will also explain that instead of bouncing into a double play during the sixth inning of Game 7 of the 1952 World Series, Gil Hodges would have been better off striking out. And you know what? Technically they are correct.

But do you remember the feeling of what it was like to strikeout in little league in front of family and friends or in a legion game where your smart-ass friends were sitting a few rows up in the bleachers making wise cracks at every swing and miss? You do? Well, guess what… it’s the same thing for a lot of major leaguers. The feeling of crippling failure that a strikeout leaves one with never goes away, according to some of the guys who have done it in the big leagues. In fact, some guys don’t even want to talk about the strikeouts. When the subject was brought up to Ryan Howard after he set the single-season record for whiffs, the normally affable slugger clammed up and brushed off the significance of the strikeout.

“It’s just one out,” he said dejectedly.

It is just one out, but it’s also the greatest indication of failure in sports. It even looks nasty in the scorebook with that vulgar-looking “K” slotted next to a hitter’s name. For Burrell, his ledger was riddled with them, closing out his time with the Giants with seven of those ugly Ks in his last two games.

So in going 0-for-13 with just two fair balls against the Rangers, did Pat Burrell have the worst World Series ever? Hell, is Burrell the worst World Series player to win two titles? With the Phillies in ’08 and the Giants this October, Burrell is 1-for-27 with 16 whiffs. He has fewer hits in the Fall Classic than Cliff Lee and the same amount as pitchers Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels and utility man Eric Bruntlett—in far fewer at-bats, too.

Yet his 1-for-27 has come to two rings. That’s two more than Ted Williams and Ernie Banks and one more than Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, George Brett and Mike Schmidt.

Nevertheless, it’s a tough to determine if Burrell’s performance is the worst because the Giants won the series in five games. They won it despite Burrell’s strikeout with two on and one out in the seventh inning of a tied Game 5. Burrell whiffed on a 3-2 pitch from Cliff Lee with first base open in what had been the biggest at-bat of the game to that point…

Three pitches later Edgar Renteria hit a home run to deliver the title to San Francisco for the very first time.

Burrell_parade Indeed, Burrell, unlike others, was left off the hook. Maybe that was because the Jesuits at his alma mater Bellarmine Prep in nearby San Jose, Calif. lit some candles for him?

Evan Longoria was not so lucky. In 2008 he went 1-for-20 with nine strikeouts in a series where the Phillies won three of the five games by one run. Like Burrell and Hodges, Longoria was a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Rays who’s only hit of the series drove home a run in Game 5.

The one we remember all too well in these parts came during the 1983 World Series where Mike Schmidt dug in against the Orioles 20 times and got one hit in five games. Schmidt, of course, was the MVP of the 1980 World Series, but three years later he whiffed six times and came to bat 10 times with runners on base and four times with runners in scoring position, yet got just one chance to run the bases.

When Schmidt did barely loop one over the infield and onto the turf at The Vet, base runners moved, a rally started and a run actually crossed the plate. It’s funny how that happens.

Weirdly, Schmidt batted .467 with a homer and three extra-base hits in the NLCS before managing to eke out one bloop single in the World Series. That’s kind of reminiscent of the postseason experienced by Placido Polanco in 2006.

In leading the Tigers back to the World Series, Polanco batted .471 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, including .529 during the ALCS to take home MVP honors, only to hang up an 0-for-17 in five games against the Cardinals.

Odder yet, Polanco whiffed just once during the ’06 World Series. The same goes for Scott Rolen in ’04 when he went 0-for-15 with just one whiff against the Red Sox. Rolen very well could have been the MVP of the NLCS on the strength of a seventh-inning homer off Roger Clemens to give the Cardinals the lead they never relinquished. In fact, Rolen belted two other homers in the Cardinals’ Game 2 victory and had six RBIs in the series, which was dwarfed by four homers and a 14-for-28 showing from Albert Pujols.

Of course Rolen whiffed nine times in that series, too, yet still managed to get some big hits.

Not in the World Series, though. Better yet, both Polanco and Rolen put the ball in play to make something happen, but walked away with nothing. Kind of like Hodges.

Funny game.

Have the Phillies seen the last of Jayson Werth?

WerthEd. Note: This story has been revised from its original form from Saturday night.

Jayson Werth didn’t think it would end this way. Not with these guys, on this team. This was supposed to be the glory stretch where he celebrated one more time with his friends and teammates in the place where it all came together for him.

But Jayson Werth is a star now. The Phillies helped make him one, of course, but in doing so it might have made re-signing him much too cost prohibitive. Baseball players put in all the hard work and lonely evenings in the weight room and batting cage for the winter where they can test the open market. Werth is no different from most ballplayers in this regard.

After this winter, with the help from super-agent Scott Boras, Werth will be set up for the rest of his life. His children will probably be set up for the rest of their lives, too. That’s the reality. That’s why Werth made sure not to waste his big chance in Philadelphia where general manager Pat Gillick picked him up from the scrap heap when the Dodgers were too impatient in waiting for his injuries to heal.

When he was cut by the Dodgers, Werth didn’t know if he would ever play again or if any team would want him.

Now he’s so good that the Phillies probably can’t afford to keep him.

"I haven't had any discussions with Scott [Boras] yet," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "I obviously will over the next 48 hours, we will make contact. I guess the following question is, do we have enough money to do it? And would we like to bring him back? I think the answer to both questions is yes. However, that will all kind of depend on what the ask is and ultimately how that will affect us with other possible moves to do it."

That was a popular sentiment in the Phillies’ clubhouse after the 3-2 loss in Game 6 to eliminate the Phillies two games short of a third straight trip to the World Series. Certainly the players know the reality of Werth’s situation and how the business of baseball works, but they also understand the dynamics of the team’s clubhouse, too. It’s not easy to do what the Phillies have done over the last few years and Werth has been a big part of that. Before the NLCS began, Werth talked about the bitterness he had from losing in the World Series to the Yankees and how “empty” he felt and how that surprised him.

In a sense, it seems as if there is some unfinished work left in Philadelphia for Werth. It’s as if he is part of a nucleus of players like Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and the powerful pitching staff that got together to build a strong foundation on a house, only they haven’t put a roof on it.

Who would have thought that when the Phillies signed Werth before the 2007 season that it would come to this? When Gillick signed him in December of 2006, it was a move that slipped under the radar. The acquisitions of Abraham Nunez and Wes Helms made more news that winter.

Then, Werth was injured much of the 2007 season, appearing in just 94 games after missing the entire 2006 season with a wrist injury. But by the end of the 2008 season, Werth was an everyday player. He answered every question and rose to every challenge. Werth was so good during the playoffs in ’08 that the Phillies knew they could let Pat Burrell walk away because they had a capable right-handed bat to put in the lineup behind Howard and Utley.

When doubters wondered if he could handle the rigors of playing the full slate of games in 2009, he belted 36 homers, got 99 RBIs and made the All-Star team. Moreover, he’ll leave as the franchise’s all-time leader in postseason home runs with 13, including two in the NLCS.

 “When he first came here, he came here with a lot of talent. Pat Gillick always liked him, and he definitely was the one that kind of like wanted him and kind of persuaded him to like to come with us,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “It took him a while to really, I think, adjust to our team and really kind of get things going. I think that he was like he needed to play. He hadn't played in like a year, year and a half or something. And once he got started, he earned a spot and he actually beat Geoff Jenkins out of right field. He earned a spot to play, and he definitely enjoys playing here. He’s been a solid player for us, and he's got a ton of ability.”

This past season he lead the league in doubles and posted career-highs in runs (106), batting average (.296), slugging (.532) and OPS (.921). Gone are the questions about whether Werth can play every day. Now folks wonder which team is going to break the bank and pay him.

Victorino, another player let go by the Dodgers that the Phillies snagged up, marvels at how far his friend has come.

“I remember him calling me in 2006 and telling, ‘Hey, I’m on a boat and I’m battling my wrist injury and it hasn’t gotten better and I don’t know if I’ll ever play again.’ He said that. That’s crazy,” Victorino said. “He was so frustrated with his wrist injury that he doubted it would ever get better. And now to see where he is today, I’m happy for the guy. I’m overly happy for the guy. Whatever he goes out and gets he deserves.”

The numbers are definitely there for Werth and there are a few teams that have the cash to spend that the Phillies probably won’t. The Yankees and Red Sox will probably make a presentation. So too will the Cubs and Angels.

The Phillies? They already have more than $143 million committed to 18 players, which is more than they spent for the entire roster in 2010. Joining Werth in free agency are Jose Contreras, Chad Durbin, Mike Sweeney and Jamie Moyer. Plus, Ben Francisco, Kyle Kendrick and Greg Dobbs are eligible for arbitration. Come 2012, Ryan Madson and Rollins are free agents and Cole Hamels will be eligible for arbitration.

With a handful of roster spots to fill and up-and-comers like Dom Brown ready to for their chance, Werth’s last at-bat for the Phillies was probably a strikeout against Tim Lincecum in the eighth inning, Saturday night.

“We all want what we think we should get, but sometimes you go into free agency and play somewhere I don’t want, or do you want to go somewhere like Philly?” Victorino said. “Jayson is loved here. I’m not him and I know what goes on and I was an acquisition that could have gone year-to-year and held out. But I looked at the big picture. I wanted to play in a city where I was loved and where the people are behind me.

“Jayson is in a different place than me because he hasn’t gotten anything yet. So I’m happy for him and whatever he gets he deserves.”

How much that will be seems open for debate. Amaro clearly isn't going to break the bank for Werth when the negotiations begin.

"Jayson had a good year," Amaro said. "It wasn't an extraordinary year. He had a tough time with men on in scoring position. It wasn't as productive a year as he's had in the past. But I think if he's not with us, there are players we can either acquire or are in our own organization that can help us."

Werth didn’t seem ready for it to end. When Juan Uribe’s eighth-inning home run barely cleared the right-field fence and dropped into the first row of seats, Werth stared at the spot where the ball disappeared in disbelief for what felt like hours.

It’s was as if by staring he could add another foot to the top of the fence.

When it finally ended, Werth didn’t want to leave. He was one of the last guys to walk into the clubhouse and change into a yellow t-shirt with his black cap turned backwards on his iconic hairstyle. He informed the media that he would talk later in the week and slowly made his exit, taking time to hug some of his soon-to-be ex-teammates. Ross Gload wrote down Werth’s e-mail address and as he walked through the clubhouse exit for the last time, he heard words from Gload that will make Phillies’ fans cringe…

“Don’t let those Yankees boss you around.”

If only it were that easy. There will be a lot of talking before Werth settles on his new team and understands that it probably won't be as much fun as it was with the Phillies the past four years. 

So when asked if there was the one thing that would tip the scales in favor for Philly if everything else was close, the answer was easy for Werth.

"Teammates," he said.

Was Scott Boras listening?

… and Cliff Lee is ready to go in Game 1

Howard_k Let’s just cut right to it…

The Phillies choked. They blew it. Worse, they choked and blew it with what might have been the best team ever assembled in franchise history—at least after Ruben Amaro Jr. traded for Roy Oswalt.

Yet the idea that the 2010 Phillies were as great as advertised doesn’t really matter anymore because the best team won’t be representing the National League in the World Series this year. Oh sure, the Giants deserve credit because they responded to every bit of gamesmanship and intimidation the Phillies threw at them. Between that phony, Pat Burrell, and Tim Lincecum shouting at Phillies’ players, and Jonathan Sanchez calling out Chase Utley, causing the benches to clear in Game 6, the Giants deserve some credit.

But let’s not give a team with Pat Burrell, Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff in the middle of the batting order too much credit. After all, the Phillies pitchers held them to a .249 average with just two different players hitting homers. The Phillies even outscored the Giants in the six games, 20-19. This was the same Giants that batted just .212 against the Braves in the NLDS. You know, the Braves that the Phillies manhandled during the regular season.

Frankly, it was a sickening display of offensive futility during the playoffs. They batted .212 against the Reds in the NLDS and .216 against the Giants. Sure, Lincecum, Sanchez and Matt Cain are solid pitchers. Lincecum is a bona fide star, in fact, and manager Bruce Bochy has enough versatility in the bullpen to match up, hitter by hitter, late in the game.

Oh yes, the Giants can pitch. In fact, they pitch very well. However, imagine how great a good pitching team will look against a bunch of hitters who were lost. How lost? Take a look at the schizophrenic postseason from Ryan Howard and compare it to his typical production.

It was just last season where Howard set the record for consecutive postseason games with an RBI and was named MVP of the NLCS. That was the postseason of, “Just get me to the plate, boys,” in Game 4 of the NLDS when the Rockies were just an out away from sending the series back to Philadelphia for a deciding Game 5. Moreover, 10 of Howard’s 15 postseason hits in 2009 went for extra-bases and the 17 RBIs in 15 games were one of the big reasons why the Phillies got back to the World Series.

This year Howard had good looking stats, batting .318, posting a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging average. But Howard hit no home runs and got no RBIs. No, it’s not Howard’s fault that there were runners on base when he hit, but when there were men on base he struck out. Seven of Howard’s 12 strikeouts in the NLCS came with runners on base and five of those came with runners in scoring position.

Strikeouts only equal one out, sure, but there are productive outs where runners move up and fielders are forced to make plays. Considering that Howard had three three-strikeout games, including back-to-back triple Ks in Game 5 and 6, the heart of the Phillies’ order was punchless.

“If the production is there, you can tend to get away from strikeouts,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “But I feel especially after Ryan got hurt that he didn't find his swing. I feel like I know that he’s a better hitter than what we saw at the end of the year.”

The same goes for many of the Phillies’ hitters, especially Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Utley’s swing looked off most of the postseason as if it were difficult for him to complete it. The question many asked of Manuel was about the second baseman’s health, which is always an issue late in the season. However, straight answers never were offered and the assumption was Utley was properly healed from the thumb injury he suffered in June.

But the Phillies finished the season with the best record in baseball and closed the year by going 49-19. They had Halladay and Oswalt and Hamels lined up and all three lost in the playoffs. Sure, the Phillies pitched as well—maybe better—than the Giants, but that was it.

“I don't think we ever got our offense clicking,” Manuel said. “It always went up and down. We hit a hot streak, especially after Houston swept us earlier in the year. From that period on, we started winning a lot of games. But we weren't blowing people out and weren't really hitting like we can. It seemed like we never put up runs like I know we can.”

Maybe there was something to the injuries or maybe the preparedness. Even the victories in the postseason came in games where something extraordinary occurred. Halladay pitched a no-hitter in one and Hamels a five-hit shutout in another. In Game 2 of the NLDS the Phillies scored five unearned runs and in Game 2 of the NLCS, Oswalt pitched a three-hitter.

Finally, it came down to Halladay pitching six innings on a strained groin just to send the series back to Philadelphia.

But back home where the fans where waiting for hits that never came and runs that never circled the bases, all that was left was disappointment. The team with the best record in baseball fell to a team that batted Pat Burrell cleanup in a NLCS game… Pat Burrell?

When it finally came to an end it was Howard standing at the plate, watching as the third strike buzzed past just above his knees.

“Just get me to the plate, boys.”

“It's kind of a sucky way to end the game, a sucky way to end the year, you know, being that guy,” Howard said. “But I'll have to try and take that and use it as motivation and come back next year.

"I can't say what I want to say.”

No, he can’t, but there will be plenty of talk this winter about that last at-bat and the last series. Plain and simple, the Phillies blew it. Choked. The Phillies were the big bullies on the school yard and they got punched back and didn’t know what to do.

 

“I just don’t think any of us saw this happening,” closer Brad Lidge said. “I felt like we had the best team in baseball this year. It doesn’t always work out. Unfortunately, we just caught a team that seems to be doing everything right. They got the last hook in there. We just didn’t get our best game out there tonight. So shocked is a good word.”

Shocked like the rest of us that a team with hitters like the Giants could deliver more than the Phillies. Then again, the old, injured sage Jamie Moyer once played for a Seattle club that won 116 games, but lasted just six in the ALCS, To this day Seattle is only one of two franchises never to make it to the World Series.

“We had the best record in baseball, but when you get to the playoffs it really doesn’t mean anything,” Moyer said. “Everything starts just like it did in April. Everyone starts at zero. Now it’s about who is going to play the best, who is going to get the key hits and we fell short. …”

Cliff Lee will pitch in Game 1 of the World Series. Roy Halladay will not.

Philly boy Roys step up

Roy SAN FRANCISCO — The signals will be evident quickly.

A breaking ball will bounce in the dirt in front of the plate. The fastball will be missing a few ticks on the radar gun without the typical bite. Worse, misses will be large both in and out of the strike zone.

In other words, adjustments will need to be made.

These are the warning signs to look for when Roy Oswalt takes the ball in Game 6 of the NLCS, just two days after his noble relief appearance in Game 4. Oswalt took a peek down at the Phillies’ bullpen as the game progressed into the late innings, saw manager Charlie Manuel’s options and went to put on his spikes. An inning after volunteering his services to the cause, Oswalt was pitching in the ninth inning of the tie game.

Though it didn’t end well for Oswalt or the Phillies, it was easy to admire the pitcher’s moxy. Sure, two days after his start in Game 2 is the day starting pitchers workout with a bullpen session, but Oswalt had already thrown for 20 minutes, iced down and settled in to watch the ballgame.

So that’s the backdrop for Game 6 where Oswalt will be working off two days rest again and the Giants’ lefty Jonathan Sanchez is pitching to avenge his loss in Game 2 where the Phillies scored three runs off him in six innings. Sanchez, the lefty who turned in a 1.01 ERA in six starts in September and whiffed 11 in seven innings against the Braves in the NLDS, will work on his normal rest.

It is with Oswalt, the pitcher who tried to be the hero in Game 4, where the story of Game 6 will unfold.

And just how worried are the Phillies that Oswalt could be slightly spent? Actually, not much. In fact, manager Charlie Manuel says Oswalt should be as ready as ever.

“I think he’s got a rubber arm, he’s kind of different in his style and he’s got a loose arm. That’s why he gets his rise on his fastball,” Manuel said. “He’s one of those guys that goes out there start playing catch and a guy picks up a ball you go out there, watch him, guy picks up the ball and he slowly starts working his way in playing long toss or catch. And Oswalt is one of these guys. He goes out there, gets a ball and starts gunning it right away. Like he’s throwing his warm ups are a guy throwing more than 50 or 60 percent at a time. So I look at that and I see all those things. I don't think it's going to hurt him at all. I think when he tells you he's ready, I think he's ready. He's also one of those guys that if he's got if he's got some kind of problem or something, he's hurt or something like that, I think he'll be the first he'll tell you.”

Oswalt said his bullpen work was just like a bullpen session and he felt no after affects. No, Oswalt isn’t quite like Cliff Lee or Pedro Martinez in eschewing the post-workout ice down, but there is something noble about Oswalt’s desire to help the team. The same goes for Roy Halladay, too, who pitched six innings with less than his best stuff and what turned out to be a strained right groin muscle.

Could Halladay come out of the bullpen in Game 7? That’s tough to know now, but Manuel hasn’t ruled it out.

Of course, October is where baseball legends are created. It’s one thing to take a normal turn and pitch on the assigned day, but it’s the times when pitchers go out there on short rest or in strange roles. Oswalt has jumped in to pitch between starts twice during his playoff career while pitching for the Astros. He was also getting loose during the epic, 18-inning game of the 2005 NLDS where Roger Clemens came in for the Astros and pitched the final three innings to get the win despite pitching two days prior.

Oswalt also pitched the clinching Game 6 of the NLCS where his three-hitter earned him the NLCS MVP and a new bulldozer from Astros’ owner, Drayton McLane.

The difference now from five years ago is that Oswalt understands how tough it is to get to the postseason. So if he’s in it he doesn’t want to go out easily. If he can pitch between starts, pinch run or, shoot, play left field like he did in an extra-inning game in August, he’ll put on the spikes and go to work.

“Once you get to the postseason and get to the World Series like we did in '05 and not get back, and five years later you realize how difficult it is to get back to the situation. So you try to treat it as it's maybe the last time,” Oswalt said. “You never are guaranteed anything. Doesn't matter how good a team you have. You may not ever get back in this situation. So when you are here you try to do everything possible when you're here.”

Which means his approach to Game 6 won’t change from any other game—be it a relief appearance with two days rest in the playoffs or a routine starting assignment.

“I try to pitch every game like the last one,” Oswalt said. “You never know, you're never guaranteed the next day. So it's going to be no different. Trying to attack hitters and make them beat me, not trying to put guys on. No different than any other game. It's a must win game but I treat every one of them like a must win.”

Then again, it’s simpler to just give the maximum effort every time.

And don’t be surprised if Halladay makes another appearance in the series. After all, that’s what the big aces do. There was Curt Schilling and his bloody sock, Randy Johnson pitching a complete game only to come back the next day to get the win in relief in Game 7 of the World Series…

Are we ready for the Phillies’ two Roys to join that list working with a strained groin and short rest?

“It depends on where we're at in the situation,” Manuel said. “Do I want to? No. But at the same time I'm not ruling it out. So don't be surprised and jump on me if I don't use him.”

Hard to fault anyone for trying to be the hero. After all, this is the best time of the year for them.

Phillies’ struggles stretch to manager, too

Charlie SAN FRANCISCO — We like to give credit where it is due. After all, it’s much more fun to heap praise and be positive than it is to whine, complain and sulk over things that can’t be controlled. Then again, that’s pretty obvious.

As a manager of the four-time defending NL East champion Phillies, positivity is Charlie Manuel’s best tactic. He builds up his players by telling them how good they are and always filling their heads with thoughts that the hits and/or great pitches are going to be there when needed the most.

In fact, Manuel says that before Game 5 he’s going to walk through the clubhouse, look each of his players in the eyes and have a little chat. It won’t be anything as extreme as a pep talk, but maybe just a few words with each guy on the team.

“I don’t know if it will be about baseball or not,” Manuel said.

So yes, Manuel is great at keeping his guys loose as well as gauging the mood of the club. It’s probably the not-so secret to his success.

But as far as the managerial battle of wits with Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy, Manuel is about to get swept out of the series. Indeed, some of the in-game decisions from Manuel have not gone down as his best work and that has been exposed during the first two games played at AT&T Park.

When a manager consistently makes the same types of decisions and they work out, it’s difficult to blame it on luck. Oh sure, it might seem like he’s falling backwards only to nimbly land on his feet like a cat at the last second, but there is a fine line between instinct and luck.

However, in Game 3 and 4 of the NLCS which finds the Phillies on the brink of elimination, Manuel’s instincts have not been at his best. In fact, the choices Manuel made with his bullpen in Game 4 began with seeds sown in Game 3 when he used right-hander Jose Contreras for two innings and 24 pitches. That would have been a fine move had the Phillies been in position to actually win Game 3 rather than be shut down by starter Matt Cain.

Nevertheless, when Contreras went to the mound for a second inning in Game 3, it didn’t take much of a hunch that it would come back to haunt Manuel. As fate unraveled in Game 4, every button pushed seemed to be the wrong one. Knowing that he had starter Joe Blanton for five innings… six if he was lucky, it didn’t seem too well planned out that Contreras finished the previous game. That was evident when Blanton was removed from the game with two outs in the fifth when he was due to bat third in the next inning.

Instead of double-switching or using another reliever, Manuel burned Contreras again when he promptly finished the fifth and then was pinch-hit for.

Perhaps the move in the fifth inning could have been lefty Antonio Bastardo on lefty hitter Aubrey Huff with two outs and the speedy Andres Torres in scoring position?  But we’ll never know because Manuel left Blanton in for one hitter too long and then wasted his most effective setup man.

As it turned out, Manuel called on Chad Durbin to give him an inning or more only to have it explode on him like one of those trick cigars from the old cartoons. The problem with asking Durbin to give some innings in a pivotal game is he’s more than a little rusty. In his lone postseason performance, Durbin walked the only hitter he faced with two outs in the sixth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the Reds, only to end the inning by picking off the hitter to end the inning.

Until Game 4, those six pitches and the pick-off was the only work Durbin had in 17 days. Knowing this, why didn’t Manuel divide up the work to close out Game 3 instead of burning out Contreras? Can’t pitching coach Rich Dubee elbow Manuel in the ribs while on the bench to remind him to give his relievers some work?

From there, Manuel used Bastardo and Ryan Madson for the seventh and the eighth, which worked out. Bastardo retired the lefty Huff (two innings too late) and then gave up a double to Buster Posey before Madson closed out the inning with a walk and double play.

If that would have been the end, it was enough. But then the hit… er, misses, kept coming. Like in the eighth when Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth led off the inning with back-to-back doubles to tie it up, it was reasonable to expect a big inning. Except when Jimmy Rollins came up with Werth on second and no outs he didn’t get the runner over to third. Worse, he popped up to third baseman Pablo Sandoval without even a pass at a bunt or a pitch pulled to the right side.

According to the manager, the idea was for Rollins to pull the ball even though he had explained his shortstop was struggling to hit from the left side.

“Rollins usually pulls the ball. If he hits the ball to the right side of the diamond, that’s one of his strong points, he'’ got a short quick swing to the left side that he usually pulls the ball,” Manuel explained after the game. “Not only that, if he pulls the ball, he also has a chance to get a hit or drive the run in, and that's how you play the game. And we do that a lot with Rollins. We let him hit there because that’s one of his big strong suits from the left side is pull the ball.”

It was a strong suit when Rollins was healthy. But in the NLCS when there is a chance to avoid going down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series, it’s the wise move to bunt the runner over when the hitter has struggled and been injured.

Finally, the choice to put starter Roy Oswalt in the game on two days rest after he had iced down following his 20-minute side-day session wasn’t the type of out-of-the-box thinking that Manuel is known for… and it wasn’t this time, either.

Oswalt saw the way the game was unfolding and figured if he didn’t step up, Kyle Kendrick would have started the ninth inning of a big playoff game with the score tied.

Then again, that all would have been avoided if Contreras had not been misused in Game 3. It also would not have been as magnified if Bochy had not been on top of everything. If the Giants finish it off, the manager should get a lot of the credit…

And the blame.

The hard road to history

Jimmy SAN FRANCISCO — Hours before Tuesday afternoon’s pivotal Game 3 at AT&T Park, Charlie Manuel said to no one in particular a wish that every Phillies fan was probably hoping for as the game progressed.

“I hope we score a lot of runs today—10, 15 or 20,” he said as he passed the time before the game.

However, it’s not known if Manuel was talking about one game in particular or the entire series. Either way, the Phillies appear to be in trouble. After all, in a postseason filled with tepid offensive performances, Tuesday’s was the worst of the bunch.

The Phillies scratched out just three hits, stranded seven runners and left three of them in scoring position on Tuesday as they were blanked in a playoff game for the first time since time since Game 5 of the 1983 World Series. Has there ever been a worse time for the Phillies to go belly-up with the bats?

“You know what? We can talk about the pitching. The pitching might have something to do with their swing. Our guys are trying. I mean, they might be trying too hard,” manager Charlie Manuel said after the the 3-0 defeat. “Look, when you don’t score no runs [or] you don’t get no hits, it’s hard to win the game. But I don’t know what we’re going to do about it. I can sit here and talk about it. I can go in and talk to them about it, but when the game starts tomorrow is when we can do something about it. You know, when the game starts, that’s when you’re supposed to hit. You’re kind of on your own when you leave a dugout.”

Trailing the best-of-seven series 2-1, there isn’t much Manuel can do about his lineup. Moreover, the players really don’t have too many answers for the hitting woes that began as soon as the playoffs started. Against the Reds in the NLDS, the Phillies batted .212 with one homer and two doubles in a three-game sweep. More troubling is that the hitting has gotten worse through the first three games of the NLCS.

With three hits against pitchers Matt Cain, Javier Lopez and Brian Wilson, the Phillies are batting just .195 in the NLCS. Things have reached a point that even the predictably patient Manuel opted to bust Raul Ibanez to the bench for Game 4 and start Ben Francisco in his place. That’s not too over the top considering Francisco, a right-handed hitter, will face lefty starter Madison Bumgarner and Ibanez is 0-for-11 in the series and hitless in his last 15 at-bats in the postseason. However, Francisco has appeared in one game since Oct. 3 and he ended up getting drilled on the helmet by a pitch in Game 2 of the NLDS.

That’s not exactly easing into game action.

“I would say from Raul's standpoint he’s kind of a warrior and he tries hard all the time. That’s who he is. And first of the year he was over-swinging and things like that. I’ve seen that in the last couple of days from him,” Manuel said, pointing out that the right-handed Francisco might be a better option against lefty Madison Bumgarner. 

Again, Manuel doesn’t have too many options. Between ineffectiveness and Chase Utley’s incomplete swing, the Phillies are in a rare position. After all, the recent playoff runs were over rather quickly. As watchers, we’re not used to watching the Phillies fall behind, come back and force the series to go long. Sure, they fell behind 2-1 in the 1993 NLCS to Atlanta to win the series, but that’s ancient history. Plus, the Phillies were underdogs in that series.

This time the Phillies are the overwhelming favorites to win the NLCS with many astute baseball analysts projecting them to reach the World Series with the brute force of the league’s most formidable starting rotation.

Not so fast says Manuel.

The Phillies of 2010 are not the same as they were in 2008 or 2009, Manuel said. The opposition has adapted and adjusted to the Phillies’ offense. For instance, it used to be that hitters like Shane Victorino or Jimmy Rollins would see fastballs because pitchers weren’t too keen on facing Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Jayson Werth.

That’s all changed now. Instead, the Phillies don’t see too many fastballs at all anymore. Even against hard-throwing right-hander Matt Cain in Game 3 the Phillies didn’t get a single base hit on a breaking pitch.

No, the Phillies aren’t fooling anyone these days.

“One of the problems with our hitting is you’ve got advance scouts and all the TV and Internet and things like that, and nowadays they go to school on your hitters, and they pitch us backwards a lot,” Manuel said. “When I say backwards, that means when we’re ahead in the count they don’t give us fastballs, they give us breaking balls and change-ups and they pitch to us more. Especially our little guys, they don’t throw those guys the fastballs they used to. 

“We’re basically a fastball-hitting team, and a lot of times you see them a count will go 3 and 1 or 2 and 1 or 2 and 0 or something like that they’ll throw us a breaking ball or something like that we swing at it and we put it in play and dribble it. Those counts two or three years ago, those were fastballs because they would look and see the middle of our lineup and they didn’t want to get down to our third and fourth hitter or even fifth hitter in some ways, but at the same time those other guys got more fastballs. They’ve gone to school on us.”

This is not something that can be fixed quickly, either, Manuel said. His hitters are going to have to make some big changes, the manager explained.

“We talk about that a lot. Our guys like to swing, and the whole thing about it is when you get up in the count, you’re supposed to get a good ball to hit. Sometimes we do not get a good ball we can hit or handle,” Manuel said. “We put the ball in play. We try to put the ball in play, of course, with two strikes on you, if you've got to cut your swing, put the ball in play, don’t strike out. We don’t make some of the adjustments.

Vic “And you can talk about these things, but they’ve got to hit home and you’ve got to work on improving on those things. It definitely might take a while. But the league kind of has adjusted to some of our hitters if you sat there and watched the games. If you look at our lineup and you see the adjustments we’ve made in the last couple of years and how the pitchers pitch us now, then we still gotta make some adjustments against how they pitch us.

“Can we? Yeah, definitely we have the talent to do that.”

Teams don’t win 97 games to wrap up a fourth straight division title by accident. But sometimes the best teams don’t win. Remember the Oakland A’s of 1988 and 1990? Clearly those teams were the best in the game, in fact, in 1988 the A’s ranked second in runs and homers, but when the World Series arrived the bats went ice cold. In losing to the Dodgers in five games, the A’s batted .177 and scored just 11 runs while the only victory came in a 2-1 decision thanks to a walk-off homer by Mark McGwire.

It was the same story in 1990, only this time the A’s were swept by the Reds, tallying just eight runs in the series and batting .207. Six of the A’s runs came on homers in the ’90 series.

Are the Phillies resigned to the same fate as the Amazing A’s? Could they become a footnote in history with just one title when it could have been many more?

We’ll find out soon.

Cliff Lee’s influence on Cole Hamels

Cliff lee SAN FRANCISCO — Let’s discuss Cliff Lee for a moment…

Alright, alright, we get it. No one wants to talk about Cliff Lee like that. It hurts too much or something. But after he fired a 13-strikeout, two-hitter in Yankee Stadium to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the ALCS, we’ll just leave that stuff with one, short and sweet point…

It’s not like the Phillies would be in any different position than they are right now if Cliff Lee were still on the Phillies. They swept the Reds, Roy Halladay lost Game 1 of the NLCS, Roy Oswalt won Game 2, and Cole “Roy” Hamels is ready to go in Game 3. It wouldn’t matter if the Phillies had Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Grover Cleveland Alexander—they still would be tied with the Giants headed to Game 3 with Hamels ready to take the ball.

Instead, let’s discuss what Cliff Lee left behind when he was traded to the Mariners last December for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez, barely a month after he put together the best postseason by a Phillies’ pitcher since ol’ Pete Alexander. But, strangely enough, Lee’s lasting impression on Hamels and his resurgence in 2010 all starts with a September gem pitched by Pedro Martinez against the Mets.

Remember that one? Pedro dialed it up for eight scoreless innings with just six hits and 130 purposeful pitches. Frankly, it was an artistic and masterful pitched game by Pedro against the Mets. In baseball, there is the nuance and the minutia that the devout understand, but the genius supersedes all. It stands out and hovers over the season in a way that a highlight film cannot capture.

Pedro painted that Sunday night game in September at the Bank. Sure, it was the 130 pitches that opened the most eyes, but that’s just half of it. It was the way he showed off those 130 pitches. For instance, David Wright saw nothing but fastballs in his first three at-bats without so much as a sniff at an off-speed pitch. But in his fourth at-bat Pedro struck out Wright after starting him off with a pair of change ups before turning back to the heat.

After strike three, Wright walked away from the plate like he didn’t know if he was coming or going.

Wright wasn’t alone. After throwing nine total changeups to every hitter the first time through the Mets’ lineupexcept for Wright, of courseno hitter saw anything more off-speed than a handful of curves the second time around. That changeup, Pedro’s best pitch, wasn’t thrown at all.

So by the third and fourth time through the Mets could only guess. By that point Pedro was simply trying not to outsmart himself or his catcher Carlos Ruiz, who seemed as if he was just along for the ride. In fact, Pedro said that the he purposely bounced a pitch in the dirt (a changeup) that teased Daniel Murphy into making a foolhardy dash for third base that led to the final out of the eighth inning.

Yes, he intentionally threw one in the dirt on a 0-1 offering. Whether or not he did it thinking Murphy might make a break for third is a different issue, but not one to put past Pedro’s thinking.   

So mesmerized by the audacity, fearlessness and the brilliance of Pedro’s pitching, that I thought it would be wise to ask one of the team’s pitchers to offer some insight from a pitcher who could better understand the nuance of the effort better than me. Sure, it’s possible I was over thinking the performance, but it really was quite fascinating trying to figure out the chess match that occurred on the mound. Needless to say, Cliff Lee was my first choice to pepper with questions, but he had already bolted for the evening.

Then Hamels walked into the room. Certainly Hamels would be able to satisfy my need for overwrought analysis. After all, he is a pitcher, right? A pitcher has to be fascinated by the art of pitching…

Right?

What I learned was that Hamels didn’t see things my way when I asked him my questions.

I said something like, “do you look at a game like the one Pedro just pitched the way a painter or a musician might admire another artist? Was it fun to just watch the pitch sequences and wonder what he might do next?”

The answer?

“No.”

“I don’t look at things that way. I just saw it as a guy going out there and doing his job,” Hamels said.

Certainly there is something to be said for a guy doing his job. That’s an admirable trait for a man to have. But we weren’t talking about a guy who spent all day working in the mines and then went home and helped his neighbor put in a patio. This was Pedro Martinez we were trying to talk about. If Sandy Koufax was the Rembrandt of the mound, Pedro certainly was Picasso.

But at that stage of his development, pitching was just hammer-and-nail type stuff to Hamels. Not even a year after he had won the MVP in the NLCS and World Series, Hamels had just won a game two days before Pedro’s work of art to improve his record to 9-9 and his ERA to 4.21. Clearly those were the numbers of a pitcher fighting against himself.

Eventually Hamels got it. Yes, it took some time away for the field and maybe even some work with a mental guru/coach, but Hamels finally understood what pitching coach Rich Dubee and manager Charlie Manuel had been trying to tell him.

Hamels_card He needed more tools in his belt than just the hammer and nail. Hamels’ arsenal of fastball and changeup just wasn’t enough anymore.

“He’s added a cutter,” Manuel said during Monday afternoon’s workout at AT&T Park on the eve of Game 3. “His fastball, his velocity is up from last year. Basically he sits there right now I’d say he sits there like 92, 94, 95 consistently, and whereas before he was like 88, 92. And I think the cutter’s helped him.”

It doesn’t hurt that Halladay throws a cutter—a pitch that is held very much like a four-seam fastball except for the pitcher’s thumb, which rests closer to his index finger. Halladay (obviously) has had great success with the pitch this season. Mariano Rivera could go down as the greatest closer and the greatest breaker of bats because of his hard cutter. Just like the split-finger fastball that Bruce Sutter and Mike Scott made famous in the 1970s and 1980s, the cutter is the pitch these days.

Still, the light bulb didn’t go off above Hamels’ head until he watched Cliff Lee throw it during the postseason of ’09. Actually, Lee’s cutter has been so good during the 2010 postseason that the Yankees’ announcers have accused the pitcher of cheating by using rosin on the ball. But it was such a silly premise that Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi debunked it.

Adding on his latest gem, Lee is 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings this season. Coupled with his run for the Phillies in 2009, Lee is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA with 67 strikeouts and seven walks in 64 1/3 innings.

Now the question is if Lee gets some inspiration points to his stat line for his influence on Hamels.

“I think being able to watch Cliff Lee last year throwing the cutter and how much it really helped out this game, and having Roy Halladay come over and seeing what a significant pitch it is to his repertoire, I felt it could be a very good pitch for me to add especially because it goes the other direction as a change-up,” Hamels said. “It’s just a few different miles an hour off in between a fastball and a change-up so it’s just kind of makes it a little bit harder for hitters to really pick a pitch and a specific location to really get there type of better approach.”

Hamels picked it up quickly, too. By the third game of the season his cutter was good enough that the lefty could throw it confidently in any situation or any count. Better yet, the addition of the cutter with a curveball for show, too, has made Hamels’ best pitch better.

And to think, all he had to do was watch what the pitchers were doing out there.

“He can throw the ball inside effectively and it opens up the strike zone for his best pitch, the change up,” said ex-teammate and current Giants’ center fielder, Aaron Rowand.

Of course it’s just one pitch and the selection of when and where to throw it is always important. However, Hamels finally added to his repertoire just like Manuel and Dubee wanted, and all he had to do was watch what was going on.

To be the man…

Obama-Phillies A couple of years during the height of the off-season war of words between the Phillies and the Mets, I asked Charlie Manuel if the bantering back and forth bothered him. To be fair, nearly all of it was a media creation and no one realized at the time that the Mets were overrated. Simply, the Mets weren’t anything the Phillies needed to worry about.

So the question was broached if Charlie enjoyed the trash talk on any level and if it motivated him or his team.

“No, not really,” he said. “I prefer if we just play.”

Hard to argue with that, though Charlie said he didn’t mind the yapping and wasn’t even considering bringing it up with his team, which, to me, was the most interesting part.

See, Manuel trusted his players and wasn’t going to get wrapped up in any type of silliness. His job was to create an environment where all his players had to do was their job. That’s it. Manuel knows that ballplayers making millions of dollars don’t need someone to motivate them with yelling and bluster. Instead, the Phillies manager tells his players how good they are and how they help the team win games.

He makes them feel like going to work.

Yes, if there is one thing Charlie Manuel knows a lot about it’s how to keep his team motivated. It’s simple, really. He lets his players play and if they do the job better than someone else, they get the job. He also perfectly balances that ideology with one where he doesn’t abandon a struggling player. When Raul Ibanez and Brad Lidge slumped during the second half of 2009 and early 2010, Manuel was in their corner. Eventually, the players returned to their old form and pointed to Manuel’s support as a driving force.

Everything can be used to be a motivator. When the Phillies were underdogs trying to find their way through their early playoff runs, Manuel fell back on a line popularized by Ric Flair, the 14-time heavyweight world champion of professional rasslin’. It’s the same line he used during a media session on Thursday afternoon when discussing the notion that the Phillies had moved past underdog status and to the favorites to win the World Series.

Manuel says he was reminded of the old Ric Flair axiom when he saw old protégé Pat Burrell on television on Thursday morning talking about how the Phillies were the top team until another team knocked them out.

“I heard Burrell in an interview morning, when I woke up and turned the TV on. He said, 'To be the best you've got to beat the best.' That's one of my slogans,” Manuel said. “It's Ric Flair. You’re going to Space Mountain… What the hell? You know what happens at Space Mountain? You’ve got to get there and you’ve got to conquer it. You’ve got to stay there. That’s kind of what we want to do.”

Now for those who have hung around the Phils’ manager a bit, the Ric Flair quote is nothing new. In fact, it comes out a couple of times a year while chatting before a game in the dugout. Manuel, like a lot of us who grew up in the age of limited TV options, loves the rasslin’, though he altered The Nature Boy’s mantra a bit from, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man,” a bit he even used for his autobiography.

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Still, you have to like a man who uses the words of a pro wrestler as way of keeping the troops ready instead of, say, a president. And Manuel knows a thing about presidents, too. After all, the trip to the White House in May of 2009 made Barack Obama is the sixth sitting president that Manuel has met, a distinguished list that includes George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Harry S Truman.

One of the more interesting meetings with a president came when Manuel ran into President Clinton before the first game at Jacobs Field where the President was on hand to throw the ceremonial first pitch. Clinton was waiting in the restroom adjacent to the dugout to go onto the field to make his pitch when Manuel went into the room.

“What are you doing in here?” the president asked Manuel.

“I was going to take a leak.” Manuel answered.

When Manuel was a freshman in high school he attended a parade in Lexington, Va. when then ex-president Truman asked him to hold open a door. The two chatted briefly before parting ways, but who would have known then that Manuel would meet five more presidents along the way.

“Reagan asked me if there is anything he could do for me,” Manuel remembered. “And I said, ‘Yeah, help me get a job as a big league manager.’”

That one Manuel probably did on his own by dropping lines from champion rasslers.

And the winners are… (please hold your applause to the end)

Votto WASHINGTON — We all know that art and athletic performance are subjective in nature and just because one person thinks Dadaism best expresses the human condition or Adrian Gonzalez’s performance can be measured by newfangled metrics, doesn’t mean that everyone has to appreciate it.

That’s what makes the world go around.

Nevertheless, since the regular baseball season is all over except for a couple of playoff teams and the ledger sheets are all but balanced, it the perfect time of year to submit a non-voting/non-BBWAA submission to the post-season award discussion. That is, if I were allowed to vote, this is the way it would go. 

We can debate the works of Marcel Duchamp in a post to come. For now, the arts (National Leaguers only):

MVP

  1. Joey Votto, Reds
  2. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
  3. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
  4. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
  5. Roy Halladay, Phillies
  6. Adrian Gonzalez, Padres
  7. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
  8. Brian McCann, Braves
  9. Aubrey Huff, Giants

10.  Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies

Generally when selecting these types of awards I prefer to eschew the stats and focus on the best player on the best team. As my good friend and producer of the Daily News Live program on CSN, Dan Roche, says, “Wins are a fancy metric that explains which teams gets to go to the playoffs and which does not.” So based on that astute (and right) point, Joey Votto is the MVP over Albert Pujols in the National League.

Of course it helps that Votto also rates in the top three in the Triple Crown categories and has the best OPS in the league, but simply, Votto’s team was much better than those of Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m a sucker for a good story and Votto and the Reds are all of that. Last season Votto went on the disabled list for clinical depression brought on by the sudden death of his father, a condition that inflicts many but is still kind of a taboo issue in the slow-to-change world of baseball. Meanwhile, the Reds ran away with the NL Central just a season after their ninth straight losing season. The Reds success comes from their improved hitting, which paced by Votto, led the National League in batting, runs, slugging and homers.

So Votto is the MVP because winning matters.

Cy Young

  1. Roy Halladay, Phillies
  2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies
  3. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

Go ahead and rate the No. 2 or No. 3 finisher wherever you like, just put Halladay at the top of the Cy Young list. Indeed, the winning argument plays big here since Halladay went 21-10 and had just two no-decisions, which means when the game was on the line he was in there.

Then again, with 250 2/3 innings and the league leadership in complete games, shutouts, wins and walks per nine innings stand out, too. But here are some other interesting stats on Halladay’s season.

  • Halladay walked just four batters in four pitches in 2010. That’s up from one in 2009.
  • 26 percent of the hitters Halladay faced in 2010 fell into an 0-2 count.
  • Nearly 70 percent of Halladay’s first pitches were strikes.

Obviously, Halladay’s command and repertoire of pitches plays well. So too does his standing as the ace amongst aces on the Phillies staff. Not only was he the first Phillies pitcher to win 20 games since Steve Carlton in 1982 and the first righty in club history to win 20 since Robin Roberts in 1955, but also no Phillies pitcher has sniffed at 250 innings since Curt Schilling tallied 268 in 1998.

Meanwhile, Halladay should be the first Phillies pitcher to win the award since Steve Bedrosian in 1987 and the fourth different Phillie to do it (Bedrosian, Carlton, John Denny).

Rookie of the Year

  1. Buster Posey, Giants
  2. Jason Heyward, Braves
  3. Jaime Garcia, Cardinals

Wait a second… where’s Stephen Strasburg? Perhaps he’ll return to battle for the Cy Young Award in 2012 after a partial rookie season ended with an appointment with the orthopedist. Nevertheless, the 2010 rookie class in the National League is pretty solid. Gabby Sanchez and Mike Stanton of the Marlins had strong seasons, but didn’t make the list. In the NL Central Neil Walker of the Pirates, Chris Johnson of the Astros, and Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin of the Cubs, should be mainstays.

Still, the Giants Buster Posey can hit, and better yet, he’s a catcher who can play some first base when he needs a break from squatting. Really, it’s a pretty crowded field where six or seven different guys could win and no one should complain.

Manager of the Year

  1. Dusty Baker, Reds
  2. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
  3. Bud Black, Padres

One of these years Charlie Manuel should win the manager of the year award, and if there was ayear to do it, 2010 seemed right. After all, Manuel might have done his best skippering this year, keeping together the team as it busted at the seams and fell to 48-46 shortly after the All-Star Break only to go 47-18 the rest of the way. But Dusty Baker gets it since the Reds had nine straight losing seasons and haven’t been to the playoffs since 1995.

Plus, Dusty is just so cool, isn’t he? With the always-present toothpick, fashionable glasses and wristbands it’s hard to deny Dusty’s style. Why would a manager need wristbands? Really, Dusty… wristbands? Does Ttto Francona even wear a jersey under his windbreaker?

Besides, who didn’t want to see Dusty smack up Tony La Russa during that brawl between the Reds and Cardinals last month? Come on… admit it. You wanted to see Dusty put him in a figure-four leg lock.

Halladay lucky and good to get to 20 wins

Halladay A couple of years ago, the media grabbed onto the Phillies’ 10,000th loss as way to prove the futility of a ballclub that had captured just one championship in 124 years to that point. Missing from all the point-and-laughter over the milestone loss, of course, was any semblance of context. Yes, the Phillies were a flat-out dreadful baseball club throughout the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, most of the 1950s, a majority of the 1960s, the first half of the 1970s, the latter part of the 1980s and all but one year of the 1990s.

But really… that’s just nitpicking.

Seriously, if we have said it once we’ve said it a thousand times: stick around long enough and your team will lose some games. And as one of the older clubs in the history of Major League Baseball, the Phillies have lost more games than any other team in professional sports history.

Hey, there always has to be a loser, right?

But during this portion of franchise history, the Phillies are on an unprecedented run. They are about to lock up a playoff appearance for the fourth straight season for the first time in club history, and baring a seismic collapse the Phils should finish the year with a win total that rates in the top three or four in club history.

Indeed, these are heady times for the Phillies. That’s especially the case considering the team has had just one losing season since 2001[1], a streak only surpassed by the run the club had during its first Golden Age during the mid-1970s and early 1980s.Considering the Phillies have an excellent shot to become the first National League team to make it to the World Series in three consecutive years since Stan Musial’s Cardinals did it in 1942, 1943 and 1944 (they made it back in 1946, too), we’re going to be talking about these Phillies for decades.

So why is it that until Roy Halladay finished the deal on Tuesday night that the Phillies had not seen a pitcher win 20 games in a season since 1982? Or, better yet, how come a right-handed pitcher hadn’t come close since Robin Roberts did it in 1955?

Maybe if folks were looking for something to grab onto to personify the amount of difficulty winning games the Phillies have had historically, perhaps the dearth of 20-game winners is the trenchant caveat. After all, since Steve Carlton last did it in ’82, 20 games had been won 98 times in the major leagues. In fact, three men in the Phillies clubhouse—Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Jamie Moyer—did it a combined six times during the Phillies’ drought.

Hell, Joaquin Andujar, the flakey right-hander with the Cardinals, won 20 in consecutive seasons in ’84 and ’85. Other infamous notables to win 20 games between Carlton and Halladay are pitchers like Lamar Hoyt, John Smiley, Jose Lima, Ramon Martinez (Pedro’s brother), Richard Dotson, Esteban Loiaza, Jon Lieber, Mike Hampton, Matt Morris, John Burkett, Rick Helling, Scott Erickson, Bill Gullickson and Danny Jackson.

Meanwhile, the Phillies had one pitcher win 19 games in a season (John Denny in ’83) and another lose 19 games in a season (Omar Daal in 2000). Otherwise, few, if any, Phillies pitchers even flirted with winning 20. Lieber got to 18 in 2005 and Curt Schilling won 17 games once. During the 1987 season, Shane Rawley was 17-6 on Aug. 31 then proceeded to lose his next five decisions while the Phillies went 2-5 in his final seven starts.

Look, we all know that wins is hardly the most important stat to determine the ability of a pitcher. After all, Nolan Ryan went 8-16 with a league-leading 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts during that odd 1987 season and finished in the top five in the Cy Young Award balloting.

But as manager Charlie Manuel tried to explain after Tuesday’s game, there’s something magical about a pitcher who wins 20 games.

“To me, 20 wins in the sign of an exceptional season,” Manuel said. “It'’s a prestige thing. People remember when you win 20 games.”

Still, that doesn’t explain why the Phillies have not been able to have a 20-game winner until now. Halladay says typically a 20-game winner pitches for a good team and that it is a “team accomplishment” where the pitcher often doesn’t have much control.

“I think it says more about the team than anything,” Halladay said. “In the past when I had done it, the team played well when I pitched, but not so well the other times.”

Lefty Nevertheless, how does a team like the Phillies go 28 years without a 20-game winner? Better yet, how does a team go 55 years without a right-handed pitcher getting 20 wins in a season? It has to be some sort of a freak thing, right…

“I would think so,” Halladay said. “Based on the teams they’ve had here it’s just a matter of time before Cole [Hamels] does it. I think that with a little bit of luck he probably could have done it this year. There’s definitely a lot that goes into it, but there are a lot of guys here who are capable of doing it.”

Halladay explained it perfectly. To win 20 games in a season a pitcher has to be both lucky and good with an extra serving of lucky. Think about it… Halladay has 20 wins this season, but he also has 10 losses. In those 10 losses Halladay’s strikeouts-to-walks ratio is actually better than it is in his wins. Plus, six of his losses have come in games where he received two runs or less in support. Strangely, Halladay has a losing record (8-9) when the Phillies score up to five runs for him.

Along those lines, Hamels has suffered eight of his 10 losses in games where the Phillies scored two runs or less and he’s 9-2 when he gets at least three runs.

So let’s chalk it up to 28 years of weird luck as the reason no Phillies’ pitcher has broken through the 20-win barrier. It’s just one of those baseball things that can be explained to a point and then everything just falls apart.

Kind of like a calculus class.

As for the 10,000-plus losses since 1883, talent, more than luck, ruled there.


1 The Phillies went 80-81in 2002, a fact that drove then manager Larry Bowa insane. The record was one thing, but the reason why the Phillies lost the last game of the season to the Marlins might be something that ends up causing the stress that finally kills the man. Locked in a tie game with one out in the 10th inning and the speedy Luis Castillo on third base, Juan Encarnacion lifted a pop up in foul territory that first baseman Travis Lee would have been wise to let drop. But Lee had a plane to catch in order to get home for the off-season. If the game lasted too much longer, he would miss that flight. So he caught the ball with his back to the infield and his momentum carrying him away from the action. Castillo easily scored on the sac fly, the season ended and Lee caught his flight.

As Halladay wins again, Drabek quietly makes his entrance

Kyle_drabek BALTIMORE — Kyle Drabek spent the afternoon before his first big league start walking around the streets near Camden Yards, the memories flooding back like faded, old pictures. Then again, the last time he walked around these streets he was 10 years old and his dad was winding down his major league career with the Orioles.

“I remember the Astros, White Sox and Orioles and I do remember coming here,” young Drabek said about life growing up with a dad working as a big-league pitcher. “Today, when I was walking around the city I was able to point out to my mom things that I could remember.”

Strangely enough, the very first start of Doug Drabek’s big league career came in Baltimore when he was coming up with the Yankees. In a perfect bit of symmetry, the elder Drabek’s final game in the big leagues came when he was pitching for the Orioles.

It’s also a fun, little coincidence that Kyle Drabek, the Phillies’ much-ballyhooed first-round draft pick in 2006, made his major league debut on a night when Roy Halladay sewed up his 19th win of the season for the team that drafted him. The differences, of course, are vast. While Drabek was taking the ball in a September call-up for the Blue Jays who were playing out the string against the Orioles at Camden Yards, Halladay was in Florida helping the Phils display their dominance over the rest of the NL East.

At Camden Yards, Drabek lasted six innings where he allowed nine hits, three runs, three walks and got five strikeouts. Four of those whiffs came during the first two innings and the young righty pitched from the stretch to 16 hitters. In other words, Drabek had his back against the wall quite often, yet displayed some big-time maturity in a game that lasted just one-hour, fifty-five minutes.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Drabek said after the game. “I felt like I was taking more time between pitches. It wasn’t moving too fast.”

So even in Toronto, Drabek is a piece of the puzzle for the Phillies. After all, Halladay would not be in Miami solidifying his Cy Young Award credentials if it weren’t for Drabek potential and polish. It’s also doubtful that Drabek would be pitching in a major league game at this stage of his career if it weren’t for general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s obsession with acquiring Halladay. After all, Drabek appears to have the inside track for a spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation in 2011and that’s without spending a single day at Triple-A.

Talent, of course, wins out. At least that’s what Phils skipper Charlie Manuel always says. And in that regard Drabek is one of a kind. Just 22 with five pro seasons and a Tommy John surgery already under his belt, Drabek is wise beyond his years on the mound. Mix in the fact that his dad, Doug, spent 13 seasons pitching in the big leagues and won the NL Cy Young Award in 1990 and the young Drabek has a pedigree better than most Kentucky Derby winners. 

In other words, the kid knows how to pitch. So much so that Manuel didn’t compare him to his dad when discussing Drabek before the trade, but to another hard-throwing right-hander…

Yeah, try Tom Seaver.

“It'd be tough for me to trade Drabek,” Manuel said last year when the Phillies were talking about dealing the kid. “I like Drabek because he’s strong in his legs and his hips and he’s a drop-and-drive kind of pitcher. I’m not a pitching coach, but I like his mechanics and I like where he comes from and he’s a strong-bodied kid, like a Tom Seaver type or a Bartolo Colon, and he’s got that kind of stuff. And he’s young, and I think he has a big upside to him.”

His stuff is pure power pitcher. Drabek throws a fastball in the upper 90s and a hard slider that looks like it’s going to kneecap the hitter before it takes a hard left to the opposite corner. It’s a repertoire that is rarely learned and seldom taught. It’s force of nature stuff.

But like any kid his age with a right arm touched by the baseball gods, Drabek just shrugs when asked about the nuances of the game. He was simply happy to be pitching and having fun with his family making the trip from their home near Houston, Texas to watch him play. He couldn’t stop smiling when talking about how his dad must feel watching a second generation of Drabeks make it to the majors.

“The main thing I wanted to do was finish the whole season without any injuries and I was able to do that,” the kid said. “Then, getting called up was just icing on the cake.”

Big-time potential
Drabek’s current skipper, the well-regarded Cito Gaston, sees something different in Drabek that most doe-eyed kids stepping into a major league clubhouse don’t possess. It’s self-assurance that he belongs in the big leagues, as if a birthright. Moreover, unlike most of the entitled elite class, Drabek has paid some dues. He’s been smacked around and he’s had to go through seasons of rehab. In Drabek, Gaston sees something that he has seen in other sons of big leaguers he worked with.

“They have been around the park and they have been around the game. I think they have some of that bloodline in them so most of them know how to stay calm and cool,” Gaston said. “Kids of major leaguers, you can tell, they’re different. … They have been a part of this for a long time.”

So in his debut in the big leagues, add another bit of wisdom to the young Drabek’s development. After throwing a first-pitch strike to Brian Roberts and waiting for a new ball to replace the one tossed aside for a keepsake, Drabek’s second pitch was laced to left for a single. His third pitch was also smacked to left for a single, too, before he settled in and retired the next three hitters in the one-run first.

For Drabek, the first outing in the big leagues opened with three pitches, two hits, two stolen bases, one run and one loss.

“Good damage control,” the beaming dad Doug said as his son walked out of the third-base dugout to the mound during the third inning. “It could have gotten bad, but to get out of it with just one run he had good damage control. Probably on my report it would say, ‘Good damage control in the first inning.’”

Drabek continued the damage-control theme in the third and fifth innings, too, but it was the fourth inning that sealed his fate when the Orioles cobbled together two runs on three hits. In six innings Drabek pitched to eight hitters with runners in scoring position, but still managed to keep the Blue Jays in the game. That’s where the pedigree comes in, says Gaston.

“That’s part of him growing up in a family of baseball players,” Gaston said afterwards. “Guys that know how to stay calm in tough situations end up staying up here and guys that can’t stay calm, don’t. He showed a lot of poise when he got in trouble.” 

Doug_drabek Cool and calm
The son probably showed more poise than the father. In fact, it will probably take a chisel to remove the ear-to-ear smile off the elder Drabek’s face that was put there with equal parts nervousness and immense pride.

But rather than act like an overbearing stage dad, the elder Drabek said he just wanted his son to enjoy the moment. Careers in baseball don’t last too long, and even though the father spent 13 years in the majors, he was gone from the game when he was still a relatively young man. He was actually two years older than his son is when he broke in and spent six years as one of the best pitchers in the National League. However, after he signed a big free-agent deal with the Astros, Drabek won just 42 more games in the big leagues and by 1998, the career was over.

He was just 35.

“The only thing I told him was not to change anything – it’s still the same game,” Doug said. “I just want him to soak it all in and enjoy it.”

That’s what the old man did.

“My first start was [in Baltimore at] the old stadium,” he remembered, smile plastered on his face. “My first game was in Oakland and I remember my first two pitches were two sliders to [Jose] Canseco and I got a popup. Then Dave Kingman was next and then [Mike Davis] was after him. That’s three big guys. That’s what I remember the most.”

Kyle, on the other hand, faced a team headed for 100 losses while the team that dealt him was increasing its lead on the way to a fourth straight playoffs appearance. But Kyle didn’t care much about the Phillies. Not anymore. Sure, they helped him get started, but figured they didn’t need him to get another trip to the World Series.

Maybe in time the Phillies will kick themselves for trading away Drabek, but for now it’s working out pretty well for both sides.

“It kind of felt like any other day. I got a few more texts than I normally get, but it was a lot like any other day,” the rookie said.

“I was glad that my whole family was here.”

Ryan Madson, the bullpen phone rings for thee

Madson On paper, two years removed, it looked like nothing more than a bad outing for a relief pitcher in a tight, late August game. What made this one particularly bad was that reliever Ryan Madson helped turn a sure win into an ugly defeat with just seven pitches.

August 28, 2008 was the date and the Phillies were six outs away from a win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Madson needed only to get through the eighth inning to hand off a ninth-inning lead to closer Brad Lidge. But those seven pitches resulted in a homer, a double and a single. Instead of giving Lidge a ninth-inning lead, Madson turned it over to Chad Durbin who quickly made the lead vanish.

But it wasn’t the performance that led to Madson’s season-changing moment… a veritable moment of clarity for the pitcher. It was the discussion afterwards with manager Charlie Manuel that turned it all around. Actually, in a discussion there was a give-and-take. In this one there was all give.

“I chewed his ass out,” Manuel said with a wry smile months after the moment and a few hours before Madson pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the clinching game of the NLCS. It must have worked, too, because Madson allowed just one run in the rest of regular season and three during the playoff run.

Of course Madson also worked hard on his shoulder exercises and received regular treatments with a chiropractor to help his fastball climb to 98-mph, which might have more to do with his big-time pitching down the stretch. Then again, every once in a while a guy needs to get chewed out. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it makes a helluva story.

Needless to say, there will not be any of those types of discussions this year. Madson doesn’t need it. Better yet, even though Madson spent a big chunk of the season on the disabled list as a result of a broken toe suffered when he kicked a chair after blowing a save chance in San Francisco[1], he won’t need to have any discussions with anyone about his performance.

“It’s been a perfectly normal year,” Madson said on Wednesday afternoon before the series finale against the Marlins at the Bank.

And that’s a good thing. Normal for Madson means he’s one of the top set-up men in the league, and maybe a guy who could take over as a closer sometime soon. In fact, Madson was Manuel’s closer for the first month of the season while Lidge was on the disabled list, and he finished off Tuesday night’s victory over the Marlins with 1 1/3 innings of work.

When Madson took over in a save situation in Wednesday night’s 10-6 victory, it was his 10th appearance in 13 days. That’s old-school workload. That’s Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage style, or at least the modern day facsimile of it.

“I always thought he could close games, but it’s just a matter of him feeling confident about himself and comfortable and having some success and adjusting to that role,” Manuel said.

“I think he’s getting there. The only way we’ll know is if we send him out there for a season and see if he can hold his own.”

In addition to it being a perfectly normal season, Madson says, “I feel fine” in regards to the work Manuel has piled on him. Based on the numbers, it’s impossible to argue considering he has worked 9 2/3 innings with 12 strikeouts and no earned runs in the last 10 outings.

In fact, Madson has been charged with an earned run in just one game going back to July 29, a span of 25 games. In that time the righty has pitched 25 innings, racked up 36 strikeouts with a win, a save and 10 holds.

But, as pitching coach Rich Dubee eluded, big deal.

“He’s been a big part of our success here. I’m not surprised,” Dubee said. “This is what the guy does.”

That’s not a bad trait to have for a pitcher. Madson gets called on to get outs and comes through without complaint or injury… unless he’s kicking the hell out of a chair. Actually, not only has Madson pitched in 10 games over the last 13 days, but he also has appeared in more games than any pitcher in the big leagues since July 26.

As it looks for the final 21 games of the season, it appears as if the Phillies want be shy about using Madson, either. Dubee says Madson appears to be “fresher” than most of his teammates in the ‘pen largely because of the time spent on the DL, but also because his repertoire of pitches appears to be so “lively.”

Plus, if the way Manuel used his relievers down the stretch in 2007 is any indication, Madson better have enjoyed his rest. With relatively few dependable relievers and a dogfight with the Mets in the NL East, Manuel used Brett Myers, Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero seemingly every game. Actually, Myers appeared in 16 games during September, including 12 of the last 16. Gordon made it into 18 games in the final month, including 13 of the final 16, and Romero got into 20 of the 27 September games and 17 of the final 22.

When the playoffs started, Romero got into every game, while Gordon and Myers appeared in two of the three.

Is that what’s in store for Madson? We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, the veteran right-hander seems to have stepped up his game to a higher level.


[1] Madson’s toe was broken into pieces as a result of his run-in with the chair in San Francisco. So imagine how hard that chair must have been kicked. Certainly each of us has kicked or punched a solid, inanimate object in a fit of anger really, really hard and rarely does it result in an injury, let alone a toe smashed into pieces. Moreover, Madson spent nearly three months on the disabled list with his toe injury… from kicking a chair! Anyone want to guess what the chair looked like afterwards?

Howard and Utley bring the chicken soup

Utley_howard Who doesn’t like a little baseball wisdom?

All it takes is one…

Take two and hit it to the opposite field…

The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three run homers…

Oh yes, the three-run homer. Is there anything it can’t cure? It’s like penicillin or chicken soup, and oftentimes it just takes one to make everything feel better. Knowing how troubled the Phillies’ offense has been this season, it seemed as if a little three-run homer for the soul is exactly what the team needed.

Actually, if it were Ryan Howard to provide some of the medicine, even better.

Ryan Howard and home runs have kind of been strangers lately. In fact, Howard hadn’t hit a homer since July 27, a span of 13 games. Add in the 16 games he missed because of his injured ankle, and it seemed like forever since The Big Piece hit a homer. Worse, the homer drought was sort of a microcosm of his post-DL production. Going just 4-for-36 with no extra-base hits, one RBI and 16 strikeouts was just as ugly to watch as it was to read.

“You see it. If you watch the games you can see I’m not comfortable in the box. I’m just trying to get it back, get a good pitch to hit and go from there,” Howard said last week. “It’s tough when you’re on the DL and you get out of that rhythm it’s kind of like going back to spring training all over again.”

Apparently, the problem was nothing more than finding that rhythm. Knowing that Howard and Chase Utley were like bombs waiting to explode, manager Charlie Manuel may have put his guys back into the lineup sooner than he should have. But that’s the thing about explosives—there’s a lot of patience involved. You have to wait for the reward. Obviously, Manuel was willing to put up with the bad in order to get to the good.

“We wanted them back, but the people who saw them play [said they were ready] and they wanted them to come back,” Manuel said. “If we would have left them down there longer and let them get a few at-bats, yeah, they would have benefited from it. But where we were at, we wanted them back when they were healthy.”

Clearly it has to be a little more than a coincidence that the Phillies scored eight runs in a game where Howard belted a three-run homer. Truth is the Phillies hadn’t scored more than eight runs in a game in two weeks until The Big Piece hit his three-run bomb to left-center field on Tuesday night. Better yet, Howard’s homer was followed by a long double in Wednesday’s finale and five more runs to take two out of three against the Dodgers.

“I wasn’t happy about hitting a home run,” Howard said. “I was just happy to get a hit.”

Looking for something to highlight for the moment when the Phillies got it going? It just might turn out to be the Aug. 31 game at Dodger Stadium where Howard hit that three-run homer. In the two winning games against the Dodgers, the Phillies scored 13 runs which is nearly as many as they scored in the six previous games.

Howard hit the long ones and Utley… well, he just hit. Certainly that was a welcomed change considering the other big bat in the middle of the order went 5-for-9 in the two games against the Dodgers with three doubles in Wednesday’s finale. A 5-for-9 offsets a 2-for-21 jag pretty nicely.

“When we’re clicking it seems like everyone wants to hit with him,” Manuel said. “Like if Howard and Utley are hitting, everyone else does too. They want to be along with it.”

The good part about that is it’s time to hit. The Phillies have been winning games despite their offense. It’s almost as if the pitching staff has decided to carry the load alone since there has been so little help from the hitters.

Howard is a monster in September. In exactly a season’s worth of September games—162 in the month during his career—heading into Wednesday’s tilt, Howard has clubbed 52 homers and picked up 141 RBIs to go with a .314 batting average. When other plays slow down as the season dwindles, the big man heats up. With the benefit of 16 extra days off, Howard should be quite ready if he has his mojo working.

And maybe that will be the tonic for Utley, too. Notoriously a slow finisher, partially because he has played through injuries, Utley has the benefit of 46 games off. Time spent on the disabled list should rejuvenate Utley down the stretch for a change, which was the silver lining when the injuries hit.

So now that the offense is hitting back, it’s just a matter of the Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt maintaining to the finish line. Oh yes, that’s the first part of the perfect remedy. If the three-run homer is the chicken soup, the pitching is what ties it together.

The chicken soup might make the Phillies feel better, but they can’t survive without H2O.

Strasburg’s injury hurts more than Nationals

Strasburg It’s no fun celebrating cautionary tales or being a cynic. No one with any semblance of tact or class wants to be the “told-you-so” guy or the jackass always pointing out the mistakes of others. There’s too much of that as it is.

It would have been fun to witness greatness for a change. No, not the drug-fueled superhuman feats of strength that defined baseball just a short time ago, but instead we long for pure, unbridled skill and talent. A right arm touched by the gods, for lack of better hyperbole.

So with the news that Stephen Strasburg, the once-in-a-lifetime pitching phenom for the Washington Nationals, would likely have to undergo Tommy John surgery to fix that right arm, well, the cynicism rang hollow.

No one wanted the kid to get hurt. Not the players on the Phillies, manager Charlie Manuel or any real fans of the game. Yeah, the Phillies have six games remaining against the Nationals and will likely be fighting for a playoff spot in those games, so not having to face a pitcher like Strasburg is key. In his lone appearance against the Phillies, which was also the game where the “significant tear” of the ligament holding his elbow together was too much to bear, the pitcher dominated. He allowed two hits in 4 1/3 innings without a walk to go with six strikeouts. Noting that he had three mediocre outings in a row leading up to the game against the Phillies, the first four innings of the game were promising.

Manuel, who said he was looking forward to seeing the kid pitch against his team in the days leading up to the game, was pleased to report that the hype matched the skill. Even Ryan Howard, who got one of the hits against Strasburg, walked away impressed.

“He has an easy 98-mph fastball and a great hammer. He’s really good, though it’s like some of us said — the media took it and ran with it,” Howard said. “To his credit, he’s handled it all pretty well.”

Easy. That was the word a lot of players used when talking about Strasburg’s pitching motion. It seemed as if he wasted very little energy before throwing the ball 100-mph. He also had that hammer—the curve ball from hell—that had the makings of becoming the best pitch in the game.

That is if it wasn’t already.

Then he reportedly heard a “pop” in his elbow and got scared. Obviously, that pop resonated pretty loudly because it conjured up names and tales of haunted glory and unfilled promise. As quickly as one of those fastballs old names were bandied about. And as skewed as the angle on his curve, opinion came from mouth breathers of satellite radio and the floor of Congress. Actually, you could set your watch to it. Todd Van Poppel, David Clyde, Brien Taylor, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood should be starring in beer commercials any day for as much as they have been talked about lately. Talk about a Q rating…

Or maybe we should say, gentlemen, start your second-guessing. Based on watching Strasburg pitch in the minors, his major league debut and his final big league start, the kid was treated as if he were a Ming vase since signing with the Nats last year. Even in the minors Strasburg had an entourage of major league public relations people setting up the velvet ropes around the meal ticket. Moreover, his outings were monitored as if they were science experiments with strict pitch counts and plenty of rest.

If there was one pitcher who should not have gotten hurt it was Strasburg. After all, there were all those ex-big leaguers who said the kid was being babied too much. He needed to toughen up and pitch more.

Oops.

“It's frustrating, because this happens to people you think it shouldn't happen to,” Nats GM Mike Rizzo told The Washington Post. “This player was developed and cared for the correct way. Things like this happen. Pitchers break down. Pitchers get hurt. We're satisfied with the way he was developed. I know [Strasburg's agent] Scott Boras was satisfied with the way he's been treated, and Stephen is also. We're good with that. Frustrated, yes. Second-guessing ourselves, no.”

The silver lining is that Tommy John surgery is very common. There are plenty of players on every team in the big leagues that have undergone the operation, which more and more seems like one of those milestones pitchers have to cross…

The minors, a big league debut, arbitration, free agency and Tommy John. Not necessarily in that order.

There’s also a chance that when Strasburg returns in April of 2012 that his fastball will be faster than it was before. The drawback is it will take him some time to regain the feel for his curveball, but the fastball will be OK. Besides, there were nine players in the All-Star Game that had Tommy John surgery: Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Arthur Rhodes, Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria, Hong-Chih Kuo, Rafael Soriano and Billy Wagner.

Is baseball doomed in D.C.?
The problem isn’t the surgery, it’s the recovery. It’s not the process, either, but the time. In baseball, like any other corporate structure, time is money. Considering that Strasburg wasn’t just the ace of the Nats, but also The Franchise, it’s fair to ask if baseball in Washington can weather this storm. Yes, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman are good ballplayers, and Josh Willingham is having a tremendous season while Nyjer Morgan could become a solid leadoff man. But those guys weren’t putting the butts in the seats.

Only the Pirates and Marlins averaged fewer fans per game than the Nationals amongst National League teams, and even in Strasburg’s last home start just 21,695 fans turned out—a good 2,000 below the team’s average per game.

So even with Strasburg was baseball viable in Washington?

Think about it… Washington is a two-time loser in baseball, yet when the Expos where no longer right for Montreal, MLB insisted on giving the city a third shot. Worse, they stuck it to the overburdened taxpayers of D.C. and forced them to build a ballpark that no one goes to.

Now it could be a career-threatening arm injury to cause a section of Southeast D.C. to go back to its pre-Nationals Park form, while the franchise moves on to Portland, Charlotte, Las Vegas or maybe even Monterrey, Mexico. We’ll start using names like Brien Taylor, David Clyde and Todd Van Poppel. We’ll tell more cautionary tales only to go back to believing the hype with the next kid with an arm that supersedes his years.

Washington could be a three-time loser with baseball, which only guarantees that there will not be a fourth chance.

“He’s going to be a tremendous pitcher,” Manuel said. “He has to stay healthy, though.”

Stay healthy because only the entire franchise is depending on it.

Brown making his way in a familiar manner

Brown It was after the third inning of a Sunday afternoon game at The Vet on Sept. 17, 2000 when it was painfully obvious that Jimmy Rollins was never going to spend a minute in the minor leagues again. Only 21 that afternoon, Rollins hit a triple to lead off the inning for his first hit, but didn’t move too far from the bag afterwards as Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Travis Lee struck out in order to end the inning.

But the point was made. Rollins was a big leaguer. No longer did he have to defer to the likes of Desi Relaford, Tomas Perez and Alex Arias because he needed to spend time at Triple-A so he could get the chance to play every day. All Terry Francona—and then Larry Bowa—had to do was write his name in the lineup and let him go.

Actually, the third-inning triple was just for show. Rollins walked into the old clubhouse ready to go. There was no sense denying it any more.

Just about 10 years later, Rollins snuck a peak over at rookie Dom Brown as he fished through his locker for his batting practice gear, and was asked the same question. He’d sign his name on a bat, glance over at the 6-foot-6 outfielder, and then smile mischievously remembering what it was like back when he was trying to elbow his way into the big-league lineup for good.

“You’ll have to ask Ruben that,” Rollins said with a knowing smile when asked if Brown will ever have to go back to the minors to be a regular player.

In other words, the answer was no. Rollins didn’t say it because he didn’t need to. If the Phillies wanted to send Brown back to the minors for more seasoning, they had plenty of chances to do it by now.

So let’s ask the general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. about Brown’s immediate future.

“It would have been nice [to get Brown more playing time], but right now we’re trying to win as many games as we can and he has the ability to do some things that even if he’s not playing every day to help us,” Amaro explained. “He has the ability to run the bases and hit with some power from the left side as we’ve seen. He gives us the chance to have the best club out there.”

Certainly Brown is in a position Rollins never went through. When he came up from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to play shortstop he didn’t have to look over his shoulder or wait his turn. From Sept. 17, 2000 to today, Rollins has been the Phillies shortstop without question. In fact, there stands a good chance that the team will offer Rollins a contract extension simply because there is no one in the minors breathing down his neck. Plus, even though Rollins is the longest-tenured Phillie, it’s not like he’s old or getting old. He’s coming into his prime athletic years right now with contract that ends after the 2011 season.

Rollins_rookie “I’m only 31,” Rollins said. “And the only reason I’ve been here the longest is because Pat (Burrell) left. You have to give those guys credit for drafting guys, bringing them along and keeping them together.”

In other words, Rollins wants to stick around for a while. And who knows? Maybe if the right deal is struck Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels very well could spend their entire careers playing for just one team. Needless to say, in the free agency era players tend to bounce from team to team a lot so if the Phillies are able to keep their main guys together. It says a lot about the guys running the club and the players, too.

A few lockers down, the next great Phillie quietly prepared for a game where he might only get in to pinch hit. Interestingly, Brown has been called on to pinch hit as many times (9) as Rollins has since 2006. Chalk that up to an experience Brown will have when he is a veteran that guys like Rollins, Howard and Utley don’t know all that well.

Where they all have common ground is in the waiting. Like Brown and Rollins, Utley and Howard had to wait in line to get into the big leagues, too. For Rollins it simply was a matter of seasoning since it’s likely he could have skipped the 2000 season at Triple-A and hit .221 like Arias, Relaford and Perez combined for that year. But unlike those guys, Brown is attempting to establish himself on a team that went to the World Series for two straight years. Rollins joined a Phillies team that was on the way to 97 losses and replacing the manager. That’s about as different a situation as one can get.

In other words, it was a good idea for Rollins to spend the season playing for a team that went to the championship round of the playoffs. Just like it’s a good idea for Brown to take the ride with the two-time defending National League champs instead of dominating for a Triple-A club playing out the string.

Brown definitely will learn more in the big leagues than he would in Allentown for the rest of the season.

In the meantime, Brown will wait for his chance just like the other big guns on the team had to do. Of course before he realizes, he’ll blink and will be 10 years into his major league career just like Rollins.

“It feels like it was just yesterday,” Rollins said about that sunny Sunday in September of 2000 when he hit that first triple.

It always feels that way. No matter what.

Sweeney poised to seize the moment

Sweeney When Matt Stairs joined the Phillies in late August of 2008, no one really thought much of it. Stairs was going to be a pinch hitter — an extra left-handed bat off the bench — for the September playoff race. There were no illusions as to why the Phillies traded for Stairs.

Then again, Stairs was just another late-season pick-up by general manager Pat Gillick in a long list of such moves. In 2006 Gillick swung a post-deadline deal for veteran Jeff Conine as well as less splashier moves to get veterans Jose Hernandez and Randall Simon. Jamie Moyer also came aboard in a late-season trade in ’06 and still hasn’t left.

Sometimes those additions have a smaller impact. For instance, in late 2007 the Phillies picked up Russell Branyan for two weeks in August before trading him to the Cardinals just before the September postseason rosters had to be set. But in nine at-bats with the Phillies, Branyan hit two home runs to go with six strikeouts.

That’s pretty much the definition of hit-or-miss.

Stairs wasn’t quite as extreme as Branyan during his 2008 run with the Phillies. He got into 19 games during the final month, hit two homers (three strikeouts) and even started three times. But even then Stairs just kind of blended in.

Until the playoffs, that is…

Stairs, of course, hit a home run in Game 4 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium that very well might be the most clutch hit in franchise history. After that homer that propelled the Phils to the win in Game 4 and the clincher in Game 5, it didn’t really matter what he did afterwards. That home run was enough, but the fact that he said all of the right things and embraced the Philly fans was the icing on the cake.

So it’s with that nod to cult-hero worship that Mike Sweeney arrived in Philadelphia as yet another shrewd, post-deadline move. In fact, Sweeney was quickly dubbed, “The Right-Handed Matt Stairs” upon his arrival as a backup first baseman to Ryan Howard as well as the quintessential “professional hitter” for late-game pinch-hitting situations.

Still, for a guy who has driven in 144 RBIs in a season, batted better than .300 five times and a 200-hit season, before injuries cost him much of the past five seasons, comparisons to Stairs didn’t seem to fit Sweeney’s career arc when he broke in with Kansas City in 1995. With the Royals, Sweeney the team’s best player and biggest box office draw. In fact, the Royals’ only winning season since George Brett retired came in 2003 when Sweeney and Raul Ibanez, with Carlos Beltran, were just a few of the eight guys on the team to club at least 13 homers.

Sweeney was a star in Kansas City even though he and Stairs were teammates during three straight 100-loss seasons. Nevertheless, it’s kind of strange that just a handful of years removed from being teammates, the star of those teams hopes to follow in the footsteps of the quintessential journeyman.

“It’s an honor to be compared to Matt,” Sweeney said before Monday night’s game against the Astros at the Bank. “He’s a great competitor, a great teammate and a good friend.”

What Sweeney has going for him is that just like Stairs he’s the kind of player manager Charlie Manuel likes to have around. The manager likes hitters with track records and even though Sweeney hasn’t played in more than 74 games since 2005, Manuel is confident in his veteran hitter for one big reason…

“I’ve seen him. I’ve seen him his entire career,” the manager said.

“Sweeney hadn’t played much this year and he got to play some, which was good for him,” Manuel said. “I look for Sweeney to really help us coming off the bench when Howard comes back. That will cut into his playing time, of course, but in September having him and (Ben) Francisco on the bench gives us two really good right-handed hitters.”

Before the injuries became chronic, Sweeney once had a streak of 171 consecutive games played that was snapped when he was suspended for beating up Angels’ pitcher Jeff Weaver when he reportedly insulted Sweeney’s devout Catholic faith. So to find himself on the bench after two decades of being at the heart of his team, admittedly, has been an adjustment, but not one that has been difficult.

After all, the Phillies are just the third team Sweeney has played for that will finish the season with a winning record and he has appeared in the fourth-highest number of games amongst active players without a playoff appearance.

Stairs had something of a playoff drought himself while playing every day in Kansas City, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Chicago during some lean times. But these days he’s working on a third straight playoff appearance with the resurgent Padres in a limited role. Actually, limited doesn’t seem to describe it considering Stairs has started just 12 games this season.

Since joining the Phillies two weeks ago, Sweeney nearly has Stairs beat in starts.

Stairs “I’ve always been an everyday guy, but my role is to come off the bench,” Sweeney said. “That’s what is great about this game. One day you’re playing every day and the next day you’re called on to be a pinch hitter and both days you’re called on to help the team. That’s what it’s all about.”

When he first joined the Phillies, Sweeney called it “a dream come true.” But that was before he spent any time in the clubhouse with his new teammates. The notion of getting to the playoffs and mixing it up in a pennant race was enough.

However, since coming aboard Sweeney has blended in. As a pinch hitter he’s 3-for-8 with a walk, sacrifice fly and two RBIs, and often can be seen talking baseball with rookie Dom Brown, the Phillies’ top prospect who started the season at Double-A.

More than a dream, the stay in Philadelphia has been even better than Sweeney imagined.

“Love it,” he said. “The guys have been great. It’s the best group of guys I’ve ever been around. We’re winning and that’s what we’re here to do.

“It’s awesome. The guys in the clubhouse have a great makeup and fire and passion, so yeah, it’s a joy to be a part of.”

Sweeney can often be found taking extra batting practice before the game before playing catch with his six-year-old son, also dressed in a No. 5 uniform top with “Sweeney” written on the back. In fact, young Sweeney is already such a fixture in the team’s clubhouse that he already has a signature handshake with boss of the romper room, Shane Victorino.

Matt Stairs used to talk that way, too. In fact, he still talks fondly about his time with the Phillies, and not just because it allowed him a chance to become a folk hero. Still, comparisons are tough to live up to and even more difficult to rationalize—especially when it’s about something as rare as amazing playoff moments.

But there something about Sweeney that makes one believe that he’s going to make an impact on the season. After all, he’s waited too long to allow the moment to simply slip by.

Does Charlie have Phillies on the right pace?

Big_chuck From the way Charlie Manuel explains it, he’s an organic kind of guy. In baseball there is a natural ebb and flow of things that Charlie doesn’t like to mess with. With its rhythms and whatnot, a baseball season unfolds a certain way for a reason so when there is anomaly that pops up, Charlie rarely bats an eye.

For instance, if a player comes out of the gate hitting everything in sight and posting huge numbers, Charlie doesn’t get too excited. Just wait, he says, everything will even out as long as nature is allowed to work its course. After all, it would be silly to sprint the first mile of a marathon with 25 miles left.

Pace yourself.

So with Shane Victorino back with the team after going 6-for-8 with a homer, triple and four RBIs in two Triple-A rehab games, and Chase Utley cleared to resume his hitting drills while Ryan Howard was back to taking grounders, don’t get too crazy with excitement yet. Charlie says there will be a period where the players will have to knock off some rust.

It won’t be the players’ fitness or skills that will be the issue, the skipper says. It will be the hitters’ timing. As Charlie explains, it often takes a player more time to recover his timing at the plate and his in-game conditioning. Sometimes just gripping a bat feels a bit weird even though the hits could be dropping in. As a result, a late-season injury to guys like Howard, Utley or Victorino might not be the boon logic would dictate.

On the plus side, the Phillies will have some depth.

“I feel like when we get everybody healthy our bench definitely should be as strong as it’s been all year,” Charlie said. “Without a doubt.”

That’s the only doubt Manuel doesn’t have. Otherwise he’s full of them. Baseball managers always are—even successful ones like Big Chuck. Truth is, calling them “managers” is a misnomer this time of year considering there is very little they get to manage at all. With the Phillies it has been about the injuries as well as some inexplicable ineffectiveness with the bullpen. Sure, Brad Lidge appears to have it together despite a bit of a dip in the velocity of his fastball, but the club’s lone lefty, J.C. Romero, is dealing with some strange “slow hand” phenomenon.

“My hand was slow,” Romero explained after a rough outing on Tuesday night against the Dodgers. “Not my arm. My arm got there. My hand was slow.”

Wait… aren’t they connected?

“I still, to a certain extent, don't understand what the problem is,” Charlie said about his lonely lefty. “We have to find out about it.”

See what were saying about “managing?” How can anyone have a say over a guy whose arm is moving faster than his hand? Perhaps it could be Romero’s mouth is working faster than his brain in this instance?

But don’t think for a minute Charlie would trade his injuries for the one Braves’ skipper Bobby Cox is dealing with, or for the craziness Mets’ manager Jerry Manuel has going on with his closer. After all, Victorino can go out there and play tonight while Utley and Howard should be back before the end of the month. Actually, the toughest decision Manuel has looming is whether or not to keep top hitting prospect Dom Brown in the majors or send him back to Triple-A for the final week(s) of the International League season.

Certainly there are some big issues concerning the Phillies, like what they are going to be able to do about the left-handed reliever problem. For now, we’ll just have to pretend that Ryan Madson is a lefty and hope he continues to strikeout left-handed hitters at a rate of 25 percent per at-bat. The righty handled two of the Dodgers’ toughest lefties in the eighth inning of a close game on Wednesday night and might find himself pushed into more righty-on-lefty action as long as Romero’s left hand continues to belabor the pace.

Still, no one with the Phillies was called down to the precinct house in order to post bail for the closer early Thursday morning. According to published reports, the Mets’ All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez cursed at reporters before allegedly walking to another portion of the clubhouse where he was accused of committing third-degree assault on his 53-year-old father-in-law. The 53-year old went off to the hospital, while K-Rod was arraigned and released on $5,000 bail on Thursday.

With the rival Phillies headed for Queens this weekend, K-Rod likely will be serving a team-issued suspension. Meanwhile, ace lefty Johan Santana has been sued for rape by a Florida woman after authorities declined to prosecute.

ChuckIn comparison, Charlie will take those injuries.

But certainly not the one that appears to cost Braves’ future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones the rest of the season. It came out Thursday that Jones tore the ACL in his left knee and likely will have season-ending surgery. If that’s the case, the first-place Braves will go into the final month of the season without their best hitter, who just so happens to be a Phillie killer, while hoping the aches and pains suffered by All-Stars Jason Heyward and Martin Prado relent enough so they can carry the load.

“When you think of the Atlanta Braves, the first guy you think of is Chipper Jones,” Braves’ GM Frank Wren told the Associated Press. “His presence in our lineup has been increasing based on his performance the last couple of months. He was a force. So, yeah, we're losing a lot.”

So put this way, the Phillies might be coming together just in time. Considering spring training lasts approximately six weeks, Charlie’s boys ought to be running at full steam in time for the last week of the season.

Talk about perfect timing.

The not-so mysteriousness of the closer

Brad lidge It’s impossible to know if a single pitch that ends with a bad result can serve as an alarm bell for a pitcher, but ever since Brad Lidge gave up that game-winning home run to Ryan Zimmerman in Washington last weekend, he’s been almost unhittable.

Lidge has appeared in four games since serving up that homer with a one-run lead with one out in the ninth inning at Nationals Park where he has faced 11 hitters and retired 10 of them. Of those 11 hitters, Lidge notched four strikeouts, allowed one single and picked up three more saves to give him 13 this season in 17 chances.

The difference has been his command, says Manuel.

“He’s getting ahead of the hitters or when he falls behind early in the count he rebounds and catches up and he’s in a position to avoid what I call a ‘have-to’ count where he has to throw a certain pitch,” Manuel said. “He’s been getting his slider over and throwing enough fastballs inside. He’s been throwing more strikes.”

No, his season stats don’t pop off the page, but it hasn’t been awful. Though there still is that sense of impending doom when Lidge comes in from the bullpen in the ninth inning and a noticeable loss of velocity in his fastball that he doesn’t throw nearly as much as he did in the past, the results are much improved from last season. Yes, there is still talk about replacing Lidge as the Phillies’ closer amongst fans and media-types, and the $11.5 million he is owed for the 2011 season seems like one of those contracts that might be a year too long. However, when one looks inside the results the conclusion is things could be far worse with any number of closers around the league.

Moreover, when Lidge’s contract ends at the end of next season, there is a pretty good chance that he will have more saves than any anyone else in team history. Lidge needs 27 more saves to tie Jose Mesa with 112 and if he gets there he will probably do it in approximately 50 fewer innings.

So what’s the problem?

For one thing, it’s the ninth inning and it’s a close game. If it wasn’t that way, Lidge wouldn’t be in the game doing that tightrope act where the slightest slip up could end up in a crash landing.

As that goes, there are a handful of tell-all signs that determine whether or not Lidge will be trading high-fives with his teammates at the end of the game or moping off the field with his head down. For instance, if he allows a walk or a hit to the first batter he faces, things have a tendency to go bad. In 28 outings this season, Lidge has allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base eight times (seven on hits) and as those innings progress he has allowed six hits, six walks and seven runs for an ERA of 9.45.

Compared to the 20 games where Lidge gets the first guy out, he has allowed six runs. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that things go much more smoothly when Lidge gets that first out quickly, though he has blown a pair saves in both instances and the Phillies are 6-2 in games where he allows the first hitter to reach base.

Plus, these splits are pretty indicative of most relief pitchers. The result of the first pitch often determines how the at-bat will go and the first hitter can sway the trajectory of the rest of the inning.

Now, quickly, a few things on Lidge…

Lidge has saved 30 games in four of his six full seasons with two years where he got more than 40 saves. For a historical perspective, Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge. Certainly that will change when guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman get in, but if he were able to get into a time machine and transport his stats to the 1970s and early ‘80s, Lidge would be on the path to a Hall-of-Fame career.

Infamously, Lidge also has the highest ERA in baseball history for a pitcher with over 20 saves when he got 31 with a 7.21 ERA last season. Manager Charlie Manuel probably would have gone with a different closer if he had one to do that tightrope act as well as Lidge. Since he didn’t (and doesn’t still), Manuel has a pretty good read on what makes for a smooth night for his closer.

Walks.

Like any pitcher, if Lidge can command his pitches things are going to go well. It doesn’t matter if his fastball is 92-mph or 96 as long as he doesn’t give any free passes. In fact, this season Lidge has walked 14 hitters in 11 outings over 11 innings. In those 11 games/innings, the opposition has scored 11 runs off of Lidge and in three of his four blown saves he’s walked at least one hitter.

“The biggest thing about him is when he can stay away from walking guys or getting behind in the count, it’s almost like any other pitcher,” Manuel said. “That’s when he can get people out.”

No, it’s not a big mystery when it comes to being a successful closer. It’s simple, really… throws strikes, get outs. It couldn’t be any less complicated. But what is complicated is what happens in a game when Lidge is just one out—one pitch—away from getting out of an inning. And in more cases than not, getting out of the inning means ending the game for Lidge.

For some unknown reason, Lidge has allowed 10 of his 13 runs this season with two outs. With two outs, hitters are 12-for-38 against him with six extra-base hits (three homers) and eight walks. That comes to a .435 on-base percentage and 1.066 OPS with two outs…

In the last inning of the game.

Is this where the lack of velocity on the fastball gets Lidge? Sure, the slider is his bread-and-butter pitch, but he needs a good fastball to set it up. With two outs in the last inning of a game it seems as if hitters are waiting for that one pitch, which means now more than ever the closer needs to lean on his guile and wits.

Sign of respect

Dbrown WASHINGTON — Shane Victorino was incredulous when he saw the clubhouse attendants at Nationals Park walking to the locker to the right of his holding a couple of baseballs to be signed. The Phillies’ centerfielder just couldn’t get past it.

“I’ve been here for four years and never been asked to sign anything,” Victorino yelled in mock indignation. “He’s been here for one day and he’s already signing.”

It’s a common rite in baseball circles, actually. One player on an opposing team gives a shiny, new baseball to a clubbie and sends him over to the other clubhouse to have it signed by a certain player. Players love signed those baseballs, too. It’s like a great sign of respect if a peer asks for an autograph (without actually asking), usually reserved for the big-time players. Word is Cal Ripken used to make special time just to sign items from the other team, and I once saw Red Sox old-time legend Johnny Pesky exhilarated by the fact that Jim Thome had sent two baseballs to have signed a few years back at Fenway.

“Are you joking with me,” Pesky said, amazed that Thome wanted the balls signed. “Jim Thome wants me to sign these?

This time it was a player on the Nationals who sent Victorino into a faux tizzy for asking Dom Brown to sign a baseball. After all, to that point Victorino had played in 775 career games including the playoffs and All-Star Game, while Brown had been in just three games with just two starts.

Here was a kid, just 22 and drafted in the 20th round from Stone Mountain, Ga. because scouts thought he was going to go play wide receiver for the University of Miami, signing autographs for other major leaguers. Moreover, when Brown entered the clubhouse at Nationals Park on his first road trip as a big leaguer, a guy with a rookie of the year award, an MVP, and four of the top most prolific home run-hitting seasons in franchise history, was the first to greet him.

“Hello, Mr. Brown,” Ryan Howard said.

Mister Brown?

So much for the rookie hazing.

Then again, the Phillies organization isn’t treating Brown like a typical rookie. No one is expecting the team’s untouchable prospect to just blend in to the background, with his eyes open and mouth shut. Instead, because of the injuries to nearly every starter this season, Brown is going to be treated like a 22-year old rookie in his first trip to the big leagues.

Nope… Instead, the Phillies are going to treat Brown like a major leaguer.

Actually, there aren’t too many major leaguers that had to have a press conference before his first game and then another for the TV audience as he jogged off the field after he got two hits in his debut. That kind of proves that the Phillies are expecting things from Brown they wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a kid called up from Triple-A in late July. Though manager Charlie Manuel says he’ll likely use Brown 70 percent of the time, and likely against just right-handed pitchers at that, the idea is for Brown to produce.

“Domonic Brown is going to have to come up and make an impact,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last week. “I remember talking to Paul Owens about this. You've done your job if you have one or two players per year to have some kind of impact from your system on your major-league club. We have to have that happen. Otherwise, we won't be viable.”

In other words, there’s a lot riding on Brown’s production.

But so far he’s handling it well. He’s started four games and has two multi-hit games. He’s driven in a few runs, swiped a bag, and played solid in right field. After Brown made a diving catch last Saturday night at Nationals Park, center fielder Jayson Werth paused to watch the replay on the giant video screen hanging above the ballpark.

That’s just it… lots of the players are paying attention to Brown. Aside from asking for him autographs, the three wise guys of the Phillies—Victorino, Howard and Jimmy Rollins—marveled over the kid’s physique as much as the time he spent in the batting cage. None of the former MVPs or All-Stars on the team was built like that when they were 22.

And just like the rookie is expected, Brown smiled and took the good-natured ribbing from his older, wiser teammates. Hey, it’s his first big-league road trip and rather than head out on the town to dinner with teammates, or museums and sights in D.C. (“Yeah, I’m going to go to the zoo with Dom Brown,” Victorino mocked his inquisitors over his mentorship), Brown is just worrying about making a good impression.

“He’s very mature for his age. He has his head on right and he likes to play and he puts a lot into it so that’s going to help him,” Manuel said.

“Strawberry had the same type of body, he might be a bit taller. He’s a little like [Braves’ rookie Jason] Heyward, but a different style of hitting. [Brown] keeps his bat up higher and has different kind of a swing. It’s high and he comes down on the ball, but he’s bigger, of course.”

Bigger in many senses, too. Not even a week into his big-league career and Brown is being called Mister by Howard and signing autographs for his new peers, much to Victorino’s chagrin. Now all he has to do is go hit.

The (re)maturation of Cole Hamels

Hamels WASHINGTON — The busy-ness of the pregame clubhouse at National Park on Friday afternoon was slightly unnerving. With the Phillies gearing up to make a run at a fourth straight trip to the playoffs with newly acquired ace Roy Oswalt on the mound in his first day in a Phillies’ uniform, the visiting clubhouse was more crowded than usual.

On one side of the room shortstop Jimmy Rollins held court, commenting on everything from the X Games shown on one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling of the clubhouse while discussing everything from Sponge Bob Square Pants, Scooby Doo and the 1960s live action Batman series with Adam West.

Oh, it was deep.

Boom! Bash! Pow!

Meanwhile, in the opposite corner from Rollins, Cole Hamels sat slouched in a chair in front of his locker, with his Barnes & Noble Nook, lamenting the fact that if he would have waited he would have probably purchased an iPad, like most of his teammates, instead.

See, it’s never easy to be a ballplayer like Hamels. No, he’s in a financial situation where he can have a Nook and an iPad, but that seems a little superfluous to Hamels. Besides, in due time the next version of the computer gizmo will come out and it will likely be better and faster than the current one. In the meantime, he’ll get all he can out of the Nook.

No, where it’s not easy being Hamels is playing in a place like Philadelphia. Forget all the stuff about how he’s Southern California cool with so much talent brimming over the surface that he makes the game look effortless by default. Forget that he’s similar to Mike Schmidt in that sometimes it’s not cool to be cool even if that’s just the way the guy is.

He’s so cool that the cockiness and arrogance just oozes from every pore when he walks on and off the field. It’s not exactly a trait that works for everyone, but with Hamels it’s real. It’s him. There was never a time where he didn’t think he could routinely throw a baseball past the best hitters on the planet.

And we ought to know the guy by now, right? Drafted not long after he turned 18 in the first round of the 2002 draft, the first world out on Hamels was that he was damaged goods. Sure, he could throw 94-mph and developed an otherworldly changeup after his pitching coach, Mark Furtak, taught him the circle change grip, but the broken left arm when he was a sophomore in high school scared away teams. Even his hometown Padres shied away and took college shortstop Khalil Greene with the 13th overall pick.

Eight years after that draft Greene is out of baseball while Hamels is going through another resurgence of his own.

In fact, Hamels ought to be good at that by now. Five seasons into his big league career, Hamels has been damaged goods, a delicate injury-prone lefty, a knucklehead from breaking his hand in a bar fight that cost him much of the 2005 season, a phenom, a future Cy Young Award winner, the MVP of the NLCS and World Series, to struggling pitcher trying to find his game.

Now he’s a spoke in the wheel of one of the best starting rotations in baseball and working on his renewed focus and maturity. No longer is he just the cocky kid with injury problems, Hamels a father and a husband now. On one hand he says his four-year marriage and 10-month old son, Caleb, haven’t changed anything from the way he goes about his business or approaches a game, saying, “I don’t bring [family life] to work.” However, he added, being the father to an active, healthy 10-month-old boy changes a guy’s perspective.

On the field it has made him understand things a bit more. For instance, he’s not buying the hype about the Phillies’ new, “Big Three,” the top-notch pitching trio that also includes Roy Halladay and Oswalt. The Big Three play for the Boston Celtics, he said, giving a nod to Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce over the Miami Heat’s LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

“I feel like I'm building on things,” Hamels said. “I'm more aware of what I have to do, how to pitch guys, and I'm comfortable in throwing all the pitches I have.”

Truth is, Hamels talks like a veteran pitcher now instead of the young, brash guy who talked of pitching no-hitters, winning Cy Young awards, going to the Hall-of-Fame and gallivanting with Letterman or Ellen DeGeneres and appearing on his wife’s (second) reality show, as well as the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Those things are fun, but they really don’t mean too much. Take, for instance, the 10-strikeouts he got in seven innings against the Nationals on Sunday afternoon. Sure,

“That was great and all, but I left two pitches up, one to [Ryan] Zimmerman and one to [Adam] Dunn,” he said. “That kind of sums up the game. You can be on things, but you make that one mistake to those two guys and it's costly.”

See… so mature and only 26.

It doesn’t make Hamels less enigmatic, though. After all, some people find a path and that’s the only one they need. Hamels, on the other hand, has been all over the map, especially at the end of the 2009 World Series when the frustration of a mediocre season boiled over into bad body language on the diamond, a misconstrued (foolish) comment, and a minor tiff with a teammate. In Philadelphia, during the digital age, those things get blown up.

Philly ballplayers are supposed to take their beatings stoically. If a player like Chase Utley makes a throwing error, the pitcher has to be cool and can’t go skulking around the mound with bad body language or public displays of dissatisfaction. That’s especially the case during the playoffs where an error by Utley at Dodger Stadium sent Hamels into a mini-tizzy on the mound.

As the post-season wore on and the performances weren’t as good as they were the season before, folks started to turn on Hamels a bit. That was exacerbated by some post-game comments after a poor outing in the World Series when Hamels said he could not wait for the season to end. Sure, it came out harmless and was probably taken a bit out of context, but what ballplayer in the World Series wants the season to end?

How did things change so fast? How does a guy go from 4-0 in the postseason in one season to a combined 11-13 with a 4.61 ERA through the entire 2009 season?

Better yet, who cares? Based on the first half of the season Hamels has rewarded general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel for their faith in him. Aside from the strong numbers, Hamels has regained his cool even when things don’t go well. Take Saturday afternoon’s game in Washington where Hamels rebounded from Dunn’s homer to retired five straight with a pair of strikeouts. He also whiffed the next two hitters after Zimmerman’s two-run double in the fourth inning and racked up eight strikeouts between the fourth and seventh innings.

The 7-7 record is not indicative of the season Hamels has had. Obviously, the record and the 3.56 ERA show a lack of run support. Considering that the low run support was part of Hamels’ frustration in 2009, the fact that he’s been steady throughout 2010 with nearly a full run less of support from last year, Hamels has impressed his bosses.

“I think right now he’s very good. I can tell you this, he should have more wins than he’s got—without a doubt. He’s pitched good,” Manuel said.

Hamels_kid“Hamels is a big-time pitcher. If you sit there and watch how he pitches and things like that, hey, over the course of his career he’ll be known as a big-time pitcher. He’s a good pitcher and he’s smooth and he has a tremendous feel for how to pitch, and yeah, he gets hit some, but so does everybody else.”

As far as comparing the postseason of 2008 to now, don’t bother. Hamels, still far from his prime, hasn’t lost a thing.

“Talent is great. If you can’t see talent then something’s wrong with you,” Manuel said. “Hamels has got good talent and he’s a great pitcher. He might not have a 95-to-100 mph fastball, but he knows how to set up his fastball and when he’s throwing 93 or 94, he can put the ball by you. He can strike people out. That’s hard to find.”

It’s also hard to find a guy who realizes what needs to change and jumps on it. Hamels is still a work in progress — his metamorphosis is far from complete. Hamels refuses to remain static, which might be his best trait…

He’s not boring.

Philly boy Roy(s)… and Cole, too

Oswalt His puffy eyes tinged with red and blurriness gave it away that Ruben Amaro Jr. had not slept much lately. If his appearance wasn’t a giveaway to how little he’d been sleeping, his voice did. No, his words weren’t quite slurred together, but they weren’t exactly robust, either.

No, Amaro wasn’t commiserating the one-year anniversary of the acquisition of Cliff Lee, which, coincidentally, was Thursday. Those no more lamenting the one that got away since it’s not unfair to suggest that the team’s starting staff is stronger now than it was then.

Instead, the Phillies general manager had to be thinking about the few mornings of extra sleep-in time based on his work transforming the Phillies’ starting rotation. Actually, Amaro just didn’t transform the Phillies’ rotation. No, that’s far too tame. Instead, those sleepless nights could result in the Phillies going to battle over the next two seasons—and possibly the season after that—with a top of the rotation that rivals any put together in team history.

See, from here on out the Phillies have three aces, a veteran wild card and fifth starter that performs along the lines of which a fifth starter should. In fact, if the Phillies get into the playoffs for a fourth year in a row, there is no team in the National League that can match up with their top three.

Seriously, what team wants to face Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and the new ace, Roy Oswalt, over a five or seven game series? Sure, those are just names on paper and the game is, as pointed out by Amaro, played by human beings.

As far as that goes, with Thursday’s acquisition of Oswalt, the humans assembled by Amaro just might be the best trio ever to wear a Phillies’ uniform.

Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt? More like electric chair, lethal injection and firing squad.

After the 1916 season where Grover Cleveland Alexander (33 wins), Eppa Rixey (22) and Al Demaree (19) combined for 74 wins, the next best starting trio in team history was on the 1977 club that got 53 wins from Steve Carlton (23), Larry Christenson (19) and Jim Lonborg (11) on the way to a 101 win season and an early exit in the playoffs. The World Champion 1980 club got 52 of their 91 wins from Carlton (24), Dick Ruthven (17) and Bob Walk (11) with no club coming close since.

What does that mean now that the Phillies have Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt, three All-Stars and perennial Cy Young Award candidates?

“I think it’s time for them to go pitch and win,” Amaro said.

That shouldn’t be a problem considering the Phillies’ penchant for scoring runs and the fact that the Philly Big Three are hitting their prime athletic years. Yes, with the addition of Oswalt the Phillies’ budget is pushed to the max. In fact, The Big Three are owed $45.5 million in salary for 2011 on top of the combined $31.5 million owed to Brad Lidge, Raul Ibanez and Jimmy Rollins in the final year of their deals, with the $35 million owed to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley means many more sleepless nights for Amaro as he attempts to figure out how to stretch his dollars.

A baseball roster is like a human body in that if something is wrong with the foot, it could have an effect on the back. Everything is connected, and if that means eight guys are owed a combined $112 million, it’s going to be tough to squeeze in Jayson Werth and/or Chad Durbin when nine other players are owed $38.75 million if J.C. Romero’s option is exercised. That’s more than $150 million with eight spots left open on the roster.

In 2009, only one team spent more than $150 million in player salaries.

Want to guess which team that was?

“This is not easy and it’s not going to happen all of the time,” Amaro said, sounding a lot like a guy who spent way too much money on a really cool car that he wanted. “We don’t have unlimited funds.”

The Phillies have issues, too. For instance, they surely want to bolster the backend of the bullpen with a more efficient closer. They also could use a bat for the bench and a lefty specialist in the ‘pen. They could probably stand a few more seats in the ballpark in order to add on to the revenue from ticket sales, too.

But the bigger question is this…

Is it worth it?

Halladay_hamels Not since the Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz has a team in the National League had a top of the rotation as fearsome as the Phillies. The 1971 Orioles got to the World Series (and lost in seven) with four starting pitchers that won at least 20 games. More recently the Oakland A’s had a strong threesome with Tim Hudson, mark Mulder and Barry Zito before they were faced with matching process in free agency.

Heck, even Oswalt was part of a nasty group with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte with the Astros (and Lidge as the closer) that got to the World Series. But for the Phillies? Yes, this is unprecedented.

That ought to make a manager like Charlie Manuel feel lucky, huh?

“I feel lucky every day,” Manuel said about his fearsome threesome. “That’s good. I like it. Five [ace starters] would be good, too. What the hell? I want to be the best.”

With the best starting pitching trio Manuel should be set for a franchise best fourth straight trip to the playoffs and it “sends a message that we’re all about winning,” Manuel said.

Combined, Hamels, Halladay and Oswalt have a Cy Young Award, a pair of NLCS MVP Awards, and a World Series MVP Award, too. Add in the 11 combined All-Star appearances and four 20-win seasons, and clearly the Phillies are stacked.

But it guarantees nothing. In the past the Phillies never won it all with three aces, though to be fair, they never had three studs like Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt before, either.

“I want the most perfect team I can get,” Manuel said.

Tall order. For now he just has the best team Amaro could squeeze in under $150 million.

The next big thing

Dom_brown DENVER — Hang around baseball long enough and you will learn some lessons, most of them the hard way. It’s guaranteed if you’re smart enough to keep your eyes and ears open. It doesn’t matter how smart a guy thinks he is, how many good sources he has or how many games he has seen in person, there is always something.

So the best lesson I’ve learned about baseball that has been incorporated into my regular, civilian life is a hard one. There is very little wiggle room in this lesson and it is deliberate and foolproof if applied correctly.

Believe nothing. Unless you can confirm something or saw it occur in front of your own two eyes/ears, don’t believe it. In fact, even then it’s a pretty good idea to go out and get a secondary source. For instance, if you believe Albert Pujols is the best hitter you have ever seen, it’s a really good idea to get some back up. Try to find someone who has seen a lot of different hitters from all kinds of backgrounds and ask for their opinion.

Regarding Pujols, I asked Mike Schmidt and Charlie Manuel if he was, indeed, the greatest hitter I had ever seen. Schmidt went so far as to demonstrate Pujols’ batting stance right there in the clubhouse at Veterans Stadium where he described the genius of the Cardinals’ slugger.

“Watch what he does,” Schmidt said, squatting down low with his hands held high, choking up on an imaginary bat. “He always goes in there like he was two strikes on him.”

The thinking, according to Schmidt, is that Pujols is always weary, always thinking and always protective of his strike zone. Pujols wasn’t going to give in to a pitcher’s pitch or chase garbage. The theory is to kill a pitch over the plate and if a guy is good enough to throw one of those fancy breaking pitches on the edge of the plate, just tip your cap and walk quietly back to the dugout.

After that Schmidt went back to trashing Pat Burrell and his lack of hitting acumen.

Big Chuck didn’t demonstrate Pujols’ stance or make any over-analyzed hitting theories. Instead, Charlie made me think and dig between the lines. He does that a lot, actually. A big one with Charlie is, “Watch the game.” That means don’t believe the hype.

“He’s up there,” Charlie said. “He can be whatever you want him to be.”

What does this long-winded preamble have to do with uber-prospect Dom Brown? Well, everything actually. The truth is Brown’s long-awaited ascent to the Majors has sent lots of smart folks struggling to control their emotions. Long, rangy, smart, powerful and fast, Brown comes billed as the ultimate post-steroid era ballplayer. What do you need? Well, guess what? Brown has that trait in his repertoire. He was drafted in the 20th round out of high school as a left-handed pitcher because most teams thought he was headed for the University of Miami to play wide receiver. Since then he’s never thrown a pitch in a game and the only catches he makes are in right field.

What those teams didn’t know was that Brown was a baseball player who grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., which is perfect. Brown, a lefty in the field and at the plate, could be a stronger, faster version of Griffey. If Griffey was the ultimate player for the pre-steroid era, Brown is his successor.

Oh yes, he’s that good.

That’s the hype machine talking, of course. Griffey, ideally, should be a unanimous Hall-of-Fame pick five years from now. Of course there were a lot of players that should have been unanimous selections in the past—Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Tony Gwynn, etc.—spring to mind, but the BBWAA votes on these things… what are you gonna do?

The question no one has pondered is if the hype and the expectations are fair to Brown. There is a lot of pressure put on the 22-year-old kid to live up to a standard set by others. Yes, it’s the way it goes in this over-populated media landscape of ours, but that doesn’t make it right. Too often we are so quick to anoint everything the greatest hero or flop of all time. There’s never just good or mediocre anymore—it has to be extreme.

We saw this happen to Burrell when he was summoned from Scranton during the 2000 season and we could not understand why the Phillies took so long to call up Marlon Byrd in 2002 because we were told he was going to be the next great center fielder. Eventually Byrd became an All-Star, but it took three teams and six years after he left the Phillies to get there.

Then there were the untouchables, Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels. When the Phillies were hanging around the cusp of a playoff berth in 2003 and 2004 as the trade deadline loomed, Floyd and Hamels were the first players every team asked for only to be told to beat it or were given a counteroffer that included Ryan Howard.

It was the Pirates, not the Phillies, which backed out of the Oliver Perez-for-Ryan Howard deal at the last minute. Coincidentally, Floyd was included in the trade that sent Howard’s roadblock, Jim Thome, to Chicago in order to clear a path for Howard.

As Charlie would say, “Funny game.”

Here’s what I know… having seen Burrell, Byrd, Chase Utley, Floyd, Hamels, Howard and Brown play in the minor leagues, I’d like to think my eyes and ears haven’t mislead me. I thought Burrell would be better with at least one All-Star berth to his credit. Byrd was marketed wrong and probably needed a little more work on his makeup in order to be a star for the Phillies.

Utley was raw and no one really was sure if he’d ever be able to field an infield position. When it appeared that Scott Rolen wasn’t going to re-sign with the Phils, Utley was promoted from Single-A to Triple-A where he spent the season playing third base. Sure, he hit fairly well, but some are still amazed that Utley didn’t kill someone (or himself) with the way he played third base. But out of all the players listed, he has come the farthest as a player. No one expected him to be the best second baseman in the game. Burrell was supposed to have the career that Utley has put together and Utley was just supposed to be a really good hitter.

Who knew?

Floyd was a talent, but not as good as Hamels and certainly lacked that cockiness and swagger the lefty had even way back when he was pitching for the Reading Phillies.

Howard? Wow, was he smart as a minor leaguer. The aspect to Howard’s game that goes unnoticed is how quickly he can make adjustments and alterations at the plate. There’s a lot more than sheer brute force to what he does up there and the massive amount of strikeouts is a byproduct of something. What has been missed is the intelligence for the game Howard had even as a minor leaguer.

Brown_lopesHoward and Hamels were the best of the bunch until Brown came along. In his first game for Reading last summer, Brown hit a home run that will go down as one of those legendary moments they talk about years from now. The problem with this legend, however, is that there isn’t much room to embellish it. C’mon… Brown hit a ball about as far as a human being could smash a baseball at Reading’s ballpark without it sounding cartoonish or like something conjured in a video game.

Even better than the talent, intelligence and everything else, Brown was grounded. People kept spelling his name wrong but he was too polite to correct them. When he answered questions he used the word, “sir,” and he wasn’t being sarcastic. Know what? Pujols did the same thing a decade ago.

For now Brown is perfect. His first plate appearance ended with an RBI double crashed off the wall. Famed documentarian Ken Burns was even on hand to see it, which hardly seems like a coincidence.

But Brown is also the one player general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would not part with when he was cleaning out the farm system to get Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Brown is the chosen one even though Amaro went on Daily News Live last week and plainly stated that the kid wasn’t ready for the big show yet. Perhaps that was just Amaro trying to tamp down expectations in order to keep the hype from overwhelming us. A little breather, if you will.

Oh, but we know better. Amaro had no other way of dodging it. Money is always at the fore and guys like Brown (and Howard before him) have the natural flow of their development slowed in order to keep that arbitration and free agency clock from ticking. It stinks because there’s something truly sinister about those motivated by money over merit, but so far we’ve seen guys like Howard and Utley get theirs after toiling away in the minors for no good reason.

Maybe we are jumping the gun on Brown a little bit. Maybe he’ll be more Burrell and Byrd than Howard or Utley? Baseball has a way of separating the champs from the chumps really quickly. You can go to the bank on that.

But I know what my eyes have seen and I know that Brown made it through every level of pro ball with tons of scouts and management types watching his every move with the intent on prying him away from Philadelphia. There’s a reason why Halladay didn’t pitch for the Phillies in 2009 and it was because there was no way Amaro was giving up Brown to get the best righty pitcher in the majors.

Now both Brown and Halladay are teammates with lockers on the same side of the clubhouse. Chances are they’re going to remain so for a while, too. Needless to say, it’s going to be fun following Charlie’s advice…

“Watch the game.”

How can you not?

How deep do the Phillies’ problems run?


Ryho CHICAGO —
At this stage it’s pretty easy being negative. Considering that the Phillies have lost six of eight games to NL Central doormats Pittsburgh and Chicago, and struggled even to score runs off the Cubs at Wrigley Field, yeah, it’s easy to be down on the Phillies.

There’s a lot to be disappointed about, too. Cliff Lee is gone, traded for prospects that may not be able to help the club for the length of the next contract the All-Star lefty signs. Plus, because general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. thought the Phils were better off without Brett Myers, a pitcher who is putting together the best year of his career with the Astros, the Phillies’ rotation is left with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and a bunch of guys.

Sometimes those guys pitch well, but most of the time they don’t.

Indeed it was a tough winter for Amaro. Juan Castro, his addition to the bench, was given his unconditional waivers last Saturday. That was because Placido Polanco, the splashy free-agent signee of the off-season, had returned from a stint on the disabled list.

Moreover, Amaro called lefty reliever Scott Eyre’s bluff… and lost. Eyre claimed he would retire rather than play for a team other than the Phillies and kept his word. Future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez was not offered a contract following a postseason in which he started 30 percent of the team’s final 10 games, including two of the World Series games at Yankee Stadium, and now also appears to be retired.

Both pitchers wanted to play for the Phillies, and certainly would have contributed to the team. But for whatever reason their help wasn’t needed. Hell, even Chan Ho Park took a smaller contract than the one offered to him by the Phillies in order to pitch for the Yankees.

Just to pile on, last-year’s free-agent signee Raul Ibanez has struggled after a winter where he had surgery for a sports hernia, and Shane Victorino seems unable to get a hit unless it’s a homer or extra-base knock. Meanwhile, free-agent to be Jayson Werth has turned surly and his attitude questioned as his batting average plummets and his strikeout totals pile up. In four games at Wrigley Field last weekend, Werth struck out nine times—the first five of those came in the first eight plate appearances where he didn’t even move the bat from his shoulder.

“Swing,” manager Charlie Manuel said exacerbatedly after a game in which the team racked up eight strikeouts looking as frozen as an angry possum cowering under the back tires of a car on a pitch-black night.

Meanwhile, Brad Lidge hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t exactly inspired confidence, either. Ryan Madson’s season has been better known for his ability to kick chairs like a wacko David Akers more than setting up games. Off-season addition Jose Contreras has been inconsistent, while countryman Danys Baez has turned into another one of Amaro’s follies.

Quick, does someone know the opposite of the word, architect?

The most frustrating part of a season that has the Phillies fighting to make up 5½ games in the suddenly competitive NL East, and has driven Manuel crazier than anything has been the offense’s inability to score runs consistently. Post-game meetings with the manager are like summer reruns where the former hitting coach attempts to explain away the dearth of hitting and energy before finally giving up and falling back on his old standbys.

“You guys are stat guys… take a look. If you can't see where the problem is at,” Manuel said after Sunday night’s loss where the ace Halladay gave up six runs in six innings while a lefty named Tom Gorzelanny shut them down. “I don't have to sit here and say anything about anybody. You should be able to read the stats and read what happens and watch the game every night. I don't have to sit here and say anything negative about anybody. It speaks for itself. Nobody can take away your performance. No one can hide it, though, neither.”

The issue for Manuel is inconsistency. Lots of inconsistency.

“It’s the same thing every night,” he said.

Manuel is wrong about the inconsistency. The thing is the only way his team has been consistent this season is with its maddening and inexplicable inconsistency. For a manager who prides himself on his knowledge of hitting with intricate insight on nearly every hitter he’s ever seen, the lack of production from his hitters is especially maddening. In fact, sometimes it seems as if Manuel prefers the teams he coached in Cleveland even though they never won the World Series.

Hitting solves a lot of problems, goes Manuel’s logic. When a team hits, he says, mistakes don’t stand out and the pitching looks better if it’s not really the case.

“Everything looks good when you hit,” Manuel said.

In the interest in fairness, however, Amaro was able to made deals to get three different Cy Young Award winners on his team (even though he dumped two of them). He also put deals in place for Hamels and Howard. With Howard it appears as if the slugger will be with the Phillies for the rest of his career. Halladay likely will finish his career with the Phillies, too. Those players are a very strong cornerstone.

However, Lee is gone, presumably over money though we’ve never received a straight or satisfying answer as to why the pitcher was traded. That’s especially maddening considering Amaro threw good money at bad contracts for Baez and Castro, as well as a three-year deal for starter Joe Blanton at $8 million per season.

Moreover, the team will be saddled with $23 million owed to Lidge and Ibanez in 2011, with extensions for Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Madson and Hamels.

The bottom line is that the Phillies still need pitching and a bat or two in the outfield. Sure, Domonic Brown is on the way, but that still doesn’t answer the pitcher issue…

Or why two guys like Lee or Myers were allowed to walk away.

The winter of the Phillies’ discontent


Brett_myers CHICAGO —
Charlie Manuel was quick to tell his National League All-Stars that someone in the victorious clubhouse following the 3-1 victory on Tuesday night was going to enjoy playing Game 1 of the World Series this October in their home ballpark.

But Manuel was quick to point out that he wasn’t just talking to the players from the Braves, Reds, Padres or Cardinals, but looking straight at Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay from his club when he said that. See, Manuel very much enjoyed getting to the World Series the past couple of years and very much wants to pad his resume with a few more trips to the Fall Classic, too.

“Keep strivin’,” Manuel said. “I want to keep going.”

The want-to and the able-to are always so fickle, though. Absolutely, a third trip in a row to the World Series just might cinch Manuel’s legacy in Philadelphia — that is if he hasn’t done that already with a title in 2008 and a return trip to the big dance in ’09. No, the Phillies never have had a manager go to the World Series twice and only one other guy, Danny Ozark, went to the playoffs three times like Manuel.

Still, to hear it in the manager’s voice and to see the wear on his face following the 12-6 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Thursday night, the Phillies could be headed for a light schedule in October for a change. Indeed, there is trouble lurking in the not-so distance horizon for the Phillies and things could spin out of control quickly if they aren’t careful. See, this season Manuel’s crew is much more flawed than in seasons past. The inability to generate offense without a home run has caused some trouble, while injuries have forced guys like Wilson Valdez and Greg Dobbs into key roles.

Certainly games missed by Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz have hurt the team, but definitely not more than the pitching has hurt.

“We have holes,” Manuel pointed out after the latest loss that set the team to 5½ games off the pace in the NL East and two back for sixth place in the wild-card chase.

Manuel knows as well as anyone about the team’s shortcomings, but he only scratches the surface. Sure, the Phillies’ starters had an ERA of 3.95 and led the league in complete games, innings pitches and strikeouts-to-walks ratio, but those numbers lie.

Bald-faced lie.

What those numbers don’t reveal is that the Phillies desperately need pitching because they are all skewed by Halladay’s presence. Even the relief pitchers have fared well with Halladay’s addition to the staff because the corps of bullpen men have worked the fewest innings in the majors. Needless to say it helps that Halladay can gobble up nearly eight innings every time out.

So what happens when Halladay is taken out of the equation? Do you really want to know?

Try this out: with Halladay the Phils went into Thursday’s second-half opener with the sixth best starter’s ERA in the National League and sixth-best mark overall. But take Halladay’s 2.19 ERA out of the mix and overall ERA jumps to 4.43 while the starters’ sky rockets to 4.54.

In other words, the Phillies need some pitching… before it’s too late.

Now there are two ways to handle this—three if complaining about the Cliff Lee trade is an option, because let’s face it… it’s was a really bad move and could be the reason why the team has been so unhinged this season. No, trading Lee wasn’t the worst possible trade general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. could have made, but it’s up there.

Regardless, one way to make a charge is simply for the rotation to dial it up. Sure, Cole Hamels has been good this year, but he is also prone to inconsistency like the rest of the staff. If the Phillies are going to get back into the playoffs for a fourth straight season, Hamels is going to have to pitch like it’s 2008 or if he magically morphs into Cliff Lee.

Consistency is the key.

“Is it good enough? I don’t know. I mean we gotta pitch,” Manuel said. “If we pitch consistently, put it like this, for where we want to go we have to play high .500 [winning percentage] or low .600 the rest of the way. That means ours pitching has to be very consistent.”

Another way for the staff to gain consistency is to add a missing piece. Nope, unless Amaro has a time machine, either DeLorean model or hot tub, Lee is gone forever. It also doesn’t appear as if Pedro Martinez will be ready to help the club the rest of the way this season, nor does it seem likely that they can get a stud like Roy Oswalt since the y have a dearth of bargaining chips. Trading Jayson Werth clearly has become a very wise move because it seems apparent that he will not be re-signed, but what kind of value does he have?

A player like Werth would be desirable on a club making a push for the playoffs, but even there he isn’t very attractive since he likely could only be a two month rental. Besides, if a team is in contention, it is not going to deal away valuable pitching talent for Werth. That wouldn’t make sense.

Then again, trading away Lee and re-signing Joe Blanton for three years after he was shopped during the winter meetings only for the Phils’ to learn there wasn’t any interest. That’s no knock on Blanton, but really… why sign him for three years and $24 million when there is a chance to give Lee an extension?

It doesn’t make any sense.

Speaking of not making much sense, the decision to allow Brett Myers to walk away seems to have come back and bit the team on the rear, too. Making matters worse is the fact that Myers is exactly the type of pitcher the Phillies need right now. In fact, Myers is quietly putting together the best season of his career with the Astros, checking in with a 3.41 ERA in 18 starts and 121 innings.

Sure, there was plenty of baggage that came with having Myers on the team, but there was no shortage of enthusiasm. These days the only way some of the players on the club express themselves is by screaming expletives at a father and his son sitting in the right-field seats.

Maybe we can rephrase the old baseball adage by pointing out that a team can’t win a pennant in December, but this one just might have lost one last winter.

LeBron will make you go, ‘Woooooooo’

Lebron Go ahead and admit it… you watched. Oh sure, you’ll say it was simply for the spectacle or the circus and that you really didn’t care one way or the other, but that’s bunk.

You watched and you know why you did.

Look, I’m into the show as much as the next guy. I like the insanity and hyperbole that rides along in a sidecar with media hype. The bigger, the better. In fact, if something is prefaced with “World” or “Super” in the title, sign me up.

Yes, more Super World Spectacular Circuses, please.

Now this doesn’t mean I think these are quality events. This is strictly about the hype and the over-the-top matter in which we often treat the mundane. I’m no sociologist or media critic, but the manner in which we produce and consume certain events has to explain something about our culture.

Yeah, deep statement, I know. But can you think of an earnestly produced “news” event that was filled with more hilarity than the LeBron James thing over the past few days? Frankly, it had it all. There was manufactured drama, fake emotion and overwrought victors and vanquished. Plus, there was Jim Gray, whose un-ironic seriousness for unimportant events is more amazing than anything conjured on “Dynasty” or the crew from the mockumentaries, “Best in Show” or “This is Spinal Tap.”

Choosing Gray over a character created by Christopher Guest or Harry Shearer for his hour-long ESPN drama, “decision,” was a masterstroke.

So too was the rant of an open letter posted by scorned Cleveland owner, Dan Gilbert, whose other claim to fame is that he is the owner of the company that makes the oversized posters called, “Fathead.” The company’s spokesman was alleged serial sexual harasser, Ben Roethlisberger. In addition to being the owner of the Cavaliers, a team that paid LeBron more than $62 million during the past seven years, Gilbert also owns the companies that created TurboTax and 1-800-Contacts.

In other words, Gilbert knows all doing big things cheaply and quickly. However, it is disappointing that he chose to address his pain over LeBron’s spurning of Cleveland with a letter posted on the Internet as opposed to a soliloquy with Mean Gene Okerlund at his side.

But yes, I watched the LeBron infomercial. That is to say I dialed it up on the Internet and viewed it while taking the Amtrak train home from 30th Street Station, with one ear eavesdropping on the conversations of my fellow travelers gripping their mobile devices and announcing the play-by-play as it occurred. Call it a live blog/tweet come to life all while using public transport.

That’s so much community and carbon offsetting in one cramped, tin can it makes me want to pile into a rubber raft and attack oil tankers… or at least find a recycling can for my water bottle. Amtrak, a government agency, does not have recycling aboard their trains. Yes, that’s the true shame of the LeBron-athon.

But that’s about as deep as it got for most folks in regard to the LeBron circus. People allowed themselves to get sucked in to take hard line stances on a particular side. The anger and indignation directed at inanimate objects like ESPN, Cleveland, Miami and LeBron James was not only so thick and rich that it could drizzled over waffles, but also was amazingly comical.

What we were able to deduce from the entire extravaganza is that the virtue sports fans most value from their athletes is loyalty…

Excuse me while I drop to one knee in order to catch my breath from laughing myself silly.

Another funny moment that came out of LeBron’s TV show happened the other day while Wilmington News Journal­ artiste, Martin Frank, and I were talking about it, when Phils’ skipper Charlie Manuel overheard us. For those who don’t know, Big Chuck was a pretty good basketball player in his day and had several scholarship offers to play collegiately, including one from Penn. Charlie is also a professed fan of the game and once admitted he “kept up” with the career of fellow Virginian and NBA star, Ralph Sampson.

Anyway, Charlie heard us talking and turned around with a question, “What do you guys think of it?”

Not feeling up to getting way too deep into it, we settled on Martin’s summary that “it was weird.” Which, to put it mildly, it was. The whole thing was weird. But Charlie spent a lot of years in Cleveland coaching and managing the Indians and might have more insight into the psyche of its citizenship than either of us. Still, when asked for his thoughts, Charlie just kind of shrugged. When it was pointed out that LeBron had “taken less money to go to Miami,” the ol’ manager had the best analysis of anyone in any type of media could have dreamed.

“Woooooooo,” Charlie said in mock, sarcastic awe.

If there is any way to describe the minute difference between an athlete drawing a $20 million salary or a lesser, $15 million one, Charlie did it with one syllable.

“Woooooooo.”

Exactly. Woooooooo, indeed.

Versatility has served Figueroa well

Fig It wasn’t long after he had cleared waivers and was sent back to Triple-A when Nelson Figueroa took the mound and gave up a run. When that happened, the professional journeyman only had one thought…

“Well, I’m done,” Figueroa said. “I’ll never get back there now.”

The funny thing about the two runs Figueroa allowed for Lehigh Valley is that they were the only two he gave up in three starts covering 19 innings. In that same span the righty struck out 18, and allowed just 13 hitters to get on base. His 3-0 record with a 0.95 ERA was further proof that Figueroa could get outs in the big leagues.

Then again, this is not news. Figueroa has been that guy for a long time — the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Sometimes it seems as if the strikes against him are his age, repertoire or the location of his dominant hand. Maybe if he were younger, threw harder or was a lefty, Figueroa’s career would have turned out differently.

No one would fault Figueroa if he had some bitterness or had called it quits long ago. However, that hasn’t been the case at all. With an arsenal of what seems to be about 100 different pitches along with a handful of derivations, Figueroa is like a Swiss Army knife for Charlie Manuel.

In fact, this season Figueroa has started a game, closed one, come in as the long man and as a situational right-hander. Mixed in there is a week as the International League player of the week and enough frequent traveler miles to circle the earth.

To top it off, Figueroa is back with the Phillies a decade after he was traded from Arizona as part of the Curt Schilling trade.

It’s crazy to think that of all the players in that trade — Omar Daal, Travis Lee and Vicente Padilla — that Figueroa would somehow manage to find a way back with the Phillies.

Oh, but the right-hander has taken the scenic route. Last season Figueroa, from Coney Island in Brooklyn, made 10 starts for the Mets and has appeared in 32 games for his hometown team over the past two seasons. In between his 2001 season for the Phillies and 2009 work for New York, Figueroa has pitched for Milwaukee and Pittsburgh in the Majors, as well as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Nashville, Long Island, Buffalo, Chihuahua in the Mexican League as well as South Korea and Taiwan.

All told Figueroa has pitched for 18 different teams, which doesn’t include winter league when he was MVP of the 2007 Chinese Professional Baseball League championship series. Shoot, he even took the entire 2005 season off to recover from two different shoulder surgeries after tearing his rotator cuff.

“I can relate to that a lot,” said Manuel, who had a playing career very similar to Figueroa. “I played five years in the minors before I even made the major leagues and I used to get sent out some to play for some and then get called back. Yeah, I can relate to those things.”

Manuel went to Figueroa for two innings on back-to-back nights, which in the modern game is definitely old school. Actually, Figueroa would have gone back to the mound in the 13th for a third inning and was waiting on deck to hit until catcher Brian Schneider blasted his walk-off homer to give the pitcher his second big league win of the season.

Like a lot of ballplayers, Figueroa says he hasn’t thought much about how much longer he’ll play. What makes him unique is that with a degree in American Studies from renowned Brandeis University, the vagabond lifestyle of a journeyman pitcher is an interesting career choice.

“I’ve learned one thing in this game, you can’t control anything,” he said “I can only control when the ball is in my hand and I’m out there on the mound.”

This year he’s been in control, but for how long. When Chad Durbin returns from the disabled list after the All-Star Break, Figueroa could be caught in another numbers crunch and be designated for assignment for the third time this year between two teams in the NL East.

Still, it’s almost a guarantee that Figueroa will be pitching for somewhere for the rest of the year. It might not be in the big leagues, but as long as he’s still consistently getting outs with control over that vast repertoire of pitches, some team will want him. After all, pitchers that get outs just don’t grow on trees.

Why can’t baseball make up its mind?

Joey_votto Just when you think you’re out, they pull you right back in. And this time it’s the veritable Mafioso of whiners and complainers out there finger wagging and indignation that seems almost unnatural given the subject matter.

That’s until we see that it’s July and the roster for next week’s All-Star Game had just been announced.

On the scale of injustices occurring these days, it appears as if All-Star “snubs” to guys like Joey Votto and Heath Bell rank right up there with racial intolerance, economic malfeasance and the BP disaster. Of course I’m basing this all off the acrimony and dissent put out on social media outlets, which I’m sure is an accurate representation of all trenchant discourse.

So at the risk of sounding like the PR department for BP, let me put it out there for all the outraged and disenchanted out there…

Get over it!

There, I said it.

OK, I’ll agree with the argument that Joey Votto, Josh Willingham, Billy Wagner, Miguel Olivo and Colby Rasmus should be All-Stars. I also understand that Omar Infante should not be an All-Star if not for any other reason than he doesn’t qualify for the league leadership in most offensive categories. But I also know that in this instance we should, to borrow a phrase, hate the game and not the player.

See, the All-Star Game and the process for which players are chosen is ridiculously flawed. If there is any injustice here it’s not that certain deserving players get left off, but the argument occurs as all. Major League Baseball wants to have it both ways with its broken and, dare we say, stupid system. It wants a showcase where fans can celebrate the game, yet also wants a meaningful contest where something is at stake. That’s not a case of making a cake and eating it, too, that’s pure intellectual dishonesty.

With its All-Star Game set up the way it is, Major League Baseball clearly thinks everyone is dumb… and that’s just mean.

In no other major sport do they pretend that an exhibition is truly meaningful and then hamstring the teams by forcing them to take players that may not be worthy. Just think how Charlie Manuel feels about trying to win a game that is being marketed with the slogan, “It counts!”yet being told that his starters will be a bunch of guys that won a popularity contest on the Internet. If that isn’t enough, he has to select a utility player, a non-closer reliever, and any starting pitcher to play in the Sunday game before the break is not eligible for the All-Star Game.

But you know, it counts.

If baseball wants to have a show, have a show. Do what the NBA does with its All-Star Game where it’s a weekend of parties, dunks and fancy, environmentally deficient cars, lots of showing off, Shakira, and at the end, two minutes of basketball played by the best athletes on the planet. The NBA makes no apologies, either. Instead it touts that it has the best All-Star Game out there and they might even be correct if only for the fact that it doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

The NFL does pretty much the same thing, only most players bag out of it since it seems silly to play an exhibition football game after a long season. Maybe the best way to improve the NFL Pro Bowl is to make it a flag football game, or a “Battle of the Network Stars.”

That is if such a thing as network stars even exist anymore.

I’m not even sure if the NHL has an All-Star Game, but if it did, even the hopelessly disorganized NHL wouldn’t put on an All-Star Game the way MLB does. It just doesn’t make any sense and everyone can see that. Think about it… you have probably been in fantasy football leagues better organized than the NHL and if that league sees the folly of the baseball All-Star Game, then it’s really quite obvious.

What Major League Baseball should do is make a decision whether it wants to have a showcase for its fans or a real game with its best players. Truth be told, there is no way to do both and even the most rational fan would argue that the best way to showcase a sport is to have the best players and teams in meaningful games. That’s what happens in Europe with soccer’s Premier leagues and Champions League. Understanding the simple fact that sports fans — the core audience for baseball, by the way — want their games with no frills, bells or whistles, soccer is perfect. There are no commercials, no fluff and no extraneous goofing off. For no more than two hours you are going to get the sport and nothing else even if it has to go extra time.

It’s so simple that it’s genius. If anyone wants to know why soccer is the most popular sport on earth it’s because they don’t get mixed up in all the sideshows or waste anyone’s time. Instead, they allow the fans to make that choice.

In the meantime, Charlie Manuel is going to Anaheim with a compromised club. Worse, he’s being told he has to win or his side won’t get home-field advantage in the World Series. Maybe if he truly was able to select his players it wouldn’t be so bad, but y’know, it’s a show…

Only it’s not. They say it counts, except it doesn’t.

Confused? So is Major League Baseball.

Helping out with the All-Stars


Chuck PITTSBURGH
— Guys like me have no particular insight or influence when it comes to Phils’ manager Charlie Manuel and his decision making. Come to think about it, no else really does, either. Charlie is his own man and isn’t afraid to put his ass on the line.

The buck stops with Charlie.

So when discussing the All-Star Game and Manuel’s job as manager for the National League for the second year in a row, there wasn’t much reading between the lines. Charlie said he had a deadline in which to submit his roster and like anyone with a busy life and a job that takes him to place like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, he was probably going to go right up until the last minute.

Actually, that makes sense because choosing an All-Star team isn’t exactly like writing a paper for an anthropology class. History doesn’t change, but baseball statistics are never static. Just when you think you have a handle on what the numbers show about a ballplayer he’ll ground out to end the fourth inning somewhere or some nerd will develop some new metric that revolutionizes everything.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to the numbers and more than anything Charlie will take a look at the more mainstream of them before submitting his selections.

And because we’re like that in the sports writing business, I took the time to come up with a starting nine for both leagues. No, Charlie didn’t ask me to do it and as stated earlier, it’s doubtful this exercise will have any influence. Truth be told, I didn’t even vote in the All-Star balloting.

But because there’s nothing else really going on and no World Cup action to tune in for, here’s my starting nine for the National League:

C — Miguel Olivo, Colorado
Actual pick — Yadier Molina, St. Louis
This was purely a statistical and offensive selection seeing as Olivo leads all National League catchers with 11 homers and 39 RBIs. Truth is I can’t really recall an instance when I saw Olivo play this season and his numbers could be inflated because he’s playing for the Rockies at Coors Field this season instead of for the Kansas City Royals. It’s a lot different when a guy gets to bat behind Jason Giambi instead of Alberto Collaspo.

Brian McCann of Atlanta just might be the best all-around catcher in the league and will be there with Molina and Olivo, though it would be interesting to see if Carlos Ruiz would have been in the mix had he been able to stay healthy.

1B — Albert Pujols, St. Louis
Actual pick: Pujols
I didn’t even bother looking up Pujols’s stats and I haven’t checked his line in a box score all season. Oh sure, Joey Votto from Cincinnati is having a monster first half and Ryan Howard has posted some decent numbers, too. But as long as Pujols is drawing breath on this planet, he’s in the All-Star Game.

In fact, Pujols could be 90 and retired for 20 years and I would write his name in for the All-Star Game. I wouldn’t even care if his UZR was subpar because Pujols is the best hitter we have ever seen.

2B — Martin Prado, Atlanta
Actual pick: Chase Utley, Philadelphia
Going by what I get to see on a regular basis, a guy like Prado deserves some investigation. Did you know that Prado comes from the same hometown (Marcay, Venezuela) as ex-Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu? Or that last season Prado hit three homers with 10 RBIs and a .432 batting average in 15 games against the Phillies?

How about this one… did you know that Prado leads the National League with a .336 batting average and finished first in the player’s balloting for the All-Star Game? It’s true. Prado beat Utley in the player’s vote, 472-276. That’s right, Prado beat Utley like a gong.

Because Utley is out with a torn up thumb until September, Prado will get the starting nod for Big Chuck’s National Leaguers.


Rolen 3B — Scott Rolen, Cincinnati

Actual pick: David Wright, New York
I have a confession to make and it makes me a little uncomfortable, but here it goes… Scott Rolen is my favorite player. Yes, Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Much better than even Rod Carew, George Brett or Tony Gwynn, but if my sons ever are interested in playing baseball seriously, I’ll get a DVD of Rolen, pop it into the machine and show it to my kids.

Then I'd probably say something like, "That, son, is how you play the game."

Because Rolen plays the game exactly the way it should be played and it's not really very subtle, either. For now though, the kids like the big fella. For intance, my oldest likes Ryan Howard because he had a life-sized poster in his room and the Phillies’ first baseman has some flair in the batters’ box with that exaggerated trigger with his bat pushed forward like a sword and, of course, he hits a lot of homers. Kids like big dudes who hit homers. When I was my son's age it was Greg Luzinski that every kid copied. Now it's The Big Piece.

Meanwhile my youngest doesn’t know what the hell a baseball is yet, but he'll learn because he's a lefty. All they both know about baseball is that it often keeps their daddy away from home and that’s not a good thing.

But back to Rolen…

There are no hidden meanings when Rolen plays third base or circles the bases. It’s all effort and power with some finesse sprinkled in around third base with some glove work that even forced Mike Schmidt to admit that Rolen was the best he’d ever seen. There also is no searching for nuance, which somehow makes his game appealing. Rolen really doesn't have any style when he plays and anyone with a sense of fashion will tell you, sometimes no style is style.

If there is something beneath the surface with Rolen it's that he has an iconoclastic quality, if you will. It was something that the folks in Philly didn't get at all, and maybe the only explanation is it's some sort of Indiana thing that is ingrained with dudes from that part of the world as if it’s part of their DNA. Letterman, John Cougar Mellencamp and Larry Bird all seem to have the same kind of qualities as Rolen, and they all come from the same place. 

Indiana.

For some reason certain folks from Indiana react to every slight or insult. When he was in playing in Philly, Rolen looked like he played baseball because he wanted revenge for something. It was something to see. Sure, guys with his sensibilities have traits that can be a bit alienating, but whatever.

Do you think everyone likes Letterman, Mellencamp or Bird? Do you think they care?

As far as the 2010 season goes Rolen seems to be on the path for the comeback player of the year. Healthy for the first time in about a half a decade, Rolen won the player’s balloting by 30 votes over David Wright. Plus, with his sixth All-Star appearance, Rolen has the third-most All-Star appearances on the squad behind Pujols and Roy Halladay.

He's old, but at least he has his panache back.

SS — Hanley Ramirez, Florida
Actual pick: Ramirez
There are two things that are peculiar about Ramirez. One is to wonder how he would be discussed if he played in Boston, Philadelphia or New York instead of Miami. If he spent five minutes playing for the Yankees or Mets, folks would probably be talking about Ramirez as if he were the second coming of Honus Wagner. Instead, we get to chalk down Jose Reyes as the most overrated New York player.

The second peculiarity is that most people only know Ramirez as the guy who lollygagged after a ball and then battled with his soon-to-be ex-manager. Of course that has a lot to do with Ramirez playing in Miami instead of an actual sports town, but hey, what are you going to do? Ramirez was voted to start in the All-Star Game for the third time so it appears as if they’ve heard of him somewhere.

OF—Andre Ethier, Los Angeles; Corey Hart, Milwaukee; Josh Willingham, Washington
Actual picks: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee; Ethier; Jason Heyward, Atlanta
My picks are all statistically based because if I was going by what I have seen, Hart would never be there. Has there ever been a player that always ends the season with great statistics, but whenever you get the chance to see him play, he stinks? That’s Corey Hart for me.

Corey_hart Then again I’m probably focusing on Hart because he won the final five Internet balloting two years ago and I was unfamiliar with his body of work aside from the humiliating 3-for-13 he posted in the 2008 NLDS against the Phillies.

Besides, who didn’t love that tune, “Sunglasses at Night” by Canadian pop-rocker Corey Hart back in 1983? Just thinking about it makes me want to break out a key-tar and rock out.

Either way, Corey Hart (but not Corey Hart) is having a solid season. I still haven't seen him play this year and I'm sure if I did he'd go 0-for-4 with a couple of K's and a throwing error, but whatever. His numbers look really good.

P — Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado
Actual pick: Jimenez (player vote)
Remember the first time you saw Jimenez pitch? It was probably in September of 2007 at the Bank or maybe even in October of that year in the NLDS. If you’re like me (and why wouldn’t you be?) you probably said aloud, “Holy bleep, what was that pitch?!”

You also probably thought, “I bet that guy is going to be a star if he can put it all together.”

Jimenez’s had what big leaguers like to call, “electric stuff.” He was raw back then, but threw 98 with breaking pitches that hissed and slithered like a snake. He was exciting in a way folks get excited when they discover a really good band that no one else has heard of, but now that everyone has caught up with the proper way of seeing things, you somehow feel justified and self-assured that you know baseball talent when you see it.

Hell, you might even be ready for a gig as a scout so you can go bird-doggin' around looking for the next best thing.

Anyway, Jimenez pitched the clinching Game 3 at Coors Field in the ’07 NLDS and held the Phillies to just three hits in an interesting duel with Jamie Moyer, which was his coming out party. People got a good, first look at him then though it took some time for him to get right here.

Two years after that rookie season, Jimenez won 27 games and showed flashes of brilliance though the rawness was most prevalent. This year, though, it appears as if he’s put it all together. At 14-1 with a 2.27 ERA, Jimenez already has a no-hitter to his credit and should get the starting nod for the National Leaguers.   

Interestingly, Halladay finished second in the player balloting behind Jimenez. However, since Manuel will be thinking more about his club than the National Leaguers, don’t expect Halladay to get into the game.

And that's it. There are you're National League All-Stars as defined by me. Get busy debating the merits of Omar Infante or Joey Votto. There's seven days to fight about it until everyone shows up in Anaheim for the big game.

Adapt, evolve, survive

UtleyWell now everything dies baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
—Bruce Springsteen


NEW YORK —
Now we don’t know what is happening with the Phillies. The issues regarding the collective offensive slump could be one of those fluke things or maybe even something larger at work. We’ll be able to figure out those things at the end of the season when we ask what went wrong or right for this ballclub.

But make no mistake about it… something is wrong with the Phillies these days and walking in to Yankee Stadium for three games beginning tonight is probably not the best remedy. After all, not only do the Yankees have the best record in baseball, but also they are 22-7 at home this season.

So as the Phillies hope for a resurrection and look for a big-time measuring stick, we can only project and ask questions. No, it’s not the best situation, but until something breaks it’s all we have.

The question:

Is this it? Is this 32-29 version of the Phillies — the team that is 6-14 in the last 20 games — what we’re going to have to deal with for the rest of the season? And if so, how did we get here?

No, things don’t look too promising, and though manager Charlie Manuel remains upbeat and continues to trot of the mantra that his guys will hit (and pitch?), secretly he is worried. Why wouldn’t he be? Manuel knows as well as anyone that sometimes the twists and turns of the game have a way of settling in. At some point the trends stop being aberrations or spikes in a chart and become the norm. Just listen to Manuel speak if you need proof. He’ll cite line and verse about a time when the Phillies dropped into an offensive swoon, stayed there and never really wiggled out of it.

It began, Manuel recalls often, with a 20-run explosion in St. Louis in 2008, followed by the thought that the Phillies were on the way to scoring 1,000 runs for the season only to replaced with the reality that the team wasn’t going to score many runs without slugging a home run.

Worse, the great hitting coach’s team went on to win the World Series that year not by slugging past teams, but with pitching and defense.

Of all the indignities!

In the meantime the numbers are pretty harrowing. Worse, the owners of some of the ugliest digits are the players the Phillies can least afford to post them. After tying Reggie Jackson's World Series record with five homers in last October's Fall Classic, Chase Utley has dropped off considerably. Though he clubbed 10 homers in the first two months of the season, the All-Star second baseman has not hit one since May 20, a span of 21 games. Uglier yet, Utley has batted just .153 in that span. That's far worse than the .230 with two homers Ryan Howard has provided over the last 20 games or the .164 average and lone homer from free-agent to be, Jayson Werth in that same period.

As the manager might say, “Not good…”

The most alarming of the team-wide slumps is with Utley, who looks as if he is a marathoner who hit the wall. It’s not that Utley isn’t posting the numbers because sometimes that can be subjective and/or not an accurate measure. No, the part that Utley barely has warning track power anymore is what is strange. Last year Utley was whipped at the end of the season because had off-season hip surgery, rushed to get back to the lineup and then played in 156 regular-season games and 15 more in the playoffs. It was understandable for a guy to wear down under those circumstances.

However, how could Utley look so tired just 59 games into this season considering Manuel promised to give his second baseman more days off during the season? Instead, because of the Phillies’ struggles it’s become a vicious cycle. Manuel can’t rest Utley because the team needs to win games, but by continually trotting him out there he has begun to take the shape of a pencil worn down to the nub.

There are other variables at work, too. For instance, pitchers appear to have regrouped after being bludgeoned during the so-called “Steroid Era.” In making up for lost time and fighting back against ballparks built to cater to baseball’s lost age, the big-league pitchers have mounted an insurrection with three no-hitters and two perfect games already this season. Those tallies would be four and three if Jim Joyce hadn’t missed a call at first base in Detroit two weeks ago.

Like any living species, pitchers adapt and evolve. So after more than a decade of being treated like chum for hitters, the tables have turned. For a team filled with talented yet strikeout-prone and flawed hitters like the Phillies, opponents finally appear to be exploiting certain weaknesses.

All of those theories and questions only create more theories and questions. Still, the only question that matters in the short term is to wonder how quickly can the Phillies adjust, adapt and evolve.  Because if the answer is not, “very quickly,” what we see might just be what we’re going to get.

Um… your town is cool, too?


Chi_phl Note:
Variations of this essay have been posted on this space in the past, but since the hacky, trite, tired “city rip” pieces are en vogue, we reworked it and we present it again like new. Sorry, folks, if it makes you feel good about putting down another civic body, you have other issues… you know, besides being a hack.

THE TOWN FORMERLY KNOWN AS ANGRYVILLE — They handle defeat well in Chicago. After all, the Blackhawks, White Sox and especially the Cubs have taught them well. Just think how good at losing they’d be if Portland would have done the right thing and drafted Michael Jordan.

But in Chicago they don't mope, freak out, or litter the field with D-sized batteries during the action. They really don't even complain, to be perfectly frank. Actually, they're used to it.

They just go home. They leave early and fight traffic. They put the crippling defeats out of their minds by skipping work to play in the sun. They just forget about it as they frolic in those glorious public parks beneath sculptures created by Picasso and Oprah with cool drinks and lots of pretty friends.

Loss? Nah, they don't deal with it at all in Chicago. Who has the time? They actually have a beach in the city in Chicago. Life is good and they pick up the trash off the streets, too. Nice place Chicago… it helps them swallow defeat so well.

In Philadelphia we know loss all too well. It's in our DNA. It's intense… no wait, that's wrong. It's intensity.

At least it was.

Back in the old days we all woke up before the dawn just as the rage had regrouped so we could wipe the bitter-tasting bile that has encrusted the corners of our mouths with the outer black sleeve of our spittle-coated Motorhead t-shirts. Then we dragged our sorry asses off the couch where we collapsed just 45 minutes earlier and instinctively thrust a middle finger at the rest of the world.

The day had begun in Philadelphia. The fury must be unleashed. We lost again.

But there is always a fleeting moment — one that usually occurs in the time it takes to get from one knee to a standing position after unfolding oneself from the couch — when stock is taken. A moment, as fast as a flap of a hummingbird's wing, enters our twisted and angry heads:

World weary. Saddened by my years on the road. Seen a lot. Done a lot. Loss? Yeah, I know loss. I know loss with its friends sorrow, fury and death. Yes, loss and me are like this… we're partners as we walk on the dusty trail of life.

But something happened in October of 2008 when Brad Lidge threw that slider past Eric Hinske. Beneath that tiney, porcupine-like exterior, glimpses into our souls were exposed. There was warmth, fear, insecurity…

Victory?

Yes, victory. The Phillies won the World Series. The Flyers are going to the Stanley Cup (yeah, I said it). Both of these things are happening barely months apart. Kind of like it was 1980-81 all over again.

Is Bruce Springsteen still as popular as he was during the dawn of the Reagan Administration? Oh yeah, here in the dawn of the Obama Administration, an adapted Chicagoan no less, Springsteen is playing halftime at the Super Bowl.

In the old days during the B.C. Era[1], Chicago was a place that made it easy to look down upon with our sad, wretched lives of angry and failed dreams. In Chicago, with their manicured parks, gourmet restaurants, unimpeded gentrification, high-brow universities and gleaming skyscrapers the rest of us calls it the city of big shoulders. It burned down and rose again—bigger, better, cleaner, friendlier.

It gets cold and windy, true, but they take that in stride, too.

Lidge Those were the places Philly fans showed up en masse to watch our teams fight for our civic pride. Back in the old, B.C. Era, they saw us coming. We stuck out with that crippled walk of defeat, clenched jaws of stress and disgust, fists balled up and middle fingers erect. When we took the exit ramp off the boulevard of broken dreams to enter these happy, little towns, the local authorities were ready. They had been tipped off ahead of time and were prepared to set up a dragnet at a moment's notice.

But those condescending attitudes and the arrogance in which those people flit through life so carefree and cheery no longer sting. We don't turn them back with our jealousy and resentment. No, instead we take the hackery in stride. The mockery and stereotypes don't hurt any longer.

It's just one of those annoying things that championship cities are used to.

Hey, who knows… maybe there is a bit of respect coming our way? Oh sure, they still trot out the golden oldies:

Boo Santa. Cheer injuries. Snowballs at the Cowboys. Batteries for J.D. Drew. Cheesesteaks. Cracked bells. Anger and passion. Rocky Balboa.

But try this out… sportswriters are afraid of Philadelphians. At least that's (kind of) the contention of one mainstreamer writing for one of those new-fangled web sites.

Really? Uh… nice! So maybe this means that now that the proverbial shoe is on the proverbial other foot, the whole hacky city rip thing is finished? Instead maybe they'll write about the actual ballclubs instead of all the clichés?

Think so?

Of course not.

During the Phillies' run Charlie Manuel was often prophetic, but never more than when he said:

“Winning is hard. Nothing about winning comes easy,” the wizened sage of a baseball manager said. “… believe me, there's a price you pay for winning, too.”

That price can sometimes mean dignity, self-respect and the ability to think clearly.

We're inside the looking glass, people. The Phillies won, the Flyers need two more games…

All things considered, it ain't all that bad to be in Philadelphia. Let them say what they want because we win now. Someday we might even get used to it.


[1] B.C. is "Before Championship(s)"

The Meech abides

Big_lebowski NEW YORK—There is something pure and wholesome about personal restraint. It’s one of those things that can make a person stronger or sharper. Sometimes withholding an insatiable urge can even make us better.

At least that’s what they say.

So what about the Phillies’ ability to just say no to scoring runs? Sure, it flies in the face of fundamental baseball theory, but the fact that the Phillies have only been able to score in one inning out of the last 45 shows the resolve of a Tibetan monk.

Take a second to think about how difficult it is to go practically five games without scoring a run… Then take a look at the Phillies’ offense and the fact that they slugged their way into the World Series for two straight years. That makes the fact that the Phillies have been shut out by the Mets in three straight games that much more incredible.

Charlie Manuel figured his guys would get one by accident on Thursday night against the Mets at CitiField. How could they not score one off Mike Pelfrey with runners at the corners, one out and the crafty Placido Polanco coming to the plate? It’s been well documented here and in other spaces that Polanco is one of those gritty ballplayers who do all the little things that don’t show up in the box score. He’ll hit the ball the other way, put it in play, and take a few pitches to extend the inning to allow his teammates to get a look at a pitcher’s repertoire.

Except, of course, when he doesn’t.

With the tying run on third base ready to dash home and put the Phillies in a game for the first time in nearly a week, Polanco didn’t hit the ball the other way. He also didn’t do any little things that don’t show in the box score or take some pitches. He didn’t do any of that. Instead, Polanco grounded into a double play to end the team’s best chance to score a run.

The ol’ GIDP shows up in all of those expanded box scores these days.

It’s not fair to pick on Polanco though, especially since he seems to taking it so hard. After last night’s game he admitted that he was incredibly frustrated by the team’s extraordinary restraint and didn’t attempt to mask his displeasure. Jayson Werth, contrarily, dealt with the frustration by shaving off nearly all of the hair from his face. But in his first game with smooth cheeks, Werth made five outs in four plate appearances by striking out three times and grounding into an inning-ending double play when he was able to make contact.

“No matter how you want to spin it, we're still in first place and we've got a real good ballclub,” Werth said.

Werth is right about that, and that’s what makes this uncanny ability to hold back so much more amazing. Figuring that the purification process in nearly complete, the Phillies are probably a game or two away from an offensive explosion.  That’s how it always happens, right?

“Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you,” Manuel said, but not in a way like Sam Elliott. It would have been better if he sounded like Sam Elliott.

Nevertheless, as written after the game: And sometimes you don’t eat at all.

At least that’s the case for a father and husband from Northeast Philly named Mike Meech. You see, so dedicated to his team is Meech that he decided to go through a purification process of his own just like the Phillies by staging a hunger strike until the team deigns it necessary to score a run. Since 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Meech has not eaten a crumb of food. Reports indicate that he purchased a stromboli for $15 to feast upon when the time was right, but Polanco, Werth and the rest of the Phillies had other ideas.

So now Meech is entering a world of pain. Mark it zero, dude. By the time the Phillies dig in against the Marlins on Friday night it will be more than 48 hours into the hunger strike. Needless to say, he’s fragile… he’s very fragile, man. He needs some nourishment and that stromboli is getting rotten waiting for the Phillies to score a run.

So we have to ask: Has the whole world gone crazy? Is Meech the only one who gives a bleep about the rules? A man has to take up a cause from time to time, and our friend Meech has decided that if the Phillies are going to go down, he’s going with them. Undoubtedly Charlie Manuel can appreciate the plight of one of his biggest boosters considering ol’ Chuck has decided to show more restraint when it comes to his diet, too. In fact, Charlie has been imbibing on a certain brand of diet food, which makes a hunger strike more preferable by comparison.

So when you’re sitting down to watch the Phillies tonight, think of Meech. Better yet, make a sort of Lenten appeal by standing with a man who has put his team’s welfare in front of his own. That’s right, I’m telling you to put down that fork and that hillock of food compressed into a box or a bowl and do the right thing.

Meech and Charlie will know about it and will appreciate the gesture.

What goes around comes around

Charlie NEW YORK — It’s nothing new that the Phillies are the
talk of baseball. Get to the World Series two years in a row and win the NL
East three straight years and there’s a tendency for others to do a little
gabbing. That’s just the way it goes.

Still, the Phillies could not have imagined that some of
the guys on other clubs as well as the national media types would be talking
about them the way they have over the past couple of weeks.

As Charlie Manuel says, “Not good…”

It’s bad enough that the team has been shut out twice in
a row by the Mets and three times in the last four games, but it’s not
worrisome. Teams go through those offensive funks every season and the Phillies
are no different. Sure, the hitters “stink right now,” as Ruben Amaro Jr. put
it on Wednesday, but stink happens. The 15 runs in the last eight games swoon
will be corrected because all that stuff evens out.

But what should folks be worried about with these
Phillies? Well, there’s a bunch of things. It’s never good when the manager complains
of listlessness and malaise from the team during the slump. The fact that
Manuel closed the clubhouse doors for a little chat after the latest loss to
the Mets is a pretty good kick in the pants—probably a better reality check than
the 13-0 on the scoreboard the past two games.

Eventually, however, the Phillies will hit. There’s no
fear in that. Sure, it might start with one of those home run feasts the team
is known for where the majority of the scoring comes from a few bombs, but
whatever. It’s worked so far. Instead, the fact that other teams and making fun
of the Phillies is a big warning sign of where the team is…

They are a big-market club just like the Yankees and Red
Sox.

Look no further than the message on a t-shirt seen in the
Rockies clubhouse this week with a not-so veiled shot at the Phillies:

“We have: 84 home
games, Tasers, Roy Halladay, Your signs.”

[Note: word is the guys behind the shirt are from the popular site, Zoo With Roy. They sent one to Rockies' manager Jim Tracy and outfielder Ryan Spilborghs had one in his locker. See, you never can have enough quality t-shirts.]

Put it this way—they aren’t making up shirts disparaging
the Royals or the Pirates. Nope, that only works for the Yankees and Red Sox,
which should serve notice to the Phillies that they are one of those teams. Sure, they knew as much
already considering it’s tough to go to the World Series two years in a row
without going unnoticed. But maybe the Phillies were unaware that other players,
teams and fans saw them as arrogant.

C’mon, admit it… if Shane Victorino was on another team
you’d look at him the way you saw Matthew Barnaby or Danny Ainge.

Remember when Phillies fans took delight in being the
spoiler? Those were trite and sad times that did nothing more than to
illustrate how mediocre the team was. Like there was that series at the Vet in
1986 where the Mets came in with a chance to clinch the NL East only to go away
with the champagne still on ice. Or there was that Labor Day game where Curt
Schilling beat the Yankees with 15 strikeouts. Ultimately they were defiant,
fist-in-the-air moments that added up to nothing.

Taking pleasure in slowing the trip of people going
somewhere doesn’t change the fact that you are still a loser.

That’s not the Phillies anymore. They are the team going
somewhere while a bunch clubs like the Mets are trying to ruin the fun. They’re
making up t-shirts and everything.

So what’s the plan? How can the Phillies turn 84 home
games, tasers, Roy Halladay and the opposition’s signs into quiet respect and
humble goodness instead intense dislike and unrepentant arrogance?

Tough one, huh?

How about this: when another manager tells the media that
your team is a bunch of jerks, don’t rub his nose in it and tell him to, “quit
crying.” If someone wants to be a jerk there’s no sense matching that behavior.
Nobody wants to watch a jerk competition[1].

Another good idea is to not trade former American League
Cy Young Award winners. That’s just the height of arrogance, isn’t it? Imagine
believing your team is so good that it can send away a pitcher who produced the
greatest postseason in team history since Grover Cleveland Alexander for a
bunch of prospects. How are the teams that don’t have any Cy Young Award
winners going to view that?

And how are they going to react when they get two
shutouts in a row against you?

If the Phillies had legit trade bait aside from Domonic
Brown, I’d suggest trading to get Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt and wait for the bats
to come alive. I’d also try to remember that what comes around goes around.
Nothing lasts forever, folks. Someday the Phillies will be back trying to knock
off good teams going somewhere.

Anyway, we’re here at CitiField waiting to see what
Charlie has to say a day after his meeting. Be back soon…


[1]
There are more pithy ways to describe this contest that are more suitable to
the popular nomenclature, but we’ll just leave that for Meech or Deitch.

No way to the no-no

Dice-k There’s something about no-hitters or near no-hitters
that gets people to remember and talk about all the great pitched games they
have seen. Watch a game like the one Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched on Saturday
night against the Phillies and all those crazy memories come flooding back.

Dice-K came four outs away from throwing a no-hitter
against the Phillies even though the hitters smoked about a half-dozen balls
right at the defense. Finally, it was the No. 8-hole hitter Juan Castro who
broke up the no-no with a soft, broken-bat single over shortstop.

Close but not quite there.

Having seen just one no-hitter and a couple of close
ones, it would have been kind of cool to see Dice-K close it out on Saturday
night even though it would have meant a bunch more work. Considering that Kevin
Millwood’s masterpiece in 2003 was the only one I’ve seen—at any level—sure,
pile it on.

So what were the close ones?

·        
May 30,
1982
— The Blue Jays’ Jim Gott, in the fourth start of his career to get
his first win, went six innings against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium before
turning it over to Roy Lee Jackson to close it out. The only hit was a one-out
single in the fifth by catcher Rick Dempsey, so the game was hardly dramatic.
However, the game was historical because it was the very first game in Cal
Ripken’s epic consecutive games streak.

·         Oct. 6, 1991 — Dave Hollins ended the no-hitter in the second inning with a double, but with six players in their first or second big-league season, plus the strikeout prone Dale Murphy all in the lineup, David Cone had one of those days. Cone got 19 strikeouts against the Phillies and had a chance to tie the all-time record against Wes Chamberlain and Murphy. Oddly, Cone didn't get that 20th strikeout, but he got Ks on the first six outs, struck out the side four times and didn't get a single strikeout in the seventh inning. Still, Cone had a chance to get 20 Ksin his 141-pitch three-hit shutout.

·        
Sept. 26,
2001
— Randy Wolf shuts down the Reds at the Vet on Larry Bowa bobblehead
night. This was back in the days when people would show up to collect their
dolly and then turn around and walk out because they were cynical about the
local ballclub. Nevertheless, this one was less dramatic than the Gott/Jackson
combo piece since the only hit Wolf allowed was to second hitter of the game.
Interestingly, the hit turned out to be the first one in the career of Raul
Gonzalez.

·        
May 10,
2002
— What did you think of Padilla this day? Well, he was pretty good. In
fact, the enigmatic right-hander came four outs away from throwing a no-hitter
against the defending World Champion Diamondbacks at the Vet. The first hit was
a ground-rule double by pinch hitter Chris Donnels that bounced just inside the
chalk line in left field and bounced into that area that jutted out in foul territory.
Padilla was thisclose from getting
it, but the two-hitter might be the best game of his wobbly career.

·        
April 27,
2003
— Kevin Millwood got it done. The part everyone forgets about this one
is that the Giants’ rookie Jesse Foppert tossed a three-hitter in just his
second career start. Fortunately for the Phillies one of those hits was a
leadoff homer from Ricky Ledee. Otherwise, Millwood might have had to go more
than nine innings to get the no-hitter.

·        
May 14, 2003
— This was just a two-hitter for Curt Schilling in his last start ever at the
Vet, but  it was easily the most dominating pitching performance of any game on
this list. David Bell legged out a flared double in the third inning and Bobby
Abreu looped a single in the fifth, but no Phillie made solid contact. Mixed in
with those two hits were 14 strikeouts from Schilling, which wasn’t as
incredible as the fact that he threw 45 pitches that were completely missed by
the Phillies hitters. Not a no-hitter, but it could have been.

·        
July 25,
2004
— That chatty Eric Milton came the closest of anyone to getting a
no-hitter at Citizens Bank Park when the lefty took one into the ninth inning
only to lose it when Michael Barrett got a pop up double when center fielder
Doug Glanville got a bad read and jump on the ball. The weird part was that
manager Larry Bowa put Glanville in for defense in the ninth to replace Ricky
Ledee, who happened to make two really good plays in center field during Kevin
Millwood’s no-hitter as well as in David
Cone’s perfect game in 1999
. Nevertheless, Glanville went on to misjudge
another fly ball in deep center that led to two runs for the Cubs. As a result,
Milton didn’t get out of the ninth, missed out on the win, the shutout and the
no-no. Rough day for Glanville.

·        
April 2,
2008
— How about this… the year the Phillies won the World Series, they lost
the first two games of the season to the lowly Washington Nationals. The Nats
won just 59 games in 2008, which means after the first series of the year they
went 57-101. One of those wins was a combined one-hitter from Tim Redding, Luis
Ayala and Jon Rauch in which the Phillies whiffed only twice and scratched out
just a second-inning single by Pedro Feliz. Worse, Cole Hamels allowed just one
run in eight innings on a homer from Ryan Zimmerman.

Catfish So aside from Kevin Millwood and the time I took a
no-hitter into the final inning of a fifth grade little league game for the
Lancaster Township Phillies against the LT Giants (10 Ks and a run before the
first hit), there really haven’t been too many near misses. Perhaps that’s why
people tend to go a little crazy over no-hitters or why guys like Charlie
Manuel don’t want to see them against his team.

According to Manuel, he has never managed a team that has
been the victim of a no-hitter. Moreover, Chuck says the only time he was on
the losing end of a no-hitter was in the minor leagues against the Cocoa Astros’
ace, Don Wilson.

Now Charlie says the no-hitter against his Orlando Twins
of the Single-A Florida State League was in 1964, but considering the fact that
Wilson only had two starts and one win in ’64, it’s more likely that Wilson’s no-hitter
against Manuel and his teammates was in 1965.

Aside from the minor detail of the year, Charlie
remembers the more important details.

“We had two people in the stands — a scout and a lady
that was selling hot dogs. Seriously,” Charlie said.

No sense selling hotdogs when the only person in the
stands is a scout, right?

“She started giving them away,” he said, noting that he
probably took one considering he didn’t get much in meal money in those days.

“I might have, but I didn’t have any meal money back in
those days,” Charlie said. “Maybe a buck and a half.”

Charlie likes to tell the story about the time he broke
up a no-hitter from Catfish Hunter if it can be called that. No, his story isn’t completely inaccurate, but it wasn’t
the most dramatic setting in baseball history, either. Manuel got Catfish with
a leadoff single in the fifth during a game in Oakland
on April 16, 1972
to start a two-run rally in a Twins’ 3-2 victory over
Catfish’s A’s.

But, technically, yes, Chuck
broke up the no-hitter. However, he might have been the only one to notice what
was happening.

‘Here comes a fastball in 3, 2… ‘

Mick One of the better sports books I read over the past year
was Joshua Prager’s, The Echoing Green:
The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the
World.
The title kind of explains the story in which the book documents the
events leading up to one of the most famous events in all of sports and the
aftermath of its participants.

The event, of course, was the home run hit by Thomson off
Branca in the 1951 playoff to determine the champion of the National League
played at the Polo Grounds. Even before Prager’s book, Thomson’s homer was one
of those historical flashpoints where seemingly every movement had significance
and was chronicled in some way. In fact, Don DeLillo’s epic novel, Underworld, opens with the ball
disappearing into the left field stands and retrieved by a neighborhood kid who
snuck into the ballpark. In reality, no one knows what happened to the ball.

Imagine that… the most famous home run ever hit and no
one knows what happened to the ball. If Thomson’s homer happened in our age
there would be a court injunction or an Amber Alert to have it returned.

Nevertheless, Prager painstakingly researched the length
to which the New York Giants went to create an elaborate scheme to steal the
signs from the opposition. First, a member of the grounds crew set up a line of
buzzers and signals from the centerfield clubhouse to the bullpen, where coach
Herman Franks had stationed himself at a window with a pair of binoculars.
There, Franks buzzed the signal to backup catcher Sal Yvars in the bullpen that
was actually located in the deepest part of center field on the playing field.
When he got the signal, Yvars would tip off the hitter by positioning himself a
certain way in the bullpen. If hitters wanted the sign, Yvars had it for them.

In the book Yvars admits that he signaled to Thomson to
be ready for a fastball from Branca. The rest, as they say, is history.

Using technology, like buzzers and binoculars, is a
violation of the spirit of the game and probably a whole bunch of good rules,
too. However, if a player (or players)are able to decode the opposition’s
signals through wits or another team’s negligence, then there is nothing wrong
with that. Better yet, stealing signs is an art form in baseball. No one wants
to admit that they do it for fear of retribution, but trust me… the Phillies
have a guy on the team who is really good at stealing signs. This guy once told
me that he could pick off most team’s signs just one cycle through the pattern,
but later denied this a few years later.

Oh yes, I know what I heard and that Phillies player
knows what he told me.

There is nothing wrong with that. A good sign stealers is
one of those intangibles like the ability to take a good lead or knowing how to
read a ball off the bat. Anyone who complains about that type of sign stealing
is a whiner.

And that’s exactly what Charlie Manuel called those
complainers before Wednesday’s game in Denver.

“Keep crying,” Manuel said.

Of course, the Phillies have been accused of stealing
signs for years, which is something Manuel always greeted with a wary smile
when asked about it. Good, old fashioned sign stealing is part of the game and
something old salts like Manuel appreciate. However, the latest accusation has
some legs to it with the photographic evidence of bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer
with a pair of binoculars and sitting next to what could be the bullpen phone.

So the Phillies were caught red-handed, huh?

“Absolutely not,” Manuel said Wednesday. “Absolutely
[bleeping] not. In no way were we stealing signs. We don’t do that.

“I understand why they’d be concerned about it, but that’s the truth. We’re not
trying to steal signs. That’s it. I didn’t know [Billmeyer] did that. He
watches our catcher to help him where he’s setting up. It definitely had
nothing to do with signs.”

That’s the Phillies story and they are sticking to it.
But that didn’t stop Major League Baseball from issuing a formal warning to the
team or the Rockies from piling on the accusations. At the same time, it’s OK
to take Manuel at his word but that doesn’t mean anyone has to buy it. Knowing
Billmeyer he very well might be checking out the catcher’s positioning, or
scoping out girls in the stands. He is the catching coach, after all.

However, teams have access to tons and tons of video and
if Mick wants to make a teaching point to Carlos Ruiz or Paul Hoover, he has
all of those games and squats at his disposal.

Binoculars? It doesn’t look right.

Who knows if it is even possible to catch a sign and signal it back in to the hitter so that he can react accordingly. To do that, Billmeyer would have to be really good at deciphering the sign with a way to get his message across in seconds. That doesn't seem likely.

On the other hand, Billmeyer could spot tendencies and patterns to what the catcher and pitcher are doing and signal that in… but then again they can figure that out from any point in the ballpark.

So are the Phillies cheaters? Probably no more than any
other team… besides, it’s not like they’re getting three extra home games or
anything.

Wait… what?

Werth the money? The fans think so

Jay_werth Congressmen often make the assumption that the folks who write letters to their office typically are ardent voters. Certainly that seems like the proper conclusion to make since if people are moved enough to put their feelings into words, they probably will drag their rears out of the house and go to the polling place.

A similar assumption can be made by taking a look around the ballpark on Friday night. Indeed, it’s one thing to go out and purchase a team shirt with a favorite players’ name on the back, but it really says something about the fan if they spend time creating a sign or poster with some sentiment attached to it.

Think about like this: money comes and goes. Certainly folks waste a bunch of hard-earned cash on trivial things that they will grow tired of or too big for. Of course there’s always a chance that favorite ballplayer could get traded and there you are stuck with a Kenny Lofton shirt.

Hey, it happens.

But if a person wastes time, it will never return and can’t be replaced. That makes one’s time the most valuable commodity. It also means if a person gets out the markers, poster board and glitter gun, they are invested in something significant. What makes it doubly important is that if a person takes on a big project that sends words out for all to see. Moreover, carrying a sign with a message arranged on it means the person is hardly sitting on the fence.

That message… yes, they mean it.

So considering the number of homemade signs imploring the Phillies brass to re-sign right fielder Jayson Werth, an interesting predicament could arise if the off-season arrives without a new contract in place.

How will the fans get out the message if Werth is allowed to test free agency?

It could be an interesting development considering the Phillies are reported to have a limited amount of cash to spend on player payroll and a significant portion of that money already committed to some key members of the team. Plus, with Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Ryan Madson available for new contracts after the 2011 season, the Phillies have some decisions to make.

Based on the feelings put onto poster board on Friday night, the decision is pretty easy. Then again, it’s always easy to spend someone else’s money.

We don’t yet know what type deal Werth will be seeking come this winter, but it’s safe to assume it will be a bit more than the $7 million he’s getting this season. Sure, Werth should cool down a bit as the season wears on, but there are very few players in the game producing the way the Phils’ right fielder has.  Heading into Friday’s game, Werth ranked in the top 10 in most every significant offensive category in the league, including the second-best OPS and the most doubles. Moreover, based on the Phillies’ attendance at home and the amount of signs professing love for Werth, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where he is not playing in July’s All-Star Game.

In fact, Ryan Howard says the rest of the lineup is keying off Werth, who slugged his second two-out, three-run homer in as many days on Friday night. Eventually, Howard says, the opposition will have to figure out whether it’s better to go after the cleanup man or Werth.

“In time it will. It’s one of those things where I will probably get some better pitches, but now I’m just trying to get on and ride on Jay-Dub for a little while,” Howard said.

Oh yes, even with a late start to his career, Werth, soon to be 31, is becoming a star. When GM Pat Gillick snapped up Werth for $850,000 after the Dodgers let him go before the 2007 season, who could have guessed the player would be so beloved? Seriously, when the Phillies picked up Werth in December of 2006, the most common reaction was, “Who?”

Certainly Werth would have joined that chorus considering he was nearly out of baseball because of a wrist injury and had bounced around through the Orioles, Blue Jays and Dodgers organizations before Gillick snuck in and grabbed him. His career was over before it started until Geoff Jenkins was injured during the 2008 season and Werth could finally move into an everyday role.

“I don’t see any reason why he can’t keep it up,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “He’s a big strong guy with a lot of talent. I’ve said it before, but I see him getting better.”

But where Werth’s worth (like that?) is most evident is not from the prodigious numbers he’s posted through the first month-plus of the season. Sure, that stuff helps when it comes to contract time and voting on the awards and stuff like that, but Werth is one of those guys who can, in Manuel’s parlance, “be whatever you need.”

It’s not unreasonable to believe that Werth could be a leadoff hitter because of his speed and ability to get on base and milk pitchers, just as it’s not insane to see him batting cleanup. Sure, Manuel uses him for protection in the lineup behind Ryan Howard, and he’s come through with big-time slugging. However, Werth’s versatility is what the Phillies cannot replace.

“He’s playing very good,” Manuel understated.

And they know it.

“He’s just going out there and having good at-bats and he’s not missing,” Howard said. “Basically, he’s there waiting for Chase (Utley) and I to have good at-bats so we can get on for him.”

There is no way to forget Robin Roberts

Robin_roberts Robin Roberts was one of those guys your grandfather always talked about. But rather in hushed tones and clinical recitation of the finer points of his Hall-of-Fame baseball career, your grandfather and the other old timers talked about Robin Roberts with excited exuberance.

See, Robbie, who died this morning at his home in Florida of natural causes at age 83, was a horse. He was the guy who started both ends of a doubleheader, or threw until there was no one else to pitch to. If he didn’t finish the first game and take the hill for the night cap, chances are he’d get into the game as a pinch hitter. Robin Roberts was a baseball player. Baseball players play every day.

Oh, but Roberts was a pitcher, too. He had to be. For a guy to rack up 305 complete games in 609 career starts over 19 Major League seasons, yeah, he absolutely had to know something about how to pitch. It was more than simply blowing the ball past a hitter or leaning back on one unhittable pitch in order to rack up all those innings for so many years without breaking down.

“I liked him when I was a kid,” Charlie Manuel said, noting that the high heat that Roberts was known for overshadowed a pretty nice curveball, too.

There was an art to his craft. Sure, there was brawn and strength, but there was guile, too. How else does a pitcher pile on seven straight seasons of 300 innings?

Yeah, imagine that… 300 innings. Do you know when the last time was when a pitcher got 300 innings in a season? Try 1980 when Steve Carlton got 304. Indeed, baseball has traversed through three decades since a pitcher accomplished what Roberts did as a routine part of the job.

There was more to it than that, though.

“The kind of person he was will stand out more than the numbers on the back of a baseball card,” Roy Halladay said, adding that he was overwhelmed to learn that Roberts wanted to meet him and sought him out during spring training.

“Everyone aspires to be that good.”

Halladay has been labeled as the modern-day version of Roberts, only he has only completed as many as nine games in a single season and topped out at 266 innings. However, like Roberts, Halladay rarely played for good teams (until now). The Phillies won the pennant in 1950 and were swept out of the World Series by the Yankees. So when one looks at the career stats there is just that one trip to the postseason. That’s it. Moreover, Roberts’ teams finished as high as third place just twice in 19 seasons. So beyond 1950 and two other seasons, Roberts’ teams were pretty much out of it by September. There really wasn’t all that much to pitch for since the season could easily be charted out on the calendar with no hope for a trip to the World Series.

Actually, after going to the World Series in 1950, the Phillies finished better than fourth place just one time in Roberts’ tenure with the team. Somehow, the great righty figured out how to win at least 20 games in six straight years.

Yet Roberts completed all those games anyway. He won 286 despite pitching almost exclusively for second-division teams.

With that in mind, imagine how your grandfather would talk about Roberts if he had pitched for the Yankees, Dodgers or Cardinals. Think about that for a second… You would probably be told that Roberts was the greatest pitcher of all time, only without all that exuberance. Had Roberts been lucky enough to pitch for a team in the pennant chase every season, you’d hear his name whispered in those tones reserved for Cy Young or Christy Matthewson. He would be seen as otherworldly and his stat sheet would be difficult to look at without breaking into historonics.

He could have gotten 400 wins with the Yankees.

But Roberts was of this world. He wouldn’t have been Robbie had he been the star of New York. You see him in those grainy old photos smiling and striking a pitching pose, hardly broken by all those losing seasons. Better yet, when he career had ended after hanging on for a few extra seasons with Baltimore, Houston and Chicago, Roberts was more than the Phillies greatest Hall-of-Famer and greatest ambassador…

He was the game’s greatest gentleman.

Time_RR I’d like to think Roberts’ gentlemanly ways are what drew in my grandfather. Sure, those stats are amazing, and the kind of stuff to dig into like an old box in the attic filled with photos never seen before. Roberts was retired long before I was born and, ridiculously, needed 10 years for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. But when he was in the room, flashing that great smile of his that shined from his eyes as if it were a floodlight filling every corner, you were sucked in.

He didn’t even have to say a word and everyone was charmed by his charisma.

I first met Roberts in 1984 just as I was heading into junior high.

Back in 1984 in the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., I stepped onto an elevator with Roberts and he was kind enough to indulge me and my questions about the Olympics. I had seen where Roberts was a consultant for Team USA and with the L.A. Games quickly approaching, I saw it as my in.

So when I had the chance to shoot the breeze with Roberts again, 24 years after that first meeting, I brought up that ’84 Olympics team again.

They sure did. Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, B.J. Surhoff and a catcher from Philadelphia named John Marzano took the silver in the first year baseball was re-introduced to the Olympics.
Strangely, the next time I talked to Roberts about Olympic baseball was before the last time the sport was part of the Olympic program.

Good memories. That was the charm about Roberts… he loved the game and he loved talking to people about it. He loved his memories and seemed to be part of a time when stories were passed down from one generation to another. Better yet, he wasn’t so self-absorbed that he looked down on modern players for not playing the way they did back in his day. He also showed no bitterness about the amount of money they make these days, either. He was wise enough to know that the game and times had changed and accepted his era for what it was.

The bottom line was that he loved baseball and life. To create an unforgettable legacy playing a game was a charmed fate for a person, and Roberts knew it.

The last time I saw Roberts was shortly before the 2009 World Series was to begin. Once again the Phillies were playing the Yankees, and Robbie riveted us with stories about closer Jim Konstanty taking the ball as a starter in Game 1.

“The Konstanty thing was a miracle,” Roberts said last October about the league’s top reliever starting in Game 1 of the 1950 World Series. “(Manager) Eddie Sawyer gave him the ball and he went out there like he was doing it his whole life. … That really was a miracle. If he would have won that would have been something they talked about forever, but because he lost people kind of forgot about it.”

No one will ever forget about Robin Roberts, though. Your grandfather was rarely wrong, and when he told you all about Robin Roberts, he was totally correct…

He was as great as they came—off the field more than on it.

Pitching help for the Phillies? Absolute-Lee

Cliff_lee Following yet another poor outing from Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, a rough five innings in a rehab assignment at Double-A Reading from Joe Blanton, and at least another three weeks on the disabled list for lefty J.A. Happ, it must have been difficult for diehard Phillies’ fans to follow the game between Texas and Seattle on Friday night.

Actually, following the inning-by-inning reports from Seattle was enough to muster up pangs of jealousy and maybe even a little resentment. Considering the Phillies trotted out Kendrick on Friday and will go with the aged Jamie Moyer on Sunday night, Cliff Lee’s debut for the Mariners was enough to make one want to beat on their head with a shoe.

Or something like that.

Nevertheless, all the old arguments and sports-talk radio styled knee-jerk reactions reemerged even before Lee exited the game after spinning a three-hitter without allowing a walk or a run in seven innings. Add in the eight strikeouts and it’s an insult-to-injury jawn.

That’s especially the case if Moyer rolls out a clunker on ESPN on Sunday night.

Nevertheless, not even 12 hours after his gem for the Mariners reports out of Seattle indicate Lee will likely be headed to free agency this winter. Given his consistency and the fact that his run during the 2009 postseason was the greatest by a Phillies pitcher since Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lee just might be able to demand the long-term deal he’s reported to be seeking. If John Lackey can get five years and more than $80 million from Boston, what will Cliff Lee get?

That’s going to be a big issue for the Mariners, a team that should be right in the thick of things in the AL West this season. Considering that the Mariners have the core group under contract until 2011, Lee should be the team’s lone long-term priority.

Still, from the looks of things it appears as if the Mariners are taking a wait-and-see approach with Lee. According, to a report from ESPN’s Buster Olney, the Mariners and Lee’s agent Darek Braunecker, are at an impasse.

“We're five months away from free agency,” said Braunecker, “so I think that's the most likely scenario at this point.”

“We've not really had any significant discussions with Seattle. I wouldn't anticipate a deal [with the Mariners].”

Now let’s trot this scenario out there just for fun…

Let’s say the Mariners fall way out of the race in the AL West by the All-Star Break while the Phillies remain scuffling along with some inconsistent performances from the starting staff. Perhaps even Cole Hamels’ inconsistency is enough to make some believe that the Phillies need another pitcher to back up Roy Halladay. Let’s just say all of this unfolds just in time for the July 31 trade deadline…

Do the Phillies again swoop in and make another move for Lee?

Since it’s not my money and I was on record as calling the trade to send Lee to Seattle a mistake, then yes, go get him again. If Pedro wants to sign up, go get him, too. After years of doing all the work in Toronto and carrying the Phillies through the first six starts of the season, Halladay deserves a little more help.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn’t discuss internal matters, rumors or even share his thoughts on certain matters, so who knows what’s going on in regard to bolstering the pitching. However, when asked about the team’s pitching after Halladay’s spot, manager Charlie Manuel admitted he was a bit worried.

“I’m concerned about our pitching, really,” Manuel said. “We have to show that we can pitch and we gotta show that we can be consistent doing it. But you have to have confidence in your pitchers. I’ve seen our guys pitch and we have to get Happ and Blanton back, though. And the guys we have I have confidence in them, but they have to do the job.”

No one needed to watch Halladay spin a three-hit shutout over the Mets to know he was a good pitcher. After six starts the righty leads the league in innings with 49 to go with the 5-1 record and 1.47 ERA. But take that out of the mix and the Phils’ starters are 5-5 with a 5.18 ERA while allowing the opposition to hit .283 off of them in 17 starts.

If Lee isn’t an option, maybe Roy Oswalt will be one. Either way, the Phillies need some help.

That’s just the way it happened

Chuck In her book about the human brain called, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The
Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
, author Barbara Strauch writes
that most folks actually “get smarter”[1] as
they age.

“As we age, certain parts of our memory remain robust.
For instance, our autobiographical stuff … stays with us,” Strauch told Terry
Gross during a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh
Air
. “Other things, like how to ride a bike, how to swing a tennis racket —
habits — do not go away.”

However, Strauch wrote, short-term memory tends to wane.
For instance, if one puts something in the oven before going off to work on the
computer, it’s probably a good idea to set an alarm or write a reminder. That’s
the natural part of aging, Strauch wrote.

If Strauch were to hang around the Phillies with the managers
over the past decade, the findings in her book might have turned out
differently. After all, both Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel have had the uncanny
ability to remember sequences of ballgames as if they were happening directly
in front of them. But for actual events that happened to them during their
careers as players and managers, well, let’s just say they could get misquoted
in their autobiographies.

That’s no knock on either Bowa or Charlie. In fact, the
way those guys remember their playing days is kind of humorous. Better yet, it
seems as if neither of the managers quite understands that there is this thing
called the Internet where information can be retrieved in seconds. Moreover, a
short little trip over to Baseball-Reference.com can unfold nearly every single
pitch those guys saw in their careers.

In his first big-league plate appearance on April 7, 1970
at Connie Mack Stadium, Bowa popped up to Don Kessinger at short against Fergie
Jenkins. On April 8, 1969 in Kansas City, Charlie made his debut as a pinch
hitter for Ron Perranoski in the 12th inning. Moe Drabowsky got him to ground out to Jerry Adair
at second base in a game where the Royals beat the Twins, 4-3.

See how detailed and easy to
find that was?

Oh, but that doesn’t even
begin to tell the story because sometimes it seems that old, wizened baseball
men remember things just a little bit differently than the way it actually
occurred. Take Bowa (yes, please take him)… listening to the way he talked
about the game one would think that if he wasn’t bouncing Baltimore chop
singles into the hard and unforgiving Veterans Stadium fake turf, he was
fouling off pitches and getting on base with incredible patience. The truth is
much different from the way it was remembered since Bowa posted a career
on-base percentage of .300 and never walked more than 39 times in a season once
in his 16 seasons.

Perhaps Bowa’s few critiques
of Jimmy Rollins’ acumen as a leadoff man was based on experience since the
old-time Phillie got on base at a .287 clip during his career when leading off
and .299 when hitting second. Both figures are so far below the league norm
that it’s as if they were dropped down into a well.

The best non-memory from
Bowa, though, was not from the way he played. It was whom he played with. A
favorite came during a series against the Orioles when Gary Matthews Jr. was
tearing up the Phillies with big hit after a big hit. So when questions about
Matthews led to the inevitable one about Big Sarge and whether or not Bowa
played with the Phillies’ fun-time broadcaster, the answer was, “No, I never
played with him.”

That seemed like a curious
thing so we went and looked it up to find that not only did Bowa play on the
same team with Gary Matthews Sr. in Philadelphia, but also they played together
for the Cubs, too.

Any one that has ever met
Sarge knows he’s hard to forget. Shoot, Sarge even knows the President!

Charlie’s mis-memories aren’t
as obvious as the Bowa-Sarge one, but there are many more of them. The reason
for that isn’t so much that Charlie has a bad memory, it’s that he just likes
to tell stories and talk baseball. He’s great at it and anyone who has ever
spent just a little bit of time with ol’ Charlie comes away with a great story
or memory.  

Some call Charlie the Casey
Stengel of the modern era, which given his perceived nervousness in front of
large audiences and TV cameras, is a good comparison. Take away the cameras and
put Charlie on the dugout bench three hours before the first pitch and he’s
more like Mark Twain of the Shenandoah Valley. And like Mark Twain, once
Charlie gets going he doesn’t stop.

Karuta-manuel The stories from his days
playing in Japan, playing for Billy Martin, growing up in Virginia and mingling with Presidents are the best. So
too are the stories about his travels across the world. Just like with Chico
Esquela, baseball has been very, very good to Chuck. As a result, it’s been
pretty good for some of us, too. It doesn’t really matter if the stories are
100 percent accurate because they are so good.

And aren’t the stories the
best part of it?

Anyway, Charlie’s latest mis-memory
came earlier this year when he was asked about Raul Ibanez’s rough spring and
early slump. The manager said he wasn’t worried about Ibanez finding his stroke
because he remembered the time his old teammate Harmon Killebrew couldn’t buy a
hit during spring training but went out and hit three home runs on opening day
on his way to clubbing 49 during the season to get the AL MVP Award.

Sure, Killebrew hit 49 homers
in 1969 and was the MVP. However, he didn’t hit three homers on opening day.
Instead, Killebrew had one three-homer game in his entire career and that came
four years before Chuck even cracked a big league roster.

Another good one was when he
told us about the time he broke up a no-hitter against Catfish Hunter, which
isn’t completely inaccurate. The thing is, no one was on no-hitter watch
because Manuel’s hit came when he led off the fifth with a single in a game in
Oakland on April 16, 1972. Technically, yes, Chuck broke up the no-hitter. He
might have been the only one to notice it.

Regardless, the brain is
mysterious thing and the way one person remembers an event can be completely
different from the next guy. Everyone is like Bowa and Charlie to some degree,
because if you get some time and distance away from even a little league game,
the circumstances may have played out more dramatically.

Hell, we all probably broke
up a few no-hitters…though if we played on two different teams with Sarge we’d
easily remember it.


[1] My term, not hers.

A shot in the dark

Brad Lidge Sometimes it feels like we write the same thing over and
over again. It’s not quite a Groundhog’s Day thing, but often with sports some
of the themes repeat themselves.

Actually, those themes can repeat themselves with the
same guy, too. For instance, last April I wrote this:

Lidge, it was
revealed after Monday’s game, has inflammation in his right knee and was
unavailable to pitch. Though Lidge is listed as day-to-day, the inflammation
was severe enough for the closer to undergo an MRI last Monday and then have a
cortisone shot last Wednesday. For now the closer and manager Charlie Manuel
are hopeful that a trip to the disabled list is not needed.

“We don’t think so yet,” said Manuel striking an ominous tone when asked if
Lidge could land on the DL.

Lidge also is optimistic despite the fact that the swelling and soreness is on
the same knee that he had operated on twice in 2008. However, Lidge pointed out
that his knee hurts when he pushes off the rubber from the stretch.

The good news is that the MRI revealed no structural damage to the knee, but
there was excess fluid and swelling, the pitcher said.

“Based on the MRI I’m not overly concerned,” Lidge said, standing in front of
his locker with a large ice pack wrapped around his right knee. “It’s something
that I’m just dealing with the fluid and inflammation. I’m concerned on a small
level because it’s not feeling great and I want to get back there as soon as
possible. But I think if we nip it in the bud right now, hopefully it will be
something I won’t have to worry about for the rest of the year.”

Sound familiar? Lidge something just like that when he
got a cortisone shot the other day, only this time is was for his right arm. So
if you’re scoring at home, Lidge has had three cortisone shots in the past 12
months, as well as surgery to remove chips out of his throwing arm. Going back
to when he first signed on with the Phillies, Lidge has had three surgeries—two
on his knee—and a bunch of MRIs.

Oh yes, Lidge has a pretty good health care plan from
playing for the Phillies.

And you know what? It’s a good thing, too. If history is
any indication, he’s going to need it. After all, even in his best season Lidge
was hurt. Remember that? He started the 2008 season on the disabled list after
having two different surgeries on his knee before the season began and went out
to close out 48 straight games. Considering that he had been removed from the
closer’s role in his last season in Houston, Lidge’s perfect season came out of
nowhere.

The oddest part is that even though Lidge was banged up,
disabled and pitching with chips in his arm, he still appeared in more games in
2009 (67) than he did in 2007 (66).

Now here’s where it’s all connected… Lidge and the
Phillies have said pretty much the same thing throughout. That quote in italics
above sounds a lot like what Lidge said when he got the cortisone shot the
other day.

“This puts you a couple days behind where you want to be,”
Lidge said. “That being said, if it works, like we're hoping it's going to,
it's going to speed up things a lot on the other side of that.”

The one word common to both quotes is “hope.” Last season
manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hoped Lidge would bounce back from the breaks and the shots and
find his lost form—you know for as much as a guy pitching with fragments in his
elbow could rebound.

This year Lidge and the Phils hope his fastball can top 90-mph and he can get back to saving
games a little more efficiently than last year where he set a record for the
highest ERA (7.21) by a pitcher with more than 20 saves. But that’s just it—it’s
just hope. The only guarantee is that Lidge will get paid the remainder of his
$37.5 million deal through the 2011 season (with $1.5 buyout of the option for
2012).

Look, Lidge very well might regain his lost form after
another stint on the disabled list. After all, the team physician and the front
office say the latest cortisone shot was no big deal. That very well could be
the case since Lidge says he feels strong.

“My arm strength is good and my slider was coming around
and everything else was going the way it should, but velocity was not going,”
Lidge said. “Rather than projecting on when it will, we decided to take action
into our own hands, get a cortisone shot and speed the process up.”

Said Amaro: “I think you guys are making a little too
much of the cortisone shot. If this helps accelerate him in getting his
velocity back, that's more the nature of it.”

However, Lidge very well might be the recipient of the
very first cortisone shot that was not a big deal. After all, there’s a reason
why cortisone injections are banned in nearly every other professional and amateur
sports around the world. According to Brian J. Cole, MD, MBA and H. Ralph
Schumacher, Jr, MD in the Journal of
American Academy of
Orthopaedic Surgeons, the Lidge and the Phillies could be teetering on the edge
of some long-term effects.

Physicians do not
want to give more than three, but there is not really a specific limit to the
number of shots. However, there are some practical limitations. If a cortisone
injection wears off quickly or does not help the problem, then repeating it may
not be worthwhile. Also, animal studies have shown effects of weakening of
tendons and softening of cartilage with cortisone injections. Repeated
cortisone injections multiply these effects and increase the risk of potential
problems. This is the reason many physicians limit the number of injections
they offer to a patient.

So there’s that and we haven’t even discussed the future
of the Phillies’ bullpen. Smartly, though, Manuel cut to the chase about Lidge’s
return from this injury.

“We’re just speculating,” Manuel said, “and that’s not
good.”

Other people’s managers

Tito INDIANAPOLIS—One cool thing about the Winter Meetings is the daily little thing each manager does with the press. For some guys it's the first (and only) chance they get to catch a glimpse at someone like Don Wakamatsu or Dave Trembley and hear what they have to say.

Other times, it's nothing more than another mass media session for the popular managers of the big-market teams. For instance, this afternoon, Terry Francona of the Red Sox and Ozzie
Guillen from the White Sox held they media sessions in front of pretty large crowds. Then again, Ozzie and Tito usually gather larger than average crowds simply because they are so quotable. In the case of Ozzie Guillen sometimes he's so quotable he can't be quoted because of his choice in different types of words he likes to use.

It makes me wonder if Ozzie learned English from listening to Redd Foxx records when he came to the U.S. from Venezuela.

Nevertheless, today Francona relived the end of the 2009 season and how even though the Red Sox won 95 games, they weren't quite good enough.

"Everybody remembers how you finish," Francona said, acknowledging that despite all those wins, the Red Sox didn't even challenge the Yankees in the AL East.

With World Series title No. 27 in the bag, the secret to the Yankees success is pretty simple to hear Francona describe it.

"They have a lot of money and they have a lot of smart people running things," he said.

Lethal combo.

Meanwhile, across the ballroom here in the Indy Downtown Marriott, Guillen talked about his club, specifically how veteran Andruw Jones fits in.

Jones, of course, has been THE center fielder in the Majors over the last decade. However, now that he going into his 15th season in the league and closing in on his 33rd birthday, Jones will have to get used to playing left field for the White Sox, because, as Guillen said, "Right now he doesn't have a choice."

Five-year veteran Alex Rios is Guillen's choice to play centerfield in front of Jones.

"Rios is a better center fielder," Guillen said. "Ten years ago, Andruw Jones was the best center fielder on Earth."

He's still pretty good, but not good enough for the South Side of Chicago.

As far as the Phillies go, Charlie Manuel did not make the trip to Indy with the approximately 30 other members of the team's traveling party. Because the season lasted into the first week of November, Manuel was excused. Last year in Las Vegas, as some remember, Manuel spent the entire week in his room at the Bellagio ridden with the flu. Until the last day of the winter meetings Charlie only surfaced to sign his contract extension before going back to bed.

This year he's probably playing a little golf in Florida.

Just call Charlie the best manager in Phillies history

chuckIn the days after the Phillies surged to within a Cubs’ base hit [1]from forging a one-game playoff with the Astros for the 2005 wild card, I wrote a long, season-ending story about the things it would be wise for then-GM Ed Wade to do.

Because, you know, I had all the answers and any wise GM would comb through my stories for trenchant baseball advice.

Yes, that was written in the sarcasm font.

Nevertheless, tucked beneath such things as re-signing Billy Wagner or trading Ryan Howard for pitching so that Jim Thome could be the everyday first baseman, I wrote that it would be wise for team to sign Charlie Manuel to an extension. The idea, I wrote, was ceremonial—like a reward for putting up with a lot of BS from the fans and media all while keeping his team focused on winning games.

It would have been a classy thing to do, I argued. After all, the Phillies similarly rewarded Larry Bowa for doing far less than Manuel.

But wow… you should have seen the e-mail that poured in from that one. People freaked out and resorted to the one thing sports fans who can’t wrap their heads around a certain point do…

They called me names.

Fact is, I enjoyed it. I like the show and if a bunch of people dressed with the alter-ego of an avatar can’t tell you how stupid you are, well, what’s the point. Besides, the things I’m really stupid about, like home repair or fiduciary matters, make my sports analysis look like it was developed by Stephen Hawking.

It’s the truth.

Anyway, the extra attention and massive email attacks were nice because it meant there were a few angry people out there reading. The web staff here at CSN doesn’t get much attention or recognition around the office. Oh sure, to folks on the outside Andy Schwartz and myself are pretty legit, but around the office we’re the freaks who compose those tricky sentences and can make the web site do all those colorful things. The fact is we’re oddballs (in more ways than one) which is especially true in regard to Andy since he was at CSN when they turned on the lights for the very first time. Actually, he very well might have flipped the switch.

He’s quite fastidious like that.

Tangent aside, it’s funny (not ha-ha) how wrong I was about Billy Wagner and Ryan Howard, but oh-so right about Manuel. The fact is Manuel did get a contract extension at the end of the 2007 season and the 2008 season, which will keep him with the club until 2012. And short of getting caught robbing a liquor store, there’s nothing Charlie can do to get fired before his contract expires, either.

Just like that and Charlie has become one of those venerable ol’ salts running a team just like Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, or even Charlie’s old manager, Walter Alston. No matter how tough some seasons became, those old ball skippers were given the time and the patience to make it work. In that regard the Phillies were very smart in exercising patience with Manuel.

ruben_chuckKnow why? Because the big complaint about Manuel these days was over some of the choices he made during his second straight appearance in the World Series. Does anyone see the irony there? Charlie is a bad manager because he didn’t win the World Series for two straight years?

That’s knee-slapping funny.

No, the point is Charlie is not a bad manager. In fact, the old throwback from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is very much a progressive, modern manager. His players are relaxed and the atmosphere around the team is such that all the ballplayers have to do is worry about the game. Part of how this is fostered is that Charlie takes the slings and arrows. He puts himself out there and lets smart-assy national media types make fun of his diction and Appalachian twang while his players are unbothered.

There’s another irony: guys who never had to work for anything ever (and by work we mean real work such as provide for a wife, child, mother and 10 brothers and sisters when still a teenager) laugh to each other about the way about a guy who had to work for everything speaks in front of cameras.

Kind of makes me embarrassed to be in the same business with those people.

Nevertheless, let’s get to the bottom line. In 2012 Manuel will be finishing his eighth season with the Phillies, which will be the third-most in club history. Only Hall-of-Famer Harry Wright and should-be Hall-of-Famer Gene Mauch will have managed the Phillies longer.

Better yet, if the Phillies win an average of 67 games over the next three seasons, Manuel will surpass Mauch as the winningest manager in franchise history. Considering that the Phillies have averaged nearly 90 wins per season with Manuel at the helm, chances are he’s going to shatter the franchise record.

So here’s the question: How many folks out there thought Charlie was going to make it through the end of his first contract? How many thought he would be one of just two managers to win the World Series for the Phillies?

Finally, how many folks out there can remember back to that November of 2004 afternoon when Manuel was introduced as the manager and thought, “Yes, there is the man who will manage more winning games than any manager in franchise history and the second most in Philadelphia baseball history behind Connie Mack.”

I’ll apologize for all those boneheaded things I wrote about Billy Wagner and Ryan Howard, but not about Charlie.

That contract extension turned out to be a pretty good idea.


[1] Incidentally, Brad Lidge was on the mound to preserve the Astros’ wild-card clinching victory. His last pitch was to Jose Macias who smoked a liner destined for right field until Eric Bruntlett stepped in the snare it. How ironic is that? Cue the “Twilight Zone” music.

 

Just call Charlie the best manager in Phillies history

chuck.jpg In the days after the Phillies surged to within a Cubs’ base hit [1]from forging a one-game playoff with the Astros for the 2005 wild card, I wrote a long, season-ending story about the things it would be wise for then-GM Ed Wade to do.

Because, you know, I had all the answers and any wise GM would comb through my stories for trenchant baseball advice.

Yes, that was written in the sarcasm font.

Nevertheless, tucked beneath such things as re-signing Billy Wagner or trading Ryan Howard for pitching so that Jim Thome could be the everyday first baseman, I wrote that it would be wise for team to sign Charlie Manuel to an extension. The idea, I wrote, was ceremonial—like a reward for putting up with a lot of BS from the fans and media all while keeping his team focused on winning games.

It would have been a classy thing to do, I argued. After all, the Phillies similarly rewarded Larry Bowa for doing far less than Manuel.

But wow… you should have seen the e-mail that poured in from that one. People freaked out and resorted to the one thing sports fans who can’t wrap their heads around a certain point do…

They called me names.

Fact is, I enjoyed it. I like the show and if a bunch of people dressed with the alter-ego of an avatar can’t tell you how stupid you are, well, what’s the point. Besides, the things I’m really stupid about, like home repair or fiduciary matters, make my sports analysis look like it was developed by Stephen Hawking.

It’s the truth.

Anyway, the extra attention and massive email attacks were nice because it meant there were a few angry people out there reading. The web staff here at CSN doesn’t get much attention or recognition around the office. Oh sure, to folks on the outside Andy Schwartz and myself are pretty legit, but around the office we’re the freaks who compose those tricky sentences and can make the web site do all those colorful things. The fact is we’re oddballs (in more ways than one) which is especially true in regard to Andy since he was at CSN when they turned on the lights for the very first time. Actually, he very well might have flipped the switch.

He’s quite fastidious like that.

Tangent aside, it’s funny (not ha-ha) how wrong I was about Billy Wagner and Ryan Howard, but oh-so right about Manuel. The fact is Manuel did get a contract extension at the end of the 2007 season and the 2008 season, which will keep him with the club until 2012. And short of getting caught robbing a liquor store, there’s nothing Charlie can do to get fired before his contract expires, either.

Just like that and Charlie has become one of those venerable ol’ salts running a team just like Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, or even Charlie’s old manager, Walter Alston. No matter how tough some seasons became, those old ball skippers were given the time and the patience to make it work. In that regard the Phillies were very smart in exercising patience with Manuel.

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com Know why? Because the big complaint about Manuel these days was over some of the choices he made during his second straight appearance in the World Series. Does anyone see the irony there? Charlie is a bad manager because he didn’t win the World Series for two straight years?

That’s knee-slapping funny.

No, the point is Charlie is not a bad manager. In fact, the old throwback from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is very much a progressive, modern manager. His players are relaxed and the atmosphere around the team is such that all the ballplayers have to do is worry about the game. Part of how this is fostered is that Charlie takes the slings and arrows. He puts himself out there and lets smart-assy national media types make fun of his diction and Appalachian twang while his players are unbothered.

There’s another irony: guys who never had to work for anything ever (and by work we mean real work such as provide for a wife, child, mother and 10 brothers and sisters when still a teenager) laugh to each other about the way about a guy who had to work for everything speaks in front of cameras.

Kind of makes me embarrassed to be in the same business with those people.

Nevertheless, let’s get to the bottom line. In 2012 Manuel will be finishing his eighth season with the Phillies, which will be the third-most in club history. Only Hall-of-Famer Harry Wright and should-be Hall-of-Famer Gene Mauch will have managed the Phillies longer.

Better yet, if the Phillies win an average of 67 games over the next three seasons, Manuel will surpass Mauch as the winningest manager in franchise history. Considering that the Phillies have averaged nearly 90 wins per season with Manuel at the helm, chances are he’s going to shatter the franchise record.

So here’s the question: How many folks out there thought Charlie was going to make it through the end of his first contract? How many thought he would be one of just two managers to win the World Series for the Phillies?

Finally, how many folks out there can remember back to that November of 2004 afternoon when Manuel was introduced as the manager and thought, “Yes, there is the man who will manage more winning games than any manager in franchise history and the second most in Philadelphia baseball history behind Connie Mack.”

I’ll apologize for all those boneheaded things I wrote about Billy Wagner and Ryan Howard, but not about Charlie.

That contract extension turned out to be a pretty good idea.


[1] Incidentally, Brad Lidge was on the mound to preserve the Astros’ wild-card clinching victory. His last pitch was to Jose Macias who smoked a liner destined for right field until Eric Bruntlett stepped in the snare it. How ironic is that? Cue the “Twilight Zone” music.

World Series: Betting on Hamels in Game 7

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com NEW YORK—The sun was due to hit the horizon at any minute. At least that’s what I’d heard. The month of October is a blur when you’re chasing around a baseball team. In fact, another writer pointed out that yesterday was Monday and I stared at him for a long moment. It didn’t feel like a Monday, but then again nothing feels the same anymore.

The numbness set in that day it snowed in Denver during the NLDS and hasn’t relented.

So sitting there feeling numb, tired while waiting for the sun that I had heard so much about, the remote control instinctively went to the MLB. If there was no Larry David out there in the ether what else would one want to watch?

But there on the screen appeared a bunch of guys sitting on bar stools on the field. The setting was the same exact place that I had left only it looked so much different on television. It was bigger and greener on the TV, which I chalked up to those crafty guys in the MLB Network CGI department.

There was no need for any kind of special effects when panelist Mitch Williams popped on the screen. After all, Mitch is a damned force of nature with his rapid-fire delivery of each thought that tickles the locus of his brain. It’s fabulous because generally on TV they don’t do nuance well. With Mitch the nuance is the hammer he uses to obliterate all notion of conventional wisdom…

You know, as it relates to wisdom on basic cable.

But Mitch’s grand point of the night was speculative in nature, because that’s what they do on those types of shows. Someone makes a point, another guy takes the opposing view, they argue and then it’s time to go to the commercial.

Riveting.

However, Mitch dropped a point that wasn’t too unpopular in these parts lately, and the idea was that if the World Series gets to a seventh game, there is no way manager Charlie Manuel should run Cole Hamels out there. Who cares that Hamels will be the freshest pitcher on the staff and it will be his day to pitch? Mitch said if the Phillies can force Game 7 at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night, the reigning World Series MVP should not pitch.

“There’s huge doubt,” Williams said on ESPN Radio. “If I’m Charlie Manuel there’s no way in the world he’s pitching. A player comes out in the middle of the World Series when the entire team is busting their butts to get this thing accomplished again to repeat and one of the mainstays in the rotation says he just wants the season over? Well, he wouldn’t have to ask me twice for it to be over, he wouldn’t pitch again. I’d take my chances with J.A. Happ. … I cannot send Cole Hamels out there after he said he wants the season to end and then have to look at the rest of the team in the face and say, ‘He was just kidding.’”

Sure, the quote might have been taken out of context, but Williams did not care.

“You don’t let that quote come out of your mouth, period,” Williams said. “That’s been the problem with Cole this year. I thought last year in the postseason he was the best pitcher on the planet. This year when the playoffs started he was complaining that the Phillies had to play games that start at 2:30 p.m. There are certain things as a player that you just don’t let be known. You definitely don’t let your opponent know that you’re upset at what time the game is starting, because they know going in that your mind is not where it’s supposed to be and it will take nothing to get you rattled on the mound.”

Mitch is old school. He was the heart-and-soul of the ’93 Phillies’ infamous “Macho Row.” He’s no sooner as hit a guy with a pitch in the back than give up an intentional walk and mess with his pitch count. Why waste the energy?

Cole Hamels is the anti-Mitch. Where Cole has precious ads with his wife and sweet little dogs that get carted around town in designer sweaters in a backpack, and has his hair gently highlighted, Mitch wore a mullet. He spit and cursed and owned horses and pigs on his farm called, “The 3-and-2 Ranch.”

If Hamels is Tokyo, Williams is Paris. They are as opposite as a pair of left-handers could be.

Still, give Williams credit for not holding back or allowing his biases to be swayed by thinking something through. Williams’ analysis is just like his pitching was—hurried, fast, wild and a little sloppy.

And who doesn’t love it?

Still, Mitch Williams telling a manager not to use a pitcher? Really? Certainly his idea to bypass Hamels in a Game 7 is one that I would have completely ignored if it was offered by anyone else. But because it was Mitch Williams, it was put right out there on the batting tee for anyone to knock out of the park.

Mitch Williams, as everyone knows, pitched the fateful Game 6 of the 1993 World Series for the Phillies. Manager Jim Fregosi brought his closer into the game in the ninth inning with a one-run lead and the meat of the fearsome Blue Jays’ offense coming to the plate. If Mitch could have gotten three outs, the Phillies would have played in Game 7 the next night. With a one-run cushion he had very little margin for error. That was especially the case considering it was Mitch who was on the mound in Game 4 when the Phillies blew a five-run lead with six outs to go. When Larry Andersen struggled in the eighth, Fregosi turned to Williams who gave up six runs.

Then again, it could hardly be Williams’ fault. His fastball and command of his slider were shot from overuse and too much tight-rope walking during the regular season and the playoffs. By the time he got in there to face Joe Carter with one out and two on, it was already too late.

So why did Fregosi put Williams in at all? Clearly an astute baseball man like Fregosi was wise enough to see what everyone else saw, which was all his closer had left was guile dressed up as good luck.

In other words, Fregosi was sending Williams out on a Kamikaze mission. Dutifully, Williams put on his crash helmet and went out there.

BANZAI!

So why did Fregosi send Williams out there in Game 6 with the season on the line? Simple, he felt loyalty to his guy and didn’t feel like he had anyone better. Was Roger Mason going to pitch the ninth inning? Sure, it sounds logical to us, but we were there with Curt Schilling with our heads buried in a towel.

hamels.jpg But given the chance, if it comes to a Game 7, Cole Hamels would be my man. I’d give him the ball and would expect that he not only would pitch seven innings, but also that he would win the game. In fact, I don’t know if there is any other logical choice.

Yeah, yeah, I know all about the numbers. I’ve seen the frustration, the body language and heard the comments. And yes I remember watching J.A. Happ pitch against the Yankees in May where he pitched really well before Brad Lidge blew it in the ninth.

I know all of this and I don’t care. I’m being exactly like Mitch in this sense.

The reason I give the ball to Hamels in Game 7 (if the Phillies even get there) is because I think he has pride. I think he’s been hurt by all of the slings and arrows and is dying for one more chance to save his season.

Yes, it’s all about redemption for Hamels.

“I know Hamels. I’ve been a Hamels guy ever since I seen him pitch in Lakewood and when I first came to work here, I never, ever—I want you to listen to this—I never, ever questioned his mental toughness because he’s just as tough as anybody on our team. And I mean that. That part I’ve never, ever doubted,” Manuel said. “There’s definitely no quit in him, and I know he shows emotions at times, and he’s had like a freakish year and he’s going through a bad time, but at the same time he’ll get through it, and he’ll be the pitcher that you saw last year. That pitcher that you’ve been seeing for the last couple years, that’s who Hamels is. He is a gamer and he’s a fighter. I can’t say enough about him, really. That’s kind of how I see him.”

Needless to say Manuel just tipped his hand on who will pitch in Game 7 for the Phillies if Pedro Martinez wins on Wednesday night. Actually, there was no tipping at all because Charlie just put all his cards out there on the table.

Better yet, Hamels has been challenged by just about everyone. He’s even gone to the manager’s office and campaigned to get the ball in the season finale should it come to it. Now it’s all on him.

A wounded and cornered animal can do one of two things—he can roll over and die or he can fight back.

“He definitely wants to win and he wants us to win the World Series, and he definitely wants to play a big part in it,” Manuel said. “As a matter of fact, he might be wanting to play too big a part in it. But that’s kind of how I see it.”

Here’s betting Hamels gets the chance to fight back.

World Series: Damon’s double steal all flash

damon3.jpg PHILADELPHIA—Already they are saying it might be the most clutch play in recent World Series history. Strangely, that’s not just from the hyperbolic New York press who has the innate ability to turn even the most mediocre ballplayers into Hall of Famers.

No, the lauding of Johnny Damon’s one-man, one-pitch double steal has been pretty universal. All across the board the praise as appropriately reflected the proper bias. But make no mistake about it… it was a great play.

Actually, it was one of those plays where everything had to go perfectly. If Damon was going to steal second and pop up out of his slide and take off for third where no one was within 45 feet because of the defensive over-shift for Mark Teixeira, any deviation would have thwarted the play.

First, pitcher Brad Lidge and catcher Carlos Ruiz have to fail to cover third base. Secondly, the throw to second by Ruiz not only has to be fielded by Feliz, but if it is caught at the bag Damon can’t go anywhere. If Feliz thought to catch the ball at the base, there was no way Damon could have gone anywhere.

More importantly, if Ruiz had been able to hang on to a foul tip with two strikes on Damon during his nine-pitch, five-foul plate appearance, the inning would have ended. Instead, Damon lived to see another pitch and laced a single to left.

On pitch later he went from first to third on a steal(s).

Crazy, but smart.

But was it really necessary? Sure, Damon taking off for third was an aggressive, heads’ up play. If Lidge throws a wild pitch he could easily score the go ahead run from third base, but with Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez due up it wasn’t really necessary to take third other than as an insult.

In other words, it was flashy (and smart) but much ado about nothing. After all, Teixeira was plunked on the arm before A-Rod doubled home the go-ahead run. Without the hit, it doesn’t matter where Damon was standing.

At least that’s the way Charlie Manuel sees it.

“A-Rod got a big hit,” Charlie said. “Damon going to third base, only thing Damon did by going to third base, he put his team in a better position to maybe score a run by a fastball or a high chopper or something like that. But the big hit was A-Rod. A-Rod’s hit was the big hit because it was two outs. They got the big hit, Rivera came in, shut us down, and they got the win. They’ve been doing that to us.”

So while us media types hyperventilate over Damon’s smart move, ask yourself if it would have been as big a deal if he was playing in the World Series for Tampa Bay.

World Series: Bad beats

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com PHILADELPHIA—For a franchise that has lost more games than any other team in pro sports history, the Phillies have suffered through more than their fair share of humiliating defeats. In fact, if Philadelphia were the hoity-toity center of arts and letters like Boston and New York, there would be books, poems, curses and movies produced about some of the more devastating of these losses.

Of course the World Series victories in 1980 and 2008 have tempered some of the emotion of the losses, but if that were not the case chances are last night’s defeat in Game 4 of the World Series would take on a greater magnitude.

Instead, we’ll just label it a tough loss and wait to see how the rest of the series plays out.

Still, it’s worth investigating just where the Game 4 loss ranks. Upon reflection, the 2009 Game 4 defeat mirrors the one in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series. That’s the one where the Phillies took a 14-9 lead into the eighth inning only to have the Blue Jays rally for six runs in the inning against Larry Andersen and Mitch Williams. Just when it looked as if the Phillies were going to tie up the series at 2-2, one inning put the club in a 3-1 series deficit and paved the way for Joe Carter’s series-ending homer in Game 6.

Before that point, though, Curt Schilling pitched a shutout in Game 5. That’s a role the Phillies are hoping is reprised by Cliff Lee in tonight’s Game 5. In fact, the similarities are downright uncanny. I remember walking in the bowels of the Vet before Schilling’s first, true World Series gem and seeing the victory champagne, the championship t-shirts and a whole lot of Molson beer in boxes outside the Blue Jays clubhouse.

Schilling made them cart it all the way to Toronto and the Phillies were two outs away from forcing a Game 7 until Jim Fregosi called in Mitchy-poo.

The rest is history.

As for the ’93 Game 4, Andersen said he doesn’t think the mood in the clubhouse after that loss was too different than it was with the Phillies last night. Both clubs had been through so much during the long season that one difficult defeat didn’t affect morale.

Of course we all know how Game 6 shook up the ’93 Phils and the city. Williams was traded to Houston, John Kruk beat cancer, Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton began their descent marked by injuries and that team quickly broke up.

Roger Mason we hardly knew ye.

As for last night’s loss it seemed as if a few of the guys got fired up by the notion of doom and gloom. Cliff Lee walked into the clubhouse and a wry smile took over his face when he took in the scene of a media horde picking at Brad Lidge as if they were vultures picking at a dead animal by the side of the road.

mitch.jpg Of course Lidge’s teammates didn’t help matters by leaving the closer out there all by himself to answer question after question, but eventually a few trickled out. Heck, even Chase Utley misread the extended media deadlines for the World Series and had to entertain questions from the press.

Nope, Utley only has time for the media when he needs to promote his charity.

“We play like every game’s our last anyway,” Utley said. “So this should be no different.”

Regardless, Jimmy Rollins probably said it best about the Phillies’ attitude heading into their first elimination game since the 2007 NLDS. Don’t expect any rah-rah speeches or extra histrionics from the home team, he says.

“I guess that works real well in Hollywood movies,” Rollins said. “You make this grand speech and everybody turns around and becomes superheroes. But we all know what we have to do. We talked about it in the lunch room, what’s the task at hand. And Charlie, if he wants to say something, he’ll say something. Other than that, the focus and the job doesn’t change.”

Yes that’s true. However, the stakes have changed greatly.

*
While we’re on the subject of ugly losses in team history, where does Cole Hamels’ failure in Game 3 rank. Sure, we’re waxing on about Game 4, but Hamels and the Phillies were in an excellent spot in Game 3 before the fifth-inning meltdown.

As a result, it would be difficult for Manuel to send Hamels to the mound for Game 7 at Yankee Stadium should it come to that. Moreover, there just might be a swirl of trade talk regarding Hamels this winter… perhaps involving a certain right-hander for Toronto.

“This year has been tough on him,” Manuel said. “He’s kind of had a weird year. You’ve heard me say that over and over. What he’s going through right now, it’s going to be an experience, because he’s going through the part where he’s failed.”

Manuel pointed out that bad years on the heels of overwhelming success aren’t extraordinary. In fact, they happen all the time to really good pitchers. Hall of Famers, even.

“I think that’s just the way it goes. And I can name you pitchers that have had the same problem he has. Saberhagen, Palmer, Jim Palmer, Beckett. I mean, if I stood here and think, I can think of more,” Manuel said. “You go back and look, after they have the big year, it’s not something — Pat Burrell as a player, hit 37 home runs, and the following year I remember when I first came over here, one of my things was I worked with his hitting. And the reason is because he was having a bad year. That’s baseball, and sometimes that’s what happens. That doesn’t mean that a guy is not going to meet your expectations of him. I think it’s just a matter of him getting things going again and feeling real good about himself, and he’ll go out there and produce for you.”

Whether or not this affects Hamels’ role with the club for the rest of the 2009 season has yet to be determined. But make no mistake about it—the Phillies’ faith in Hamels just isn’t there any more.

World Series: Charlie’s big gamble

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com PHILADELPHIA—No matter what else happens, Charlie Manuel will be remembered as the second man to win a World Series for the Phillies. Since 1883 and after 50 previous managers, only Charlie and Dallas Green have hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season.

So whatever happens after the 2008 World Series, Charlie’s legacy is safe in Philadelphia. Winning baseball teams are like Haley’s Comet around here.

But will Charlie’s legacy take a hit if the Phillies lose the 2009 World Series to the Yankees? And if so, will it be because of his decision NOT to send Cliff Lee to the mound for a rematch against CC Sabathia on short rest in Game 4?

Well, that all depends.

First of all, Charlie has painted himself into a corner a few times during the postseason. One time came when he used both J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton in Game 2 of the NLDS. Another time was when he went with five pitchers to get three outs in Game 2 of the NLCS. After each of those instances the question that was asked was, “Did Charlie just [mess] this up?”

Each time the answer was, “We’ll see.”

And that’s where we are once again. Charlie is backed into a corner with Joe Blanton scheduled to start against the Yankees in Game 4. If it works and Blanton comes through with and the Phillies steal one from Sabathia again, the manager looks like a genius. After all, he will go into the pivotal Game 5 with his best pitcher properly rested and ready to go against another pitcher working on short rest.

Better yet, the pitcher (A.J. Burnett) is one pitching coach Rich Dubee is quite familiar with going back to his days with the Florida Marlins. Though he won’t say it one way or another, one gets the sense that Dubee thinks Burnett is a bit of a whack job, to use a popular term.

So in that respect, if the Phillies go into Game 5 with the series tied up at 2 games apiece, Manuel looks pretty darned smart.

Again.

Still, it seems as if the manager has his cards all laid out on the table and is waiting to get lucky with one on the river (to use another term). Clearly it seems as if the Phillies don’t believe they match up well against the Yankees are attempting to use any favorable twist they can to their advantage. The biggest of those appears to be Cliff Lee on regular rest in Game 5 against A.J. Burnett on short rest.

Nevertheless, there is an interesting caveat to all of this and it has to do with Charlie and Lee…

If Charlie was so adamant about not pitching Cliff Lee on three days rest, and says that even if the pitcher had campaigned to pitch in Game 4 it would have no affect on his decision to stick with Blanton. According to the way Manuel phrased it, even if Lee had burst into the office, flipped over a table, knocked some pictures off the wall and screamed at the manager to, “GIVE ME THE BALL!” Manuel says it would not have mattered.

“We didn’t talk very long on Cliff Lee,” Manuel said.

But why did they talk at all?

Let’s think about that for a second… if Charlie’s mind was already made up, why did he ask Lee anything? Could it be that Lee emitted some bad body language or hedged when Manuel asked if he’d pitch in Game 4?

Or could it be that the Phillies placed too much trust in Cole Hamels?

For now everyone is saying all the right things. That’s especially the case with Lee, who says he’s ready for whatever the Phillies give him.

“It was a pretty quick conversation, him asking me if I had ever done it and me telling him no and saying that I think I could,” Lee said. “Basically that was about the extent of it. Pretty quick, brief deal. I just let him know I’d pitch whenever he wants me to pitch. I think I could do it, but he makes the calls.”

So the season comes down to this. If the Phillies fall into a 3-1 series hole and end up losing the series, will it tarnish what Manuel has already done for the Phillies?

We’ll see.

World Series: Gotta get to Mo

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com PHILADELPHIA—It was back in Washington, probably in late August or early September when all we did was write about the proper way to use a relief pitcher and closers. Needless to say it was during one of Brad Lidge’s many rough patches of 2009 and there was a whole bunch of name dropping and philosophizing by the likes of me.

It wasn’t just willy-nilly name dropping, either. Oh sure, there was Eckersley, Sutter, Goose, Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall and, of course, Fingers. But we also waxed on about Rawly Eastwick, Will McEnaney and the socialism of baseball with its division of labor and labels.

Labels, we decided, were bad. However, since the Phillies seem to have their label/labor issues figured out, there is no need to go overboard when discussing the best use of the so-called “closer.”

Besides, Mariano Rivera makes that Rawly Eastwick look like Will McEnaney.

Oh yes, Mariano Rivera. His two-inning save against the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night might have been a record-breaker, but it wasn’t exactly a study in the efficiency of pitching. The Phillies made Rivera throw 39 pitches in order to get his 10th career save in the World Series. They also brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, and the tying run in the ninth.

These weren’t mere flash-flood rallies either. In the eighth with one out Rivera had to face Chase Utley with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino on base. Utley had ripped two homers the night before to pace the Phillies to the win, but this time Rivera got the inning-ending double play.

Sure, the TV replays showed that Utley was safe, but it was significant enough that Rivera got Utley to hit into a double play considering the lefty hit into just five of them all year and has grounded into just 49 double plays in his entire career.

Indeed, the lefty hitting Utley got one of those cutters Rivera throws.

In the ninth Matt Stairs faced Rivera with two outs and a runner on with a chance to tie it. Stairs, as we know, has had some success against big-time closers, but this one ended just as it has so many times with Rivera.

As soon as Stairs made the final out of the game, the talk started. For instance, there are a few that suggested that even though the Phillies didn’t score against Rivera, they got to him a bit. They saw those 39 pitches, of course, and sent eight hitters to the plate in those two innings. The idea, as it’s been written and spoken, was that the Phillies got a good, long look at Rivera and will be ready for the next time.

“Now you have a game plan,” Rollins said. “We didn’t really see Mariano during the season. Spring training, he comes in, I’m out of the game. So, it’s a mystery. Like, we know what he’s going to do. It’s no surprise. It’s not a secret. You’re getting a cutter. All right. You’re getting another cutter. All right. Now here comes another one. That’s what makes him such a good pitcher, because he’s not trying to trick you. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you’ve got to be stubborn with it because he’s going to be stubborn with what he’s going to do to you.”

Manager Charlie Manuel was one of those who believed the Phillies’ long look at Rivera was beneficial.

“We can hit Rivera. We can hit any closer. We’ve proved that,” Manuel said. “He’s one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He’s very good. But I’ve seen our team handle good pitching and we’re definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.”

Here’s the big question from all of this… what makes this time so different? What is it the Phillies get that no other team, for the last 15 years, couldn’t figure out?

What makes the Phillies so darned special?

Certainly the Phillies didn’t need to see 39 pitches to know all about Rivera. He throws the cutter and like Pedro Martinez, Rivera is a force of nature. Hitters know what he’s going to throw and when he’s going to throw it, but he still turns bats into kindling. The Phillies, like every other team in the world, send scouts to watch Rivera pitch, they’ve seen him on TV, during spring training and on a continuous loop on the monitors in the clubhouse.

Really, what makes those 39 pitches any different?

“I don’t think you can be scared of anyone in baseball,” Victorino said. “You have to have the resiliency to say, ‘This guy is good. but we can beat him.’ His numbers show how good he is, but you can’t go with that mindset because then you’re beating yourself.”

OK, fine. But in the carefully choreographed world of relief pitching, Rivera is just like all those names we dropped earlier. Actually, check that… he’s better than them. That’s because in 21 World Series appearances—one fewer than Whitey Ford’s all-time record—Rivera has pitched 33 innings, finished 16 games and notched 10 saves.

Needless to say the 10 saves are the best in World Series history, with Fingers second with six. More notable, Rivera has saved four World Series games with multi-innings outings. Again, that’s another record.

So why is it that the Phillies think they can do what only one other team has done in 21 tries?

Maybe it was the 11-pitch at-bat from Rollins in the eighth where he earned a walk (like he really earned it) after falling behind in the count 1-and-2 and then fouling off five pitches. That’s the harbinger.

After all, the last time Rivera threw as many as 39 pitches when going for a two-inning save, the Red Sox rallied for a victory in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and began the greatest comeback in baseball history.