Howard, Utley have something to fall back on

Utley_howard Ryan Howard and Chase Utley just sat there in straight back chairs with bemused looks on their faces as they watched two drunks wrestle on the floor. Not until they paused to catch a breath with their dress shirts torn open, did the winning lines from the ballplayers help put a bow on the scene.

“I just saw you bite that dude,” Ryan Howard said while appearing as Ryan Howard in the program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

That was followed by an invitation to wrestle from two of the main characters of the show, played by Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day, who were sprawled out on the floor at PSPCA benefit. Needless to say, charity events for animals have a tendency to get out of hand with grappling and/or fisticuffs popping up throughout a ballroom. It’s a serious business and some folks need to give until it hurts.

However, the invitation to Howard and Utley to join in the wrestling match because they were, “wasted,” was met with a witty rejoinder from the All-Star second baseman.

“No we’re not,” Utley said.

“No, we’re completely sober. But you guys drink a lot though,” Howard added.

“You guys drink more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Utley finished before the ballplayers shrugged their shoulders and exited, stage right.

And to think, Utley was teammates with Vicente Padilla and has been known to work blue when delivering comeback wise cracks to fans in New York City or the home crowd when expressing delight in winning a World Series. For this occasion, Utley had to defer to the writers to craft his lines—you know, FCC guidelines and all. Plus, he seemed genuinely enthused and didn’t speak in clichés straight out of Bull Durham, unlike in situations with the press at his day job. On an everyday basis, Utley has the charisma of a toilet seat, or maybe he genuinely means that he wants to “stay within himself,” or “take them a day at a time.”

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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.

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.

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.

Missing the Big Piece could cause big problems

Ryan_howard So far the Phillies have done OK without slugger Ryan Howard. Of course it’s been just one game, but Ben Francisco and Carlos Ruiz popped homers and piled up seven hits on Tuesday night in Miami. That’s good because if the Phillies are going to survive the spate of injuries plaguing the team, guys like Ruiz, Francisco and new cleanup hitter, Jayson Werth, are going to have to deliver.

Because teams with injury problems like the Phillies don’t win otherwise.

Yeah, there have been a few teams in recent history that lost its top slugger during the regular season and were able to keep it together to get to the World Series. For instance, the Yankees played the first 28 games of 2009 without Alex Rodriguez, which would have been a crippling loss, if the team didn’t have guys like Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira ready to pick up the slack.

In 2007, Manny Ramirez missed 24 games in September for the Red Sox and hit his final homer of the regular season on Aug. 28. But when the playoffs started, Ramirez was back in the lineup and batted .400 with four homers through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

It also didn’t hurt that the Red Sox had David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and American League rookie of the year, Dustin Pedroia. The Sox were so stacked that they traded Ramirez to the Dodgers midway through the 2008 season.

There’s always a fallback slugger, like in 1990 when Eric Davis missed 23 games in May and the last week of the regular season, but was ready to go in the playoffs when Reds’ teammates Paul O’Neil, Chris Sabo and Mariano Duncan stepped up. Davis was the best player on the Reds in 1990, but registered a 2.6 Wins over replacement (WAR) because guys like Billy Hatcher and Glenn Braggs kept the machine running.

Ah yes, running. That’s one way to combat a power deficiency. That’s how the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals made up for losing Jack Clark for 34 games in September and October. Considering that Clark banged out 22 homers in 122 games, which was exactly two more than the combined total of the six players on the team that played 100 games that year, his loss was significant.

Nevertheless, the Cardinals won 101 games and made it to the seventh game of the World Series (they actually won it in six games, but Don Denkinger… you know) partially because they swiped 314 bases—110 from Vince Coleman—and had a .335 on-base percentage as a team. Tommy Herr led the team with 110 RBIs even though he hit just eight homers. Willie McGee drove in 82 runs with just 10 homers and 18 triples to capture the NL MVP Award.

The strangest stat from the 1987 Cardinals is that they won 101 games with two pitchers that won 21 games with five players getting at least 30 stolen bases. Herr and Ozzie Smith swiped 31 bags in ’85, which would have led the Phillies in 2009 and been the fourth-best in the National League.

Yes, the game has changed.

But speed, as they say, kills, and it’s a weapon the Phillies used to their advantage to get to the World Series the past two seasons by swiping bags at a better than 80 percent clip. However, the running game for the Phillies has been grounded a bit, too. Shane Victorino leads the club with 20 steals, but he’s out for another few weeks with an abdominal injury. Jimmy Rollins hasn’t been caught stealing all season and has the second-most steals in franchise history in the modern era. But between the calf injury that led to a pair of DL stints and a sore foot that ballooned after getting smashed by a foul ball, Rollins has simply trying to hold it together.

So the Phillies are missing their speed and power as we head into the throes of August. And if that isn’t enough, Chase Utley is still days away from simply gripping a bat after he ripped the ligament on his right thumb. Over 162 games, Howard and Utley average nearly 80 homers per season, which is seven fewer than what the 1985 Cardinals hit all season.

What can the Phillies do if they can’t bash and run past the opposition? Werth, the darling of the SABR set, is streaky at best and followed a two-doubles effort in Washington with four strikeouts against the Marlins. There’s Rollins and Placido Polanco, but those guys are still recovering from stints on the disabled list. Raul Ibanez is starting to swing the bat, and catcher Carlos Ruiz is putting together his best season offensively. Also, Dom Brown is holding down a spot in the heart of the lineup, but is it fair to ask a rookie to keep the team together until the big guns start to trickle back?

So what do they do without Howard, a player that has dominated Septembers past?

How about pitching and defense?

Good thing the Phillies have the Roys and Cole, huh? Now if they can just close out some games they’ll be OK… maybe.

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?

Good help will be hard to find

Utley PITTSBURGH — Sometimes the easiest thing to do is also
the hardest one to accomplish. Yeah, that sounds like a trick or some sort of
weird riddle, but really, when one looks at the predicament the Phillies have
backed themselves in to, it makes perfect sense.

Yes, Chase Utley likely will be out until September
recovering from surgery on his right thumb to reattach the ligament to the bone
where it belongs. And yes, Placido Polanco — he of the one who does all the
little things — is probably out until August so he can recover from a chronic
case of tendonitis in his biceps and a bone spur on his elbow.

Then there is Chooch Ruiz, who we don’t know what to
expect. Anyone familiar with Brian Westbrook or Keith Primeau understands how
concussions can affect a pro sports career. Considering that Ruiz went to visit
one of the preeminent sports concussion specialists in the United States while
in Pittsburgh on Thursday, it seems to be a significant development that he was
told not to go out on a rehab assignment this weekend. Chooch needs to let
things mend for a bit longer and rightfully the Phillies are allowing that to
happen.

So that’s a big chunk of the Phillies lineup that will be
out indefinitely. Utley, Polanco and Chooch gone with no return date set,
though we were assured it would be relatively soon based on basic prognosis and
guidelines from the medical people. That’s precisely where it gets complicated,
too, because two weeks is plenty of time for a club to watch its season
implode.

They say a team can’t win a pennant in [inset a month
here], but it most definitely can lose one.

That’s what the Phillies have to guard against. Though it
doesn’t seem like it from the bird’s eye view, it’s not unreasonable to believe
that the season hangs in the balance, right
now
. Yes, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. can stand pat and wait for his
guys to mend and/or start to hit. Considering that Utley, Polanco and Chooch
are out and the offense is still
struggling, it’s made for a maddening first half for the Phillies.

But a combined four RBIs from just two players over the
past two games in starts for Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, including just a
lonely one against the last-place Pirates on Thursday night, doesn’t inspire
much confidence.

Here’s where he get to the easy and difficult part… yes,
it would make sense for Amaro to makea trade to add some power to the lineup
while Utley and Polanco get healthy. It also wouldn’t be such a bad idea to get
a catcher or some much-needed pitching depth, too. After all, if there is one
thing we’ve learned this season it’s that the Phillies are a flawed team. They
were a flawed team when they won the World Series in 2008 and when they went
back there in 2009, too. The difference is they did a better job at hiding
those ugly areas with trades and acquisitions that got them Joe Blanton, Scott
Eyre, Matt Stairs, Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez.

Ideally Amaro would like to follow that pattern again
since it has been known to work out pretty well. Plus, sometimes a trade has a
way of invigorating a club, kind of like the way getting Lee at the deadline did
last year.

All Lee did was put together the greatest postseason by a
pitcher in team history since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1915… and against
the Yankees, Dodgers and Rockies, no less.

Obviously the Phillies should go out and make the next
big deal in order to keep it together until the big guns get back. Obviously,
Amaro is probably wearing out the battery on his Blackberry all day. The
problem the GM has, however, isn’t what player to get. That’s generally pretty
easy to figure out.

Instead Amaro has a problem with what he can give.

Nope, he doesn’t have much.

He does have Domonic Brown, though. A 22-year-old
star-in-the-making recently made the jump to Triple-A where he’s hitting .458
with two homers in seven games going into Thursday’s action. Ideally, the
Phillies would like Brown to remain in Allentown for the rest of the summer
where he could continue to develop with a September call up in the offing if
everything goes well.

Don’t think for a second that the Phillies are going to
dangle Brown as trade bait, either. With Jayson Werth in the last year of his
contract with a big winter of free agency looming, and the quickly aging Raul
Ibanez finished with his current deal after the 2011 season, Brown isn’t going
to have to wait too much longer.

Ruben But what could speed up the process is if the Phillies
keep on struggling with the bats and must
make a trade. What do they have to offer? Better yet, if teams know the
Phillies are desperate and Amaro is pushing to make a trade, why would any
self-respecting GM just make it easy for him?

If the Phillies are hurting and have very little
leverage, opposing GMs are going to make them pay.

Back in March we suggested that it might not be a bad
idea to shop Werth, which understandably, was greeted with more than a few
folks sending messages asking if I had taken leave of my senses. I understood
why folks were ripping me and accept that some of them might even make really good
points.

But that doesn’t mean my logic was faulty.

Where Amaro has his best options is with Werth and Brown
and there is a report out there that this theory is being tested. Knowing that
Lee was traded over the winter so that Amaro could replenish the minor league
system that saw seven of its top 10 players traded, maybe flipping Werth for
some reinforcements is the best card the Phillies have.

Unless Ruben is hiding an ace somewhere.

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.

Who? No really, who?

Mike_richards When I was a kid I figured I heard Ronald Reagan’s name spoken every single day. Whether I consciously paid attention to hearing it, or simply caught it in passing, I was certain that a day had not passed without at least one utterance of that name.

I felt the same way about George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and now with Barack Obama. George W. Bush? Well, yeah, but mostly as a punch line.

Cable TV was more accessible during the Reagan years, which was the impetus of our media saturation and 24-hour connectivity. Of course no one foresaw the coming of the Internet during the Reagan years other than Doc Brown and Marty McFly, though they had the luxury of a time machine. And as we have learned, the Internet is the greatest invention since Tommy John surgery.

So Ronald Reagan taught me that everyday folks like to talk about people they will never, ever meet and/or don’t care a whit about them like a president, congressman, or Lady Gaga. Ina sense, the common man and the cultural star use each other. One uses the other to sell something which in turn forces the regular people to use the seller in a manner that makes them feel better about themselves. In other words, everybody wins.

Or do they? Since the gulf between the two factions grow with each passing TMZ post, each side digs in deeper and deeper. Agendas are forced with no regard for the other side. That’s just the way it happens when a group feels slighted.

In our little universe here in Philadelphia, Donovan McNabb is our new Ronald Reagan. Not a day passes when something is not spoken or written about the man or his importance and future to the professional football team in the city. Go ahead and comb through the daily stories about the Eagles on CSNPhilly.com or Philly.com and I’m positive there will be one mention of McNabb in something produced today. Turn on 610 or 950 and set an egg timer and wait…

Someone will say the words, “Donovan,” or “McNabb.”

The difficulty in this phenomenon is when a guy thinks he is part of one group, though in reality he is not. That’s where Mike Richards of the Flyers enters.

I get the feeling that Mike Richards could walk down Walnut Street and grab a seat in Rittenhouse Square and no one would bat an eye. Probably a shade below 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Richards looks just like any regular 24-year-old dude seen in the city. He probably blends in in Kenora, Ontario, too, which is probably why he thinks he can non-discretely go about his business in Philadelphia.

INSERT HEARTY LAUGH RIGHT HERE

Donovan_mcnabbWhat Richards might not get—or maybe he does, we don’t know—is that a $69 million contract and the captaincy of the beloved Flyers means he is not a regular dude. Yes, celebrity is both a blessing and a curse and it’s because of these reasons that he is clearly not amongst the regular-dude folk and because he is not “regular,” if he chooses not to talk to the media, for whatever reason, some folks are going to feel slighted or even angry. McNabb or Chase Utley might give obtuse, one-word answers to pointed questions from time to time, but after some prodding and long waits, at least he goes through the motions complete with a bemused grin and a placid stare on non-engagement.

It works for him.

Now I don’t know about the finer details of Richards’ tête-à-tête with the writers that cover the team on a daily basis. I also don’t know anything about Richards’ private life and what he does for fun.

I also don’t care.

Really…

I.

Don’t.

Care.

However, Richards can make his life a whole lot less complex if he figures out how to do things like Chase Utley or Donovan McNabb and mask his contempt for those commoners with a steady barrage of clichés and bleep-eating grins.

It's worth mentioning that the time McNabb told Terrell Owens to, "Keep my name out of your mouth…" That was awesome.

So now we’re talking about Mike Richards for a couple of days in a row. Better yet, some people may (or may not) have learned who he is because of the recent media storm. Probably not too many more, though. It’s not like he’s Donovan McNabb.

World Series: When Reggie met Chase

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com NEW YORK—When people think of Reggie Jackson’s baseball career, inevitably the three-homer performance in Game 6 of the 1977 is the first moment that comes to mind. Three pitches have not just defined a man’s professional career, but also his life.

Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth are the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game, and Jackson was the only player to hit five homers in a single World Series.

Until now.

Chase Utley, playing for the team Jackson followed as a kid while growing up in Wyncote, Montgomery County, tied the all-time record for homers in a series when he belted a pair in Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park. For Utley, it was the second multi-homer game of the series, which also ties a record set by Willie Mays Aikens who had a pair of two-homer games in the 1980 series against the Phillies.

But aside from the home runs and the clutch performances in the World Series, there really isn’t much that Jackson and Utley have in common. Oh sure, both players are known for their streakiness and strikeouts. After all, not only has Utley homered in five straight regular-season games during his career, but he also struck out five straight times in the 2007 NLDS, including four times in one game on 13 pitches.

Jackson, of course, struck out more times than any player in the history of the game. The thing about that is Jackson’s strikeouts were just as epic as his home runs. Nope, Jackson did not get cheated.

“I was known for postseason, not what I did in the regular season and I had great years,” Jackson said. “But you play to win. Our club, our organization is just hell-bent, from our ownership to our general manager. They’ve built it to win here. The conversations that we have are about winning a championship.”

Utley hasn’t been cheated either. Though Jackson pointed out that the ballparks in Philadelphia and New York are “small,” Utley hasn’t hit any squeakers. The homers Utley hit in Game 5 were gone by the time he made contact. In fact, Utley uncharacteristically pulled a bit a Reggie on his first-inning homer on Monday night when he flipped his bat aside and watched it sail toward the right-field fence ever-so briefly.

Jackson, of course, was famous for posturing on his homers. His style was the antithesis of Utley’s but as far as that goes, Jackson is a huge fan of the Phillies’ second baseman. In fact, Jackson greeted Utley when the Phillies came out on the field for batting practice before Game 6 on Wednesday to congratulate him on tying the record.

As far as the comparison between the two World Series home run kings go, that’s about all they have in common. Jackson demanded attention on and off the field. Utley gets the attention because of what he does on the field. He’s not interesting in having it any other way.

“We’re different type of players,” Jackson said. “But he hit 30 home runs, [and] that’s a lot of home runs. I don’t want to compare he and I. He’s a great hitter. But it’s not about style—it’s about winning. That’s what is important.”

Said manager Charlie Manuel about Utley: “Actually he don’t like for you to say a whole lot of things about him. But he’s one of the most prepared, one of the most dedicated, he has the most desire and passion to play the game that I’ve ever been around.”

After the brief conversation with Utley, Jackson walked away even more impressed, especially when Mr. October was told that the record only matters if the Phillies win the World Series.

Otherwise, who cares?

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com “He’s old school,” Jackson said about Utley. “When you talk to Chase Utley and hear what he focuses on, he really doesn’t care to talk about it much. They’re down 3-2 and that’s where he’s at, and I admire that. I admire that professionalism.”

The notion that Utley could become the first World Series MVP to come from a losing team since Bobby Richardson got the award when the Yankees lost to the Pirates in seven games, has been quite popular. Certainly Utley has to be a candidate on the strength of belting five homers in the first five games, but Jackson got the sense that the All-Star second baseman wouldn’t want the award if the Phillies did not win the World Series.

“You have to win the World Series,” Jackson said. “I don’t want the MVP award if I don’t win. I don’t care—I’d want to win [the award], but you play to win. What was it that Herman Edwards said, ‘You play to win the game.’

“It’s all really about winning. You’d rather hit three home runs and win the World Series then hit seven and not. You have to win, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.”

Utley is trying to make it all matter. Plus, he could have two more games to break Reggie’s record… if he does it, will Utley get a candy bar named after him, too?

Game 2: Utley integral

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com A few notes and observations before Game 2…

I had hoped to write a little ditty about Chase Utley last night, but a couple of things happened. One, we were informed by the Phillies that the All-Star second baseman would be available on the podium at 11 a.m. on Thursday.

Yeah, Chase Utley on the podium. Imagine that.

Normally, Chase Utley is about as interesting as shoving a Bic pen into your middle ear when it comes to talking about baseball. The guy is just not into it, which I don’t understand but accept. Some people don’t like talking about their jobs—what are you going to do?

However, upon waiting to see if Utley would come into the clubhouse after the victory in Game 1 on Wednesday evening, I was told that he would not be discussing his work with the big media throng. Or even the smallish one that waited around, for that matter.

“He didn’t really do anything,” I was told.

For a second I thought it was me. Maybe I shouldn’t believe my lying eyes? Maybe something occurred in the game that I completely missed… you know, whiffed on. But then I took a nanosecond to scout the outline of the ballgame in my mind, and blurted out.

“He got a key hit, swiped a base that was huge and played defense,” came the blurt. “Plus, the last time he faced the Rockies in a Game 1 of a playoff series he struck out four times on 13 pitches. He’s an All-Star with a .154 average in the NLDS and a .213 playoff average.

“He was integral!”

By that point I was standing by myself in the middle of the clubhouse bantering out loud like a crazy person on the street. It could have been worse, though. Instead of talking about baseball I could have been imitating trumpet noises as if I were the acapella version of Chet Baker because who doesn’t like to do that when they are alone and talking to themselves?

The point remains, though—Chase Utley was a big part of the Game 1 victory for the Phillies. Yes, he rode a 3-for-37 from the regular season into the playoffs and struck out in his first two plate appearances to stretch his hitless streak to 18 at-bats.

“Zero-for-a week,” I said to no one in particular when Utley struck out a second time.

But his leadoff single and stolen base in the sixth inning broke the game open like a piñata. To that point the Rockies’ hard-throwing righty Ubaldo Jimenez had been dealing. He needed 46 pitches to buzz through the first four innings and looked as if he was going to settle in nicely. However, in the fifth inning an eight-pitch leadoff walk to Jayson Werth resulted in a pair of runs to set the table for Utley’s table-setting. With the second baseman in scoring position after the stolen base, Jimenez was like Randall “Tex” Cobb in that fight against Larry Holmes. Sure, he was standing, but please, for the love of God, someone throw in the towel or stop it or make the guy go down.

A long double by Ryan Howard and a crazy triple from Werth delivered the knockout punch.

And it all started with Utley…

Who didn’t really do anything.

Statage: Utley is 2-for-12 in opening games of the NLDS and 6-for-20 with two homers in opening games of playoff series.

93 wins and more holes than a slice of domestic Swiss

image from fingerfood.typepad.com It wasn’t that long ago that Game 162 meant the end of the line for the Phillies. In fact, we were used to it that way. As September morphed into October, that was pretty much it for the baseball season. If the Phillies could make the season last up to the last few days of the regular season, then it was a pretty successful year.

That was then, though. Now, we’re beginning to get spoiled with baseball. Game 162 is nothing more than a dress rehearsal or when the season really begins to get interesting. Sure, the regular season is important, but the post season is what we’ll all remember.

It’s what we expect, because we’re spoiled.

Don’t believe me? OK, the Phillies won 93 games this season, which is two more than the World Series champs in 1980 and one more than the 2008 champions won. Ninety-three wins are the most by a Phillies team since the 1993 club won 97. Since 1883, the Phillies have had just four team win more than 93 games in a season—in 1899, 1976, 1977 and ’93.

In other words, the 2009 Phillies won more games than 122 other teams in franchise history. Yet strangely, we’re kind of disappointed with the Phillies.

Go ahead; admit it… there was a bit of disappointment in how this season played out. Sure, the Phillies won the NL East rather easily, but the rational fan is worried about the NLDS against the Rockies. That’s especially the case with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitching the way they have lately. And the bullpen in the shape it has been in this year.

Can you believe the ‘pen had 22 blown saves this year? Actually, make that 17 blown saves for the two guys (Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson) that likely will be closing out games in the playoffs.

And then there is the matter of hitting with runners in scoring position. Sure, the Phillies led the league with 224 home runs this year, but they hit .253 with runners in scoring position, including just .216 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

The most worrisome aspect of the hot-and-cold offense has been Chase Utley, who finished the season bone tired. In fact, manager Charlie Manuel should have told his All-Star second baseman to spend the week at home sleeping and replenishing for the playoffs. Think about it—not only did Utley play in 156 games in 2009, but also he did so after spending the winter busting his rear to rehab his surgically repaired hip in order to be ready for Opening Day. Add this onto the fact that Utley played a month longer than normal in 2008, had surgery, rehabbed from it and then played in all put six games in 2009…

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com Yeah, he’s whipped.

Need proof? Look at how Utley finished the season. With a 0-for-2 on Saturday, Utley ended the year hitless in his last five games and 17 at-bats. Actually, Utley finished 2009 with a 3-for-37.

Notably, Utley hit just two homers in September/October and none since Sept. 12.

Though Utley finished the season in an ugly slump, Ryan Howard solidified himself as the team’s MVP by capturing the RBI crown for the third time of his career with 141 and belted 45 homers.

So for the third year in a row, Howard slugged at least 45 homers and got 140 RBIs—only Sammy Sosa and Babe Ruth have done that in Major League Baseball history.

No, Howard is not the top MVP candidate in the NL. That’s Albert Pujols all the way. But since the end of May, Howard improved every month culminating with a final month where the lefty slugger batted .302.

And whereas Utley can’t buy a hit, Howard has a hit in 10 of his last 11 games.

Still, the fifth-most winningest team in franchise history heads into the playoffs with more holes than a slice of domestic Swiss. There are just so many question marks and they all are fairly significant. From the injuries to the offensive production. From the end of the ‘pen to the middle of the order.

So many questions and so little time… it starts for real on Wednesday.

Who needs a nap?

I'm tired,
Tired of playing the game
Ain't it a crying shame
I'm so tired

– Lili Von Shtupp

image from fingerfood.typepad.com MILWAUKEE — This is the time in the baseball season where the days grow longer, the nights shorter and the turnaround so much more quicker. Not only is there no rest for the weary, but also the only recourse is adrenaline.

Yes, we’re beat, but dammit we’re having fun, too. No one wants to go home because the action starts in October. Sure, we’re tired. All of us. The players, the coaches, the front-office types and, of course, the scribes. We’re beaten down to a bloody pulp like an aimless old boxer who just got his ass waffled. But really, what better place to be?

October baseball is why the players play and why the writers write.

It’s also why the scouts scout. For those who make the rounds from city to city with the Phillies, there are a few more regular faces on the scene. Like writers, scouts travel in packs even though they work for competing organizations. Call it safety in numbers.

But only one of these packs of people has any true bearing on the outcome of games and that ain’t the scribes. In fact, advance scouting offers so much insight into the opposition that birddoggers from all of the Phillies’ potential opponents have been at the ballpark for every game for the past two months. Shoot, even a scout from the Twins has been watching the Phillies in the outside chance that they meet in the World Series.

Most notable though are the guys from the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rockies and Braves, who happens to be ex-Phillies manager Jim Fregosi. Aside from Fregosi, the scouts from the National League-playoff clubs and a handful of American League teams have been out every day.

There are a couple of things to know about scouts. One is they watch the game differently than even the most astute fan or writer. They look for tendencies, nuanced little tells and tips that might not happen but one time in 100 pitches, but that one time could be the difference. Plus, the scouts look at the game objectively. Unlike coaches or the manager, the scouts are looking for what their team can exploit. They zero in on weaknesses like a big schoolyard bully.

At the core, though, the scout is an overt spy. As such, they trade in information and every once in a while they leak like a sieve. Because writers have access and insight that the scouts do not, there is often a quid pro quo between scout and scribe.

Wanna know what a few of them think about the Phillies’ chances in the playoffs? Well, it’s not really that much of a surprise.

“They’re going to have to ride their starting pitchers for as long as they can,” a scout said, noting that the Phillies’ bullpen is a mess.

This will be an interesting week for watchers of the Phillies because reliever J.C. Romero has been activated from the disabled list on Monday, Brett Myers could return to action this week along with Chan Ho Park, and Scott Eyre has not pitched in a game since Sept. 7. Before that, the lefty specialist had pitched just once since Aug. 16.

Then there is the issue of the ninth inning where it appears as if Brad Lidge will not see any significant action aside from mop-up duty to restore his fastball command and confidence. Ryan Madson pitched spectacularly in the ninth inning to save Sunday’s win at Miller Park, but if the lanky righty takes over the ninth, who gets the eighth?

Tyler Walker? Sergio Escalona? One of the guys trying to cram in some work before the playoffs begin? Not Brett Myers, says one scout.

“His stuff was pretty unimpressive in the few games he pitched when he got back [from hip surgery],” a scout said.

The biggest issue just might be the starting rotation, particularly Cliff Lee who is 2-3 with a 6.35 ERA in his last six starts. One of those six starts was a complete game shutout, which reveals how poor those numbers were in the other five outings. Meanwhile, Pedro Martinez missed his last start with a strained neck and J.A. Happ very well could be the answer in the bullpen.

Still, Lee and that rough patch with just one more start to go in the season is also something for folks to pay attention to.

“There are a lot of innings for those starters. Some of them look pretty tired,” another scout said. “But then again, there are a lot of guys out there that look tired.”

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are a few names that pop to mind when talking about tiredness. Better yet, if a scout from another team notices how tired the Phillies look, Manuel ought to, as well.

Right?

Well, yes and no. Sure, Manuel acknowledges that a couple of his guys are a little burnt, but it’s too late to do anything about it. With a four-game lead with six to go, Manuel can’t give Werth a day off even though he is 3 for his last 30 with just three singles and 14 strikeouts.

The tiredness is even more noticeable in Utley, who, like Werth, is struggling at the plate. Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Astros, Utley is 3for his last 27 and batting .222 in September.

Manuel says his all-star second baseman is in need of a day off, but he won’t get one until the NL East is sewn up.

“I think he’s dragging some, but he’s trying really hard. When we don’t play well he takes it real hard and he tries to do too much,” Manuel said. “But at the same time he can come out of it. He can handle it.”

Can he, or is that just wishful thinking by Manuel? The old adage is the regulars get to take a break after the division is won, but even then the Phillies will have home-field advantage on the line. They don’t want to go to Los Angeles for the first round, do they?

Heck, the way the Braves are playing the Phils might have to go to St. Louis.

“A day of rest would be nice. Of course, we could have been getting plenty of days of rest. But things don't always go the way we want,” Rollins said about the Phillies’ inability to close out the division in a timely manner. “What happens is that at times you have lapses in concentration. You think you have the pitcher right where you wanted him and then, wham! You miss that one pitch.”

Wham!

Come on out and meet the Mets

image from fingerfood.typepad.com NEW YORK – Compared to the last time the Phillies came to New York to play the Mets, a lot of the pizzazz has been stripped off the rivalry. Mostly that has to do with the Mets since they can neither stay healthy nor win ballgames.

Perhaps that’s what separates the truly good teams from the paper tigers – when the Phillies had piles of injuries they still figured out a way to get it done. The Mets? Not so much.

Still, the last time we were here all sorts of trouble broke out. That whole Raul Ibanez/small-time blogger thing was in full fester. Plus, the New York-based scribes were trying to get something from Chase Utley to fuel some sort of fracas. The problem was there wasn’t anything there.

Remember that?

As Pelfrey explained it at the time, he was upset about Utley stepping out of the box just as he was about to deliver a pitch. As such, Pelfrey barked at Utley, who returned with ignorant surprise that someone was talking to him.

“I was about to step into the box and it seemed like he was ready to pitch,” Utley said after taking a second to figure out what the hell was being talked about. “I wasn’t trying to make him frustrated. I was trying to put a good at-bat together.”

Pelfrey kind of said the same thing

“I don’t even know the guy,” he said. “It was too much adrenaline, I guess.”

The funniest part was when Charlie Manuel was asked about the non-controversial controversy. Instinctively Manuel thought Pelfrey was upset with Shane Victorino because usually, at any given moment, there is someone peeved at Victorino about something. He certainly drives Charlie nuts sometimes.

So there it is. Thanks for trying.

Nevertheless, the visiting clubhouse at brand-new CitiField was filthy with media types last June. They were crawling out of lockers, videotaping things with cell phones, saying silly things and basically just cluttering up the place like guests who refused to go away.

This time… not so much.

No, there were just six of us Philly guys hanging with the ballclub last night and there are only five of us today. In fact, just to fill out the space Scott Franzke and Tom McCarthy joined in, which was nice.

But this does not mean the New York media is not out in full force. Oh no. They’re crawling all over the place again – getting into things and sullying up the landscape.

Tonight they are here for the big ceremony to celebrate the Mets’ World Series title of 1969. All the old Mets are here, including Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw’s sons, Mark and Matt.

We don’t get to see too many of those ceremonial events in other places mostly because it’s a crap shoot. Besides, opposing teams don’t need to trot out the special ceremonies when the Phillies are in town because the defending World Champs pack ‘em in.

So it will be kind of cool to see the old Mets strut around and take in the cheers.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Speaking of old Mets, surely the large media contingent will be back out on Sunday afternoon when Pedro returns for the Phillies. Actually, Pedro (and then Cliff Lee going on Monday) might sway some more Philly folks to venture north up the Jersey Turnpike and into the hinterlands of Queens.

If they were smart they’d train it up here, because there is no easy path. Thank you Robert Moses, thank you…

Needless to say it will be a bittersweet moment for Pedro when he gets on the mound in Queens tomorrow. He wishes it could have worked out better with the Mets, but seems to be getting a redemption of sorts with the Phillies.

“I left last year in a sad way,” Pedro said. “Not only that we lost in a bad way, I didn’t perform like I wanted to for the Mets. It wasn’t the way a pitcher like me should have gone away. After working through so much to regain my health, it wasn’t fair to me or my dad’s wishes to leave the game on such a sad note.

“The better I felt, the more committed I was to making it back and giving my dad the opportunity – I guess from heaven — to see me in a different way, having fun, healthy and refocused on the game. That was my biggest motivation.”

Breaking up the band

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Sometimes breaking up the band isn’t such a bad thing. Imagine the stuff the Beatles or Led Zeppelin would have trotted out there if they were just playing out the string and trying to fulfill a contract. I’ll get to the point in a bit, but first some blather…

Guess what? The Phillies did add to the payroll by trading for Cliff Lee. The tally is an extra $2 million, which is approximately twice the salary Pedro Martinez will get paid for this season.

So yeah, figure this one out – according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Phillies added two pitchers to their roster that have a combined four Cy Young Awards and it cost them around $3 million for 2009. That means Lee is eighth on the club in salary and Pedro 18th. Pedro gets approximately the same paycheck as Scott Eyre and significantly less than Chan Ho Park.

Meanwhile Lee is getting a little bit more than Joe Blanton and significantly less than Jamie Moyer.

Isn’t baseball great like that? A meritocracy? Well, kind of… maybe. Put it this way – the MLBPA protects its members just as long as their names don’t appear on an ambiguous list that should have been destroyed or even compiled in the first place.

Nevertheless, the interesting part about the salaries isn’t the names attached to them or the high figures that make them seem so unreal. Nor is it the fact that all of those contracts are guaranteed and often have incentives built in, too.

Who cares about all of that.

No, the interesting part is that the Phillies can afford to pay out those salaries in a depressed economy and not too long after the team never gave out that kind of cash. Remember when the Phillies claimed to have offered Scott Rolen a 10-year contract worth more than $140 million? In reality, the Phillies never offered the 10-years and $140 million they keep touting. Instead, it the guaranteed portion of the offer was six years, $72 million. The deal stretched to 10 years and to $140 million only if one included all the options and incentives and buy-outs in the package, all structured in the club’s behalf.

If Rolen had signed that deal he would have been a Phillies last season. Had that occurred the Phillies never would have signed Jim Thome nor would they ever have had Placido Polanco. That means the paths to the Majors for Ryan Howard and Chase Utley would never been blocked.

How different would it have been if Utley would have gotten a chance to play every day in the big leagues when he was 24 instead of 26? Perhaps Howard would have been with the Phillies in 2003 or 2004. Coming off a minor league season where he belted 46 homers between Reading and Scranton in 2004, Howard played 61 games in Triple-A in 2005. That was 61 too many.

So imagine if Rolen had remained in Philly instead of escaping to St. Louis and then Toronto.

Howard, Utley, Rolen and Rollins?

But who knows – maybe it wouldn’t have worked out after all. Bobby Abreu, an offensive statistical fiend in his days was the Phillies, was dumped by Pat Gillick because, apparently, he made everyone around him worse.

Of the Turn of the Century Phillies that were supposed to be long-shot contenders for the wild card in aught zero, only Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell and Randy Wolf were able to collect all of their Ed Wade graft in a Phillies uniform. When they were free to go elsewhere, the Phillies let them.

And somehow it worked out.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com But since Gillick was so quick to give kudos to his predecessors after the World Series for drafting the likes of Rollins, Howard and Utley, what kind of credit would they have gotten if the long-term, big-money contracts they gave out weren’t cleared out?

Suppose the Phillies traded Howard and stuck with Thome. Or maybe they could have dealt Utley and gone with Polanco.

And maybe Rolen could have signed that deal in 2002… if so would we be talking about Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez and a repeat in ’09?

*
Speaking of Rolen, the big fella was beaned on the helmet by Jason Marquis on Sunday in just his second game with the Reds since being dealt at the deadline from Toronto. After crumpling in a heap to the ground, Rolen quickly sat up and immediately began yapping about it…

Apparently he was discussing his on-base percentage.

“I was a little dizzy. It stunned me. But it helped my on-base percentage, even though I still haven’t touched first base (as a Red),” Rolen said after Sunday’s game. “I talked to Jason. I’m fine. I motioned to him when I left the field to let him know that I wasn’t dead.”

Take a look at the video here.

“He’s lucky,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball ricochet that far. That ball went out to third base.”

Rolen still hasn’t actually stepped on first base since joining the Reds.

“I was just happy to get on base,” Rolen said. “I still have yet to get to first base. I haven’t met (first base coach) Billy Hatcher yet.”

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

image from fingerfood.typepad.com You wanna when you realize they have nothing to work with? It’s when they trot out Jack Clark with the Home Run Derby trophy to the raucous strains of Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot.

Do these folks know how to party or what?

Actually, they introduced Jack Clark as “Jack The Ripper.” As far as nicknames go, that’s a little too obvious. Kind of boring, too. “Jack The Ripper?” C’mon St. Louis, you’re better than that…

Well, maybe not. Stan Musial was, “Stan The Man.”

Duh.

What’s it going to be, “Stan The Boy?” Of course it’s “Stan The Man.” Why not get a little creative and try something with Musial?

Come on, work with me, folks.

After taking a gander at Jack Clark, “Jack The Buffet Line” is probably more apt. Still, to take nothing away from Clark, he was the Runnin’ Red Birds’ slugger. In three years with the Cards, Clark hit 66 homers. That’s 22 in ’85 and 35 in ’87. Clark was a slugger in an age where 35 homers was a lot. In fact, 35 homers was the most Clark ever hit in his career.

In comparison, Chase Utley has clubbed at least 30 homers in two of the past three seasons and already has 20 this year. No one considers Utley a home run hitter, but in the past two-and-a-half years, Utley has cracked 75 homers. Clark’s best three-year homer stretch was 87 between 1987 to 1989.

Utley will crush that with an average second half.

Should we start calling him “Chase The Ripper” or just marvel in how much the game has changed in a relatively short time.

OK, someone crank up the Benatar.

It ain’t about the numbers

image from fingerfood.typepad.com I can’t help it. I know all about the objectivity of the job and all of that, but I really can’t help it.

I really hope Shane Victorino makes it to the All-Star Game next week in St. Louis.

There, I said it. In fact, I told Victorino as much before Monday night’s game against the Reds. Of course I told him this after I busted his stones about Pablo Sandoval having far superior statistics and that the Giants’ rookie really suffered an injustice when he wasn’t named to the National League squad.

“It ain’t about numbers anymore,” Victorino said. “It’s a popularity contest.”

He has that right, but then again it’s always been a popularity contest. But my motives for Victorino getting to St. Louis are completely selfish. Oh sure, Victorino is as worthy of an All-Star nod as anyone in the league. Though his numbers don’t pop off the page, they are above average and he has been a consistent cog for a team that has been wildly inconsistent.

But I told Vic that I hope he gets there even after he explained how he spent Monday afternoon going door-to-door along Oregon Avenue with Mayor Michael Nutter. Of course he had to endure more teasing about the mayor of Philadelphia taking time out of his busy day to help him get to the All-Star Game.

“What, are you going to go help him with his budget deficit after the game? You’re doing all of this just to spend three days in St. Louis?”

Victorino knew why guys like me want him in St. Louis. He understands the media-player dynamic and has seen how stodgy and scripted ballplayers are in press situations. It’s like they are coached to be as uninteresting as possible, which is no fun for anyone.

Nope, there is no altruism about wanting Victorino to get to the All-Star Game and he knew it.

“You just want me to do something bleeping stupid at the All-Star Game,” he said.

“Well, yeah…”

Oh, but it was much more than that. Certainly if Vic were to “do something bleeping stupid,” it would be very entertaining. In fact, it was a blast to see him in the World Baseball Classic and the madness he must have spewed into the notebooks of the scribes covering those games. However, if Victorino were to get to St. Louis there would actually be someone (gasp!) to talk to. That’s downright revolutionary in this age of verbosity.

Besides, the other Phillies in St. Louis won’t be free to cut loose like Victorino. Chase Utley doesn’t have much to say unless he’s dropping F-bombs before large crowds and Ryan Howard will be in his hometown and surely will have a limited amount of time to hang around and chat. Manager Charlie Manuel likely will only be able to offer official comments from a podium or to the right’s holders, though we’re pretty sure Chuck will offer up some nuggets to the hometown scribes.

Charlie is good like that.

Nevertheless, it’s Victorino who might be the go-to guy. Hey, the guy just can’t help himself. Here’s an example of that:

After Game 3 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium last October, I waited out Victorino. Taking his time to emerge from the off-limits areas, Victorino knew media types wanted to ask him about the bench-clearing incident with Hiroki Kuroda. Word had been sent out that he wasn’t going to talk about it, but c’mon. We all knew how he was.

So when he walked over to his locker in that old visitors’ clubhouse in Los Angeles, I kind of held up my palms, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yo Shane, what’s up?”

“What’s up with what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah.”

“Well…”

“I’m not talking about it.”

That’s when he talked about it for 15 minutes.

Hey, the guy just can’t help himself and bygolly, get this guy to the All-Star Game so we have someone to talk to.

And just to be sure, I won’t cast a vote for Victorino. I’ll root for him to get there, but won’t cross the line to actually cast a vote.

Besides, have you seen Sandoval’s numbers? How did he get left off the roster?

*
Oh yeah, has anyone seen the big No. 8 on the big Amtrak building next to 30th Street Station? Obviously the city is rallying to try and get Victorino that trip to St. Louis, but what about the guys who actually made the team already? Charlie, Utley, Howard and Raul Ibanez are in… where’s their building?

Searching for an answer

utleyATLANTA – The clubhouse workers had just packed up all of the laptops and loaded them on the truck bound for the airport. Meanwhile, the giant TV pushed just off the center of the room at Turner Field was snapped off so the only noise coming from the visitors’ room at Turner Field emanated from players packing up their gear and water trickling out of the showers.

But the important elements were that the laptops were packed away and the eerie silence that shrouds the room after a lost baseball game. Without those laptops, Chase Utley didn’t know what to do with himself. How could he study game video into the early hours of the morning without those laptops?

So still dressed in his post-game workout gear, Utley was forced to move from the folding table that held the bank of computers to the overstuffed couches arranged around the television in the middle of the room. It was there he sat quietly and stared straight ahead into nothing.

The TV was off.

No music played.

The shower was waiting and a bus ride to the airport quickly approaching but he still didn’t budge.

He just stared straight ahead.

Utley got a hit and barreled into catcher Brian McCann in order to score the Phillies’ first run on Thursday night in one of those plays that kind of personifies the way the All-Star second baseman plays the game. Arriving at the plate at the exact moment as the throw from the outfield, Utley chose to take home plate by force rather than finesse his way around the catcher with a hook slide of sorts. Focused on catching the ball, McCann was left wide open to Utley’s assault as he was forcefully separated from the ball.

Call it one the hard way.

Still, not even Utley’s forced grit could will the Phillies to a much-needed victory. Perhaps the 14th loss in the last 18 games is the reason why Utley sat still and stared straight ahead.

Thinking.

Stewing.

Where are those damn laptops!?

“Times like this can build character for a team,” he said a good 45-minutes later as he dressed for the trip home. “That’s the way I look at it.”

If anyone knew how to solve the losing ways and malaise engulfing the baseball team it was Utley. Chances are he wasn’t merely sitting there like David Puddy from that Seinfeld episode where Elaine Benes’ boyfriend wiled away the time on a flight simply staring out into the middle distance.

Remember that one?

Elaine: Do you want something to read?

Puddy: No.

Elaine: Are you going to sleep?

Puddy: No.

Elaine: Are you just going to sit there and stare?

Puddy: Yeah, that’s right.

But Utley isn’t going to prod his teammates to follow his lead by calling them out to the press. Instead he’ll reinforce the positive with all the normal clichés, though privately – just like with manager Charlie Manuel – the pile of losses are killing him.

“I feel like we’re coming to the park prepared,” Utley said. “We obviously haven’t been playing that well, but we haven’t seen a change in our attitude for the negative. It’s obviously a rough stretch. We’re definitely not making any excuses, but we do need to start playing better in all parts of the ball: offensively, defensively. We need to pitch better. That’s the bottom line. How do you do that? You stay motivated. You stay positive.”

That’s what Utley does. He shows up early and stares at those laptops looking for any tiny bit of minutia or insight that the naked eye cannot catch. Then he’ll take batting practice until the calluses on his hands get calloused.

After the game he might take more batting practice or workout, but mostly he stares into those laptops watching the ballgame he just played until his eyes are ringed with bleary red tiredness. Maybe then he’ll go home and to do it all over again the next day.

“You have to come to the field every day to prepare and prepare to win,” he said.

Sometimes it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Searching for an answer

image from fingerfood.typepad.com ATLANTA – The clubhouse workers had just packed up all of the laptops and loaded them on the truck bound for the airport. Meanwhile, the giant TV pushed just off the center of the room at Turner Field was snapped off so the only noise coming from the visitors’ room at Turner Field emanated from players packing up their gear and water trickling out of the showers.

But the important elements were that the laptops were packed away and the eerie silence that shrouds the room after a lost baseball game. Without those laptops, Chase Utley didn’t know what to do with himself. How could he study game video into the early hours of the morning without those laptops?

So still dressed in his post-game workout gear, Utley was forced to move from the folding table that held the bank of computers to the overstuffed couches arranged around the television in the middle of the room. It was there he sat quietly and stared straight ahead into nothing.

The TV was off.

No music played.

The shower was waiting and a bus ride to the airport quickly approaching but he still didn’t budge.

He just stared straight ahead.

Utley got a hit and barreled into catcher Brian McCann in order to score the Phillies’ first run on Thursday night in one of those plays that kind of personifies the way the All-Star second baseman plays the game. Arriving at the plate at the exact moment as the throw from the outfield, Utley chose to take home plate by force rather than finesse his way around the catcher with a hook slide of sorts. Focused on catching the ball, McCann was left wide open to Utley’s assault as he was forcefully separated from the ball.

Call it one the hard way.

Still, not even Utley’s forced grit could will the Phillies to a much-needed victory. Perhaps the 14th loss in the last 18 games is the reason why Utley sat still and stared straight ahead.

Thinking.

Stewing.

Where are those damn laptops!?

“Times like this can build character for a team,” he said a good 45-minutes later as he dressed for the trip home. “That's the way I look at it.”

If anyone knew how to solve the losing ways and malaise engulfing the baseball team it was Utley. Chances are he wasn’t merely sitting there like David Puddy from that Seinfeld episode where Elaine Benes’ boyfriend wiled away the time on a flight simply staring out into the middle distance.

Remember that one?

Elaine: Do you want something to read?


Puddy: No.


Elaine: Are you going to sleep?


Puddy: No.


Elaine: Are you just going to sit there and stare?


Puddy: Yeah, that’s right.

But Utley isn’t going to prod his teammates to follow his lead by calling them out to the press. Instead he’ll reinforce the positive with all the normal clichés, though privately – just like with manager Charlie Manuel – the pile of losses are killing him.

“I feel like we're coming to the park prepared,” Utley said. “We obviously haven’t been playing that well, but we haven't seen a change in our attitude for the negative. It’s obviously a rough stretch. We're definitely not making any excuses, but we do need to start playing better in all parts of the ball: offensively, defensively. We need to pitch better. That's the bottom line. How do you do that? You stay motivated. You stay positive.”

That’s what Utley does. He shows up early and stares at those laptops looking for any tiny bit of minutia or insight that the naked eye cannot catch. Then he’ll take batting practice until the calluses on his hands get calloused.

After the game he might take more batting practice or workout, but mostly he stares into those laptops watching the ballgame he just played until his eyes are ringed with bleary red tiredness. Maybe then he’ll go home and to do it all over again the next day.

“You have to come to the field every day to prepare and prepare to win,” he said.

Sometimes it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Stick to the script

image from fingerfood.typepad.com NEW YORK – One gets to learn a lot about the media, drama and hype on a trip to New York City. Here in the big city they really have a knack for mythmaking whereas the writing press from Philadelphia are pretty good at seeing something for what it is and leaving it at that.

This time we’re not talking about Raul Ibanez and the inanity of the lathered up media reaction from the made up controversy. Though I will admit I kind of liked Joe Posnanski’s take on it.

No, this time we’re talking about Chase Utley and Mike Pelfrey and the apparent exchange of words the pair had during an at-bat in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game. As Pelfrey explained it, he was upset about Utley stepping out of the box just as he was about to deliver a pitch. As such, Pelfrey barked at Utley, who returned with ignorant surprise.

“I was about to step into the box and it seemed like he was ready to pitch,” Utley said after taking a second to figure out what the hell was being talked about. “I wasn't trying to make him frustrated. I was trying to put a good at-bat together.”

After the game, both Pelfrey and Utley were asked about it. Utley said Pelfrey said something to him but wasn’t sure what it was about. Pelfrey explained that he was peeved at Utley stepped out, told him and that was it. Everything ended right there.

“I got upset and told him to get in the box,” Pelfrey explained. “I don't even know the guy. It was too much adrenaline, I guess.”

When asked, manager Charlie Manuel thought Pelfrey was upset with Shane Victorino. Why not? Isn’t someone always upset with Victorino? He certainly drives Charlie nuts sometimes.

So there it is. All over, right?

Wrong.

During the Mets’ post-game show on SNY, they showed the footage of Pelfrey shouting toward Utley over and over again with in-depth analysis of some sort of fabricated rift between the two archrival teams. While this was going on, New York-based reporters combed the Phillies’ clubhouse to pose questions to the team members about their little fantasy fight. Was something going to happen next time? Why do these teams hate each other so?

Who wins in a fight between Utley and Pelfrey?

Apparently, the fact that it was all a heaping pile of bullbleep really didn’t matter. There was going to be a story, dammit, just like there was going to be a story with Ibanez and some unknown dude in the Midwest somewhere.

To paraphrase a quote from Joe Piscopo in the movie Johnny Dangerously, “I'm embarrassed to be a media member these days. The other day someone asked me what I do for a living, and I told them I was a male nurse.”

(Thanks Deitch).

Anyway, there is a pretty good rivalry between the Phillies and the Mets but it’s likely that the New Yorkers are pushing it harder than needs to be. After all the Yankees have the Red Sox and the Mets are second fiddle in town. Frankly, they might be afraid to admit that the Phillies and the Dodgers is a much better and more interesting rivalry.

But that one doesn’t fit into the manufactured scripts up here.

Shot from the hip

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Brett Myers joins teammate Chase Utley, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Alex Gordon and Carlos Delgado (amongst others) who have (or will) undergo surgery for a torn hip labrum. And that’s just in baseball. Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and Floyd Landis are two more notable athletes who had hip surgery recently.

That’s not all, either. Hip pain and injuries are the bane of distance runners and soccer players and it appears to have replaced the knee as the injury in baseball.

Of course shoulder injuries in pitchers are the biggest of the big, so the hip has a ways to go to catch up.

Nevertheless, with Myers acknowledging that he has to have hip surgery – whether it’s now or later is to be determined – the question has arisen about all the labral tears and hip surgeries.

What’s the deal with that? Is it something sinister or related to nefarious acts? Are these ballplayers built differently or doing something their predecessors did not?

Well, no.

Ballplayers in the old days had hip injuries and labral tears, too, only back then they called it a groin injury or some other catchall phrase. But with sports medicine and athletic training reaching new heights of insight and with technological advancements of the diagnostics, things like labrum tears and spurs are found much more easily.

Think about how many careers could have been saved if certain players were simply born in a different era. Or think about how much pain some players went through just to play their game. We know that tons of pitchers would have been able to have longer careers if Tommy John surgery had existed before 1975. That’s just one example – what was it like before arthroscopic procedures?

What if Mickey Mantle (for example) would have been able to have modern medical procedures instead of the slicing and dicing he underwent?

Anyway, Myers will need surgery and the consensus from a few medical folks who I described his situation to seem to think he will be best served to have the surgery now instead of later. Of course Myers is going to see Dr. Bryan Kelly, who just might be the Michael Jordan of hip ailments.[1] Clearly Dr. Kelly will steer Myers to the right path.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Nevertheless, a few medical folks seem to think that Myers’ shoulder injury from 2007 might have led to his hip problems. The reason they think this is because of the significant drop in the velocity of his fastball seems to point to Myers pushing off harder with his right leg in order to throw pitches as hard as he did before the shoulder injury. By having the surgery as soon as possible – and hoping that the damage isn’t too bad – Myers could be recovered in time for the stretch run and should be throwing as hard as he once did.

Of course Myers wants to pitch now. The best season of his career came when he pitched out of the bullpen when he pitched nearly every day in September of 2007. His durability was his strength and would have been attractive on the free-agent market this off-season.

The guy likes to pitch and even when he was in pain on Wednesday night, he didn’t want to come out of the game.

Certainly it makes the decision for Myers that much more difficult.

*
I watched Randy Wolf pitch for the Dodgers against the Cubs at Wrigley Field last night and it appears as if the ex-Phillie is finally 100 percent healthy. It was easy to think about Myers and the medical issues he faces when watching Wolf pitch. Several surgeries and lots of perseverance has Wolf looking like the strongest cog in the Dodgers’ rotation.

That 3-1 record and 2.84 ERA and .221 batting-average-against would look sharp for the Phillies these days.

Still, count on the Phillies being active on the rumor mill from here on out.

*
I missed this the other day, but last Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the greatest baseball game ever pitched. That’s when Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix, a Phillie for two seasons, threw 12 perfect innings in Milwaukee, gave up a hit in the 13th inning and lost, 1-0.

Boggles the mind.

Anyway, check out Albert Chen’s story on Haddix’s game in the recent SI. The amazing part was the Milwaukee Braves were stealing Pittsburgh’s signs with binoculars and still couldn’t get a hit.


[1] Hey Doctor Kelly… I’m a distance runner who can’t shake the hip tightness and pain. Am I ever going to be fast again? Damn hip!

Just a little shave

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Perhaps the best part about Brett Myers’ effort in the victory over the Yankees in the Bronx on Friday night came on the second pitch he threw of the game. That’s when he reared back and hummed a fastball behind leadoff hitter Derek Jeter as if to call out Yanks’ pitcher A.J. Burnett and say, “OK punk, if it wasn’t for this stupid DH rule, that fastball would have been in your ribs.”

But most importantly, that pitch said, “That [crap] stops right now.”

That’s how Myers answered Burnett’s second pitch of the game after that pitch plunked Chase Utley between the shoulder blades. His first pitch, of course, ended up over the short porch in right where Jimmy Rollins knocked it to get things started.

So much for a professional courtesy…

Either way, there was no doubt to the intent on the pitch from Burnett. Sure, he’s wild and all of that jazz, but Chase Utley isn’t exactly a tough target at the plate. Plus, in the American League pitchers can get away with that kind of stuff because they don’t have to fear repercussions. But the whole premise of the bean ball is just a little chicken bleep. A guy like Burnett gets upset and throws a ball at another player?

Lame.

A long time ago – back in The Vet days – longtime scribe Kevin Roberts and I were discussing the dynamics of beanballs and beanball fights or maybe just fighting in general. You see, get a couple of writer types in the media dining room a good hour before game time and the topics run the gamut. And the insight!

Anyway, Kevin’s argument made a lot of sense (but then again that’s no surprise):

“If you do something I don’t like, I’m not going to throw an apple at you from across the room,” Kevin said. “I’m going to get up, walk over to you and punch you in the face.”

Like a man.

Manly is the only apt description for Kev, but that’s beside the point. No, the issue is Myers took care of Burnett’s jackassery immediately and there was no more incidents the rest of the way.

There weren’t any quotes about the pitches from Myers (or Burnett) on the record because baseball players rarely talk about those types of things on the record. Off the record they’ll tell you about clubhouse rifts and friendships lost if a pitcher doesn’t respond in kind.

Sometimes they even react the same way Shane Victorino did during Game 3 of last October’s NLCS. You remember…

Apropos of nothing, the two players from that video who went the most bonkers and attempted to escalate matters, (and were fined) are two of the players currently serving suspensions for testing positive for banned substances. Coincidence, right?

Anyway, I like a good bench-clearing brawl as much as the next guy, but they do kind of have that British Navy element to them, don’t they? Remember when the Brits invaded the Falkland Islands during the ‘80s and sent the Royal Navy into the southern hemisphere after them? What did they do, say, “Oh, it’s on Falklands… see you in a week!”

A hitter running those 60-feet, six inches to get after a pitcher is hardly a stealth attack. Plus, all baseball players do is grab each other and dance around a bit. They don’t have to throw bean balls at each other if all they want to do is dance.

Of Presidential visits and hitting streaks

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Like an old catcher with creaky knees, ball writers don’t bounce back like they used to. That’s especially the case when they play day games after night games that take nearly 3½  hours to play.

Yes, life is hard. I know.

However, tomorrow morning comes early for the Phillies, too. After this afternoon’s series finale against the Dodgers, the Phillies board an Amtrak train to ride the rails to The District to be ready for the World Champion visit to the White House.

It should be a fun afternoon even though several members of the team and traveling party have already been to the White House and even the Oval Office before. Back when George W. Bush was president, baseball players used to be summoned for tours and audiences often. Bush, of course, was a former owner of the Texas Rangers and dreamed of being the commissioner of baseball until Bud Selig out-maneuvered him for the gig.

Fool him once…

Anyway, the main purpose of the trip to Washington is to play four games in three days against the last-place Nationals. Certainly the visit couldn’t come at a better time for the Phillies because they really need a winning streak to kick start things.

If they do so it should be in front of a friendly crowd since the Nationals rank 28th in attendance, averaging just 19,416 fans per game. Certainly those numbers will dip even further as the summer progresses since the Nats likely face mathematical elimination quicker than the other teams in the league.

Worse, unless the team drafts college phenom Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in the June 9 draft (and sign him) and call him up, there probably won’t be too much of a buzz about the baseball team in Southeast DC.

Of course Ryan Zimmerman’s hitting streak could have helped that if it had continued past 30 games.

Zimmerman had his hitting streak snapped yesterday against the Giants with an 0-for-3 including a pair of walks. One of those walks was an intentional pass that came with first base open in the seventh inning. Sure, it stinks that Zimmerman’s streak came to end with an intentional walk in there, but it was the baseball move by manager Bruce Bochy.

Nevertheless, Zimmerman could have been the only draw for the Nats if the streak could have continued past this weekend. In the meantime, Zimmerman’s streak was the longest since Moises Alou hit in 30 straight in 2007 and Chase Utley hit in 35 straight in 2006.

Not that Chase talked about it, of course.

Ever superstitious, Utley refused to talk about hitting and the streak during his run that year. It was the exact opposite tact of Jimmy Rollins who chattered away about his 38-game streak through the end of 2005 and the start of 2006.

And of course the master of post-DiMaggio hitting streaks, Pete Rose, yapped away non-stop about his streak during the 1978 season. In fact, Pete is still chattering away about it. Last December I visited with Rose in Las Vegas during the winter meetings and he told me about his hitting streak (amongst other topics) and even said he doesn’t like the way Utley refuses to open up to the media. He pointedly took Utley to task for his superstitious approach during his hitting streak in 2006.

Here’s what I wrote in December:

But Rose does not understand Utley’s reluctance to open up to the media about himself or baseball. Different personalities, perhaps. Rose was an open book and revealed all even when he was keeping a secret about his gambling on baseball. One of the secrets to the success of those juggernaut Phillies teams in Rose’s day was that he was the one who stood up and took on the media. With sensitive personalities like Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt on the club, Rose was the go-to guy for a quote or some insight. By doing that, he took the pressure off the team’s best players.


Rose simply did not understand why Utley refused to talk to the media during his 35-game hitting streak during the 2006 season. Not talking about baseball is just a foreign concept to him. Worse, he says, fans – particularly kids – don’t get a chance to know their heroes without some type of media insight.


“Kids might want to know more about baseball and they will listen to what a guy like Chase Utley has to say,” Rose said. “But when he’s up there all he says is, ‘Yep.’”

Interestingly, Rose said nearly the same thing about Utley to Dan Patrick on his radio show yesterday when he talked about Zimmerman’s streak. Take a listen here.

Pete also said he believes Alex Rodriguez is a Hall-of-Famer, but that might be a bit of a political statement.

Oh yes, Pete Rose definitely wants to be in the Hall of Fame.

All rock all the time…

image from fingerfood.typepad.com It's definitely going to be a crazy week around these parts. Not only do we have Villanova heading to the Final Four and all the pomp that goes with that, but also the Phillies return to Philadelphia this week for a pair of exhibition games against Tampa on Friday and Saturday before kicking off the season for real on Sunday night against Atlanta.

Who knows, the most anticipated Phillies season ever could be sandwiched between 'Nova's national semifinal game and a National Championship on Monday night.

Hey, crazier things have happened.

Anyway, we'll have a bunch of 'Nova and Phillies stories all week leading to the big weekend. Until then, here's a short list of the things I won't write about this baseball season.

Before I start, I know how lame the list is. After all, don't you hate those radio ads in which a station defines itself by what it doesn't play? Then they cue them up and play programmed and contrived crap. I heard one the other day where the station's big calling card was, "We aren't iTunes, we are your tunes."

What? This is what they announce before they launch into Don Henley.

No, take them… they're definitely your tunes.

So from here on out I'm drawing a line and painting myself into a tidy little corner. These are the stories I'm going to work as hard as possible not to write this baseball season:

1.) Jamie Moyer's age

Yes, we all know that Jamie Moyer is old. In fact, he's 46 and there have been just a select few ballplayers that had careers to that age. It's remarkable, sure, but not necessarily such an anomaly anymore.

The fact of the matter is that 46 isn't as old as it used to be. Better yet, a ballplayer only gets old if he allows himself to be that way or injuries add up. Ask Don Wildman about how limiting his age is. Or Dara Torres. Or Chris Chelios. Or Jamie Moyer.

Better yet, don't.

"Some players get injured and others just lose the desire," Moyer told me last August. "Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why."

Along the same vein, Moyer's age won't be used as a crutch, either. He's 46. So what? He's as fit as any player in the league and he hasn't lost a thing off his fastball (tee-hee), so if he's walking out there he's no different than anyone else.

He's 46? Big deal.

2.) J.C. Romero's suspension

Oh yes, this is an important issue. It's especially important since the Phillies won't have their workhorse reliever for nearly a third of the season. But stories knocking it down as no big deal or some type of insignificant or unfortunate occurrence don't get it. The truth is MLB did not want Romero to pitch in the playoffs, but they allowed him to do so anyway.

Why? And why not?

3.) Lefty lineup

Chase Utley to Ryan Howard to Raul Ibanez… deal with it. Certainly the opposing managers will have to figure out a way to deal with it. Last year Utley his .277 with 13 homers against lefties, while Howard hit 14 homers (just .224 though) and Ibanez batted .305 with seven homers vs. lefties.

Oh sure, in the late innings the Phillies will face a ton of situational lefties, but any time a manager goes away from his regular habits to rely on a pitcher generally used to facing just one hitter just might level the odds a bit.

For that middle of the order trio, even odds are pretty good.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com 4.) Charlie Manuel's managerial acumen

These are the facts: Charlie knows more about baseball than you. Actually he's forgotten more about baseball than you have ever known. To top it off, he's funnier than you and tells far better stories.

Plus, the way he handled that great comeback against the Mets last August in which he used to pitchers to pinch hit, had Carlos Ruiz play third base and put Chris Coste into the game in the eighth inning and watched him get four hits. The guy is always looking at the big picture and sometimes, just for fun, he'll play a hunch.

What he doesn't do is try to over think or out-fox the game like Tony La Russa or some other new age type. He'd rather beat you Earl Weaver style – sit back and wait for a big home run – but if he has to get some base runners moving with some steals or hit-and-runs, that works, too.

Meanwhile, he likes to put his pitchers into firm roles. Yeah, sometimes that can get him in trouble, but the good part is that everyone on the roster understands their role. Big league ballplayers love that.

And if that doesn't work, Charlie will pull out the old, "Just hold 'em, guys… I'll think of something."

It's worked so far.

5.) Raul Ibanez vs. Pat Burrell

Stat heads aren't going to like this one, but Ibanez's superior batting average and lower strikeout rate will matter. It mattered in Seattle and it will matter at cozy Citizens Bank Park, too.

The reason is as simple as the triple-digit RBI totals over the last three years – Ibanez hits the ball a little more. With Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Utley and Howard hitting in front of him, the 20 fewer times Ibanez strikes out as opposed to Burrell could be significant. Figure there are 26 weeks to a season with the potential for one more run a week produced from one spot of the lineup could add up.

Right?

There you go. Now I'm going to go put the iPod on shuffle… yep, my tunes.

Whatever the hell that means.

It all pays off in the end

image from fingerfood.typepad.com LANCASTER, Pa. – Last week while in Florida, I had the pleasure of bumping into both David Montgomery and Bill Giles.[1] Mr. Giles moved in and out of the area like a flash – he dashed in and rolled out after he had done and seen what he needed to do.

Mr. Montgomery, along with PR director emeritus Larry Shenk joined Todd Zolecki and I to watch Chase Utley's spring debut during a minor-league game on one of the back fields of the Carpenter Complex. Actually, I joined them. They were standing there at the one spot along the sidelines that separated us from the actual field/benches.

Still, despite a pleasant conversation with the guys, I couldn't help to think that, once upon a time, the Phillies were (internally) considered a small-market team. In fact, until recently the team collected cash from the so-called luxury tax put in place during the 2002 collective bargaining agreement.

The interesting part about the notion of the Phillies being a "small-market team" is the semantics. Technically, the Phillies play in the fifth-largest media market in the U.S. Only New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco are larger. Though back when the Phillies were playing in the Vet and the "small-market" statement was floated out there, Philadelphia was the fourth-largest market.

But largesse and largeness are clearly two different things.

Or at least they were until, (ahem) the Phillies got good. It's really an elementary phenomenon – when the Red Sox got good, re-worked their business plan and ballpark and really formed a Nation, they were essentially the same free-spending team as the Yankees.

Red Sox, Yankees… same difference. If either team wanted a player, they went out and bought a player.

Poaching from a David Murphy tweet (@HighCheese), the Red Sox are set to open the 2009 season with a player payroll of $120 million. It will be the lowest rate for Boston since the 2003 season.


According to Murph, the Phillies' Opening Day payroll will be $10 million higher than the Red Sox, while, according to research by Paul Hagen, the Phillies raised their payroll by approximately $26.7 million to $130,844,098.

For the Phillies it seems as if this winter was a perfect storm of arbitration-eligible players come home to roost. Better yet, Hagen dropped this from a story last month:

Closer Brad Lidge, who could have been a free agent at the end of the season, signed a 3-year extension in the middle of last season, got the biggest raise. His base salary went up $5.2 million to $11.5 million. He was followed closely by first baseman Ryan Howard, who is now the team's highest-paid player at $15 million after getting a $5 million bump.


Righthander Brett Myers ($3.5 million increase) and second baseman Chase Utley ($2.75 million) got bumps that were scheduled as part of multiyear contracts.


The biggest winner percentagewise was lefthander Cole Hamels. He got an 870 percent increase from $500,000 to $4.35 million as part of his new 3-year contract. Centerfielder Shane Victorino got a 651 percent increase from $480,000 to $3.125 million.

At the same time, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told us during the winter meetings in Las Vegas that the Phillies were largely unaffected by the current world economic crisis largely because they won the World Series. Had they fallen short, perhaps the payroll might not have gotten close to $130 million?

Still, as Nate Silver pointed out last week, baseball is a really, really good investment. Looking to make some money? Buy a baseball team. Just look at what happened to Messers Montgomery and Giles…

Sure, you might be small market now, but it will pay off very quickly.


[1] Yes, this is shameless name-dropping. Make that unapologetic name-dropping.

Utley plays

utley1CLEARWATER, Fla. — Yessir, as first reported by yours truly of CSNPhilly.com and Todd Cougar Zolecki of Phillies.com, Chase Utley played in a minor league game this afternoon at the Carpenter Complex.

I’m working on the details of the story now, so be sure to keep clicking back right here for all the particulars and some blurry camera phone pictures.

Meanwhile, Utley went 2-for-4 with a ground-rule double and a pair of whiffs in his first two ABs. Aftewards, Zo and I chatted up Utley about the return and it appears as if the recovery is still on track.

Also, Brad Lidge and Chad Durbin both pitched an inning each during the minor-league game. Lidge gave up a two-out double and had a strikeout in his inning, while Durbin was perfect. He even struck out some dude with “Utley” on a pitch that the All-Star complained was too nasty for this time of year.

So yeah, more is on the way…

Going, going, gone?

Chase UtleySo far, the 2008 season has bordered on “magical” for Phillies’ all-everything second baseman Chase Utley. Last night he slugged his Major League-leading 21st home run in the first inning and then chipped in with a pair of singles and two diving catches to save the Phillies’ 5-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

More than that, Utley smashed a homer in the fifth straight game to tie the franchise record for homers in consecutive games. Better yet, it was the second time this season that Utley has homered in five straight games.

More?

Well, check it out:

  • He is second in the league with 38 extra-base hits.
  • He is hitting .419 (13 for 31) with seven homers and 20 RBIs in his last eight games.
  • He is second in the National League with 52 RBIs, runs with 48 and slugging percentage at .680.
  • He is fourth in the league in OPS at 1.083.
  • He is 11th in the league in hitting at .320 and doubles with 16.

Moreover, Utley leads all National Leaguers in the balloting for the All-Star Game and has to be one of the top two early candidates for the MVP voting even though there are nearly four months left in the season.

If Utley weren’t (intentionally?) the worst interview in all of professional sports, maybe we’d be witnessing a Jeter and/or A-Rod in the making. You know, a HUGE superstar…

Nevertheless, it has been Utley’s home-run hitting that has been the most eye-opening facet of his game this season. With 21 bombs, he has already equaled last season’s total and can tie his tally from 2006 with one more blast. Prior to that, Utley slugged a career-best 32 in 2005, which is right about where the Phillies’ brass had him pegged when he was drafted in the first round out of UCLA in June of 2000.

“I didn’t envision him being able to get up around 30,” assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle told ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick. “As he matured and developed more strength in his hands and forearms, he generated more bat speed. That was the element we were light on.”

Charlie Manuel, one of the game’s most notable hitting gurus, gets as giddy as a schoolgirl when talking about Utley’s smooth, compact and pure swing. After last night’s game he talked about the alacrity in which line drives rocket off his second-baseman’s bat and how those liners seem to be just high enough to find the seats beyond the right-field fence.

“He’s hitting line drives high. He’s hitting it hard and they’re high enough to go out,” Manuel said, noting that statistics like batting average and home runs usually have a way of evening out in the end, as well as his theory that “a home run is nothing more than a well-hit fly ball that lands on the other side of the fence.”

So what about those “well-hit fly balls?” How does wiry and sinewy Chase Utley rip all those homers?

Maybe it’s the ballpark?

According to the great Hit Tracker web site, Utley is tied for the Major League lead for “Lucky Homers” with Alfonso Soriano, and is third in the Majors in “Just Enough” blasts. Based on the way the good folks at Hit Tracker crunch the numbers and figure in all the variables, Utley probably should have just a maximum of 16 homers.

Sixteen home runs on June 2 is a total that would be second in the National League and certainly nothing to sneeze at. But perhaps a bigger factor is that 16 of Utley’s 21 homers have come in Citizens Bank Park, though two of his “Just Enough” homers have come on the road in Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

Still, Manuel probably says it best:

“If we didn’t have Chase Utley we wouldn’t be where we’re at,” Manuel said.

Threepeat?

Chase UtleyWhen Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins were awarded the MVP in consecutive seasons, it was hardly original. After all the fact is there were different players from the same team that won back-to-back MVP awards lots of times. Actually, it’s not even all that uncommon.

But if, say, Chase Utley were to be the MVP for the 2008 season – now that would be something.

Since the Base Ball Writers Association of America wisely started handing out post-season awards, three different players took home MVP honors in consecutive seasons just four times.

In the National League, from 1938 to 1940, the Cincinnati Reds had Ernie Lombardi, Bucky Walters and Frank McCormick were first to pull off the feat. After a Brooklyn Dodger won in 1941, the St. Louis Cardinals’ triple threat of Mort Cooper, Stan Musial and Marty Marion did it.

In the American League, Yankees Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon and Spuds Chandler won the MVP from 1941 to 1943. Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard did it again for the Yanks from 1961 to 1963. Add in Maris’ MVP Award from 1960 and that’s the only instance where three different players from the same team won four MVP Awards.

Are the Phillies next? Certainly Utley is making a strong case, though, of course, there are 111 games remaining in the season. Actually, though, Utley still leads the National League with 16 homers (on pace for 49) and is fourth with 42 RBIs (128 pace) despite scuffling through a 12-game span where he went 6-for-43(.1395).

In the eight games since snapping his funk, Utley is 10-for-31 with two homers and 11 RBIs. Not bad. Obviously, though, yesterday’s six-RBIs outing with three hits inflated the numbers, but that’s baseball.

The point is Utley is good. With Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones, Utley is right there.

Monday night rewind

CheruiyotMonday was one of those epic days in sports where everything kind of fell into place the way everyone expected.

Robert Cheruiyot dominated the Boston Marathon… again.

The Flyers went from a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series to a do-or-die Game 7… again.

And Chase Utley hit a home run and made some clutch plays to lead the Phillies to a victory… again.

You know – no big whoop.

Anyway, Cheruiyot won his fourth Boston against a weaker field than in past years. One reason for that is because the top American runners either ran in the Olympic Trials last November (or London two weeks ago) or will run in the track Trials in July. So unlike the past handful of years where the elite Americans showed up and ran with Cheruiyot for a little bit, this year there were other things going on.

Additionally, guys like Ryan Hall and the fastest runners in the world went to London where the course is much more forgiving, the competition fierce and fast times are inevitable. Boston’s course beats the hell out the quads and calves with the undulating terrain. No, Boston isn’t exactly a slow course – there is a net downhill, after all. There are parts of the route from Hopkinton to Boston where runners actually have to hold back to avoid going too fast.

In contrast, the uphill climbs in Newton come at a point where a runner’s glycogen stores are just about gone. They don’t call them Heartbreak Hill for nothing. Hell, I recall doing workouts through the Newton hills and attacked the famed (infamous?) Heartbreak Hill fresh and it gave me a little kick in the ass. Imagine spending miles 16 to 21 of a marathon trying to get over those hills.

Lance ArmstrongLance Armstrong, who mastered Alpe d’Huez (among others) during his seven Tour de France victories, ran his first Boston yesterday. From the sound of it, Armstrong got a little boot to the rear in Newton though it should be noted that he ran negative splits for a respectable 2:50:58.

According to the Associated Press:

Armstrong said there’s no comparison between running a marathon and cycling, either physically or mentally.

“You can’t compare the pounding or running with the efficiency of a bicycle,” he said. “Nothing even comes close to comparing the pain, especially it seems like this course, with a significant amount of downhills … that really take their toll on the muscles.”

But Boston is not exactly a world-record course, either. Cheruiyot was on course-record pace yesterday, casually ripping through miles 3 to 19 in 4:53 or faster. That includes a 4:37 at mile 19 that obliterated the rest of the field. However, Cheruiyot “slowed” over the final 10k to finish in 2:07:43, well off his record 2:07:14 he set in 2006. Interestingly, Cheruiyot’s fourth victory in Boston was only the fifth winning time under 2:08 in the 112 years of the race.

Compare that to the London Marathon this year where the top six in the 2008 race ran under 2:07 and it’s easy to see why the best runners don’t show up to Boston (or New York) any more. Why go get beat up when Chicago, London and Berlin have (relative) cakewalk courses?

Nevertheless, Boston and its sponsors might have to dig into the coffers to lure the big guns away from London in the spring. The fact that Haile Gebrselasie, Paul Tergat, Martin Lel, Khalid Khannouchi – and worse – Ryan Hall, have not lined up on Patriot’s Day in Hopkinton proves that Boston is missing something.

Sure, runners like London because of the speedy course and the chance for fast times. But more than anything else runners go where the best competition is. That hasn’t been Boston for a long time.

***
Elsewhere, it’s Game 7 night in Washington where most folks seem to have a bad feeling about the fate of the Flyers.

There. That’s the depth of my hockey analysis.

***
Chase UtleyHad Chase Utley not broken his hand last season, Jimmy Rollins probably wouldn’t have won the MVP Award. Chances are Utley would have been in the top three with Prince Fielder and Matt Holliday. So noting that it was Utley’s injury that pushed Rollins into the MVP discussion in 2007, it’s kind of ironic that Rollins’ injury has the spotlight on Utley.

Then again, six homers in five straight games kind of gets a ballplayer noticed…

Plus, it’s only April 22, too. There is a lot of baseball to go.

Nevertheless, Utley is off to one of those stop-what-your-doing-when-he-comes-up starts. So far he has reached base in all but one of the Phillies’ 20 games, has posted gaudy numbers in categories that all the stat geeks love, and seems to have his hand in the outcome of every game.

Things happen whenever Utley is on the field. But then again that’s not new.

Remember when Ryan Howard used to be that way?

Anyway, during his pre-game powwow with the writers prior to last night’s game at Coors Field, the Wilmington News Journal’s Scott Lauber reports this quote from manager Charlie Manuel:

“Chase Utley is a very, very, very tough player. I’ve been in the game a long time, and he’s as tough as any player I’ve seen. I’m talking about old throwback players, guys like Pete Rose and Kirby Puckett. You could put Utley in that category. He could play with any of them.”

So there’s that… which is nice.

The clown show is on hiatus

Note: Beginning now this site is going on a two-week hiatus. As most regular readers know, my wife and I are expecting our second child (a boy) any day. But now that we are more than a week past the due date and since her cervix is like one of those old-fashioned steel bear traps, the natural process needs some prodding. Therefore, we go to the hospital on Thursday night with the hope of delivering the big boy on Friday.

It should be noted that Friday is also the birth day for Yasser Arafat, Vince McMahon, Cal Ripken Jr., Reggie Miller and Dave Chappelle.

Anyway, I will be checking in from time to time, but I will not return with regular posts until September 7. When we return expect something of a new look, structure and organization… maybe even a redesign, too.

Like anyone who has devoted time to baseball, I know that statistics are not worth the paper they are printed on. They lie and can be manipulated to prove bogus points. Statistics also cannot quantify health, heart, ability and whether or not someone has put hard workouts to be prepared for a long season. Plus, stats don’t go into the clubhouse and get a feel of the mood of the room or have to go face-to-face with a player it may have lied about.

Statistics are cowards. Sports are for playing, not watching – we hold these truths to be self evident.

But sometimes it is difficult to debate the statistics. For instance, in pushing the streak of not winning a series in Pittsburgh since June of 2001, the Phillies were outscored by the Pirates 15-2 from the seventh inning on last weekend at PNC Park or whatever the hell corporation owns the naming rights now.

Yeah, that’s right, 15-2… against the Pirates… the worst team in the National League.

So I’m going to cherry pick that one specific statistic to show that the Phillies might not have the pitching needed to get to the playoffs. Then again, it wasn’t like anyone needed a stat for that.

Pitching aside, the Phillies should have a really good idea of how the last month of the season will play out at the end of the next 10 days. With three games against the Dodgers and three more against both the Padres and the Mets – the two teams the Phillies are chasing in different playoff races – the playoff race is right in front of the team.

For the Phillies, 5-5 is treading water, 6-4 is reasonable; and 7-3 and better is ideal. But anything worse than .a 500 homestand could be the beginning of the beginning of the end.

According to Ryan Howard the Phillies control their own destiny… they also take them one game at a time and give 110 percent.

“This is a big series for us and the good thing is that we control our own destiny,” Howard said before Tuesday’s game against the Dodgers. “There will be a little bit of scoreboard watching going on, but most of it will be us trying to handle our own business.”

Scoreboard watching, huh?

“The scoreboard sits right there in front of us so we can’t help but not look at it,” manager Charlie Manuel said on Tuesday. “It’s about that time of the year and that can be good.”

***
Meanwhile, Chase Utley could return in a week after being cleared to take some swings with a bat for the first time after breaking his wrist at the end of July.

“(I) took some swings off the tee – started with the fungo and moved to my regular bat. I didn’t swing 100 percent but it felt pretty good,” Utley offered.

Based on his recovery from day to day, Utley hopes to add a little more volume to his workouts as he looks to his return.

***
But the injury bug has reared its head again… Cole Hamels has been scratched from tomorrow’s start with some left elbow tenderness. From the initial, knee-jerk reaction it doesn’t seem to be anything other than late-season tiredness, but pitchers’ arms are quite mysterious.

Regardless, Hamels is being diagnosed with a mild elbow strain and will have a precautionary MRI tomorrow.

“He was up front with us so I hope we got it early,” pitching coach Rich Dubee said.

***
Though one current Dodger pitcher once told me that “sometimes injuries just happen,” I respectfully disagreed. Injuries always happen for a reason – sometimes we can’t figure out what the reason is, but as our boy Floyd said, all it takes is the proper training:

“There’s only one rule: The guy who trains the hardest, the most, wins. Period. Because you won’t die. Even though you feel like you’ll die, you don’t actually die. Like when you’re training, you can always do one more. Always. As tired as you might think you are, you can always, always do one more.

“If you overtrained, it means that you didn’t train hard enough to handle that level of training. So you weren’t overtrained; you were actually undertrained to begin with. So there’s the rule again: The guy who trains the hardest, the most, wins.”

Learn it. Live it. Love it.

As the Phillies turn

There are so many underlying themes and subplots with these Phillies that it makes a day with the team seem as if one were watching a mini-series. Swing a dead cat and hurl it through the Phillies’ clubhouse and chances are it will bean a would-be story in the melon.

But the main premise with the Phillies remains unchanged. It’s all about injuries and pitching, folks.

In Thursday’s series finale in Chicago the injury bugged showed that it wasn’t just monopolized by the initiated. No, it appears as if all one has to do is pull on a Phillies uniform and something crazy will happen. Kyle Lohse, the new starting the pitcher the Phillies picked up in a trade from the Reds on Monday had his Phillies’ suit on for just 29 pitches and one inning before he got all nicked up by a line drive off his forearm.

How long he’ll be out is anyone’s guess.

“Just the way it welted up right away, I knew they weren’t going to let me go out there and chance it,” Lohse told reporters after the 10-6 victory over the Cubs. “We’ll see how it goes. I don’t think it’s serious enough for the DL, but it was pretty bad.”

Lohse is hardly the biggest problem for manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Pat Gillick. Far from it, in fact. The Phillies stayed in the playoffs chase without Lohse, chances are they will stay close to the first-place Mets with him doing his best Danny Tartabull impression.

Nevertheless, it’s a fun little exercise to imagine how much better the Phillies could be had the injuries not plagued the team so thoroughly – and by fun we mean in the same manner as pouring a can of paint thinner on top of a bon fire. You know, Beavis & Butthead stuff.

Think about what would have happened this week if Chase Utley had not been beaned by that pitch at the Bank last week. Certainly Gillick would have never gone out and traded for Tadahito Iguchi even though he didn’t really have to give up much to get him. More importantly there’s a strong possibility that Ryan Howard would not be in such a swoon if Utley were still hitting ahead of him in the lineup.

“Teams probably are not going to give me anything to hit even more now,” Howard forecasted soon after Utley’s injury. “It’s definitely going to be hard with him not being here, the way he works pitchers and has such good ABs.”

With Utley on the shelf, Howard is 5-for-26 (.192) with three RBIs, no homers and 15 strikeouts. Clearly Howard is trying to carry the load with Utley out, though he dismissed the idea when the subject was broached by a few of the li’l newshounds travelling around with the team. However, Manuel believes it just could be the case just as he admitted it was the case in the beginning of the season when Howard got off to a slow start before landing on the disabled list in May.

Meanwhile, one of those underlying themes that could become a major focus if the Phillies are still in the hunt a month from now remains the right arm of reliever Tom Gordon. The veteran right-hander pitched on Thursday afternoon and was able to hand over a lead to closer Brett Myers despite giving up a run, two hits and a walk in the eighth inning, but that wasn’t the case the night before.

Gordon complained of shoulder tightness before the game and informed Manuel that he wasn’t available, which didn’t really work out too well. As a result, Myers came in to pitch in the ninth inning of a tied game (on the road), and had he been able to get out of the inning J.D. Durbin was set to come in and pitch until ol’ Mother Leary’s cows came home to Chicago.

The coincidental part of that is Durbin was brought in to be the long man today when Lohse was knocked out after just one inning.

So maybe it all worked out?

Maybe. Maybe not. Myers likely would have escaped the inning last night had the injured Michael Bourn been available to play left field instead of Jayson Werth when Matt Murton’s sinking liner dropped in for a double.

Anyway, there’s a lot of that woulda, coulda, shoulda stuff going on with the Phillies these days. You know, kind of like Beavis & Butthead.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

***
Tomorrow (or maybe later) we finally get to Barry Bonds and David Walsh’s book.

We should also mention that Pat Burrell is hitting hell out of the ball these days… if we rip him when he’s bad, it’s only fair to point out when he’s playing well.

The Philadelphia MASH Unit

Aaron Rowand is out of the lineup for Friday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates because he hurt his shoulder playing tag with the kids from his neighborhood last night after the loss to the Nationals at the Bank.

There are a lot ways to go with this one, such as was the kid wearing a suit of armor? Good thing he wasn’t playing kick the can or else he could have ended up like Jon Lieber…

You see, the possibilities are endless.

Either way it’s good to know that when Aaron Rowand plays tag with the kids from the neighborhood, he leaves it all out there. Frankly the Phillies are lucky he didn’t run into a fence when chasing down some kid.

“I guess it’s be careful when you play with your kids,” manager Charlie Manuel said.

Nevertheless, when it rains it pours with the Phillies. Earlier today Chase Utley had surgery to repair the broken fourth metacarpal in his right hand in which a pin was inserted to the damaged area. The entire procedure took 20 minutes at Methodist Hospital by Dr. Randall Culp and the MVP candidate is expected recovery time is four weeks.

Joe Thurston’s contract has been purchased to replace Utley on the roster, though it appears as if the Phillies will have to make another move soon since the team announced that they had acquired Tadahito Iguchi from the Chicago White Sox this afternoon.

Along with a full cadre of Japanese media, Iguchi brings a .251 batting average, six homers and 31 RBIs in 90 games with him from Chicago. He also brings along a World Series ring from the 2005 season where he and Rowand helped the ChiSox to their first title in a long, long time.

Interestingly, Iguchi and Manuel are both veterans of Japan’s Pacific League. Manuel played for Kinetsu while Iguchi played for Fukuoka and Daiei.

To get Iguchi, the Phillies sent Single-A right-hander Michael Dubee – pitching coach Rich Dubee’s son – to the White Sox.

Iguchi is expected to arrive in Philadelphia tomorrow.

Anyway, with Rowand out, Michael Bourn will lead off and play center against the Pirates tonight. Abraham Nunez is at second for Utley, Pat Burrell was bumped up a spot from sixth to fifth, while Jimmy Rollins moved from leadoff to third. When Rowand returns – he’s day-to-day – Manuel says Shane Victorino will leadoff, Greg Dobbs will hit second and Rollins will remain in the No. 3 hole.

Half empty

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people: there are the half full types who always find the silver lining, and there is the half empty gang that believes that things will end badly.

More often than not I fall into the half full category. Typically, things work out the way they are supposed to in the end. Yet at the same time I’m a realist and when it comes to the Phillies the glass isn’t just half empty, it’s filled with cigarette butts and the toxic water from the Schuylkill.

I don’t know… maybe the 1-for-124 has something to do with it.

Anyway, there were times in the past handful of seasons where I really believed that the Phillies would make the playoffs. Like the time when Jim Thome hit that home run through the teeth of an approaching hurricane to beat the Marlins at Vet in 2003.

Or when David Bell hit that home run to beat the Reds in Cincinnati on a September night, coupled with the 10-run ninth inning to beat Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins in 2005. Those were half full times.

Inevitably Jeff Conine goes on a tear to crush the Phillies during the last week of the season in 2003. Billy Wagner gives up the home run to Craig Biggio in 2005. A game starts at 11 p.m. at RFK and Chase Utley’s home run is ruled foul by the umps in 2006.

For the Phillies, bleep always happens. Always.

Like yesterday when a punk kid in his first ever big league game drills Utley on the knuckles and busted up his hand. Not just any hand, mind you, it was the right hand of the man who was well on his way to one of the greatest seasons ever by a second baseman. He’s on pace for 27 homers, 216 hits, 66 doubles, 132 RBIs and 127 runs.

Then there are the things that can’t be measured by statistics, such as Utley is the heart-and-soul of the club. That stuff matters, folks.

So what now? Obviously, the Phillies suffer without Utley on the field and in the lineup, and if he is out for longer than the month he and the Phillies initially offered, things could deteriorate quickly.

And I’m the optimist… usually.

I’m sure there are some statgeeks out there trying to crunch the numbers to quantify Utley’s affect on the team’s lineup and I’m sure the numbers can be spun to read just about anything. However, the point of the matter is that without Utley getting on base and wreaking havoc, Ryan Howard won’t see anything to hit anymore.

Just waking up and everything has still gone crazy

After getting home at 3 a.m. after being at a baseball game that lasted 14 innings and nearly five hours, it’s safe to say that I’m a bit fried today. But rest is for the week, right…

Man, do I ever need a nap.

Anyway, because I’m struggling to string together cohesive sentences this afternoon, I’ll just ramble on with a few observations about the Phillies and the latest from the sports world.

• After last night’s win over the Nationals the Phillies have a 24.5 percent chance to make the playoffs. Really? Yes, really. At least that’s math according to Ken Roberts, who created an “Odds of making the playoffs” web site.

Here’s what Ken does: after every game – and we mean every game – the odds of a teams’ chances to make the playoffs are calculated and posted on his site. Then, a glimpse into the future is proffered showing not only how the odds change if the Phillies win or lose their next game, but how the odds change pending every result on the full schedule of games.

Yes, it’s good stuff and you should check it out by clicking here.

• To start it off, I had never seen a game go from a sure end to tied up and headed for extra innings like the way last night’s ninth inning played out. For those who didn’t see it, speedy shortstop Jimmy Rollins raced around the bases when his relatively routine fly ball just short of the warning track in left-center field was jarred loose when outfielders Ryan Church and Ryan Langerhans bumped in to each other. Standing at third, Rollins raced home when Church’s relay throw skipped away from shortstop Felipe Lopez to force extra innings.

The most surprising thing about Rollins’ dash around the bases? That it wasn’t ruled an inside-the-park home run by the hometown official scorer.

• Meanwhile, when Ryan Howard hits a home run, he really wallops it. Not only do his homers sound different than other players’, there really is no doubt that they are going out – he doesn’t hit too many that scrape into the first row.

• No one with the Phillies will say it — though Charlie Manuel’s body language was downright funereal — but Chase Utley’s broken hand is just about the worst thing that could happen to the team right now. Forget about his statistics and the fact that Utley is an MVP candidate, and his hard-nosed style of play… it was because of Utley that the Phillies were able to stay in the playoff race despite injuries to Freddy Garcia, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and Ryan Howard.

Yes, losing Utley is very significant. And that just might be the understatement of the year.

• The Phillies gave out a Cole Hamels bobblehead figurine last night and had a sold-out crowd. Here’s my question: What is the allure of that stuff? I can understand baseball cards and other memorabilia-type collectibles (kind of), but why are bobbleheads still popular? Just chalk it up to the every growing pile of things I don’t get.

On another note, last year (or maybe the year before, I forget) the Nationals gave out a Chad Cordero bobblehead figurine at a game at RFK. Within hours of bringing it home my son ripped the head clean off the body and for the past year or so there has been the head of Chad Cordero, complete with that geeky unbent brim of his cap, staring up from the bottom of the toy box in our living room. Perhaps that’s the appeal of the bobblehead doll… ripping the heads clean off.

• Speaking of ripping the head clean off and one man’s inability to understand events occurring in the world, I’m still attempting to grasp just what the hell happened at this year’s Tour de France. Frankly, I haven’t been able to come up with anything other than some non-sequitors and random ideas.

For instance:

— Perhaps it’s because I am an American and believe in a persons’ right to due process, but I just don’t understand how a man who never failed a drug test or violated any laws or rules of the sport could be bounced from an event he was about to win. Look, I know never failing a drugs test isn’t the best argument and I know all about Michael Rasmussen’s reputation, but if the Tour, the UCI and whatever other governing body is attempting to destroy cycling really disliked the dude and had valid reasons to boot him from the race, they should have never allowed him to start.

Now look what they have on their hands. It’s nothing more than a race that no one views as legitimate.

— I always am amused by American sportswriters whose idea of exercise is actually getting up to manually turn the channels on the television opining about cycling. I also do not understand how one can legitimately write about sports without a basic understand of training and performance-enhancing drugs. Get these people out of the press box now, because writing intelligently about sports doesn’t really have much to do with the games any more.

Alexandre Vinokourov? Wow. Who would have thought the Tour could have sunk lower than that fiasco?

— Along those lines everyone is quick to point out how “dirty” cycling is. But here is a fact: if MLB and the NFL acted like the UCI and the Tour de France, there would be more than 1,000 new players in those leagues tomorrow. It seems as if all cycling officials have to do is point at a guy and he’s out. Forget facts and protocol. The players in MLB and the NFL should be thankful every day that they have a union that supports them.

Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Michael Rasmussen were all booted from the Tour de France this year despite never failing a drug test. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Mark McGwire have admitted to using performance-enhancing substances and got new contracts.

Which sport is “dirty” again?

— I’ve been asked if the current scandal in France will affect Floyd Landis’ case at all. My knee-jerk reaction is, “No, because they are mutually exclusive. Floyd’s case has to do with one specific test from one stage of last year’s race. This year’s scandal, they say, is about the ‘culture of doping.’”

Since I don’t believe Floyd is a part of that culture, nor do I believe he is a doper, I didn’t think it has anything to do with him.

But upon retrospect, maybe it does in the always fickle court of public opinion. Maybe Floyd suddenly becomes guilty because he rides a bike and won the Tour de France?

Either way it makes me happy to be a runner instead of a baseball player or cyclist.

— Meanwhile, other folks have asked me why they just don’t cancel the rest of the Tour. What’s the point anymore? It’s a valid question, but the answer comes down to the bottom line. The rest of the ride to Paris is economical, complete with all of the pomp, circumstance and corporate sponsorships.

They don’t put those corporate logos on their uniforms because they look nice.

The reason the Tour continues is the same reason why Bud Selig doesn’t go all French on Barry Bonds and pull the cheater from the field. It’s why the Giants re-signed Bonds – he makes a lot of people money…

Especially people like WADA president Dick Pound.

Integrity? Ha!

Double dippers

Remember that old adage about good pitching beating good hitting every time? Remember? Of course you do. Aaron Rowand even postulated on it last week after the Phillies dropped two of three to the Dodgers last week. If I remember correctly he said something like, “Good pitching beats good hitting every time… ”

Hey Aaron, guess what? Maybe really good hitting beats good pitching from time to time.

At least that seemed to be the case when the Phillies faced the Padres in pitching-friendly PETCO (or is it Petco?) Park this past weekend. After being shutdown on two hits in a 1-0 loss to Chris Young on Thursday night, Rowand, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and the gang piled on 28 runs in the final three games to take the series.

Check out some of these numbers from the 4-3 trip against the top two clubs in the NL West:

Howard hit .500 (11-for-22) with five homers and 13 RBIs; Utley hit .379 (11-for-29) with five doubles, nine runs and seven RBIs; and Rowand hit .355 (11-for-31) with five runs and eight RBIs.

Meanwhile, some dude named J.D. Durbin allowed just one run in 15 innings including a complete-game shutout in Sunday’s 9-0 victory.

J.D. Durbin? What’s the Deal?

I’m sure we’ll get into Durbin with more depth later, but for now let’s pick on something about Chase Utley. It has been examined by pundits, scribes and the statdorks that Utley is in the mix with Prince Fielder for the NL MVP Award, which is kind of cool but there’s something much more interesting going on under the “2B” for Utley.

There, it reads 41. That’s 41 doubles in 97 games which puts him on pace for 68 for the season. In 1931 a guy named Earl Webb clubbed 67 doubles, which is the best of all time. Interestingly, Webb played two more seasons after his epic ’31 season and then was gone.

Poof! Just like that.

What’s more, no player has hit 60 doubles since 1936 when Joe Medwick and Charlie Gehringer did it. In 2000 Todd Helton hit 59 doubles, which happens to be the Phillies’ record set by Chuck Klein in 1930.

So last year it was Howard taking apart the club’s home run record and this year it could be Utley adding his name atop of the doubles chart.

***
David Beckham made his U.S. soccer debut last weekend and all of the stories and all of the hype got me to thinking… how good is that guy? I know a few people who are close followers of soccer and I asked them if Beckham is going to revolutionize something and get people going crazy the way we all did for the New York Cosmos when Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia came to the U.S. in the late ‘70s.

The answer?

Probably not.

“He might be one of the top 100 players ever, but he won’t have as much of an impact on soccer in the U.S. as Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and the women’s team did,” one friend wrote.

“It helps that he’s white, has a name that’s easy to pronounce, speaks English and is married to a celebrity,” another friend wrote. “He’s probably the best player in the league, but he wasn’t the best player in the European leagues.

However, Beckham joining L.A. in the MLS is kind of like an All-Star baseball player leaving MLB to go play in Japan.”

Meanwhile, U.S. columnists are opining that Beckham’s arrival on our shores won’t turn soccer into a major league sport – though it could push past the NHL. To those ideas I think the writers are missing the point. Soccer already IS a major sport in the U.S. Want proof? Drive past any suburban park on any weekend in any part of the country and look what sport the kids are playing… and no, it ain’t baseball.

Adults might not watch soccer on TV, but the shoe companies dump lots of cash into it and the kids play it. That’s what matters.

***
It’s been written that Game 3 of the NBA’s western conference finals from last May was one of the worst officiated games in the league’s history. Anyone have a guess which ref called that game?

Check it out:

***
Undoubtedly, it has been a very interesting two days in the Tour de France. Michael Rasmussen has hung onto the Yellow Jersey by riding strong in the Pyrenees after the best time trial of his life. It stands to reason that The Danish Cowboy could take it all the Paris if he rides strong in the final mountain stage on Wednesday, though I suspect he will face a challenge from the Disco boys, Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador, whose victory in Sunday’s mountain stage over Rasmussen was fantastic.

As far as Leipheimer’s Tour goes, he has one more day in which to engage. Either that or hope that one of the riders ahead of him makes a mistake, cracks, or crashes.

Meanwhile, the most memorable rider of the Tour has been Alexandre Vinokourov, who won Saturday’s time trial, reportedly fell on his stitched up knees after colliding with a fan in Sunday’s mountain stage (to lose 29 minutes), before riding away with today’s mountain stage.

Give me a choice between riding cautiously and steadily like Leipheimer or putting it all out there despite the consequences like Vino and I’ll take the blaze of glory.

As Phil Liggett said as Vino pumped his fist to cross the finish line today, “Everyone all over the world loves a fighter… ”

There is nothing inspiring about being careful to get fourth place.

Stage 15 Final
1.) Vinokourov, Astana @ 5:34:28
2.) Kim Kirchen, T- Mobile @ 51 seconds
3.) Haimar Zubeldia, Euskaltel-Euskadi @ same time
4.) Juan José Cobo, Saunier Duval @ 58 seconds
5.) Juan Manuel Garate, Quick Step @ 2:14
6.) David Arroyo, Caisse d’Epargne @ 3:23
7.) Bernhard Kohl, Team Gerolsteiner @ 4:25
8.) Christian Vandevelde, CSC @ same time
9.) Ludovic Turpin, AG2R Prévoyance @ 5:16
10.) Alberto Contador, The Discovery Channel @ 5:31

Overall
1.) Rasmussen
2.) Contador @ 2:23
3.) Cadel Evans @ 4:00
4.) Leipheimer @ 5:25
5.) Klöden @ 5:34
6.) Carlos Sastre @ 6:46

Here’s my prediction: the winner of the 2007 Tour de France will be evident by lunchtime on Wednesday.

Way to go out on a limb, huh…

Another busy Saturday

Given a choice between having Albert Pujols or Chase Utley for his team, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel answered quickly and without hesitation.

“Come on, I gotta go with my guy,” the skipper chided.

It wasn’t an answer based in loyalty or a show of solidarity for his guy either. Manuel firmly believes that Chase Utley is the best player in the National League. He even said as much following the 13-3 victory over Pujols’ World Champion Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night. Certainly Utley made it easy for Manuel to boast, too, by rapping out four hits to go with three RBIs to give him 71 for the season – second-best in the league – as well as his 17th home run.

Add in the fact that Utley is hitting .331 – 10 points behind league-leader Hunter Pence of Houston – and it gives Manuel’s claims more than just the mark of pride for his guy.

“He’s probably the best player the National League,” Manuel said. “And I get to see him every day.”

The last part of that quote was the real bit braggadocio. “I get to see him,” he said. “Every day.”

In a way it was a challenge, perhaps. No, not for Utley to live up to another man’s boast and help carry the bruised and battered Phillies in their push to overtake the Braves and Mets in the NL East. Instead it seemed as if the manager was telling the other folks who also have the privilege to get to see Utley play every day to enjoy it. Players like that don’t come around that often, he seemed to plead.

It also shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Manuel touted his All-Star candidate and MVP candidate on a night when Pujols and Ryan Howard were in the ballpark. Howard, of course, hits in the lineup after Utley and plays on the same side of the infield. He also is the reigning NL MVP after slugging a franchise record 58 home runs last season and currently leads the club with 21 more this season. After a slow and injury-plagued start to the 2007 season, Howard has shown glimpses of a return to his MVP form.

Pujols, on the other hand, might just go down as one of the greatest hitters of this era. In his first six seasons Pujols has never finished worse than fourth in the NL MVP balloting and claimed the award in 2005 after second-place finishes in 2002, 2003 and 2006. In his six-and-half season Pujols has clubbed 267 homers, driven in 811 runs with a .330 batting average.

Oh yeah, Pujols rarely strikes out. When he digs in at the plate it’s a safe bet that Pujols is going to hit the ball somewhere. Hard.

Still, given a choice Manuel will take his guy. You know, the one on pace to hit 30 homers and drive in 130 runs in the first year of his brand-new, seven-year contract.

“I think it’s a compliment,” Utley shrugged to reporters, noting that there are still 73 games remaining in the season.

But that’s Utley. The compliments are nice and so are the back-to-back starting nods in the All-Star Game, but to Utley a player is only as good as his last game, his last at-bat or his last play in the field. He’s clearly not interested or comfortable in talking about himself. Oh sure, he knows he’s a really good player – how could he not? But to Utley playing hard and playing well is their own reward. Celebrating is something he shares with his teammates after a victory. For Utley, the focus is on the here and now, always striving to improve in every game, every at-bat and every play in the field.

And for Utley, improving is beginning to become a monumental task.

How much better can he get?

***
Anyone wondering if ignorance is truly bliss needs to look no further than Gary Sheffield and his much-publicized interview with HBO’s “Real Sports.” Check out some of the highlights here, via Steroid Nation.

***
Apparently the genius manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa, got a little testy with some members of the local baseball press following last night’s 13-3 loss.

Here’s something interesting to ponder: La Russa is in the last year of his deal with the Cardinals, while Manuel is in the last year of his deal with the Phillies. Wouldn’t it be something if they traded positions, or at the very least, if La Russa took over as skipper for the Phillies?

Then we’d get to see how the genius handles his brains power being dissected. You know, like leaving Pujols on the bench in the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded in a one-run game.

Yeah, he was saving him for extra innings. Uh-huh, a real genius there.

***
I did a little investigating spurred by a chat and have deduced the following:

• Don’t expect a decision from the USADA arbitration panel on the Floyd Landis case until after the Tour de France. The panel has to render a decision in 10 days after the case has been closed, and apparently the arbitrators are still pouring over the evidence and arguments.

• Expect the ruling to come back 2-1 against Floyd. Arbitrators in such cases don’t get their jobs by being fair – they get them by being political.

“This was 2-1 against Landis before the first argument.”

I have some more stuff, too, but haven’t been able to corroborate it yet. As soon as I get a chance to ask some more questions I’ll dish away. I’m also still planning on writing the review of David Walsh’s From Lance to Lance: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France. According to a couple of folks who have crossed paths with Walsh and have read his book the short review is very consistent.

“Flimsy.”

“A house of cards.”

Most scribes that have been around for more than a few years know that when there is smoke there is also fire. However, if one is going to present the smoke as fact, they better have the goods down cold. After all, anyone who has ever spent time in a press box or media room and covered a sport has some really good stories.

Trust me. They’re good.

Suddenly I feel like David Walsh and Kitty Kelly’s love child…

Meanwhile, the Lance vs. Landis race at the Leadville 100 appears to be on. I say call up Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis and turn it into a party…

***
Speaking of love, today is Bastille Day and there is nothing the folks lining the mountain road from Bourg-en-Bresse over the category 1 climb at Col de la Colombiére to Le Grand-Bornand wanted to see more than a Frenchman in the lead.

That just ain’t going to happen.

My take is that a lot of the folks in France wouldn’t be disappointed if their country’s grand Tour became a lot less international and featured their best countrymen. That’s kind the sense I get from the folks in Boston about their marathon. If some slender dude from Quincy or Jamaica Plain were to win every year instead of the best runners from around the globe, it wouldn’t bother the Bostonians all that much.

France’s best hope in the 2007 Tour is Christophe Moreau is 36-years old and a veteran of the 1998 Festina doping scandal. Though he won the Dauphiné Libéré race this year, and despite finishing ninth in today’s stage at 3-minutes and 38 seconds behind winner Linus Gerdemann of T-Mobile and Germany, Moreau is not considered a threat.

How can you have a Tour de France without a dude from Germany named Linus?

Gerdemann, more than a decade younger than Moreau, isn’t considered a threat to win the Tour either, but as the race enters its second week the 24-year old is the man in Yellow. How long he holds onto it remains to be seen, however. Gerdemann’s big win on Saturday is viewed as a bit of a surprise and perhaps the kid emptied the tank with his victory. After all, the riders face three category 1 climbs tomorrow in the Alps from Le Grand-Bornand to an uphill finish in the skiing village of Tignes.

After the first rest day on Monday, the Tour gets even more difficult on Tuesday when the riders face Col du I’lseran and the infamous Col du Galibier with a category 1 climb at Col du Télégraphe mixed in for fun.

“It doesn’t mean a lot,” said contender Cadel Evans about the young German’s win. “It’s still very early.”

Stage 7 Final
1.) Linus Gerdemann, T-Mobile, Germany, in 4:53:13
2.) Inigo Landaluze, Euskaltel, Spain, at :40
3.) de la Fuente, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 1:39
4.) Mauricio Soler, Barloworld, Colombia, at 2:14
5.) Laurent Lefevre, Bouygues Telecom, France, at 2:21
6.) Fabian Wegmann, Gerolsteiner, Germany, at 3:32
7.) Juan Manuel Garate, Quick Step, Spain, at 3:38
8.) Xavier Florencio, Bouygues Telecom, Spain, at 3:38
9.) Christophe Moreau, AG2R, France, at 3:38
10.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d’Epargne, Spain, at 3:38

Overall
1.) Linus Gerdemann, T-Mobile, Germany, in 34:43:40
2.) Inigo Landaluze, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Spain, at 1:24
3.) David de la Fuente, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 2:45
4.) Laurent Lefevre, Bouygues Telecom, France, at 2:55
5.) Mauricio Soler, Barloworld, Colombia, at 3:05
6.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, at 3:39
7.) Vladimir Gusev, Discovery Channel, Russia, at 3:51
8.) Vladimir Karpets, Caisse d’Epargne, Russia, at 3:52
9.) Mikel Astarloza, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Spain, at 3:55
10.) Thomas Dekker, Rabobank, Netherlands, at 3:57

What a difference a day makes

As quickly as he was derided for making a “dumb” play by bunting in the first inning with two on and no outs during the first inning of a 8-1 loss, Chase Utley was lauded for his outstanding effort in last night’s victory at Shea Stadium.

It’s funny how that works, huh?

Perhaps that’s what a 3-for-4 outing with a double, three RBIs and the game-winning homer in the top of the 11th will do for a guy. That’s especially the case when that guy is one of the cornerstones of the franchise and just signed a seven-year, $85 million contract extension.

Said skipper Charlie Manuel: “What do you want me to say about him? I can’t say enough. If I start talking about Chase, you could come back next year and I’d still probably be talking. He’s that good. He’s something very special.”

Better yet, Utley had his latest big night in New York City against the top team in the National League. If a baseball player wants to get noticed, New York City is the place to go to have some big games. So far this season Utley is 5-for-16 with two homers and five RBIs at Shea. In his career, Utley has six homers and 14 RBIs in 30 games, which is good because they pay attention to baseball in the Big Apple.

In Philadelphia they go to baseball games to chant for the football team.

Nevertheless, Manuel couldn’t stop talking about Utley last night.

“I used to say Kirby Puckett was my favorite player,” Manuel said. “I love Kirby Puckett, but Chase is getting there. Just the way he plays the game. How hard he plays. How mentally tough he is. Plus how he hits and hustles. I like everything about his game.”

Kirby Puckett played well in some big games on the biggest stage. It would be interesting to see if Utley ever gets that chance, too.

***
In one of the more interesting plays one will ever see in a baseball game, Utley was held up while rounding third base by coach Steve Smith on a single by Aaron Rowand. As a result, Pat Burrell was caught in a rundown between second and third where he actually ran from first to third to second and back to third.

Aside from that, Utley pointed out the oddest part of Burrell’s dizzy run around the bases.

“I’ve never seen anyone slide twice into third base on the same play. Pat wanted to get to third base,” Utley said. “And he did.”

***
Speaking of the local football team, Lito Shepherd was flying in a plane with Jacksonville’s Fred Taylor and Baltimore’s Samari Rolle during a trip to South Africa when the door blew off in the back of the craft. Interestingly, someone videotaped the entire thing and put it on YouTube:

I don’t know about anyone else, but if I’m in a small plane and the door flies off at 6,000 feet, the last thing I’m reaching for is the camera. Maybe a parachute or a big, billowy blanket, but definitely not the camcorder.

***
The thing I liked best about baseball’s amateur draft was how no-frills it was. In a sports world dominated by overproduced and over-hyped faux drama, it was cool that MLB kept it real at least one time.

For those unfamiliar with the MLB draft, it took place over the course of two days where the teams squeezed in as many rounds as possible. But unlike the other major league sports, baseball’s draft was broadcast through a conference call amongst all of the teams, which was streamed onto their Web site.

It probably would have been easier if the teams got together and logged onto a Yahoo! league site or something.

But for the first time ever baseball’s draft will be broadcast on television (tomorrow at 2 p.m. on ESPN2), which, frankly, destroys the entire allure of the proceedings.

It also will slow down the rapid-fire nature of the draft. In most years, according to Phillies’ director of scouting Marti Wolever, they complete close to 20 rounds in the first day of the draft. But this year, with television slowing things down with their pesky commercials, analysis and production stuff, they might be lucky to get in six rounds on Thursday.

***
Dennis Deitch of Philadelphia correctly identified Steve Carlton as the last pitcher to toss 300 innings in a season when he did it for the 1980 Phillies. Initially, Deitch guessed Phil Niekro in 1979 as the last pitcher to go for 300 innings, but quickly changed his answer.

Incidentally, Niekro went 21-20 for 340 innings for the Braves in 1979. Yeah, that’s right – 21-20.

Nevertheless, kudos to Dennis. Kudos. We’ll see if we can set him up with something nice.

***
Speaking of 1980, if you’re going to Kansas City this weekend for the Phillies’ first trip to the Emerald City (is that what they call it? If not, they should) since the World Series, carnivorous insiders recommend the Hereford House and/or Plaza III. Having never been to Kansas City, I’m going to assume that both joints are downtown.

Work with me, folks.

We put the word out for more suggestions since the Phillies are making their first trip to KC in nearly three decades, so stay tuned.

So it goes

I don’t care about what the Moneyballers, Baseball Prospectus-ers and other stat heads can prove by crunching the numbers and lining up all the stats in the proper column of an Excel spreadsheet. I like the bunt.

Yes, I understand that bunting actually decreases a team’s chances at scoring a run and that by bunting with intent to move runners into scoring position is never a good idea because it trades 90-feet for the most valuable commodity in the game – outs.

But my reason for liking the bunt is purely selfish. Without it, there was no place for me on the baseball team back in high school. In fact, I remember clearly when I came to terms with the notion that swinging the bat was a bad idea and dropped down a bunt for the sixth plate appearance in a row…

“Why do they keep giving you the bunt signal,” a teammate finally asked.

“No one gave me a bunt signal.”

Clearly no one gave Chase Utley the bunt signal either when facing Barry Zito with two on and no outs of the first inning of yesterday’s loss to the Giants. Thinking that no would expect the club’s No. 3 hitter to drop one down with the starter against the ropes in the early going and slugger Ryan Howard on deck, Utley thought it would be a good idea to sneak one in there.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well. The bunt didn’t go to its intended area, Utley was thrown out – but given a sacrifice – and the Phillies were on their way to stranding 12 runners on base.

“I was trying to make something happen,” Utley said after the game. “You don’t know how many times you’re going to have an opportunity to score off Zito. It was a curveball that I tried to put in play. Worse-case scenario, you got two guys in scoring position with the middle of your lineup up. We didn’t get the job done.”

Had it worked, Utley would have been lauded as a smart player trying to set the table for Ryan Howard, who has been starting to get hot lately. Instead, with first base open, Howard was intentionally walked and the Phillies squandered yet another chance.

So it goes.

***
Speaking of squandering chances, Jon Lieber turned in another poor outing in the 8-1 loss that was detailed deftly by Bob Ford. Lieber, of course, chose not to discuss his outing after the game with the local sporting press, which is all well and good – based on his pitching line (10 hits, 5 runs, 3 walks in just 5 innings), who could blame him. However, even when Lieber pitches well he is terse and petulant with the media following the game.

That’s fine, too, and I’m sure fans don’t care about how athletes treat the press. At the same time, if a writer needs Jon Lieber to say something pithy or insightful in order to write a baseball story, well, they just aren’t that good of a writer.

Nevertheless, if someone wants to talk to me about baseball or running or any other aspect of my job, pack a lunch and call a sitter because we’ll be there all day. Maybe it’s me, but if there I’m supposed to be passionate about my life’s work it would be exciting to talk to folks about it… especially if paid $21 million for three years.

Certainly the situation with Lieber has been a mess all season long, and that’s not all his fault. The Phillies did everything but hire a skywriter to advertise that they wanted to trade Lieber, but then didn’t – or couldn’t. Then they moved him to the bullpen into a role he had never done in his 13 seasons in the Majors. And then, when it was clear that Lieber was ineffective and disinterested in engaging in his new role, they moved him back to the rotation.

In that sense, who could blame him if he doesn’t want to talk to a bunch of pesky writers.

Regardless, if the Phillies were to take Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer out of the rotation, the teams’ starting rotation has a 5.50 ERA and has allowed 283 baserunners in 189 2/3 innings this season.

Worse, the remaining bunch is 8-15… Hamels has eight wins all by himself.

What is this? Carlton in ’72?

Saturday in the park

Chase Utley has been the minor focus of a few local blog posts this past week for an interview/commercial he did for Maxim magazine. Because it was a non-sports magazine talking to a jock, the questions were more of the human-interest nature, which is always a little more revealing than the stuff the sporting press comes out with.

For instance, Utley was the typical cliché Philadelphia questions, like which cheese steak joint he likes best, what he did with the money when he signed his big contract extension, why he chose the song that plays when he comes to bat, and fantasy baseball stuff. You know — dorky, meaningless stuff.

But ever the pitch man ready to take care of his product, Utley pushes Abbott Nutrition’s EAS Myoplex shakes. For visitors of the Phillies clubhouse, EAS products aren’t too hard to find and I suppose they are a fairly popular supplement/meal replacement product.

In fact, Utley says they taste great!

“Well, for me they’re easy and convenient. And they give me the fuel that my body needs, especially in the off-season. And they taste good.”

Needless to say I was intrigued by the Myoplex shakes and decided to check them out. Wouldn’t you know it that they sold them at my local grocer? Out the other afternoon to pick up Clif Bars, sugar free Red Bull and Gatorade mix, I saw the Utley shakes at eye level to the immediate right of the Powerbars. In reading the label I learned that Myoplex shakes are kosher, wheat and rice-gluten free, and it contains a milk protein derivative which makes it unattractive for vegans.

Noticing that, I read the nutritional label and saw something that surprised me:

Myoplex shakes have 50 milligrams of cholesterol per one 76 gram serving. That comes to 1,000 milligrams of artery-clogging cholesterol per a 20 serving container.

If I’m wrong I hope someone could set me straight.

It seems to me that a Clif Bar or two would be a better meal replacement. And since Utley is a budding environmentalist after seeing An Inconvenient Truth, he can take solace in the fact that Clif Bars are organic.

No, I don’t have a sponsorship with Clif Bar, though I eat one for breakfast most mornings…

***
Alex Rodriguez could be a Myoplex shakes man, too. Who really knows what that guy eats, though it seems as if we know every other little thing about A-Rod.

But before anyone starts to think that the celebrity culture has taken of sports, guess again. According to a story in The New York Times, sports figures don’t go through anything near what celebrity celebrities have to deal with.

Nevertheless, don’t look my way if you are looking for someone to separate sports from the so-called “entertainment” world. Sports, simply, ARE entertainment. What else could it be?

***
Speaking of entertaining, it’s quite a paradox to hear the entire park boo AND see flashes pop from cameras whenever Barry Bonds comes to the plate.

Make up your mind, dude…

According to a story from Bloomberg, Barry Bonds “loses” $10 million a year for simply being Barry Bonds.

My question is how can he lose it if he never had it?

***
Jayson Werth walked to the plate to the strains of “Fear the Reaper” tonight.

Perhaps he’s gotta have more cowbell?

***
Despite running like a tired, old nag this morning, it was a lot of fun seeing old familiar faces at the Red Rose Run in Lancaster. The running part was a mess and the weather was a little hot and humid, but for a guy who doesn’t get out all that much, it was great to see a lot of good people.

Tomorrow we hit Hershey Park and then, weather permitting, the bike race over roughly the same course we ran on today… good times.

Coming a long way

It’s funny how quickly things change, to coin a phrase. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that manager Larry Bowa was forced to send Chase Utley back to the minors so that Doug Glanville could take over the last roster spot. Bowa didn’t want to do it, and if I remember correctly, fought hard to keep Utley for Opening Day in 2004, but with Placido Polanco set as the second baseman and David Bell entrenched at third base, Utley would have been able to get four or five at-bats every night in Scranton.

The rationale, as explained by the former Phillies administration of Ed Wade and Bowa, was that Glanville could spell Marlon Byrd in center field and come in and swipe a bag or two. Besides, Utley was purely an offensive player at that point of his career and his defense wasn’t so great.

Nope, Bowa didn’t really buy what he was ordered to sell. Imagine that? Byrd and Glanville for Utley?

Utley ended playing in 94 games in ’04 – 50 at second base and 13 at first base – and seemed destined to take over as the everyday second baseman until Wade offered arbitration to Polanco. Since he wasn’t one to turn down millions of dollars, Polanco accepted and Utley found himself in a platoon. Though he hit 28 homers and knocked in 105 runs in 2005, Utley was on the bench on opening day.

Polanco was traded by June and Utley hasn’t looked over his shoulder or picked up his first-baseman’s mitt since. Not even two years after sitting on the bench on opening day, Utley has a new $85 million deal with the Phillies.

Meanwhile, Ryan Howard seems to be walking the same path as his pal Utley, though when the time comes it seems as if the slugging first baseman will be messing around with Powerball-jackpot type digits. Unless Howard turns into Joe Charboneau (or Pat Burrell) it seems as if the Phillies will take care of him before spring training opens in 2008.

But like Utley, Howard never could break camp with the Phillies for one reason or another. One of those reasons, of course, was bona fide 40-homer man Jim Thome. Another was Wade and the Phillies’ reluctance to take a chance on a young player even when that young player was destroying the records at every stop in the minors. It definitely was an organizational thing, too. In fact, I remember talking to Reading manager Greg Legg during Howard’s assault of the Eastern League in 2004 and he said Howard needed a year of Triple-A before making the jump to the big leagues.

He said it, but I don’t think he believed it. All of the Phillies’ brass were saying that kind of stuff back then.

Nevertheless, count on Howard and his “ordinary” contract being a topic of discussion all summer. That’s just what happens for some reason. I remember how Kevin Millwood’s contract status was such a hot topic in 2003, and how Millwood told us he wasn’t going to talk about it anymore before talking about how he wasn’t going to talk about it.

It’s a vicious cycle or something like that.

Howard, it appears, made his first full season in the Majors, too good, according to a quoted source in Jayson Stark’s story on ESPN.com from Jan. 24. Technically, the Phillies don’t have to do anything with his contract and if they want to pay him the minimum – slightly below $400,000 – they can.

They won’t because Pat Gillick is smart. He knows better than us why the Howards felt it necessary to have three different agents in a little more than a year. Perhaps (despite his public and behind-closed-doors media persona) Howard is sensitive and takes perceived slights hard? Hey, we’ve seen that before, right?

The last part is just some out-loud thinking, but the point remains – Utley and Howard have come a very long way in a very short time.

Fair, not foul

From our vantage point in the press box at RFK Stadium, we can’t see the right-field corner where Chase Utley’s “foul” ball apparently landed. Better yet, from the press box at RFK, we can’t see the outfield.

At all.

Last night I had a view of most of the infield, but not of the second baseman because there was a big, white pillar blocking my view. That wasn’t as bad as the view Phil Sheridan of the Inquirer had sitting directly to my right. If he wanted to see the pitcher, he had to lean hard to the left.

Then again, Phil used to come to RFK to cover Eagles-Redskins games back in the old days. Based on what I’ve seen of the old ballpark, I imagine those games made for cozy conditions with the press corps.

From the Phillies first-base dugout, the view is equally as bad though they can see most of the outfield. However, the one spot they can’t see is the right-field corner – exactly where Utley’s home run landed.

So when Manuel says he couldn’t see where the ball went and couldn’t confront the umpires over the poor call, he isn’t exaggerating. There is no way he could see anything going on in the right-field corner. From Manuel’s spot in the dugout, right field is nothing but a rumor.

The point is, a lot of people in the press had no idea Utley’s shot had struck the foul pole because we couldn’t see it. Meanwhile, we didn’t get the Nationals TV feed in the press box. Instead, we could only see the in-house scoreboard feed, which wasn’t about to show a replay contradicting the call on the field.

So when I got down to the clubhouse after the game, I was a little taken aback by Charlie Manuel’s anger. Obviously, he was able to see something we (or I had not) and that drastically changed things. It wasn’t until I got home and watched the highlights shows that I saw that first-base umpire Rob Drake blew it.

Nevertheless, while Manuel expressed his displeasure at the bad call – as well as his team’s inability to get a hit with runners in scoring position – all I keep thinking to myself was, “It’s always something with this team… this is the way it’s going to end for them, isn’t it?”

Maybe.

But maybe not. The one thing that stood out amidst the hand wringing by the Phillies’ officials was Utley’s demeanor and attitude. He was not going to break character or allow himself to lose his focus on the task at hand. Sure, he recited all of the usual clichés, but the thing with Utley is that he believes what he says.

“When you look at the replay in regular [speed], it’s hard to tell,” Utley explained. “When you slow it down, it’s easy to tell. Everybody makes mistakes. We have to put this behind us and come out tomorrow ready to go.”

He will put this episode behind him and come back the next day and try to win.

MVP?

Around these parts, Ryan Howard has slugged his way into the debate for NL MVP. And why not? With a homer in four straight games, Howard leads the Majors with 48 home runs as well as with 125 RBIs.

But nationally Howard isn’t getting as much respect as in Philly and that’s especially the case with that stat folks and logical types at Baseball Prospectus. According to a story on the BP site by Joe Sheehan, Ryan Howard isn’t even the MVP on the Phillies.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Apparently, the NL MVP race isn’t as small as I would have it. Many, many readers–even more than the number who chimed in defending Jermaine Dye’s honor when I left him out of the AL MVP discussion–wrote in to question the absence of Ryan Howard from Monday’s article. Howard leads the NL in homers, RBI and slugging average. His hot August (.330/.431/.699), coupled with the Phillies’ “surge” to the vicinity of .500 and the wild-card slot, has made him a viable candidate in some quarters.

The problem isn’t just that Howard’s season is not on par with Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Beltran. The problem is that Howard isn’t the most valuable Phillies infielder on the right side of second base.

AVG OBP SLG EqA VORP FRAR WARP1
—————————————————————-
Ryan Howard .294 .382 .628 .318 50.2 -4 5.4
Chase Utley .317 .385 .525 .300 53.5 15 6.4

Howard hits more home runs than Chase Utley. Utley and the three real MVP candidates do everything else better than Howard does. The big guy is seventh in the league in EqA, VORP and RARP, and off the charts in WARP. Once you account for position and the things baseball players do other than hit homers, he falls rapidly down the lists.

Can Howard be a serious MVP candidate when he’s three wins worse than the other first baseman in the discussion?

AVG OBP SLG EqA VORP FRAR WARP1
—————————————————————-
Ryan Howard .294 .382 .628 .318 50.2 -4 5.4
Albert Pujols .323 .424 .665 .345 65.4 19 8.8

From here to the end of the season it will be a wide-open race. If Howard gets to 60 homers, give him the trophy… and all of the bonus clauses.

Joe Sheehan: Howard the Phillie

Chase Utley!

That’s right… are there any questions about Chase Utley’s fire after watching the second inning of the Phillies’ game against the Nationals on Saturday night? Is it any wonder why so many people like watching him play?

For those who missed it, Utley bounded out of the dugout after Nats’ pitcher Ramon Ortiz — a.k.a. The Gutless Wonder — decided he was better off throwing fastballs at hitters instead of trying to get them out. So when Ortiz drilled Aaron Rowand in the ribs during the Phils’ eight-run inning, Utley, still burning about getting drilled a few batters earlier, rushed onto the field to challenge Ortiz, man to punk.

Ortiz, who was immediately ejected, just walked away.

Good move.

Here’s how it is: if my son has even the slightest interest in playing baseball when he gets older and wants to understand how to play the game the right way, I’m going to get video of No. 27 for the St. Louis Cardinals and No. 26 for the Philadelphia Phillies and say, “Son, watch these two men… this is how the game is played.”

Damn right!

King Kong, the second baseman and the big ‘clean up’

While cleaning out a closet that had become nothing more than a container for junk that I had refused to throw away for “sentimental” reasons, I came across some old baseball cards I’d saved from the 1980s. Rather than pitch them into the trash pile, or placing them up for sale on eBay (I’m saving them for my son because they’ll be valuable one day, right?), I decided to sit down and look at them.

You know, a little stroll down amnesia lane.

As I thumbed through all of the old names – George Hendrick, Frank Tanana, Tippy Martinez, Chet Lemon, Ron Cey, etc., etc. – it felt like it was 1985 again and there was nothing to worry about.

But there were two things that were particularly revealing about those old cards. Firstly, let’s hope that there is never a ’80s retro trend. For anyone who survived the style trends of this particular era of our culture, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

For those of you still hanging on with the hope that parachute pants make a stylish comeback, God bless you.

Secondly, and more importantly, the most fascinating part about looking at those baseball cards was how skinny the players looked. It wasn’t an unhealthy skinny where it appeared as if the ballplayers needed to chow down on a few more carbohydrate-heavy dinners, but it was a fit skinny.

Though dressed in those crazy uniforms for the bright colors zooming at you from all angles, the players looked athletic – like a college miler or someone who spends three-quarters of their time at the gym on cardio instead of the weights.

It’s a look that is nearly non-existent amongst the current crop of ballplayers, and, certainly, no explanation is needed.

With the curious case of one-time Phillie Jason Grimsley suddenly dominating all the seedy chatter about baseball these days, as the Steroid Era finally enters into the darker, uglier Human-Growth Hormone Era, it was striking to see the 20-year old images of sluggers Dave Kingman and Jack Clark.

Kingman and Clark, as followers of baseball remember, were two of the most-feared home run hitters of their era. At 6-foot-6 and a wispy 200 pounds, Kingman was known as “King Kong” for routinely bashing 30-plus homers per season and for smacking the ball a long way.

In 1985, Clark was slugger and catalyst for the St. Louis Cardinals and such a power threat that he often walked more times during a season than he reached base on a hit. But during that ’85 season in which Clark struck a menacing fear into all pitchers, he hit just 22 home runs, and during his 18-year career Clark hit more than 30 homers just once.

In 24 combined big league seasons, Clark and Kingman reached the 40-homer plateau just once.

These were your sluggers, folks.

And yes, both players were blade thin. In fact, Clark and Kingman had the same type of physique as second baseman Chase Utley, a strong hitter who smacked 28 homers a season ago and is on the way to duplicating that total this season.

Those are definitely strong statistics, but how many people would consider Chase Utley a home run hitter?

Right. Not many.

So what exactly then is the point? That strength training, nutrition, performance-enhancing drug abuse, and fashion sense has come a long way in 20 years? That baseball’s statistics are about as valuable as the paper they’re printed on? Yes, we already knew that.

But what about this: baseball, like those old cards buried in the back of a closet, is a fun diversion. A night at the ballpark or in front of the tube watching a game and talking about the strategy, the players and those forgotten heroes is a pretty good way to spend an evening. And based on attendance figures and TV ratings, a lot of other people think so, too.

Even with Congressional hearings where nothing meaningful was learned about steroid abuse other than a few ballplayers were less than honest, or an investigation and the chance that one of the game’s most prolific sluggers might have perjured himself in front of a federal grand jury, interest in the game has not waned.

Perhaps Phillies catcher Sal Fasano is correct when he says the only thing he remembers turning off the fans from the game was the strike in 1994.

“We know the substances are being used, and we know baseball is doing what it can to clean it up,” said Fasano before last Thursday’s game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., just two miles away from where the Congress vowed to “clean up” baseball. “But do fans want to hear about it all the time? I don’t know.”

A night out, some good and affordable food and maybe even a few homers from the home team… what’s better than that? Who cares if King Kong is the same size as the second baseman?

King Kong, the second baseman and the big ‘clean up’

While cleaning out a closet that had become nothing more than a container for junk that I had refused to throw away for “sentimental” reasons, I came across some old baseball cards I’d saved from the 1980s. Rather than pitch them into the trash pile, or placing them up for sale on eBay (I’m saving them for my son because they’ll be valuable one day, right?), I decided to sit down and look at them.

You know, a little stroll down amnesia lane.

As I thumbed through all of the old names – George Hendrick, Frank Tanana, Tippy Martinez, Chet Lemon, Ron Cey, etc., etc. – it felt like it was 1985 again and there was nothing to worry about.

But there were two things that were particularly revealing about those old cards. Firstly, let’s hope that there is never a ’80s retro trend. For anyone who survived the style trends of this particular era of our culture, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

For those of you still hanging on with the hope that parachute pants make a stylish comeback, God bless you.

Secondly, and more importantly, the most fascinating part about looking at those baseball cards was how skinny the players looked. It wasn’t an unhealthy skinny where it appeared as if the ballplayers needed to chow down on a few more carbohydrate-heavy dinners, but it was a fit skinny.

Though dressed in those crazy uniforms for the bright colors zooming at you from all angles, the players looked athletic – like a college miler or someone who spends three-quarters of their time at the gym on cardio instead of the weights.

It’s a look that is nearly non-existent amongst the current crop of ballplayers, and, certainly, no explanation is needed.

With the curious case of one-time Phillie Jason Grimsley suddenly dominating all the seedy chatter about baseball these days, as the Steroid Era finally enters into the darker, uglier Human-Growth Hormone Era, it was striking to see the 20-year old images of sluggers Dave Kingman and Jack Clark.

Kingman and Clark, as followers of baseball remember, were two of the most-feared home run hitters of their era. At 6-foot-6 and a wispy 200 pounds, Kingman was known as “King Kong” for routinely bashing 30-plus homers per season and for smacking the ball a long way.

In 1985, Clark was slugger and catalyst for the St. Louis Cardinals and such a power threat that he often walked more times during a season than he reached base on a hit. But during that ’85 season in which Clark struck a menacing fear into all pitchers, he hit just 22 home runs, and during his 18-year career Clark hit more than 30 homers just once.

In 24 combined big league seasons, Clark and Kingman reached the 40-homer plateau just once.

These were your sluggers, folks.

And yes, both players were blade thin. In fact, Clark and Kingman had the same type of physique as second baseman Chase Utley, a strong hitter who smacked 28 homers a season ago and is on the way to duplicating that total this season.

Those are definitely strong statistics, but how many people would consider Chase Utley a home run hitter?

Right. Not many.

So what exactly then is the point? That strength training, nutrition, performance-enhancing drug abuse, and fashion sense has come a long way in 20 years? That baseball’s statistics are about as valuable as the paper they’re printed on? Yes, we already knew that.

But what about this: baseball, like those old cards buried in the back of a closet, is a fun diversion. A night at the ballpark or in front of the tube watching a game and talking about the strategy, the players and those forgotten heroes is a pretty good way to spend an evening. And based on attendance figures and TV ratings, a lot of other people think so, too.

Even with Congressional hearings where nothing meaningful was learned about steroid abuse other than a few ballplayers were less than honest, or an investigation and the chance that one of the game’s most prolific sluggers might have perjured himself in front of a federal grand jury, interest in the game has not waned.

Perhaps Phillies catcher Sal Fasano is correct when he says the only thing he remembers turning off the fans from the game was the strike in 1994.

“We know the substances are being used, and we know baseball is doing what it can to clean it up,” said Fasano before last Thursday’s game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., just two miles away from where the Congress vowed to “clean up” baseball. “But do fans want to hear about it all the time? I don’t know.”

A night out, some good and affordable food and maybe even a few homers from the home team… what’s better than that? Who cares if King Kong is the same size as the second baseman?