Here we go …

Remember me? The runner? Yeah, well I'm older and much slower than I used to be, but at least we're gearing up for another stab at it.

That's right, on Nov. 10 I'm running the Harrisburg Marathon. Since I'm in the masters class now, the goal is to try and win as the fastest old guy. The problem is there are a lot more fast old guys and I'm not sure I'm one of them.

We'll see, though. I figure if Joan Benoit Samuelson can run 2:50 at Boston at age 56, I ought to be able to do it, too.

Right?

Anyway, as the weeks progress I will update the training progress. Mostly I'm doing it for myself because I like writing and reading other training blogs. I don't suspect others do, but whatever. Hopefully, it will be interesting to the other running-type geeks out there.

And since I travel often and take a camera with me on rare occasions, maybe I'll spice it up with different things I come across on the roads. Since I started the training again I've run in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Indianapolis; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; New Orleans; Boston; Florida; Atlanta; Philadelphia; Valley Forge; State College and probably a few other places I forget. I also have trips planned to Colorado and Detroit where I'm excited about getting out and running around. 

Anyway, here's the first week of serious training:

Tuesday, June 4 (morning)

7.1 miles
Not the start I wanted, but it worked.

Tuesday, June 4 (evening)

3.2 miles
Nothing gets a runner in shape quicker than doubles. I think it's a metabolism thing. Whatever it is, it's fun. No, it often doesn't feel like fun when you try to push yourself out the door. But once you get going the low-key easy ones are fun because they pay off.

Wednesday, June 5

10 miles
Didn't get out until after work and then ran in South Philly through the Navy Yard. What a treat that was … empty roads of a near-deserted city as well as the remnants of American industrial and military muscle. The old Naval parts were bloated, tired, rusting and abandoned. Sprinkled in is new office space for the new American corporate and technological muscle.

And everyone had gone home so I had the roads to myself. Fun.

Thursday, June 6

10.1 miles
Consistent mile splits through the neighborhood. The pace was solid even when running on grass for a couple of miles.

Friday, June 7

4 miles
Dark and rainy. Ran on a crappy indoor track and a treadmill at the YMCA and hated it. It's not the YMCA's fault (well, the crappy track is). I just don't like running inside.


SaturdaySaturday, June 8

12.1 miles
Ran nine miles of hills in Lancaster County Park. I had hoped to go 14-plus, but the hills were pretty tough and by the 10th and 11th miles I was shuffling a bit. Otherwise, it was a lot of fun. The County Park is slowly becoming a favorite place to run.

Check out the elevation … it's not altitude, but there were some climbs.

Sunday, June 9

10.1 miles
Easy 10 through the neighborhood and some of the neighbors were out to chat a bit. Otherwise, the run was a lot like Thursday … consistent and steady. Nothing to get excited about.

Total: 57 miles

It's a start.

Kibosh!

The powers that be (you know, the ones that pay me) shut down this little site. As it stands, I cannot write the off-beat stuff here anymore, but I am allowed to write a book. Therefore, the plan is to use this site as the inspiration as some sort of epic tome about sports, silliness and, of course, love.

You know, the usual stuff.

In the meantime,check back for updates and stuff like that. 

xoxoxox,

jrf

The lost art of the triple-double

Spencer+Hawes+Chicago+Bulls+v+Philadelphia+fI5TGCFYL5ulMIAMI – In an age of advanced metrics and heightened statistical analysis, the triple-double still stands alone. Often it is the pinnacle of all basketball accomplishments. To get double-digits in points, assists and rebounds, or even blocks or steals, is the mark that a ballplayer had a really good game.

Actually, a triple-double is a true indicator of the all-around player. Typically, players don’t get them by accident. In other words, all of a sudden a player isn’t going to “get hot” and mess around to get a triple-double.

If it could be labeled as such, the triple-double is the most organic of all statistical phenomenons, yet they never sneak up on anyone. If someone is an assist or a rebound or two away from a triple-double, everyone in the gym knows it and they keep track. A triple-double is like a hand grenade, in that when it is about to blow, it makes some noise. That's the way it seemed when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson used to get them. 

And yet heading into Sunday’s action, there has been just one triple-double in the NBA this year. It came from the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo on Jan. 1, when he put 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists on the Washington Wizards. 

Yes, even though the season has reached the quarter pole, the triple-double has become more elusive than ever.

Maybe it’s just a lost art?

“I don’t know if it’s a lost art, it’s just always been rare,” said Andre Iguodala, a player who is known for filling out the stat sheet. “You have your guys from different eras who always got them starting with Oscar Robertson and Magic and Larry did it a bit. I remember one year M.J had about 11 or maybe more. Then you have Jason Kidd, LeBron is up there, Rondo is up there and Chris Paul gets them every now and again, so you have your select few guys.”

Actually, the select club has trimmed down its members this year. Perhaps it’s because players are a bit behind offensively because of the lockout or maybe the scouting and the defenses have gotten so good that the triple-double has begun to disappear from the game like the mid-range jump shooter.

“You have to be a unique guy physically to get that just because you have to rebound or get assists, that’s tough,” said Sixers’ coach Doug Collins, who as one of those mid-range jump shooters back in the day, never got a triple-double.

Oh, but he’s coached a few unique players, including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Grant Hill in Detroit. He also has Iguodala in Philadelphia who has seven career triple-doubles.

“There are a lot of guys who are on that cusp,” Collins said. “If you’re a smaller player, to get 10 rebounds is a lot and if you’re a bigger player to get 10 assists is a lot. So you have to be that hybrid guy who plays on the perimeter, who handles the ball, who has the size – Grant Hill had the size, Magic Johnson had the size, Jason Kidd had the size. If you look at the triple-double guys, you have to have the size to get the rebounds and the assists.”

But as Iguodala explains it, there really is no trick to getting a triple-double. A self-professed gunner in his younger days, Iguodala says he never really learned to be a good passer until he got to the University of Arizona and learned from the son of one of the best-passing big men ever to play.

“Luke Walton taught me how to get triple-doubles. I had one in high school, but in college, Luke Walton really taught me how to get them,” Iguodala explained. “He used to kill me every day at practice during my first year. He was the slowest guy, couldn’t jump off the ground – a slow white dude and how is he beating me? He’s beating me with the pass and everything, but he taught me how to pass and how to keep it simple.”

Keep it simple, as in don’t get caught up in it, is a pretty good way to go about it says Sixers’ ball-friendly big man, Spencer Hawes, who missed one on opening night in Portland by an assist. In that game Hawes said he kept his mind on the game, unlike the time when he was playing for Sacramento against the Sixers and came an assist shy of the triple-double.

“In the Portland game I don’t think at any point that I was forcing it. It was just the flow of the game, we were moving the ball and guys were finishing shots for me and it happened for me once before in my second year against the Sixers,” Hawes said. “I remember being a lot more caught up in it and I had the assists count in my head. I got the rebounds and the points early and then I started on the assist count and I got too caught up in it. A guy missed a layup and a guy missed a three-pointer, and I was thinking, ‘No!’ This time I just let it flow.”

Hawes has gotten close, but not all the way there. Interestingly, though, he remembered a game in high school when he nearly got a quadruple-double until his coach benched him.

“I started taunting the crowd and the coach pulled me out,” Hawes said.

Wait… what?

“I air balled a free throw and the crowd started chanting, ‘air ball’ at me,” he said. “I made the next one and I turned and started chanting, ‘scoreboard’ and then he yanked me. I think I was two blocks and three assists away from a quadruple-double.”

Still, though Rondo is the only guy to get a triple-double this season, there have been a handful of near misses. Six players have come within one assist of getting it, including Iguodala last Wednesday night and Hawes in the season opener in Portland. Sixers’ guard Evan Turner also missed a triple-double by two assists in a game last week, and boy did he know it. After the game when he returned to the locker room, his phone was filled with text messages from friends.

“I’m saving my first triple-double for later,” Turner joked. “When I get one everyone is going to know it.”

Turner isn’t much of a threat to catch Kidd, who, with 107 triple-doubles, is the active leader. Meanwhile, Robertson, famously, averaged a triple-double during the 1961-62 season for the Cincinnati Royals before folks even knew what it was he was doing. That season Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game, making him the only player ever to pull off the feat. He almost did it during his rookie season, too, going for 30.5 points, 10.1 boards and 9.7 assists per game in 1960-61 and again in 1962-63 when The Big O came seven rebounds away from the triple-double average.

Magic Johnson came 29 rebounds and 37 assists away from doing it in 1981-82 and 107 rebounds away from pulling it off in 1982-83.

For the Sixers, Iguodala had three triple-doubles last season, which is the most in franchise history since Charles Barkley got three of them during the 1986-87 season. Then again, the records are incomplete and it wasn’t until later when some players realized what they were doing. For instance, the Sixers have the only double triple-double in NBA history when Wilt Chamberlain got 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists against Detroit at the Spectrum in 1968. Chamberlain also got a quadruple-double, but because steals and blocks were not an official stat in the NBA until the 1973 season, he doesn’t have credit for it.

In the meantime,
if there is one statistical anomaly all players pay attention to, it’s those triple-doubles.

“I always keep in touch with how I am with active players,” Iguodala said. “I think I’m like sixth or seventh, so I’m coming up.”

He’s getting there, but so far hasn’t climbed the charts this year.

Changes… again

As you can see, this site looks different again. Chances are, the content on these pages is going to be a little different, too.

Since there is ample space for the baseball and other sports writing on the CSNPhilly site, there is no real need to use this space for the overflow or the ol’ shaking out the notebook jawn. Instead, this will be a more traditional, “blog.” Call it a catch all for whatever comes down the pike.

You know, for fun… you’ll see.

The annual, rambling essay on Jim Thome (and why the Phillies should get him)

Thome

It usually comes around once per baseball season that I will find a reason to write something about Jim Thome. Sometimes it's actually newsworthy, like if he had just joined a team ready to play the Phillies in the playoffs. But mostly it just has to do with the occasion of him showing up in town or appearing on the cover of a magazine.

See, it's easy to write about Jim Thome. It's easy because he's so likable and genuine. He's one of those guys that if you ask him a question, he's going to try as hard as he can to give you a good answer.

Case in point:

We were at Shea for a day game in 2003, which was Thome's first season with the Phillies. It was kind of an odd time in team history because the Phillies were supposed to be really good with guys like Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu coming into their primes along with players like Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins solidifying their standings as top-shelf talent. Mix in Thome and Kevin Millwood and the sky was the limit.

The problem was the Phillies didn't quite know how to be good. Worse, the manager, Larry Bowa, liked to talk about "winning" as if it were a character trait. He seemed to believe that abrasive behavior and misplaced anger was synonymous with being a leader. He was the exact opposite of Thome because Bowa could never get out of the way of his own ego. Thome was the biggest slugger in the game during the 2003 season and he was practically ego-less. Thome thought mutual respect and a positive attitude were synonymous with being a leader and always seemed to have dozens of teammates following his every move.

Continue reading

The game that wasn’t

Wilson Note: Here's what happened… to anticipate the end of a game, we writerly types work ahead. That's how newspaper guys beat their deadlines and how us web dudes get stories online seconds after the final pitch. Needless to say, this practice can often create headaches if an unforeseen rally or comeback occurs.

In those situations it's not unusual to hear someone shout across the press box, "REWRITE!" That's actually old-timey talk, but it has a better ring to it than, "Highlight, delete!"

So on Wednesday night I had been working ahead and put together a skeleton of a story to fo as soon as the Phillies-Reds game was to end in the 10th inning. The plan was to send the story, gather some quotes and sprinkle them in while changing around some of the details that reflect the mood of the team or the scene in the clubhouse.

Since the Phillies' clubhouse is typically a ghost town after games, that leaves us with cobbling together a quote or two.

Anyway, before Ryan Howard belted a solo home run to tie the game in the 10th before it went to 19 innings and the wee hours of the morning, I came up with this story — compare it to the one I filed after 3 a.m.

This one is about the game that never really happened.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

By John R. Finger
CSNPhilly.com

If there is one thing the Phillies’ pitchers learned about the first three games of the four-game set is that when Jay Bruce strolls to the plate, they should run and hide.

Just run and hide.

For the second night in a row, Bruce came up in a key spot with the game on the line only to deliver a crushing base hit. Actually, in Wednesday night’s 4-3 victory over the Phillies, Bruce had two clutch hits in the late innings.

One to tie and one to win.

The game-winner was a solo homer off reliever Antonio Bastardo that barely cleared the chain-linked fence above the out-of-town scoreboard. That shot—Bruce’s 13th of the season and second of the series—was the one that sent most of the sellout crowd at the Bank scurrying for the exits.

Regardless, it was Bruce’s other big hit on Wednesday night that did the most damage.

It was a situation that Roy Halladay has been through a few times since joining the Phillies, yet always seemed to come out alright on the other side.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com With one out with the bases loaded in a two-run game and the heart of the Reds’ order due up in Wednesday night’s tilt at the Bank, Halladay was in a precarious spot, but not one that had too many folks worried. After all, this was Roy Halladay on the mound. Who cared if the Reds had already bashed out 10 hits in the seventh inning?

So after putting away cleanup hitter Scott Rolen on four pitches, Halladay got ahead quickly on Jay Bruce with three fastballs. The end was one pitch away for Halladay and the Phillies. No way was Halladay going to give up a two-run lead with two outs and two strikes on a hitter.

But Bruce wasn’t just some ordinary hitter. In fact, he may be the hottest hitter going these days. Not only did he have 13 hits and nine RBIs in his last 26 at-bats heading into that showdown against Halladay, but also clubbed a bases-loaded double with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game just the night before.

Bruce got out in front of the two-strike changeup ever-so slightly — just enough to bounce the ball away from the grasp of second baseman Wilson Valdez and into right field for the game-tying single.

That shows just how good Bruce has been. If he can wrst away a two-run lead from Halladay, with the way he has been pitching, then maybe that run and hide advice isn't too far off.

Up next: The Phillies close out the four-game series with the Reds, as well as the nine-game homestand, on Thursday afternoon with a 1:05 p.m. start. Cliff Lee (3-4, 3.38) will take the mound against righthander Homer Bailey (3-1, 2.08).

Lee is coming off his first win in more than a month where he spun a five-hitter with 10 strikeouts in a 2-0 victory over the Texas Rangers. In eight career starts against the Reds, lee is 4-2 with a 4.69 ERA, however, last June the lefty tossed a complete-game shutout while pitching for the Mariners.

Can the Phillies afford Albert Pujols?

image from www.csnphilly.com Albert Pujols watched “The Decision,” the Lebron James made-for-TV show on ESPN in which the self-proclaimed “King” picked the Miami Heat as his free-agent destination over his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. More than anything, Pujols took the show as a cautionary tale of what not to do.

“I’m Albert Pujols and he’s LeBron James. He thinks different and I think differently too. I would never do anything like that,” Pujols said referring to the ESPN show.

But then, Pujols said …

“Actually, let’s do a reality show!”

He was joking, of course. But then again, what if Pujols decided to turn the cameras on himself the way Barry Bondsfor ESPN during the 2006 season? Besides being the most boring reality show in history (yes, we appreciate the irony of using the terms, “boring” and “reality show”), there is only one bit of insight we’d like see in a Pujols reality gig.

Just how did Pujols react when he heard the news that his off-season workout partner, Ryan Howard, got a five-year, $125 million contract extension last April. Of course, Pujols’ interactions with Cardinals’ hitting coach Mark McGwireand manager Tony La Russa could be compelling, too, but not as much as when he learned Howard was going to get an average of $25 million per season until 2016.

Look, we don’t believe for a second that Pujols is motivated by the money. Considering he is owed $16 million for the 2011 season and took home $100 million over the last seven seasons, Pujols and his family are not going to be out on the streets anytime soon. Moreover, Pujols grew up Missouri in Independence, he is as local to St. Louis as Akron native Lebron was to Cleveland. More than anything, it should motivate the Cardinals to negotiate with Pujols in good faith.

A greedy athlete is one thing sports fans can’t stand, but a greedy beer corporation that owns the team really gets people angry—at least it should.

Continue reading

Contracts with Charlie

image from www.csnphilly.com Charlie Manuel has been in this position before. Oh yes, after two straight 90-win seasons and a division crown, Manuel felt as if he had earned a contract extension with the Indians. It made sense considering the Indians were going to rebuild around sluggers Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner as well as pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

Who better to guide the team than the wildly popular hitting coach and budding manager who returned from cancer treatment to run the team with a colostomy bag tucked under his jacket?

However, Indians general manager Mark Shapiro wasn’t ready to commit to Manuel and when Big Chuck forced the issue, there was only one move the club could make…

Sorry Charlie.

“'I wanted some answers,” Manuel told The Associated Press after his firing in 2002. “I didn't want to be in limbo.”

Shapiro saw it differently. The 90-win seasons and the trip to the playoffs didn’t matter much to the GM when he saw a few years of rebuilding in the post-Jim Thome era. Sure, Shapiro wanted Charlie to stay, but during the off-season he was going to have to campaign for his job.

“I wasn't ready, in that environment, to make that commitment to Charlie,” Shapiro said in 2002. “But I feel very strongly that I wanted him to be our manager for the rest of this year and I wanted to consider him to be our long-term manager in the off-season.”

Charlie, as they say, had hand. A couple of days before he was fired, Manuel hung with then-Yankees manager Joe Torre as a coach on the American League All-Star team and was his usual, fun-loving self. If he knew he was going to push Shapiro into firing him, Manuel sure didn’t act like it.

“For a guy who was going to a meeting and probably knew what the outcome was going to be, I think Charlie felt very secure with himself those three days in Milwaukee,” Torre said in 2002. “You can only do what you do. You're confident in your own ability, and after that, it's out of your hands.”

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Meanwhile, one Jerry Sloan = 14 Sixers’ coaches

image from www.csnphilly.com And while the subject is on Jerry Sloan and his time served in Utah, it’s interesting to note all of the men who coached the 76ers.

Check it out: 

  • Matt Guokas: 119-88 reg. season; 8-9 playoffs
    Poor Matty Guokas had the misfortune of taking over the Sixers when former owner, Harold Katz decided to tear the team apart. Stepping up when Billy Cunningham stepped down, Guokas was on the sidelines when he took the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals with the last vestiges of the 1983 championship club and a youthful Charles Barkley.

    However, during the off-season where the Sixers had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Katz dealt the selection, which was Brad Daugherty to Cleveland for Roy Hinson. If that wasn’t bad enough, Katz then sent Moses and Terry Catledge to Washington for Cliff Robinson (the non-headbanded one) and Jeff Ruland.

    /shakes head/

    Trust me, those deals made even less sense then than they do now.

    Could you imagine a frontcourt with Daugherty, Moses, young Sir Chuck with Catledge as the sixth man and Mo Cheeks and Hersey Hawkins in the backcourt?

    Sigh!

    Poor Matty Guokas never had a chance.

  • Continue reading

    Early Call: Doug Collins coach of the year

    image from www.csnphilly.com It’s still relatively early in the NBA season to be discussing the post-season awards with any kind of alacrity. Sure, fans are chanting “M-V-P!” at Amare Stoudemire in Madison Square Garden, but really, what do they know?

    Regardless, with the 76ers checking in with a 24-27 record a week before the All-Star break, the trendy pick for coach of the year is Doug Collins. Considering the Sixers are 21-14 since their slow start to the season, Collins and the gang have done something right. Shoot, Collins could be coach of the year just for getting folks to start talking about the 76ers again.

    What will it be like if the Sixers really start winning again?

    Anyway, Collins as the NBA coach of the year — yes, it’s premature — is an interesting addition to his resume. Though he coached two different 50-win teams in the past and got to the Eastern Conference Finals with the 1988-89 Bulls, Collins’ clubs have always been seen by most as underachievers. But then again that’s kind of the way it is when a team with Michael Jordan doesn’t win it all.

    Still, it was interesting reading Collins’ comments on how things have gone in his return to Philadelphia after the Sixers ripped the Hawks on Tuesday night. Noting that a lot of folks cringed or did a silent full-body dry heave when Collins informed them he was taking the Sixers’ gig, the season has been a rousing success…

    So far.

    From Shaun Powell and NBA.com:

    “Well, I've come full circle, back to the place where I began my career as a player, and now I'm at my final stop as a coach,” he said. “And there's no better place to be than Philadelphia, where they appreciate basketball and deserve a winner. And it's my job and my goal to make that happen.”

    He added: “This has gone better than I ever imagined.”

    Collins, too, has been better than some had imagined, too. Again, it’s just 51 games with No. 52 coming tonight at the Center against the Magic, but Collins, at 60, could be more mature than his previous stops in the league with the Bulls, Pistons and Wizards. The difference though could be that those teams were expected to win and challenge for the NBA title while the Sixers were (and are) viewed as a work-in-progress.

    Collins told Powell he has a better perspective.

    “I'm different now, as a person and a coach,” he said. “When I started in Chicago I'd never been a coach before, on any level. I'm more at ease. Look, I'm as competitive as the next person. I want to win badly every time we step on the floor. But I do like to put the foundation in place, to make the team better than what it was when I got it. And this is one of those situations.”

    We’ll see where it goes from here, but so far it’s tough not to be impressed by Collins’ work. Perhaps even he can add coach of the year into an impressive resume that includes Olympian, No. 1 draft pick and four-time NBA All-Star.

    We’re still here…

    Scorpio For the more astute of you (or maybe the few that actually pay attention to this sort of thing) this site looks a little different. By that, of course, I mean it isn’t teeming with odd little stories and half-baked theories.

    Half-baked being the most fun way to theorize, of course.

    Others may have noticed the spate of posts under the banner Word on the Street on the CSNPhilly.com site and probably assumed that this one was on the way out. That only seems logical, right? There are only so many hours in the day.

    Here’s the thing… I have an firm affection for this site and have an unnatural affinity for it even though it’s not even a person or a thing. It’s just a bunch of words piled on top of each other in attempt to tell some sort of a story.

    In other words, Finger Food isn’t going anywhere. Its focus might shift and the posts might come at a slower rate, but it isn’t going anywhere at all.

    That said, let this serve as notice that the posts won’t be published at the same rate as in the past. There is a lot going on with my taking over the Word on the Street jawn and that doesn’t even include a project that is loosely related to this site.

    So hang tight, good people. We have some changes forthcoming and hopefully the site remains as fun for you as it is for me.

    xoxoxoxo,
    jrf

    Werth is determined, not bitter

    Werth

    WASHINGTON — Let’s not get it twisted, Jayson Werth is not bitter. Who gets bitter about signing a $126 million, no-trade contract? In this economy and with the unemployment rate near 10 percent, Werth can work for seven more years before cashing out. In fact, with the right money manager, Werth’s young children can retire, too.

    Bitter? C’mon… he’s not stupid. Early on during the 2010 season Werth told us he was going to test the free-agent market and go for the best deal out there and that’s exactly what he did. Werth wanted to get paid like his former teammates Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and the rest of the players on the Phillies who were taken care of by management. Instead, he had to go somewhere else for that big contract.

    The Phillies reportedly had just a three-year deal worth $16 million per season for him when Werth hit the open market.

    Nevertheless, Werth is also a pretty competitive dude. No one gets to the big leagues and slugs 13 postseason home runs by accident or by tricking people. Moreover, not many ballplayers accomplish what Werth has so soon after his career was nearly over.

    So if you want to know what this is all about, it’s the injury. It’s the sitting at home during the 2006 season with nobody knocking at the door or ringing the phone. It’s about the misdiagnosis of a wrist injury that forced Werth out of desperation to trudge up to Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic with one last chance to save his career. A person can almost hear music in Werth’s voice when he describes how specialist Dr. Richard Berger figured out the injury was a ulnotriquetral ligament split.

    He hasn’t been the same since.

    Yes, that’s why Werth took the seven years from lowly Washington instead of the three from Philadelphia.

    “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this,” Werth said. “Obviously the years were important to me. The chance to come to a city, guaranteed to be here for a long time, the no-trade was a big deal for me. I have a chance to set my family up for years to come here.”

    It’s hard to fault a guy for thinking like that. However, Werth is not without his pride. Baseball is his job for goshsakes. Sure it’s fun and a remarkable way to make an obscene amount of money, but Werth isn’t messing around out there. He wants to perform well, win games and celebrate at the end of the season. Looking for examples? OK, how about when he hit that home run against the Yankees in the World Series at the Bank, slammed his bat down and yelled into the Phillies’ dugout?

    Or what about Game 4 of the 2008 World Series when Werth hit a homer in the eighth inning and circled the bases with a fist in the air. He looked as if he could feel the championship ring being placed on his finger right then. Of course there was that incident with the kid and his father in right field last year, too… didn’t they know Werth thought he could stretch into the stands beyond his reach to catch a foul ball? Didn’t they know ballplayers use those types of words when things don’t go their way?

    If anything, the pride aspect of Werth’s personality is what makes the move to Washington puzzling even when factoring in the $126 million. That’s especially so when listening to him speak on Wednesday afternoon at his new ballpark.

    “I’ve been in the postseason a lot the last couple of years,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what you play for. That’s what you work out for. That's what you get to spring training early for. I hate to lose. I’m here to win.”

    That task didn’t seem so daunting when Werth first signed the deal. After all, the Phillies were basically the same team that fell short in 2010 minus their everyday right fielder. Then the Cliff Lee thing happened and everything changed.

    “They got their boy back, I guess,” Werth said. 

    Continue reading

    Does Cliff Lee make the Phillies one of the best teams ever?

    Lee_phils There was a stretch last September where the Phillies went on a run to cripple the rest of the NL East, winning 11 games in a row and 22 of 26 in which the team showed glimpses of something otherworldly. It was thanks to that streak that the Phillies erased a seven-game deficit in the standings and turned it into a seven-game advantage faster than one could say, “The Big Three.”

    Led by the starting rotation made up of aces Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, most of the players in the clubhouse were playing for the best team ever. At least that’s what they said.

    “Definitely. We’re better all around – less question marks. Not that question marks ever bothered us because we like to prove skeptics wrong, but coming into this year there were only one or two things people were iffy about,” said Jimmy Rollins, the longest tenured player on the team. “Then we had a great acquisition in little Roy [Oswalt] and that took the pressure off of Cole [Hamels], and then Roy [Halladay] took the pressure off of everybody. He just came in and shut the door. Lights out.”

    Still, it’s tough to label the team the best ever if it didn’t win the championship, and despite a postseason where the pitching staff posted a 2.37 ERA, got 80 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings and had two shutouts, a near shutout, and a no-hitter, the ending was quite disappointing.

    So rather than keep Jayson Werth on an offense that was frustratingly maddening during the season and playoffs, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did the next logical move and backed up a Brinks’ truck on Cliff Lee’s front lawn. Apparently the Phillies plan for 2011 is if they aren’t going to score many runs, then the other team isn’t going to score any…

    At all.

    And that’s just it, isn’t it? The Phillies intend on flirting with history in 2011 and to do so they have replaced Cy Young Award winners Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez with Oswalt and Lee (again). In fact, the motto for the Phillies hitters in the coming season might be, “One and done.” After all, on most nights they probably can get by with just one run.

    But is this the best pitching staff in team history, let alone recent baseball history? Baring an injury there is a chance the quartet could become just the third group in baseball history to have four 20-game winners on the same staff. Only the 1971 Orioles with Dave McNally (21-5), Pat Dobson (20-8), Jim Palmer (20-9) and Mike Cuellar (20-9) as well as the 1920 White Sox with Red Faber (23-13), Lefty Williams (22-14), Dickie Kerr (21-9) and Ed Ciciotte (21-10) have accomplished the feat.

    However, neither team won the World Series.

    So yes, for history to judge the Phillies most favorably, they have to win.

    After all, does anyone remember much about the Oakland teams that went to the postseason in four straight seasons but never made it past the ALDS? How about the Indians of the 1990s that made it the playoffs for five seasons in a row and the World Series twice, but never wore the ring?

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    Why was Cliff Lee traded in the first place?

    Cliff_lee There was a casual moment before a game in New York last season where general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., while shooting the breeze with a few writers, mused on last December’s trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners for a gaggle of supposed prospects.

    “According to some people,” Amaro said jokingly, “it was the dumbest trade ever.”

    The response to that was, “Well, not the dumbest.”

    Sure, it was a light moment and everyone had a good chuckle, but it underscored the one theme of the 2010 season that never went away…

    Just how could anyone trade Cliff Lee?

    Certainly there was plenty of grumbling about the media and the fans fascination with Lee after he was dealt away only to resurface in Texas where he led the Rangers to the World Series for the first time in club history. Shoot, even while reveling in the glory of Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in the playoffs, senior advisor Dallas Green said the moment gave the Phils’ brass a chance to "go wild."

    “We forgot about Cliff Lee,” Green said.

    That didn’t last too long, though. Lee didn’t let anyone forget about him by tearing through the first two rounds of the playoffs with performances that topped even the greatness he put together with the Phillies in 2009. In his first 24 innings, Lee racked up 34 strikeouts and allowed just two runs. He made it very hard on Phillies fans even though no one was unhappy about their team. How could anyone be upset about replacing Lee with Halladay and Roy Oswalt?

    Still, there was something about Lee. He was as cool pitching for the Rangers as he was in 2009. Unflappable might be the best word because he never, ever changed his approach or his routine. He still ran on and off the field, still pantomimed a throw into center field from behind the mound before he began to warm up before an inning, and still threw that low 90s-mph fastball.

    How cool was Lee? While most pitchers cocooned their arms in ice after games, Lee showered, dressed and was gone. He didn’t treat his arm with ice like most pitchers. Even after a career-high 272 innings pitched (counting the playoffs) in ‘09, Lee never strapped his arm in an ice pack after a game. In 16 of his 39 starts Lee pitched into the eighth inning. He averaged 104 pitches per start and hardly walked anyone.

    And then he got even better. Better yet, Lee got so good that the New York Yankees and the millions they offered at him wasn’t enough. Apparently Lee wants to win, too, and there was no other place he wanted to do it than Philadelphia.

    What in the name of Scott Rolen is going on here?

    Strangely, the Phillies now have Halladay and Lee. They have Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, too, while the comparisons to the Braves of the 1990s and Orioles of the early 1970s roll in. Actually, the talk is that the rotation that Amaro somehow put together could be the greatest ever, and that’s not just in Philadelphia where Connie Mack put together some strong teams in the first half of the last century. Instead people are talking about the top four starters as the greatest ever in baseball. Of course they have to win it first—win it all, not just get there—but the resume is nothing to sneeze at.

    Amongst the Fab Four, there are three Cy Young Awards, two MVPs in the NLCS, one in the World Series, six 20-win seasons and 13 All-Star Game appearances. Already we’re talking about whether the Phillies can have three 20-game winners on the staff, a feat not pulled off in the big leagues since Oakland did it in 1973 with Ken Holtzman, Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter. Meanwhile, a team has had four 20-game winners on a team just twice in history (1920 White Sox, 1971 Orioles).

    Incidentally, the Phillies were the first team to have three 20-game winners on the same team when the second-place 1901 club did it, but then again that they carried just six pitchers all season.

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    Nationals go familiar route, but can Werth lead the way?

    Werth_halladay Stick around baseball long enough and you’re bound to hear something new every once in a while. That is the beauty of it, after all. Nothing stays the same, which is good because it chases away the boredom. Still, it was a remarkable thing to hear some of things Roy Halladay said just about a year ago.

    “This is where we wanted to be,” Halladay said during last December’s introductory press conference at Citizens Bank Park. “It was an easy decision for me.”

    Halladay just didn’t say it that one time either. Oh yes, the big right-hander made it point to drive home his point that more than anywhere else, he wanted to be in Philadelphia.

    My, how far we have come.

    “He did say that his was the place where he wanted to be,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. pointed out the day the Halladay trade went down. “A player of his caliber saying that? I’m not sure [if that’s happened].”

    Remember how it used to be, though? Ballplayers used to go out of their way to avoid our fair city. Some even had it written into their contracts that they could be traded anywhere in the world as long as it wasn’t to Philadelphia. Then there was J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen, for whatever reasons, needed to play anywhere else. In fact, with Rolen it was turned into something personal instead of what it really was…

    He was sick of losing.

    But even Rolen admitted that in order for the Phillies to get to the level they enjoy now where players like Roy Halladay beg to be sent here, he was the one who had to go. See, before the 2002 season then general manager Ed Wade reportedly offered Rolen a deal that he would still be playing out. Oh sure, with Rolen at third base and healthy, the Phillies never would have had David Bell, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, Pedro Feliz or Placido Polanco. Chances are they would be trying to find someone take the last few years of the 10-year, $140 million that was said to be offered.

    See, it was OK that the Phillies had a veritable revolving door at third base because that meant players had changed their minds about going to Philadelphia. Plus, 10-year contract aside, if Rolen had taken the deal, he said.

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    Bedrosian finally gives way to Halladay

    Shane_rawley On the last day of August in 1987, Phillies lefty Shane Rawley pitched 8 1/3 innings at Dodger Stadium to improve to 17-6 for the season as his ERA dipped to 3.70. It was the third game in a row that Rawley pitched at least eight innings and it came five days after he got 10 strikeouts and allowed two runs in a complete-game loss.

    The truth was Rawley looked very much like the Cy Young Award winner in the National League.

    And why not? To that point in the season, Rawley very well might have been the most consistent pitcher in the league. After all, he had lost just twice going back to the middle of June and went 9-1 through July and August with a solid 3.50 ERA. In fact, Rawley even went on Roy Firestone’s interview show, Up Close, for ESPN during the trip to Los Angeles where it was agreed upon that the Cy Young Award was his to lose.

    That’s exactly what happened.

    Whether it was a curse or an injury or whatever, Rawley didn’t win a game for the rest of the season, going 0-5 in his final seven starts with a 7.82 ERA. Worse, Rawley struck out just 22 and walked 21 over those final seven starts. Four times he didn’t make it past the fifth inning and twice he barely made it into the second frame, including one start where he was pulled after giving up eight runs and four hits in the first inning.

    But by that point the Cy Young Award had already escaped Rawley. Seemingly, so too did his career as the left-hander pitched two more seasons, winning just 13 more games.

    “The last month of the season I pushed myself,” said Rawley, who these days owns Shaner’s Sports Bar and Pizzeria in Sarasota, Fla. “We started to sputter as a team the last month and I probably tried too hard. I tried too hard to get it.”

    As a result, the 1987 Cy Young Award was up for grabs. That’s not at all like it is this year where Roy Halladay won his second Cy Young Award by collecting all 32 first-place votes. On the next-to-last day of August in 2010, Halladay pitched seven innings to fall to 16-10 for the season as his ERA rose to 2.27. The difference between Halladay and Rawley is that this time a Phillies pitcher finished the deal by going 5-0 with 29 strikeouts and four walks in 36 2/3 innings.

    Halladay’s Cy Young will be the first by a Phillies pitcher since 1987 when Rawley let it slip away. Instead of the Phillies’ lefty starter taking home the most prized award in pitching, a right-hander reliever got it with the fewest amount of wins in the closest ever voting.

    Yes, at 5-3 with 40 saves and a 2.83 ERA in 89 innings, Steve Bedrosian will have the phrase, “Cy Young Award winner” tied to his name. Better yet, Bedrosian capped off a run from 1980 to 1987 where Steve Carlton, John Denny and Bedrock won the award four times.

    So how to Bedrosian do it while Rawley could not? Or how come it has taken so long for another Phillie to win it? Moreover, how has winning the Cy Young Award affected Bedrosian’s life now that he has been out of the game for 15 years?

    Better yet, how was the zany reliever able to keep his stirrup socks in perfect position every time he took the mound?

    Steady as he goes
    To start, Bedrosian won it in 1987 because of his uncanny consistency. After all, Rawley was second in the league in wins, finishing just one behind Rick Sutcliffe, who went 18-10 with a 3.68 ERA for the last-place Cubs. In the final voting, Bedrosian slipped past Sutcliffe, 57-55, while Rick Reuschel finished with 54 points finishing third.

    Bedrosian probably won it because the BBWAA voters could not give it to Nolan Ryan. Though Ryan led the league in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270 in 211 innings), he went 8-16 as a 40-year old for the Astros.

    Did Bedrosian win it by default because there were no other standout pitchers in the league? Shoot, he very well might have put together better seasons in 1982 and 1984 with the Braves relying on a hard fastball. Later he was a key pick up for the Giants during their run to the World Series in 1989 and a solid bullpen piece for the World Champion Twins in 1991. In fact, Bedrosian was on the mound for the Giants when they closed out the NLCS in five games against the Cubs in ’89. Considering that the Phillies were 22-40 when they traded him for Terry Mulholland on June 16 of that season, the deal worked out pretty well for Bedrosian.

    Everything went pretty well in 1987, too. Sure, some of the stats types have written off Bedrosian’s victory in ’87 as the worst Cy Young Award winner ever, but that’s missing the point. Though the rapidly aging Phillies won 80 games that year, Bedrosian saved exactly half of them. During one stretch he saved a game in 13 straight appearances and, taking away a blown save that turned into a win, Bedrosian went through a 20-game stretch where he saved 19 games and won one.

    Back then it seemed as if Bedrosian only went into games where he was in line for a save, and there very well might have been something to that. According to a Sports Illustrated  story from the summer of ’87, there were reports that during the saves streak Bedrosian had twice refused to pitch in blowouts to preserve his shot at the record. That wasn’t exactly the case, according to Peter Gammons:

    Bedrosian

    But in fact, manager Lee Elia had called the bullpen to ask Bedrosian if he wanted an inning's work because he hadn't pitched in a few days. Bedrosian said no thanks. “I felt I was pretty much in sync even without having pitched,” he says. “And my job is as a stopper. But heck, I'll pitch anytime.”

    Closing time
    Besides, that was a different time. Unlike when Brad Lidge went 41-for-41 in save opportunities, he never pitched more than three outs in any of his 65 games. However, of his 40 saves in ’87, Bedrosian got 22 saves of more than an inning and 15 when he pitched at least two innings. The way it worked for manager Lee Elia was for the Phillies to get the lead by the seventh inning before turning it over to his closer.

    Tally it up and Bedrosian went 54 2/3 innings for his 40 saves with a 0.66 ERA in those chances. He also racked up 68 2/3 innings in his 48 save chances that season, holding opponents to a .238 batting average. By contrast, Lidge posted a 1.10 ERA in 41 innings in his 41 saves in 2008.

    No, efficiency wasn’t the style in the 1980s. With 89 innings that season, Bedrosian wasn’t even the hardest worked reliever on the staff. Even though the Phillies had four starters pitch from 200 to 229 innings, Kent Tekulve appeared in 90 games for 105 innings. Up-and-comer Mike Jackson went 109 innings in 55 games—not the way they break in 22-year olds these days. Meanwhile, Tom Hume piled on 70 innings in 38 appearances before being released in August, weeks before Rawley tanked.

    It worked out for Bedrosian, though. Actually, an All-Star appearance where he memorably tagged out Dave Winfield at the plate in a wild, 3-6-1 double play to keep the game scoreless in the bottom of the ninth, earned Bedrosian a $25,000 bonus. He also got and $100,000 for winning the Rolaids award as the league's No. 1 relief pitcher as well as another $100,000 for the Cy Young. When put on top of his $825,000 salary, Bedrosian got $1,050,000 in 1987 to become the 59th player to earn over $1 million in a season.

    He didn’t act like a millionaire in the clubhouse, though. In addition to solid pitching, Bedrosian continued the legacy of oddball Phillies relievers that started with Tug McGraw and was passed down to the likes of Larry Andersen, Roger McDowell, Mitch Williams, Ricky Bottalico and Ryan Madson. He also was a fan of the Three Stooges and was said to have the ability to recite episodes of the show by heart. Still, with 103 saves for the Phillies Bedrosian was the franchise leader until Jose Mesa passed him in 2003, but he likely will hang on to the No. 2 spot until Lidge surges past in 2011.

    These days Bedrosian is somewhat affiliated with baseball. As the supervisor of the school board in Coweta County, Georgia, Bedrosian doubles as the assistant coach for the East Coweta High baseball team. That’s the team his son Cameron pitched for before he was the 29th overall pick in the 2010 draft for the Angels.

    Interestingly, just as Bedrosian was winding down his career in the big leagues, Cameron’s older brother Cody was diagnosed with leukemia. According to a story in Baseball America, Cody, then just 6, needed a bone-marrow transplant when it was discovered his two-year-old younger brother was a perfect match. Because of this, Cody is cancer free more than 17 years later and Cameron finished his first pro season.

    In other words, it’s just fine by Bedrosian if he is finally replaced as “the last Phillies pitcher to win the Cy Young Award” now that Halladay has arrived. Actually, it’s about time.

    Bed rockKeep on closing
    Having a long-term, consistent closer is not something the Phillies are known for. In fact, with 103 saves for the franchise in a little more than three seasons, Steve Bedrosian was the franchise leader from 1989 to 2003 when Jose Mesa took the all-time leadership. If Brad Lidge, with 99 saves, can produce a solid 2011 season, he not only will pass Mitch Williams, Bedrosian and Mesa, but also could be the first Phillies’ closer to hold onto the job for four seasons.

    1970 – Dick Selma (22 saves)
    1971 – Joe Hoerner (9 saves)
    1972 – Mac Scarce (4 saves)
    1973 – Mac Scarce (12 saves)
    1974 – Eddie Watt (6 saves)
    1975 – Garber/McGraw (14 saves)
    1976 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
    1977 – Gene Garber (19 saves)
    1978 – Ron Reed (17 saves)
    1979 – Tug McGraw (16 saves)
    1980 – Tug McGraw (20 saves)
    1981 – Tug McGraw (10 saves)
    1982 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
    1983 – Al Holland (25 saves)
    1984 – Al Holland (29 saves)
    1985 – Kent Tekulve (14 saves)
    1986 – Steve Bedrosian (29 saves)
    1987 – Steve Bedrosian (40 saves)
    1988 – Steve Bedrosian (28 saves)
    1989 – Roger McDowell (19 saves)
    1990 – Roger McDowell (22 saves)
    1991 – Mitch Williams (30 saves)
    1992 – Mitch Williams (29 saves)
    1993 – Mitch Williams (43 saves)
    1994 – Doug Jones (27 saves)
    1995 – Heathcliff Slocumb (32 saves)
    1996 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
    1997 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
    1998 – Mark Leiter (23 saves)
    1999 – Wayne Gomes (19 saves)
    2000 – Jeff Brantley (23 saves)
    2001 – Jose Mesa (42 saves)
    2002 – Jose Mesa (45 saves)
    2003 – Jose Mesa (23 saves)
    2004 – Billy Wagner (21 saves)
    2005 – Billy Wagner (38 saves)
    2006 – Tom Gordon (34 saves)
    2007 – Brett Myers (21 saves)
    2008 – Brad Lidge (41 saves)
    2009 – Brad Lidge (31 saves)
    2010 – Brad Lidge (27 saves)

    Pat Burrell is no Gil Hodges

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

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

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

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

    How bad was Burrell?

    Let’s take a look…

    ***

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

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

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

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

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

    Funny game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Funny game.

    A little youth could serve the Phillies well

    Howard k The tenets on building a successful baseball club according to the practices put in place by Pat Gillick are complex in their simplicity. The basic idea is to mix in some younger players with the veteran to ensure that everyone on the team doesn’t get old all at once.

    “… No one in the game is as patient anymore,” Gillick told writer John Eisenberg for his book, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards. “But you still have to have somewhat of a program of integrating younger people to your team, because if you don’t, everyone gets and collapses at the same time. …”

    There are some trap doors in this approach, though. For one, just when is a player too old? Another is just how much patience is the proper amount for a young player? Certainly that has a lot to do with the veterans on the club and whether or not they are “too old.”

    Better yet, just what does all of this mean for the Phillies?

    Come Nov. 30 when Shane Victorino turns 30-years old, all eight of the 2010 Phillies position players will be 30 or older. Eleven days after Victorino’s birthday, Joe Blanton also turns 30, leaving only Cole Hamels as the only player amongst the core group under 30. Come Dec. 27, Hamels will be 27 with five big-league seasons under his belt.

    In other words, the time is right now for the Phillies. You know that window of opportunity they talk about that opens only so often and closes quickly? Yep, the window has reached its apex and is beginning to make its slow descent. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. talked about being caught beneath the crush of it all collapsing at the same time when he traded Cliff Lee last December. It kind of made sense, too, considering the Phillies had traded seven of what they labeled prospects. The idea was to replenish the farm system in a Gillick-like fashion so that those prospects could be sprinkled in appropriately.

    Ah yes, but there’s the other caveat… what if the prospects aren’t any good? What then?

    That’s where the real GMs separate themselves from the pack. It’s one thing to throw money at the best players every winter, but it’s another all together to develop the talent and keep it together for a long time. The Braves did it with some consistency in the ‘90s when they put together a string of 14 straight division titles, but only one World Series title. The Phillies have a good base, too, considering that many of the main group of players came through the ranks together.

    However, the question remains if someone like Brown is ready to be sprinkled into the mix right now, or if guys like Howard, Utley, Rollins, Polanco, Ruiz and Victorino are going to collapse at the same time?

    That’s what Amaro is going to have to work on this winter when deciding which pieces to add to that rapidly aging core. The Giants’ victory in the World Series should have hammered that point home loud and clear.

    Think about it… like the Phillies, the Giants are built around pitching. Of the four pitchers the Giants used during the playoffs, Jonathan Sanchez is the oldest and he doesn’t turn 28 until Nov. 19. Tim Lincecum had two Cy Young Awards before his 26th birthday and Matt Cain turned 26 just before the playoffs began. Meanwhile, the Giants’ No. 5 starter, Barry Zito, is younger than Roy Halladay and has more career appearances.

    The best part for the Giants is that they control all of their starting pitchers until 2012 when Zito’s deal is up. Lincecum and Cain aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

    The youth of the pitching staff isn’t the only thing the Giants have going for them. Buster Posey, the 23-year-old catcher has carved out his spot behind the plate and could turn into another Johnny Bench. Better yet, the Giants have a little over $76 million committed to nine players for 2011 and will shed veteran contracts for Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Edgar Renteria, Jose Guillen, and Juan Uribe. Huff likely will return and Uribe probably won’t be too costly to retain, either. So if they do it right, the Giants could become the dynasty everyone thought the Phillies were on the verge of becoming.

    Of course they can’t go out and give out another 7-year, $126 million contract like they gave to their albatross, Zito.

    So how do the Phillies get better? They have just seven open spots on the 25-man roster and $143 million earmarked already. Plus, manager Charlie Manuel rides his regulars hard. Just look at how much Chase Utley has played even when injured. Or, not to pigeonhole just Utley, look at the offensive production during the playoffs. Did the combination of so many games over the 2008 and 2009 runs to the World Series contribute to the injuries and offensive malaise in 2010?

    Maybe. Or maybe some of the Phillies need to get a little younger in time for the 2011 season. Hey, that’s not as strange as it sounds. Check out what Jamie Moyer has been able to do for, oh, say the last three decades. If the Phillies want to stave off the Giants in 2011, it seems like time to get healthy, fit and a little bit younger in time for spring training.

    If that happens baseball will go back to lasting until November in Philadelphia again.

    Davey Lopes’ incredibly important impact on the Phillies

    Davey_chuck If you were ever going to approach Davey Lopes with a question about something, be ready. Actually, there are a couple reasons for the heightened level of alertness, the first one has to do with Lopes himself.

    See, Davey Lopes isn’t at the ballpark to hang out and shoot the breeze, so if he deems what you are asking him idle chatter or small talk, he wants nothing to do with it. He might even size you up to see if you are going to waste his time and then he’ll act accordingly.

    But if what you have to offer is something Lopes thinks is an interesting topic, get ready because he’ll fill up your notebook and/or recorder. Lopes loves baseball and he enjoys talking about it in-depth just as much. That makes sense figuring that he has given his life to the game, first as a great player (mostly) for the Dodgers and then as a coach and a manager for the Milwaukee Brewers. Lopes’ passion for the game has an intensity that even the most ardent of the baseball lifers do not possess.

    Mostly that gruff exterior is just for show and some of the players love to get the now-former Phillies’ first-base coach worked up over something. A great example of this would be to bring up the pivotal game in the 1977 NLCS known in these parts as “Black Friday.”

    “Black Friday,” for those who were not around for the 1977 NLCS between the Dodgers and the Phillies, or for those historically challenged on baseball lore, remembers the game as the one where the Phillies missed their best chance to get to the World Series to date. If you thought watching the Phillies lose to the Giants in the 2010 NLCS was difficult, the ’77 NLCS would cause lesser souls to swear off baseball forever. Indeed, it was that difficult to see unfold.

    The game in question was where Greg Luzinski famously misplayed a fly ball against the wall at the Vet during a stage in the game where he had been subbed out in favor of the better defender, Jerry Martin. It’s kind of like the Philadelphia version of Bill Buckner in that a move that is made in most circumstances was ignored for some inexplicable reason. For instance, manager Danny Ozark put Martin in for Luzinski the way Red Sox manager John McNamara replaced Buckner for Dave Stapleton. Only when he decided not to make the routine move for whatever reason is exactly the time everything will go wrong.

    But that’s not all there was to “Black Friday.” It is also the game where shortstop Larry Bowa made that terrific play to make a throw to first in attempt to nail Lopes on a ball that caromed off third baseman Mike Schmidt. Only first-base ump Bruce Froemming called Lopes safe at first, which paved the way for more miscues as the Phillies blew a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth.

    It also opened the door for Lopes and the Dodgers to knock the Phillies out of the playoffs and march on to the World Series and a date with the Yankees.

    Nevertheless, when Bowa returned with the Dodgers for the 2008 NLCS—the team’s first meeting in the playoffs since the 1978 NLCS—both protagonists, then on different sides, were marched into the interview room for a formal chat. This is where the normally prickly Bowa played the part of the nice guy in reliving a memorable moment in Phillies’ history.

    “They were good series,” Bowa said, clad in his Dodger uniform and that traditional “LA” cap, during the media conference. “We grew up playing them in the Coast League—they were in Spokane and we were in Eugene, Oregon. We had a rivalry going then. They seemed to get the best of us in those games.

    “We always made a mistake late. It cost us, but they’re very competitive. You remember when Burt Hooton was pitching and the crowd got into it, he couldn’t throw a strike. Then the rain game with Tommy John. The play in left field where Bull (Greg Luzinski) was still in the game and Jerry Martin had been replacing him and he wasn’t in and it led to a run.

    “Davey Lopes. I know Davey says, ‘Let it go.’ But he was out. He knows he was out and he can go look at that all day. A hundred thousand times he was out. But those were good games. They were good games and they seemed to bring out the best in us. I think Garry Maddox dropped a ball which he never dropped. It was just one of those things.”

    Lopes, dressed in his Phillies home whites, followed Bowa and put an end to the Philly hand-wringing over the never-forgotten defeat.

    “It was 31 years ago. Quit crying and move on,” Lopes said.

    Certainly Lopes had a fantastic seat for a lot of great moments in baseball history. He was, of course, at second base the night Hank Aaron hit home run No.715 to break Babe Ruth’s all-time record and was the first person to reach out and shake the hand of the new home run king. Actually, it was a prideful moment for Lopes, who as a man with Cape Verdean descent, was often caught in between two worlds growing up in Providence, R.I. Lopes is not African-American, but is a person of color coming from a small island off the western coast of Africa. As such, he took even more pride in playing the same position for the same team that Jackie Robinson and Junior Gilliam once played.

    Howard Bryant, in his new biography about Hank Aaron, recounts a conversation he had with Lopes about why he shook Aaron’s hand after the historic homer.

    "I remember when I first came up. We’d be in spring training and Junior would tell me to come with him. I’d say, ‘Where we going?’ and he would just tell me to come on. We’d be in St. Petersburg and he’d point out the majestic hotels. He’d say, ‘That’s where the Dodgers used to stay,’ and I was in awe. Then we’d go farther into a neighborhood and he’d show me some average-looking house and say, ‘And that’s where ­we had to stay.’ And it blew my mind, because it wasn’t long ago. I thought about those things, about where we’d come as people of color, and that’s why I shook Henry Aaron’s hand. It felt like something I had to do.”

    It was never as easy as just focusing on baseball, either. Lopes missed time at the beginning of the 2008 season after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer that was discovered during a preseason, routine physical. Then, in April, three days before the Phillies’ season opener in 2010, Lopes’ brother, Michael, died in a house fire in Rhode Island.

    He says those events did not figure into his decision to turn down an offer from the Phillies, though. Baseball, after all, is Lopes' life. He just turns 66 in May and doesn't plan on giving up baseball just because the Phillies didn't make him a proper offer.

    Lopes played in the World Series in 1974, 1977 and 1978 before finally winning it all in 1981. Later he got to the playoffs with the Cubs as a teammate with Bowa in 1984 and again with the Astros in 1986 where he was teammates with Larry Andersen and Charley Kerfeld. It was in the ’77 World Series where Lopes stood at second base when Reggie Jackson belted three homers in Game 6 to tie Babe Ruth’s record and clinch the Yankees’ victory.

    In 1978, Lopes hit three homers, including two in the Game 1 victory, before the Dodgers fell again to the Yanks. Finally, Lopes and the famous Dodgers’ infield of Steve Garvey, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, beat the Yankees in 1981. Lopes contributed to the Dodgers’ World Series victory with four stolen bases against the Yanks, which was his forte.

    Better yet, stealing bases and teaching others how to steal bases will be Lopes’ legacy. In 16 seasons in the majors, Lopes swiped 557 bases and led the league twice. In 1975 Lopes set the record with 38 straight successful stolen bases and led the league with 77 steals. In 1985 when Lopes was 40 he stole 47 bases and followed that up with 25 when he was 41. Not even Rickey Henderson stole as many bases as Lopes at that age. Then again, Lopes had a knack for doing things at an older age than most. He made his major league debut when he was 27 and after his 34th birthday he was as good as any second baseman ever to play aside from Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins or Napoleon Lajoie.

    But it wasn’t so much about the amount of stolen bases Lopes racked up as it was his ability to steal bases and not get caught. When he swiped 77 bags in ’75 he was caught just 12 times and that number dipped to 10 times caught in ’76 when he got 63 stolen bases. When Lopes stole 47 when he was 40, he got caught just four times.

    Lopes’ 83 percent success rate dwarfs that of Henderson (81 percent) and Lou Brock (75 percent). Ty Cobb’s stolen base rate is incomplete, but even from what information that is available, Lopes is better than him, too.

    So with Lopes coaching at first base with a stop watch in his right hand and his eagle eyes watching every move, spasm and twinge by the pitcher, it’s no wonder that the Phillies led the league in stolen base percentage in four straight seasons. In fact, the 87.9 percent rate the team posted in 2007 is still a big-league record.

    Want to get Davey talking? Ask him about statistics and stolen bases. Though the art of the stolen base is not popular in some sabermetric neighborhoods, Lopes says stealing bases is the best bet in baseball.

    “The Red Sox are a team that uses the computer as well as any team, but Jacoby Ellsbury adds another dimension to them. You utilize that and it changes a philosophy,” Lopes said during a discussion about stealing bases in May of 2009. “Dave Roberts probably had as much to do with them winning the World Series [in 2004] and what did he do? He stole a base at the right opportunity. But when you think about the Red Sox you think about them banging the ball out of the ballpark.”

    Besides, Lopes said, stealing a base is less of a risk than sending a hitter to the plate. Even the worst base stealers are a better bet than the best hitters, he says.

    “If you do a statistical format, if you have a guy on first base in the eighth or ninth inning and he has a success rate of 68 percent, that’s still better than any hitter getting a hit,” Lopes said. “I don’t give a [bleep] who it is, he’s still not hitting .700. He has a better chance of stealing a base than the best hitter has to get a hit.”

    Davey_thurman When he came aboard after the 2006 season, Charlie Manuel pretty much turned the running game over to Lopes keeping only the power to put up a stop sign whenever he wanted. Nevertheless, Lopes’ base-running theories pretty much took over unabated and with such an important aspect of the game resting in his hands, Lopes used it to make things happen.

    “The running game puts a lot of pressure on teams,” Lopes said last. “It causes teams to make mistakes, not only with stealing, but with the aggressiveness in which you play. If you run the bases aggressively, you can capitalize on a mistake if it’s made by an infielder or outfielder. If you don’t, you can’t. It’s an after effect—‘Oh, I should have ran.’ Too late.”

    Too late appears to be the issue between Lopes and the Phillies, too. Lopes told CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury that he wanted to come back for a fifth season with the team, but negotiations fell apart. Lopes says he wasn’t asking for a lot of money, just more than the regular first-base coach who isn’t entrusted with so much responsibility to the team’s success.

    Perhaps general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phils’ brass didn’t value those talents too much?

    “We just had a difference of opinion on what I felt my worth was,” Lopes told Salisbury. “That’s all. It was a really tough decision because I loved my time in Philadelphia, I loved working for Charlie Manuel, and I have the utmost respect for everyone in that organization.
     
    “I got more enjoyment out of winning that World Series in 2008 than I did the one I won with the Dodgers as a player. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed my time in Philadelphia. I am really going to miss the atmosphere and the passion. The fans were great to me. I went from being a bad guy, a Dodger, to someone they really embraced. I really appreciate that.”

    Though the announcement came on Monday, a report surfaced out of Los Angeles that the Dodgers could attempt to woo back their old All-Star. Just think of the ways a guy like Lopes could transform the talents of a player like Matt Kemp. Just think what he did for players like Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth. Hell, big slugger Ryan Howard even swiped eight bases in 2009 and went from just one attempt to 15 attempts since Lopes’ arrival.

    If Lopes can make a base stealer out of Ryan Howard, what can’t he do?

    Now think about Lopes doing that for another team in the National League…

    Aaron Rowand saw this coming

    Rowand It’s amazing what a guy can do with his time when he’s been away from the ballpark for almost a week. For me, for instance, I have allowed the charms of the Pacific time zone to wash over me even though it’s been several days since we returned from San Francisco.

    Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.

    Nevertheless, in trying to figure out just how the San Francisco Giants beat the Phillies in the NLCS and why we’re not headed to Dallas/Fort Worth for Game 3 of the World Series on Friday, I have been re-reading some notes and old stories searching for ideas and clues. And while I’m not sure if I found an answer, I did find a bit of prophecy from a conversation I had with Aaron Rowand in September of 2009.

    Rowand, of course, is the popular ex-Phillies center fielder whose claim to fame was his penchant for recklessness in the field and his ability to hit well at Citizens Bank Park. Though he spent just two seasons playing for the Phillies after being traded from the White Sox for Jim Thome, Rowand was unforgettable. Specifically, the catch at Citizens Bank Park where he smashed his face into the exposed metal on the center field fence remains the greatest catch I’ve seen.

    He also broke his ankle trying to make a tough catch at Wrigley Field and belted the ball around as an integral member of the 2007 club that broke the long playoff drought for the Phillies.

    My favorite Rowand injury was the one he got while playing with his kids at his daughter’s birthday party. That little shoulder injury tells you all you need to know about Rowand—whether it was a big league game or his daughter’s birthday party, he went all out.

    “The next day I got shot up a little bit and went back out there and it was fine,” Rowand remembered for us about hurting himself at the birthday party.

    Nevertheless, Rowand left the Phillies for the Giants after the 2007 season as a free agent when San Francisco ponied up the years in a long-term contract he was looking for. The Giants gave him a five-year, $60 million deal that runs out in 2012, while the Phillies countered with three years. The Giants also gave him a $8 million signing bonus though he hasn’t come close to producing the types of numbers he posted in his two years with the Phillies.

    Interestingly, when Rowand jumped to the Giants he took quite a bit of flack for it because it was seen as a money grab. Considering that San Francisco finished last in the NL West in 2007 and improved by one win and one spot in the standings in 2008, it’s not tough to understand why it looked like a rush for a pay day.

    But all along, Rowand held fast to the theory that when the core group of young pitchers for the Giants—Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez—developed properly, things would change quickly.

    He nailed that one.

    Not that it was tough, of course. Anyone could see that Lincecum and Cain were the real deal, though the right-handed Cain's current scoreless innings streak through the playoffs is pretty extraordinary… make that downright Christy Mattewson-esque.

    Still, the part that stood out was that Rowand didn't give off any false bravado of a guy bragging about his team. He was calm and matter-of-fact. He also knew that the Giants were better than most of us realized.

    Though the Giants finished in third place and faded in September in 2009, they won 88 games and the young pitchers began to show their promise. Lincecum won his second Cy Young Award, Cain pitched exactly 217 2/3 innings for the second straight season with 14 wins, and even veteran Barry Zito showed flashes of his old form.

    Teams like the Phillies saw what was going on in San Francisco and took notice. Better yet, Rowand, once again, reminded folks about the Giants’ pitching.

    “When you look at teams that have success in the postseason, a lot of it has to do with how they pitch,” Rowand said before a game at the Bank in September of 2009. “And when you have a pitching staff like us that you can line up for a five-game series or a seven-game series, you know you have a chance to win every game.”

    Not-so secretly, folks in my line of work wondered what would happen to the Phillies if they had to face the Giants in a wild-card series. There was a chance the Phillies would have used Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Pedro Martinez against Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez in ’09 in the same way they sent Roy Halladay, Hamels and Roy Oswalt out there in the 2010 NLCS.

    Would the result have been the same a year earlier? Probably not. After all, the Giants’ offense got a serious upgrade with Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff, which speaks to how bad the Giants were with the bats in 2009. They finished toward the bottom in runs and batting average, next-to-last in homers and dead last in on-base percentage in 2009.

    Clearly, pitching will take a team only so far. The Phillies learned that lesson the hard way in 2010.

    Interestingly, Rowand told us in September of 2009 that he had spoken with Phillies manager Charlie Manuel about the prospect of a Philadelphia-San Francisco playoff series, which is another bit of Rowand prophecy that came true. Stranger still, Rowand said his Giants reminded him a lot of his 2005 White Sox that tore through the postseason by winning 10 of 11 games to win Chicago’s first World Series since 1917.

    “[The Giants] reminds me a lot of the team we had with the White Sox in the year that we won. We had a decent offense but we weren’t a powerhouse by any means,” Rowand said back in ‘09. “We had a couple of guys who could hit home runs, but we were a pitching and defense team. In the postseason the pitching staff stepped up and it carried us.”

    That’s the way it’s going in 2010 with the Giants. Rowand may have been a year early with his predictions, but he’s right on time now.

    Why can’t we quit Cliff Lee?

    Cliff_leeIt was a preposterous idea. Know how they say truth is stranger than fiction? Yeah, well this one was just too strange for even that. In the most sordid and obscene of tawdry ideas, just the thought of it should make one’s skin crawl and spine shiver.

    Cliff Lee pitching in Game 1 of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park? Against Roy Halladay?

    It was just too good to be true, wasn’t it?

    “I pulled for a lot of those guys, but it’s weird, when a team gets rid of you, you kind of like seeing them lose a little bit. I know that’s weird but part of me wanted them to win where I could face them in the World Series, too. It would have been a lot of fun. You’d like to think that they need you to win type of stuff, when that's really not the case,” Lee said from Tuesday’s media day at AT&T Park in San Francisco, 3,000 miles away from South Philly.

    “When a team gets rid of you, it's funny how you have a knack for stepping up a little more when you face them. There’s a little more incentive to beat them, and that’s definitely the case with me watching the game. I was in between. I didn’t want to have to face them or want to have to face the Giants. I let that series play out, and I pulled for those guys individually, but I didn’t mind seeing them get beat, either, just because they got rid of me. That is what it is.”

    Oh that Cliff… telling the Phillies they got what they deserved?

    Nevertheless, while folks lament the Phillies’ offensive (used as offensive as in a segment of a baseball game and offensive as in deplorable) flop in NLCS, it’s almost like a little, sarcastic dig at the team’s oh-so sensitive brass that Cliff Lee will pitch on Wednesday night. Only instead of pitching for or against the Phillies, Lee will pitch against the not-so celebrated hitters of the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park.

    Coincidentally, the last time Lee pitched at AT&T Park he pitched a complete game, four-hitter to beat the Giants in his debut with the Phillies on July 31, 2009. They weren’t the same Giants that Lee will face on Wednesday night, but they were not too far off. If anything, Lee was different then… he walked two batters.

    “It does seem like a long time ago, but I remember I went through all nine innings that was pretty good,” Lee said of his Phillies’ debut. “And I remember I almost went out of this park opposite field, too. That was fun.”

    Yes, he’s still as cool as ever. Unflappable might be the best word because he never, ever changes his approach or his routine. He still runs on and off the field, still pantomimes a throw into center field from behind the mound before he begins to warm up before an inning, and still throws that low 90s-mph fastball.

    Of course he throws that cut fastball exactly where he wants it to go. He throws it no matter what the situation is or if he’s behind in the count. Hey, the ball is in his hands so everyone else will have to adjust to him. Better yet, he was in charge after games, too. He didn’t treat his arm with ice like most pitchers. Even after a career-high 272 innings pitched (counting the playoffs) in ‘09, Lee never strapped his arm in an ice pack after a game. In 16 of his 39 starts Lee pitched into the eighth inning. He averaged 104 pitches per start and hardly walked anyone.

    And then he got even better.

    It might be that mindset that helped the Rangers through the ALDS for the first time and then to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, and yes, that includes when it started out in Washington as the Senators in 1961.

    “Tremendous work ethic. You know, you see him from afar, you never see him prepare to do what he does out there,” Texas manager Ron Washington said during his media day press conference. “He has tremendous work ethic, and more than anything else, he brings influence. The way he goes about his business, the energy which he plays with, the passion he has for the game, the things he goes out there and never let affect him, those are the type of qualities that a No. 1 guy brings, and it just influences every other pitcher that follows him or that's on that pitching staff. That's what he brought to us. That's one thing I didn't know.

    “I knew he was a quality pitcher, but I never got a chance to see how each day that he prepares for his starts. It's amazing the work he puts in to go out there and then accomplish what he accomplishes.”

    Washington is Lee’s fourth manager since the start of the 2009 season and he is also the fourth manager to say the same thing about the lefty. The Phillies gushed over Lee a lot during the postseason, too.

    Of course where Lee endeared himself the most to the fans and his teammates in Philadelphia was during the playoffs. Sure, there was a bit of the dreaded “dead-arm” phase toward the end of the regular season, but when properly rested thanks to the dark nights in the playoff schedule so the networks could regroup[1], Lee also re-gathered himself, too. All he did was put together the greatest postseason by a Phillies pitcher, ever.

    Better than Cole Hamels, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, Tug McGraw, Jim Konstanty and maybe even better than ol’ Grover Cleveland Alexander against the Red Sox in the 1915 World Series. Lee didn’t make his playoff debut with a no-hitter like Halladay, or end his maiden postseason game with outs against Hall of Famers Babe Ruth or Harry Hooper, but Lee was a lot more consistent.

    He allowed one run against the Rockies in Game 1 of the NLDS and took the lead into the eighth inning of the clinching Game 4 before errors and the bullpen cost him a win. Had Lee held on in that one he would have become just the third person in Major League Baseball history to win five games in a single postseason.

    Cliff Added all up, Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA, including a masterful 10-strikeout, three-hitter in Game 3 of the NLCS and a 10-strikeout gem in Game 1 of the World Series where the best the Yankees could do was score an unearned run in the ninth.

    No, there wasn’t a no-hitter in there, but Lee got the Phillies to the World Series and won both of the team’s games there.

    So it makes sense that there is some sensitivity amongst guys like Ruben Amaro Jr. in regards to Lee. In fact, the 2010 season was almost a mirror image of 2009 for Lee. He was again traded in July from an American League doormat to a contender. Again he had some back and arm issues where he missed both the first month of the season and a handful of starts late in the year.

    But when the playoffs started, Lee has been even better than he was last year with the Phillies. Going into his Game 1that will not be played in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, Lee is 3-0 with an 0.75 ERA with 34 strikeouts and one walk in 24 innings.

    Pretty good, huh?

    Now here’s the thing… give up on Lee at your peril. The Yankees couldn’t swing a deal for him and paid for it during the regular-season and the playoffs. Tampa Bay could have used him, too, but in the end he beat them twice in the postseason. Sure, the Phillies picked up Roy Oswalt and he was spectacular during the second half of the season. But if Amaro thought for a second that the offense would be outdone by the Giants’ lineup in the NLCS, do you think he would have given up on Cliff Lee?

    Maybe the better question is just what was about Lee that keeps folks in Philly talking? After all, he arrived at the end of July and was gone by the second week of December. That’s not a long time at all and yet we’re still talking about the guy and paying attention whenever he pitches a big game.

    Just what was it about Cliff Lee?


    [1] It’s not exactly top-notch planning that the first game of the World Series will be played on the same night as the opening of the NBA season. Hey, I’d rather watch baseball over just about anything, but I understand why a person would want to watch LeBron James and the Miami Heat play the Sixers on Wednesday night. LeBron made a little news earlier this year and people love/dislike him so much that they can’t take their eyes off him. Apparently the MLB brass and the networks whiffed on this one.

    Have the Phillies seen the last of Jayson Werth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Teammates," he said.

    Was Scott Boras listening?

    … and Cliff Lee is ready to go in Game 1

    Howard_k Let’s just cut right to it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Just get me to the plate, boys.”

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

    "I can't say what I want to say.”

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

     

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

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

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

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

    Philly boy Roys step up

    Roy SAN FRANCISCO — The signals will be evident quickly.

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

    In other words, adjustments will need to be made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Big Red Machine of the 21st Century

    Baby boomers selling you rumors of their history
    Forcing youth away from the truth of what's real today
    The kids of today should defend themselves against the ‘70s

    -          Mike Watt, “Against the ‘70s

    Reds CINCINNATI — We’re getting closer to a definitive answer. If we are led to believe anything after three games of the NLDS, it’s that the Phillies have the pitching to win the World Series. In fact, the Phillies pitching is so good it doesn’t even matter if they don’t hit a lick.

    The Phillies didn’t hit a little bit in the NLDS and cruised to the sweep, but does that tell us how good they are? If there is one question we came looking for during the first round of the playoffs it was that one.

    Really, how good are the Phillies?

    OK, that’s a loaded question because, obviously the team is good enough to win it all. However, because we are at the point in this era of the Phillies’ Golden Age that nothing less than a World Series title will suffice, we have to think of the question in the historical sense. In that regard there are two measuring sticks for National League teams—the 1940s St. Louis Cardinals and the Big Red Machine of the 1970s.

    The Cardinals were the last National League team to go to the World Series three seasons in a row. From 1942 to 1944, the Cardinals won the World Series twice and added a third title in 1946. With Stan Musial, perhaps the greatest hitter in history[1], the Cardinals are the benchmark for which all National League teams should be measured. Sure, the Dodgers of the 1950s and 1960 were juggernauts, as were the Braves teams that won 14 straight division titles. But the Cardinals won three titles in five seasons.

    The Phillies should equal the Cardinals three straight trips to the World Series this season, but the team they are most compared to are the Reds.

    The Big Red Machine sprang to life in 1970 when they lost the World Series to the Orioles. They lost it again in 1972 to the Oakland A’s, fell short in the NLCS in 1973 and 1979, but came through with back-to-back titles in 1975 and 1976. No National League team has won back-to-back titles since and only the 1921-22 New York Giants and 1907-08 Chicago Cubs have won two World Series in a row from the senior circuit.

    So, are the Phillies as good as The Big Red Machine? It probably won’t be a question that truly gets answered with some authority until after the World Series, but make no mistake that folks are talking about it. In fact, resident team baseball historian Jimmy Rollins had called his group The Little Red Machine as a homage to the Reds and gave a nod to both team’s power hitters and speed games. Both teams also had strong bullpens and played great defense with multiple Gold Glovers on both clubs.

    Fortunately there are a lot of guys around from the days who both covered and played for The Big Red Machine. In fact, 1976 MVP Joe Morgan attended all three games of the NLDS with Reds’ GM Walt Jocketty and said that the comparisons are fair.

    “If you're a good team, you’re a good team,” Morgan said. “You’re supposed to win. That’s the way you look at it. The experience doesn’t really factor into it. When I was with the Reds, we saw ourselves as the best team, so we felt like we were supposed to win.”

    Listening to their words and watching the body language at Great America Ball Park for Game 3 on Sunday night, it was clear that the Phillies believe they are the best team in the league. It’s a cliché, but the Phillies have an aura and an intimidation factor that often overwhelms teams. During pregame stretch before the Reds finished up their BP rounds, Phillies’ players stood along the baseline and watched the opponents go through their paces. Typically, teams tend to quietly go about their business and ignore the other team, but the Phillies seem to be staring them down like a basketball team settling on the half court line while the opposition goes through its lay-up line.

    Maybe the intent isn’t to intimidate, but these Phillies have a definite swagger. Sure, they are pretty good guys who enjoy being together, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some cockiness when they step on the field.

    “With our pitching and our lineup, we match up well against anybody,” Jayson Werth said. “We feel confident whoever we face the rest of the way. Don't get me wrong—we still have to play the games and win them, but we are where we need to be.”

    Listening to Morgan speak about the Reds of his day, the sentiment is exactly the same.

    “If you think you have the best team, then you have blinders on and you just go play,” Morgan said. “You don’t care who you’re playing. Now, if you’re the 1927 Yankees, and you know [as the opponent] that they have the best team, then you have to have a different approach.”

    The consensus amongst some of the old-timers who watched the Reds play and were at the ballpark to cover the series break it down this way… The Big Red Machine had better hitters, but the 2010 Phillies have better pitching.

    And pitching wins, right?

    Phillies Then again, the Reds lineup had Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bench, arguably the greatest catcher ever; Morgan, arguably the greatest second baseman ever; and Tony Perez, a veritable RBI machine and the leader of the club.

    But don’t forget Pete Rose, the all-time hit king and bona fide Hall-of-Famer if his lifetime suspension hadn’t fouled things up. Don’t forget guys like Davey Concepcion, the best shortstop in the National League before Ozzie Smith’s emergence; Ken Griffey Sr., a three-time All-Star; slugger George Foster, the one-time owner of the record for most homers in a season by a National League player; and Cesar Geronimo, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner and a .306 hitter in 1976.

    Obviously it’s tough to counter a starting pitching staff made up of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, and the Reds didn’t have a standout ace until they traded for Tom Seaver in 1978. However, in winning 102 games in 1976, the Reds had seven guys win at least 11 games and a team-wide 3.51 ERA. Meanwhile, the bullpen saved 45 games and turned in a 3.15 ERA. The Phillies’ strength, obviously, is in the rotation, which is the nexus of that swagger.

    But whether the Phillies get to the status of The Big Red Machine is still to be determined. There are two more rounds of playoffs to get through, which is something the Reds never had to contend with. In the meantime, the Little Red Machine moniker works… for now.

    Needless to say, the Phillies are working to get into that rarified plateau of greatness.

    “We’re a veteran group of guys,” Werth said. “We weren’t always that way. As much time as we spend together and the type of guys we have on this team, I would say that’s what you can expect from us, you know?”


    [1] Here it is… Stan Musial was the most underrated player in Major League Baseball history. That’s right. Sure, it’s tough to slip under the radar with 3,630 hits, 475 homers and a .331 lifetime batting average, but Musial hardly gets the due as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Unlike Williams, Musial’s teams won championships, and frankly, winning matters. Of course Williams lost years of his prime to military service and there is no telling what could have happened in those seasons—reasonably, Williams could have hit 700 homers and got 4,000 hits. However, the sense from the scores of books and stories written about Williams indicates he was more concerned with his own stats instead of what was good for the Red Sox. Williams’ notable moments were when he hit a home run to win the All-Star Game and went 6-for-8 on the last day of the 1941 season to bat .406. Musial’s best days were all the times he showed up at the ballpark. To this day Musial is known by everyone in St. Louis and regarded as one of the nicest men ever to grace a uniform. Maybe it has something to do with playing in St. Louis instead of Boston, but the point remains… if I was putting together a team and had to choose between Williams and Musial, give me Stan the Man.

    The 2010 Phillies: The greatest team that nearly wasn’t

    Roy WASHINGTON — Although the Phillies have done nothing more than guarantee three more games on the schedule, there is already a buzz whether the 2010 team is the best in club history. With 94 wins and a chance to be the first National League team since the 1942-44 Cardinals to make it to the World Series three years in a row, the Phillies aren’t flirting with just franchise greatness… this is all-time stuff.

    Of course the hyperbole alarm sounds whenever anyone puts out the “best ever” line, and even in this case the players are leery of celebrating anything more than what has already been accomplished. In fact, Jimmy Rollins said for this Phillies team to be considered great they have to win the World Series.

    However, in the same breath Rollins says the 2010 team is the best he’s ever played on.

    “Definitely. We’re better all around—less question marks. Not that question marks ever bothered us because we like to prove skeptics wrong, but coming into this year there were only one or two things people were iffy about,” Rollins said. “Then we had a great acquisition in little Roy [Oswalt] and that took the pressure off of Cole [Hamels], and then Roy [Halladay] took the pressure off of everybody. He just came in and shut the door. Lights out.”

    The weird part is general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says there were internal discussions with the team’s brass over whether or not it was time to cut bait. Struggling to score runs during an extended stretch in July where the Phillies lost three out of four in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Amaro said the idea of trading some of the integral pieces to the fourth straight NL East title had been broached.

    “There was some concern that maybe guys were getting older, less productive,” Amaro said. “If you look up and down our lineup, I don’t know if there is any guy, other than maybe Carlos Ruiz, who is having a career year. We talked about this internally and yet we still are creeping up on 95 wins, which is amazing to me. I would have been the first to be able to tell you that I didn’t think we were going to get to 90 wins when we were right around the middle of July. So for us to kind of turn on the way we’ve turned it on, is even surprising to me. 

    “What’s great about this is that, one, we really haven’t had the kind of production that we typically would have from even the guys in the middle [of the lineup]. Chase Utley hasn’t had his typical year. Ryan Howard hasn’t had his typical year. Jimmy Rollins obviously hasn’t had a great year, he’s had injury issues and such. We’ve got a lot of down production from a lot of guys and hopefully they can turn it on and come up with some offensive production as we get into the postseason.”

    So call it the great break up that wasn’t. Following the team’s fourth straight loss and sixth in seven games to send its record to 48-46, the Phillies won eight in a row and 13 out of the next 15 games. They also made a deal to add Roy Oswalt to the rotation and became even more fearsome.

    From that low point of 48-46 and seven games out in the NL East, the Phillies have gone 46-17 and six games up and winning games at a .730 clip. There was a game after a Friday afternoon loss in Chicago where Manuel sat at his desk in the cramped office and went over the math in his head while wondering aloud if his team could get it together. Less than a week later, hitting coach Milt Thompson was fired then, for whatever reason, the Phillies began winning at a rate that exceeded the more modest numbers Manuel charted in his head.

    Yet paced by pitching with the hitters beginning to find their way, the Phillies are peaking at the right time. Still, the team knows that none of it matters unless they go the whole way. The great lesson learned during the current run is winning has a way of changing the way people look at things.

    For history to judge the Phillies most favorably, they have to win.

    After all, does anyone remember much about the Oakland teams that went to the postseason in four straight seasons but never made it past the ALDS? How about the Indians of the 1990s that made it the playoffs for five seasons in a row and the World Series twice, but never wore the ring?

    Of course there are also the Braves that dominated divisional play for 14 years in a row, but have just one title—against the Indians in ’95—to show for it.

    Going back a bit, the Orioles made it to the World Series three years in a row (1969, 1970, 1971), but won it once. The same thing happened with Oakland in 1988, 1989 and 1990. Those teams are remembered as dynasties that might have been had it been able to finish the deal.

    Are the Phillies worried about how history might judge them?

    “You play this game to try and win championships and that’s our focus,” Howard said. “We stay focused on the task at hand and let you guys tell us where it fits into the history books. That will sort itself out.”

    Like Howard, Rollins isn’t ready for reflection. Just winning.

    “I haven’t thought about it like that, but it’s something I’ll go through when it’s all said and done,” Rollins said. “It’s hard to do. Everything has to go your way, you have to have a good team, you have to have great pitching, you have to have timely hitting, you have to have guys who are having career years who are coming together where things are going your way. You don’t think too far into the future. You just try and blaze your own trail right now. And when the light is out, then you look back.”

    Phillies take celebrating seriously

    Sweeney WASHINGTON — Sometimes life’s moments are fleeting. They pass by without pausing ever-so slightly to allow someone to run out to the car to get the camera or go to the Men’s Wearhouse for the proper costume.

    Of course if a person has to abide by a dress code to properly commemorate anything, it probably isn’t worth it.

    Nevertheless, with folks in the regular, old square world, certain passages of time are celebrated. Only instead of reveling when the moment actually occurs, we plan parties, send out invitations, order a cake and drinks, establish a dress code and then allow everyone to come over and treat their space like it’s a hotel room.

    But major league baseball players don’t live like the rank-and-file. No, they live in the moment, take them on day at a time and don’t go planning for big events down the road when games remain on the schedule. They don’t dance if there is no music and don’t party if there is nothing to celebrate. More than keeping it real, ballplayers simply do not sweat the small stuff.

    Isn’t that a good way to be? Sure, baseball players are blissfully ignorant and live life inside an insulated cocoon, shielded from such scary things like the news or weather reports and ushered from city to city via a cortege of busses, shuttles and chartered flights where only suckers stand in line or can’t get after-hours room service.

    Hey, that $81 per diem isn’t going to spend itself.

    But there is something pure about living in the moment. It’s a lot like baseball before the American League instituted the designated hitter and Tony La Russa began batting his pitcher in the No. 8 spot. It’s very real and in the workaday world where we’re continually told what we’re supposed to like and what we have to consume in our diets—media or otherwise—it’s refreshing to know that ballplayers still no how to party.

    Sure, the Phillies’ goal is to sew up the NL East as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, the team’s Amtrak train was probably just outside of Baltimore on Sunday night when they learned they were eligible to advance to the postseason. Seeing as the iPad has rightly surpassed the Bluetooth ear piece as the must-have bit of uncommon man, geek couture in the Phillies’ clubhouse, the ballplayers likely knew instantly when the Reds sealed the deal by beating the Padres and secure a spot for the local nine in the playoffs. As such, Brad Lidge said he and his teammates thought about adjourning to the club car for a tall, cold one and raise a glass to leaping over the first hurdle, but once the moment came it was a little too anticlimactic.

    “We didn’t do anything,” Lidge said with a shrug. “I suppose another team would be doing back flips, after all, you want to just get in the dance.”

    But?

    “You know…”

    Roy It’s not quite a been-there-done-that jawn for Lidge and some of the team’s veterans, but at the same time, it is. This ain’t the first rodeo for most of these guys so if they are going to dance, there better be some music. Besides, it’s important to take the time and celebrate manager Charlie Manuel says.

    “If you go all season and you win your division you should celebrate,” Manuel said. “I think the team should have some free time—cocktails, a little drink or whatever else you want to throw in there. I think it’s a time to celebrate and rejoice. You did something and it’s been a long year. You’re fighting to get to the World Series, but I call it the first step. There are four steps to it and the first one is to get in.”

    But what about the guys who haven’t been there before?  Every season there are a few new guys who are integral to the success of the team, but haven’t danced the dance before. This year it’s Roy Halladay and Mike Sweeeney ready to make their first ever playoff appearances. Only the interesting thing with Halladay and Sweeney is they have played a combined 29 seasons without so much as a sniff at the postseason.


    Needless to say, after 16 years in the big leagues to finally sew up a playoff spot while riding an Amtrak train to Washington, was a bit anticlimactic to say the least.

    But no worries there, says Sweeney.

    “It was a bit anticlimactic, but over the past few months my goal has changed,” Sweeney explained. “It went from, ‘Golly, I’d really like the chance to play in the postseason.’ And now that it’s becoming a reality, my goal has changed because of my teammates in this locker room. It’s no longer, ‘I just want to play in a playoff game.’ It’s, ‘I want to win the whole darn thing.’”

    With Halladay pitching on Monday night with the chance to seal it, Manuel expects him to amp it up a notch. Oh, he won’t let on that anything is different, but Manuel knows better and it appeared as if Halladay and his catcher Chooch Ruiz spent some extra time going over the Nationals’ hitters before the game.

    Hadn’t they already seen the Nats plenty of times this year?

    No way… Halladay isn’t leaving anything to chance.

    Neither is Sweeney, who is solely focused on the task at hand.

    “It hasn’t sunk in yet, so hopefully we win tonight and get to splash some champagne and it feels like a reality,” said Sweeney, nothing that he and his high school teammates sprayed apple cider after a schoolboy championship. “I hope we can get the win tonight so I can really embrace that emotion.”

    Oswalt pushes the pace

    Oswalt NEW YORK — To call Roy Oswalt quiet is a disservice to the word. Tranquil might be a better description. Maybe understated, unflashy, unpretentious fit in there, too. After all, when Oswalt speaks with his soft, Mississippi drawl, it’s best to move in close or risk a chance at not hearing anything.

    His body language is the same way, too. When Oswalt walks on (or off) the mound, it’s placid, efficient and light. It’s almost as if his feet glide over the grass on his way to the dugout and he shows no emotion with eyes focused and posture as straight as a country mile.

    But don’t mistake Oswalt’s quietness for shyness and don’t think that because he’s a kind sort that he is soft. Considering that his goal is to make hitters look dumb whenever he throws a baseball, Oswalt has a sadistic side. Affable off the mound, Oswalt is nasty on it and if there is one pitcher opponents have struggled with lately, it’s been the quiet kid from Weir, Mississippi.

    There were 32 kids in Oswalt’s high school class where he was a pitcher for the baseball team and a defensive back on the state championship football team at Weir. His dad, Billy, is a logger and served in Vietnam, and his grandfather, Houston, was a logger, too. Logging is tough work and a hard way to make a dollar with injuries, and worse, a regular occurrence. But as the story is told, when Astros owner Drayton McLane asked Oswalt what his goal was in baseball it was related to a life spent on the stark and austere land near the gulf coast of Mississippi.

    “I want to own a bulldozer,” is what Oswalt reportedly told McLane.

    So maybe that’s why Oswalt carries himself the way he does. Knowing how harsh the land can be he chooses to show respect until he has to go to work. Then, like logging and pitching, he attempts to decimate wood. Perhaps that’s also where the rumors indicating that Oswalt preferred not to play for Philadelphia came from, too. Long since denied, those reports about a pitcher from a town with a population of 553 not wanting to pitch in Philadelphia are missing the point. Philly is a blue-collar city only different from Weir, Mississippi as it relates to population, area and types of industry.

    In both places they appreciate people who have a strong work ethic and they really like to win.

    “I feel like I got a new life coming over here,” Oswalt said with his soft, Mississippi drawl. “I’d been out of playoff contention for five years and now we’re trying to get back into the playoffs. (Most of the guys) got a ring. I don't. Hopefully I can push them to get another one.”

    And since joining the Phillies at the end of July, Oswalt has had an impact not just in the game he’s pitched, but on the entire rotation as well. In nine starts since the trade from the Astros, Oswalt is 6-1 with a 1.98 ERA. Take away his debut against the Nationals that came not even 24 hours after the trade went down, and Oswalt is 6-0 with a 1.56 ERA.

    More importantly, he has been the catalyst of a friendly competition between fellow aces Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, as well. Since arriving in Philadelphia, Halladay solidified his Cy Young Award credentials by going 6-2 with a 3.12 ERA to boost his wins total to 18. But of The Big Three, Halladay is actually the worst of the trio, statistically speaking. Over the same span, Hamels is 3-3 with a 2.09 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 56 innings. The lefty is also riding a scoreless innings streak of 25.

    It’s the damndest group of pitchers, according to manager Charlie Manuel. Not only are they at the top of their games, but not one of them has an ounce of hubris.

    “[Oswalt is] quiet. Between those three, Cole talks the most, but he’s not what anyone would call [talkative],” Manuel said. “All of them work hard. You don’t see [Halladay] around much because he’s always doing something. He’s always working or looking at videos or something. All three of them have the same work ethic and they sit there together a lot. I’m sure they’re talking about pitching.”

    Nevertheless, Oswalt’s arrival begs the question… if all three pitchers are rested and ready to go in a Game 7 elimination game, which one gets the ball?

    (You hesitated before answering, didn’t you?)

    “Halladay and Cole are tremendous pitchers,” Oswalt said. “They go out there and compete every day. It’s a friendly competition with each other—at least I try to treat it that way because it pushes me even more, makes me try to go deeper into games. And I'm trying to push them a little bit, too.”

    It’s worked. In fact, it’s worked in a manner similar to how it was in Houston when Oswalt was the third wheel in the bulldozer driven by Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Not exactly the most demure guy on the planet, it would seem as if there would be some personality conflicts in the Astros’ trio that went to Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS and the World Series in 2005. However, to see Oswalt tell the stories it seems as if he enjoyed the wildness and the antics from his better-known teammates.

    “Roger was kind of standoffish. He had something written into his deal that he didn’t have to be there every day because of his family, but when he was there you couldn’t ask for a better teammate,” Oswalt said with a smile that seemed to indicate that there were stories he couldn’t tell in polite company. “He still keeps up with me and will probably send me a text today. He has a great presence and pushes guys.

    “Pettitte was the same way. He had a demeanor where he didn’t think he ever should lose. These guys are the same way. When Halladay gives up a hit he looks like it’s the end of the world. So you have to have to have that competitiveness.”

    Oswalt’s demeanor always stays the same. He doesn’t fluster easily, not even when a tornado touched down in Weir last April and destroyed his boyhood home where his parents live, barely a mile away from Oswalt’s current home. But having acquired that bulldozer long ago, Oswalt simply had the house rebuilt. His parents moved back in just last week.

    Pete Rose gets just one night

    Pete The anticipation had been building for weeks during the summer of 1985 and as the new school year started, 44-year-old player-manager Pete Rose had chipped away at Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. Maybe Pete got there a little slower than our young minds thought, but with a pair of hits on a Sunday afternoon game at Wrigley Field, Rose and Cobb were tied with 4,191 hits.

    Clearly at this point of his career Rose was just hanging on for the record. We saw it when he was winding his way through his last season with the Phillies in 1983. A staple at first base for a full 162 games in his first four seasons with the Phillies, Rose often split time with Tony Perez and an aging prospect named Len Matuszek, who hit 27 homers in Triple-A in ’83. As a result, Rose was the Phillies opening day right fielder that season and did not regularly play first base until the end of June.

    When the World Series shifted to Philadelphia for Game 3, manager Paul Owens kept Rose on the bench a pinch-hitter. In Game 5, Rose went 2-for-4 as the right fielder. Three days later, the Phillies released him, just 10 hits short of 4,000.

    There was nothing as odd as seeing Rose at age 43 with his hair graying, dressed in the gaudy Montreal Expos uniform. Fortunately for the fashion police, Rose was traded from the Expos to the Reds where the Cincinnati kid returned to be a first baseman and manager, all at once.

    Rose will be in Cincinnati tonight for a ceremony to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his 4,192nd hit. After all, it was Sept. 11, 1985 at Riverfront Stadium, now leveled and turned into a parking lot, where Rose had his last moment in the sun. Despite all those hits, all those records and a burgeoning managerial career that resulted in a World Series title for the Reds 13 months after his suspension, Rose likely will never stand in front of the masses at Cooperstown and be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

    His reward was a bad movie produced by ESPN where Tom Sizemore stumbled through his depiction of Rose. It might have been better to get Ted Sizemore.

    Nevertheless, Rose broke Cobb’s record on a school night, but I can remember being out in front of the house when word filtered out that hit No. 4,192 had fallen. There were no cut-ins to the regularly-scheduled programming, no big national celebrations and no buzz outside of folks who followed baseball religiously. For Rose, though, it was the culmination of a life’s work and the definition of his legacy. In fact, he has trademarked the phrase, “Hit King,” which along with his career hit total (4,256), he writes onto every autograph he signs at the memorabilia shop in Las Vegas. Sorry, the “Charlie Hustle” inscription costs extra.

    Coincidentally, Cobb played his final game on Sept. 11, 1928, though he was the Hit King since 1923 when he passed Cap Anson with his 3,436th hit[1]. So Cobb held the record for 63 years—24 years after his death—before Rose grabbed a hold of it. And with his 70th birthday coming up next April, Rose could hang onto the record for the rest of his life, and maybe even as long as Cobb.

    Couldn’t he?

    A couple of years ago I met with Rose in Las Vegas and I asked him if he thought anyone could break his record. The answer, of course, was a blunt and resounding, “No.”

    But I pressed on anyway, ticking off names as if we were a couple of baseball fans talking about the game in a bar or wherever. Only in this case it was Rose, me and the workers at a memorabilia shop in Caesar’s Palace where the all-time hit king was signing autographs and posing for pictures.

    “Alex Rodriguez?”

    “No.”

    Even though A-Rod averages 190 hits per 162 games, his tendency to hit homers and standing in the middle of the Yankees’ offense might make it difficult for him to get beyond 3,800 hits.

    “Ichiro?”

    Rose “If he would have started out playing in the U.S., maybe. But he lost all those years.”

    Yes, that’s true. Ichiro would have the best chance if he hadn’t spent the first half of his career playing in Japan. He is 36 and has nearly 3,500 hits between both Japan and the U.S. and needs just 16 more hits this season to break Rose’s record of 10 seasons with at least 200 hits.

    Regardless, Ichiro’s nine “lost” seasons in Japan cost him.

    However, the way Rose so quickly dismissed the next name was kind of surprising.

    “Derek Jeter,” I said.

    “No,” said Pete.

    “Really? Why not? He gets 200-hits a season and hits at the top of a lineup that needs his to get hits. Ten years worth of 200 hits or close to it is nearly 2,000 hits. That adds up.”

    “Yeah, but he’s 35,” Pete said.

    Actually, Jeter is 36 now and in the throes of his worst season in the big leagues, batting just .260 with 152 hits in 138 games. Heading into this season, Jeter averaged 208 hits per 162 games. At that rate, he would need to play seven more seasons to end up with nearly 4,200 hits.

    Sure, Jeter plays a demanding position, but he will be younger than Rose was when he gets his 3,000th hit next year. This is all some rudimentary and basic math and it’s probably not likely that Jeter will be pounding out 200 hits when he is 40, especially considering his contract is up at the end of the season. However, maybe Jeter will move to first base or DH a few games a week instead of playing 150-plus at shortstop every year?

    Besides, when Rose was 40 he led the National League in hits, and the first four seasons he played first base when he joined the Phillies, Rose got 705 hits. Make that 705 hits in 594 games from the ages 38 to 41. That comes to an average of 193 hits per 162 games.

    Not bad for an old guy.

    So could Jeter get close to Rose’s record? Perhaps we should save this for 2017 if Jeter is still around. That will give Rose 32 years with the record and 28 years into his banishment from the game. In the meantime, Rose gets a special dispensation on Sept. 11, 2010 to celebrate what he did 25 years before in an actual, major league ballpark. Yes, Major League Baseball will allow Rose into Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati tonight. Whether or not he’ll get another visit remains to be seen, but what is definite is that Rose should be able to last as long as humanly possible.

    Rose’s career and his record took durability. So too does his banishment from baseball. He played for 24 years and he’s been banned for 21.

    What’s going to give first, the record or the ban?


    [1] Cobb broke Anson’s record with a four-hit game on Sept. 22, 1923 at Fenway Park while playing for the Tigers. Interestingly, the Tigers were wrapping a stretch where they played 12 games in six days… yes, six straight doubleheaders against the Philadelphia A’s and Red Sox. He had a chance to set the record at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, but got just four hits in six games against the second-division A’s. He fared much better in Boston, going for 11 hits in the first five games and tied the record with a homer in the sixth inning.

    Phillies, Braves on a collision course

    Victorino The silly, old adage with Major League Baseball is, “it’s a marathon,” and as a veteran of 14 competitive marathons (not bragging or anything), I would call the 162-game baseball season with its spring training and month long playoffs, the much more grueling sport to play and cover. For a good marathon a person is investing three to four months of focused training and then two-and-a-half to three hours of running on race day.

    Plus, when broken down, running is just moving forward… one foot after the other. It's kind of simple when looked at that way.

    Baseball is like that, too, only the training period never really ends. Sure, a lot of ballplayers will try to rest up during the month of November, but typically start working out for spring training and the season around Thanksgiving. Not including all the games, the travel, the sitting around and waiting and all of the late nights and early mornings, the self-respecting ballplayer and ballscribe look as if they have been put through a meat grinder when the playoffs roll around. Considering all the bad flights, bad food, lousy sleep patterns and no true semblance of a “real” life while friends and family are off enjoying the summer and vacations, the baseball lifers earn all those Marriott points they rack up during the season.

    Respect? Well, someday… someday.

    Nevertheless, over a 162-game season it often gets tough digging up a story idea. Sure, the news of the day always prevails, but with so much competition and so many different people disseminating it, a fresh angle is always the goal. So the search for an obtuse or acute angle brought us to the second game of Monday’s day-night doubleheader[1] led a lot of us to the same spot…

    The race for the NL East is going to come down to that last weekend of the season in Atlanta.

    Hey, it was a long day. Besides, sometimes the best story is the most obvious one. Other times it’s best to give credit to the schedule makers. After all, the past few years the Phillies had a way of wrapping up the season at home against Washington or Florida with a few days to rest the team’s big guns. In fact, last year, the Phillies had things sewn up with four games remaining in the season to reinforce the accepted fact that there is nothing worse than meaningless September baseball.

    Obviously, the converse of that is also fact. There is nothing in sports more exciting than meaningful September and October baseball and it appears as if the Phillies and Braves are headed for a collision course.

    “If I had my way we’d get a lead and be four up with three to play before we went in there,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “I don’t know, but it’s kind of traveling that way. It’s like a hurricane they’re predicting to go up the coast with the track it’s going to take.”

    Yes, two hurricanes headed for the same spot at the same time. Meteorologists say this can’t happen in nature, but it seems as if the Phillies are resigned to let it happen. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. Publically, however, the ballplayers are still in the play-them-one-game-at-a-time mode. That makes sense considering the Phillies are at the most crucial stage of the marathon, well past the point where glycogen stores are depleted and the dreaded “wall” is staring them right in the face.

    With a clubhouse full of seasoned, playoff veterans, the Phillies aren’t sizing up the Braves and calculating how it will go down during the final weekend of the season.

    “Let’s not look too far ahead,” Shane Victorino said. “We’ll just keep playing. We worry about ourselves. We’re not worried about what [the Braves] are doing. We control our own destiny. We’ve got to go out there and play our baseball.”

    Logically, Victorino is correct. If the Phillies keep winning ballgames a trip to the playoffs for a fourth season in a row is a virtual lock. The numbers crunchers at Baseball Prospectus put the odds for the Phillies to win the east at 29 percent, the wild card at 40 percent and a berth at the playoffs at 68 percent. Interestingly, the BP formula has the Phillies going 11-12 the rest of the way and a match up against the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS with the Braves pared with the winner of the NL West.

    Still, like in any marathon a mile in the beginning of the race logically carries the same importance as the last miles. But we know better. So too do they Phillies and every other ballclub in Major League Baseball. The example I like to cite is the end of the 1982 season where the Milwaukee Brewers went to Baltimore for four games in the final three days of the season. The Brewers needed one win to clinch the division, while the Orioles had to sweep all four to complete the improbable comeback to win the AL East.

    The Orioles cruised in Friday night’s opener, 8-3, highlighted by a three-hit game from Rich Dauer and 2 2/3 of one-hit relief from closer Tippy Martinez. Storm Davis tossed a gem in Saturday’s first game as the Orioles rolled 7-1 and swept the doubleheader with 18 hits in an 11-3 laugher.

    So with the season coming down to one final game on the last Sunday of the regular season, and aces Jim Palmer and Don Sutton on the mound, the Brewers regrouped to clinch the East with a 10-3 victory. Not only did the Brewers save themselves from the indignity of blowing a three-game lead with four to play, but the last game served as a signature game for 1982 AL MVP, Robin Yount, who led his team with two homers, a triple and scored four runs.

    Not a bad afternoon, for Yount or the Brewers. For the Orioles, the one game proved to be the lasting image of the 1982 season.

    And that’s what the Phillies (and every other team) is up against.

    “I think our team will be remembered by how we finish,” Manuel said, astutely. “We’ve hung in there. Our starting pitching has kept us in there. We’re sitting in a good place, and now is a good time for us to pick it up and start putting some runs on the board consistently.”

    As it shapes up now, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt (in that order) will pitch in the final series. The Braves will have Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrgens and Tim Hudson ready to go, too.

    How can it not come down to that last weekend?


    [1] The doubleheader, especially the day-night doubleheader, is a phenomenon foreign to every pro sport aside from baseball. Yes, the physical tolls of the games on its participants aren’t as foreboding in baseball, but think about the scribes. Most folks got to the ballpark for Monday’s day-nighter before 10 a.m. and did not leave the park until after 11 p.m. That’s a long day no matter what the task.

    Oswalt turns Cliff Lee into a fond memory

    Oswalt I haven’t counted, but I’m willing to bet that the player I wrote the most about during the first half of the baseball season was Cliff Lee. Some of the reasoning behind this deduction is obvious because for about seven months after Lee was traded to Seattle on a whirlwind December day in which the Phillies got Roy Halladay, he was the lightning rod we all fired strikes at.

    The Phillies would have been better with Cliff Lee, we reasoned, not wrongly. Worse, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. never offered a reason for dealing away Lee that we would accept. Oh sure, we got it, but we didn’t like it.

    The constant harping about Lee always got back to a couple of main points. For one, there was the money thing. It wasn’t our money and as a public trust that has sold out 108 straight games in the relatively brand-new park, the team ought to spend, spend, spend. Then, there was the idea of the Phillies going down the stretch with a starting rotation that featured two guys who won Cy Young awards, and another who was MVP of the NLCS and World Series. Would any team want face a team that went Halladay, Lee and Hamels in three straight games of a playoff series?

    No. No way.

    But a quick perusal of the archives of this little site shows that Lee’s name hasn’t been mentioned since July 29. That date—two days before the annual trading deadline—not only is the anniversary of Lee’s arrival in Philadelphia where he wore the Phillies’ pinstripes for approximately three months covering just 17 starts, including the postseason, but also it’s the date of Roy Oswalt’s arrival to Philly. It kind of makes sense now why Lee hasn’t been mentioned all that much anymore.

    In his first seven outings for the Phils, Oswalt is 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings. No, Oswalt hasn’t won the Cy Young Award like Lee, but he has won the MVP in the 2005 NLCS with the Astros. Better yet, Oswalt says he pushed through the usual “dead arm” stage of the season that seems to strike high-innings pitchers late in the summer and certainly will see his workload increase the rest of the way. Manager Charlie Manuel hinted as much on Friday afternoon when he alluded to the experience Roys Halladay and Oswalt have with pitching on short rest. If that’s not planting a seed of thought, nothing is.

    Regardless, Oswalt’s arrival has made us stash Lee’s name away into the attic of happy memories after he posted the greatest statistical postseason by a Phillies pitcher since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1915, which only makes sense. Still, after pining for Lee into July, some have gone into a full-out sprint in the other direction by wondering if all the carrying on was wrong. Maybe trading Lee away wasn’t such a bad idea after all, went the reasoning, especially when one considers that Lee missed the first month of the season, got traded to Texas, slumped a bit and now is struggling with some back discomfort. Since being traded to the Rangers, Lee has gone 0-3 with an 8.26 ERA during the past month and just got an anti-inflammatory injection for his back this week.

    That’s a far cry from what Oswalt has done in his seven starts with the Phillies, or even what Lee did in his first seven outings with the Phillies last year at this time. Lee had a 3.37 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 48 innings when he first joined the club last year.

    So yes, statistically Oswalt has been better. Moreover, because Lee might be injured Oswalt is clearly the more valuable pitcher right now.

    See, trading Lee wasn’t such a bad idea after all… right?

    Well, yes and no. The yes should be obvious because Oswalt is healthy, happy and pitching well. Before he was traded to Philadelphia there was concern that Oswalt, a quiet and private man from Weir, Mississippi (population 553), might not fit in well in a hardscrabble northeast city. Sometimes, athletes in Philadelphia are judged more by emotion and personality than talent or results. Not exactly the most demonstrative man on the mound and straightforward and soft spoken with the press, it’s understandable if Oswalt was apprehensive.

    Yet by all accounts, Oswalt, like Lee, has fit in quite well in Philadelphia. Of course the excitement of a pennant race has something to do with that, but that’s kind of the whole point… right?

    “I can tell he’s happy here,” said Brad Lidge, Oswalt’s teammate from their days in Houston. “You can see that extra pep in his step. I think he feels the change in energy and he’s enjoying being part of this as opposed to just another season going by. You can see him thinking about trying to achieve that ultimate goal.

    “And he’s throwing great.”

    Conversely, the move to get Oswalt before the deadline is an admission that the Phillies needed a pitcher of high caliber. Lee’s contract status might have spooked Amaro into trading him, but that never changed the desire to have three horses at the top of the rotation.

    And now that he has them, Manuel hopes they are ready to run for the next month-plus.

    “The best part about that is Halladay and Oswalt have pitched on short rest,” Manuel said. “They have that experience and that becomes very big.”

    That’s down the road, of course, but for now the best part about Halladay and Oswalt is that they made folks forget about Cliff Lee for a little while. Besides, Oswalt has a no-trade clause and a contract for 2011. Looks like the Phillies are stuck with him.

    No rhyme or reason to the no-hitter

    Halladay So the Phillies nearly were no-hit again on Monday night at Dodger Stadium. This time it was Hiroki Kuroda who flirted with blanking the Phillies until Shane Victorino came through with a solid single to right field with one out in the eighth inning.

    For those scoring at home, there have been 19 one-hitters in the big leagues this season and the Phillies were involved in four of them. There also have been five no-hitters—excluding the no-so perfect game from Armando Galarraga—the most since 1991 when there were seven no-hitters, which was the dawn of the so-called steroid era.

    Can the level field between pitching and hitting be as simple as improved drug testing?

    That's a question that will be answered in time. For now, however, we have to figure what can we make of this and why the pitching has caught up to hitting.

    Either way, there is a rebirth of extraordinary well-pitched games. Of the 20 perfect games (21 if you count Galarraga), three of them (four if you count… you know) have come since July of 2009. That’s 15 percent of all the perfect games in history happening within a 10-month span.

    It also means that after being one-hit three times this season, the Phillies are about due for the ol’ no-no…

    Doesn’t it?

    Well, yes and no. Historically, no-hitters have existed in a vacuum. There were no hints or warnings that they were going to happen. For instance, before the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle threw a perfect game against the Rays in July of 2009, there was no event that gave off a warning sign that it was about to happen. In fact, before the perfect game, the Rays had won four of six and were 5 games off the pace in the AL East. If there were candidates of teams to be no-hit, the Rays were hardly at the top of the list.

    But since that perfect game, the Rays have been involved in three no-hitters. One of those was a perfect game by Dallas Braden in Oakland, followed by an eight-walk, 149-pitch no-no in Arizona by Edwin Jackson.

    Despite the fact that the Rays (81-50) are tied for the best record in baseball with the Yankees, they also have been one-hit twice and two-hit twice this season. In fact, the Rays have been two-hit, one-hit or no-hit at least once every month this season. With September to start on Wednesday, the Rays are due again.

    It appears as if the Phillies are in the same boat as the Rays only without the perfect game out in front. Since April 16, 1978 when the Cardinals’ Bob Forsch threw a no-hitter against the Phillies, the team has not been beaten by an official no-hitter. Yes, there was the rain-shortened, five-inning no-no by the Expos’ Pascual Perez in late 1988, but that doesn’t count in the official records.

    Better yet, the Phillies have been so resistant to extraordinary pitching that since Forsch threw his no-hitter, they had been victims of a one-hitter just 11 times heading into this season. Yes, that’s just 11 one-hitters in 31 seasons.

    So clearly the Phillies are making up for lost time. This season they have been one-hit three times (Daisuke Matsusaka, R.A. Dickey, Kuroda) which is the exact number of times the Phillies had been one-hit since 1994. Plus, if we figure that the Rays were coming off a season in which they got to the World Series and had only been one-hit or no-hit four times in their entire existence (going back to 1998), the Phillies are ripe for the taking.

    Then again, who knows with these things. Before 1978 it seemed like the Phillies were the easiest team to throw a no-hitter against. From 1960 to 1972, the Phillies came up on the zero end of things in the hits category eight times, including two in the same season (1960) to the Milwaukee Braves. Meanwhile, in the World Series era, Philadelphia pitchers have tossed just 13 no-hitters, with eight of those coming from Phillies pitchers.

    Perhaps the only thing we’ve been able to determine through all of this is no-hitters and Philadelphia don’t go together all that well. Adding in the fact that the New York Mets have not had a single no-hitter in their history and the Dodgers have had 20, these are events that occur totally at random.

    And with a lot of luck.

    Strong finish could result in playoffs, cool trophy for Halladay

    Halladay If we’re ranking the off-season deals around baseball, the one that brought Roy Halladay to the Phillies just might be the best one. The truth is Halladay has been everything as advertised for the Phillies and maybe more. Of course the final analysis cannot be completed until Halladay pitches in the playoffs (IF he pitches in the playoffs), but so far there isn’t anything to complain about.

    As a result of his performance, Halladay is right in the mix to win his second Cy Young Award along with Tim Hudson of the Braves, Adam Wainwright from the Cardinals, Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies, and the Marlins’ Josh Johnson.

    Interestingly, four of the top 10 pitchers in wins, ERA and strikeouts come from the NL East, which shows how well pitch Halladay has to pitch in every game. Moreover, since the Phillies play the Braves and Marlins 13 times in September, Halladay will have to dial it up for his final half-dozen starts.

    But that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, this season Halladay leads the league in ERA (2.22), innings (207), complete games (8), shutouts (3) and strikeouts (186). He also leads the league in WAR, walks per nine innings (1.1) and could move into a tie for the league leadership with 17 wins if he beats the Dodgers on Monday night.

    The Phillies have not had anyone win the pitching triple crown (wins, ERA and strikeouts) since Steve Carlton in 1972, a 20-game winner since 1982 (Carlton) or a Cy Young Award winner since 1987 (Steve Bedrosian). In fact, the Phillies haven’t had a right-hander win 20 games since Robin Roberts did it in 1955.

    With those milestones also comes the perfect game in Miami where Halladay retired all 27 Marlins in a 1-0 victory against Johnson. So yeah, as far as resume fodder goes, Halladay likely will have it all.

    “I think he should definitely be in there,” manager Charlie Manuel said a couple of weeks ago. “There are some guys having some big years, but he’s definitely right in there with complete games and our team has definitely been in contention, so I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be there. He has a chance to pull that off if you guys vote for him.”

    Yeah, there it is. Will the voters go for Halladay if he has a bad, relatively speaking, September? Halladay is just outside of the top 10 in losses, which is hardly his fault given the Phillies’ streaky offense this season. Though Halladay has a 4.87 ERA in his nine losses and has allowed 13 of his 16 homers in those games, the Phillies have scored three runs or fewer in eight of those games and zero or one in four of them. Even in his no-decisions the Phillies didn’t give him much support, either. One of those resulted in a 1-0 victory for the team and the other turned into a 4-3 defeat.

    In fact, in six of Halladay’s 16 wins he received either one or two runs of support.

    Sure, these superlatives are fantastic, but they don’t really answer the question…

    Can Halladay win the Cy Young Award?

    Well, that all depends. Counting Monday night’s start at Dodger Stadium, Halladay will make seven more starts this season. But even if he wins them all and the Phillies fall out of the playoffs, he could have a tough time winning the Cy Young. See, BBWAA voters are a fickle bunch and they seem to put a lot of stock in winning. Even still, it will be very difficult to deny Halladay.

    Better yet, considering Halladay has never gone into September with his team within 10 games, this should be an exciting time for him. Actually, the reason why he wanted to join the Phillies was to get a chance to pitch in meaningful, late-season games. It also didn’t hurt that he would not have to move from his Florida home since the Blue Jays and Phillies train next to each other in Dunedin and Clearwater.

    Nevertheless, Halladay said he wanted to pitch in some big games and it looks like he got his wish. Starting on Monday night and going to the last regular-season game in Atlanta on Oct. 2, every start will be a big deal.

    “Obviously it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to this part of the season and been on a team that’s been knocking on the door, so yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Halladay said a couple of weeks back. “We have a couple of guys coming back and it’s going to be fun. This is the biggest reason why I wanted to come here and to give ourselves a chance is pretty important.”

    So if Halladay comes through in September not only will he probably get a cool looking plaque, but also it should put the Phillies into the playoffs.

    Sign of respect

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Hello, Mr. Brown,” Ryan Howard said.

    Mister Brown?

    So much for the rookie hazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The (re)maturation of Cole Hamels

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

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

    Oh, it was deep.

    Boom! Bash! Pow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    See… so mature and only 26.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He’s not boring.

    Philly boy Roy(s)… and Cole, too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Want to guess which team that was?

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

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

    But the bigger question is this…

    Is it worth it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Howard’s end

    Howard We interrupt the trade chatter and the latest disappointing
    loss in order to strap on the rose-colored glasses with a hypothetical.

    Ready?

    Let’s say the Phillies figure out the mess that has placed
    them in the middle of a 1-5 road trip, they relearn how to score runs and get
    into the playoffs for a fourth season in a row. Hey, it could happen, after all
    they benefited from the Mets’ collapse in 2007, overcoming a deficit worse than
    the one they face now. Anyway, so if the Phillies get into the playoffs and
    Ryan Howard continues to produce at the current rate, is he the MVP again?

    Like mentioned before, this is a hypothetical and since
    there are two-and-a-half months remaining in the season, there still is a lot
    to be determined. However, the one thing that is guaranteed is that Howard will
    hit at least 40 home runs and top 120 RBIs this season.

    Let’s put those numbers in perspective for a moment before
    we get into the real reason why Howard could be the MVP.

    Currently, Howard is one of four players in Major League
    Baseball history to reach the 40-120 plateau in four consecutive seasons. If
    Howard were to get there again this year, he would join Babe Ruth as the only
    players to club 40 homers and drive in 120 runs in five consecutive seasons.

    For even more historical perspective on Howard’s numbers, he
    has 714 RBIs in 824 career games which comes to an average of 140 RBIs per 162
    games. Considering that Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Jim Rice maxed out
    at 140 RBIs in a season and that Howard’s career-high is 149, it shows Howard’s
    historical and uncanny consistency.

    Howard hit four homers in four games last weekend at Wrigley
    Field, one that bounced out onto Sheffield Avenue that witnesses say was the
    longest hit in the ballpark this season, and appears to be getting into that
    zone he finds during the last few months of every season.

    Oh yeah, that late-season surge. Though they say there is no
    way to apply a metric to how “clutch” a hitter is, maybe we can try with
    Howard, so here it goes:

    Of Howard’s 243 career homers, 96 of them have come during
    the final two months of the season, while 247 of his 714 RBIs have come during
    the same time period. Yes, that’s 40 percent of his career home run total and
    35 percent of his RBIs when the games seem to matter the most.

    Homers and RBIs don’t do anything for you? OK, try
    this—Howard’s OPS in September is 1.112 with a .314 batting average, and his
    second half OPS is 1.047.

    That points to the fact that Howard gets going when a lot of players start to
    wind down. You know how they compare Howard to other big sluggers that faded
    out during their early 30s with injuries and broken down bodies? Guess what?
    They were wrong. Hey, I was one of those guys and once put Howard in the same
    class as guys like Mo Vaughn, Greg Luzinski and Boog Powell—big fellas who
    piled up the numbers early and faded soon after their 30s. I’ll admit it, I was
    wrong, wrong, wrong. Howard is an athlete. He’s big, but not built like those
    other guys and he’s never been injured. He had a sinus infection, but never an
    injury. Not once.

    None of this explains why Howard could be an MVP in 2010,
    though. To start, his strikeouts are down a bit and as a result his batting
    average is right around .300. His slugging is down slightly, but he’s on base
    for a career-high in hits, doubles and runs.

    Howard Howard’s also on pace to lead the National league in RBIs
    for a fourth straight season. No one in Major League Baseball history has ever
    led the league in RBIs for straight seasons.

    Howard will have competition, of course. Count on Albert
    Pujols being in the mix, along with Joey Votto from Cincinnati, David Wright
    from the Mets and Corey Hart from Milwaukee to name a few. However, special
    recognition goes to players who carry their teams into the playoffs and if the
    Phillies get there it likely will be because Howard takes them there.

    Yes, the Phillies need some pitching and some support for
    Howard since Jayson Werth appears to have gone into the tank. Still, Howard is
    the man for the Phillies. He’s been the team’s best hitter and the go-to guy in
    the clubhouse, as well. In the quiet din of the clubhouse after games, Howard
    has assured the traveling media that they could rely on him for quotes and
    insight. No, it doesn’t sound like much, but that’s leadership that often goes
    unnoticed. See, Howard does the dirty work of dealing with the press so his
    teammates can go about their business. Pete Rose famously did that for the Big
    Red Machine and the 1980 Phillies, allowing Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt to
    become MVPs.

    The difference in this case is that Howard is the MVP. He’s
    been rewarded with the big, fat contract and as a result has kept the team on
    his back. If the Phillies rally to get back to the playoffs, Howard will have
    earned that salary and he’ll probably have the numbers to show it, too.

    How deep do the Phillies’ problems run?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The issue for Manuel is inconsistency. Lots of inconsistency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The winter of the Phillies’ discontent


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bald-faced lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Consistency is the key.

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

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

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

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

    It doesn’t make any sense.

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

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

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

    Versatility has served Figueroa well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Phillies want what they already had

    Cliff_lee The most telling story I’ve heard about the Phillies lately comes from Braves’ manager Bobby Cox when he heard that his NL East rivals were able to make a deal with the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay. When told that Halladay was joining up with the two-time defending National League champs, Cox didn’t quite break into hysterics like Nancy Kerrigan when she was kneecapped (literally) by a lead pipe, but it was close.

    Cox says he cursed at a rate he saves for the likes of C.B. Bucknor or Dan Iassogna. It was more than angry over the fact that the Phillies had added the best pitcher in the game to a roster that went to the World Series twice in a row. Cox was upset because he’d been on the other side and knows what pitchers like Halladay can do for a team.

    Remember back when the Braves, fresh off two straight trips to the World Series, added Greg Maddux to the staff with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery? The troubling part wasn’t that the Braves suddenly had three future Hall of Famers and a fourth guy—Avery—who had already piled up two 18-win seasons and an MVP in the NLCS before he had turned 23. Nope, that wasn’t the part that drove everyone upside down.

    The part that was the most heart wrenching was that with Maddux the Braves suddenly had three future Hall of Famers who were not even in their primes yet. All three guys were 26 or 27 when they joined up together and each had four seasons where they won at least 14 games in a season. In the case of Maddux and Glavine, 20 wins per season was the base line, while Smoltz, the least accomplished of the trio at the time, is the only pitcher to ever win at least 200 games and save at least 150.

    Nope, the Braves weren’t messing around back then and when he heard that the Phillies had traded for Halladay, he saw history repeating itself. The Phillies, like the Braves, were poised to dominate the NL East for at least half of the next decade considering the ages of their stars of the rotation and the ability of their hitters. The Braves and Mets were going to have a tough time.

    But then Cox heard that the Phillies had traded Cliff Lee and suddenly he wasn’t so worried any more. Oh sure, Halladay and Cole Hamels is a pretty nice combo, especially considering the fact that Hamels is just 26 the way Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux were two decades ago. Halladay, 33, was a bit older, but he had moved past the injury-prone years and was looking at another five seasons of top-level pitching.

    Add Halladay to a rotation with Hamels and Lee and it’s the modern version of the ’93 Braves with J.A. Happ starring as Avery and Joe Blanton playing the role of Pete Smith. With that rotation the only thing the Phillies would have to worry about is injuries (duh) and whether the National League could win the All-Star Game to give the Phillies home-field advantage in the World Series.

    But then Cox found out that the Phillies had traded Lee, too, and suddenly he wasn’t so upset any more. He didn’t have to worry about the best pitching trio in the game because Phils’ general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. believed it was more important for his team to be competitive for many years instead of great this year.

    Those weren’t his words, of course, but they could have been. At least that’s the way it seems considering the Phillies added three prospects in J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies from Seattle for a pitcher who might win his second Cy Young Award if he spends the entire season in the American League. Sure, there was a money aspect to it, too. Amaro says the Phillies could have afforded Lee this season, yes. However, it appears as if he was scared off by demands of a potential long-term deal from Lee’s camp.

    This comes despite the fact that if Lee were to pitch 2010 for the Phillies at $9 million and then walked away in the winter because of some over-the-top contract demands, it’s the pitcher who suffers and not the club. At least that’s how it plays out in the always important PR aspect of it.

    What makes all of that funny (not ha-ha funny) is the fact that four months after Lee was traded for those minor leaguers, Amaro and the Phillies gave Ryan Howard a five-year, $125 million deal that doesn’t kick in until 2012 and lasts until 2016. This is no to debate the merits of Howard’s contract extension. Good for him, I say. Instead, the curious thing about the contract extension for Howard was that his current deal won’t end until after 2011. And considering that Howard just got a $50,000 bonus for being named to the All-Star team, it’s been a pretty good year for the big fella.

    Lee only got $10,000 for making the All-Star team and gets $250,000 more for winning the Cy Young. All he got for putting together the greatest postseason in team history since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1915 was a trade to Seattle.

    But even that’s not the funniest part (again, not ha-ha). The funniest part has been listening to the GM go on and on about how the Phillies need to add pitching possibly before the July 31 trading deadline with this fantastic quote:

    image from fingerfood.typepad.com“My job is to continue to make this team better.”

    He said this long after Lee was traded and now wants to go out and get a pitcher.

    “I’m always more concerned about pitching,” Amaro said. “At the end of the day our team should be able to handle some losses in the lineup. With the offensive talent we have, we should be able to absorb some losses. But you can never have enough pitching if you want to contend.

    “For me, pitching (remains a priority) because we know our infielders will be back.”

    Nope, you can never have enough pitching if you want to contend. That’s what the Phillies’ general manager said on Tuesday afternoon before his team’s extra-inning loss to the Cox’s Braves, where Hamels again pitched well a day after Halladay beat the Braves with a complete-game gem.

    However, instead of going for the triple threat with Lee, the Phillies closed out the series against the first-place Braves with 47-year-old lefty Jamie Moyer.

    “If we had Cliff Lee, we wouldn’t have Roy Halladay,” Amaro said. “It’s pretty simple. Time and circumstance dictate what you can and can’t do. We felt like we were in a position to hold on to one and not the other, and long-term we couldn’t leave the cupboard bare.”

    Oh, but the GM said the team could have kept them both in 2010. Instead, he’s talking about years down the road because in the Phillies’ world it seems it is better to be competitive than great.

    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.

    Taking on the World

    Bradley_usa The texts and messages rolled in almost as quickly as it
    happened. Mostly, with the group of folks I have given my contact information
    to, the knee-jerk response was laughter. After all, it’s not every day that the
    general manager of a baseball team that is coming off of two straight trips to
    the World Series takes a shot at you on live TV.

    Call it a badge of honor or something like that. After
    all, acknowledgment is a good thing (or something).

    Anyway, when I learned about the comments they were
    always followed up by the question, “are you mad?” My theory on why this was the question is because I’m sure the
    cats who asked were hoping for a little tête
    à tête
    between the GM and me. Look, I don’t associate with the most noble
    of folks. Actually, these are the types of people who take delight in the
    failure of others and love a good soap opera more so than a digging through the
    archives.

    Yes, my friends are weasels. Then again, that’s why they
    are my friends.

    So once I pieced together the smarty-pants comments from
    the GM about me on live television, the easy answer to the questions was, “No,
    why would I be angry?”

    That was the truth, too. Angry? Nope, not with the GM.
    Considering I compared him to Nixon bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War
    when playing us press types for fools during the Winter Meetings. Remember
    that? The GM told us the Phillies weren’t in the mix for Roy Halladay, but then
    a couple days later he made the big trade. Incidentally, Halladay pitches
    tonight against the team he was traded from.

    Synergy, huh?

    Nevertheless, for those of us who like to dish it out we
    sure as shoot better be able to take it, too. There might be a little bit of
    crying allowed in baseball, but there is no place for whining. Rub some dirt on
    that bruised ego and get back out there is what I say.

    So what does this have to do with the United States
    national team and the World Cup? Well, not much unless we relate it to me (and
    this is all about me). See, a couple
    of weeks ago I sat at the Linc and watched the World Cup squad take on Turkey
    in their last game in the U.S. before jetting off to South Africa. From that
    game and the reports on the previous game against the Czech Republic, my
    thought was Bob Bradley’s team could be setting itself up for a big crash.

    I even wrote this:

    Bob Bradley is a
    smart man. As the coach of the U.S. World Cup team headed for South Africa on
    Monday, Bradley has to be pretty sharp. So when listening to the coach speak
    after games it’s best to listen to the words he’s not saying as opposed to what is said.

    Now this isn’t to
    say that Bradley is performing avant jazz by bebopping and scatting confusing
    and cryptic phrases on our ears. No, far from it. However, following the 2-1 victory
    over the national team from Turkey on Saturday afternoon at the Linc, it was
    evident that the coach believes his team has some more work to do before its
    first match against England on June 12.

    Again, Bradley
    wasn’t hiding anything, but then again he really didn’t have to. There was no
    conspiratorial tone from Bradley whatsoever. Still, it seemed as if Bradley was
    trying to sell the notion that everything was going to be OK.

    Certainly that’s a relative
    term when it comes to U.S. soccer in international competition. Still, based on
    the team’s painful 0-3 showing in the last World Cup and the experience of the
    players on the current roster, Team USA has to be a little better than OK. It’s
    the round of 16 or bust in South Africa for the U.S.

    Yep, Bradley knew what he was saying that afternoon in
    Philadelphia. He outlined exactly
    what his team had to do in the final week and a half leading up to the World
    Cup opener against England and things have actually gone better than planned.
    Oh yes, there were some tense moments there before Landon Donovan scored in
    extra time to boost the U.S. to the win of Group C, and it’s not unfair to
    suggest that Bradley’s boys deserved a lot less stress on their run to the
    final 16.

    But you know what? Bradley gets it. The coach really
    knows what he’s doing. He knows when to push his guys and when to relax on the
    whip a bit. Moreover, there is nothing about the undefeated round robin stage
    that has been a mistake. The U.S. won the group because it was the best team.

    As far as dealing with the press in South Africa, it
    appears as if Bradley has kept it just as avant as he did that day in
    Philadelphia. If the quarterfinals game against Ghana comes down to strategery
    and acumen, the U.S. is going to march on.

    So here we are with another big plate of crow, a fork and
    a sharp knife. In fact, if it comes to that I’m going to hold my nose and take
    a big bite.

    No, the U.S. is not
    going to win the World Cup. At least not until the next Kobe Bryant and LeBron
    James opt for soccer instead of other sports.In other words, this could be a
    very good year for U.S. Soccer… that is if it can take care of a few issues
    before the games start. That means no more repeats of the first half of the
    game against Turkey in Philadelphia.

    Yep, that was me. I typed that just enough arrogance to
    force others to believe that I knew what I was talking about. So now with it
    all out on the table like this, let’s entertain the thought for a moment—y’know,
    tempt fate, the football gods and
    Posh Spice with some crazy talk…

    What if the U.S. wins this thing? Really, what then? Will
    there be an explosion, a war, a day off from work, a chance for the
    international community to question the very nature of life?

    Yes, what if the U.S. wins the World Cup?

    Is this the craziest thing ever?

    Jamie Moyer ain’t half bad, either

    Moyer We get it. Jamie Moyer is old. At 47 it’s safe to say that Moyer has been old for a while now—at least in baseball terms. Sports, like most things, are a young man’s game and guys like Moyer are often viewed as a novelty or a curious relic.

    So don’t come here looking for the standard, “age-is-just-a-number-like-ERA” crap. We’ve been there before, citing examples of folks like Dara Torres as athletes like Moyer who have defied conventional reasoning by competing at a high level well past their prime.

    In other words, spare us. Moyer is 47, big deal. He’s been in his 40s since 2002 and promptly went out and won 21 games for Seattle. He’s also won 55 games since joining the Phillies at the end of the 2006 season when he was 43 and currently is tied for the team leadership in wins with eight.

    Yes, Moyer is old. We know this. So instead of harping on the uniqueness of a 47-year-old lefty with a fastball that couldn’t scuff Plexiglas still getting it done at an elite level, perhaps we should look at the “why” and the “how.”

    Age? Whatever.

    What makes Moyer unique is that he still has the will to compete. Sure, it helps that he only goes out there once every five days and uses guile and grit more than muscle and power, but he still has to push himself through the vagaries and mundanity of a long season. Chalk that up to an active mind or the ability to shove aside human nature and boredom.

    Think about it… baseball has been Moyer’s professional focus just about every day for four decades. That’s either genius or crazy.

    Or both.

    “That’s luck,” Moyer said when it was pointed out that he’s led the Phillies in wins through their recent run.

    Actually, Moyer is wrong about that and it was pointed out to him that luck has nothing to do with his wins. He corrected himself to explain that he has worked quite hard, and that’s true, but at some point it goes beyond luck and hard work. Sometimes ballplayers like Moyer ignore the most obvious reason for success is talent. Everyone in baseball works hard and it will only get a player to a certain point.

    Get this… Moyer is talented, too. He might not want to admit it, but it’s true.

    So what keeps him going now? He says he isn’t too impressed by the milestones he achieves seemingly every time he steps onto the mound, trotting out the old line about all a guy can accomplish by just hanging around long enough. For instance, in Tuesday night’s win over Cleveland Moyer tied both Bob Feller in wins with 266 and Robin Roberts in homers allowed with 505. Feller, of course, lost more than three years of his 20s while serving in World War II, but the only players ahead of Moyer on the all-time list for wins not in the Hall of Fame are Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven, Tommy John, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux.

    The numbers and the names aren’t what keep Moyer going. That’s for him to enjoy later. No, the reason why he keeps coming back for more is the winning. Not so much as him getting the wins as it is the team. Just the idea of getting another World Series ring is enough to keep Moyer in it.

    Need proof? Try this… Moyer says he was ready to retire after the 2006 season. Sitting in Anaheim waiting to pitch in a meaningless game for the Mariners in mid-August, Moyer says he and his wife had a 90-minute conversation over the phone about his decision to pack it in. He just couldn’t bear another season playing for a mediocre team with no realistic shot to win the World Series.

    Enough was enough until he was offered an interesting proposition…

    Moyertp “A couple of days later they came to me and said, ‘Hey, want to be traded?’” Moyer recounted.

    Five days after that phone conversation with his wife, Moyer was pitching for a Phillies team that was preparing to make the greatest post-season run in their history. Better yet, he was the pitcher who got the most wins during it all.

    Luck? Nah, luck is for the lottery.

    “There’s still a lot of baseball left and it’s a responsibility of mine to come here and perform,” he said, not sounding like an old man just hanging on for the ride.

    “You can’t rest on your laurels. If you have to wait for it, it’s not going to happen.”

    As for homers allowed, it’s just Roberts and Moyer all alone at the top of the list. And chances are no one is going to get close to the record unless Tim Wakefield or Javier Vazquez “get hot.” Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being the pitcher who allowed the most homers ever. Bad pitchers aren’t ever given the chance to give up as many homers as Moyer.

    “The only thing I think about is I’ve had a lot of chances to be able to do that,” Moyer said. “It’s probably not a record that I'm most proud of, but I'm proud of the opportunity that I've had to have those chances. And with my style of pitching, you know what? You’re going to give up home runs. That’s just the way it is. Some of them go really far. Some of them don’t. That's the way it goes.”

    Yeah, we get it. Moyer has been around for a long time, which is a great accomplishment. But the beauty of Moyer’s success is that he’s not interested in simply showing up and getting credit. Yeah, there’s some luck and hard work involved, but there’s something else more important at play, too.

    Jamie Moyer is pretty good.  

    Dutch gets his due

    Dutch The easy part is making the jokes.

    A favorite is the one that was the most obvious, like how Darren Daulton must be pleased that he was elected into the Phillies’ Wall of Fame now instead of a couple years down the road. Considering that the ex-catcher has claimed that certain folks will “ascend” into space at the conclusion of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, 2012 at precisely 11:11 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, it’s good that Daulton got his due now.

    His post-baseball life has also been rife with tabloid fodder, too. There have been DUI charges, he’s had his license suspended, been arrested for domestic abuse, and he spent two months in jail for contempt of court after refusing to abide by the terms of a legal agreement related to the divorce from his second wife.

    And to think, he was thisclose to becoming the Phillies’ manager instead of Larry Bowa. Imagine how those teams could have turned out.

    These days, though, Daulton appears to be past all of that. Reasonably fit for a 48-year old man who spent most of his adult life strapped into catcher’s gear and had nearly a dozen different knee surgeries, Daulton mane of hair that fell out of his batting helmet is beginning to thin out. To compensate, he has a neat beard outlining his jaw line and a tan that would put George Hamilton to shame.

    His skin is like rich, luxurious Corinthian leather.

    “I’ve been driving with the top down,” Daulton said about his deep, sun-enhanced hue.

    There was plenty of talk about the past with Daulton on Tuesday afternoon at the Bank where he was officially welcomed into the club’s Wall of Fame. The ceremony in which a plaque bearing his likeness will be tacked to the wall in Ashburn Alley will take place on Aug. 6.

    Chalk up Daulton’s election as one where intangibles like leadership and hard work trumped all.

    “I never saw anyone work harder during a rehab,” team general partner David Montgomery recalled about the winter of 1986 and 1987 when Daulton worked out at the Vet in an attempt to return from one of those knee surgeries.

    Essentially, that was the essence of Daulton… he always had to work and it never looked easy. Though he went to the All-Star Game three times and was the fourth catcher to lead the National League in RBIs during the 1992 season, effort was paramount. Injuries robbed him of some good years and certainly some bad choices were made along the way, but when it all came together it was pretty sweet.

    Look at that 1993 season where Daulton was the straw that stirred the drink. That season where the Phillies won the NL East and got to the World Series to face the Blue Jays, Daulton finished seventh in the MVP voting despite the fact that a teammate finished second in the voting and he batted just .257 with 24 homers.

    The number that slips through the cracks is that Daulton caught 146 games that season. Yeah, no wonder he was always having surgery. Daulton caught 141 games in 1992, too, which eventually led to him not being able to catch at all after the 1995 season.

    “There was one thing I could always eliminate, and that was if I worked my tail off I wouldn't have to look back if I didn't make it and second-guess myself,” Daulton said. “After hurting my knee early in my career, that was a moment I had to make a decision on whether I was going to play major-league baseball or not. The things I felt I had control of I tried to accomplish that.”

    Control when it came to baseball was the one thing Daulton had. However, like everything else that didn’t come easy, either. As Daulton explains, it took a slight by his manager and another soul-searching decision for him to take over the role he became most known for.

    “I remember (manager Jim Fregosi) pinch-hitting for me in the ninth inning in Pittsburgh with Ricky Jordan [in 1991] and I got a little peeved,” Daulton said. “I went in and said ‘Fregos, I thought I was your everyday catcher,’ and he said, ‘Dutch, until you can prove to me you can hit left-handed pitching in the big-leagues, I'm going to pinch-hit for you late in the game.’ He said, ‘You've been here the longest, they’ve turned the club over — Schmitty is no longer here, Lefty’s gone, so you’re the guy who needs to step up and be the leader of the ballclub.’

    “From that point on, I decided that’s my job, and he kind of reiterated we need a leader and I was obviously the guy running the show behind the plate, so that was probably the first night it dawned on me, if I was going to remain here, I was going to have to be the club leader … and also learn to hit left-handed pitching.”

    Daulton never really hit lefties all that well during his career (just .233), though by the end of his career there was no discernment in the statistics against either handed pitcher. Moreover, though he was no longer the catcher, Daulton was the leader the Florida Marlins needed when they made the mad dash to the World Series victory in 1997.

    Simply put, prior to the current run by the franchise, Daulton may have been one of the most important players to ever wear the team’s uniform. For the time and the place there were not too many players who had an impact like Dutch. Of course, importance of a player belies simple things such as numbers on a page and in that regard Daulton is both simple and complex.

    Kind of like the man himself.

    Thome departs the same way he entered

    Thome Jim Thome wanted to step out of the batter’s box, wave to the crowd and doff his Twins’ batting helmet to the fans at the Bank on Friday night. As the cheers grew steadily louder as he walked from the visitor’s on-deck circle to the plate, Thome pointed out that the time wasn’t right.

    Returning to the ballpark he helped open with a home run into the second deck for the first (unofficial) hit with his third different team, Thome wished there was some way he could have acknowledged the Philly fans. But as a pinch hitter in the top of the fifth inning with the game still very much in the balance, it would have been very odd. See, Thome worries about things like respect for the game and the opponent as well as the proper way to play the game.

    Yes, baseball really matters to Jim Thome.

    He thought about it again on Saturday night, too, when his two-run home run in the ninth inning started a five-run rally for the Twins that lead to the ugliest loss of the season for the Phillies. This time the ovation for the rocket Thome belted into the second bullpen (estimated at 466-feet) was mostly nostalgic. Sure, it was the future Hall of Famer’s 570th homer and was a shot off the 30th different team, but it was kind of a farewell to his old hometown fans. The standing ovation was a tribute for a guy who got the whole thing started for the Phillies.

    Would this new golden era of Phillies baseball been possible if Thome hadn’t signed with the Phillies before the 2003 season? When he left Cleveland after 12 years and 334 homers it sparked a resurgence that turned Philadelphia from a place where ballplayers ran from as soon as they could, to a destination.

    Could the Phillies have gotten Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay or been able to keep Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels if Thome hadn’t first shown up? Would Charlie Manuel have come to Philly if it hadn’t been for Big Jim? Hell, would Ryan Howard ever been a five-year, $125 million man without Thome?

    Short answer… no.

    “We needed to do something at the time,” Rollins said. “He brought excitement back to Philly baseball.”

    It was a long time coming, too. So if the fans want to give Thome a standing ovation even though he helped the Twins beat the Phillies on Saturday night, it’s OK. For a pretty obvious reason, it felt right.

    “That was pretty special. For the fans to do that, it was their way of showing respect and me telling them that I thought it was pretty cool,” Thome said after Saturday’s game. “The home run [Saturday] brought back a lot of memories.”

    Thome hit his 400th homer at Citizens Bank Park and is closing in on the rare 600-home run plateau. In fact, if Thome gets to 600 he will be just the eighth player to do it (assuming Alex Rodriguez beats him there), but just the fifth slugger to reach the mark having never been linked to performance-enhancing drug use.

    In other words, there’s no other way to view Thome other than as one of the greatest home run hitters to ever live.

    “For me, it's humbling to talk about,” Thome said, acknowledging that he was at the “latter” part of his career. “When you get to this stage, it's something. It's pretty surreal to me. I'm just humbled and blessed.”

    Actually, his homer on Saturday very likely could be his last plate appearance in the ballpark he christened with that homer back in 2004. After all, he’s going to turn 40 in August and is pretty much just a pinch hitter and a DH these days. He’s not the threat he once was during his two full seasons with the Phillies—where he hit 89 homers—or the first couple of seasons with the White Sox.

    But you know what? Thome is cool with all of that. He understands that he has to make some changes and he’s willing to slide into a support role for the Twins’ stars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Whatever it takes to get another shot at some October baseball, Thome will do what it takes.

    “I'm a team guy, and this whole group here is filled with team guys,” he said. “It's nice to talk about home run records. I'm humbled by that. I'm really excited to talk about winning.”

    Yes, the end is creeping ever so closer, and the names Thome passes on the all-time lists get more impressive every time he hits the ball. For instance, home run No. 570 pushed him past Rafael Palmeiro into sole possession of 11th place on the all-time homer list. Harmon Killebrew is just ahead at No. 10 with 573 homers.

    Plus, with 1,584 RBIs Thome is tied with Killebrew and Rogers Hornsby for 35th all-time. Six more ribbies ties him with Andre Dawson and 11 more equal Mike Schmidt and George Brett. Interestingly, two more seasons could push him past Reggie Jackson for the most strikeouts ever, as well as into the top 5 in walks.

    Indeed, it’s been a pretty nice career for Big Jim, though he warns there is still plenty of baseball left for him to play. Last weekend very well could have been Thome’s last stop at the Bank, but not his last lap around the track.

    “I don’t think so,” Thome said when asked if 2010 will be his last season. “For me, not yet. Maybe soon. I have kids and I want to be with my kids, but I think you know it [time to retire]. When the time is right maybe I’ll wake up and say, ‘You know what, maybe this is it.’ It’s not there yet. I love the game and I have an appreciation toward the game and I respect what’s been given to me.”

    And where would the Phillies be without him? Probably not where they are now.

    World Cup action scores big in Phillies’ clubhouse

    Mmaicon NEW YORK — It wasn’t so much the audacity of the shot from the end line that snaked between the North Korean goalie and the right post that stopped people in their tracks, it was the lavishness of the celebration by Brazil’s midfielder, Maicon. Part interpretive dance mixed with equal parts long-distance dedication, Maicon says the goal in Tuesday’s World Cup match was a dedication to his wife.

    Which kind of makes the rest of us look like a bunch of slackers…

    Nevertheless, it was the celebration that got the most attention in the Phillies’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium nearly three hours before that night’s game against the defending World Champion Yankees. Oh sure, players like Ryan Howard—a standout soccer player when he was kid, he says—love the competition and the athleticism of the game and have a bit more than a passing interest in the World Cup (they are sports fans after all), but more than anything else it’s the theatrics.

    Ryan Howard couldn’t get enough of the showmanship.

    Oh make no mistake about it; Howard is a savvy fan of soccer. He knows which teams are usually strong in international play which is why Spain’s loss to Switzerland on Wednesday raised a few eyebrows around the team’s clubhouse. But the Phillies’ cleanup hitter also knows that every goal scored in the World Cup is a small miracle. They are like lightning strikes or immovable forces of nature calmly brushed aside. In a more hyperbolic and extreme sense, a goal like Maicon’s proves there are forces larger than us in the universe.

    Or something like that…

    “A 1-0 game is like 10-0,” Howard said, comparing soccer scores to baseball. “A 2-0 game is a blowout and the 4-0 game like Germany had the other day, that’s ridiculous.”

    Surely some saw Maicon’s post-goal celebration as ridiculous. Better yet, it was arguably more compelling than the shot that tucked into the net just inside the left post. In fact, after such a magical goal everyone in the room knew the celebration would be equally as spectacular. When we all realized that the shot had indeed found the net, someone said, “OK, here we go,” in anticipation of what was to come next.

    Maicon didn’t disappoint.

    Overflowing with emotion, Maicon ran toward the sidelines with his eyes and index finger pointed toward the heavens before he dropped to his knees and put his fingers to his mouth that from the first glance looked as if he were imitating Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies or was sucking his thumb. Only later did we learn that he was giving tribute to his wife in a manner that would make former NBA player Doug Christie jealous.

    “And to score in the first game? I cried, but I was happy. I kissed my wedding ring for everything that my wife has done for me,” Maicon explained to reporters after the match. “It is a thank you for everyone who has been by my side.”

    Later, Maicon got into wardrobe and performed the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.

    Kidding aside, Maicon’s celebration led to an interesting topic of discussion, one I’m sure others have pondered as well…

    How come baseball players don’t celebrate the way they do in other sports? Certainly a home run is a physics experiment that could have saved Sir Isaac Newton some time waiting for that piece of fruit to clunk him on the head. Moreover, a perfect swing of the bat that meets the ball oh so perfectly is just as artful as anything that occurs in the so-called, “Beautiful Game.” Clearly this was a question for Howard, one of history’s most prolific home run hitters.

    Howard “The next time you hit a home run you should celebrate like that,” I said to Howard while pointing to Maicon on the TV hanging above the clubhouse.

    “What, you mean drop to my knees and suck my thumb?”Howard answered with a big smile and a laugh.

    “Well, maybe not like that, but it looks like [Maicon] could get around the bases pretty quickly. Maybe you could just do that slide on the knees or do a little touchdown dance?”

    Obviously this was all so ridiculous. Howard hits so many homers that he be worn out simply by getting around the bases. Still, it is worth mentioning that Howard’s current home run trot has its own panache with its relaxed movement around the bases that finishes with a little skip at home plate where he registers the run with his right foot as though he were dipping his big toe into a swimming pool to test the temperature of the water. Howard is cool with his own unique style. Howard’s big, smooth and strong vibe works in baseball so much better than anything that could have been choreographed by Bob Fosse or even Charo.

    Either way, it never gets old. We could watch Howard or Maicon do their thing all summer long. At least that’s the sense one would get in a stroll through Manhattan where restaurants and pubs entice potential patrons by advertising the day’s World Cup games with big signs out front, while stores dress up mannequins in the latest team kits. Better yet, there were more folks seen around town in soccer gear than there were people dressed in Mets garb.

    Was that dude really wearing a Lionel Messi shirt on the No. 4 train?