The impact of the blown save

lidgePITTSBURGH – Figuring out how to get those final three outs in the ninth inning of a ballgame is one of those great mysteries of baseball. For some reason the final inning is that much more difficult than the eight that precede it that there needs to be a specialist earmarked specifically to pitch that one inning.

Moreover, ballplayers buy into the mysteries of the ninth inning. They say things like, “Oh yeah, he has closers stuff, but to actually be a closer is a different beast.”

The word they use a lot is “mindset.” Anytime that word gets thrown out there chances are no one has a real explanation.

But that’s not to disparage the poor baseball man attempting to answer an unanswerable question about pitching the ninth inning. That one inning, as sometime closer Ryan Madson said, is “magnified.”

Of course the last inning is magnified because it’s the only one the closer pitches in. Back in the 1970s when Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter were going two to three innings (and sometimes even four innings) to nail down a game, the blown save meant a lot less. That’s why several of the all-time leaders in blown saves in a season are in the Hall of Fame.

Still, the ninth inning is Machiavellian in the truest sense. It doesn’t matter how Brad Lidge saved 48 straight games last season, it just matters that he did it. Just the same as it matter that this year he isn’t doing it as well.

Last season the Phillies pitchers had 15 blown saves with Chad Durbin leading the way with six. Of those 15 blown save chances, zero came in the ninth inning and nary a one came from the closer or that day’s closer. As a result, the Phillies’ save percentage of 76 was 14 percentage points better than the league norm.

This year the Phillies already have 18 blown saves, including one in back-to-back games against the lowly Pirates here in Pittsburgh. Of those 18, 14 have come from Lidge and Madson and 12 of those have come in the ninth inning.

Nevertheless, with 38 games to go there is a chance that the Phillies could surpass last season’s save tally of 47. What’s more, the Phillies have actually won five of the games in which there was a blown save. In fact, the team has come back and won three games that Lidge got a blown save.

That says more about the Phillies offense and resiliency more than anything.

So maybe in a sense the Phillies have merely blown 10 save chances this year? I know that’s not the proper formula and minimizes the impact of the blown save chance, but it is worth thinking about where these Phillies might be if Lidge can get it together for the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Lidge has been on the mound for four walk-off jobs this season. I’m not sure if I can recall an instance of one walk-off piece against the Phillies last season at all.

Utley plays

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

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

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

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

So yeah, more is on the way…

Seventh inning: Utley breaks out… anyone else?

LOS ANGELES – Chase Utley has officially ended his slump. I am making that decree. Sure, Utley could post a Golden Sombrero tomorrow night and spiral back into another funk, but based on the home run in Game 1, the four walks in Game 2 and the walk, smoked ground out to first and a double to left in the seventh, it appears as if the All-Star is back to being a threat.

Now all he needs is for the rest of the club to join him.

Ryan Howard got involved with a single to right, followed by an RBI single from Pat Burrell. After Burrell’s hit, manager Joe Torre decided Hiroki Kuroda was finished and summoned righty reliever, Cory Wade.

Torre brought Wade in to face the correct hitter in Jayson Werth, who has struggled at times against righties in the playoffs. Against Wade, Werth was punched out on a questionable check-swing call for the first out.

With two outs and runners on the corners, Charlie Manuel called on lefty Greg Dobbs to pinch hit for Carlos Ruiz. When Dobbs grounded out to short, the sell-out crowd here at Dodger Stadium let out a loud roar.

The Phillies could only get one.

A louder cheer was deserved for 12-year-old singer Ellie Smith, who nailed “God Bless America” and turned out one of the best “Star Spangled Banners” of the year.

But when they showed Tiger Woods on the jumbotron, the place really went nuts.

Does anyone cool go to Phillies’ games?

Meanwhile, Russell Martin’s body must look like a pin cushion right about now. With one out and the bases empty, Chad Durbin plunked him on the back with a curveball. Obviously, the umpires did not believe there was any intent with Durbin’s pitch because he wasn’t tossed from the game. Since warnings were issued to both clubs after Hiroki Kuroda tossed one over Shane Victorino’s head.

Nevertheless, the Phillies missed another chance.

End of 7: Dodgers 7, Phillies 2

Sixth inning: Calling on ‘The Chad’

Brett Myers’ afternoon is finished. To start the sixth inning, Charlie Manuel went with Chad Durbin, a.k.a., “The Chad.”

Against four hitters, Durbin got three fly outs to right and allowed an infield single.

Meanwhile, Myers stands to win the game despite some underwhelming pitching.

His line:

5 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 4 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 1 WP – 102 pitches, 62 strikes.

It’s not pretty, but it has the Phillies right where they need to be. Better yet, the Phils’ bullpen is ready to take over and they have been pretty good during the playoffs. In fact, they have allowed four runs and two of those came in situations where the team was just playing for outs.

Playing for outs seems to be where we are at this point for the Phillies. If they get nine more they really are sitting pretty. I don’t have the info now, but I’m sure a whole bunch of stories will have stats on how many teams are able to crawl out of an 0-2 deficit and win a seven-game series.

End of 6: Phillies 8, Dodgers 5

Sixth inning: Dodging bullets

MILWAUKEE – The Phillies finally caught a break when Jayson Werth pounded a long fly ball to right field that Corey Hart caught just before crashing into the fence. But when he hit the ground, the ball fell out of his glove as he was trying to make the exchange in order to show the ump that he made the catch.

Without breaking stride, Werth coasted into third with a triple. He came in with the first run when Ryan Howard grounded out to third off lefty reliever Mitch Stetter with one out.

Still, even though the Phils got a run they are 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position tonight.

Brewers’ pitcher Dave Bush’s line:

5 1/3 IP, 1 R, 5 H, 3 K – 70 pitches, 51 strikes.

Chad Durbin, a.k.a., “The Chad,” entered the game in the bottom of the sixth, promptly retired catcher Jason Kendall before giving up a single to relief pitcher Carlos Villanueva.

Yes, a relief pitcher got a hit off of a relief pitcher.

So did center fielder Mike Cameron, who made it to base safely for the fourth time in the game, but for the first time via a hit. Luckily for the Phillies the pitcher was clogging up the bases because Villanueva could not score when Bill Hall singled to load ‘em up.

After a seven-pitch strikeout for Durbin against Ryan Braun, manager Charlie Manuel summoned lefty Scott Eyre to face lefty Prince Fielder.

Good move.

Fielder popped up a 3-1 fastball to Eyre to leave the bases loaded for the second straight inning as the Phils dodged another bullet.

That’s 10 runners left on base for the Brewers – six in scoring position.

End of 6: Brewers 3, Phillies 1

Seventh inning: You will get wet

A few folks milling around here – mostly TV types – are discussing the best way in which to remain dry if the Phillies clinch today and we have to wade into a clubhouse full of champagne and beer spray as well as other tomfoolery.

The truth is there is no good way to avoid the party. The best bet is to dive in, get what you need and get back to the press box to change into something a little less wet.

That’s my tact, anyway. I brought a change of clothes in case the Phillies nail this down. And following last season’s celebration where I had a beer poured down my pants by a player who shall remain nameless as well as other liquids dumped on my head, I should have brought a poncho.

Chad Durbin got the Phillies to within six outs of the clincher by working through the seventh. He had some help from Chase Utley, who turned a neat little inning-ending double play to end the inning.

The Phillies went quietly in the seventh against lefty reliever Mike Hinckley.

I don’t know… maybe the Phillies need another run or two?

End of 7: Phillies 3, Nats 1

Thursday morning: Double threat spells trouble

Get a load of this:

The Phillies lead the National League in home runs and stolen-base percentage with an eye-popping 85 percent. Better yet, that 85 percent comes out of the second-highest total of stolen bags in the league. In 143 attempts, the Phillies have been caught stealing just 22 times.

That comes to approximately one caught stealing per week.

So based on those stats, how come the Phillies are not in first place? Better yet, how can the team that leads the league in homers and stolen base percentage is not running away with the division?

What’s the deal?

Maybe the .253 team batting average is the culprit – or the middle-of-the road .330 on-base percentage. But then how would that account for the third-most runs in the league?

What about the 1,006 strikeouts, or does that just manifest itself in the paltry batting average? Certainly it can’t be the pitching. After all, the Phillies have the fourth-best ERA in the league (3.91) as well as the second-best bullpen ERA (3.26).

So come on… what’s the deal? Why are the Phillies chasing the Mets in the East and the Brewers in the wild-card race?

During this decade there has been no team to lead the league in both homers and steals. In fact, it hasn’t even been close. Most teams just don’t have that type of balance or versatility.

Doesn’t there have to be a reason why the Phillies find themselves tied with the Astros and a half-game ahead of the Cardinals for the wild-spot? Clearly they are some sort of statistical oddity that defies logic, but someone has to have an answer…

Right?

Anyone?

For the Inquirer, Phil Sheridan suggests that the team is playing uninspired baseball. After storming back to overtake the Mets in 2007, the Phillies have suddenly turned into a team that appears to have difficulty with the pressure of a pennant race.

Rich Hofmann, in his blog for the Daily News suggests that the bullpen is simply fried. The eighth inning pitchers – Chad Durbin and J.C. Romero – just can’t get the elad to closer Brad Lidge the way they did during the first half of the season.

Noting that he really doesn’t have too many options as far as roster flexibility, manager Charlie Manuel seems ready to patch work the rotation the rest of the way, making ample use of the two remaining off days. In the Wilmington News Journal, Scott Lauber lays out how it might play out. Accordingly, the Phillies could go into the final weekend of the season with Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels lined up.

But to make that all work, Manuel has to send Moyer out to the mound on just three-days rest on Thursday night. As Todd Zolecki points out, Moyer has pitched 17 times on short rest during his long career, so if someone has to do buck up for the Phillies, it might as well be the 45-year-old lefty.

Todd also pointed out that the Phillies announced their post-season ticket plans… maybe they’re jumping the gun a bit.

Meanwhile, in New York they are starting to breathe a little easier following the Phillies’ loss to the Marlins on Wednesday afternoon. With a 3 ½ game lead with 16 to go, the Mets are in a pretty good spot – perhaps they are even in a better spot than they were last season when they had a seven-game lead with 17 games to go.

How could that be? Two words: Carlos Delgado.

Ben Shpigel explains in The New York Times that Delgado is doing for the Mets this season what Jimmy Rollins did for the Phillies during the epic run for the playoffs last season. With Delgado, Shpigel writes, the Mets are just as fearsome now as they were during the run to the NLCS in 2006.

Needless to say, the four-game series this weekend against the Brewers will go a long way in determining which direction the Phillies will be going during the final fortnight of the season. We’ll find out if they are still a threat to the Mets, fighting neck-and-neck with the Brewers, or booking vacation itineraries for early October.

Coming next: Lance Armstrong’s return.

Showdown at Shea

Regardless of how the weekend series in New York shakes out, it’s very likely the Phillies will take the race for the NL East all the way to the final days of the season. The Phillies may not have much of a shot at a second straight playoff berth, but make no mistake – the Phillies will be in it until the end.

Be that as it is, the series against the Mets at Shea Stadium will carry a lot of weight in regard to the Phillies’ post-season hopes. The Phillies are definitely on the edge. In fact, the Phillies most definitely HAVE to win two games this weekend. Trailing the Mets by three games with just 22 remaining in the season, it could all slip away very quickly if the Phillies aren’t careful.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know that the Phillies won the NL East after trailing the Mets by seven games with 17 to go. In fact, the Phillies know it all too well. Lately, anytime a player is asked about the race against the Mets a pad answer about how the team did it before comes trotting out.

The truth is the Phillies got lucky last year. The Mets fell flat on their faces and handed it over in an epic collapse. Come on… who loses a seven-game lead with 17 to go?

Can lightning strike the same spot twice? Maybe.

But then again, maybe not.

It might not be correct to suggest the Phillies are in better shape than the Mets at this point. Oh sure, Billy Wagner might not pitch again this season (though he did have a bullpen session today), and the Mets’ bullpen has struggled throughout the second half. Meanwhile, the team’s offense is filled with some older players prone to slumps and injuries.

However, the Phillies’ ‘pen isn’t in great shape either. Even though they still have the best bullpen ERA in the league, some guys are beginning to feel the toll of the long season. Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero likely won’t get many days off over the final three weeks of the season.

Durbin, meanwhile, is in his first season as a full-time reliever and never pitched in 36 games before hitting 60 this year. Madson, who missed most of the second half of ’07 with injuries, has already appeared in 64 games and could snap his career-high of 78 appearances from 2005.

Reliever Clay Condrey also has established a new career-high in appearances, while Romero has already pitched in 120 games for the Phillies since joining the team late last June.

Fortunately, starting pitchers Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels – the hurlers scheduled to go this weekend at Shea – have been pretty good at eating up some innings. Myers has taken the game to the seventh inning in seven straight starts and could inch toward 190 innings despite missing a month while in the minors. Moyer has pitched at least six innings in 18 of his 28 starts, and Hamels leads the league in innings with 203.

Now if they could just hit the ball there would be nothing to worry about…

Right?