Don’t believe your lying eyes

Frankly, I’m kind of tired of writing about the Phillies’ recent offensive struggles. It’s getting quite boring and ordinary. It’s just the same old thing day in and day out – strikeouts, failure to advance the runners, hanging around and waiting for that home run, more strikeouts.

Yawn.

Even though the Phillies scored eight runs in the victory over the Dodgers last night, the top hitters – cleverly called The Big Four, though “The Gruesome Foursome,” or “The Silent Majority” might be more apt – continued the slide. Oh sure, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard clubbed home runs, but add that up with the other pair of slumping hitters and it comes to a rousing 3-for-15.

Seemingly, the Phillies offense is becoming more and more one dimensional by the day. Unless someone homers, the production is minimal.

Both before and after last night’s game, manager Charlie Manuel discussed Howard and the skipper’s desire for him to return to his 2006 and 2007 form. Interestingly, though, Manuel seemed to indicate that Howard could regain MVP-type prowess if he worked harder.

“I told him [after the game] that he ought to grab his film and look at it, especially [from his MVP year] when he was hitting the ball really good and was consistent,” Manuel said. “It always reminds you of how you’re swinging, and that right there is what we have to have out of him.”

There have been whispers for a little while that the Phillies’ brass was a little underwhelmed by Howard’s off-the-field work ethic. Actually, following the 2006 MVP year the popular story was that Howard showed up for spring training overweight because he indulged in the celebratory banquet circuit. Sure, maybe he had one too many rubber chicken dinners, but how would that interfere with off-season workouts?

Nevertheless, Howard said he did watch video tape of his at-bats, but seemed lukewarm on how important that type of preparation was.

“I’ve watched [tapes from 2006] a couple different times throughout the year,” Howard said. “It helps to a certain extent.”

Then again, it’s not as if there were too many other players like Howard willing to talk about anything after nearly every game. In a not so recent development, the Phillies’ standoffishness with the local media, seemingly led by a couple of longtime Phillies’ veterans, has reached epic proportions.

Here are two very accurate descriptions from Randarino:

It’s hide-and-seek most nights in Phils clubhouse
Another near-empty winning Phillies clubhouse

Certainly I’ve written about the Phillies’ verbosity in the past, as well as my reluctance to speak to vapid ballplayers – I’m a snob like that. So if the players don’t want to correct my assumptions or tell me what they think is going on, I guess I’m up to my own devices.

***
My wife summed it up perfectly…

“This is your Super Bowl isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“It,” of course, is the Olympic Marathon, which will be beamed live from Beijing at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. But unlike the Super Bowl, which occurs every year, the Olympic Marathon, the traditional closing event of the games, happens once every four years.

Yes, I’ve written a bit about the big race in the past and I’m sure I’ll have more to add to the pile afterwards.

So, yeah, guess where I’ll be at 7:30… and check my Twitter page because I’ll be offering blow-by-blow updates during the race.

All it takes is one

There is really no smooth way to do a curtain call. Even the guys who hit the really big home runs all the time look dorky when they tip their cap to the screaming fans who want them to take a step out of the dugout and give a smart little wave or salute.

First of all, it’s really difficult to hear in those dugouts. Imagine being locked in a hermetically sealed room with no windows or cell phone reception – that’s exactly what it’s like to sit in a big-league dugout. The difference is a guy in the dugout can see 45,000 people in the stands ringed around the diamond freaking out. He can see everyone screaming, but can’t make out any of the sounds.

“You can’t hear anything,” said Phillies pinch hitting savant, Greg Dobbs. “It’s just a bunch of noise.”

So surrounded by all that noise that he couldn’t hear, Dobbs’ teammates pushed him out of the dugout so he could give a little wave or a salute to the screaming crowd. But instead, Dobbs stood there for a second like a deer in the headlights trying to make sense of his surroundings. But once he saw that the game had paused for a moment and the wave of noise cascading down from the top tiers of the bowl had washed over him, Dobbs gave a big wave before ducking back into the home dugout.

That was it. A brief moment that last a second or two will be something Dobbs remembers for the rest of his life.

“It’s very humbling,” he said.

Dobbs got the curtain call – yes, ballplayers get curtain calls – after slugging a three-run pinch-hit home run in the fifth inning that capped off an inexplicable seven-run frame against the Atlanta Braves and proved to be the game-winning hit in the Phillies’ 10-9 comeback victory.

Better yet, Dobbs’ shot was his 20th pinch hit of the season, which tied the club record set by a guy named Doc Miller in 1913. With 59 games remaining in the season, there’s a strong chance that Dobbs will have the record all to himself very soon.

But here’s the wacky part about Dobbs and his pinch-hitting prowess… he’s better when he gets just one chance a game than he is when he starts a game and gets four chances. At least that’s what the stat sheet says. An under-the-radar waiver pickup from Seattle prior to the 2007 season, Dobbs is hitting .362 (34-for-94) as a pinch hitter since joining the Phillies, including a lusty .435 (20-for-46) in that role this season.

Meanwhile, Dobbs is hitting just .264 (95-for-360) in non-pinch hitting situations. That means Dobbs has turned the so-called toughest job in baseball into child’s play.

The secret to his success?

Practice, practice, practice. And then some more practice.

“I have a tendency to over-prepare,” Dobbs admitted. “I take a lot of flak from my teammates because sometimes I go to the (batting) cage (as early as) the fourth inning.”

Manager Charlie Manuel says that the foundation for Dobbs’ pinch-hitting prowess was laid when he was an up-and-comer with the Mariners. Tired of yo-yoing back and forth between Seattle and Triple-A, Dobbs found himself a mentor who explained the finer points of the art of pinch hitting.

“He was around a guy named Dave Hansen. When Dobbs was in Seattle he used to sit with Hansen on the bench and some of the things they talked about rubbed off on him,” Manuel recalled. “He’s always ready and always concentrating on each at-bat, and I think that helps him.”

Like Dobbs, Hansen was a part-time third baseman and full-time pinch hitter. During his career with the Mariners, Dodgers, Cubs and Padres, Hansen set a big-league record in 2000 with seven pinch-hit homers. In 15 Major League seasons and one in Japan, Hansen had 139 pinch hits and practiced a Zen approach to the roll, calling it a “state of mind.”

“He was kind enough to take me under his wing and I paid attention to what he told me and took a lot of notes,” Dobbs said.

Actually, Hansen mostly taught Dobbs about preparation, concentration and developing routines. If he’s not starting at third base, Dobbs watches the first few innings in the dugout before heading off to the indoor batting cage. Once he gets loose and warmed up, Dobbs focuses his attention on the opposing team’s pitchers to the point where he doesn’t notice anything going on around him.

Sometimes he doesn’t even hear Manuel tell him to grab a bat and get into the game.

“About a week ago I tried to rush him up there before they had a chance to warm up a lefty, and I kept telling him to get up there and hit,” Manuel said about Dobbs. “After the game he told me that when I told him to get up there he started to thinking about how he was going to prepare for him and attack him. Actually, he said he didn’t hear when I told him to get the hell up there and hit. He stays ready and he’s prepared.”

“It happens a lot,” Dobbs said. “I’m so focused on the pitcher and preparing myself for that at-bat that I don’t hear him yelling at me, telling me something.”

Otherwise, Dobbs says his approach is to remain calm. Pinch hitting can seem like a high-wire trapeze act where the player is suddenly thrust into a pressure-packed situation where the outcome of the game is often hanging in the balance. When he can rein in his adrenaline, Dobbs says he breaks the task down to its essence.

All he wants to do is get on base, he says.

On Saturday he ended up circling the bases.

“I wanted to keep the inning going,” Dobbs explained. “I had to find any way – a walk, a hit, a hit-by-pitch – to get one base.”

In the meantime, Dobbs is not going to work on his curtain-call techniques. You won’t catch him walking into the house or a different room and suddenly wave to the folks sitting there. Nor will anyone find him waving to passersby on the street or the produce aisle in the grocery store as if it was a great accomplishment to pick out the ripest piece of fruit.

Instead, count on Dobbs remaining focused and prepared to take his one hack per game.

Sounds like a broken record

Needless to say, there will be a lot of attention given to Kris Benson’s outing for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs on Sunday afternoon. Though it’s unlikely that the outcome of the start will be much more than a warm up for Benson’s long rehabilitation, count on a bunch of the Phillies’ brass taking meticulous notes on every pitch.

As it turns out, it seems as if the team is looking for a starter.

At least that sounds like the case based on the quotes coming from Arlington, Texas after Opening Day starter Brett Myers tossed up another clunker on Friday night. Actually, the latest stinker might be the one that officially put the portly righty on notice. In just two innings Myers threw 66 pitches, gave up five hits, five runs, four walks and blew a four-run lead.

But wait, it gets worse…

In Myers’ last 12 starts the Phillies are 1-11, including losses in the last five straight. With a 3-9 record and 5.84 ERA, Myers has allowed fewer than four runs in just seven starts. He’s allowed less than three runs in just three starts, which isn’t bad when one considers that Myers is averaging just a little more than five innings per start.

Yet it was the two-inning clunker – one in which he walked three straight despite working with a four-run lead in the third inning – that finally made manager Charlie Manuel post an opening for Myers’ spot in the rotation.

“Can I say his job is secure?” Manuel told the scribes in Texas. “I don’t know what to say, if you want to know the truth. We’d have to find somebody to do his job first, I guess.”

In other words, if the Phillies had someone better Myers wouldn’t be going out there anymore. Really, how tough is it for a guy when he knows that the only reason the team continues to give him the ball is because they don’t have anyone else?

Myers must know what time it is based on how he reportedly busted it out of the ballpark without talking to the writers after the game. Typically a stand-up and an accountable guy when it comes to talking to the press about his job, Myers must figure that he doesn’t have anything new to say.

What else can he say?

What else can he do?

And what happens to Myers if the Phillies find someone better?

Here is the most telling quote from the manager as it appeared in The Inquirer:

“We’re trying to get him right,” Manuel said. “Myers’ best year is 14-9 as a starter [in 2003]. You stop and think about it, that’s not lighting it up. I mean, look, that’s not what you call a huge season. He’s had some bumps. He’s had moments on the mound where he’s had some struggles.

“Our expectation of Myers was always an 18-, 20-game winner. I said before the season started that in order for us to win, we needed 16 to 20 wins out of [Cole Hamels and Myers]. That’s kind of how we always evaluated him. His talent has always been there. Right now, things aren’t going too well for him. He’s having trouble.”

As a starter Myers had been very consistent in being inconsistent. In his four full seasons as a starter, Myers topped 200 innings once and never won more than 14 games.

Maybe he’s proving that he really belongs back in the bullpen.

***
If you missed the women’s 10,000 meters in the Olympic Trials last night, I bet you’re kicking yourself now. Described as a race that was at least four competitions in one, the Olympic qualifier had a virtuoso performance from Shalane Flanagan, a solid effort from Kara Goucher and drama galore when Amy Begley edged Katie McGregor for the last spot on the team.

But just barely.

Flanagan, the American record holder in the event, and Goucher ran away from the pack to finish in the first two spots, while Begley and McGregor dueled it out for the last spot for a trip to Beijing.

Only Begley and McGregor weren’t racing against each other – well, kind of, but not exactly. You see, to run in the Olympics an athlete needs to meet a qualifying standard of 31:45 for the 10K. If the top three runners don’t have the required time by the end of the trials race, the next best finisher with the standard makes the team.

So with Flanagan, Goucher and McGregor three of the four runners in the race with the qualifying standard met in a previous race, Begley spent most of the race one place ahead of McGregor watching the clock and running for her life. After the race she said she spent the last two laps doing math and running as fast as should could while holding out hope that she could squeeze in ahead of McGregor and under 31:45.

With a crazy sprint to the finish line and a last lap of 67.3, Begley made it under the standard by 1.4 seconds.

Then she collapsed on the track.

McGregor, conversely, finished in the worst spot possible for a trials race by coming in fourth. Worse, it was the second straight Olympic Trials in which she finished fourth in the 10,000 meters.

Measuring up

CharlieDuring the past month it’s been very difficult not to get excited about the Phillies. They have scored runs with impunity, won games at nearly a 1993 rate all while the bullpen corps established itself as one of the better groups in the game. When it comes to rallying for a lead in the middle to late innings before the relievers come in and nail it down, the Phillies are as good as any team in baseball.

In the process, the Phillies have established themselves as the best team in the NL East and baring a collapse of New York Mets-like proportions, the Philllies should return to the playoffs in 2008.

But that’s where it gets complicated.

Yes, the Phillies are a playoff-caliber team. And, yes, the ’08 Phillies are better than the version that slipped into the playoffs during the 2007 season. Those two points are given. But what complicates things is that the Phillies are now forced with a pretty difficult decision that must come to a conclusion by the end of next month.

What are they in this for?

Do the Phillies simply want to improve on last season’s short ride through the playoffs, or are they going for the rings, trophies and champagne?

Sure, it sounds like an easy question to answer. Every player on every team – even the ones who secretly know they have no shot – say they won’t be satisfied unless they win the World Series. That’s the whole point of playing, they say. But the facts are much more austere. Some teams just aren’t built for the long haul of a 162-game season. Others are built to win a division or a wild-card berth, but flame out in the playoffs.

But only a couple of teams every season are built to go all the way. With some clubs the brass gets together to compile the components that will carry the team during late October. Sometimes those teams even go on autopilot for the first few months of the regular season.

The Phillies saw firsthand what those really good teams look like when the Boston Red Sox came to town for three games this week. The players and the management got to see how the Red Sox set up the Phillies’ pitchers, patiently waiting for a pitch to bash for extra-base hits or base-clogging walk. The Red Sox made the Phillies hurlers work and then they exposed all their little, tiny weaknesses.

If that wasn’t enough, the Sox pitchers worked over the heart of the Phillies’ batting order and held Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell to a combined 1-for-24 (.042) during the final two games of the series and 6-for-36 (.167) during the entire three-game series.

No, the Red Sox didn’t come right out and embarrass the Phillies. After all, Cole Hamels pitched splendidly in the Phillies’ 8-2 victory last Monday where Howard, Burrell, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino spurred the offense. Instead, the Red Sox treated the Phillies as if they were a tiny winged insect there for amusement and all they had to do when they got finished plucking the wings off one-by-one was stomp on them.

“Obviously they’ve been successful a long time and there’s a reason why. They have some good players over there,” Utley said. “I thought we played well the first game. We faced a tough pitcher the second game and today we had some opportunities we didn’t capitalize on.”

This was the Red Sox with Jon Lester and Justin Masterson and not Josh Beckett or Dice-K. It was the Sox with Sean Casey and J.D. Drew leading the way and not sluggers David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez or Kevin Youkilis.

It wasn’t exactly the B-team… that was the Phillies. Better yet, it was a Phillies club that came away from the series with a handful of lessons.

“The first night, we went out and won and everybody’s talking about the Phillies finally proving they can do it. Then, we lose the next two,” Victorino said. “It’s not a learning process. It’s just a matter of seeing what they have.

“I think we match up with them. I know we can.”

Thinking it and doing it are two different things. As a result it has become quite clear that if the Phillies are interested in playing the Red Sox again this season, they need to make an addition or two. That’s because the only sure thing the Phillies have in the starting rotation is Hamels. After that, it’s pray the bats are hot.

Fortunately for the Phillies and their fans, management was hip to the team’s weaknesses all along. In fact, reports have surfaced which indicate the team has dispatched scouts specifically to watch the Indians’ C.C. Sabathia and the Padres’ Greg Maddux pitch. Both players could be available for a trade before the July 31 deadline, though the price won’t be cheap.

Meanwhile, the proverbial gauntlet has been thrown down for Opening Day starter Brett Myers, who thus far has limped to a 3-8 record with a 5.58 ERA. Both manager Charlie Manuel and assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. have stated that the big right-hander has to improve quickly…

Or what?

Fortunes turn fast in baseball. Suddenly the Phillies have lost three straight series and six out of their last nine immediately on the heels of a stretch in which they won 12 of 14 games. Plus, the first-place Los Angeles Angels head to town this weekend. Like the Red Sox, the Angels are another tam built for games to be played when the leaves have dropped from the trees and the air takes on a chilly bite.

Have we seen the real Phillies or are they still on the way?

“I’m concerned, I’m not worried,” Manuel said. “We got three more games on this homestand. I’d like to see the Angels come in here and finish this homestand real well. I’d to see us get some things going.”

Pulling away from the pack

Lewis & ClarkOne of the best parts about writing about sports is listening to people talk about, well… um… sports.

The insight, the nuance, the behind-the-scenes details are far better than anything that ever gets printed or turned into a movie. As someone who sometimes is willing to drive far distances just to hear or conjure up a story, hanging around the press folks at the ballpark is like Shangri-la.

And that’s coming from a guy who once drove to Wyoming just because it might be fun to tell the story to people later… well, that and the fact that now I get to say that I’ve been to Wyoming.

Yep, Wyoming.

The best part of the drive to Wyoming? It was when I found an old copy of the Lewis and Clark diaries in a used bookstore on Capitol Street and buying chokecherry jelly from a roadside stand in the Big Thompson Canyon.

Weren’t Lewis & Clark the ultimate when it came to rolling around the countryside looking for a good story or two? I thought the diaries — especially an old copy in great condition — was an apt purchase considering the circumstances.

Also, there is nothing in Wyoming. In some parts all you can see is the ground meet the sky. The landscape wasn’t polluted with strip malls, over-commercialization, unsustainable growth or other tackiness related to suburban sprawl.

Anyway, it’s always funny to listen to sports scribes talk about their athletic prowess from “the old days.” It’s funny because a lot of sportswriters were as good at baseball or basketball as James Frey was at detailing his arrest record. Sure, there might have been an “arrest,” but then that’s just a matter of semantics, isn’t it?

Surely the preponderance of B.S. about athletic prowess is not just a phenomenon of the press box. Oh no. Men in general love revisionist history because it always ends the way it should – kind of like a big-budget Hollywood movie. But like Hollywood movies there is always those scenes where one thinks to himself, “There’s no way that could have happened… just look at him. He makes Pat Burrell look like Ben Johnson!” when hearing those sports hero stories.

Actually, when hearing some stories I often wonder, “So, were you held back in school and much bigger than your classmates? Is that how you hit all of those home runs after you got popped in the eye with a No. 2 pencil?”

Look, I’m as prone to exaggeration as the next guy, but is the pure, unadulterated truth really the story? Of course not. The point of the story is the story. This isn’t journalism, it’s B.S.!

Be that as it is, I brought up my days as a really, really, really (really, really) poor hitter during high school. The fact is that I was such a bad hitter that I just decided that I would stop wasting everyone’s time in waiting for my three strikes by bunting every time I went to the plate. Though I was told it was just as easy to hit a ball as it was to catch one, I could never make threatening contact with a full cut. However, if I squared around to bunt I could make the ball go where I wanted as long as that was a few feet in front of home plate, not past the pitchers’ mound and on either the first-base or third-base lines.

My bunting got to the point that one of my teammates came up to me after a game and asked: “Why does the coach keep giving you the bunt signal?”

“No one gave me the bunt signal,” I answered. “We have a bunt signal?”

By that point I had stopped looking down the third-base line at the coach, though during one point I remember him yelling, “Knock the cover off it, Johnny!” with a few claps after it was established that I was deep into the throes of my “Bunt Period.”

The reason why my poor high school hitting ability came up pertained to Ryan Howard and, no, it had nothing to do with bunting. Though I’m sure Ryan Howard never looked down the third-base line to get the bunt signal, either, I doubt he ever needed to drop one down.

Ryan HowardBut Ryan Howard might have made a mistake by swinging (and hitting) the first pitch from Edison Volquez in the Phillies last loss (last week!). With the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning of the 2-0 defeat, Howard harmlessly popped out to left field to end the Phillies’ threat. Strangely, Howard swung at the first pitch even though Volquez had walked Shane Victorino and plunked Chase Utley on the foot as the immediate preceding hitters. In other words, it appeared as if Volquez – the National League’s top pitcher with a 9-2 record, 1.56 ERA and 96 strikeouts – were about to unravel.

Rather than allow Volquez to throw a pitch or two or even to make a mistake, Howard took a big cut and helped the young pitcher out of the jam. As a result, Volquez settled down and the Phillies got just two more base runners in the final four innings.

So that brings us to the conversation about hitting. During the elevator ride back to the press box after the post-mortem in the clubhouse, Howard’s pivotal at-bat was discussed in a silly and unrealistic manner used to poke fun at an exaggerate the situation. By swinging at that first pitch Howard was the antithesis of the “Money Ball” player who was afraid that other players would make fun of him for “looking to walk.”

After a few more seconds of silliness, I jumped in with the idea that I was a “Money Ball player before Money Ball even existed.”

“I was always looking to walk. I was a looker,” I said. “People yelled that at me all the time and the truth is I didn’t even try to make it look good. Someone could have placed the ball on a tee and I would have taken it.”

Or bunted.

Then I mimicked my high-school batting stance by holding an imaginary bat as if it were a light saber that suddenly went on without warning. As the imaginary pitch approached, I cowered as if being attacked by a grizzly bear.

But after the pitch safely passed, I celebrated.

“Ball One!”

OK, it wasn’t that bad, but it may as well have been.

And it’s a little more interesting than saying, “I hit .273 my senior year. In a game against Hempfield I went 2-for-4 with a double and scored a run. I also made a running catch in foul ground, but we lost, 6-3. We got two on in the seventh but couldn’t push any across.”

Booooooring.

Besides, in backyard wiffle ball there were few at my level. In that sport I’d make Ryan Howard look like Pat Burrell.

***
Jimmy and CharlieThe one thing I was pretty good at during school sports was running. And by running I don’t mean anaerobic capabilities or endurance, though I’m pretty good at those, too. Truth is, I’m probably the best distance runner of any of the mainstream sports sportswriters, but that’s not saying much. Actually it’s kind of like saying Brad Pitt is a better looking dude than Ernest Borgnine.

What I mean by running is that during the rare instances where I took the court or field I ran. When it was time to come off the field/court, I also ran. When I bunted one fair, I ran all out to first and if I ever walked and got to first, I ran as hard as possible to second, third or home. Somewhere along the line I was told that to do anything other than to run on the field was a sacrilege. Walking or jogging was never permitted – ever. You walked or jogged only when you were hurt, otherwise, you ran or you came out of the game.

Maybe the reason why I ran all the freaking time was because I didn’t want to give anyone more excuses to take me out of the game. Playing time was scarce enough as it was so maybe I figured I wasn’t going to waste it by not trying.

Watch Scott Rolen, Chase Utley or Pat Burrell – they run on and off the field, too. They don’t lope or jog… they run.

When it comes to effort, those guys aren’t kidding around – ever.

Just the same, I doubt Jimmy Rollins kids around when it comes to effort, too. However, unlike other players, Rollins sometimes worries about style points. The weird thing about style is that it sometimes makes perfectly good things look bad.

At least that was the case for Rollins last week when he dropped his head after a harmless pop up and casually rolled to first in anticipation of the out.

But because he wasn’t hustling and had his head down, Rollins couldn’t make it to second base when the pop fly was dropped by shortstop Paul Janish. After the half inning ended, manager Charlie Manuel rightly assumed the lack of hustle meant that Rollins needed a breather and sent him to the bench.

Here’s the thing about Rollins – he’s won games for the Phillies because of his hustle. In fact, his hustle and quickness have kept him out of trouble in a lot of instances. One, of course, was when he won a game by “stealing” home against the Cubs when he faked out the catcher by running hard toward the plate before hitting the brakes as if he were going to change direction and go back to third. When he got the catcher to fall for the fake and throw the ball to the third baseman, Rollins quickly changed direction again and sprinted home to score the winning run.

It was a move only smart, hustling players make.

The one where he didn’t hustle to first base wasn’t.

“It’s my fault,” Rollins said. “I can’t get mad at him. That’s like breaking the law and getting mad when the police show up. You can’t do that.”

Here’s the thing about that, though … if any other player did what Rollins failed to do, Manuel probably wouldn’t have come down on him as hard. Manuel knew that his message would resonate more if he punished Rollins, the league’s reigning MVP. Manuel also knew that Rollins wasn’t going to overreact and that he was smart enough to understand the message the manager was sending not just to his MVP, but also the entire team.

The message?

You guys haven’t won anything yet.

Manuel has been around long enough to know that sometimes even the best teams get complacent. And sometimes even those really good teams have a tough time shaking out of the doldrums when the games really mater.

So with the Phillies on the verge of taking three out of four from the Reds with a big, nine-game road trip looming, Manuel sent his streaking, first-place club a little love letter that they are all accountable and that there is no time to take the foot off the accelerator.

Rollins got it immediately.

“With this team you don’t get away with anything anyway, but he’s the manager and that’s what he’s supposed to do when a player isn’t hustling,” Rollins said. “He has to take the initiative to make sure you play the game the right way.”

The message seems to have been received loud and clear. When Rollins was “benched,” the Phillies went on to finish off the Reds before jetting off to Atlanta where they swept the Braves. With 12 wins their last 14 games and a four-game lead over the Marlins in the NL East, the Phillies could bury the rest of the division with another sweep in Miami.

Maybe if that happens Manuel should toss the post-game spread.

Going, going, gone?

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

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

More?

Well, check it out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s the ballpark?

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

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

Still, Manuel probably says it best:

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

As tough as a girl

Gavin FloydIt wasn’t all that long ago when I wrote an essay about how a 14-year-old female swimmer was tougher than then-Phillies pitcher Gavin Floyd. Actually, the swimmer just wasn’t tougher mentally than Floyd, but I had an inkling that if it ever went down, the girl would give him a beating.

The point was that Floyd was soft. I based that assessment from listening to his teammates, coaches and team executives talk about him, as well as from body language. Floyd just didn’t seem comfortable in his own skin. He was intimidated by the media, his teammates, himself and worse, the competition.

Floyd had talent to spare and dominated his way through the minors even though he was rather uninspired. He yawned his way through a minor-league no-hitter and pitched, as some experts observed, as if he was bored. But when he got to the Phillies and quickly realized that everyone was talented and that he would have to become fully engaged, well, that’s when things got difficult.

“The competition isn’t a threat,” pitching coach Rich Dubee said in a story dated June 5, 2006. “It should be a challenge. It intimidates him sometimes. Everything’s life and death, and it doesn’t need to be that way. This needs to be something that he enjoys doing. I’m sure he felt extra heat – a lot of a lot of good players have had to go backward to go forward. Hopefully, he can get straightened out and get back up here.”

That was when I wrote about how 14-year-old Amanda Beard, the Olympic champion and a contemporary of Floyd’s, could kick his ass.

Nevertheless, after a four-inning stint in Los Angeles on June 1 of 2006 where Floyd gave up seven earned runs on seven hits, three walks and three homers, the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft never pitched for the Phillies again. Though he was drafted ahead of big-league regulars like Mark Teixeira, Aaron Heilman, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, Noah Lowry, Dan Haren, Scott Hairston, Kevin Youkilis, Dan Uggla, Ryan Howard and David Wright, the Phillies packaged him up as a complimentary piece in the deal to acquire Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox.

Who would have guessed that Garcia got just one more win for the Phillies after the trade than Floyd?

Or who would have guessed that Floyd’s nasty sweeping curve would return to form and become one of the best pitches in the American League? Who would have guessed that Floyd would have solidified himself as a main cog in Ozzie Guillen’s rotation on the South Side?

Better yet, who would have guessed that Floyd would have carried two no-hitters into the eighth inning – and beyond – during the first month of the season?

Amanda BeardAnyone? Pat Gillick? Charlie Manuel? Cole Hamels? Anyone?

As Charlie Manuel told MLB.com in today’s edition:

“When I see Gavin pitch like that, it shows he can do it,” Manuel said. “He’s 3-1. He’s been kind of inconsistent in his career, but his stuff, everyone in baseball and everyone in our organization and the White Sox organization sees the same stuff. That’s why he was projected as someone who could be a good big league pitcher.”

Just somewhere else.

“I think the change of scenery helped him,” Manuel said. “I think he was ready for a change of scenery from Philadelphia, and it’s been good for him. He’s pitching to his potential.”

Floyd came five outs away from a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on April 12 where he struck out four and gave up just the one hit in a 7-0 win. Earlier this week, Floyd took a no-no into the ninth against the Minnesota Twins before Joe Mauer – the No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft – laced a double to left-center with one out.

All told, Floyd has a 3-1 record with a 2.50 ERA in six starts – all in which he has pitched at least six innings. If there has been one mar on Floyd’s slate it is that he ahs just 19 strikeouts to 18 walks this season. However, opponents, obviously, aren’t getting too many hits off him. In nearly 40 innings, Floyd has given up just 20 hits to hold the opposition to a .149 batting average.

As fellow first-round draft pick and minor-league teammate Cole Hamels told MLB.com:

“It’s great for him,” Hamels said. “He’s always had the stuff. It’s always been a confidence factor. I don’t think he ever got comfortable in Philadelphia. He has tremendous stuff, and now he has to go out there and show everybody what he’s really all about and the player that a lot of people saw.”

His new manager Guillen saw it and was willing to send his close friend Garcia packing in order to get Floyd.

As Guillen told the Chicago Sun Times:

“So far, he makes me sound like a genius,” Guillen said. “Everything is mental. If you believe in what you have and that you can do this, it’s going to be easier. There’s no doubt this guy has great stuff.

“I like his arm, and that’s the reason we take the chance. He believes in himself now and has confidence.”

Can Floyd keep it up? Only time will tell. But the one thing for sure is that Guillen and the White Sox are going to give him a chance. Confidence and comfortability seem to have given the tall righty the toughness that was missing during his time in Philadelphia. Experience seems to have helped, too. The mark of a good athlete is how he (or she) handles defeats. It’s easy to cruise through games with yawns and knockouts, but it’s much more difficult to get back up after being knocked down.

The tough ones get back up.

Maybe Floyd is as just as tough as Amanda Beard? The difference now appears to be that one was simply a late bloomer.

Monday night rewind

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

Robert Cheruiyot dominated the Boston Marathon… again.

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

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

You know – no big whoop.

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

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

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

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

According to the Associated Press:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember when Ryan Howard used to be that way?

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

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

So there’s that… which is nice.

Greetings from Blake Street

Coors FieldDENVER – Yay! I made it. Actually, I think I am the only person to be on the premises of both the Phillies and Rockies stadiums today. In order to pull off such a stunt, one has to get up early…

I’m sleepy.

Nonetheless, we have a big ballgame tonight. Apparently the weather is going to take a wild turn as a front comes in, but I will report that the wind has been fairly fierce. There have been some gusts that could knock a big, strapping fella on his duff.

I can’t believe I used those terms in that sentence.

Anyway, well be coming at you live just like in the first two games, so get ready. In the meantime, here are the lineups:

Rockies
7 – Kaz Matsui, 2b
2 – Troy Tulowitzki, ss
5 – Matt Holliday, lf
17 – Todd Helton, 1b
27 – Garrett Atkins, 3b
11 – Brad Hawpe, rf
19 – Ryan Spilborghs, cf
8 – Yorvit Torrealba, c
38 – Ubaldo, Jimenez, p

As you can see, Clint Hurdle is sticking with the same lineup that he used in the first two games. Hey, if it ain’t broke…

Phillies
11 – Jimmy Rollins, ss
26 – Chase Utley, 2b
5 – Pat Burrell, lf
6 – Ryan Howard, 1b
33 – Aaron Rowand, cf
8 – Shane Victorino, cf
51 – Carlos Ruiz, c
3 – Abraham Nunez, 3b
50 – Jamie Moyer, p

With Moyer on the mound, Charlie Manuel is going with a more defensive lineup. Those nine guys remind me of something Moyer and I chatted about the other day – I told him that 50 percent of good pitching is good defense.

He said: “Ha! In my case it’s 99.9 percent.”

What a card!