Here comes Floyd

LandisOUCHThis weekend is the big, TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Classic, the classic race that skirts through the Art Museum area, Fairmont Park and, of course, Manayunk. In some sections of town the race is a pretty good excuse to hang out and drink beer…

Not that there is ever a bad excuse.

Nevertheless, ever since the race was saved by a last-minute sponsor with a fresh injection of cash (hey, now), the comings-and-goings of the big race have kind of flown beneath the radar. Makes sense, of course, since most Philadelphians are more worried about ankle surgery for Brian Westbrook a full 12 weeks before the football season rather than some unknown bike racers tearing through town.

That would be the case, of course, if they were all unknown. But they aren’t. Floyd Landis is going to be there.

We all remember Floyd, of course. His story has been told and re-told thousands of times since he won the Tour de France in 2006 only to have it stripped away after two years of arbitration hearings and appeals through the kangaroo courts conducted by USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Since then Floyd has racked up $2 million in legal bills, according to reports. He moved at of his home in Murrietta, Calif. to shack up and train in a cabin in Idyllwild, a small town located in the San Jacinto Mountains south of Los Angeles.

He has a mortgage, had hip-replacement surgery, served a two-year suspension and gotten divorced. Now, he has been named in an international arrest warrant for hacking into the computer at France’s Chatenay-Malabry anti-doping lab. That’s the same lab that produced more than 200 procedural and protocol errors when testing his urine sample following the now infamous Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France. Floyd’s doctor Arnie Baker is named in the warrant as well.

And yet there he is riding in races against competitors that weren’t close to his level a little more than three years ago. Back then, he said, he was “in the best shape of” his life. These days he trains and races simply because he likes to ride his bike.

As he told VeloNews in January:

“I don’t feel in any way I am coming back to race to prove anything to anyone, or to myself for that matter. I enjoy racing for the same reason the majority of people race their bikes, whether it’s on a professional level or any other level. I think the sport deserves to have the best riders in the best races. For that reason I think this year is going to be better than it has been in a long time.”

Dime-store psychology aside, riding the bike might be the only thing that makes sense in Floyd’s life these days. In fact, before the racing season began there was talk of Floyd joining a major team and racing in the 2010 Tour de France.

But as the season developed, Floyd hasn’t won any races. He’s had some crashes and strong attacks, but hasn’t been a major threat in the final standings. Hey, racing is hard and chances are he’ll be a threat soon, but in the meantime he’s coming to Philly because he likes to ride his bike…

Kind of like the folks out in Manayunk who like to drink beer.

***

Speaking of Floyd, Brett Myers had hip surgery today in New York City with hot-shot surgeon Dr. Bryan Kelly administering.

Incidentally, after he decided to have surgery Myers told me he saw pictures of his pitching before and after the injury. In one, his right leg was as high as his right shoulder in his follow through, but in the post-injury photo, his range of motion was noticeably shorter.

The surgery should be good for Myers to regain his flexibility and with it, his velocity.

***

Speaking of Floyd, J.C. Romero returned last night for the first time after serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.

Interesting: in MLB, 50 games for a positive test.

In cycling, two years for a positive test.

How much does it cost?

manny_arodThe Dodgers are in town for three games starting tonight and of course that brings the inevitable talk about Manny Ramirez. Forget that Larry Bowa and Randy Wolf are back in Philly or that the Phillies and Dodgers will square off in a rematch of last season’s NLCS, the big issue is about who will not be playing.

Yep, that’s Manny just being whatever.

Here’s the thing about PEDs that no one really can quantify with any accuracy, and that is how much do they help (or hurt) a team? How many more home runs did Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez or anyone else hit because they used whatever it was that they used? How many more innings could a pitcher pile on because he was taking something illegal?

Along those lines, how many games will the Dodgers lose because Juan Pierre is playing instead of Manny Ramirez for the next 50 games?

Or, how many games have the Phillies lost this season with J.C. Romero serving his 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance? Hey, manager Charlie Manuel said he would have used Romero to face the Braves in the seventh in the seventh inning of Sunday’s loss to the Braves. Instead the manager turned to Jack Taschner, who coughed up a pair of two-out runs on some chintzy hits.

So how many games has Romero’s suspension cost the Phillies this season?

It’s difficult to say because who knows what day-to-day issues the pitcher would have. Maybe he would have pitched in consecutive days and needed a day off? Or maybe he’d be used in the eighth instead of the seventh? Who knows? But for the sake of argument, let’s just say Romero would be 100 percent every game. In that case maybe last Sunday’s game against the Braves could have been saved by Romero.

Perhaps he would have pitched in the three-run eighth inning instead of Ryan Madson on April 17 in the 8-7 loss to the Padres. That’s doubtful, though. So for the sake of that argument, we’ll call it one game – one in 29 for a 15-14 club.

As for quantifying Ramirez absence, that’s a taller task. However, Ramirez is much more valuable to the Dodgers than Romero is to the Phillies.

*

Interestingly, there is a new report by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn that Ramirez had a testosterone to epitestosterone ratio between 4:1 and 10:1. That leads some experts to suggest that he was using synthetic testosterone, a conclusion reached when one considers that people naturally produce testosterone and epitestosterone, typically at a ratio of 1:1. Anything at 4:1 and above is flagged by MLB.

The report indicates that Ramirez’s representatives argue against the synthetic testosterone, instead saying the player used DHEA. In baseball DHEA is not banned, however, it is in other sports. For instance, last month well-known cyclist Tyler Hamilton tested positive for DHEA, which is an ingredient in some vitamin supplements used to treat depression.

Hamilton copped to knowingly using DHEA and instead of fighting the positive test, he retired.

Meanwhile, experts have questioned whether the HCG Ramirez said he took for a “health issue” could cause such a large spike in the testosterone to epitestosterone ratio.

According to the story:

The synthetic testosterone in Ramirez’s body could not have come from the hCG, according to doping experts, and so suddenly Ramirez had two drugs to answer for. Worse still for the ballplayer, MLB now had a document showing he had been prescribed a banned substance. This was iron-clad evidence that could secure a 50-game suspension.

So yes, it appears as if Ramirez has been caught red-handed. Now the question is, how long has he being using whatever it is he was using?

And what is the cost to the Dodgers? How about something pretty big, like credibility.

Hittin’ weather

Raul IbanezCrazy day at the old ballyard yesterday. So crazy that I had four different stories written during the game based on the outcome only to scrap them all when Raul Ibanez smacked his grand slam and when we learned Brad Lidge had an MRI, a cortisone shot AND was taking anti-inflammatory medication.

So yeah, crazy day at the ol’ ballpark.

“Good ol’ slugfest,” Charlie Manuel said.

Charlie calls these early hot days “hittin’ weather.” He’s certainly right about that considering the ball seems to travel a little bit longer when the winds are calm and the temperatures higher at Citizens Bank Park. Ibanez says he noticed the ball carrying well during batting practice earlier on Monday afternoon. But even Ibanez or Manuel would have had difficulty predicting the long shots belted by the Nationals and Phillies.

Not only did two shots clear the center field fence and strike the batter’s eye (Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard), but the Nats clubbed two upper deck shots – one to left by Zimmerman and one to right by Nick Johnson – and blasted one onto Ashburn Alley by Elijah Dukes.

Clearly the Nats gained more yards in the air than the Washington football team did all of last season.

Though the Phillies offense seems to be clicking after the two losses to the Brewers late last week and the first part of the Marlins games, Manuel is clearly concerned about the team’s pitching. The staff’s ERA is far and away the worst in the National League and only the Rangers and Yankees have a worse mark in the Majors.

“Looks to me like they are leaving pitches out over the good part of the plate,” Manuel said when asked about his staff’s troubles.

And by good he meant from a hitter’s perspective.

At this point it seems as if the manager has little flexibility in regard to his staff. J.C. Romero is still serving his suspension (he has 32 games to go), Lidge might have a DL stint coming and the starters aren’t giving the relievers too many breaks. So far the Phillies are fifth in the league for innings by relievers and 14th in innings pitched by starters.

Unlike with hitters, Manuel can’t sit pitchers when they struggle. In fact, it might be the exact opposite – if a pitcher is struggling the manager might opt to get him more work.

You know, depending on the circumstance.

Surely the pitching will be a topic to rear its head again soon…

*
Not messing around…
Speaking of J.C. Romero, the suspended reliever is not messing around with his law suit against the makers of the supplement 6-OXO Extreme as well as the retailers that sell the product. How so? Consider that he has Howard Jacobs as one of his attorneys.

Yes, that Howard Jacobs.

For anyone who follows cycling, track or doping cases, Howard Jacobs is the go-to name in law. It seems as if he has represented everyone from Tyler Hamilton to Floyd Landis to Marian Jones. If there is one lawyer who knows about the ins and outs of doping tests and drugs in sports, it’s Jacobs.

Better yet, Jacobs was a competitive triathlete so he understands all of the aspects of doping and athlete’s rights.

The presence of Jacobs on Romero’s legal team as well as thoughts from several attorneys weighing in on the case indicates that the pitcher has a strong case.

Still, one lawyer said if the supplement company advertised its product as something that complies with the MLB testing regimen, then yeah, Romero has a case. Otherwise, he might be losing even more cash.

The blame game

hamiltonIt wasn’t all that long ago that Tyler Hamilton was expected to be the next big name in American professional cycling. It wasn’t one of those passing-the-torch deals either with Lance Armstrong completing his run and then giving way to Hamilton. Oh no. Hamilton was supposed to be one of those guys who could have challenged Armstrong.

Hamilton could have taken it all away.

But things have a weird way of working out sometimes. Armstrong won seven straight titles at the Tour de France reasonably easily. Hamilton certainly had a hand in some of those victories, first as Lance’s top lieutenant for the U.S. Postal teams in the early part of the decade and then as a star-crossed/accident-prone rider for Phonak and finally as a suspended drug cheat.

Yes, sometimes folks take different paths and often the short cut is nothing more than a misnomer.

Certainly the first drug suspension for Hamilton is up for debate even if some of the arguments sound preposterous. Don’t let anyone tell you that the anti-doping agencies are as pure as they pretend to be. After all, there’s money in the medicine, not the cure, to use a popular phrase.

Nevertheless, in his latest comeback while riding on the domestic scene with Rock Racing, Hamilton tested positive for DHEA, which is an ingredient in some vitamin supplements used to treat depression. Certainly if Hamilton wanted to fight the performance-enhancing properties of an anti-depressant, he likely would have found a sympathetic audience.

But that’s not what Hamilton did. Instead, he said that he not only took the supplement with DHEA, but knew it was banned and still did it. In the aftermath, Hamilton didn’t win any races nor lead his team to big victories. He simply revealed what he had done.

Then he retired.

No fuss, no muss, no fight. One has to wonder if Hamilton didn’t intentionally sabotage himself.

Meanwhile, J.C. Romero of the Phillies also drew a suspension for taking an over-the-counter supplement called 6-OXO Extreme. He tested positive, went through the arbitration and appeals process and lost. That meant 50 games right off the top of the 2009 season for Romero, though he pitched for the team after taking the supplement.

Here’s the thing – the makers of 6-OXO Extreme (the same guy who invented drugs for BALCO) labeled the product as legal, which obviously it is. However, after some very rudimentary research it was clear that the supplement raised testosterone levels. I’m no scientist or doctor, but that sounds like a steroid…

Anyway, here’s one published report on the effects of 6-OXO:

Also, after a steroid cycle, the compound may be used to shorten the recovery from the testicular suppression that can be the result of the use of steroids.

A recent United States patent application claims an 88% increase in plasma testosterone levels in men, while decreasing estrogen levels by 11%. The subjects took 300mg orally twice a day for four weeks without taking any other drugs or supplements.

Baylor University conducted an eight-week study to determine the effects of 300 mg or 600 mg of 6-OXO in resistance-trained males. Compared to baseline, free testosterone increased by 90% for 300 mg group and 84% for 600 mg group, respectively. Also dihydrotestosterone and the ratio of free testosterone to estradiol increased significantly. This study did not utilize a control group and was funded in part by two producers of commercial 4-AT.

In a warning letter dated July 7, 2006, the FDA argues that marketing of 4-AT (aka, 6-OXO) violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and as such products containing it are adulterated by legal definition.

On June 18, 2008, Health Canada issued a warning that 4-AT and 6-OXO had a health risk related to blood clotting and recommended all users immediately cease use.

jcromeroCertainly Romero admitted his mistake and apologized. He also took responsibility for using the product though he likely received some bad advice. Shoot, he’s a really nice guy who is always ready to answer a question or provide some insight. Plus, Romero’s story has remained consistent. He made a (honest) mistake and is paying for it very much like Hamilton. After all, athletes are responsible for what they have in their bodies.

But unlike Hamilton, Romero has filed a suit against the makers of 6-OXO Extreme (as well as the Vitamin Shoppe where he says he bought the supplement) claiming they did not properly label the product to reveal it contained androstenedione.

“Testing positive and being suspended from baseball was one of the most painful experiences in my life and robbed me of the joy of winning the World Series and damaged my reputation in the process,” Romero said in a statement. “I purchased an over-the-counter supplement that I was told and believed would not cause me to test positive. These events have hurt me deeply and placed a cloud over my career, accomplishments and family. It is my hope that I can finally start to put this event behind me and protect the interests of others who rely on manufacturers and retailers to be honest about their products. I look forward to rejoining the Phillies and my teammates at the end of my suspension.”

So did Romero really know what he was taking? Who knows? But in one sense it kind of seems like one of those cases where someone sues McDonald’s because the cheeseburgers caused weight gain.

Maybe Romero didn’t know, but that’s his fault.

All rock all the time…

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

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

Hey, crazier things have happened.

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

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

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

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

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

1.) Jamie Moyer’s age

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

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

Better yet, don’t.

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

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

He’s 46? Big deal.

2.) J.C. Romero’s suspension

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

Why? And why not?

3.) Lefty lineup

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

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

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

chuck4.) Charlie Manuel’s managerial acumen

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

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

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

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

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

It’s worked so far.

5.) Raul Ibanez vs. Pat Burrell

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

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

Right?

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

Whatever the hell that means.

Seventh inning: Close calls and Nomar

Things are starting to come together nicely for manager Charlie Manuel this afternoon. Actually, I guess it’s the evening now – it’s after 7 p.m.

Semantics aside, the game is playing out just the way ol’ Charlie likes it. He just had J.C. Romero in the seventh with set-up man Ryan Madson warming up for the eighth. For the last two months, Madson has been as sharp as he ever has at any point of his career. In the eighth, Madson has been as reliable as closer Brad Lidge has been in the ninth.

Meanwhile, Lidge isn’t throwing, but he’s stirring around out there in the bullpen.

Interestingly, though, Manuel looks as if he’s going to lean on Madson to get four outs tonight. After Romero gave out a two-out walk to Matt Kemp, manager Joe Torre sent in Nomar Garciaparra to pinch hit.

Isn’t it amazing that Nomar is pretty much just a pinch hitter these days? Remember how good he was before all the injuries took their toll? Remember that six-hit game he had at the Vet in the wild game that ended with Todd Pratt belting that walk-off bomb?

Mayhem reigned in that one.

Speaking of mayhem, the scene nearly broke into a state of anarchy with two outs in the inning when Casey Blake drilled one 400-feet to center field. The crowd actually gasped when it was hit, clearly thinking the worst. But when Shane Victorino measured it up, leapt up against the wall and hauled it in, the roar from the stands reverberated.

Just looks like any other out in the box score.

End of 7: Phillies 8, Dodgers 5

Eighth inning: Save situations

Ryan Madson has a simple job here in the eighth inning…

Keep the lead.

That’s it. All the lanky right-handed reliever has to do is get through the inning relatively unscathed so Brad Lidge can come in for the ninth and close it out.

Frankly, Madson has one of those jobs that no one notices until he doesn’t do it properly. But the fact is his job is every bit as important as Lidge’s. This time, Madson kind of got it done. The Phillies left the eighth with the lead intact, though the reliever only notched two outs before Charlie Manuel summoned lefty J.C. Romero.

The move became necessary when Madson allowed a two-out hit to Ryan Braun that brought up lefty Prince Fielder with two on and a chance to tie the game with one swing. Needless to say, it’s not a position the Phillies have been too unfamiliar with during the first two games of this series.

Baseball is about pitching and defense in the playoffs. In that regard, Romero had a short – and vitally important – outing in the eighth. He threw just one pitch. It was a fastball that got in on the hands of Fielder, broke his bat into tiny pieces and sent the ball rolling slowly toward Chase Utley at second.

Inning over. Lidge will get the ball with the lead in the ninth.

End of 8: Phillies 5, Brewers 2

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?

We’re getting the band back together!

J.C. RomeroSuddenly – just like that – it appears as if the Phillies have a pretty good-looking bullpen.

Now, if only they could get a No. 2 starter and slide Brett Myers back into an eighth inning role for new closer Brad Lidge

Digressing, the Phillies finally ironed out the long-awaited deal with left-handed relief pitcher J.C. Romero, and could be nearly finished with their wintertime shopping before Thanksgiving.

After trading for closer Brad Lidge earlier this week, the Phillies kept Romero in the fold to strengthen a bullpen that now features Tom Gordon and Ryan Madson to work with the aforementioned relievers.

Re-signing Romero was a “priority” for the Phillies this off-season.

“J.C. had an outstanding three months for us this year, particularly down the stretch,” assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in a statement. “He was an integral part of our winning the NL East and we’re very happy we could get him signed before he hit the open market.”

To keep Romero from hitting the open market, the Phillies and Romero agreed to a three-year deal worth $12 million. The Phillies hold a club option for a fourth year that could bring the total value of the contract to $16.75 million. That’s not too bad considering that in 51 games with the Phillies, Romero posted a 1.24 ERA and held opponents to a .130 batting average. During that stretch, lefties went 5-for-40 (.125) against Romero.

Better yet, Romero was quite durable down the stretch for the NL East champion Phillies by appearing in 20 of the Phillies’ 28 games in September as well as all three playoff games. In 15 2/3 innings during September, Romero did not allow a run. During one stretch, Romero appeared in nine of 10 games and five straight during the next-to-last week of the season.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to go out and test the free agent market,” Romero said. “I had a great time with the Phillies and really wanted to come back. I’m excited and looking forward to next season and hopefully we come out and defend our NL East title the way I know we can. The nucleus has remained the same and we added the right pieces. We need to go out and do what everyone expects us to do, which is win a World Series.”

Romero has done quite well for himself considering the Phillies only picked him up after he was waived by the Boston Red Sox on June 18. He spent the first seven seasons in the big leagues with the Twins, before pitching for the Angels in 2006.