Why can’t Serena play like the boys?

serenaSpending 14 hours at the ballpark for one of those greedy day-night doubleheaders sometimes leaves a guy with a little down time. If only they had cots or hammocks in the joint perhaps a little catnap would have refreshed and revived the baseball scribes.

Nevertheless, I had a chance to catch some of the baseball highlight shows since all the televisions in the press box were magically turned to ESPN in the hours leading up to the late-night second game.

Apropos of that, if there is one thing that writers and ballplayers can agree upon it’s the Sunday night games on ESPN stink. They are almost more annoying than the 4 p.m. games on Fox, which are at the perfect time to ruin your day. They are too early to be a night game and too late to be a real day game – you’re just screwed if you actually want to have a life.

But whatever – no one wants to hear a guy who hangs out at the ballpark all day whine about what time they start the games. Besides, the thing that stood out on the highlight show was the scene from Yankee Stadium when manager Joe Girardi ranted and raved with the umpire over a call. In fact, Girardi was so demonstrative during his argument that he appeared to have ejected the umpire after he got the ol’ heave-ho.

That wasn’t the end of it either. Girardi threw his hat, bobbed his head and kicked dirt, and when the tantrum went on too long, he actually needed to be physically restrained from charging after the ump.

It was quite a scene, man.

Meanwhile, in Boston ex-Phillie Pat Burrell was tossed from a game without the show Girardi provided, but certainly with the venom. Mired in a 1-for-19 slump in September, Burrell’s ejection (which undoubtedly included some choice words) was more about his inability to hit and frustration than the call.

Either way, Burrell’s show of outrage was only a handful of seconds shorter than that of Serena Williams during Saturday night’s semifinals match at the US Open in New York City.

You know, the thing everyone is flipping out about.

So here’s the question: How come it’s OK for men to curse, swear and act like little children when arguing with the officials, but if a woman does it she has gone over the line? In tennis, no less?

For those who just saw the theatrics and not the questionable call that pushed the tirade, here’s what happened: Serena was called foot fault, which is more rare than catcher’s interference or a balk in baseball. With the semifinals match and the No. 1 ranking in the world on the line, a foot fault call — especially one that was questionable to begin with — is unheard of. It just never happens, let alone at such a critical moment in the last major tennis tournament of the year.

So Serena flipped a bit. She yelled, dropped a curse word or two, and sent the line judge scurrying to the top officials in some sort of racial tableau that would have been such a ridiculous stereotype if it weren’t actually happening.

“If I could, I would take this … ball and shove it down your … throat,” Williams reportedly told the line judge, according published reports.

Yeah, that’s it. Good thing baseball players and baseball officials don’t have the delicate sensibilities of the tennis hierarchy. You don’t want to know what Charlie Manuel says during his arguments. Earl Weaver, Billy Martin or Bobby Cox… forget it.

That’s really the case considering we’re talking about a sport where Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Illie Nastase had actual profane meltdowns on the court that rivaled anything in any other men’s sport. Hell, ballplayers and men tennis players are applauded for acting that way. They are called, “fiery,” and sometimes the fans even chant their names when they throw a tantrum.

In comparison, the hand-wringing and indignation over the on-court anger from Serena is not only ridiculous, but also insulting and stupid. It also makes one wonder if there is something else at play here.

Double-standard anyone?

serena“Women definitely pay a higher price for the same ‘crime,’” tennis great Martina Navratilova told ESPN.com’s Bonnie Ford. “When Martina Hingis walked around the net to question a line call at the French Open, the crowd was on her case like I couldn’t believe. Jimmy Connors did the same thing, they booed him when he did it, and then he won the next two points and they were cheering for him again.”

Williams has been fined $10,500 and there is talk of suspension, too.

Really? For what?

For acting like an athlete in the heat of the match who was upset over a perceived slight?

For doing things that the men tennis players do?

For upsetting the perceived genteel nature of women’s sports and/or tennis in particular?

How about for potentially offending a sponsor or two?

Hmmmmm…

Next: Back to Pedro and baseball

If you don’t want to see, close your eyes

metsA few years ago another scribe and I were shooting the breeze with Pat Burrell before a game. If I’m not mistaken, the conversation covered all of the ground regarding the ex-Phillies outfielder’s workouts at the prestigious Athletes’ Performance Center in Arizona and golfer Phil Mickelson’s empty locker in the joint as well as his alleged penchant for gambling.

You know, basic pre-game fodder.

But then the question was posed to Burrell if he had read something written about him in one of the local papers. This was the final year of Larry Bowa’s tenure as the manager of the Phillies so some of the stories written by some of the folks in the press weren’t the gentlest of critiques of the teams’ play. The story in question was definitely one of those.

Burrell, however, never saw the story and didn’t seem too interested, either. His general thoughts on the local press (supposedly) was that they (we) are “rats.” It’s an unfortunate description especially since I prefer to use the cunning and quick-witted fox to describe some members of the press corps. Yeah, there are a few rats, but they are more like that Templeton from Charlotte’s Web.

Anyway, Burrell then revealed that (one) of the reasons why he didn’t see the story was because the team was not allowed to have newspapers in the clubhouse. Yeah, there was freedom of the press to assemble in the clubhouse, but by edict of manager Larry Bowa, the work of those meddling reporters was verboten in the inner sanctum lest some of the words over-boil the blood of the ballplayers.

In fact, it wasn’t until Charlie Manuel was hired as manager of the Phillies that newspapers were strewn about the common areas of the room. Better yet, ballplayers were able to fold over the pages and sit comfortably to do the daily crossword puzzle, Sudoku or jumble without engaging in subterfuge or the threat of scorn and fines.

Yes, it was a great day for literacy when Charlie Manuel became manager of the Phillies.

But in New York another manager named Manuel is not so as enlightened as our Charlie. In fact, Jerry Manuel of the New York Mets has enacted a Bowa-esque media blackout only with a certain caveat:

The USA Today is allowed in the Mets’ new clubhouse at CitiField, but The New York Post and New York Daily News, well, those papers aren’t quite up to the Mets’ Major League standards.

The edict, apparently, was to avoid “bad vibes,” which is fair. Look, if I don’t like a radio station, I turn the station. If I don’t like a TV show, I turn the channel. And you sure as shoot better believe that if I don’t like a periodical, I’m not going to lug it around town or have it delivered to my home and/or office.

So why should the Mets?

When word of Bowa’s paper banned leaked out the consensus seemed to be shrugged shoulders or bemused laughter. I looked at it as Nixon-esque paranoia by a guy wrapped a little too tight because I knew the papers weren’t banned because of the political bent of the Op-Ed pages. The sports section of some of the local papers rankle some delicate sensibilities – it’s OK.

Different strokes.

But in New York, the exorcism of the papers made all of the papers – and blogs. Better yet, the game story in the Post the other day led with the “controversy.” Sure, Beltran is hitting the ball like crazy, but he can’t read the Post or Daily News after the game…

Stop the press!

Or don’t… the Mets couldn’t care one way or the other.

**

In the Times, a newspaper not listed on the Mets’ clubhouse ban (though it could be), our old pal Doug Glanville dives into the latest A-Rod controversy regarding the tipping of pitches to the opposition.

Good stuff from Doug, again.


graphic from The Sports Hernia

Betting on Raul

raul-ibanezHuge slumps aside, Pat Burrell was an integral part of the Phillies’ victory in the World Series last year. Actually, his only hit of the Series set up the WFC-winning run. As a result, he got to lead the parade down Broad Street atop of a Clydesdale-drawn beer truck with his wife and dog.

C’mon, you remember.

Anyway, it should be no surprise that Burrell’s replacement in left field and the batting order has received a bit of attention as the most-anticipated season in team history quickly approaches.

Both The New York Times and Sports Illustrated have pinned a portion of the Phillies’ success on whether or not Raul Ibanez can continue his string of 100-RBI seasons. Hitting fifth in the lineup behind the Phillies’ big hitters, Ibanez should get his chances to drive in a few runs.

At least that’s the reasoning behind why general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Ibanez for three years and allowed Burrell to walk.

From SI:

Burrell’s other shortcoming was at the plate, where he was just as prone to kill a rally as a hanging curve. “Raul doesn’t give us as much raw power as Pat, but we felt like he was going to be a more consistent hitter,” says general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (Manuel echoed the sentiment when he used the word consistent three times in 10 seconds while talking about Ibañez.) Burrell hit .215 in the second half of 2008 — the same average he had in the first half of ’07 — and he hit .234 with runners in scoring position for the entire season. Ibañez, on the other hand, has been largely immune from peaks and valleys; in his seven seasons as a regular, he’s never hit worse than .260 in a half. And he’s a career .305 hitter with runners in scoring position.

So there’s that. Ibanez makes more contact, has a better batting average and, thus, drives in more runs than Burrell. But Ibanez’s left-handedness also puts manager Charlie Manuel in a tough spot in the late innings.

As SI suggests, maybe a slight lineup adjustment makes sense:

Having replaced lumbering Pat Burrell in leftfield with lumbering Raul Ibañez, the Phillies find themselves with the 3-4-5 part of their lineup batting exclusively from the left side. That will be a major tactical issue late in games, when opposing managers bring in relief specialists to face Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Ibañez in high-leverage situations. All lefthanded hitters struggle against such lefties as the Braves’ Mike Gonzalez and the Mets’ Pedro Feliciano. Sliding Jayson Werth (career .374 on-base percentage, .545 slugging versus lefthanders) into the fifth spot ahead of Ibañez would force managers to choose between making a pitching change or taking a bad matchup, a decision that will come up repeatedly in the 36 games Philadelphia plays against its top two division rivals.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of the right-handed hitter for the bench. Gary Sheffield is all the talk for now, but (for a lot of reasons) doesn’t seem realistic. Besides, Sheffield is a big name that gets people talking – certainly the Phillies have been pretty good at getting people to talk lately.

Maybe a slugger like Willy Mo Pena – recently released by the Nationals – might be the big right-handed bat the Phillies need for the bench?

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.

‘… we all have to share the same pair of pants’

jimmyThis current group of Phillies really get around. Think about it… the TV commercials, the MVP Awards, the playoff runs and parades, as well as a the WFC.

Always making speeches and always entertaining the fans.

But get this — Jimmy Rollins became the third Phillie on the current roster to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, joining Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. It surpasses the previous record of two set by John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra of the ’93 Phils when they yucked it up with Dave.

Here’s Jimmy and his Team USA WBC buddies:

In 1981, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt appeared in 7-Up commercials and Real People with co-host Fran Tarkenton.

OK, I made that last part up, though it illustrates a point… it’s pretty sweet to live in the digital age, huh? Imagine if there was a proliferation of cable TV, and multimedia back during the first Golden Age of Phillies baseball… sure, Pete Rose would be able to handle himself well with the press. Say what you will about Rose, but give him credit where it’s due — the guy can tell some stories. Having had the chance to spend an afternoon with him in Las Vegas (I know!), Pete is a classic storyteller, if not one of the best ever in baseball.

Schmidt, though not in Rose’s class, is always good for some stellar quotes or two. Just ask Pat Burrell about that.

But Carlton… sheesh! Thank goodness there was no Internet during his playing days. How would he handle playing in this era of baseball with guys like me trolling around. Good luck with that, Lefty.

Carlton, of course, famously did not speak to the press. If I have the story correct, the reason why he stopped talking to sportswriters about pitching a baseball had something to do with Conlin… that and taking himself waaaay too seriously.

But after having seen some of Carlton’s media work over the last few years, he definitely did us all a favor. Besides. could you have imagined Carlton on the Mike Douglas Show.

Nope, me either.

Nevertheless, maybe Letterman will have an entire panel of Phillies on his show sometime the way he did with U2 this week. It could be rating gold … in Philadelphia, at least.

Oh, and while we’re posting clips, this one from Wednesday’s Daily Show was awesome!

Jimmy can take one to the sternum

The reward for winning the World [bleeping] Series? Why it’s the endorsements, of course.

Check out Jimmy Rollins doing an ad (and taking a few for the team) for the sporting goods retailer, Dicks.

Take a look

The fear, of course, is that the exposure and the attention go to Jimmy and the Phillies’ heads. But now that Pat Burrell is gone, guys like me don’t have to worry about Jimmy rising from Pat’s ashes…

Do we?

Anyway, Jimmy has some pretty sweet acting chops. If this baseball thing doesn’t work out maybe he’ll have something to fall back on?

Sixth inning: Big swings

Yes, the Phillies continue to struggle with the bats. Derek Lowe entered the sixth having thrown just 75 pitches, which puts him in excellent position to give the Dodgers’ bullpen a big rest tonight.

However, the Dodgers’ offense isn’t exactly lighting it up either. Though the Dodgers have put five runners in scoring position (resulting in a pair of runs), they are just 1-for-6 with the ol’ ducks on the pond. Because of that the Phillies are a lucky break and a big swing away from changing things around.

In the sixth, the lucky break came when Rafael Furcal’s throwing error on (another) ground ball hit by Shane Victorino gave the Phillies their first real threat.

The big swing came a few pitches later when Chase Utley knocked one into the right-field seats to knot the game at 2.

Earlier this week manager Charlie Manuel said he believed Utley was very close to breaking out of his second-half and post-season malaise. Earlier tonight I wrote that Utley will be the key to this series…

Looks like the second baseman made Charlie and me look smart.

How about that?

Pat Burrell made Mike Gill look smart by popping a 3-1 pitch into the left-field stands to give the Phils a one-run lead. At the same time, the homer forced Joe Torre to summon reliever Chan Ho Park to finish the inning.

Just like that Derek Lowe’s gem turned into a short night… sometimes it’s funny how fast fortunes change in this game.

Lowe’s line:

5 1/3 IP, 3 R, 2 ER, 6 H, 1 BB, 2 K, 2 HR – 90 pitches, 55 strikes

Let’s see how Hamels handles pitching with a lead.

End of 6: Phillies 3, Dodgers 2

Second inning: Settling in

The time between the innings is a little longer during this series as compared to the rest of the year. The reason, of course, is that Fox needs a few more ticks to sell some stuff and show those commercials.

Commerce, man. Commerce.

Longer inning or not, Cole Hamels settled in and breezed through the second inning on just X pitches. He whiffed both Casey Blake and Derek Lowe for his first clean frame and third strikeout.

Whatever jitters Hamels had in the first were worked out in the second.

On another note, I was on the Mike Gill Show this afternoon where the host, Mike Gill, made an interesting point. I said the difference in this series could very well come down to the ability of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to produce against the Dodgers’ right-handed heavy pitching staff. To that, Mike said the Dodgers likely would take a similar tact as the Brewers in the NLDS and pitch around Howard, forcing Pat Burrell to the plate in some key situations.

You know what? That Mike Gill knows his stuff. If the Dodgers aren’t going to allow Howard to beat them, Burrell’s at-bats become that much more important.

But when Burrell led off the second with a single down the line to left, he was quickly erased when Jayson Werth grounded into a double play.

That’s a pretty good indicator that Derek Lowe’s patented sinker is working well.

End of 2: Dodgers 1, Phillies 0

Eighth inning: Burrell blasts and Utley’s swoon

MILWAUKEE – Take away that double off Mike Cameron’s glove in Game 1, and the single early in Game 3 is the only hit for Chase Utley during the NLDS. Certainly the middle-of-the-order struggles have been well chronicled by folks like me, but it seems as if at least one guy got it going just in the nick of time.

Pat Burrell greeted new pitcher Guillermo Mota with a home run that just cleared the left-field fence for his second blast of the game.

Yes, talk about perfect timing…

With the two bombs and three hits in Game 4, Burrell has four RBIs after going 0-for-8 in the first three games of the series. Needless to say, the Phillies will need a few more games like this one if they are going to be successful in the NLCS against the Dodgers. At the very least, Burrell could earn himself a nice new contract somewhere if he puts together a nice postseason.

Meanwhile, Utley’s performance during the playoffs (as well the second half of the season) has to be a concern for manager Charlie Manuel. Then again, it’s not like Utley’s playoff malaise is confined to just this season. So far, Utley is 4-for-26 (.154) in seven career playoff games.

However, Utley is going to get some more chances to get some hits in the playoffs this season. That means the Phillies are winning ballgames.

Who cares about the numbers when the team wins?

Right?

Ryan Madson gave up a run on two hits in the eighth, but at this point the Phillies are just playing for outs.

End of 8: Phillies 6, Brewers 2

Third inning: Feel the thunder

MILWAUKEE – Things seem to have settled in here at Miller Park. Sure, those annoying thunder sticks are still clamoring, but not with the same volume as during the beginning of the game.

If, however, the Brewers stage a rally or something, we might all need some ibuprofen or something.

Nevertheless, Shane Victorino got a hustling double on a little blooper just over third base with one out and then moved to third on a ground out by Chase Utley

Yes, once again the middle of the order failed with runners in scoring position.

That didn’t last, though. For the first time in a long time, the Phils delivered a HUGE hit with runners on when Pat Burrell smacked a bomb off Jeff Suppan following an intentional walk to Ryan Howard.

Needless to say, the thunder sticks got a little quieter.

For some reason the noise coming out of those thunder sticks sounded a lot like boos after Jayson Werth pasted a long homer to the concourse in center field. That one spelled the end for Jeff Suppan:

3 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 2 BB, 3 K, 3 HR – 65 pitches, 41 strikes.

Go ahead and book your flights to LA, folks. The Phillies will be hard-pressed to blow this one. That’s especially the case after they had an inning without a runner left on base.

End of 3: Phillies 5, Brewers 0

Second inning: Left on base, ibid


MILWAUKEE – The Phillies are back to putting runners on base, while Jayson Werth is back to striking out. Actually, it’s been feast or famine for the Phils’ right fielder who has a pair of two-hit games and six strikeouts in 14 at-bats.

However, Pat Burrell got his first hit of the series. Not so coincidentally, the hit came off Jeff Suppan, a pitcher Burrell has a career .429 batting average against with three homers.

Still, the Phillies got back to leaving runners in scoring position when Greg Dobbs, starting for the first time in the series, laced a single to right-center. He advanced to second on a wild pitch to give the Phillies a big opportunity to break it open a bit with just one out, but Suppan bore down and whiffed both Carlos Ruiz and Joe Blanton to end the threat and strikeout the side.

Meanwhile, Blanton looks pretty good on the mound through two frames. He got two pop ups during a perfect second and five of his six outs have come on soft flies.

Still, with 36 pitches through two innings, Blanton might be piling them up a little too quickly.

End of 2: Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Pregame: Here comes Big CC

Back at the ballpark again where the Phillies look to take a 2-0 series lead against the Milwaukee Brewers in the best-of-five NLDS. As anyone who would read this site knows by now, the Phillies held off the Brewers to win Game 1, 3-1, behind one of Cole Hamels’ best outings ever.

Who knows… maybe it was the best outing by a Phillies pitcher in a playoff opener ever, too. Certainly Curt Schilling against the Braves in Game 1 of the 1993 NLCS has to rate up there – that was the one where Schilling whiffed the first five hitters of the game on his way to 10 whiffs as the Phils went on to win in the 10th on Kim Batiste’s game-winning hit.

But if the Phillies are going to get that commanding two-zip lead tonight, they will have their work cut out for them. After all, Big CC is going.

Big CC, of course, is CC Sabathia, the defending American League Cy Young Award winner who joined the Brewers in a deadline deal that Phillie Geoff Jenkins mused was the greatest deadline acquisition ever.

Without a chance to dive into some research I’m going to say it’s a tough statement to argue with. Certainly the raw numbers bear that out. In 17 starts since joining the Brewers, Sabathia went 11-2 with seven complete games, 128 strikeouts in 130 innings and a 1.65 ERA.

In just that short amount of time it’s not unreasonable to peg the big lefty as a viable NL Cy Young Award candidate. In that regard the reason has less to do with the numbers than the impact. After all, when the Brewers were reeling and limping through the first part of the month, Sabathia took the ball whenever asked. In fact, he worked on short rest in three consecutive starts to close the season, seemingly willing the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

Sabathia will make his fourth start in a row on short rest tonight.

“We know we have our work cut out for us,” Pat Burrell said. “This guy has been phenomenal for them all year. You see [pitchers work on short rest] all the time, but you don’t see guys who come over and dominate the way he has.”

Charlie Manuel told a story the other day how he and pitching coach Dick Pole nearly got fired in Cleveland for campaign so hard to get Sabathia on the team out of spring training in 2001. All Sabathia did that season to justify Manuel’s argument was go 17-5.

Nevertheless, Manuel is curious to see how strong his former protégé pitches on short rest again.

“I think they’ve pitched him a lot. I’m kind of anxious to see when his stuff when the game starts,” Manuel said. “But he has a tremendous feel for a pitch. He has a changeup and a slider and he can bury a slider on righties and he can reach up and go 95, 96 with something on it.

“And he’s very much in control of himself.”

Yes, the Phillies will have their work cut out for them. Then again, we all will.

Phillies
11 – Rollins, ss
8 – Victorino, cf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
28 – Werth, rf
7 – Feliz, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
39 – Myers, p

Brewers
25 – Cameron, cf
5 – Durham, 2b
8 – Braun, lf
28 – Fielder, 1b
7 – Hardy, ss
1 – Hart, rf
30 – Counsell, 3b
18 – Kendall, c
52 – Sabathia, p

Check back closer to game time…

2nd inning: Big wind and big rain

Don’t look now (OK… go ahead), but it looks like a storm is brewing.

That’s no metaphor, either. It really looks like a real, downpour with thunder and lightning and all of that jazz is creeping up on us. Judging from the view of the in-motion weather map on Rich Hofmann’s laptop, there are a bunch of greens, yellows and oranges about to cover up South Philadelphia.

That’s not good.

It’s not good because Cole Hamels is dealing right now. In the second the lefty sat ‘em down in order on just 11 pitches with one more strikeout. If the game goes into a delay, that could be the end of Hamels’ outing.

As I typed that sentence, Kevin Horan of Phillies.com said, “You know, if there’s a delay they could lose Hamels.”

See, the kid is sharp. It’s also his birthday. No. 23 for the kid… remember when you were 23?

Yeah.

Anyway, Ryan Howard beat the shift by working a walk. However, he was quickly erased when Pat Burrell grounded into a first-pitch double play. Apparently Burrell’s back is OK, but he’s not any faster.

The inning began with steady raindrop and a gusting wind blowing toward right field that could be deadly if a hitter got one up in the stream. In fact, it is so murky, blustery and cloudy that the visage of Center City off in the distance disappeared.

Goose eggs. No hits or nuthin’

End of 1 Phils 0, Brewers 0

Pregame: Burrell in the lineup

Greeting from friendly Citizens Bank Park where we are back in the same spot for Game 1 of the NLDS just the way we were last year. Better yet, just so we don’t confuse anyone the live, in-progress updates will flow like water from a faucet.

Indeed.

Lots of media here today as one would expect… looks like those newspaper types are still hanging on while they still can. Hang tough, guys. It won’t be much longer…

Nevertheless, there was plenty of intrigue here at the Park this morning. For one, manager Charlie Manuel told us he made out two different lineups for the opening game. In one, Pat Burrell was in his normal spot in the order and playing left field just like always.

But in another, Jayson Werth shifted from right field to left and veteran Matt Stairs was slated to play right. That contingency was made just in case Burrell’s aching back did not hold up following a strain he suffered during batting practice yesterday.

However, after he took his hacks this afternoon, Burrell shot Manuel the thumbs up and declared himself ready to go. Besides, trainer Scott Sheridan said Burrell was feeling “significantly better” last night and showed up at the park at 8 a.m. this morning for treatment.

So far everything appears to be OK for Burrell and the Phillies.

Here’s today’s lineup:

11 – Rollins, ss
28 – Werth, rf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
8 – Victorino, cf
7 – Feliz, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
35 – Hamels, p

The Brewers will counter with:

25 – Cameron, cf
2 – Hall, 3b
8 – Braun, lf
28 – Fielder, 1b
7 – Hardy, ss
1 – Hart, rf
23 – Weeks, 2b
18 – Kendall, c
49 – Gallardo, p

Meanwhile, the Phillies will go with 11 pitchers during the first round which means reliever Rudy Seanez will not be on the NLDS roster. Instead, the Phillies will have outfielder So Taguchi off the bench and rookie lefty J.A. Happ as the long man. This morning Manuel said the roster decisions were difficult.

“That was the toughest decision we had to make. Seanez played a big part in our season, especially early and all the way up to July,” Manuel said.

“Happ is on the roster in case we need a long guy real early or incase we get into a situation where the game goes into extra innings and we need a multiple innings guy.”

Finally, Shane Victorino’s shin is fine, too.

Check back closer to game time. I’m going to fight the crowd and find something to eat in the dining room.

Ned Yost out-foxed by Charlie

In baseball, it’s never too difficult to figure out when the manager is going to get fired. Sometimes you can feel it coming in very much the same way in which you sense a really bad rainstorm. Dark clouds usually follow around torrential rain and doomed managers.

As a result, no one really wants to hang around when they know a storm is coming. Instead, folks move somewhere indoors where it’s safe and hope the cable doesn’t get knocked out.

Anyone who saw the Milwaukee Brewers up close this weekend couldn’t ignore the signs that a storm was brewing. Nursing a four-game lead of the Phillies in the wild-card race when the weekend started, the Brewers slinked out of town with their tails between their legs after first-place had disappeared into thin air.

Worse, the players on the Brewers moved around as if they knew they were fighting a losing battle. One could hear footfalls when moving across the carpet in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park because the room was so quiet. If we didn’t know better, it felt as if the walls were inching closer and closer by the minute to properly reflect the tightness emanating from the ballplayers.

Not only were they tight, but also the Brewers were tense, angry, helpless, confused and frustrated. They avoided eye contact with one another and spoke in whispers. When they walked they looked straight ahead and moved with stealth so as to not draw any attention as they attempted a silent getaway.

Indeed, it was a bad weekend for the Brewers.

“This series was a complete and total disaster,” outfielder Ryan Braun said. “It couldn’t have gone any worse. [The Phillies] couldn’t have played any better. We couldn’t have played any worse. We can only go in one direction from here. It’s not going to get worse.”

Braun is correct on that last point. It won’t get any worse for the Brewers, who have lost 11 of the 14 games they have played in September. However, with 12 games to go the Brewers still are tied with the Phillies for first place in the wild-card race. That’s the reason general manager Doug Melvin and owner Mark Attanasio decided manager Ned Yost had to go. Clearly the way the Phillies and Charlie Manuel ran circles around Yost’s Brewers led to his ouster.

Nevertheless, it was an unprecedented move by the Brewers. In moving former Phillie Dale Sveum from the third-base coaching box to the manager’s seat, the Brewers have conceded that if they are going to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1982, they needed some big changes immediately.

“(Yost) didn’t have all the answers for what is going on the last two weeks and I’m not sure I have all the answers,” Melvin said during a news conference at a hotel in Chicago. “I’m not sure this is the right one, either.”

From this vantage point it seems like the right move. In fact, while walking through the corridor in the basement of Citizens Bank Park near the clubhouses, the sense of frustration from the Brewers as they walked silently to the bus that would take them to the airport and then to Chicago, was enough to knock a guy over. Desperation oozed from the confused faces so rich and thick that you could drizzle it over pancakes.

At the same time one could not mistake Manuel and the Phillies’ role in all of this. After all, it was Manuel who chose to use pitchers Jamie Moyer and Brett Myers on short rest during the series while Yost searched for excuses NOT to use the best pitcher in baseball in CC Sabathia on the similar amount of rest when his team was desperate for a win. It was also Manuel who signaled for a suicide squeeze bunt with catcher Carlos Ruiz at the plate because he had a hunch.

Meanwhile, Yost could not urge his hitters to be a little more patient at the plate against Myers, who tossed a complete-game shutout on just 95 pitches on just three-days rest. After the game even Myers could not understand why the Brewers’ hitters were so quick to swing the bats. Didn’t they realize he did not have his best stuff?

But the capper was when Yost chose to allow soft-tossing lefty Brian Shouse to pitch to the right-handed hitting Pat Burrell even though erratic but hard-throwing righty Eric Gagne was warmed up and ready to come into the game. Never mind the point that Burrell went to the plate hitting just .138 (4-for-29) during September and a .172 average since the end of July, and had an 0-for-3 mark with a strikeout against Gagne – Yost thought Shouse had a better chance at coaxing a ground ball from Burrell withtwo on and one out in the eighth inning of a tied game.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Shousie to get a ground ball and a double play,” Yost said. “I thought Shousie could get the job done.”

What gave him that idea? According to the aptly named web site, “Fire Ned Yost,” the Brewers almost had a better chance of turning a triple play with Shouse on the mound than a double play.

In 2008, Brian Shouse has pitched to 132 batters with 0 or 1 outs in the inning. Of those 132 plate appearances, 77 have been with a man on first base, and 5 have resulted in double plays. While that’s not as low a percentage as the triple play he likes to avoid, it’s still hard to understand where Ned’s faith in Shousie’s GDP ability come from. Well, unless it’s just faith, of course.

Shouse did get Burrell to hit a ground ball, but it rolled into the outfield to send in the go-ahead run. To add insult to injury, Shane Victorino followed Burrell’s single with a three-run homer.

So as we walked past the Brewers as they hustled to get out of town, I couldn’t help but wonder out loud, “They aren’t going to let the manager get on the charter are they?”

Apparently they did, but at that point it was just for a ride home.

Could it Happen? Phillies-Mets in the NLCS?

Let’s jump the gun for a minute here. Yes, yes, yes this is definitely the wrong time to entertain such thoughts, especially when there are 12 games remaining in the season. This time of year 12 games is a lifetime – anything can happen.

But then again it’s kind of what we do when we talk about sports. We love to speculate and allow our minds to wander while simultaneously second-guessing along with the action on the field.

So here it is:

What would happen if the Phillies played the Mets in the NLCS?

Hey, it could happen.

If I had to guess I’d say Shea Stadium and Citizens Bank Park would morph into European soccer stadiums for a Phillies-Mets NLCS. Fans would sing, chant, dance, cry and fight – and that would just be in the parking lot before the game. On the field, the action would resemble the final showdown between Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix in the movie, Gladiator.  At the very least it could reach a fever pitch in very much the same manner as the 2003 ALCS when Pedro Martinez tossed 70-year-old coach Don Zimmer to the ground as if he were a bag of leaves.

This time around Pedro is with the Mets, though it’s highly unlikely that he would pick a fight with any member of the Phillies’ staff. Pedro is better suited to mix it up with 70-year-old coaches.

Nevertheless, just the thought of a matchup between the Phillies and the Mets in the NLCS is enough to put a smirk on my face. Plus, it means one last trip to Shea…

Yay!

If the season were to end today, the Phillies would travel to Chicago to face the Cubs in the NLDS, while the Mets would host the Dodgers. For the Phillies, the end-of-the-season pitching matchups point to Brett Myers in Game 1, Jamie Moyer in Game 2 and Cole Hamels in Game 3. That’s certainly the way manager Charlie Manuel wants it to play out.

Again, there is a long way to go. Starting on Tuesday night the Phillies have three games in Atlanta followed by three next weekend in Florida. After sweeping the Brewers in four straight, the Phillies finally have that little extra bounce back in their steps.

“I really believe that we haven’t played the way we’re capable of playing,” said Pat Burrell, who snapped out of a two-month long slump with the go-ahead RBI single in Sunday’s opener to the day-night doubleheader, and then smashed a long homer to left in the nightcap. “We’ve been pretty inconsistent all year, and to be in the situation we’re in, we’re fortunate. I think there is better baseball still to be played.”

According to the numbers crunchers, the Phillies have a lot more baseball left to play. Ken Roberts, of the web site Sports Club Stats, gives the Phillies a 71.6 percent chance to make the playoffs. However, there are still games remaining to win. At 83-67 it seems as if the Phillies have to win at least 90 games to get into the playoffs.

It just might take 92 wins to get a second straight NL East crown.

Sit tight.

 

 

 


And yes we are totally discounting the Brewers. Unless they relieve manager Ned Yost now for the final push, the Brewers aren’t going anywhere.

Fourth inning: Burrell goes deep

Is this irony or a coincidence? Ray Durham, a player for the Giants in the game that Kevin Millwood threw the last no-hitter for the Phillies busted up Brett Myers’ bid with a two-out single in the fourth inning.

I’m going with coincidence.

Meanwhile, just to show the single was not a harbinger of things to come for the Brewers, Myers whiffed Prince Fielder to end the inning as well as to pick up his first K of the game.

Myers threw 15 more pitches in the fourth – he’s up to 45 now.

And the hits just keep on coming …

Pat Burrell just might be out of his two-month long slump. After driving in the go-ahead run in the first game, the streaky slugger smashed a looooooooong homer to left off Jeff Suppan to open the bottom of the inning. Had Burrell’s blast – his 31st – been struck a few feet to the right, the ball would have landed in the upper deck.

So what’s the deal with Burrell? Is he coming back next year or will the Phillies allow him to test free agency? If I were a betting man (which, I guess I am on occasion), I would probably guess that Burrell will be playing for a new team in 2009.

Call it a hunch, but with big power numbers Burrell might be able to command a big salary again next season. However, since his production graph looks like the boom and bust of a bear and bull market, the Phillies might choose to pocket the money and go with the less costly Jayson Werth as the everyday left fielder.

Maybe Werth’s hot streak during the second half forced the Phillies hand?

And maybe that cash they save on allowing Burrell to walk could be spent on a top-of-the-line starting pitcher like… oh, I don’t know… CC Sabathia?

Ol’ CC has a relationship with Charlie Manuel and he just might be ready to get away from the free-falling Brewers now.

Apropos of nothing, has a manger ever been fired mid game?

Anyway, after Burrell’s homer, Werth picked up an RBI with a bases-loaded walk. That also forced Ned Yost to slink out of the dugout to give Suppan the hook.

Suppan’s line: 3 2/3 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 1 K, 1 HR, 1 WP, 1 HBP…

Ouch!

Phillies 6, Brewers 0

Going live: Phillies on the cusp

ANOTHER PROGRAMMING NOTE: Apparently I have been misinformed – tonight’s nightcap is, indeed, on television. So tune in and watch all the pageantry from here at Citizens Bank Park. In the meantime, I mentally prepared myself to go live tonight. Since it will take heavy medication in order to bring down the self-induced buzz, I’m just going to go through with it. Why not? I have a Starbucks IV drip in my right arm and I have been chugging diet coke at a steady rate all afternoon so I’m going to be up for a while. What the hell? I might as well be productive.

Now off to the demise of Ned Yost…

Play with fire and there is a really good chance that skin grafts could be in your future. Along those lines, people generally slow down to check out a car crash, a barn fire or “American Idol.”

Yes, we enjoy watching other people’s failure. Actually, we revel in it. Sometimes we even do a little touchdown dance at the end of it. This afternoon, nearly 46,000 people screamed, shimmied and shouted as the Phillies beat the Milwaukee Brewers for the third time in a row. Oh sure, most of those cheers were for the Phillies as they rallied to within a game in the wild-card chase against the Brewers, but a little bit of it was a taunt.

The Brewers are in free-fall mode and it seems as it is all going to end with manager Ned Yost’s head on a platter.

Under Yost’s watch, the Brewers are poised to ruin another season with a failed playoff march. In this case, the Brewers have lost 10 of their last 13 games and could see a four-game lead in the wild-case race vanish by the time they board the charter bound for Chicago this evening.

The intriguing part – the car-crash part, if you will – is that some of the fault rests squarely on Yost’s shoulders. For instance, Yost wasn’t too keen on bumping up workhorse ace CC Sabathia to pitch on short rest in the must-win game of tonight’s day-night finale. In fact, Yost was adamant about holding the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner to open the series against the Cubs on Tuesday night when the reality is that the Brewers need to win now.

Tomorrow might not matter.

Yost’s non-move that directly helped the Phils on Sunday afternoon could be the watershed moment of his demise in Milwaukee – perhaps more so than the scuffles that had occurred in his dugout this year.

In this instance Yost opted to allow lefty reliever Brian Shouse to remain in the game with one out and two on during the bottom of the eighth with the slumping right-handed hitter Pat Burrell digging in. Yost stuck with Shouse despite the fact that hard-throwing righty Eric Gagne was warming up in the bullpen and owned an 0-for-3 mark with a strikeout against Burrell.

Never mind the point that Burrell went to the plate hitting just .138 (4-for-29) during September and a .172 average since the end of July, Yost stuck with the soft-tossing Shouse. The reasoning was that his lefty was a groundball pitcher and Burrell did hit a grounder. The problem was that the ground ball did go at one of his fielders.

“When you’re struggling, things never seem to go your way,” Yost said.

Conversely it could be said that people make their own breaks. Generally, there is a reason why some teams get lucky – it’s because they put themselves in a position to be lucky. That said, there is a definite difference between a ground ball out and a ground ball single. In the case of Burrell it helped him pick up a game-winning RBI and set the table for Shane Victorino’s game-breaking three-run homer a few pitches later.

Better yet, it set the table for the Phillies to draw even with the Brewers and then stick them in the rear-view mirror.

It’s probably time to forget about the Brewers and keep an eye on the Astros, Cardinals and Mets.

Here are tonight’s lineups:

Phillies
11 – Rollins, ss
28 – Werth, rf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
8 – Victorino, cf
7 – Feliz, 3b
27 – Coste, c
39 – Myers, p

Brewers
1 – Hart, rf
7 – Hardy, ss
5 – Durham, 2b
28 – Fielder, 1b
8 – Braun, lf
25 – Cameron, cf
30 – Counsell, 3b
18 – Kendall, c
37 – Suppan, p

Stick around… I’ll be back closer to game time.

Here come the hits…

After a couple days of pointing out the Phillies’ offensive flaws by yours truly, it appears as if the bats have awakened this afternoon. The Phillies pasted the Dodgers for nine runs and 10 hits, including a stellar 7-for-16 from The Big Four. A big 3-for-5 with five RBIs from chatty Pat Burrell.

So is the spark the Phillies were talking about? Is this when the offense reemerges?

We’ll see.

Anyway, go to the Twitter page for the Olympic Marathon updates.

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.

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.

We were somewhere near Barstow…

Pat BurrellI’m holed up here in a hotel in the Pocono Mountains kind of like Hunter Thompson on the Vegas strip, only not as much fun and fewer grapefruits. But I bet I have the departed gonzo doctor beat on pounds of ice applied to muscles and tendons as well as milligrams of NSAIDs ingested.

Do I know how to party or what?

Anyway, it’s always peculiar to note the extremes folks (like me) will go to in order to put on some skimpy and overpriced clothing along with shoes featuring more technological materials than the space shuttle in order to run around like a weirdo. Oh sure, there really aren’t too many things that are more fun than dashing around all naked in the wind-like, but it’s not exactly natural. Hell, when is the last time a giraffe out on the savanna decided to get the training run in for the day?

Giraffes run when they have to, not because they can.

But speaking of natural, Pat Burrell’s plate appearance with two outs in the bottom of the 10th was certified organic. Better yet, it was artful – a measure of power vs. power and baseball savvy all rolled into a healthy, natural mix. Better yet, watching here in the heavily fortified compound off the Interstate with free parking, a pool, wireless and a complimentary breakfast, it was hard not to see how Burrell was going to end last night’s game with a home run. On the telecast it was easy to see Burrell attempt to get his timing down to catch up with Brian Wilson’s blazing fastball and by the time he solved the riddle of velocity and location, the baseball didn’t stand a chance.

But more than the walk-off homer to win another game for the Phillies, Burrell’s transformation this season has remarkable. At the plate he’s balanced, patient, focused and relaxed. He seems to have a plan every time he strolls to the plate that goes beyond the simple grip-it-and-rip-it mien. For once it seems, the numbers tell the full story about what Burrell is bringing to the table for the Phillies – certainly it’s been a long time since that occurred.

Burrell rates in the top five in six major offensive categories. He leads the league in RBIs (29); he’s second in homers (nine) and slugging (.690); third in OPS (1.142); fourth in on-base percentage (.452); and fifth in walks (23). Better yet, Burrell is on pace to set career highs in homers, RBIs, walks, hits and runs.

Perhaps most importantly, Burrell is on pace to set a career low in strikeouts. Sure, he’s whiffing at a clip that could give him 113 for the season, but that’s a big drop from last season’s 120. That’s because he and Chase Utley are carrying the middle of the order while Ryan Howard attempts to find a clue out there.

But how about this? Should Charlie Manuel bump up Burrell a spot in the batting order to cleanup and slide Howard down to the fifth or sixth spot? For one, Burrell might get more pitches to hit with the specter of Howard’s past performances lurking on the on-deck circle. For another, the Phillies break up the lefties in the middle of the order so that the opposition can’t bring in a late-inning left-hander to face both Utley and Howard.

From here, holed up on the first floor waiting for the wakeup call in order to get caffeine and numb from the ibuprofen, the Burrell-Howard switch seems like the smart thing to do. With Burrell driving in runs and winning games for the team and Howard doing his best to kill rallies with an avalanche of whiffs, the longest-tenured Phillie seems ready to be the anchor.

All quiet in the fourth

Pat BurrellEvery time I’ve seen the Phillies play a game at Coors Field, Pat Burrell homered. This afternoon he was launching some bombs during batting practice, which leads me to believe that he would probably enjoy playing in Denver more often.

I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying…

According to this site, the gusts are 39 mph here at Coors. That also seems to be the speed of the breeze generated from the swings and misses from the Phillies’ hitters against fireballer, Ubaldo Jimenez. Here in the fourth, the young right-hander has retired 10 in a row.

In the bottom half of the fourth, Moyer notched his first clean inning since the first. Interestingly, even though Moyer is pitching very deliberately, the game is moving along at a nice clip. If it hadn’t been for the lights going out, this game might be over.

Back in it

Aaron RowandOh, I just couldn’t resist. Hamels is back to dealing after sitting down the Rockies in the fifth in order. That’s 10 in a row, with only two coming on fly balls. Was it a matter of getting back to the changeup, or is he still working that curve?

It’s hard to tell from my vantage point.

And here comes the Phillies…

Just like that and the crowd is back into it thanks to back-to-back home runs from Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell. Both were CBP Specials, which means it’s doubtful that they would have carried out of any other ballpark. Maybe Coors, but there the aid of low-altitude is somewhat significant.

But as the M-V-P! chants rained down on Jimmy Rollins with two outs in the fifth, and Chooch Ruiz swiped second base on a 2-2 count, it appeared as if it was Jeff Francis’ turn to scuffle. Rollins walked on a full count to put two on with two outs for Shane Victorino.

Before the game Charlie Manuel said he put Victorino in the lineup against the lefty instead of Jayson Werth because he wanted to the Hawaiian’s speed at the top of the order. Who would have guessed that it would have been the catcher to swipe the first base of the series?

Either way, it’s 3-2 heading into the foyer of the late frames.

Have a seat, Pat

Before the Phillies opened up the 10-game homestand with last weekend’s set against the Reds, one of the baseball beat writers made a bold prediction:

“If the Phillies win five of their next seven, they’re going to the playoffs.”

Seven of the 10 games were against the Reds and the Mets, both of whom should be playing baseball in October. Needless to say, winning five of seven was a pretty tall order and it looked rather impossible after the Phillies dropped two of three to the Reds.

But following the first two games of the series against the Mets, a four-game sweep – as well as that 5-2 stretch – is quite realistic.

Go figure.

The Phillies have been very good with the bats lately. That’s pretty obvious, especially when they have scored 24 runs in two games against the team leading the NL East by 13 games. Actually, the Phillies’ bats have been excellent when Pat Burrell has been on the bench and both David Dellucci and Shane Victorino have been in the lineup. Since the All-Star Break, the Phillies are 7-3 in games in which Burrell does not start.

I’m not sure what that means, but it seems as if the team’s lineup has a little more pizzazz with Victorino and Dellucci.

Of course, pizzazz isn’t quantifiable by too many traditional statistical formulas.

Notes from Wednesday night

Pat Burrell found a seat on the bench against hard-throwing right-hander John Smoltz not just because he was 1-for-19 during his career against the veteran, but also because his legs and surgically repaired foot.

“Everyday when he plays, he has some pain in his foot. When he swings on his back leg, and when he has to turn in the outfield,” manager Charlie Manuel said about Burrell.

Anyone who has watched Burrell play this season has seen how noticeably slower he is. Like Bob Boone and Johnny Estrada type slow. Burrell was also fitted with new orthodics to go inside of his baseball spikes, and as anyone who has had to wear custom orthodics knows, they can sometimes take a little while to get used to.

Nevertheless, Burrell has been pretty solid at the plate and has solidified the middle of the order to help Manuel break up the lefties with a little more ease. He leads the team with eight homers and 22 RBIs to go with a very solid .400 on-base percentage and a .609 slugging percentage.

Better yet, Burrell has hit lefties at a .305 clip.

“He definitely wants to play. Last year he played through it and knows what it’s all about. That’s what he’s planning on doing this year. Anytime I can give him a blow, that might help him,” Manuel said.

Meanwhile, it all works out well for Manuel who gets a chance to give David Dellucci some much-needed playing time. A season ago, the left-handed swinging Dellucci slugged 28 of his 29 homers against righties, so a start against Smoltz makes sense.

It’s not exactly the easiest guy to hit against, but Dellucci really needs some action.

“If you expect to get something out of your bench, you have to play them. It’s important to get these guys at-bats and keep them as sharp as we can,” Manuel said.

How about a wake up call?
Manuel’s very public airing out of his team in the dugout during the middle of Monday night’s game seems to have had a positive affect on the Phillies. Starting with that rant and the skipper’s subsequent ejection, the Phillies have become the Comeback Kids by rallying for three straight wins in the late innings.

Coincidence?

“The last two nights, I think we’ve been playing with more intensity as far as staying in the game,” Manuel said. “I’m not a guy who likes to get on players in front of anybody. I like to take them in my office, look him in the eye and tell him exactly what I think, and give them a chance to tell them what I think.”

Ready for some football?
Here’s the trailer for the upcoming movie about former Eagles Vince Papale, starring Mark Wahlberg. Based on emails from friends and Internet chatter, it seems as if Eagles fans will be camping out for tickets.