Rightly or wrongly, Charlie Manuel has always been a lightning rod for criticism amongst the hometown fans. Then again, that goes with the territory. Most big league managers are used to having all of their decisions deconstructed.
Second-guessing the manager is the true pastime of the national pastime.
Nevertheless, Manuel, like most managers, has certain moves and uses specific players in designated situations without even thinking. For instance, if at all possible, Manuel likes to remove Pat Burrell late in the game for a pinch runner or for defensive purposes.
Sometimes those moves are like an old crutch the skipper likes to fall back upon that he uses out of habit more than necessity. Other times, Manuel plays hunches despite what the statistical trends bear out.
And sometimes he just gets lucky.
Last night’s 5-2 victory over the Dodgers in 11 innings at the Bank might have been one of those grey areas – either it was a fallback move, a hunch or just dumb luck. Whatever it was, it worked out for the Phillies.
Looking to boost his languid offense, Manuel gave top-pinch hitter Greg Dobbs the starting nod at third base last night. The reasoning was that Dobbs would give the Phillies’ lineup more potency than it would have with Pedro Feliz at third. With just a .254 batting average and 12 home runs heading into the game following a month on the disabled list with a bulging disc in his back.
Though Feliz has been a bit of a disappointment at the plate, the Phillies admit that he has been better than advertised defensively at third base. Actually, Feliz probably is the club’s best defensive third baseman since Scott Rolen was in town.
Dobbs, on the other hand, is exactly a butcher at the hot corner, but when Manuel saw a chance to replace him in the late innings last night, he moved swiftly.
Here’s where it worked out – entering the game as part of a double-switch in the seventh, Feliz was in the game long enough to get two of his best at-bats of the season. With two on and two outs in the ninth of a 2-1 game, Feliz lashed a first-pitch single to right to force extra innings. And since he was the guy who made everyone stick around well past midnight with the clutch hit in the ninth, Feliz figured he ought to be the guy to end it, too.
With two on and two outs in the 11th, Feliz knocked one into the seats in left-center for a walk-off blast as well as an improbable ending for a team struggling with its hitting.
Good move Charlie, right?
“When he’s swinging good and staying aggressive, he can hit the ball as good as anyone in the game,” Manuel said.
Certainly the Phillies thought they would see much more of Feliz’s offensive prowess this season. At the very least it was believed that Feliz and injured right field Geoff Jenkins would more than make up for the numbers lost when center fielder Aaron Rowand bolted to the Giants. In that regard, both players have been a disappointment though Feliz has an outside shot to reach 20 homers this season (he has 13).
Either way, Feliz has accepted whatever role Manuel has slated for him on a particular day, which was a start at third in the series finale against the Dodgers on Monday night.
“I want to be there every day, but if I’m not in the lineup, I’ll try to be ready,” Feliz said. “I won’t be crying about it. I’m happy the team is doing good. We’re in a fight, and whatever chance I get, I’m happy about it. As long as we get the ‘W,’ I’m happy.”
Though he helped the team with his bat on Sunday night, Feliz knows it’s his glove that has gotten him his playing time. In fact, it was some fine glove work that might have saved the game for the Phillies on Sunday.
With the bases loaded and no outs in the 10th, Casey Blake hit one to Feliz at third. Quickly identifying that Manny Ramirez was busting it for home from third, Feliz stepped on third and fired it home to catcher Chris Coste, who completed the double play and saved the Dodgers from scoring the go-ahead run.
“As soon as I saw the ball, you have to know who’s on third,” Feliz said. “He didn’t take off for home right away, so I knew I could tag the bag and throw home. If he took off right away, I would throw home.”
So give Feliz a hat trick in the win. A game-tying hit, a game-saving play in the field and a walk-off homer…
With starting pitcher John Maine headed for the disabled list for the Mets, the Phillies might have received the break they needed as they race for a second straight NL East title. Of course the biggest issue for the Phillies will be taking care of their own business.
Still, in the five games that remain against the Mets, the Phillies will not have to face Maine, who has been tough lately. In three starts against the Phillies this season, Maine has held them to a .190 batting average. Better yet, in nine career starts against Philadelphia, Maine is 5-0 with a 2.54 ERA.
Facing Maine will be one less thing for the Phillies to worry about.
Nor will the team lose much sleep over facing the Nationals six more times, nor the fading Braves and Marlins six more times apiece. The Cubs and Brewers, on the other hand, could present a challenge.
This weekend the Phillies get the core of the Cubs’ pitching staff when they face Ryan Dempster (15-5, 2.85) on Thursday night, Rich Harden (4-1, 1.47) on Friday afternoon, Ted Lilly (12-7, 4.25) on Saturday afternoon, and Carlos Zambrano (13-5, 3.29) in Sunday’s finale.
Of course that comes after the Phils host the Mets and Pedro Martinez (4-3, 4.97) and Johan Santana (12-7, 2.64) in back-to- back games.
Yes, it will get interesting in a hurry for the Phillies.