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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Defending Charlie Manuel

Yes, I'm a die-hard Phillies fan, and unlike many I'm not as wont to bash manager Charlie Manuel. The reasons are simple: first, I think that some Philadelphians judge the skipper based upon his Beverly Hillbillies-type of twang, which isn't fair, because it isn't as though South Philly speak (read: if you go to Pat's or Geno's in South Philly near 9th and Passyunk (which the locals pronounces "Pash-yunk") and know what they mean when you order a steak and they ask "with or without") reflects the most advanced dialect of American English; and, second, I think that Charlie got a bad rap regarding his handling of the Phillies' pitching staff last year.

The big knock on the skipper was that he wore out the bullpen early to the point where, by season's end, only rubber-armed Geoff Geary didn't go on the shelf with arm problems. Arthur Rhodes got hurt, as did Flash Gordon, as did Aaron Rhodes. Fair enough, but there was an explanation, and while GM Pat Gillick took some responsibility for the overall problem, he didn't take total responsibility and he didn't defend his manager. If anything, Manuel should have been commended for doing the best with what he had and for not throwing the front office under a belly-flopping Phillie Phanatic.

Put simply, the front office gave Manuel a substandard starting rotation to start the season. Gavin Floyd was in over his head, and Ryan Madson wasn't ready to be a starter. Then, when Jon Lieber went down to a groin injury, Gillick called up a promising rookie from AA named Scott Mathieson. He didn't distinguish himself, either, with the result that 60% of the starting pitching staff couldn't really get through the opposition's order twice without getting rocked. And then, to put the cherry atop this rocky road of a pitching Sunday, the so-called stopper, Brett Myers, acted like a WWE performer in Beantown with his wife and had to take a leave of absence at mid-season. Which meant, of course, even more work for a beleaguered 'pen.

Floyd wasn't read, Madson proved he wasn't a starter, and Mathieson needed more seasoning (and then he got hurt). Gillick admitted in a post-season interview that he stayed with the young starters too long, but I don't recall that he defended Manuel's handling of pitchers and, particularly, the deployment of the relievers. He should have. What was Manuel supposed to do -- let the starters get hit so hard that all infielders would have had to wear cups and let the other team score so many runs in consecutive games that the Rules Committee might have considered a Mercy Rule for Major League Baseball? No, he had to go to his bullpen.

And he did, and the results were good for a while, as during the early months in the season the Phils had one of the most effective bullpens in baseball. Then, they wore down, as the ineptitude of the starters continued for too long. By mid-season, many had written off the Phillies, but Manuel somehow did manage to keep the team together before the July 31 trading deadline. The team performed poorly in the weeks leading up to the deadline, perhaps because the starting staff was tired, the bullpen was starting to act creaky, and because the position players were wondering where they would end up after the deadline.

Thereafter, the team transformed itself. Manuel did a good job of keeping the team focused (you have to give him credit, especially if you lambaste him for things like an occasional failure to do a double switch), and he did a good job with some folks on their hitting, most notably Jimmy Rollins, who had a monster second half (and there was one vignette on a TV broadcast of a Phillies-Marlins game where for a long time the camera showed a relaxed Rollins talking hitting with Skipper Manuel). Milt Thompson, the hitting coach, has to get some credit, too, for making Rollins a more patient hitter, but the team led the NL in runs scored, and if you have a manager who is an excellent teacher of hitting, he probably deserves some credit for that. But it's the tradition in Philadelphia to trash the skipper, and Manuel gets more than his fair share of oral grafitti.

In the end, the bullpen had no gas left in it, and there was a time where everyone but Chase Utley was hitting and then, when Utley started to hit (and very hotly at season's end), no one else did and Ryan Howard saw more walks than Barry Bonds. Manuel got blamed for wearing out the bullpen, but I don't think that the blame is fair. He should get credit for rallying the team to an amazing finish that was fun to watch and for helping turn Jimmy Rollins into a more patient hitter. Instead, he gets criticized for his handling of pitchers and for the sphinx that is Pat Burrell.

How will he fare this season? The bullpen remains iffy, and a few starters start the season hurt. But Madson is settled in his role as the set-up man, and now that he's settled (i.e., he's figured out he's no starter), he might just have a breakout year. Gordon seems healthy, and Geary returns. The rest of the bullpen is iffy, but it could well be that Manuel won't have to rely upon his 'pen as much early in the season this year as he did last year. If that's the case, the 'pen should have enough gas down the home stretch.

In any event, the Phillies should have an exciting team this year. The pressure will be on Manuel to get the team off to a good start, but I'm not sure it would be fair to can him in June if the Phillies are playing a few games below .500. Remember, the fans who trash Manuel are the same fans who wanted Larry Bowa, and while Bowa forever will remain dear to the hearts of the faithful, he was not successful in his stint with the hometown nine. Manuel has created a more relaxed atmosphere. Whether his approach will get the Phillies to their first post-season berth in 14 years remains to be seen.

Now it's time for you to post your comments and let me know what you think. I'm sure that many of you who are Phillies' fans will want to let me have it.


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