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Sunday, July 06, 2008

View on the National League East

It will go down to the wire in September between the Phillies and the Mets. Sorry, but the Marlins will fade (not enough) and the Braves look like sellers at the trading deadline. Look for them to peddle Mark Teixiera to a contender for prospects, especially guys who can pitch. The Nats, well, Washington remains first in war, first in peace and, now, last in the National League East.

I was at the Phils-Mets game last night at Citizens Bank Park, and the managers managed the game as though it were a World Series game. They played chess, and Jerry Manuel won, in part because certain of his counterpart's moves didn't work (putting in J.C. Romero and Tom Gordon in the right spots, only to have them not deliver) and in part because his counterpart (Charlie Manuel) overmanaged when Pedro Feliciano was put in the game to pitch to an announced Greg Dobbs only to have Manuel pull back Dobbs for Jayson Werth, who got a key hit (but then got thrown out trying to stretch it into a double). That move left the Phillies without a good pinch-hitter later in the game, when they were compelled to use light-hitting receiver Carlos Ruiz to bat in the bottom of the eighth instead of Werth (as fifth outfielder So Taguchi is almost ready for the glue factory, especially when platooned RF Geoff Jenkins is hitting more like a fifth outfielder for a bad team). Still, it was exciting, and it goes to show you that an otherwise outstanding effort from a starter gets marred when he makes one mistake (in this case, the Mets were up 3-0 when John Maine gave up a three-run shot to Ryan Howard). What sank Maine was, two batters earlier, his hitting Shane Victorino with the count 0-2.

As for the Phillies, in a tough series their weaknesses get magnified. The Ancient Mariner, Jamie Moyer, pitched well enough to keep the Phillies in the game, but the team didn't hit with electricity and the bullpen faltered. Up until this point it's been among the best if not the best in the NL East, but last night it looked, well, average at best. It also didn't help that long man Rudy Seanez came in to keep it close at 6-4 in the top of the ninth and gave up three more runs. What had been a relatively close game turned into a rout, and a good team's bullpen can't let that happen.

So I return to my view, that these two teams will battle in September for the NL East title. The Mets did gain some ground on the Phillies when the latter recently lost 13 of 18, but probably not enough. After all, it's hard to believe the Phillies will endure that type of drought again. Then again, the Mets might, even though they looked pretty sharp last night and, as of this writing, had gotten an outstanding effort from enigmatic Oliver Perez this afternoon. Still, in the end, about 87 games wins it, but either team should be a formidable opponent in the post-season.

One post-script for Phillies' fans -- right now the Phils have the 13th highest payroll in the Majors (Mets are third), and C.C. Sabathia is out there for the taking. He's good enough to help get you to the World Series (with Sabathia as the #2 starter and ever-improving Kyle Kendrick -- another outstanding outing today -- as #3, Moyer as #4), you have a good-enough starting staff to get to the World Series. The big question is, of course, what possibly do you have down on the farm that you could trade to the Indians (who are known for getting outstanding prospects in deadline deals) to pry Sabathia, especially since he'll light up the free-agent market next year and probably end up a Yankee? Is it worth it?

The Phillies' front office has had a credibility gap with its (ever-patient) fans, and sometimes they forget the adage that "excellence cannot be bought, but it must be paid for." Translated, it means that the results of bargain-basement Tampa Bay this year are rather fluky, and, of course, the Rays will have to cough up the big bucks in future years to hold their great young roster intact. But the bulk of the playoff teams are at the top of the payroll spectrum, and the Phillies probably will get there again, offering a long-term deal to Pat Burrell and also potentially having to ink Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard to long-term deals (if not after this season, soon thereafter). At any rate, if the front office balks and the Phillies go one and done in the playoffs, the fans will look at this season as the one that got away.


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