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Saturday, September 12, 2009

When Everything Goes Right

For the Phillies right now, everything isn't going right. And, it didn't go right for much of the 2008 season, either. Starter Kyle Kendrick flamed out after mid-season. Starter Brett Myers flamed out early and went to the minors, only to return and redeem himself. All-Star second baseman Chase Utley played much of the year on a bad hip, shortsop Jimmy Rollins was benched twice, Pat Burrell didn't hit anything in August and September, and first baseman Ryan Howard suffered from the dreaded "I can't lay off the outside breaking ball" disease. The team didn't hit for 10 weeks in the summer, only to combust its engine in early September (by sweeping the Brewers and taking the lead in the wild-card race) and then finishing 24-6 (including the post-season).

Much went right, too. The bullpen excelled and stayed healthy all season. The bench made contributions. Jamie Moyer won 16 games and Cole Hamels emerged as a #1 starter. Closer Brad Lidge was "lights out" Lidge, saving every game he had a chance to. Howard had a torrid September. Shane Victorino proved himself to be a big-time catalyst. The team hit when it needed to (although overall 2008 wasn't as good a hitting year as 2007), the team pitched great, and they won the World Series.

Fast forward to today. The bullpen is on life support. Lidge's ERA is 7.11, J.C. Romero, one of the top lefty set-up men last season, was suspended for the first 50 games and has been on the disabled list for most of the rest. Scott Eyre, another good lefty, has battled injuries, long man Clay Condrey, who had a great season last year, might be out for the year, Chad Durbin hasn't pitched the way he did in 2008 and lefty Jack Taschner pitched poorly. Only Ryan Madson and veteran journeyman (and call up) Tyler Walker have pitched well, and Chan Ho Park has had his moments, particularly after the All-Star break. Collectively, though, this is not the 2008 bullpen. The most important part, Lidge, remains in limbo.

The team hits inconsistently, but they're dangerous the way the Willie Stargell/Dave Parker/Bill Madlock Pirates were dangerous -- live bats, with anyone able to deliver the kill blow on any given night. The problem for this team right now is that they're getting killer hits -- home runs -- but not hitting well with men on base. Raul Ibanez, who got off to a torrid start, has sunk into the throes of a Pat Burrell-like existence (except that he gets to more balls in left field). Pedro Feliz, who is about 35, is still good in the field but really doesn't hit for enough power or have a good enough on-base percentage (about .320) to start for a champion. He's a free agent after this season, and I'd be surprised if the Phillies didn't look for an upgrade, especially with some more money to spend after jettisoning some key contractual commitments (Adam Eaton, Jim Thome, Geoff Jenkins, among others). Rollins got off to a terrible start, jump-started his game after the All-Star break, but has slumped lately. The bench has been terrible.

Yet. . . the team is 6 games up on the Marlins and headed for the playoffs absent a Mets-like collapse a la 2007. They have good starting pitching, even if rookie-of-the-year candidate J.A. Happ is on the shelf with a strained oblique. Hamels has pitched better in his last several starts, perhaps sensing the post-season. Joe Blanton might not be having the years that Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are, but he's pitched great. Pedro Martinez looks very solid, and while Cliff Lee has had a bumpy road in last three starts, he's bound to rebound.

Also. . . the team usually plays well in September and October, and they shined under the brightest of lights in last year's post-season.

But. . . they are bumping along, showing their warts, and not putting it all together on the mound, in the field and at the plate. Then again, they could get red hot right now the way they did around the same time last year, and they could take the World Series again.

Or. . . they could manifest all their weaknesses in the NLDS and bow out there. Right now, it's hard to predict what will happen with this team.

Except. . . unlike 2008 from about this day on, everything is not going right for the Phillies right now.

And. . . to win the World Series, most things had better go right.


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