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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Reflections on the Phillies-Yankees Game Last Night

1. As a Phillies' fan, it's hard to say that Cole Hamels disappointed me. How he pitched last night has pretty much been the way he's worked all year. He can go 4, 5 innings and pitch well, only to have the floor come out from under him thereafter. There are a few reasons for this. First, he was a three-pitch pitcher last year, and all of those pitches worked well for him. This year, his curveball has gone AWOL, and most Major League lineups will feast on a two-pitch starting pitcher after they go through the lineup once or at most twice. The Yankees aren't like most Major League teams -- they're better. As I've said before, the post-season magnifies a team's weaknesses, and this post-season has magnified the struggles that Hamels has had this year. Second, Hamels pitched many more innings in 2008 than he did in 2007. According to experts (such as Buck Showalter), history has demonstrated that a pitcher in Hamels circumstances would not have a good season the following year. That's happened. If the Series were to go to a Game 7, you have to wonder what Phillies' skipper Charlie Manuel would do. That game sets up as a start for Hamels, but you'd have to wonder if Manuel believes he has any other options out there. It may be that he doesn't.

2. Andy Pettitte is an all-timer. He was wild early and got it, but he settled down and pitched a masterful game. You have to give the Yankees an awful lot of credit. After last season, their rotation would have led the pundits to predict that they'd finish out of the playoffs. By re-upping Pettitte and going out and getting CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett (okay and Mark Teixeira), they are now 2 games away from winning the World Series.

3. You have to wonder what Shane Victorino was thinking with the bases loaded in the second inning. Pettitte was wild, very wild in fact, missing the strike zone somewhat significantly. So what did Victorino do? He came up and swung at the first two pitches -- both of which were out of the strike zone (and perhaps not even close). That set up an 0-2 count, and you don't usually like your chances on an 0-2 count against a skilled Major League pitcher. Fortunately for the Phillies, he hit a sacrifice fly to make the game 3-0, but you do have to wonder how the rest of the game had fared had Victorino taken those pitches and had a 2-0 count with the bases loaded and only one out. Had that meant another two runs for the Phillies, the tide of the game might have been different. Sure, given the way that Hamels combusted a Phillies' fan couldn't be so sure, but Victorino's lack of patience at the plate hurt the Phillies last night.

4. As has the overall hitting of the foursome of Victorino, Utley, Howard and Ibanez. Victorino's lack of production is the hardest to understand, as he's not been that streaky during the year. Utley had a bad September, leading some observers to conclude that either his surgically repaired hip isn't right or that he hasn't fully recovered from a bad bruise to his foot (that resulted from a foul ball). Utley has denied any injury, and he's also denied that he'd tell anyone if he had an injury. Those are explanations, not excuses, and in the past two games Chase Utley has not fared well. Howard's struggles are the most understandable. He's streaky. He's usually very good late in the season, but if you were to watch Howard every day you would understand why Cardinals' fans would win the argument (hands down) as to why Albert Pujols is better. Sure, the Phillies could lose Howard to a team like the Red Sox two years down the road when his contract is up because his power numbers are so awesome, but he hit .207 with 6 homers against lefties this year. That he didn't hit Pettitte wasn't the biggest surprise; that he didn't hit Burnett was. As for Ibanez, he's not the same guy that he was before he got hurt. Since he's returned from his injury, his swing looks different. Instead of turning on the ball methodically, he seems to rise up on his toes and try to turn at the same time. The result is that he has to adjust the plane of his swing as he's turning (because not only is he turning, he now needs to lower himself to hit the ball on the appropriate plane), and he's been missing more than before or pounding the ball into the ground to the right side of the infield. Not a good time for four of your hitters to be slumping.

5. I had thought before the playoffs that the Phillies probably had a shot at winning an NLDS Series and then would have trouble in the NLCS. Not because I thought that the Dodgers were better, but because I thought that the Phillies' inconsistent and beat-up bullpen wasn't strong enough for the team to leverage the way it did in 2008. In 2008, everything went right in that bullpen. Chad Durbin and Clay Condrey had almost career years in long relief. Scott Eyre bounced right off the Cubs' scrap heap and did a great job as the #2 lefty reliever. J.C. Romero had an awesome year as the lefty set-up man. Ryan Madson grew up as a reliever, found 5 miles per hour on his fastball and was one of the best righty set-up men in baseball. And Brad Lidge was perfect. In 2009, Durbin and Condrey had long stints on the DL. Eyre was on the DL twice. Romero had a 50-game suspension for banned substances and wasn't right the whole year. Madson lost some confidence when he failed in his bid as substitute closer when Lidge was on the DL. Lidge pitched poorly for most of the year. Chan Ho Park bailed the team out with outstanding relief during a big run the team made after the All-Star break, only to land on the DL himself. Only Madson didn't end up on the DL. Lefty Jack Taschner, filling in for Romero, failed, and rookie Sergio Escalano did nothing memorable. Kyle Kendrick, up from AAA where he was starting, had one moment during the stretch to clinch the pennant, and Tyler Walker filled in admirably for many of the injured righties. But on balance, a bad year.

And that results in a lack of managerial confidence in the post-season. Charlie Manuel doesn't know who will perform at what level in the post-season. J.A. Happ started all year, so Manuel's logic about having more confidence in others because they have more experience as starters is puzzling because a) Happ at times was his most effective starter (and will probably be named N.L. Rookie of the year) and b) he hasn't had experience as a reliever, so what makes Manuel think he'll excel in that role (and he's struggled in the post-season). Brett Myers was hurt for much of the year and yielded a home run last night. And Joe Blanton has been a lost soldier.

In short, the front office and Manuel knew going into the playoffs that they'll have to reconstrucct the bullpen for 2010. This World Series confirms that sentiment. That's not to say that there's not enough gas left in the tank for the Phillies' bullpen to hold on and help save 3 games in this World Series, but given all of the goings on during the season, that would be a major achievement and somewhat of a surprise.

5. Another magnified weakness is the Phillies' bench. It's bad enough that Greg Dobbs, who didn't have that good a year, has been weakened with the flu. But Eric Bruntlett, Matt Stairs and Paul Bako (not to mention others such as John Mayberry, Jr. and Miguel Cairo) don't frighten anyone. Ben Francisco is a good fourth outfielder, but the Phillies will need to fortify their bench (and provide some meaningful relief for players who are used to playing 152 games a year but who will need more rest as they age) in the off-season. Bruntlett flied out feebly in a pinch-hit role last night, and Stairs, while he provides excitement every time he is up, misses much more than he connects. I wouldn't expect either Stairs or Bruntlett to return to the team next year.

6. Positives for the Phillies: Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz have performed well, and Utley was spectacular in Game 1. Cliff Lee excelled in Game 1, and if somehow the team can beat CC Sabathia tonight, they go into Game 5 at home with Cliff Lee on full rest primed to help the team take a 3-2 lead back to Yankee Stadium (still a tall order). On paper, the Blanton-Sabathia matchup doesn't look great for the Phillies, but Blanton's been steady for much of the year and he is a different pitcher from the guy who pitched several seasons in Oakland. Then again, Sabathia is a much better playoff pitcher than he was before this post-season began. Finally, the Phillies have a particular amount of grit, and they're bound to keep fighting. They were one of the least talked about teams going into last season, and they won it all. This margin -- down 2-1 -- isn't insurmountable. Down 3-1 is another story, but if somehow they can knock out the Yankees' ace and take Game 3, it will perhaps be the Yankee fans who wake up with the glum feeling the morning after, feeling similar to the way most Phillies' fans are feeling now.

7. Positives for the Yankees: the veteran nucleus is well-primed for a last hurrah (or even another next year). It's going to be hard to sustain repeat World Series performances when Rivera is 40, Pettitte and Posada 37, Jeter, Damon and Matsui 35, but this group has played great as a whole. Yes, Sabathaia, Teixeira, Burnett and Cano (not to mention Chamberlain and Hughes) are younger, but this particular group is pretty special. I don't know whether Rivera, Pettitte, Posada and Jeter all will go into the Hall (Rivera and Jeter are locks), but they are a special foursome. In addition, they're getting very timely hitting, their starting pitching has been awesome, Rivera is his usual post-season self, Nick Swisher has woken up and A-Rod, despite strikeouts and miscues in the field, is more than holding his own -- his home run last night was a game changer. And, they have Sabathia going tonight. Those are a lot of positives, and, after Game 3, there aren't many negatives.

But tides can turn in the World Series, and sure things don't always turn out to be so sure. Given the groundswell of confidence in Sabathia going into Game 4, the Yankees have to be very confident. But if somehow the Phillies were to get to Sabathia, get good pitching from Blanton and have the bullpen hold the lead, the tide can turn back to the Phillies in a hurry.


Anonymous Amy said...

The Phillies need to win!!!

2:03 PM  
Blogger "Nutball Gazette" said...

Just found your blog while searching
Dave Zinkoff for a response to a 76 r fan on Facebook and found a blog you wrote, Great job and good analysis of the Playoffs, and your writing on A.I.)
I will add your blog to (My Must Read Blogs) on my blog.

11:28 PM  

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