Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Now or Never

We’re reaching the breaking point for a lost season in Philadelphia. In my last post, I said that I hope the next time I write about the Phillies it will be more positive. Believe me when I say, it has only gotten worse, much worse since then. The Phillies are coming off being swept by the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend in Canada. They blew leads. They never score late. They are on the gurney flat lining as we speak.

I told my father that we did not need to worry until the Phillies got 10 games back of first place. When I said that I was hoping it would happen (if it did) by May and the Phils would begin their climb back. It is almost late June and the only reason the Phils are not 10 GB right now is that the first place Nationals have lost 3 straight to keep the Phils at a daunting 9 GB. The Phils are kicking it in the basement, it’s dark, it smells, and nobody is happy with a 31-37 record.

When the season began question marks loomed over Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. While they are both rehabbing and playing meaningless (meaningful?) games in Florida, the Phillies are floundering searching for answers.

Cliff Lee doesn’t have them. He has started 11 games and has yet to record a win. In the beginning, it was the offense’s fault, but that has been the case so much in his last two starts. Cliff has blown 3 run leads in each of them.

Cole Hamels doesn’t seem to have the answers either. Sure his record looks great at 9-3 but he hasn’t had a quality start since May. He has not been sharp in 4 consecutive starts. In fact, look at his ERA in June. It’s coming in at a whopping 6.75. He was staked a six run lead and almost blew it in Minnesota last week.

I’m working on asking Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Roy Halladay if they have any answers. They can’t be reached.

Charlie Manuel, most of all does not seem to have the answers. But I for one, am not blaming the lovable old man. Manuel has guided the Phillies to 5 consecutive division titles and by all accounts is the best manager the Phillies have ever had. Many fans have been pointing to Charlie’s patchwork lineups, questionable bullpen usage, and overall shoddy play as reasons to be upset with the Phillies record and subsequently Charlie. Other than the reprehensible usage of Chad Qualls in the 8th inning of Cliff Lee’s latest no-decision, I am on Charlie’s side.

Think about it for a minute. Since Charlie has been here he’s had the best power hitter in baseball anchoring his lineup in the 4 spot virtually every single night. The entire lineup has revolved around Howard since 2006. He is the hitter pitchers fear. He is the hitter pitcher’s don’t want to face when they have people on base. Taking that bat out of the lineup has left a gaping hole in not just the lineup, but the Phillies psyche as well. Adding to that mammoth hole is Chase Utley and everything he brings to the table being replaced by the likes of, well currently Mike Fontentot or some other journeyman. That's right, Freddie Galvis is also on the DL, so the Phillies are down to their 3rd string second baseman. Ouch. 

This Phillies team is not built to win in 2015, or 2016. It is built to win the World Series this year. And next year, and maybe the year after that as "The Wheeze Kids II." Charlie is doing everything he can to keep this team afloat while they wait for their three best players to come back, and given his track record you have to let the Phillies play this entire season out before you jump on any “Fire Charlie” bandwagon that I have heard a few grumblings about.

One thing I will fault this team for, and by extension their manager, is their lack of attention to detail. If you watch the games, and I will admit I just have been busier than years past and have not been watching to my normal full extent, but if you watch these games you are watching bad baseball. Hunter Pence is good for generally one bonehead move a game. It’s like he’s playing high school ball out there, do yourself a favor and get a clue mentally Hunter (Don't even get me started on his first pitch swinging). They don’t take extra bases when they can, which almost always leads to them not scoring when they could have. They seem to have forgotten how a sacrifice fly works, because they play dumb with a man on 3rd and less than 2 outs more often than not. They make mistakes in the infield, constantly. It doesn’t help when you have Ty Wiggonton and Hector Luna playing defense at the corners on a Major League level. Those guys are just not capable. But mental errors have plagued this team way more than they should, so Charlie better be letting these guys know about them. Jimmy Rollins needs to lead by example, and Jimmy finally going on a tear could be just the thing this team needs.

In reality, what this team needs to do is take care of business at home. Tonight marks the start of a 10 game home stand and you can use all the clich├ęs you want for this stretch of games. It is now or never time for the Phillies over the next week and a half. They have to win 7 of these ball games (7 of which are against the Rockies and Pirates) in order to get back on track and back in contention.

It has to start tonight. Cole Hamels takes the mound against the Rockies. He needs to go out and be dominant and give this team some confidence it badly needs. The Rockies are not exactly a powerhouse team and the Phillies need to take advantage. It will happen one game at a time, so why not start tonight with their best pitcher at the start of a 10 game home stand?

Last year it seemed like the Phillies maybe lost 5 series all year. This year it seems like they lose almost every series they play. Teams are no longer afraid of them. They are no longer favored to win (almost) every single game. Their rotation has holes. Their lineup has holes. It is time for the proven guys, the guys making a lot of money, to stand up and be the reason the Phils win ball games. To win a couple series in a row. Hell maybe even get a sweep of their own?!? If they don’t play above .500 until the All-Star Break it might be time to pack it in before our big three even return to the diamond. I don’t want that. Charlie doesn’t want that. And all the fans that became fans in 2008 can go back to not being fans again if this is the case because nobody in Philadephia wants to stop loving this team.

Also, just for my sanity. Everybody needs to take Tom Hanks' point of view from the beginning of this clip the next time Cliff Lee takes the mound. Get that man a win for chrrrisssakkkeee!!!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mired in Mediocrity

It’s been almost a month since my last blog post and I have been struggling to come up with an angle for a story. Since my last post the Phillies have continued to tread water and basically stay mired in mediocrity. Currently, they are playing the worst baseball they have played all season. After losing 5 straight (most in heartbreaking, or at least terrible fashion), they are 28-30 and 6 games back of the first place Washington Nationals.

The biggest news regarding the Phils over the past few weeks has been anything but positive. Roy Halladay started the season in his traditional brilliant fashion, but when he blew a 6-0 lead against the Braves a month or so back every one watching knew that something was up with Doc. He continued to struggle in almost every start (struggling for Doc is allowing more than 2 runs) and finally in a start against the Cardinals two weeks ago he only made it through two innings after giving up 4 runs in the first and was pulled from the game. The silver lining to Doc landing on the DL was that he did not tear a rotator cuff or have an injury that would put him out for the season. Apparently, he just pulled a muscle in his shoulder and he is supposed to be able to join the club sometime after the All-Star Break.

One not-so-funny anecdote from watching the Phillies telecast was the second-to-last game Doc started. It was May 22nd and the Phillies were hosting the Nationals at Citizen’s Bank Park. The Phils took an early 1-0 lead which generally means a W when Big Roy is on the hill. Not-so-much this season. With a 1-0 lead in the 3rd inning the Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro joined Chris Wheeler and Todd McCarthy in the booth to discuss what was currently happening with the litany of role players, pitchers, and superstars the Phillies are paying to sit on the bench. As Amaro started to discuss the guys most fans could care less about (Mike Stutes, Mike Martinez, Jim Thome), Doc started to fall apart. Balls were flying around the ballpark as Amaro was delivering news on the progress of these guys. By the time it was 2-1 Nationals, Amaro was cracking jokes about how he did not need to ever come back to the booth if Halladay was going to perform like this when he was granting interviews.

The not-so-much-fun did not stop there. Wheels was not about to let Amaro slide while on air by giving a report on Mike Stutes. He summoned some gumption and asked the questions everybody else wanted asked. When is Ryan Howard coming back? And while we’re on the subject.. When is Chase Utley coming back? It seemed like as soon as he asked these questi- BOOM! Bryce Harper triple in the gap scores 2 runs. Amaro explained there is no time-table for Ryan Howard and the wound from his surgically repaired Achilles tendon has been the biggest obstacle Howard has faced in his rehab. This is maddeningly frustrating to me. I’m not going to pretend to know much of anything about rehabbing an injury like this, but how the hell does a wound from a surgery get infected on a player who is worth $25 million a year to a ballclub?!? Was nobody monitoring this? How did they let something like that happen? Meanwhile, a sacrifice fly and a home run by Ian Desmond made the score 4-2 Nationals as Amaro explained that there was also no time-table for Chase Utley’s return.

The Utley situation has me the most frustrated. I guess I understand that his injury is degenerative and it is “hard to say” when he can expect to come back, but the secrecy surrounding this guy is nuts to me. The only things you ever seem to hear are that he is getting stronger. He feels better at this time this year than he did last year. He is resuming baseball activities. Blah blah blah. It’s basically, we don’t know anything about when he can come back, and if we did we’re not telling anybody who would possibly tell the media. In this scenario the “we” represents Amaro, Utley, Charlie Manuel, and the rest of the Phillies brass.

At this time, it is nice to report that Howard and Utley are in Clearwater playing extended spring training games. Your guess is as good as mine as to what an extended spring training game is like. I heard Utley is slamming the ball in these games, but then just like recess or some weird little league, somebody else is running the ball out for him? I’m really just guessing on that, but that’s what I’m picturing in my head from the reports I read and hear. I’ll take the good with the bad and just hope he gets back after the All-Star break at the latest.

Meanwhile, Cliff Lee just can’t catch a break. He only missed 3 starts for a brief stint on the DL so he still qualifies to be among the league leaders in the pitching categories. He is 4th in the NL in WHIP, he has a 2.92 ERA, and he is striking out more than a batter per inning. Guess how many wins Cliff has? ZERO! A big fat goose egg! I can’t explain the guttural reaction I have to the putrid offense the Phillies have when Cliff is on the mound. He pitched 10 shutout innings and got a no-decision earlier in the season. GROSS! He was dominant Tuesday night against the Dodgers in a game I attended. The Phillies scored 1 run in the first and then took the rest of the night off on offense. With literally no margin for error Lee gave up a two run double in the 8th that cost the Phillies the game. Cliff Lee is the last person to blame for this loss. He threw 122 pitches, 93 for strikes! And struck out 12 batters. He took the loss to fall to 0-3 for the season. It makes me want to throw up.

Despite all this, let me break down why I think the Phils will still make a run for the division title if they can get everybody back on the field and healthy by the All-Star break. First of all, the team the way it is currently constructed has done a decent enough job by staying in contention. They are in last place, but 6 games is not a ton of ground to make up when we are still in early June. The return of arguably the Phils three best players in Halladay, Howard, and Utley should have a gigantic effect on the entire team. If you think about it, right now the guys who have to carry this ballclub offensively are Hunter Pence, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz. These three have all demonstrated this season and in prior seasons that they are more than capable major league hitters. But with Howard and Utley out of the lineup pitchers know that they really have focus on getting these guys out. If opposing pitchers do, then they can get easier outs with guys like Freddie Galvis, John Mayberry, Ty Wigginton, and whatever other utility non-everyday players the Phils have to play everyday.

When Utley slides into the 3-hole and Howard follows him batting cleanup the pressure on Pence, Rollins, Chooch, and Shane Victorino is alleviated to an extent. This team is obviously playing a bit tight offensively and there’s nothing like getting perennial All-Stars back in your lineup to take the edge off what could be a disastrous season if it continues the way it has in the first few months.

The same is true for the pitching staff. Right now Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are pitching like All-Stars but the Phillies have basically wasted any efforts from Lee by not scoring any runs when he has pitched. I mean literally, here are the total runs scored in Lee starts so far this season for each start: 1, 2, 0, 6, 4, 1, 5, 10, 1. The large totals are deceiving because they did not score those runs until Cliff exited the ball game. They have not given him more than a 2 run lead to work with all season. That leaves Joe Blanton (currently close to the worst pitcher in baseball if you have seen him lately), Kyle Kendrick (“I love to leave my 89 MPH fastball up in the zone over the middle of the plate"), and Vance Worley (just recently back off the DL) to get the Phillies wins. Needless to say, having Doc back in the rotation would give either Kendrick or Blanton the boot (we’ll see if either can get an ERA under 5.00 before Doc gets back to see who wins that coveted 5th starter spot) and the Phils can start being favored in almost every game again.

The first 60 games of the season have not been all bad, however. Chooch has been nothing short of outstanding at the plate. He leads all catchers in batting average and is third in the National League at an astounding .358 clip! A week ago he pinch-hit for Cliff Lee when the Phillies were down 3-1 in the 7th against the Mets. Cliff certainly could have stayed in this game, but Charlie gave Chooch his shot. And boy did he take advantage by smacking a 2 run-game-tying home run to left. The flood gates opened from there and the Phillies won that game 10-6, of course Lee did not get the W. Cole Hamels is tied for the National League in wins with 8 and should be headed to another All-Star game. New closer Jonathan Papelbon has been brilliant in the 9th inning going 15-15 in save opportunities and has a 2.31 ERA. He should join Hamels and Chooch on the All-Star roster.

In summation, I have to refer back to two blog posts ago. There is a lot of waiting going on. We, as fans, are all waiting for the Phillies 3 big stars to return to the lineup so the Phillies can rise to the top of the division for the 6th year in a row. For now, we’re just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round.