Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cliff Lee Signing Signals Phillies Are and Will Remain an Elite Organization

Lee Signing Signals Phillies Are Now and Will Stay an Elite Organization

The Philadelphia Phillies surprised the baseball world, and perhaps even themselves, when they snatched Cliff Lee on the free agent market a couple weeks ago. 

Not only did the signing seemingly come out of nowhere due to the stealth negotiations, but they undercut the New York Yankees in the process. Ever since Lee appeared headed to test the market, the big money has been on the Yankees to land him for the same reason— big money. 

The Yankees have deep pockets and a long history of paying top dollar to get the players they desire the most. A-Rod, Mark Texeira, CC Sabathia, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Dave Winfield, Goose Gossage, and Andy Pettite are just some of the big name, big dollar signings. 

And, if the Bronx Bombers couldn't entice Sabathia's ex-Cleveland Indians buddy to sign, the Texas Rangers were poised to offer up the necessary dollars and years to keep the hurler that led them to their first World Series in October. Additionally, Lee loved his brief tenure with the Rangers, the team possessed the talent to win, and Arlington was relatively close to his home. 

Just days earlier, the Phillies lost their own free agent, Jayson Werth, to the Washington Nationals and a monster contract. 

Although they hated to see him go, the Phillies already possessed a payroll that stretched way beyond the limits most would imagine just a year or two ago. They seemed to be in a holding pattern with their salary budget, still trying to get comfortable with what they already had on the books. 

Then, suddenly, word crept out that the Phillies might be a mystery team in the hunt for Lee's services. In the coming hours, speculation turned to rumor and then to news. 

The Phillies had reached an agreement with Lee pending the customary physical examination as well as the requisite dotting of the i's and crossing of the t's.  

With the move, the Phillies had assembled a starting rotation of historic proportions and suddenly went from top contender to the favorites for 2011. 

It was a leap that most long-term Phillies fans could have never imagined. 

Heck, just a year ago, the team dealt Lee away when they acquired Roy Halladay— and even if they wanted to replenish the farm system, most everyone knew the key driver was economics.  

The Lee signing also sent a bright signal that the Phillies have officially become a "big market" team after operating as a "small market" team for virtually all of its 127-year existence. 

The Phillies have ascended to the level of the Yankees and Boston Red Sox- two teams that annually set their sights on winning a championship and make the financial commitment to support that goal. 

And, like those teams, the Phillies appear poised to remain in that stratosphere for the foreseeable future. 

Some could view the situation as a temporary phenomenon that will change as high priced players start to roll-off the payroll, but here are five reasons that the Phils are here to stay for awhile. 

1. Ruben Amaro

After a long stint in a secondary role, Ruben Amaro has proven himself to be among the best in his short tenure as Phillies GM. Before the Lee signing, RAJ's resume already included an Executive of the Year award and several blockbuster trades.

Amaro is grounded with the principles, philosophies and approaches established by Pat Gillick. That is proven to be a great foundation as evidenced by the former Phillies GM's election to Baseball's Hall of Fame.

But, it does not end there, as Amaro brings his own skills and qualities to the job. 

Besides having astutely schooled from the master, RAJ has displayed creativity, intellect, persistence, and the boldness to turn his desires into reality. He knows what he wants and he goes after it. 

And, perhaps most importantly, Amaro has been remarkably influential— both externally and internally. He has managed to entice players and convince counterparts around the league to make deals, while persuading Phillies ownership to take some risks and dramatically increase its payroll.   

2. Citizens Bank Park and the Fans

"The Bank", as it is affectionately known in Philly, is one of the best venues in sports. It offers an appeal that makes players want to be there.  

It has become the "it" spot for the tri-state metropolitan area spring, summer, and now fall. This past year, almost four million fans overstuffed Citizens Bank Park during the regular season and five postseason contests. 

The ballpark provides a marvelous combination of modern luxury and retro charm. It also provides an intimate setting with an abundance of great sight lines that keeps players and fans close. 

And, speaking of the fans, the team's unparalleled support makes for an electric environment every game of the year. 

Players love the daily playoff atmosphere. Cliff Lee cited it as one of the key reasons that he re-signed with the Phillies, while Jayson Werth will surely miss it.  

And, the loyal fanbase should continue to generate the revenues to sustain the team as long as the organization continues to "play to win." 

3. Ownership and Economics

The Phillies ownership long possessed a reputation as being highly conservative and frugal. It is not a coincidence that the organization has accumulated the most losses in baseball history. 

Former high profile players such as Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling pushed to get out of town because they were convinced that ownership would never make the financial commitment to be a  consistent winner. 

Tight management of the payroll meant passing on big ticket draft picks, trading expensive players,  and avoiding the best that free agency had to offer.  Philadelphia operated as a "small market" team despite demographics that suggested otherwise. 

The confluence of a highly appealing ballpark and a nucleus of stellar home grown talent set in motion the current metamorphosis into a "big market" mentality. 

A Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels-led ball club playing in a great setting provided the foundation for championship aspirations and growing attendance figures. 

In 2008, ownership got a taste of winning a World Series Championship with a core group entering its prime. It was easy for both insiders and outsiders to see that the Phillies were staring at the possibility of an extended run if they could retain talent and complement it with other quality players. 

Enter Amaro. Since taking over for Gillick, he has acquired more star players than the organization had over decades. Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee, Placido Polanco, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cliff Lee, again.

Along the way, Amaro convinced ownership to expand its risk tolerance and push the payroll to unimaginable levels for the Phillies organization. 

The bar is now reset. Ownership has seen first hand that by spending money, they can consistently compete for championships— and make money.

At the newly established levels, as big salaries roll off, money becomes available to pay other quality talent. If fans continue to fill the park every night, expect ownership to maintain the same financial commitment. 

4. Attractiveness to Players

Lee provided 30 million or so arguments that Philadelphia is a highly appealing destination for players. 

Despite enormous dollars and lengthy contract terms being offered, the former Cy Young winner deliberated waiting for the Phillies to make an offer. Once they did, despite being for fewer years and considerably less money, Lee jumped at the chance to don a Phillies uniform again. 

Many around the baseball world were surprised that he would turn down so much money to play in a city that made news for tasering and projectile vomiting. 

But Lee knew those unfortunate exceptions are greatly overwhelmed by the positive energy and adrenaline rush that accompanies each home game. He referenced an atmosphere that is simply different than any other (in a very positive way.)

Lee also cited the terrific clubhouse environment that housed a "true team" in every sense. Before his exit, Werth often made similar references as he expressed his desire to stay in Philly. 

The bottom line is that Philadelphia has become a destination spot for major league players. With a great ballpark packed with knowledgable, passionate fans every game; winning, talented players; and a front office committed to winning; the "City of Brotherly Love" has become one of the most attractive spots for MLB players to call home.  

5. Scouting and Farm System

The trades for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt over the past couple years substantially depleted what had been an abundance of minor league talent. 

Of course, it was this pipeline of prospects that afforded Amaro the bargaining chips to lure these stars away from other clubs in the first place. But, despite dealing all this young talent, the Phillies still possess some attractive prospects, particularly at lower levels of the system. 

The home grown nucleus in Philly along with the array of prospects that have come up through the organization serves as testimony to the quality of its scouts, minor league system, and the front office.

This did not all happen by accident. Although the stockpile of major league ready talent is down at the moment, it is reasonable to assume that the same philosophies and evaluators will replenish the pipeline. 

This should allow the Phillies to replace aging players down the road as well as provide bargaining chips to make future deals. 

The Final Word

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Phillies have a two to four year window to capture more World Series rings. This may be true for the current composition of the team, but it appears that the organization may be poised for years of continuing success. 

Throughout the team's current era, the Phillies have morphed into both a big market team and a model organization.  

The franchise has risen to rub elbows with the sport's true elite teams.  The Phillies also possess the key elements to remain in the same company for years to come.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Money Aside, All Lose with Jayson Werth's Departure from the Phillies

San Francisco Giants' shortstop Juan Uribe goes air born as he makes the throw to second after tagging out Philadelphia Phillies' Jayson Werth during game 1 of the NLCS in Philadelphia on October 16, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

Yesterday, conjecture became reality. After many months of speculation that Jayson Werth would leave the Phillies when his contract expired, it became official when the Washington Nationals signed him to a mega-deal.

Most everyone would agree that the terms of the contract widely exceeded expectations. Even the Nationals GM Mike Rizzo admitted as much by implying that the 7-year, $126 million deal had to be inflated to attract a high profile free agent due to the team's less than stellar track record. 

Beyond the obvious financial windfall benefiting Werth and his agent Scott Boras, all parties involved seem to lose at some level. Additionally, each will be subject to risks that will not be easily overcome.

Although the Phillies abundance of remaining talent, headed by the Big Three, will still position them as strong contenders in 2011, the team is clearly worse off without Werth. 

It is apparent to most all observers that the club loses its one big right-handed power bat to break up its lefty sluggers. More peripherally, though, they lose the type of patient hitter that runs up pitch counts and on base percentage. 

And, for Phillies fans who suffered through watching the Bobby Abreu era, Werth's defensive range, aggressive baserunning and all out hustle were highly valued. In fact, these qualities along with his work ethic make him the type of player that Philly fans embrace (although not now that he has jumped ship.) 

In anticipation of "J-Dub's" exit, most pundits and fans have envisioned replacing him with a platoon scenario. Names such as Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr, Matt Diaz, and Jeff Francouer have surfaced to pair with left-handed rookie phenom Domonic Brown. Unfortunately, none of them possess Werth's combination of speed, range, arm, or gamer mentality-- let alone batting capabilities. 

Besides securing a five-tool player, the Nationals also lose on many fronts with this deal. Even if they can shrug off the scorn from most every other GM and team owner around baseball for raising the bar by handing a 31-year old player with a history of injury a seven-year contract at an average annual salary of $18 million, they still have issues. 

Should Werth's production start to fade as he moves out of his prime, their return on investment will nose dive. Or, even worse, if the injury bug returns, it could happen sooner. 

Part of Rizzo's rationale for overspending right now is that his club needed to acquire the type of centerpiece necessary to build a winner and signal to other players around the league that Washington has a bright future. 

This seems particularly risky considering that Werth never played that role in Philly. The free spirited right fielder resided more in the supporting cast behind big name stars such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, and Cole Hamels.

This is not to say that Werth is incapable of stepping up to be "The Man," but placing a nine figure bet on that happening makes a former round Philadelphia hoops star's gambling look like child's play.    

Lastly, the Nats have been accumulating some nice young talent, but still appear to be a year or two away from serious contention. The return of Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery and the development of fellow phenom Bryce Harper seem to point to 2012 or 2013 as the season for Washington to emerge from the bottom feeder depths.  
The signing of Werth does not quite align with that timeline. 

And, importantly, despite now being financially set for life, Werth loses a lot by inking this contract. The next seven years will likely never rival the fun and excitement that he experienced while in red pinstripes. 

It all starts with the chemistry in the clubhouse, created by a rare mix of talented, selfless, and winning ballplayers. The Phillies have the intangibles to go with the skills that translates into an enjoyable environment and ultimately success. 

As for today's Nats- not so much. 

When he steps out of the clubhouse onto the field, it is highly unlikely that Werth will experience the same electric atmosphere that was a constant throughout his stay in Philly. 

Philadelphia's NL-leading attendance last season was more than double the numbers in Washington. Nat's fans occupied 53.9 percent of the stadium each game, while Phillies fans over-stuffed Citizen's Bank Park at 103.5 percent of capacity. 

Perhaps an even more important difference can be found in the DNA of each set of fans. Let's just say that Washington fans don't exactly come to mind when terms like "passionate," "knowledgeable," and "vocal" are thrown around the baseball world— but are almost synonymous with those residing in the City of Brotherly Love.  

Werth's switch of red uniforms also brings a ramped up set of expectations and pressure. It remains to be seen how he will respond to it, but history suggests that those two elements often rob some of the joy of playing a kids game as your everyday occupation. 

Wrapped around all of this is the fact that the Phillies are still built to win now. No matter how much money is sitting in a bank account or portfolio, winning is always a lot more fun. 

Washington might have a bright future. But, if the Phillies can figure out how to patch the gaping hole left by his departure, it may be a tortuous couple years for Werth watching his former teammates strive for historic excellence. 

Some have reacted to Werth's contract with anger and disdain, incensed that he would choose money over winning. Although it is disappointing to see one of my favorite and most admired Phillies players leave town, it is virtually impossible to begrudge him accepting a deal the magnitude that was offered. 

If recent reports have been true, the Nationals offer was three or four years longer and $62-78 million greater than what Ruben Amaro extended to Werth. 

That goes way beyond the range of a hometown discount and vaults into the category of "an offer that can't be refused."

Its sad, but true that Werth is no longer a Phillie and is now a National. As a result, it will be a little bit less fun for Phillies fans when they head to the park next season.  
And, I suspect, the same will hold true for Werth— perhaps even more-so.   

Friday, October 29, 2010

An Open Letter to the Phillies' Jayson Werth and Ruben Amaro

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth catches a foul ball hit by San Francisco Giants' Cody Ross in the fourth inning during Game 6 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in Philadelphia October 23, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Dear Jayson and Ruben,

As you well know, the past few years have been a very special time for the Philadelphia Phillies and its loyal fanbase. 

Four division titles, three trips to the NLCS, two National League Pennants, and a World Series ring is the type of remarkable success that has not been common place in this city? Every game is a playoff atmosphere with standing room only crowds filling arguably the best venue in all of sports. 

Baseball pundits and fans have debated whether this is the best era in team history— or even in Philly sports altogether. The "dynasty" word was being tossed around pretty freely, but regrettably has been shelved for now with the Phillies premature postseason exit this year. 

I think you could both agree that the Phillies still have some unfinished business. 

Ruben, it surely won't help the cause if Jayson is wearing a different uniform next season.

Some argue that top prospect Domonic Brown is waiting in the wings, and that this is part of baseball's natural order.  Although he showed some flashes, Brown's three-month tour with the big club highlighted that he's probably not quite ready for prime time. 

And importantly, he swings from the left-side. After the way the Giants lined up lefties in the NLCS to shut down the Phillies left leaning lineup, tipping the scales further in that direction clearly wouldn't improve the team's championship aspirations.

Left field in 2012 sounds just about right.

A lineup with Brown replacing Jayson in 2011 would likely have Charlie Manuel asking for volunteers to move to the right-side to balance things out like a US Airways Express flight attendant.  

Besides providing an important right-handed threat amongst the left-handed sluggers, Jayson contributes to winning in so many other ways. 

His athleticism, instincts and rocket-launcher arm make him one of the best right-fielders in baseball. He gets on base a lot, and then possesses the speed, aggressiveness, and hustle to freely move around them. 

Did I mention that Jayson is the National League's all-time postseason leader in home runs? For a team setting its annual goal to win it all, isn't having proven big game performers critically important? 

He is a true gamer whose total contributions sometimes only show up on the stat sheets in the win column. Additionally, keying in on a non-Sabermetric stat, he ranks very high in "cool" factor.

Jayson had it right when he said a few weeks ago, "Why mess with a winning formula?"

And, Jayson, it is very doubtful that you can replicate the electric atmosphere of Citizen's Bank Park, not to mention the tremendous camaraderie and chemistry with your teammates.  

Speaking of the baseball stadium, wouldn't you agree that it is pretty much ideal for a player of your skills?

You are a perfect fit for this club and this city. And they are a perfect fit for you. 

Why would you want to mess with a winning formula? Why not choose to remain as a key component of something very special that will be recognized in this town for generations to come?

You will be financially set for life with your next contract— here or elsewhere. Why accept anything less than the ideal situation— namely Philadelphia. 

I suspect the past few years have been among, if not the best times in your life. Why walk away from more of the same for a little extra money?

Wouldn't you miss all your close friends in The Bank's right field bleachers? Why risk a case of writer's cramp sending out postcards to stay in touch?

Let's face it, Ruben and Jayson, you need each other. And, Phillies teammates and fans need you to need each other.

So, how can we work this out?

Jayson, although it might not be in your agent's DNA, perhaps you could whisper in his ear to negotiate nicely with the Phillies because they are like family. Tell him that RAJ didn't really intend to make you look bad when he mentioned that RISP stuff. 

After all, didn't the Phillies take a risk on you when others wouldn't and then provide the perfect surroundings for you to flourish? That sounds like family to me.
And, how about telling that agent you're up for a hometown discount? 

Ruben, think about how difficult it would be to fill the gaping hole in the lineup and in right when it comes time to negotiate. 

Remember, too, there's nothing wrong with being creative. A trade here, a future expiring contract there, a deferred payment here, an advertising rate bump there— and you might be able to sell it up the line.  

Consider also that Jayson had something to do with those 100-plus consecutive sellouts. Fans are willing to pay to see winning teams, especially those comprised of winning, likable players with a work ethic. 

He's not going to come cheap, but isn't he worth it? (Or, if you prefer, Werth it?) Proven five-tool players are hard to come by— lets not let him go the way of Cliff Lee. 

Surely, seeing the Giants players dancing on the field last week has to make both of you want to take another crack at getting it right next year. Heck, a few more rings could fit on those hands, so why stop there?

Can't we do this together? Lets finish business the way it was intended. 


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Best Team Ever Heads Home for a Long, Cold Winter

San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Brian Wilson (L) and catcher Buster Posey celebrate as Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard struck out in the ninth inning as the Giants win the National League pennant in Game 6 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in Philadelphia, October 23, 2010. REUTERS/Bill Kostroun (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Without the benefit of a Farmer's Almanac or sophisticated meteorological computer modeling, it is clear that it will be a long, cold winter in Philadelphia.  

The San Francisco Giants ensured as much when they defeated the Phillies last night to wrest away the National League Pennant that had been in their possession for two years.  Regrettably, the Phillies also helped to ensure that with their own continuing inability to generate runs in the postseason. 

Last season's playoff hitting star Ryan Howard stood frozen, unable to pull the trigger on a Brian Wilson 3-2 cutter that barely touched the bottom edge of the strike zone. After a pregnant pause that suspended an entire fanbase, home plate umpire Tom Hallion rung up Howard to end the Phillies two year NL reign. 

The strikeout that left two runners stranded will be replayed for generations to come. It also aptly symbolizes the Phillies disappointing 2010 postseason performance.  

Despite having a high profile and seemingly high power offense, the Phillies simply could not push runs across the plate. They could not come through with big hits or even score runners from third when all they needed to do was put a ball in play. 

The night started with great promise as the team seemed to finally find their missing mojo. Chase Utley's ringing double into the right field corner and Jayson Werth's warning track sacrifice fly staked them to a 2-0 lead in the first. 

Then, it was radio silence the rest of the way. The Phillies reverted back to 2010 form, unable to push another run across the dish with the entire season on the line.

The first inning evoked deja vu that hearkened back to the 2008 and 2009 championship teams. It appeared as if the bats had broken out of their slumber and the Phillies were primed to play to expectations. 

The 2010 postseason reality quickly kicked back in, however, when a "shoulda-woulda-coulda" top half of the third allowed the Giants to even the score. Utley whiffed on grounder that appeared within his reach, Victorino couldn't quite hang on to make a Willie Mays replica catch, and Polanco threw away a swinging bunt.  

Next, a promising bottom half of the inning started with a walk and yet another hit batter. After Utley flipped the ball back to the mound when it caromed back after drilling him just below the neck, Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez went ballistic. 

Isn't the batter who took the heater in the spine the one entitled to be annoyed? 

Sanchez's actions touched off a bench clearing scrum that allowed valuable time for Jeremy Affeldt to get loose in the pen. After the field cleared, Bruce Bochy replaced the rattled Sanchez with Affeldt, who promptly extinguished the rally. 

Giants hurlers worked into trouble over the balance of the game, but Phillies hitters could never cash in.

The Phillies appeared that they were going to breakthrough with two outs in the fifth when Howard lined a double to left center with Rollins on first. Third base coach Sam Polazzo somewhat shockingly held Rollins on what would have been a close play, but one in which the speedy shortstop typically crosses the plate with the certainty of death and taxes.   

In the sixth, the Phils were knocking on the door again when Ibanez doubled to left to start the frame and was moved over by a Ruiz bunt. After working a 2-0 count, pinch hitter Ben Francisco missed a couple hittable pitches before taking a called third strike. The looping curve ball appeared to be high and wide, but as Howard learned later, swinging at anything close was an advisable approach with two strikes. 

After both teams took turns leaving men on base for a long stretch, Juan Uribe jumped on Ryan Madson's first pitch fastball with two outs in the eighth and lofted a high fly ball to right that had just enough carry to reach the seats. The Citizens Bank Park crowd was suddenly silenced as the Giants took a 3-2 lead. 

Bochy called on Thursday's losing pitcher Tim Lincecum. After surrendering singles to Victorino and Ibanez with one out, his night was done. Wilson trotted in with his crazed closer act and got extremely lucky when Carlos Ruiz lined into a double play.  

Brad Lidge loaded the bases in the ninth, but got Wilson to bounce out to maintain the one run deficit.  The stage was set for one last ditch effort to rally to keep the Phillies season alive. 

With one out, Rollins walked, but was erased on Polanco's fielder's choice.  Utley worked another walk, putting the Phillies 2010 season into the hands of their cleanup hitter who had yet to record an RBI in either playoff series. 

Howard lingered in disbelief after being rung up, while Wilson celebrated himself with his signature ritual. Giants players rushed to the center of the field to celebrate their large upset and a trip to the "Fall Classic." 

The winningest team in baseball, the odds-on favorite, and the Phillies' most talented team ever had fallen short of its goal and expectations. 

A season so full of promise was prematurely over. A marvelously talented and highly appealing team was exiting the big stage before the final act. 

All that remains is a cruel winter of wondering what went wrong and what could have been for the Phillies players, coaches, front office, and fans.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I'm Just Saying….2010 NLCS Edition

Random rants, thoughts, and observations.

  • Has Pat Burrell officially worn out his welcome in Philadelphia with his expletive-laced rant directed towards new hometown hero Roy Halladay in Game 5? It was especially odd to see Burrell complaining about a strike call since it has appeared all series that he had incriminating photographs of the home plate umpires. How many times has he taken what appeared to be strikes and then confidently trotted down to first instead of back to the dugout? And, his big double in Game 1 never should have happened since he was already out on strikes— at least once in that at bat. 
  • What happened to last year's NLCS batting hero Ryan Howard? He is too good to have zero home runs or RBI in the 2010 postseason. It makes you think of what the late Richie Ashburn used to say, "Somebody's going to pay."
  • Along the same lines, it stands to reason that Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, and Jimmy Rollins are ready to bust out along with Howard. It has to happen sooner or later, doesn't it? J Roll has surely been flirting with it. 
  • Was Tim Lincecum the artist with lady hair on all those commercials UPS used to run? If not, maybe it was his dad.
  • Speaking of Lincecum and Burrell, did their classless trash talking tirades in Game 5 ignite a spark within the Phillies clubhouse?
  • The Texas Rangers ALCS clinching win last night sets up the potential storybook script that would have World Series TV ratings skyrocketing should the Phillies advance. It doesn't get any better than a Cliff Lee versus Roy Halladay opener. Now, the Phillies just need to win a couple games and Halladay needs to make a quick recovery.  
  • Can umpires fall into a team slump? It appears that way considering the work of the NLCS crew
    thus far. Jeff Nelson blew a clear balk call and Ross Gload being safe to start the ninth in Game
    4. Last night, the Phillies averted disaster when Sandoval missed third base after Nelson
    erroneously called Halladay's bunt fair. Derryl Cousins offered up a coffee can-sized strike zone
    in Game 1 and Wally Bell had the treacherous "Whack-A-Mole" zone in Game 4. 
  • Phillies fans need to be prepared to unleash their best Burt Hooton/CC Sabathia greeting when Jonathan Sanchez takes the mound tonight. The young lefty has enjoyed a breakout season, but has had considerable difficulty settling in during the opening frame. A deafening, anxiety inducing environment might prime the pump.  
  • Regardless of his stats and success, I wonder if Giants closer Brian "Fear the Beard" Wilson's act makes Phillies fans appreciate Brad Lidge that much more? Wilson seems to work extra hard at being bizarre. 
  • The Phillies deserve credit for not over-reacting and staying focused with the plethora of balls thrown at hitters by the Giants pitching staff. A number have connected with various body parts while many more have been aimed squarely at batter's heads. Matt Cain displayed pin point control when he wasn't aiming fastballs at the head or other body parts of Phillies batters. Lincecum seemed to take a page out of Cain's playbook with some similar headhunting tactics in Game 5. Winning is the only priority for the Phillies, but it might be nice to see some Giants similarly eat some dirt along the way. 
  • Considering Cain's tactics in Game 3 and his previous lack of success against them, the Phillies would surely welcome the opportunity for some sweet revenge against him in a Game 7. 
  • Although he has gotten better, Fox broadcaster and former Steve Carlton caddy Tim McCarver still seems intent on making every telecast into a Little League instructional clinic. 
  • It would be interesting to be at the Yankees spring training next year when Cliff Lee sees Steve Swisher for the first time.
  • Jose Contreras has been a great bargain basement pickup for the Phillies this season. Besides "The Big Three," Contreras and Madson evoke the most confidence when I see them take the mound. Any takers for Danys Baez so the Phils could afford to resign the hulking Cuban right-hander?
  • To his credit, Baez has put aside any personal disappointment of not being included on the postseason roster and remained a positive influence in the clubhouse. If he remains on the club next season, perhaps this year's experience will further motivate him to harness his greater potential. 
  • Will Bruce Bochy elect to return Pablo Sandoval to the bench after his shaky performance in the field? That would be fine with me as, despite a down year, he is still one of the Giants scariest hitters. 
  • Who would have known that an aspiring rodeo clown could create so much anxiety for an entire city? 
  • Thursday night, Jayson Werth clubbed his 13th home run in 43 postseason games, including 7 last season. He also gunned down Codeo Ross at third base to deflate a potential rally. Letting him walk via free agency would leave a very large hole in right field  and from the right-side in the lineup. The Phillies need to find a way to keep him…I'm just saying. 

Opportunity Knocks For Phillies to Prove Greatness in the NLCS

Philadelphia Phillies closing pitcher Brad Lidge (3rd L) celebrates with teammates after they defeated the San Francisco Giants during Game 5 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in San Francisco, October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

A mark of a great team is its ability to overcome adversity to achieve success. The 2010 Philadelphia Phillies have surely faced an ample portion of challenges this season with a disabled list transaction report that reads like an MLB "Who's Who" list. 

The team has already proved to be tremendously resilient by turning a two-games over .500 mid-season record into the best record in baseball with a remarkable 49-19 finish.

While many were contemplating writing off the season as a year of bad fortune, the entire Phillies organization remained resolute in their capabilities and optimistic for a successful outcome. No one panicked, no one baled. 

After trailing the Atlanta Braves by seven games just a couple months earlier, the Phillies won the NL Eastern Division going away. Their season ending tally of 97 wins and a rare as Halley's Comet NL All-Star game victory gave them home field advantage throughout the postseason. 

With the "Big Three" anchoring perhaps the best lineup in baseball, odds-makers pegged them as the favorites to win it all heading into the October tourney that spills into November for each league's best team.

Although they looked a little rusty in spots, the Phillies quickly dispensed the Cincinnati Reds 3-0 in the NLDS. As further validation to the oddsmakers, the "Big Three" produced a historic no-hitter in the opener and a brilliant five-hit shutout in the series clincher. 

The team's next destination was a third consecutive trip to the NLCS, this time to face the upstart San Francisco Giants. 

Somewhat surprisingly, that trip found them in a 3-1 hole after four games and facing the possibility of a winter of wondering what could have been. The Phillies were on the brink of elimination.  

It has turned into a potential microcosm of their whole season.  Of course, for that to happen, the Phillies would need to battle back to win the NLCS. 

On Thursday night, the Phillies took one large step in that direction. A 4-2 victory over two-time defending Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum in enemy territory kept them alive and restored home field advantage. 

Somewhat fitting to their seasonal journey, the Phillies' ace of aces, Roy Halladay suffered a groin pull early in the contest and clearly did not display his typical dominating stuff. Also, fittingly, he battled his way through to maintain a narrow 3-2 lead after six innings.

And, perhaps keeping with the script, Jimmy Rollins finally seemed to shake off a lingering hamstring injury that has compromised his running ability through the playoffs. In the seventh inning, seeing J Roll steal second and third base had to hearten his teammates and Phillies fans alike. 

The bullpen came up big with some of its best work all season over the final three innings. Additionally, Jayson Werth provided a huge insurance run with an opposite field homer in the ninth. 

Earlier in the game, Werth gunned down Phillies nemesis Cody Ross at third with a Dave Parkeresque frozen rope from right. Besides helping Halladay escape a jam, the play may have taken a little edge off Cody's magic over the Phillies. 

Of course, two more large challenges remain if the Phillies want to be the first National League team in 66-years to appear in three consecutive World Series. 

Tonight, Roy Oswalt takes the hill in hope of advancing the team to game seven. A revved-up Citizen's Bank Park crowd will be there to offer ample encouragement. 

Should the Phillies win, 2008 postseason hero Cole Hamels is waiting in the wings for Sunday. By then, the electricity at "The Bank" might be enough to power the entire Tri-state area.

Meanwhile, Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers will be looking on, awaiting their 2010 World Series opponent. 

The stage is set.  Opportunity knocks for the Phillies to show their true greatness. 

After fighting their way through adversity all season, a similar course in the postseason would provide further evidence that this is truly a great team. Coming back from a 3-1 NLCS deficit to prevail would only serve to enhance the argument. 

It won't be easy facing a Giants team with its own talented pitching staff and a seemingly unending arsenal of interchangeable parts. Importantly, they also possess a belief that they can win. 

With due respect to the Giants, the Phillies also possess that same belief. This Phillies team is, in fact, a truly special club— and this weekend could go a long way towards demonstrating that further. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bad Decisions Could Cost the Phillies a Championship

Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel waits for make up game against the Colorado Rockies to begin at Coors Field on September 2, 2010 in Denver. The Phillies lead the NL Wild Card race.   UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

There is no doubt that the Philadelphia Phillies have struggled to hit this postseason. And, the San Francisco Giants deserve a lot of credit for their strong pitching and overall 25-man team play. 

Those truths cannot be denied, but ultimately some bad decisions could prove to be the Phillies downfall this season. High hopes— justified high hopes at that— for another World Series Championship may have been lost in the rubble of the Giants Game 4 walk-off win. 

The decisions in question occurred both pre-game and in-game.  The Phillies showed some life by battling back a couple times, but ultimately the most regrettable decision came back to haunt them. 

After the game, Game 4 starting pitcher Joe Blanton described it this way- "We didn't really lose. We just ran out of innings."

Perhaps it was this same convoluted math and reasoning that led Manuel to trust the start to a rusty Blanton with his team down 2-1 in the NLCS and arguably baseball's best pitcher ready to take the ball. 

Although Blanton had been listed as the tentative Game 4 starter, the Phillies probably never attached much likelihood of finding themselves in this position. Confidence ran high that "The Big Three" would provide the upper hand after three games. 

Unfortunately, someone failed to provide the script to Cody Ross and company. 

After the Giants greeted the Phillies in San Francisco with a three-hit shutout on Tuesday, it was time to rethink the original plan. Considering that the Giants ranked first in pitching during the regular season and possessed a 2.11 ERA in the postseason, it was reasonable to assume that the Phillies would need to out-duel them to win. 

The Phillies acquired Roy Halladay to be the team's stopper and provide an indomitable force at the top of the rotation. The organization's sights have clearly been on winning another championship and Halladay was the perfect work horse to lead that effort. 

The Phillies' series deficit with two more games in the city and stadium by the bay against a Giants team growing in confidence called for a revised plan. 

It was time to call on Halladay to pitch Game 4 and Game 7, if necessary. It was also time to call on the other two H2O hurlers to demonstrate its "Big Three" moniker in crunch time.

All three have had a great deal of extra rest over the past three weeks. And, perhaps more importantly, they have all winter to rest. 

The Phillies could ill afford to back themselves into a corner that would require Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels to win out against three talented Giants pitchers. They also could ill afford to further feed the Giants belief that they could pull off a big NLCS upset. 

Unfortunately, that's today's reality. 

Manuel stuck with Blanton, who battled for 4 2/3 innings with what appeared to be batting practice stuff. After a 20-day layoff, the burly right-hander had little juice on his fastball and little precision on his curve ball. 

He gave the Giants a run in the first by repeatedly bouncing balls in the dirt. He committed a cardinal sin of pitching by walking a badly slumping Andres Torres to lead off the fifth after the Phillies had rallied in the top half to give him a 4-2 lead- who, of course, scored. 

Blanton's fastball was generally being clocked at 87-88 mph, but dipped to 86 mph in the fifth. With very little movement and little else to fool hitters, it seemed a matter of time before Giants hitters really squared some balls up. 

Blanton is a competitor, and has a history of solid pitching after the year hits the mid-point. But to paraphrase a famous political quotation— I know Roy Halladay, and he is no Roy Halladay. 

We will never truly know, but the likelihood of the Phillies sitting even at 2-2 today had Halladay pitched seem pretty high. And, even pitching on short rest, the odds of "The Big Three" taking two of three would still seem to be in the Phillies favor. 

Once the game started yesterday, the Phillies compounded the problem with some smaller decisions that proved regrettable.     

With acknowledgement of the club's offensive anemia, it was still a poor decision to send Carlos Ruiz home in the Phillies fifth with Chase Utley on deck. Center fielder Aaron Rowand got to Shane Victorino's single quickly and was in shallow center.

In the Giants sixth, Ross keyed a rally by hitting yet another middle-in fastball that the Phillies continue to feed him. As broadcaster Joe Buck commented, the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing and expect a different result. 

Then, Pablo Sandoval roped a two-run double off a pitch that should have never been called. Letter high 89 mph fastballs tend to land in the seats or bounce off a wall. 

And, most painfully, the decision to call for a Roy Oswalt change-up after pumping fastballs past injured Juan Uribe was a decision that ended in "sudden death" in the contest. Uribe was able to get around on the off-speed pitch enough to lift a walk-off sacrifice fly to left.  

The decisions have been made and there is no going back. The Giants have a 3-1 series lead and can close things out tonight within the friendly surroundings of AT&T Park. 

The series is still not over until one team wins four games and this Phillies team will not quit, especially with "The Big Three" lined up to do battle. Even so, the odds are now against them, particularly since the Giants will trot out their own "Big Three" to oppose them. 

The Phillies and their fans cannot revise history, so the only viable approach is to latch onto the cliches and conventional wisdom such as "taking one game at a time." But still, unless the Phillies can beat the odds, the gnawing feeling will persist for many years to come that it didn't have to turn out this way.

Manuel has been a great choice to lead this club and has been a big part of the current era success. It seems that he missed the mark here, though. 

This Phillies team was positioned better than any team in its long history to win a Championship. A decision not to ride the team's biggest strength, though— its trio of aces— could haunt its stakeholders for a long, long time.  

Right now, the team and its fanbase are left to hope that Charlie's math and logic prevails. The Phillies simply need to win four games to advance to the World Series— and it does not matter which ones.