Monday, August 31, 2009

Checking In On the Michael Vick Experiment

Jacksonville Jaguars v Philadelphia Eagles

Now that we are going on three weeks since the Eagles stunned everyone with the signing of Michael Vick, lets take a pulse on the situation. Much of the initial backlash and strong reactions have calmed, so it becomes easier to evaluate how it might all play out. We now have some more insight into key variables such as: 1) how Vick will fit into the team, 2) what the dynamics between the quarterbacks might be like, 3) how fans will approach the situation, and 4) what will be the magnitude of distraction.

As far as the on field role of Vick, we have not gained a great deal of insight, particularly since the team will not want to preview their plans in the pre-season. It does appear that the intention is to be very creative with him by varying roles and moving personnel around. This could turn out to be too cute for their own good, though, as it has the potential to disrupt continuity and transform the offense into gimmickry rather than being a consistent force. The latter tends to be a more proven Super Bowl winning formula. And, importantly, Donovan McNabb displayed some frustration with the approach in Thursday night's game.

Speaking of McNabb, signs have emerged that he may not have been as big a proponent of bringing in Vick as originally indicated. It would also appear that the task of integrating Vick has detracted from McNabb and his teammates honing the base offense.

Surely a key element will be how the fans (and the media, who influence fan opinion) handle the entire situation. In Vick's first game at The Linc, fans greeted him with warm applause and possible protests outside the stadium were minimal. Additionally, a "We want Vick" chant broke out in the 3rd quarter, accelerating forward the virtually certain quarterback controversy that will ensue this season. Football pundits Michael Irvin and Ron Jaworski (who both understand the Philadelphia atmosphere very well) have both expressed that it is inevitable.

In the post game press conference, Andy Reid exhibited stoicism and some impatience when questioned about the McNabb/Vick situation. This is just the tip of the iceberg as Reid will be challenged throughout the season much as he was last season during the McNabb debates and with the whole T.O. episode.

Lastly, you need to look no further than the national media attention that arose from Vick swilling a vodka and grapefruit at an airport hotel last week to know that the distractions will persist throughout the season. Protests will occur. Every action and reaction will be analyzed.

For the Eagles to prosper through the situation, coaches and players will need to be somewhat de-sensitized to the matter, especially Reid and McNabb. Vick will need to walk the straight and narrow. And, the team will need to figure out how to integrate Vick into the offense without disrupting the flow and diminishing the already existing great potential. Stay tuned.

Predicting the US Open Tennis Event

This morning the 2009 US Open Tennis Tournament kicks off in Flushing Meadows, New York. The two week long event, last of the four majors, features the strongest field of competitors this season.

Accordingly, I thought it would be fun to wage a friendly competition to predict how the players will fare. The writer, yours truly, has thrown the gauntlet down to two others to see who has a greater handle on the match-ups, trends and ultimately the projected outcome. I will battle against two tough opponents: 1)an expert in the field, my club's USTA tennis professional and 2) our cat, who you will see has an obvious affinity to tennis.

This friendly competition will be broken into two rounds. Today, the contestants will predict the players who will advance to the Round of 16 and then, in a week, they will predict how the actual round of 16 participants will fare over the balance of the tournament.

The Contestants:

Jason Michael- Jason has been a USTA tennis professional for almost a decade, following a successful college career at Indiana University. He also continues to compete on the court in a couple leagues, is an avid follower of the pro circuit (has played against a couple of the players on the tour) and, importantly, also has a cat, so he understands the challenge ahead. Jason will use his expertise, experience and gut instincts to assess the field, evaluate match-ups and make his predictions.

Adidas the Cat- Adidas' name itself links her to the tennis world and she is subjected to a great deal of second hand tennis smoke as she is surrounded by a household of tennis enthusiasts. Adidas' methodology is slightly unique as she uses a combination of brand loyalty (she unabashedly favors players wearing her namesake attire) and some innate cat tuition to forecast winners.

The Writer- My goals are to not get embarrassed by Jason and to achieve greater accuracy than that attained by our cat's unconventional methodology.

The Stakes

In an attempt to be non-discriminating to all, the prize has been set as one pouch of Starkist Light Albacore Tuna.

The Picks

All three contestants picked Djokovic, Roddick, Tsonga, Gonzalez, Nadal and Murray to advance to the round of 16 on the Men's side. On the Women's side, the common picks to advance were Safina, Jankovic, Dementieva, Petrova, Wozniacki, Clijsters and Venus. Please see the sidebar below "Blog Archive" for the full list of picks.

Jason's Other Predictions

Men's Draw

Champion- Federer will win his 6th consecutive US Open

Could Challenge- Murray, Del Potro (Could be their year to break through)

Roddick- Doomed by difficult draw

Querry- Could fare the best of Americans (might meet Federer in semi's)

Possible Upsets- Karlovic over Murray, Isner over Roddick (might blink and miss points due to big serves)

Dark Horse- Philip Kohlschreiber (Playing great with favorable draw)

Could Make Some Noise- Sela (will upset 1-2), Mathieu (nice run until he meets Fed)

Women's Draw

Champion- Venus Williams' (Fast surface further enhances her power game)

Could Challenge- Kuznetsova, Hantuchova, Safina (Have the game to win)

Williams Sisters- Will not meet in semi's as anticipated

Dark Horses- Lisicki (Hard courts good for huge serve), Clijsters (Starting to get her groove back)

Could Make Some Noise- Azarenka, Pennetta (Both have had a good summer and could turn heads)

Sharapova- Will not have enough to get by Dementieva

Americans- None will advance past the 2nd round other than the Williams' sisters

Although, many of the favorites will progress through as expected, upsets are always part of the majors. Federer has to be the favorite on the men's side coming in with 5 consecutive titles at Flushing Meadows, but Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick could conceivably overtake him. It is even more wide open on the women's side. It should be an entertaining two weeks of tennis.

Phillies End August By Extending Lead to 8 Games

Braves vs. Phillies

Joe Blanton and Jairr Jurrjens engaged in a pitching duel last evening at Citizen's Bank Park. In the end, the Phillies defense and Carlos Ruiz's big night at the plate (3-3 with 2 doubles) allowed them to prevail 3-2.

The Braves jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the 1st inning when Martin Prado homered to left. After that, both pitchers exchanged zeroes until Chase Utley tied the score in the bottom of the 4th with a line shot into the right field stands. The score remained tied at 1 until the 7th inning when Ruiz doubled home Raul Ibanez and Pedro Feliz after a throwing error by Chipper Jones put them in scoring position.

Atlanta mounted a threat in the 8th off Ryan Madson, who came on in relief of Blanton. Madson plunked Matt Diaz with a pitch, before singles by Prado and Jones made it 3-2. Charlie Manuel summoned Scott Eyre to try to work out of the two on, no out mess. Eyre induced Brian McCann to hit a sharp grounder to Utley, who flipped to Jimmy Rollins for the force at second. Rollins then reeled around and fired to Feliz to cut down Prado. Eyre completed the escape by getting Garrett Anderson to ground out.

Brad Lidge made his way in from the pen in hope of earning his second save of the series. Like Friday night, he threw a 1-2-3 inning, recording the last out on a strikeout. Overall, it was a solid win that highlighted how the Phillies superior defense wins games.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Not A Good Night for the Phils

Braves vs. Phillies

Last night was a washout for the Phillies in many ways, but unfortunately not enough as they were able to complete 7 1/2 innings. The game was delayed by rain at the outset and eventually called with the Phillies due to bat in the 8th inning. In between, the game was all Braves as they outscored the Phillies 9-1 on the strength of four home runs and strong pitching by Derek Lowe and Mike Gonzalez.

Heading into the night, the Phillies chances seemed very good with Cliff Lee scheduled as the starting pitcher. Surely, no one expected a blow out. After Chase Utley staked him to a 1-0 lead with a solo home run in the 1st inning, Lee held the Braves scoreless until things unraveled in the a big way.

Brain McCann and Yunel Escobar bounced singles to start the inning. Long-time Lee nemesis Garrett Anderson followed by driving a ball into the right field stands to give them a 3-1 lead. It didn't stop there, with two outs and a runner on, scorching hot Matt Diaz also dropped one in the right field stands to extend the lead to 5-1. These were the first home runs off Lee since he joined the Phillies.

The Braves later added to their lead with an Escobar home run off Lee in the 5th and a Chipper Jones homer off Chad Durbin in the 6th. Meanwhile, the home team was putting runners on base (11 hits in 7 innings), but could not push them across, twice leaving the bases loaded.

Tonight the Braves send a tough right-hander Jair Jurrjens to the mound against Joe Blanton in the pivotal game. Although they might have difficulty pronouncing his name, the Phillies are very familiar with Jurrjens as he has pitched well against them, going 2-0 with a 0.92 ERA in 3 games. Of course, the historical numbers last night favored the Phillies, but the game did not quite follow suit.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Dallas Cowboys Massive Scoreboard Blunder

Tennessee Titans v Dallas Cowboys

Yesterday the NFL office ruled on the (shall we say) slightly embarrassing scoreboard conundrum in the Dallas Cowboys' soon to be opened Taj Mahal of stadiums. If you had not been aware, the issue revolves around the world's largest video screens (containing 30 million light bulbs in total) that make up the scoreboard being situated so low above the field that punted footballs bang into the bottom of it. And, it is noteworthy that the massive structure spans 60 yards from 20 yard line to 20 yard line, hanging over the field like a UFO mother ship. Oops!

Interestingly, after review by the NFL Competition Committee, the NFL gave what may amount to a temporary stay. The league has agreed that the Cowboys do not need to raise the scoreboard at this time, but will rather allow them to play special "do-over" ground rules for the 2009 season. Those rules are something along the lines of a backyard conversation you had as a kid: "If a ball hits the tree in left field, it is an automatic home run, but if a ball hits the big bush in right, it is a ground rule double...."

This is not a good combination for the ultra-precise NFL, which mandates everything from proper conduct after touchdowns to which body parts hitting the ground constitute a tackle to the appropriate way to wear socks. Since the season is quickly approaching, it would seem that this ruling was more a function of time and it is likely that the team will need to resolve the situation before next season.

The whole matter seems a little surreal since one would expect that the budget to build a $1.15 billion state-of-the-art football stadium would include enough money to hire top notch engineers and architects. Apparently, not, but the most unusual aspect of the whole affair may have been the reactions displayed by owner Jerry Jones and GM Rich Dalrymple as they watched the Titans punter boot balls that thudded into the bottom of the scoreboard.

As the two stood on the sideline and watched, they smiled with seeming amusement. This was an odd reaction as you would expect their look to be more along the lines of a ghostly, wide-eyed stare and as if they had each just swallowed a football while witnessing their organization's colossal error in planning. It appeared that their conversation went something like this:

Jerry: "Well, dang, look at that Rich. That ball just hit the Dallas Cowboys Mega-Tron."

Rich: "Yeh, and the ball was still going up."

Jerry: "Shoot, look at that, who would have thought a ball would go that high?"

Rich: "Not me, sir, but I think our punter kicks even higher."

Jerry: "Isn't that funny?"

One last thing, lets hope that the engineers calculated the right amount of support to hold up the massive scoreboard structure since they were a little lax with other things.....

See more on this in yesterday's post "I'm Just Saying....."

Braves Must Face Lee in Critical Game


The Atlanta Braves go into tonight's game knowing two things. The game is probably their most important game of the season to this point and they face the hottest pitcher in baseball. The adrenaline and Nexium should be flowing tonight.

A victory by the Phillies would assure that the Braves would leave town no better than 8 games behind in the standings, and would give them the opportunity to drive the distance to double digits. Conversely, with a win, the Braves can see some light at the end of the tunnel and possibly narrow the gap to 6 games by series end.

Lee heads to the mound for the sixth time in a Phillies uniform, following a phenomenal 5-0, 0.68 ERA start. The Braves will counter with veteran Derek Lowe, who is 12-8 on the season and can be tough when he is keeping his sinker down, but in the strike zone.

A key for Lee will be keeping hot hitting Matt Diaz in check, who is hitting .615 over the past week and .405 for the month of August. Also, for the season, he has hit lefties at a .392 clip.

The Phillies, of course, have their own red hot hitter in Ryan Howard. He continues to launch balls into the stands, jacking two more last night to give him 11 home runs and 29 RBI over the past 15 games. A contributing factor in his batting streak has been the fact that Jayson Werth has also been swinging a hot bat, making it a lot less feasible for teams to pitch around him.

Expect electricity in the air tonight with Lee on the hill and both teams knowing the stakes. It should be fun. Also, do not forget the bonus entertainment on the field prior to the game: Going Yard at Citizen's Bank Park.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Going Yard in Citizen's Bank Park


Tomorrow evening before the Phillies-Braves game, Rocky Wright will step to home plate and take some batting practice rips in the Citizen's Bank Park batting cage. The Wright name is one familiar to Philadelphia area baseball and softball, as Rocky and his late father Melvin have successfully played and coached in the Central Bucks and Pennridge areas throughout the past several decades.

Mel's name is almost synonymous with American Legion baseball literally and figuratively, first through his many years of dedicated service and then by the annual award given to each season's top players that bears his name. Rocky followed a long, successful career of playing baseball and fast pitch softball locally with his own, still running coaching tenure at the helm of the Pennridge American Legion team.

Rocky and I have spent many hours in our lives enjoying playing softball together, but maybe even more importantly, sharing countless laughs and forging a friendship on and off the field. He is one of the true "good" guys and I wish that I could be at "The Bank" to watch him tomorrow evening.

The occasion tomorrow is part of the annual Phillies Phantasy Camp. Rocky is a seasoned veteran of the camps, having competed three times previously and now scheduled to attend again in the spring. In the process, he has gotten to know Scott Palmer as well as former players such as John Kruk, Larry Anderson, Ricky Jordan, Ricky Bottalico and Jim Eisenreich. He was even recognized with the Andy Seminick "Iron Man" Award one year for throwing on the tools of ignorance for every inning of the camp's competition.

Having played more than a thousand games with Rocky through the years, I would expect for him to give the crowd something to talk about by launching a few long balls into the stands. Home run power has always been a big part of his game and often in a prodigious way. I witnessed many majestic shots off his bat in softball over the years that towered into the sky and landed 50-100 feet beyond the outfield fence, the true definition of a bomb.

If you are heading out to "The Bank" tomorrow a little early, be sure to look for the big guy taking some hacks in the cage. Also, you may want to station yourself in the left field stands to watch so you can grab one of the balls that Rocky is sure to send your way.

Pedro the Phillies Rain Maker

Philadelphia Phillies Starting Pitcher Pedro Martinez Pitches Against Philadelphia Phillies

Although a 216-99 record might suggest the title, we got confirmation last night that Pedro is indeed a "rain maker." For the second time in his first four Phillies starting assignments, Martinez's night was cut short when the heavens broke open. And, once again, after a strong start by Pedro and the team possessing a lead, Jamie Moyer took over after the rain delay and earned the win.

On the offensive side, the Phillies other rain maker Ryan Howard continued his torrid pace. He drove a solo homer to left in the 1st, followed that with a 2-run homerun to center in the 4th and doubled in the 8th. Overall, he was 3-3 and has now hit 11 home runs with 29 RBI in the past 15 games. (To put that into perspective, Howard's current streak translates into a 119 homer, 313 RBI season over 162 games.)

Pedro threw two shutout innings before the rain arrived. After the delay, Charlie Manual took the safe route and brought in Moyer to take over for Martinez. Like the first time, Moyer did not disappoint. He proceeded to hold the Braves to 1 run over the next 4 1/3 innings and departed with the Phils leading 3-1.

Another noteworthy element of the game was the performance of Brad Lidge. Manual tapped him to come into start the 9th to protect a 4-2 lead. Lidge rebounded nicely from his difficult outing last Wednesday, quickly setting down the Braves 1-2-3, ending the game with a strikeout. Importantly, he appeared confident and in control.

Last night's win extended the Phillies' lead over the Braves and Marlins to 8 games. With red hot Cliff Lee taking the hill tonight, the Braves have a daunting task not to let their Eastern Division title hopes get away. Conversely, the Phillies have a great opportunity to take a commanding lead and give themselves a little wiggle room.

I'm Just Saying......

A weekly collection of random thoughts and observations for you to consider.

  • Do you think the Mets believe the Phillies are the team to beat, now?
  • Can we get one of those make-overs for Ryan Franklin, Tim Redding, Shawn Andrews and the Diamondbacks' Snidely Whiplash guy?
  • What exactly was Cliff Lee wearing around his neck on Monday?
  • There are 10 days left to grab a few more slices of Mack and Manco pizza before the unofficial end of summer.
  • The Shack's "I Think We're Alone Now" commercial along with the T-Mobile "Pour Some Sugar on Me" commercial a few years ago have that feeling of "been there, done that."
  • What a shock that there are reports that the Vikings locker room is divided, or rather there is a "schism." Actually, isn't "Schism" Brett Favre's middle name?
  • Every time I see Brad Penny on the mound I keep looking for Grandpa, Lilly and Eddie Munster in the stands.
  • Should Michael Vick having one vodka and grapefruit make the national news?
  • Speaking of Vick...Could it be a sign of his sincerity that Vick surely could have signed with a team that had a clearer path to being the starting QB?
  • It would be a mistake for the Eagles not to keep rookie wide receiver Brandon Gibson, especially since he can help on special teams.
  • Jon Runyan has been medically cleared and the Eagles would probably get a home town discount.
  • How do you spend $1.15 billion to build a brand new, state of the art football stadium, but punted footballs hit the scoreboard? That's a little like having a big tree in the middle of your wiffle ball field....except not.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pitching Still the Key Concern for the Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies vs New York Mets at Citi Field in New York

Pitching continues to be a key focus and a source of some lingering concerns for the Phillies as they head down the 2009 season stretch. Oddly enough, the concerns revolve around the four most reliable and successful pitchers from a year ago. On one hand, it speaks volumes that this year's team has been able to withstand their struggles and prosper without them performing at the level expected. On the other hand, these issues will become increasingly important.

In 2008, Cole Hamels was the clear ace of the starting staff and a rising star in the National League. The team was able to ride his excellent pitching through the playoffs and World Series. The other major strength was found in the back-end of the bullpen, where Ryan Madson and JC Romero were the dominating "bridge to" Lidge, who was merely perfect in all 48 save opportunities.

As has been well documented, both Hamels and Lidge have continued to struggle throughout the season (see Hamels and Lidge Need to Find Their "Mojo" for more on that topic), unable to find any level of consistency. Madson has displayed similar dominance for periods of time this season, but continues to be very shaky in the biggest pressure moments. Lastly, Romero was suspended for the first 50 games of the season, pitched well in his return, but then found himself on the disabled list.

Lets take a further look:

Cole Hamels and Ryan Madson

Perhaps Hamels righted himself last evening with a strong performance against the Pirates. He shut out the Bucs through 8 innings, scattering 7 hits, while walking two. Unlike some previous outings, he was able to put away hitters and struck out 7 batters.

Hamels was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the 9th, but would not have been permitted to return to the mound to earn a shut out since he had already thrown 123 pitches. With Brad Lidge unavailable after pitching four consecutive days, Ryan Madson was called on to protect the 1-0 lead in the bottom half of the inning. Unfortunately, Madson was unable to gain his 5th save as he yielded a one out, game tying home run to Brandon Moss.

The Phillies went on to win in the tenth inning when Ryan Howard clubbed his 9th home run in the past 13 games with mates aboard, and then Madson pitched a scoreless bottom half of the inning to earn the victory. It was a twist of fate for Hamels as he deserved the win, but Madson let it slip away and then himself earned the win.

Last night had the appearances of a spring board opportunity for Hamels, but he faltered similarly following through on a couple previous occasions this season. Meanwhile, Madson reinforced how different and difficult it is to close games.

JC Romero

Romero is progressing slowly in his efforts to return to the team. He is only at the stage of throwing in the bullpen, so he appears to be at least a couple weeks away. Fortunately, Scott Eyre has very ably filled his role as left handed set-up man in his absence.

Brad Lidge

After making some strides forward with his previous 3 appearances, he crashed on Tuesday evening when he suffered his league leading 9th blown save, giving up 3 runs in the bottom of the ninth. To be fair, and also thoughtful in assessing the meaning of it, Lidge was pitching for the 4th consecutive day. In retrospect, his bad outing was most likely attributable to being overworked and not something to get overly alarmed about in terms of his pitching ability. The key will be whether Lidge can use a little selective amnesia and not let it erode his confidence.

All in all, the Phillies continue to roll on, winning 12 of their last 15 games, while expanding their division lead to 7 games. This gives them some flexibility to work through the difficulties, but it still remains critical for these four key members of their staff to find their groove as the games get more intense and meaningful. The team's lofty post season aspirations will surely require it.

Happ Continues to Make His Case for Rookie of the Year

Pirates vs. Phillies
In major league baseball, it is rare to find a rookie as the most consistent pitcher on a team. A strong case can be made that J.A. Happ fills that bill for the Phillies (if Cliff Lee is excluded, of course, due to his short tenure.) Except for one April outing, Scott Eyre has been terrific all season long, but due to his role as a situational lefty out of the bullpen, I would lean towards the rookie.

Although it is surprising that a rookie could find such consistency in performance versus veterans who "have been there and done that," it is a lot more understandable when you have had opportunities to observe Happ over a period of time. He possesses a temperament that exudes veteran savvy. He remains calm, and poised regardless of the situation, but seems to intensify his focus further when he gets into trouble on the mound.

This trait is evidenced by his numbers. Opposing batters are hitting only .185 against him with runners on base and it gets more difficult from there. Happ has limited hitters to a .125 average with runners in scoring position and a paltry .075 average when there are two out. Of course, the simplest indicators might be that his record stands at 10-2 with a 2.59 ERA.

Overall, Happ's approach is very similar to that of new teammate Cliff Lee. They both attack the strike zone with lots of fastballs, choosing to work ahead in the count. The presence of the reigning American League Cy Young award winner should only serve to further Happ's development, especially as he builds more confidence in his breaking ball and change-up.

As he takes the mound tonight, Happ would seem to be the front runner for National League Rookie of the Year. Considering his demeanor and approach, it is not hard to envision him continuing the success that he has achieved to this point. It remains to be seen how he will stack up against some solid competition for this honor when the final votes are tallied, but it is clear that the Phillies are very pleased and fortunate to have him in their starting rotation. He also seems to be gathering respect around the league as evidenced by the fact that he has finally become "Jay."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Many Unanswered Questions on the Eagles Remain

Eagles Practice
As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare for their third pre-season game tomorrow night against the Jacksonville Jaguars, many questions still linger regarding the team and how they will fare in the upcoming season. By most accounts, the team had a very productive off season after a run to the NFC Championship Game in January, so on paper, the Eagles appeared to be a Super Bowl contender before training camp opened.

Now that a few weeks have passed, that assessment seems a bit more tenuous as several question marks still persist, while others have arisen. The biggest concerns surround the health of the team's offensive line. After all, as the NFL coaching fraternity tends to say, everything starts up front- and this is particularly true with the pass heavy Eagles offensive approach.

Concerns are not limited to the front line, though. Obviously, several emanate from a recent team addition as an hour does not pass without a TV or news blurb on the topic. Depending on how these lingering issues unfold, the fate of the team could vary widely. As testimony to the high competitive balance in the NFL, the Eagles season could range from disappointing to conceivably competing for the Super Bowl title.

Here are some, but surely not all, of the questions surrounding the 2009-2010 edition of the Eagles:

▪ Can Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters fulfill their advance billing and measure up to the team's commitment to them? At this point, even more pressing is whether they will see the field?
▪ Will Shawn Andrews find his way back onto the field on a regular basis? If so, will he return to the Pro Bowl form of the past?
▪ Can rookies Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy make the adjustment to the NFL well enough to contribute similarly to DeSean Jackson last season? Both show flashes of wonderful potential that needs to be consistently present as the team is probably relying on their contributions more than any rookies in previous seasons in the Andy Reid era.
▪ Will Bryan Westbrook come close to the form that he showed in the 2007-2008 season, or will he be last season's part-time, limited performer?
▪ Will Michael Vick add enough to the offense to compensate for the distractions and make his signing worthwhile? On a more basic level, will he fulfill his commitment to the team in regard to conduct and behavior?
▪ Can Donovan McNabb continue where he left off in January? Will he prosper or falter through the almost inevitable quarterback controversies that will ensue?
▪ Can Joe Mays or Omar Gaither step up to fill the big hole created by MLB Stewart Bradley's season ending injury?
▪ Will a true leader emerge on the defense to fill the vacated shoes of the former Eagles icon Brian Dawkins?
▪ Will the players and coaches respond well to the Michael Vick experiment by not allowing the distractions to disrupt team chemistry or game preparation?
▪ Can the secondary come together to once again become a team strength needed to make their defensive scheme work?
▪ Can Sean McDermott come close to replacing one the NFL's best and most beloved defensive coordinators, Jim Johnson?

Tomorrow night, Reid and his coaching staff hope to gain some valuable insight and possibly gather some answers. Certainly, other questions will remain that will only be answered under the spotlight of the network cameras, when the games count in the regular season. All teams have question marks as they head into each campaign, but this Eagles team would seem to have more than its fair share, particularly considering that they are widely viewed as Super Bowl contenders.

After J Rolling Early, Phils Fall In the Ninth

Philadelphia Phillies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Jimmy Rollins has been watching the nightly thunder being produced by his teammates Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, and apparently decided that he wouldn't mind taking some leisurely trots around the diamond himself. After sitting out most of the game Monday, last night he wasted no time jumping into action as he drove the first two pitches that he saw into the left field stands.

On the hill, starter Joe Blanton worked in and out of trouble all evening, yielding only 1 run on a Ryan Doumit home run over the first 5 innings.  Like Rollins with his fellow hitters, he seemed to take a page out of his teammate J.A. Happ's book by getting key strikeouts and harmless ground balls with runners perched on 2nd and 3rd. It eventually took its toll in the 6th, though, as he surrendered a 2-run homer to Steve Pearce on his 109th pitch, allowing the Pirates to take a 3-2 lead.

The Phils rebounded in the 9th, tying the score on back-to-back doubles by Carlos Ruiz and Ben Francisco with one out. After Rollins whiffed, Shane Victorino hit a rising liner to dead center, that was momentarily misjudged by rookie Andrew McCutcheon. It went over his head for a triple and gave them a 4-3 lead.

Charlie Manuel chose to bring Brad Lidge in to seal the victory for the fourth consecutive day. Lidge quickly got into trouble, allowing a single to Luis Cruz and followed with a wild pitch. Pinch hitter Brandon Moss lined a single to right, and after Jayson Werth bobbled the ball, the tying run scored. Next, McCutcheon stepped to the plate with redemption in mind, and quickly delivered by driving a game ending 2-run blast over the center field fence.

What started out on a high note with Rollins' two big flies, ended on a sour note with another Lidge blown save. Perhaps it was a matter of energy since Rollins was fresh from resting yesterday, while Lidge may have needed a day off today.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

2009 Phillies: Murderer's Row

The 2009 Phillies team continues its assault on pitching staffs around the league. They lead the National League in Runs (647), HR (176), Total Bases (1906), RBI (622) and Slugging Percentage (.450.)

With the regular season roughly 3/4 completed, it seemed a good time to put the team's current pace into perspective. The 2009 team is on pace to eclipse the numbers posted by the 2008 World Series Champion team in all these categories as follows:

Category 2008 2009*
Runs 799 859
HR 214 234
TB 2412 2531
RBI 762 826
SLG . 438 .450
* Projected

Opposing pitchers have taken notice. Recently, all-star pitcher Dan Haren of the Diamondbacks has had two rough outings against the Phillies and suggested that he rather pitch against the American League All-Star team line-up than this Phillies line-up. That is pretty high praise from one of the best pitchers in baseball. Television announcers from opposing clubs are usually a good reflection on that team's view of the Phillies. Universally, they express awe over the team line-up and high praise for the Phillies team overall.

On the right side bar below the Things We're Tracking section is a breakdown of the 2009 Phillies first 7 regulars in the line-up. It shows their hitting performance year-to-date and how this projects out over the full season. This does not take into account current trends, so certainly some hitters who are in a good groove could surpass these numbers or vice versa.

Among the things you might notice is that four players project to hit 35 or more home runs with more than 100 RBI. Additionally, all 7 players project to hit double digit home runs and collect more than 70 RBI. It is easy to see why others around the league are impressed....I know that I am.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Howard and Lee Continue Their Torrid Pace

Cubs vs. Phillies

It is starting to become routine and second nature. Cliff Lee puts up a bunch of zeroes and Ryan Howard puts up a bunch of crooked numbers on the scoreboard. When they are doing it together, the opposing team feels demoralized and has little chance. Just ask the Mets.

Lee took the mound today in Citi Field looking to extend his Phillies winning streak and give the team a 3-1 series win over the Mets. By the time he jogged out to the field, Howard had already staked him a 3-run lead with a blast over the left-center field fence. In his next plate appearance in the 3rd inning, Howard launched a bomb into the second deck in right field, plating 2 more runs.

Meanwhile, Lee survived a slight adventure in the bottom of the first inning. When Chase Utley uncharacteristically dropped Angel Pagan's pop up into short right, then fired errantly into the left field foul ground, Pagan circled the bases for a "little league home run." It actually went in the books as two errors on Utley. One out later, Gary Sheffield popped a triple down the right field line and scored on Fernando Tatis' sacrifice fly. The Mets narrowed the score to 3-2, but would never score again.

Overall, Lee did not have the same air of domination that he has exhibited in his four previous Phillies starts. Of course, when a pitcher goes 7 innings, allows 6 hits, walks nobody, strikes out 5 and yields only 2 unearned runs... and it is perceived that he was not quite as sharp... that speaks volumes about how spectacular he has been. To express it in numbers, Lee is now 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in a Phillies uniform. Who was that Halladay guy, anyway?

For Howard, he continues to prove the old baseball adage that when a dangerous hitter is in a slump, somebody is going to eventually pay. He emerged from the longest home run drought in his career by erupting to crush 8 home runs and drive in 22 runs over the past 11 games. Howard now has 34 homers and 104 RBI for the season with 40 games left to play.

Today's 6-2 win increased the Phillies lead in the NL East to 7 games over the Braves and 8 games over the Marlins. There is still a lot of baseball left to play, so they will need to keep battling to clinch the division and gain home field advantage in the playoffs. That road will be a heck of a lot easier, though, if Mr. Lee and Mr. Howard continue their current trends.

I'm just saying....NL Team Rankings

In this weekly feature, we take a look at the top ten records in the National League (Rear View Mirror) and rank them based on strength of team going forward (Over the Hood.) Influencing factors include injuries, current and projected level of play, personnel changes, trends, schedule, star alignment and the writer's then current mood. Please feel free to provide your commentary whether you agree, disagree or just have something you want to get off your chest.

Rear View Mirror
1. Dodgers (74-51 .592)
2. Phillies (71-50 .587)
3. Cardinals (72-54 .571)
4. Rockies (70-54 .565)
5. Giants (67-57 .540)
6. Braves (66-58 .532)
7. Marlins (65-59 .524)
8. Cubs (62-60 .508)
9. Astros (61-63 .492)
10. Brewers (60-63 .488)

Over the Hood
1. Phillies- Best O, Best D, strong starting pitching, bullpen improving
2. Cardinals- Holiday, Smoltz just what they needed
3. Dodgers- Starting staff questionable
4. Rockies- Stellar record after poor start
5. Marlins- Young pitchers and hitters coming through
6. Braves- Still power deficient
7. Giants- Not enough offense to go pitching
8. Cubs- Hurt by injuries, mediocre line-up
9. Brewers- Pitching woes continue
10. Astros- Middling pitching can't overcome lack of runs

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Brad and Brunt's EXCELLENT Adventure

Phillies vs. Mets
The bottom of the ninth inning of the Phillies game started out like Nightmare on Elm Street, but ended up as Brad and Brunt's EXCELLENT Adventure. As a result, the Phillies hung onto the big lead that they built in the first inning to defeat the Mets 9-7 in the third game of their 4-game series.

For the second day in a row, Brad Lidge took the mound for the Phillies in the last half of ninth inning holding a 3-run lead. On Saturday, he breezed through a 1-2-3 inning to record his 24th save. Today, he was looking to build upon that success and nail his third consecutive save. Unfortunately, he was greeted with some bad luck and found himself suddenly in a stressful situation.

Ryan Howard failed to field Angel Pagan's ground ball, which rattled into the right field corner allowing the runner to advance to third. Luis Casillo then sent a grounder to Bruntlett (who was playing for the resting Chase Utley), but he bobbled it and threw late to first for another error. Daniel Murphy bounced a ball up the middle that Bruntlett reached, but again bobbled, eliminating the possibility of cutting down Castillo at second base and putting the tying runners on base with no outs. The official scorer, somewhat charitably, ruled it a hit.

At this point, it must have felt like deja vu from last Saturday's game against the Braves for Lidge. After working the count full, with both runners moving on the pitch, Francouer lined a ball towards center. Because Bruntlett was moving towards the bag to cover, he easily snagged the ball, stepped on second to double up Castillo, then tagged a juking Murphy to record a triple play. It was the only the second game ending, unassisted triple play in major league history.

Oddly enough, the top half of the ninth involved Bruntlett and Francouer in another unusual situation as well. Francouer dove to catch his liner to right-centerfield, flipping over with the ball in his glove thinking that he had made the catch. Bruntlett continued to run to third, though, for an apparent triple when the 2nd base umpire ruled that the ball was trapped. An argument ensued, a replay was run on the big screen and the umpires reversed the call after a brief conference. Charlie Manuel rushed onto the field to argue the call, but found himself heading to the club house early after getting ejected for expressing his displeasure.

The Phillies had jumped to a 6-0 lead in the first inning on a pair of 3-run homers by the red hot Jayson Werth and the rebounding Carlos Ruiz. Pedro Martinez, who was making his first trip back to face his former team since signing with the Phillies, was a little shaky at the outset, yielding 4 runs on 6 hits over the first 3 frames. He eventually settled down, retiring 10 of the last 11 batters he faced, and improved his record to 2-0.

The entire game, from the Phillies big 1st inning through the wild finish, had a less than normal feel to it. Ultimately, Bruntlett (who also had 3 hits) stepped up to make one of the plays of the year and atone for the shaky start in the ninth. Also, Lidge was able to emerge on the winning side after some tough luck, breaking from the previous patterns of this season. Perhaps this will be another key turning point in getting his season back on track.

One Step Forward for Lidge

Amidst the Phillies 4-1 victory last night over the Mets, Brad Lidge took a solid stride forward. Although it is hard to draw any conclusions from one outing, particularly against possibly the league's weakest line-up, Lidge showed command and sharpness that has been often missing in previous games this season. He also displayed a sense of calm in nailing down his 24th save.

J.A. Happ battled through seven innings, working in and out of trouble, to hold the Mets to 1 run. For the second consecutive game, Happ labored a little, but relied on his veteran-like ability to buckle down and strand runners on the bases. He has done this all season, better than any other starting pitcher in the league. His performance earned him the victory, running his record to 10-2 and likely retaining his rookie-of-the-year front runner status.   

After Ryan Madson eased his way through the 8th inning, striking out two of the three batters he faced, Lidge took the mound to open the bottom of the 9th. He quickly dispensed Daniel Murphy, striking him out with a slider down and in. After a fly out, he ended the game by striking out pinch hitter Cory Sullivan on a 95 mph heater.  Overall, he exhibited good velocity and nice downward angle on his slider.

On the offensive side, Chase Utley got the team going after five scoreless innings by launching a 2-run homer into "Utley's corner" to give the Phils a 2-1 lead. The team tacked on a couple more runs on the strength of doubles by Raul Ibanez, Pedro Feliz and Jayson Werth.

With the Braves loss last night, the Phillies regained their 6.5 game margin in the NL East. Importantly, though, they may have taken a step towards re-gaining their closer.  

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hamels and Lidge Need to Find Their "Mojo"

Marlins vs. Phillies
Last year's pitching stars of the World Series Champion Phillies team are struggling mightily in 2009. It is interesting that both Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge would be following a similar course after leading the team a year ago, but maybe not coincidental.

There has been much discussion and a great deal of theories on why each of them is finding so much difficulty doing what seemed to come so very easy to them last season. Perhaps that speaks to exactly the root of the problem?

In 2008, both were in the proverbial zone, confidently taking the mound with the expectation of success. They almost did not need to think, nor focus on tinkering with their mechanics in hope of finding answers. One year later, both struggled with injuries early in the season and got off to poor starts, which served to take them out of the zone and shake their confidence.

This season you can almost see the self doubt when they toe the rubber. What was once on autopilot is now in full manual mode, with fears or even expectations that something will go wrong. When they walk a batter or a ball dribbles through the infield, their body language seems to read "uh, oh, here we go, again."

The pathway back to success may be the simplest, yet most elusive adjustment, as it involves the intangible reaches of the human mind. The best remedy for Hamels and Lidge is to keenly focus on the fact that they are the same players that achieved so much success last season. Now that they have recovered from injury, they have the same physical abilities that allowed them to dominate hitters a year ago, so there is every reason to expect the same over the balance of the year.

Simply put, they need to regain their "mojo" by supplanting that nagging voice of negative self talk. My theory is that once they take that step, the other mechanical "issues" will resolve as well. They have still got what it takes..they just need to remind themselves.

Eagles Should Re-sign Jon Runyan Now

Miami Dolphins v Philadelphia Eagles
Watching the Eagles game Thursday night, you didn't need to see anything beyond the graphics displayed during the the team's opening offensive series to know that they have a problem. Only one member of their starting offensive line was in uniform. Missing were Todd Herremans and all three of their high profile lineman, namely Jason Peters, Shawn Andrews and Stacy Andrews.

To say that this trio is instrumental to their plans for and success in 2009 is a large understatement at best. The Eagles offense under Andy Reid has always been built on the foundation of a strong front wall that enables an unbalanced pass to run ratio. As witnessed last night, the whole offensive scheme breaks down if the QB does not have time to throw.

This leads me to my point. The Eagles need to sign Jon Runyan right now before he gets scooped up by another team. At the minimum, he would provide important insurance. Judging by the current state and previous history, though, it is likely that he would be taking a lot of snaps throughout the season.

Runyan knows the system like the back of his hand. He also lives in the Philadelphia area and would seem more inclined to consider remaining with the home town team despite not being guaranteed a starting role. Of course, he can also see the same things we do to project a great deal of playing time.

On paper, the Eagles starting offensive line has the potential to be one of their best ever as well as a top unit in the league. Unfortunately, the only thing that counts is how they actually do on the field. Getting them onto to the field is one challenge. Having them play to their potential when they get there is another. Although players tend not to highlight it, lingering injuries keep them from peak performance. Additionally, limited practice time together keeps the players from jelling as a unit, which is essential for them to function well in the complex world of the NFL.

Sign Jon Runyan before it is too late. If the Eagles need to free up some salary space to make that happen, I could make some suggestions there, too.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Oops, There Goes Another


Following the lyrics of Harry Kalas' favorite song, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth had the Diamondbacks singing to themselves "Oops, there goes another." Both hitters stayed smoking hot, each collecting a pair of hits while driving shots deep over the centerfield fence. The two players accounted for 6 RBI in the Phillies' 12-3 victory, completing a 3-game sweep of the Diamondbacks.

Werth's blast came in the 6th inning off starter Doug Davis (after Howard walked with one out) to extend the lead to 6-3. The shot traveled an estimated 425 feet. Howard clubbed his shot in the 6th inning with two runners aboard, effectively putting the game out of reach at 11-3. Howard's bomb landed in the visitor's bullpen, an estimated 449 feet from home plate.

The Phillies improved their record to 69-49 (a season high 20 games over .500) and extended their NL Eastern Division lead to 6.5 games with the Marlins loss. They head to New York for a weekend series against the Mets starting tonight. The series does not have quite the same luster with the Mets continuing struggles, but it would be a safe bet that their division rival would love to set back the Phillies's quest for a "three-peat."

Werth crushed four homeruns, drove in a pair of runs in each game and hit .583 in the Diamondbacks series. Howard collected 7 RBI in the last two games alone. The duo have now combined for 11 home runs in the past 7 games.

Meanwhile, Joe Blanton turned in another quality start to record his 8th win of the season. Blanton also demonstrated poise by shutting down Arizona over his final four frames after some bad luck. Apparent confusion allowed a pop up to drop into to shallow left for a double, which later resulted in a run. Also, a ground ball found its way through the infield when Howard had to avoid a sawed off bat heading towards him.

Overall, the Phillies hitters seem to be heating up. With Citi Park's expansive dimensions, they will likely need to find ways to score other than via the home run. Of course, if Howard and Werth continue their assault, tonight's starting pitcher, Cole Hamels, will surely not mind.

I'm Just Saying......

A weekly collection of random thoughts and observations for you to consider.

  • How good is your team when Cole Hamels is currently your 4th best starting pitcher?
  • Odds are that Brett Favre was that kid riding his bike with no hands saying "Hey, look at me!"
  • Considering the current medical state of the Eagles offensive line, a better use for the recently committed $7 million in payroll might be to add John Runyan.
  • Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard are officially "En Fuego" after each recording multiple hits and banging long home runs to centerfield last night. (See "Things We're Tracking" on the left for others.)
  • The Phillies offense is starting to look like it deserves a moniker similar to "The Lumber Company" or "Big Red Machine" nicknames from the 70's.
  • Was it just me, or did Eldra Buckley look a little like Marion Barber running that screen play?
  • Last night's Donovan McNabb to DeSean Jackson 39 yard touchdown pass was perfectly executed and could be a preview of the success they will have when the games count.
  • Its a little early to predict doom and gloom for the Birds' upcoming season based on their first two pre-season games.
  • Joe Blanton showed mental toughness by not unraveling after a misplayed pop fly double and a hurdling, jagged bat barrel helped the Diamondbacks plate two runs in the 4th.
  • Brad Lidge is throwing harder this year, didn't exactly paint the corners last year, and the last season he struggled so mightily he later discovered that he was tipping his pitches. I'm just would be worth a closer look by Rich Dubee.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Phillies Sluggers Finding Long Ball Groove

Orioles vs. Phillies

After somewhat of a lull, three of the Phillies sluggers are finding their long ball groove over the past week. Ryan Howard (5), Jayson Werth (4) and Chase Utley (2) have combined for 11 big flies in the last 6 games.

It is no coincidence that this power surge has coincided with the team winning 7 of the last 8 games. The Phillies continue to be a team built to score with one swing of the bat. Four of the top ten home run leaders in the National League reside in spots 3-6 in the team's batting order. Overall, the team is leading the National League with 168 four baggers, 26 more than the next team (Colorado Rockies.)

Howard's recent bombs have vaulted him into a tie for the 5th spot with 31, while Werth now finds himself tied for 7th with teammate Raul Ibanez with 27. Utley is only two behind them with 25 home runs.

Currently, all four players have a realistic shot at notching 35 or more homers for the season. This has to keep opposing pitchers anxiety high as they try to work their way through the Phillies line-up, especially since Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Pedro Feliz do not exactly offer an opportunity to let down.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Potential Scenes from the Life of Brett Favre

Brett Favre Signs with th Minnesota Vikings

Out to Dinner

Waiter: "Are you ready to order, sir?"

Favre: "Yes, I am going to have my favorite, the Blackened Catfish with creole sauce and the dirty rice. "

Waiter: "OK, would you like to start with soup or a salad?"

Favre: "I think so. I'm in the mood for soup. What is your soup today?"

Waiter: "We have seafood gumbo today, but always have French Onion, too."

Favre: "French Onion, yes, I'll have that, but could you substitute extra cheese in place of the crouton?"

Waiter: "Ok, you've got it. Blackened Catfish with creole sauce, dirty rice and French Onion Soup to start."

Favre: "Blackened Catfish, hmm, I don't know if I am in the mood for that tonight after all. Could you switch that to the stuffed quail with champagne sauce?"

Waiter: "Yes, of course."

Favre: "One other thing- instead of the soup, bring me a house salad with blue cheese dressing...make that french dressing with extra croutons. And could you tell those people at the bar that Brett Favre is over here?"

In the Huddle

Favre: "OK, we are definitely going to put the ball into the end zone and win this game. We only have one minute, so we are going to air it out."

Hutchinson: "Yeh, lets get it done!"

Favre: "Childress is calling for a deep out to Bernard. Lets switch that up and go off tackle to Chester."

Hutchinson: "Brett, their top three corners are hurt, so they have an undrafted rookie and safety playing corner. We need to go 70 yards to score."

Favre: "Good point, but I'm not totally bought in. Lets sweep Chester right. That might be a better option since they will be expecting us to pass. We are better off not passing when they are looking for it."

Hutchinson: "We only have one minute. Didn't you say that you wanted to air it out?"

Favre: "I think you are taking that out of context. I wish my daughter were here to see what she would call?"


Referee: " Minnesota, five yards for delay of game. 1st down and 15 yards to go."

Call from John Madden

Brett Favre: "Yo, this is Brett."

John Madden: "BrettFavre, boom, this is John Madden!"

Brett Favre: "Hey, John. What's up?"

John Madden: "I just wanted to tell you not to let the media get on you. It was a football decision made by a football heck of a football player, I might play on a football team. You have the right to make a football decision as a football player."

Brett Favre:"So, do you think that I made the right decision to come back?"

John Madden:"I always say, what's good for BrettFavre, is good for the NFL. I'm looking forward to seeing BrettFavre on the football field to show everybody what BrettFavre can do in a football uniform as long as that is what BrettFavre wants to do. BrettFavre-You're the best! Gotta go...I have a turducken in the oven. Boom!"

Phillies Potential is Great with Offense Brewing

The mark of a good baseball team is that key offensive contributions can come from different players every night. The Phillies have been in that mode for quite some time now. On Sunday, Ryan Howard almost single-handedly carried the team to victory with a pair of homers, driving in all 4 Phillies runs. Last night, it was Carlos Ruiz and Jayson Werth picking up Howard (who struck out twice with the bases loaded) and the team, combining for 5 hits, 4 RBI and a couple home runs. Last Friday night's victory was led by Chase Utley, who banged a two-run homer.

It has persisted this way for over a month. The depth of talent in the Phillies line-up is allowing them to plate enough runs to increase their winning margin to a season high 18 games over .500. Overall, though, you get the feeling that the offense is not hitting on all cylinders. Stranding runners in scoring position has been a frequent theme. In their last loss on Saturday, they were a collective 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position, and last evening they stranded 11 runners.

This leads me to the "half full" assessment that the potential for the team is tremendous. It is only a matter of time (and the pennant run adrenaline rush) that Phillies hitters start to catch fire together.

Howard is starting to show signs of replicating his historical end-of-season pyrotechnics display, which is capable of repeatedly lighting up the scoreboard. Raul Ibanez and Utley have been treading water trying to find their first half strokes, but they are too good not to expect that it will soon happen. Werth is streaky and it would seem that more of the line drives and long fly balls he has been hitting will drop in or over the fence. Jimmy Rollins has hit a little lull after a big surge, but looks like he has things figured out. It is a good bet that Shane Victorino and Pedro Feliz will continue their season long consistency. A continuation of Ruiz's recent offensive output would be a huge bonus.

It looks from here that the league's top offensive team is poised for a surge at just the right time. This, combined with the continuing strong contributions from the starting staff and the league's best defense, creates the potential for the team's best stretch of baseball. Now, if we could just get the bullpen back to 2008 form....

Jamie Moyer Makes Things Interesting in Phillies Win

Diamondbacks-PhilliesBesides allowing the Phillies to maintain their 4 1/2 game lead in the NL East, last night's rain delayed Phillies victory provided some underlying intrigue. The team played a solid all around game despite again squandering a couple promising scoring opportunities, combining strong pitching, good defense and 12 hits to take a 5-1 decision over the Arizona Diamondbacks. The hitting stars of last night's game were Carlos Ruiz and Jayson Werth, who both drilled home runs and combined for 5 hits, 4 RBI and 3 runs.

The first story line of the game was anticipated. Pedro Martinez was making his second start in a Phillies uniform, and first start in Citizen's Bank Park in red pinstripes. All eyes were on him to see how he would rebound from his last outing, a 99 pitch victory against the Cubs.

Martinez started out slow, literally and figuratively. He yielded a home run to the game's first batter, Stephen Drew, and then another base hit, before calming the situation with a double play and strikeout. Although he possessed his trademark movement, his velocity was way down at the game's outset from his previous effort. Initially, it appeared that he threw several change-ups to start the game, registering in the low 80's, but then it became apparent that those were fastballs when he mixed in some 74 mph change-ups.

Over the next two innings, Pedro appeared to loosen up, and his velocity jumped to the high 80's and peaked at 91 mph. This, combined with excellent movement and a few sharp breaking balls, allowed him to cruise through the 3rd inning, setting down 8 straight batters after his shaky start. All-in-all, his effort provided more encouragement that he will be a valuable contributor down the stretch.

After the Phillies plated 3 runs in the bottom half of the 3rd inning to take a 3-1 lead they would never relinquish, the grounds crew covered the field in anticipation of the imminent torrential rainfall. When the 66-minute delay ended, Charlie Manuel sent conflicted left-hander Jamie Moyer to the hill to replace Martinez, apparently not wanting to risk taxing Pedro's arm after being idle for so long. Although unanticipated, this provided the most compelling story line of the game.

Moyer proceeded to let his actions do the follow-up to his speaking last week, channeling his frustration over losing his spot in the starting rotation into his finest pitching outing of the season. He also provided some hitting support and aggressive base running, but his 6-inning, 2-hit, no run effort was his biggest statement. Overall, his demeanor was serious and he seemed very much in control of the Diamondback hitters, never encountering any real trouble.

This game surely proves that if Moyer stays focused on helping the team, he will get opportunities to make meaningful contributions. It also served to make a stronger case for him to get more time on the mound than was made by verbally airing his frustrations last week. In the event that Martinez falters, or some other unforeseen event occurs, Jamie has spoken. Meanwhile, the team's chances keep getting better with every strong effort from both pitchers. As they say, "you can never have too much pitching."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reflecting on Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles

Michael Vick practices with the Philadelphia Eagles
A few days have passed since the Philadelphia Eagles shocking announcement that they had signed Michael Vick to a 2009 contract with an option for 2010. Because the news was unanticipated and sudden, there was no chance to formulate thoughts on the situation prior to the story breaking. My previous thoughts on Vick re-launching his career centered on which team might take the risk to sign him, but it had not even occurred to me that the Eagles might be considering signing him.

After reflecting on the matter, observing the groundswell of reaction, reading and listening to the widely ranging opinions and watching those most closely involved, my own thoughts have started to sort out. It is safe to say that those thoughts will continue to evolve as more data becomes available when conjecture starts turning into reality- good, bad or indifferent.

It is very obvious that this business transaction and this player evoke strong reactions that skew towards opposite ends of the spectrum as opposed to a typical bell curve. For me personally, after allowing a few pages on the calendar to turn, my current mindset is not about passing judgment on Vick, but rather centers on the business decision made by the Eagles. As an unabashed animal lover, it is sometimes hard to not fixate on some of the unsavory details of the past, but this business transaction will prove itself by what happens now and in the future.

From that perspective, it is truly difficult to understand what the Eagles were thinking and how this signing makes sense? Although "gut" instincts are often key components, successful business decision making is about evaluating the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the magnitude of the upside and downside. So, from a purely business decision quality standpoint, it is hard to imagine the pros, rewards and upside envisioned by the Eagles organization could possibly outweigh the cons, risks and downside.

There is no question that adding Vick to the team has already had and will continue to have a polarizing effect on the community, fan base, media, and most importantly, others in the Eagles locker room. This will undoubtedly cause distraction and likely challenge team unity. Additionally, NFL quarterbacks looking over their shoulder very rarely results in a positive outcome. This is especially true in Philadelphia, where fan and media opinion is very strong, and where Donovan McNabb performs best when the winds of sentiment are mostly at his back. It will only take a less than stellar game or two, or a couple losses, before the noise will crank up whether Vick should take over at the helm. And, this signing is very likely detrimental to the development of Kevin Kolb.

In exchange, the Eagles would seem to get a player to run 2-3 Wildcat formations or other gadget plays each game. It is conceivable that by some unfortunate circumstance such as an injury to McNabb, Vick would provide insurance; however, the team has indicated that Kolb is #2 on the depth chart.

I believe the world champion team across the street has it right in that they put a premium on their culture and team chemistry. The best case scenario for the Eagles would seem to be that team chemistry will not be affected, but all other scenarios head south from there.

All in all, when evaluating this transaction from a pure business decision basis, this seems to be very unbalanced and ill advised. This is especially true considering that the Eagles had an excellent off season, further strengthening a team that was one touchdown drive from going to the Super Bowl. They did not need to roll the dice, particularly with the odds against them and the downside risk so great. Lets hope that ultimately Michael Vick is a model citizen on the team and in the community, the fans and players rally around him, he makes positive contributions on the football field and the Eagles win the Super Bowl- but the percentages do not seem to be with us.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Phillies Hand Game to Braves, But Show Some Positive Signs

Yesterday, the Phillies handed a game to the Atlanta Braves that they almost surely should have won. This type of loss is especially stinging considering that simple execution on a number of occasions was likely the difference between victory and defeat. A couple glimmers of hope appeared, though, that might translate into success down the road.

After playing stellar defense that saved several runs over the first two games of the series to that point, the top defensive team in the National League let down at the most inopportune moment. Protecting a 1 run lead that should have been wider if not for squandering earlier run scoring opportunities, the Phillies fielding collapsed. With Brad Lidge on the mound in an attempt to record back-to-back saves, Chase Utley whiffed on a groundball that was ruled a hit, but a play that he makes 99 out of 100 times. Lidge himself compunded the situation by first bobbling a bunt (on which he may have potentially been able to cut down the runner at second), then throwing the ball into right field. It went in the books as a double error, allowed the tying run to score and put the winning run on third with no outs. After walking the next two batters (intentionally and semi-intentially) and striking out Ryan Church, Omar Infante bounced a weak chopper into left field for the game winner.

This was particularly painful considering that the Phillies were 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position, twice stranded runners on third with no outs and plated only one run in the 7th on a homer and two doubles. The inability to drive a flyball to the outfield or simply put balls into play kept them from providing a greater margin of error to their bullpen- and it cost them the game.

Amidst the frustration of losing, however, were a few positive signs. Until the last inning collapse, the defense continued to prove that it is integral to the team's success as Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz made plays that kept runs off the board. Raul Ibanez showed signs of returning to his pre-injury form by ripping a couple doubles, the latter falling a few feet short of leaving the park. Cole Hamels battled to hold the Braves to 2 runs on 3 hits despite still not regaining his command. Lastly, although he took the loss and blew his 8th save of the season, Lidge looked more like the 2008 version. He had very good velocity and sharper break on his slider. Overall, he struck out Church with the bases loaded and the Braves did not hit the ball hard.

Lets hope these signs turn into trends, the frustrating loss is a catalyst to better execution in scratching out runs and Lidge sees the glass half full. Yesterday's game goes in the ledger as a loss, but building on the positive could lead to a good run.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Cliff Lee Effect

Ruben Amaro's late July coup, landing reigning American League Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee at the trade deadline, is already paying handsome dividends. In some ways this is very obvious, and other ways it is less obvious, but maybe just as important. After yesterday seeing Lee's 3rd excellent performance in 3 outings for the Phillies, what seemed very apparent from the start is continuing to become clearer. Let's examine the broad impact of this blockbuster acquisition.


Ironically, one of the first impacts might have been to cause a little bit of complacency to set in after the initial euphoria. Adding one of the best pitchers in baseball to a team whose collective esteem was spiking after a tremendous month of play might have inadvertently caused the players to feel a little too confident. The inner voice in players' minds might very well have turned down the adrenaline and sense of urgency as logic would say that one of the best teams in baseball just got a lot better. The Marlins 3 game sweep and Charlie Manuel's post game address on Sunday helped to reinforce that games need to be won on the field.

Rotation Upgrade

The obvious impact of the Lee acquisition is that a starter-by-committee spot, dotted with a big question mark, is being replaced by a top notch pitcher. The chances of winning every 5th day clearly went up. Registering a 22-3 win/loss record last year is truly remarkable, but it becomes understandable as you witness Lee's make-up, repertoire and approach up close.

Role Model

From the first time that Cliff Lee toed the pitching rubber in a Phillies uniform to now, it has been easy to see that he is a natural "leader-by-example." He exudes professionalism, a warm, yet no nonsense demeanor and positive energy in all his actions- and then proceeds to aggressively attack the strike zone with an upbeat tempo and laser focus on the mound. This is invaluable to other pitchers on the staff (especially similar style left-handers like Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ) as they observe the positive impact on the players behind him and ultimately, the results. Lee's impact on the staff is largely parallel to the impact that Raul Ibanez has had on the team's position players.

True Stopper

With Hamels struggling to find the consistent level of excellence and air of supreme confidence that he displayed last year, Lee gives the team a legitimate stopper on the staff. In theory, this serves to keep the team out of prolonged slumps, but more importantly, gives peace of mind to the team knowing that every fifth day they are backing one of the best pitchers in baseball. This also serves to take some pressure off the other starting pitchers as well as provide motivation. And, won't it be fun to see Hamels regain his mojo to give the Phillies two stoppers down the stretch and into the playoffs?

Playoff Positioning

Speaking of the playoffs, many have expressed the opinion that this trade was engineered to strengthen the team for the post season. Although it is absolutely true that the impact becomes greater in the post season when teams go to a 3 or 4 man rotation, it would be folly to assume that the division championship is in the bag (as the Marlins reminded the team this past weekend.) The Phillies have the talent to win the division and make a strong post season run, but that needs to play out one pitch, one inning, one game at a time.


Lee looks to be another high character, personable team player who fits perfectly into a team with great chemistry. The Phillies have done a tremendous job building a team filled with talented players that are genuine, likable, competitive and function as a true team (that has fun along the way.) This played a big part in their past success, will be a key driver for future success and is foundational to their tremendous fan appeal.

Ben Francisco

I would be remiss to not recognize the other player acquired in the Lee deal. Ben Francisco has some pop in his bat, can run, has a plus arm and is versatile enough to play all 3 outfield positions. He has already contributed, as evidenced Tuesday night by his game winning home run in the 12th inning, and provides a more consistent, seasoned back-up who will help the team down the stretch.

Philadelphia Phillie fans are fortunate to have Cliff Lee join an already strong cast. It will be fun to see him contribute to the team's success in both the tangible and intangible ways over the course of 2009 season. Thank you, Ruben, for your insight and negotiating skill in making this deal.