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.

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