Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Other Pedro Jolts The Phils and Astros- Magic Number Drops to 1

World Series Game 5

You could sense the tension, both amongst the Phillies players and throughout the Citizen Bank Park stands last evening. Furrowed brows and serious demeanors suggested the importance of victory was on the minds of players, especially knowing that the Atlanta Braves were on a winning roll and aided by a favorable schedule. Fans were noticeably quiet and cautious, seemingly devoid of confidence and afraid of the worst.

The Phillies went quietly in the first couple innings as they faced the hazard of yet another young, struggling pitcher. Over the past week, they had been shut down three times in similar situations, including the previous night against Phillies cast-off Yorman Bazardo. After witnessing the home team being dominated by starter Wilton Lopez through two innings, when Lance Berkman launched a two out home run to left to give the Astros a 1-0 lead in the third, you could sense a deja vu feeling and further tightening of the tension throughout the stadium.

Jimmy Rollins took a little of the edge off by doubling home Paul Bako, who had walked and moved to second on J.A. Happ's sacrifice bunt. On the mound, Happ worked in and out of trouble, but seemed to be nibbling and his pitch total quickly grew. He appeared to fear making a mistake, rather than attack the zone, perhaps another indicator that he was not feeling the confidence of having the league's best offense and defense behind him.

In the home fourth, the Phillies quietly mounted a threat when Ryan Howard reached on an infield dribbler, Raul Ibanez bounced a ball up the middle and Jayson Werth worked a walked. This rally from humble beginnings turned into a bang when Pedro Feliz drilled the first pitch into the left-center field bleachers for a grand slam. It was his second of the season and extended the Phillies seasonal team record to eleven. Most importantly, one swing of the bat may have given the team the jolt it needed, clearing the air and affording everyone the chance to breath out and smile.

A single and catcher's interference put Happ in jeopardy in the 5th inning. Similar to the night before, Carlos Lee then muscled a broken bat blooper into left to plate one run, but Happ gathered himself to contain the damage. In the bottom half of the inning, Werth clubbed a two run homer to extend the lead to 7-2.

Of course, the Astros have owned the Phillies in 2009, so they weren't going to go down easily. Charlie Manuel stuck with Happ in the 6th despite his high pitch count , and he surrendered a 2-run homer to Phillies nemesis Kaz Matusi on his 119th pitch of the evening to cut the lead to 7-4 and make it a game. It seemed to be a classic case of one pitch too many.

Jamie Moyer came onto record the last out of the inning. He pitched a scoreless 7th inning, but on the last pitch went down with a groin injury as he watched a long fly out to center. Manuel surprisingly had Ryan Madson warming up in the inning and then brought him in to the pitch the 8th.

After a 1-2-3 inning, Manuel decided to stick with Madson rather than go to Brad Lidge as he had originally planned. Considering the importance of nailing down this victory, along with Madson's save on Sunday, it is hard to understand why Manuel would have taken that risk. In keeping with the Phillies new found tradition, Madson worked into a jam by giving up a pair of singles and having to face two longball and Phillies threats Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. Madson took another step forward as a closer, though, shutting the door by striking out both hitters to end the game.

Simultaneous to all of this, everyone kept an eye on the scoreboard, where the Braves rebounded from a 4-1 deficit against the Marlins to tie the score at 4-4. On this night, though, the Marlins scratched out a run in the ninth and held on to win 5-4. The Phillies win and Braves loss dropped the team's magic number to 1. Additionally, the Cardinals loss allowed the Phils to move 1 game ahead for playoff seeding.

It took a big blow by Pedro Feliz to ease the tensions and perhaps allow the Phillies to relax in their effort to close out the division championship. He has quietly made a strong contribution all year with great glove work in the field, and by driving in key runs when they needed it most. Last night was no different. Now the team hands the ball to the more famous "Pedro" in hope of wrapping things up and popping some champagne to celebrate their third consecutive NL East title.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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

Atlanta scores against St. Louis Cardinals

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 (93-64 .592)

2. Phillies (90-66 .577)

3. Cardinals (90-66 .577)

4. Rockies (88-68 .564)

5. Braves (86-70 .551)

6. Giants (83-73 .532)

7. Marlins (83-74 .529)

8. Cubs (81-74 .523)

9. Brewers (77-79 .494)

10. Reds (74-82 .474)

Over the Hood

1. Dodgers- Close to clinching home field despite mediocre finish

2. Cardinals- Clinched division, can focus on strong post season run

3. Phillies- Injuries, bullpen and fatigue have them limping to finish

4. Braves- Could run the table with strong pitching and weak schedule

5. Rockies- Cooled off, looking over shoulder at Braves

6. Giants- Still fading with Lincecum, Cain looking human

7. Marlins- Almost extinct with up and down finish, will gear up for Phillies

8. Cubs- Good finish, too little, too late

9. Brewers- Push to finish at .500 led by Fielder and Braun

10. Reds- Putting things together in September to pass Astros despite Phils

Phillies Fans Could See It Coming

Marlins vs. Phillies

You could almost see it coming from a mile away. The Phillies were set to face a team who had not won a road game in the entire month of September. They were facing a young pitcher who has not been able to get anybody out in the major leagues, sporting a 11.74 ERA as a starter. The Phillies had their top starting pitcher over the past month on the hill. Their opponent is playing out the string while the Phillies are motivated to close out the division championship and better their playoff seeding.

You could almost see it coming from a mile away. Of course, the Phillies could barely scratch out any hits while the Astros strung together 15 hits to easily win 8-2. Yorman Bazardo, Manny Parra and Anibal Sanchez- so hittable throughout the league, so unhittable for the Phillies. You could see it coming, but its hard to explain.

Cole Hamels must have felt like he went back in time to a less kind month earlier this season. As Hamels experienced previously in his most frustrating season, the Astros used an array of bunts, swinging bunts, dribblers, bloopers and broken bat dunkers to complement and make the well hit balls hurt. A game that he appeared to be controlling, suddenly got away and turned into defeat.

All the while, the Braves continued to put W's on the schedule, shutting out the Marlins 4-0, which cuts what was recently an 8.5 game deficit to 4 games in the NL East. Things are starting to get uncomfortable. It is conceivable that the Braves will win out, facing an almost extinct Marlins team 2 more games and then the dreadful Nationals for the final four games of the season. The Phillies have 2 more games against the Astros, who they have yet to beat this season, and then 3 games against the Marlins, who would love to knock the Phillies off.

There were a few developments on the bullpen front. Tyler Walker pretty much ruled out a more prominent role by following up his 9th inning loss on Saturday with a bad outing that allowed the Astros to break the game wide open. JC Romero made his return in the 8th inning, yielding a couple hits, but no runs. Brad Lidge pitched the 9th inning and escaped without giving up any runs after a hit batter and single.

Tonight the Phillies face another scary challenge similar to last night. Wilton Lopez gets the start for Houston. His unknown stature is highlighted by the fact that his photo does not appear on his online profile and he comes into the game with an 8.44 ERA. Lets hope the hometown team breaks from the recent trend and finds a way to raise his ERA, while J.A. Happ gets back to campaigning for the NL Rookie-of-the-Year award.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Phillies High Wire Act Avoids the Net

Dodgers and Phillies meet for Game Five of NLCS in Los Angeles

Yesterday's Phillies game followed the same basic script as Saturday's game. Grab an early 4-0 lead, let the Brewers chip away to close the gap and then turn things over to their beleaguered bullpen and hope for the best. Unfortunately, as we head towards the end of the regular season, most times that Charlie Manuel looks to the pen to hold onto or close out a late game lead, what he gets is a Cirque du Soleil high wire act.

Continuing failures have caused the team to use a trial and error, closer by committee approach whereby Manuel hopes to dial up the right reliever to get the job done that day. Last Wednesday, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge faltered in the late going to allow the Florida Marlins to steal a victory against them. In the next tight, late game situation presented on Saturday evening, Tyler Walker was called upon to hold the Brewers off the board and send the game into extra innings. Walker, promptly plummeted into the net, giving up a single and home run to the first two batters he faced.

As events unfolded yesterday, an even more difficult and painful loss appeared to be potentially on the horizon. The Phillies had a comfortable 6-1 lead heading into the bottom of the 6th inning, but also squandered many other scoring opportunities along the way. Meanwhile, Joe Blanton was holding the Brew Crew off the board, but making a lot of pitches in so doing.

Perhaps due to Manuel's fear of turning the game over to his relief corp or a recent pitching philosophy discussion with Nolan Ryan, he stuck with Blanton as he labored in the 6th inning and his pitch total soared (124 for the day.) Before they knew it, the Brewers plated four runs to make it 6-5, and likely provided some uneasy feelings throughout the Phillies dugout.

While the Phillies continued to fail to capitalize on scoring opportunities, Chad Durbin and Madson combined for two scoreless innings. Manuel abandoned normal protocol of using a 9th inning only closer, and sent Madson back out for the save. After a quick out, Prince Fielder created the requisite drama with his double into the left field corner, putting the tying run in scoring position. Madson got an infield out after flirting with a walk, sending Fielder to third. He then jumped ahead of Mike Cameron 1-2, just missed on a 97 mph fastball and then got a called third strike on a low and away fastball to end the game.

Madson wobbled a little on the wire, but ultimately was still standing at the end. The Phillies hope that this will help bolster his confidence enough to allow him to step up as the closer for the remainder of the season. He has the velocity, movement and complimentary change-up to get key strikeouts and dominate hitters with the game on the line. To this point, though, he has not developed the required mental toughness, but short of Lidge making an unlikely dramatic turn, he provides the best hope for the team.

Ryan Howard continued his big second half surge, hitting .444 in the four game series, with two doubles and a home run. He also collected 7 RBI, running his season total to 137 and tying him for the NL lead with Fielder.

The Braves are not tailgating, but close enough to see in the rear mirror. They are aided by closing with 7 games at home, the last four against the worst team in baseball. The Phillies dropped their magic number to 3 and still enjoy a 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals for playoff seeding, which would allow them home field advantage in the NLDS. A solid, reliable closer would be a big boost for their final homestand and beyond.

Kolb Shows What Reid Sees in Eagles Easy Win

Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles raced to an early lead yesterday and maintained clear control of the game throughout the day, soundly defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 34-14. The score makes the game seem much closer than it really was, as the Chiefs were aided by Jeff Garcia's fumbled snap in mop up duty. The Eagles dominated on both sides of the ball and Kevin Kolb demonstrated what Andy Reid has liked about him.

Kolb threw early and often, carving up the Chiefs defense for 327 yards and 2 long touchdowns. He also eliminated the deadly turnovers which have plagued him in other performances. Overall, Kolb looked poised, confident and completed more than 70% of his passes. He also displayed the requisite NFL arm strength and some nice touch.

All of this needs to be tempered a bit by the fact that Kolb was virtually under no pressure all day long thanks to his offensive line and the Chiefs lack of pass rush. He is also coming off previous appearances where he turned the ball over when opponents limited his time and showed more complexity. Of course, all aspiring young quarterbacks go through the "school of hard knocks" as they develop, especially when jumping into the fire against a top flight defense such as the Ravens.

The Eagles defense returned to form, looking a lot more like the week 1 version than last week's edition. The Chiefs seemed resigned to the fact that they would not have the time to get the ball down the field, so running and short passing would be the only real way to move the ball without risking the health of Matt Cassel or turnovers. It seemed obvious all day that they were never going to mount a serious threat to win the game. Their only touchdown came late in the game after Garcia fumbled his first snap deep in his own territory.

With Brian Westbrook de-activated due to an ankle sprain, rookie LeSean McCoy filled in nicely, racking up 84 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Additionally, DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek each broke the 100-yard mark receiving and scored on long passes. These three, along with Kolb, provided a window into the future and a great deal of optimism about their ability to make big contributions as needed. Of course, Kolb and McCoy are clearly back-ups at this point, but it is comforting to know that they will be able to step in and perform well if needed.

The other major story line in the game was Michael Vick's return to the NFL. He participated in 11 plays, mostly designed to run, with very little productivity- unless the team opts for a nostalgic "2.7 yards and cloud of dust" offense. The Chiefs appeared to have little trouble defending the Vick Wildcat, and the best that can be said for it was that Kolb and the Eagles found a way to overcome it. The Eagles either need to get much better at designing or executing on it, or greatly curtail it, as they will not be able to waste plays as they face better teams.

Yesterday's win runs the Eagles record to 2-1 and puts them back on track. The early bye week turns out to be a blessing as it should allow McNabb, Westbrook and Kevin Curtis to avoid missing another game and risking further injury. Additionally, Jackson will have time for his groin to heal and would be well advised to avoid the Dancing with the Stars acrobatics and splits that he displayed after his touchdown catch.

Eli Manning Hype Stoked into a Frenzy

Washington Redskins vs New York Giants

The Eli Manning hype created by the New York media was stoked up by last Sunday night's "Jerry Jones' Stadium Unveiling" game. Truth be told, he did play better than expected in leading the Giants to a 33-31 victory. Although spared the embarrassment of having a punt rebound off the scoreboard, Eli was instrumental in ruining Jerry's 100,000 guest coming out party.

On this morning's ESPN Sports Reporters, the pundits took turns waxing poetic on the virtues of Eli. The premise of the discussion was who was better, big brother or little brother? Since big bro' Peyton is widely considered the best quarterback in football with Tom Brady rebounding from injury, the question was really whether Eli is the best in the NFL? One of the experts felt the need to say that Peyton is the best and that Eli couldn't be #2 because of Drew Brees.

Excuse me, did anybody watch Eli throw dying quails in the Giants final game of last season, when the Eagles knocked them out of the playoffs? Besides a blocked field goal and a prevent bend, but don't break late game statistic padding defense, the Eagles dominated the Giants all day. And, it was clear all day that Eli did not have the arm strength to throw through the stiff Meadowland's breeze like his counterpart in midnight green.

Eli Manning is a capable quarterback, but it is ridiculous to talk about him in terms of being the best in the NFL. He proved two years ago that he can operate with enough poise and precision to complement a strong team and ultimately win a Super Bowl. That Giants team had an excellent defense, offensive line and running game, so the team needed a signal caller who could protect the ball and make throws against defenses mostly stacked against the run. He did that in the playoffs and Super Bowl.

Putting things in perspective, Eli is probably somewhere in the second quartile of NFL QB's. If you took an objective look using the standard who is the best for this season to take age and future potential out of the equation, the following 8 players would rank ahead of him:

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Tom Brady
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Philip Rivers
  5. Curt Warner
  6. Donovan McNabb
  7. Ben Roethlisberger
  8. Carson Palmer

Eli would likely fall somewhere within the next 8 QB's, that would include:

  1. Tony Romo
  2. Brett Favre
  3. Matt Ryan
  4. Joe Flacco
  5. Jay Cutler
  6. Matt Hasselbeck
  7. Aaron Rodgers
  8. Eli Manning

The ordering of both of these groups is debatable, but might be about right. The bottom line is that Eli Manning might very well be at the mid-point, almost dead in the middle of the pack. Mike Lupica, please take your New York, center of the universe rose colored glasses off.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

NFL Power Rankings- Top 15 Week 2

New Orleans Saints v Philadelphia Eagles

Either we provided the jinx or had some teams over-rated as our top three and six of our top eight teams all lost in week 2. Additionally, a few other teams made a case to move into the top 15 spots. The Colts, Broncos and 49ers all ran their records to 2-0, while the Cardinals and Bills got untracked after disappointing week 1 losses. The Saints continue to demonstrate that they have the most dynamic offense in football rolling up 93 points in the first two games. After a strong season opening effort, our home town Eagles team took a hard fall. Big wins last Sunday included the Rex Ryan led Jets taking down the arch rival Pats, the Ravens outlasting the Chargers and the Giants spoiling Jerry Jones' attendance record setting, stadium unveiling Cowboys team.

Here are the greatly jumbled up rankings:

  1. Saints (2-0)-Unstoppable offense + improving defense = contender
  2. Jets (2-0)-Big win against Pats has their confidence soaring
  3. Vikings (2-0)-Same story-have ingredients if Favre can stay healthy
  4. Giants (2-0)-Pulled out see saw battle at Dallas, Eli looked good
  5. Ravens (2-0)-Winning with offense rather than trademark defense
  6. Colts (2-0)-Manning gives them a chance to win any week
  7. Falcons (2-0)-Led by rising star Ryan, but won't sneak up on anybody in '09
  8. Steelers (1-1)-Anemic offense
  9. Patriots (1-1)-Chinks in the armor? Lucky to have one win
  10. Eagles (1-1)-Outplayed in every phase by Saints
  11. Chargers (1-1)-Tomlinson injured again and defense struggling
  12. Cowboys (1-1)-Jones coming out party with Barber out, Romo ?'s
  13. 49ers (2-0)- Could they be for real?
  14. Broncos (2-0)- Flukey win followed by strong outing against Browns
  15. Cardinals (1-1)-Offense came alive versus Jacksonville

Rough Outing for Lee and the Phillies

MLB: Phillies vs Brewers OCT 5

The Phillies #1 starter Cliff Lee faced off against struggling Brewers' starter Manny Parra on Friday night in Milwaukee. Hearing afterward that one pitcher had a dominant outing while the other surrendered a pair of 3-run homers, most would be surprised to learn the identity of each. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Lee had his worst outing in a Phillies uniform while Parra had his best performance of the season.

Lee was hit hard in the 1st inning, but almost worked his way out of trouble. Prince Fielder lined a two out single to center to plate the first run. After Lee did not get the call on 1-2 fastball that appeared to be right down broadway, Mike Cameron capitalized on the second chance by launching a 3-run homer to left. What looked like an inning ending strikeout, turned into a 4-0 deficit.

After Parra set down the Phillies in order over the first 3 innings, an error, walk and 2-run single by Ryan Howard cut the Brewers lead in half. Meanwhile, Lee settled down and cruised through the next 3 innings, before encountering trouble in the 5th. A hit batter and single put two runners aboard before Fielder crushed a towering drive into the upper deck in right-center field to extend the lead to 7-2.

The Phils rallied for a couple runs in the 8th, with Howard collecting his 135th RBI of the season, one behind Fielder's NL leading 136. A potential rally in the 9th was quickly shut down by closer Trevor Hoffman, who used mostly 84-86 mph fastballs along with his signature change-up to induce three weak outs.

The loss allowed the surging Braves to move within 6 games in the NL East and keep the magic number at 4. The Cardinals 2-1 loss to the Rockies kept the 1/2 game ahead of St. Louis for the 2nd playoff seed. Some more bad injury news came there way when it was determined that Pedro Martinez had not recovered enough from a neck strain to make his scheduled start today, so Kyle Kendrick will start in his place. Also, with the bullpen struggles, the team is hoping for strong performances from the starters in order to advance in the playoffs, so Lee's outing certainly causes concern.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I'm Just Saying......

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

  • The incredibly low number of fans in the Land Shark Stadium stands to watch the playoff contending Florida Marlins face off against the division leading Phillies illustrates how Philadelphia is such a great sports town. And, it begs to ask the question whether the new $515 million baseball stadium being built for them in Miami is nothing more than a huge waste of money?
  • I would tend to agree with Sheldon Brown that he has been and continues to be under appreciated by the Eagles. He has been a top quartile, dependable player for years, but I don't get what statement wearing a "Jason" mask makes about the team or his situation? And, doesn't it further lower what he already believes to be his substandard compensation as he accrues fines?
  • Why impose limits on the Eagles offensive creativity? Perhaps the Eagles should run an employee contest offering a day off and a gift certificate for any suggested trick play that is used in a game?
  • Where does the Wildcat obsession end? Might Reid and Mornhinweg put Brian Westbrook in at tackle to chip block a fast pass rusher or Leonard Weaver to serve as a pulling guard on a sweep?
  • Derek Lee can attest to it being a tough season for the Cubs when a celebratory slap lands him on the injured list.
  • Thanks to Rex Ryan and the Jets good start, they are my new favorite AFC team.
  • I don't usually agree with his logic or actions, but it was good to see Ochocinco do the Lambeau Leap on Sunday to call attention to the NFL's double standard. I would prefer that the NFL loosen up its wet blanket approach to touchdown celebrations, but in the absence of that, it is absurd that they allow only the Packers to engage in orchestrated demonstrations of joy.
  • Being in a town with the World Series Champion Phillies and NFC power Eagles, it might take more than rolling out new primary color uniforms and demo's on the "Princeton weave" for the Sixers to gain fan interest this season.
  • He has hit into some tough luck of late, but look for Chase Utley to catch fire over the last two weeks and finish over .300.
  • BrettFavre, BrettFavre, Brett Favre...There has been so much focus on Adrian Peterson, I thought Brett might need a little attention.

Phillies Rebound From Disappointing Loss with 9-4 Win

Dodgers and Phillies meet for Game Five of NLCS in Los Angeles

Phillies players suffered a difficult loss to the Florida Marlins on Wednesday and to add insult to injury, had to immediately pack up and fly to Milwaukee to play a four game set. They arrived in the wee hours of the morning at a time when newspaper trucks are loading up for delivery while knowing the Marlins got to sleep in on an off day, still surrounded by the after glow of their late game heroics. The combination made for a serious hangover for the team in red.

Fortunately, they quickly brushed off the tough defeat and took the field to do battle again. They made Brewers starter Jeff Suppan work hard until they eventually broke things open with a barrage of runs. Nothing like a "9" on the scoreboard to take some pressure off your sagging bullpen. Jimmy Rollins provided the big blow with a 3-run shot off the facing of the upper deck in a 6-run 5th inning. Pedro Feliz and Ryan Howard also each drove in a pair of runs.

Meanwhile, J.A. Happ was taking another pass at returning to the mound after being shut down early in his previous start. He looked like the Rookie-of-the-Year candidate again, mixing his sharp pitches to hold the high scoring Brewers in check and run his record to 11-4. He struck out five batters in a row at one point and 7 over 5 2/3 innings. Charlie Manuel pulled him in the 6th inning, sensing that he may be tiring after a long injury layoff.

Lost in all the discussion about the Phillies offensive prowess, defensive skill, starting pitching talent and bullpen struggles are a couple other key strengths of this ball club. No one is totally immune to the grind of a marathon 162 game season, but the Phillies players are a mentally tough bunch. And, very importantly, they have excellent team chemistry. Although it can be cliche, they truly win and lose as a team.

As the bullpen has struggled, lesser teams and lesser individuals could easily harbor ill feelings towards those not upholding their end of the bargain, and lose sight of what each of them needs to continue doing. This team was not built that way. They support each other and move on when adversity strikes. It is both endearing and clearly a reason why they are the defending champions.

Last night's victory, while the Marlins and Braves were idle, added 1/2 game to their NL East cushion and reduced their magic number to 4. It also moved them 1/2 game ahead of the Cardinals for playoff seeding and home field advantage. Every game is still meaningful, making the team's quick rebound especially important.

Eagles Should Focus on Offensive Basics to Reach Ultimate Goal

New Orleans Saints v Philadelphia Eagles

It seems pretty clear that the Eagles have made a major commitment towards becoming perhaps the most gimmicky offense in the NFL. They signed Michael Vick, and even with him still sidelined by suspension, they ran 9 Wildcat formations last Sunday against the Saints. Only Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg know what might be in store for us this week with Vick being activated to play.

While coaches have obviously spent considerable time drawing up trick plays in the dirt, a compelling argument can be made that they should be focusing on sharpening up on the basics of an already somewhat unconventional offense. The Eagles are one of a handful of teams that passes more than 60% of the time. This has proven effective for them as they have been a top scoring team, but it does require precision and doesn't need to be complicated further by an array of trick plays.

The Eagles have always added some "wrinkles" to their offense. Mornhinweg indicated in an interview yesterday that Reid's philosophy has been to infuse approximately four to six "special" plays each game into the regular offense. This year, he appears to be doubling down on that philosophy.

So, what's the rub here? A handful of "special plays" have been part of the Eagles typically high scoring offense for years. Besides being entertaining and sometimes explosive, these plays maintain an element of surprise that defenders need to account for as they interpret what is unfolding in front of them, on those gadget plays as well as others. Part of the value of these plays comes from forcing the opponents to watch for it at anytime.

Conversely, the Wildcat formations scream "trick play!" It does not present a variation or twist off of a more normal formation, so the defense does not have to be watching for it when the Eagles line up in their conventional formations.

Another byproduct of the Wildcat formation is that it appears to put players in positions for which they are not physically or experientially equipped, which introduces a much higher probability of someone getting hurt. Last week, DeSean Jackson aggravated a groin injury on a Wildcat formation. It stands to reason that placing smallish receivers in vulnerable positions will eventually result in wear and tear, as well as injury. It also stands to reason that a quarterback is going to be taken out as they are asked to play another position not so well protected by NFL rules.

It is even a little scary seeing Brian Westbrook alone in the backfield taking a direct snap. Everyone would agree that he is instrumental to the team's fortunes in 2009, so wouldn't it make more sense to protect his ailing body as much as possible? Perhaps the team is willing to take the risk of using Vick in more vulnerable formations because they have two other quarterbacks behind Donovan McNabb?

Another argument against the Wildcat relates to the increasing frequency that it is being used around the league. That is taken to another level, when one team increases its own frequency of use. Surely, the uniqueness and element of surprise diminishes, and ultimately the effectiveness. This being true, it begs to ask the question why would you invest in something that know will have declining value?

This leads me to a related question. Wouldn't it be better to invest your time, energy, mental resources and practice repetitions working on parts of the game that will be instrumental and necessary to reach your goal? All games are important in a short NFL season, but the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl.

Perhaps the best argument against gratuitous use of the Wildcat can be summed up in two words- Buddy Ryan. He was a defensive genius as well as an entertaining and somewhat successful coach. But his teams never fulfilled the promise provided by his dynamic defense or talent on the team.

The main reason for this was that Ryan attempted to compliment the dominating defense with an offense that was "hit or miss." It was not built on precision or excellence in execution, but rather the chance that playmaker Randall Cunningham would somehow break a run or throw a touchdown on a fire drill type of play.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Eagles had nothing in their offense to count on. Invariably, the opponents would develop a game plan to a account for Cunningham, reduce the probability of those happen chance plays and ultimately send the Eagles to another disappointing playoff loss. And, importantly, the Eagles offensive squad had no confidence or conviction when they took the field that they had a proven scheme and formula for success.

The 2009 Eagles would be wise to consider how they might be creating a similar scenario with their infatuation with the Wildcat formation and gimmick plays. When the season is on the line each week in the big games at the end of the year, even if the trick plays got them a couple cheap scores or higher than average yardage earlier in the year, what will they draw upon to win games when both sides have equal intensity and laser-like focus? History suggests that gadget plays don't get it done in those times. What has been successful, though, is a mindset of the players that exudes confidence that if they execute on what they do best, they will win.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Phillies Hit Bump in the Road to Division Championship

The Florida Marlins, who are fighting to stay off the endangered species list, rallied late to pin a frustrating 7-6 loss on the Phillies. Unfortunately for the Phillies, the bullpen again faltered in holding onto a late game lead, suffering another blown save.  The team also squandered a big game by Ryan Howard, who drove in 4 runs with a home run and double. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves completed a three game sweep of the depleted New York Mets to pull within 6 1/2 games of the Phillies.

A typical sudden Miami down pour delayed the game in the middle of the 8th inning with the Marlins trailing 6-4. When play resumed, Ryan Madson replaced starter Cole Hamels, who was less effective than he has been over the past month, but was poised to earn his 11th win. Madson yielded a run by virtue of hitting a batter and giving up a couple singles.

Brad Lidge was summoned into pitch the 9th inning with hopes of closing out a 6-5 victory. He was quickly greeted with a double in the right field corner by Ross Gload, who moved to third on Chris Coghlan's deep liner to Jayson Werth. Lidge recorded a strikeout on a borderline slider to move within one out of a save, but then walked NL batting leader Hanley Ramirez.  Jorge Cantu stepped to the plate and lined a shot to center for his fourth straight hit, tying the score. After getting pinch hitter Brett Carroll to swing and miss two sliders, Lidge hung another one over the plate that he ripped to center to win the game.

The Phillies are still in good position to win their third consecutive NL East crown and in line to play the wild card Rockies if the season ended today. They also still have a shot at home field advantage throughout the playoffs as they are 2 1/2 games behind the Dodgers.

Despite remaining relatively well positioned in those regards, the Phillies have clearly not resolved their bullpen issues. Besides the health of catcher Carlos Ruiz, the relief corp remains the one big question mark for the team. Several key components are injured and after 151 games, Charlie Manuel still cannot avoid the Rolaids and Nexium pills when he hands the ball over in a save situation.

Manuel has tirelessly stayed the course in his attempts to restore the confidence and effectiveness of Lidge, and to a lesser degree, Madson. He knows that he almost surely needs them to be able to close games if the team hopes to repeat in 2009. Any thought of Brett Myers emerging to assume the role has been dashed by his shoulder strain and you cannot help but to recall a similar injury shutting him down for quite awhile in 2007.

With only 11 games left in the regular season, it seems apparent that the team would head into the post season with at best, a level of uncertainty in its ability to close out games.  Last year's most reliable aspect of the team will be this year's most anxiety producing. That does not mean that it is impossible for Lidge and Madson to fare well in the post season, as both possess the "stuff" to come through.

The good news for the Phillies is that they have the National League's best line-up, best defense and a strong cast of starting pitchers. Those three components are capable of powering them to victory, but surrendering games that were seemingly won, has a way of derailing teams sooner or later.

The 1993 Phillies team made it to the 6th game of the World Series with a closer who was "out of gas." That is not the case here as both pitchers still have plenty of zip on their pitches, so there is hope that they will find their groove, but they are clearly still searching for it. The '93 team also reinforces that a different formula than the one the team relied on in 2008 can work. Of course, Manuel, the players and the team's followers alike would greatly prefer seeing fans confidently waving the white towels in the air at closing time rather than pulling a Curt Shilling with those same towels.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Phillies Split with Marlins

Philadelphia Phillies vs St. Louis Cardinals

The Phillies took Game 1 by a score of 9-3 in their important doubleheader against the Florida Marlins.  They took an unconventional route to get there as they played a game of all or nothing. Phillies went down swinging a total of 16 times, but somehow managed to amass 9 runs.

Marlins starter Josh Johnson came out throwing smoke, pumping 97-99 mph fastballs past Rollins, Victorino and Utley to strike out the side in the first. By the fifth inning, Johnson recorded 10 k's, but Phillies hitters scratched out 4 runs. He was pulled for a pinch hitter in the bottom half of the inning, so a night that started out so promising ended in frustration.

Conversely, Phillies starter Joe Blanton pitched one of his best games of the year, blanking the Marlins on a pair of hits and walks over 7 innings. He fanned a total of 9 batters, showing command of his fastball, curve and change-up throughout the game.

The Phillies used small ball to plate single runs in both the 2nd and 3rd innings. In the 5th inning, Jayson Werth singled to center with two outs and the bases loaded to extend the lead to 4-0.  They blew the game open with a five spot in the 8th. The big blows were Raul Ibanez's 32nd home run and Ryan Howard's 2-RBI single.

The Marlins took a pass at a rally in the home 8th, scoring three runs off rookie Sergio Escalona. Tyler Walker recorded a strike out to end the rally and Clay Condrey registered a 1-2-3 9th inning to secure the win.

In game two, it was simply a case of nothing for the Phils....namely no runs. They have previously owned Marlins right-hander Anibal Sanchez, but tonight was a totally different story. The team in red and gray could only muster a couple of Chase Utley hits off him in his 8 innings of work, and then Leo Nunez finished them off by setting them down in order in the 9th.

Jamie Moyer took his first loss ever in the Marlins home park after going 8-0 prior to tonight. He surrendered 3 runs over 6 innings, including home runs to Dan Uggla and Cody Ross.

Gambling fans surely would have bet on a reverse scenario, with the Marlins staff ace going in the first game and the pitcher who struggles the most with the Phillies starting in the nightcap. Overall, though, a split hurt the Marlins much more with the dwindling number of games left on the schedule. The game 1 win dropped the Phillies magic number to 5 as the Braves won tonight against the New York Mets. Tomorrow night's game would seem to favor the Phillies as surging Cole Hamels squares off against young Rick VandenHurk, who has bounced back and forth between the minors and the big club. Of course, as tonight demonstrates, the game is played on the field.

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 (90-60 .600)
2. Phillies (87-61 .588)
3. Cardinals (88-63 .583)
4. Rockies (85-65 .567)
5. Giants (81-69 .545)
6. Marlins (80-70 .533)
7. Braves (80-70 .533)
8. Cubs (77-72 .517)
9. Brewers (74-76 .493)
10. Astros (70-80 .467)

Over the Hood
1. Dodgers- Besides Wolf, many concerns about starters; great bullpen
2. Cardinals- Success as Pujols, Holiday, Wainwright, Carpenter, Franklin go
3. Phillies- Best talent, but tempered by mounting injury concerns
4. Rockies- Streaky team with no dominant starters, but score lots of runs
5. Marlins- Scary team with young starters and streaky line-up
6. Braves- Very solid rotation, but not enough pop in line-up, weak schedule left
7. Giants- Starting to fade with Dow Jones September, not enough offense
8. Cubs- Unfulfilled potential has been the story all year
9. Brewers- Turned it up to reach .500?
10. Astros- Current 8 game losing streak dashed any optimism

Monday, September 21, 2009

Phillies 4, Braves and 2nd Base Ump 2- Team Moves Closer to Some Rest for the Weary

MLB 2008 - NLCS Game3 - Phillies at Dodgers

The Phillies shrugged off an early Braves lead, a long rain delay that took their top starting pitcher out of the game and some questionable umpiring to register a big win. By virtue of the Marlins loss, it reduced their magic number to 6 and extended their NL East lead to 8 games. They now head to Florida for a twin bill tomorrow evening.

After sitting out the first two games of the series with an illness, Shane Victorino had a suddenly short day of work,again. With one out in the first, Victorino drilled a line single to right. He took off on a 3-2 pitch to Chase Utley, who was rung up on what appeared to be an outside pitch, and called out by second base umpire Chad Fairchild. Victorino briefly complained and then bounced his helmet. When he continued to state his case, Fairchild threw him out of the game. Replays confirmed that Victorino was in deed safe. In the space of 15 seconds, the Phillies went from runners on 1st and 2nd with one out, to inning over and Victorino done for the day.

To say that Fairchild was a little trigger happy was an understatement, especially in an important game with playoff implications. It also contrasted to the handling of several Braves players who screamed at home plate umpires all series long about strike calls.

The Braves plated a run in the first, but the Phillies proceeded to scratch out a 4-1 lead after 4 1/2 innings. At that point, the rain that had been present all day intensified and the umpires halted play. Almost 2 hours later, play resumed, but Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee decided not to risk sending started Cliff Lee back out. Instead, Tyler Walker took the mound and quickly retired the Braves to make the game official.

Walker tossed another scoreless frame and earned the win. Three other relievers held the Braves off the board and then Manuel handed the ball to Lidge to register a save. He did get nicked for a run after yielding a walk on some close pitches, defensive indifference and then a pinch hit single by Brian McCann. Lidge got a swinging strikeout to end the game. He looked poised and confident, was throwing hard and his 2008 vintage sharp breaking slider.

A similar performance for the Phillies in the Marlins series would put them close to clinching and could give them some room to breathe over the balance of the regular season. This would be very welcome considering their growing list of aching pitchers. Both J.A. Happ and Pedro Martinez left games in the series early due to injuries. Additionally, Brett Myers is seeking a medical opinion on what is being labelled a "shoulder strain" (an injury that kept him out for an extended time in 2007.) JC Romero and Scott Eyre are still shut down, and Clay Condrey is just returning after months on the DL. Their steadiest pitcher in the bullpen this season, Chan Ho Park, went down with a pulled hamstring last week and is likely out at least the rest of the regular season and possibly longer.

It would be a great time for Phillies hitters to heat up and carry the pitching staff. No better time than tomorrow, for that matter.

Brees' Saints Breeze Past Mistake Prone Eagles

New Orleans Saints v Philadelphia Eagles

Just as last week, it was hard to tell where the Eagles performance started and the opponents performance ended. Unlike last week, it was the opposite scenario with Eagles fans wondering if their team was that bad or the Saints are simply that good after the 48-22 drubbing.

The Eagles failed yesterday in all three phases of the game, but were especially bad on special teams. The main culprits were Ellis Hobbs's costly fumble to open the second half as well as some shanked punts and multiple penalties that negatively affected field position all day long. It was going to be a difficult match-up anyway to contain the Saints high powered offense and take advantage of their somewhat vulnerable defense with an inexperienced QB behind center, so it was particularly damaging to have the special teams unit turn in a dismal performance.

Drew Brees wasted no time as he drove the Saints the length of the field with relative ease for a touchdown on the opening drive. Eagles faithful were hoping that after a few adjustments and shedding opening drive jitters, the defense would reverse course similar to a week ago. Unfortunately, the big pass rushing, turnover creating defense never appeared yesterday. Outside of some brief resistance in the second quarter, Brees and the Saints pretty much breezed all day.

Although they surely did not need help, Hobbs' fumble and Kevin Kolb's subsequent interception on the next possession meant the Saints only had to go a total of 46 yards to score 14 points. They barely had to break a sweat, taking only 7 plays to widen their lead to 31-13 and put the Eagles in a catch-up mode that was surely not going to bode well for them.

Kolb had some good moments throughout the day, completing over 60% of his passes, including 2 TD's and racking up 391 yards through the air. The highlight for the day was his 71 yard touchdown strike to a wide open DeSean Jackson on the Eagles first drive. Unfortunately, this performance was marred by three completions to the team in gold and black. The first two interceptions were similar mistakes to those that have haunted him in past outings, namely ill advised throws where he did not see the coverage underneath. And, like the Ravens game last season, the second one turned an attempted scoring pass into a long defensive return for a touchdown. His third interception was meaningless and closed the lopsided game, but it really had no chance as it was badly under thrown.

Besides Kolb, many of the Eagles offensive players played well, if that is possible in a 26 point route? Brent Celek and Jackson continued to look like stars in the making. The line provided time for Kolb to throw, Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy looked good and Jason Avant made several nice catches working the middle of the field, including a touchdown.

One other aspect of the offense that was unappealing is the team's apparent infatuation with gadget plays. On the day, they ran nine "Wildcat" formations, including one with a three man line. Although these "creative" plays bring back memories of those back yard touch football games and might make the highlights on ESPN Sports Center, they do not seem like a recipe for a NFL championship team and would seem to be unnecessarily flirting with injury.

Flanking out QBs and putting slightly built receivers in exposed positions could very well end up with those players lying prone on the football field. It surely does not help the team develop rhythm or the air of confidence to execute in crunch time.

Perhaps the coaches felt they needed to resort to gadgetry to help out Kolb, but the suspicion is that we will see a lot more of this, especially now that the team needs to justify signing Michael Vick. Although they mostly did OK on those plays yesterday, this does not feel like a winning formula from this vantage point.

Another thought that went through my mind yesterday watching the defense was whether the dramatic reversal in performance relates to losing Brian Dawkins' leadership presence? Somehow you can imagine him forcefully reminding his teammates not to get too enamored with their performance against the Panthers and that it was not going to be that easy going forward, especially against the Saints. Who would be filling that role on this year's team?

Very few can tell which way the Eagles head from here. Is it the Dr Jekyll from week 1 or the Mr Hyde from week 2? What a difference a week makes. Lets hope that the Special Teams unit tightens up over the week, the defense summons their Buddy Ryan spirit again and the offense dumbs things down a little to focus on flawless execution. If so, the Eagles could slip by a weaker Chiefs team, heal Donovan's broken ribs over the bye week and come back ready to fulfill its promise in week 5.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Phillies Use Long Ball to Take Opener in Atlanta


Ryan Howard continued his assault on Braves pitching with a pair of home runs, and then Jimmy Rollins and Ben Francisco sealed the victory with back-to-back homers in the 9th inning. Kyle Kendrick also stepped up big-time, coming into relieve starter J.A. Happ and toss four scoreless innings to earn the victory. The 9-4 win reduced their magic number to 8 and assured that the Braves can gain no more than 1 game in the 3-game series.

Having been staked a 1-0 lead by Phillies killer Martin Prado's solo home run, Braves starter Tim Hudson retired the first 10 hitters before Francisco singled to left in the 4th. After Chase Utley smoked a line drive to right that was caught, Howard blasted a ball deep into the right-center field stands to give the Phils a 2-1 lead.

Happ was taken out after 3 innings for pre-cautionary measures because he grimaced covering first base. Kendrick used an effective sinker to keep the Braves off balance and off the board in his four innings of work. In the sixth, Howard launched another home run to extend the lead to 3-1.

Jayson Werth singled (one of three hits in the game) with the bases loaded in the 8th inning to push the Phillies lead to 5-1. Brian McCann hit a 2-run shot off reliever Tyler Walker in the bottom half of the inning to pull the Braves within striking distance.

The Phillies did not back off, though. After a pair of walks, Rollins launched his 19th home run of the season into the right field bleachers and Francisco followed by jacking a ball into the left field stands.

Charlie Manuel tapped Chad Durbin to throw the 9th. After giving up a couple hits and a run, he settled down to record the game's final outs. The win allowed the Phillies to stay 8 games up on the Marlins and increased their lead over the Braves to 8.5 games.

All wins are meaningful, particularly at this point in the season, but it was important for less tangible reasons. A series opening loss would have kept the Braves momentum going and may have caused the Phillies to press a little in the next two games. Also, since the Marlins have 6 head-to-head games left with the Phillies and the Braves have a relatively easy schedule after this series, both teams still have a legitimate shot.

Howard's two bombs gives him 40 home runs for the year and is the fourth consecutive year that he has eclipsed that threshold. Prior to that was his rookie year, when he hit 22 in a little over half a season. He is hitting .344 with 7 home runs and 14 RBI this season versus Atlanta.

The series continues tonight and tomorrow afternoon with two good pitching match-ups. First up is Pedro Martinez against Javier Vasquez. Pedro looks stronger each time that he takes the mound, but he will be watched closely after throwing a total of 249 pitches in his last two starts. Meanwhile, eyes will be on the scoreboard as the Marlins take on the Reds at Great American Ball Park where they had lost 9 in a row until last night.

NFL Power Rankings- Top 15 Week 1


The Pittsburgh Steelers squeaked out an OT win at home, but they were playing a tough Titans team and are still the defending champions. As a result, they find themselves at the top of our rankings after week 1. The Patriots did not look like the 2007 powerhouse that most expected with the return of Tom Brady....until the last couple minutes. As usual, they are potentially scary, especially for gamblers and fantasy footballers due to their passion for running up scores. The Eagles made a strong statement in week 1, but skeptics have a hard time drawing the line between their defensive dominance and the Panthers offensive ineptitude. The Vikings have the ingredients if they do not have to rely on their other scorned QBs. Lastly, the Giants Eli Manning's performance in last year's playoffs makes me wonder if he is hanging out with Mets players?

Without further adieu, here are our rankings after NFL season week 1:

  1. Steelers (1-0)-Still the defending champs, will miss Polamalu
  2. Patriots (1-0)-Brady's back, one year removed from 16-0 season
  3. Eagles (1-0)-Strong start, but McNabb injury could cost week 2
  4. Vikings (1-0)-Have ingredients if Favre stays healthy
  5. Giants (1-0)-Strong defensive line and running game, but will lose at Dallas
  6. Chargers (1-0)-Strong cast should win division if healthy
  7. Cowboys (1-0)-Long TD throws are aberration, but still solid
  8. Titans (0-1)-No shame in losing at Pittsburgh in OT
  9. Jets (1-0)-Ryan defense, running game enough for Sanchez to win
  10. Ravens (1-0)-Flacco taking next step
  11. Saints (1-0)-Best QB in NFL will allow them to win shootouts
  12. Falcons (1-0)-Led by rising star Ryan, but won't sneak up on anybody in '09
  13. Packers (1-0)-Playoff possible with improving Rogers and defense
  14. Cardinals (0-1)-History of complacency for defending NFC champs?
  15. Bills (0-1)-Looked good until the nightmare ending

Friday, September 18, 2009

Eagles: Week 2 Happenings and Prospects

Philadelphia Eagles v Carolina Panthers

The Eagles started out the season with a dominant defensive performance that helped to ease concerns about having a new defensive coordinator and losing Stewart Bradley and Brian Dawkins. Unfortunately, their win against the Panthers was dampened by losing Donovan McNabb to a rib injury. Most of the news and discussion since then have been about things other than "x's" and "o's."

Events of the Week

Although the Eagles won in a blowout in week 1, the immediate focus after the game was the health of their starting quarterback, and then a series of personnel moves and a couple NFL office rulings. I guess you can throw Dr. Phil's visit on top of that since his comments certainly made their way to the Eagles locker room.

By game's end on Sunday, word had already been disseminated that McNabb had suffered a broken rib on a 3rd quarter touchdown scramble. This led to a series of personnel moves and a ruling by the NFL office (see NFL Office Needs to Re-Examine Its Priorities and Logic for more on this paradoxical decision.)

The Eagles quickly signed recently released (by Oakland) Jeff Garcia to bolster the QB position and moved Michael Vick to the active roster to allow him to practice with the team. To make room, the team released wide receiver (and Hugh Hefner's rival) Hank Baskett and put former Pro Bowl player Shawn Andrews on the Injured Reserve list. The former was a mild surprise. The latter was a major surprise.

With McNabb doubtful to play this week (and probably next), Andy Reid has reinforced that Kevin Kolb is the starter "right now." This is coach speak for "Kolb is on a short leash, so don't be surprised to see Garcia or Vick next week."

Placing Andrews on IR appears to be throwing in the towel on his physical and mental health for 2009, and possibly beyond, to remove weekly distractions and uncertainties. It also would seem to be a decision made out of frustration and could come back to haunt the team against opponents with big pass rushes like the Giants or Vikings, and might limit some of their aggressiveness overall. Of course, that assumes that Andrews would have made it onto the field for at least portions of the season.

The NFL determined that no penalty or fine was in order for the late hit that injured McNabb. However, the NFL office did take extreme exception to the Eagles end zone celebration circle in the same game and handed out $60,000 in fines for this gratuitous act of elation.

Prospects for Week 2

Kevin Kolb may look fairly good against a less than stellar Saints defense, but it is probably going to take a great performance to out score the high powered Saints offense. The Saints have picked right up where they left off last year, when they were the NFL's most prolific offense, scoring 45 points in the season opener. Of course, there is a vast difference between the Eagles defense and the Lions defense that they faced last week.

Look for Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy to lead a strong rushing attack on Sunday, and for the Eagles to keep things short with Kolb. The Eagles pass defense will be effective, but will not be able to totally contain Brees. In the end, the Eagles will miss McNabb, give up a cheap touchdown due to a turnover and fail to be able to put together a winning drive in the 4th quarter.

Saints 27

Eagles 23

Phillies Hamels: Wake Me Up When September Comes


Cole Hamels has had a history for saving his best pitching for the end of the season. Throughout his 4-year major league career, he has recorded his lowest ERA in September and we all know how he performed last October. This year has been no different, except he has punctuated this trend with an exclamation point.

Last night, Hamels shut down the Nationals, holding them to six base runners and one run over 8 innings. He was dominant for much of the game, retiring the first 15 hitters and striking out 10 for the game.

This dropped his ERA for the month of August to 1.82 after lugging a 4.52 mark into the month. For good measure, Hamels actually got a jump on September by shutting out the Pirates over 8 innings in his last outing in August. Since then, his ERA is a sparkling 1.43 and he has struck out more than a batter per inning.

Although it has been a frustrating season for Hamels, especially coming after his breakout year-end performance last season, his timing in re-gaining his form is impeccable. The Phillies will need both Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels to be on their game as they head into the post season. This is particularly true if they end up facing teams such as the Cardinals or Giants who will lead with two stellar starting pitchers of their own. Now, if we could only get Brad Lidge to add Green Day's recording "Wake Up When September Ends" to his iPod.

The Phillies Last 17 Games are Important for Many Reasons


The Phillies have a comfortable 7.5 game lead with 17 games left to play in the regular season. The magic number to win the National League Eastern Division has dropped to 10. Besides the obvious need to finish business to reduce that magic number to zero, the manner in which the team accomplishes that is critically important to their ongoing success.

First and foremost, the Phillies themselves demonstrated how a similar scenario of a 7-game lead with 17 to go is not reason to relax. Two years ago, that situation played out with the Phillies passing the Mets to win the division. The current Phillies team chemistry and collective "heart" is vastly different than that Mets team, but those events in 2007 serve to raise an important caution flag to keep on grinding.

This is especially true considering that the Phillies now head on the road to face their two division rivals, who will both be teaming with adrenaline and a sense of urgency to make a last ditch effort to close the gap. And, a few head-to-head wins against the Phillies would suddenly take the comfort out of the lead.

A good scenario would be for the Phillies to win at least one game in Atlanta and two games in Florida. Two and two would put them no worse than 7.5 games up as they head to Milwaukee for a four game set, and reduce the magic number to 5 or less. With the schedule ending at home with their recent nemesis Houston Astros and the Marlins, there really is no breathing room just yet.

All of that aside, the team does not want to be in the position of playing pressure packed games to the finish. Surely, the Phillies would like to not overwork their starting staff and allow players such as Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez to rest their hobbled legs. Most importantly, though, the team does not want to tax the already aching arms, bodies and psyches of the bullpen.

The ideal scenario would be to minimize the burden on Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, JC Romero, Scott Eyre, Chad Durbin and Clay Condrey as all are fighting injuries or soreness. Chan Ho Park simply needs to get healthy and prepare to be ready if the team does make the post season, but a late season, non-pressurized cameo appearance to tune up would be great. Lastly, a comfortable finish would allow Charlie Manuel to put Brad Lidge, Madson and possibly Myers in better positions to succeed and build confidence heading into the post season, where they will need to close out tight games as they did a year ago.

The next two series will not determine the final outcome of the NL East, but they surely are important. The Phillies have the talent to win the division, advance through the playoffs and win another a championship, but the competition will be stiff. These games now can go a long way towards setting themselves up for another magical run.