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.

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