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.

No comments:

Post a Comment