Saturday, October 10, 2009

OK With Charlie's NLDS Pitching Moves


A great deal of controversy and criticism has erupted from Charlie Manuel's pitching decisions over the past few days. There was first some mild surprise expressed over the playoff roster pitcher selection. Next, many questioned the decision to start a somewhat struggling Cliff Lee over last season's post season hero Cole Hamels in game 1 of the NLDS. Then things heated up further as Manuel used three starting pitchers in game 2, and to add fuel to the fire, one of them left the game with an injury.

For me personally, I am OK with all these decisions. Manuel knows his players, understands the match-ups, possesses experience with the physiological aspects of pitching and has a method to the seeming madness. He also recognizes the team's current vulnerabilities and has the courage to be creative in his approach rather than use the safe, tried and true cookie cutter approach favored by most critics.

Over his tenure in Philadelphia, it has become crystal clear that Charlie's baseball acumen, understanding of the human psyche and instincts far exceed his ability to articulate it. He should have earned his "just due" by now leading the team in the greatest era in Phillies history. Besides that, everyone of his decisions make sense.

Choosing Lee as the opening game starter proved to be the right decision by his dominant pitching performance. Lee was surely a worthy choice based on his credentials and the laser-like focus that he brings to the mound. It also made sense purely from the current pitching order and days of rest between starts. And, if the series were to go to 5 games, both Lee and Hamels would be available to pitch.

With JC Romero down with an injury, Scott Eyre fighting elbow pain and the Rockies left-handed leaning line-up, adding Antonio Bastardo as a needed situational lefty makes a world of sense. Bastardo even somewhat resembles Romero, possessing similar pop on his fastball and sharp break on his slider. Manuel would love to have Romero to call upon, but in his absence, why not go to the next best thing? The rookie did not disappoint, either, coming into a two out, bases loaded jam in game 2 and promptly striking out imposing pinch hitter Jason Giambi.

Choosing Kyle Kendrick over Tyler Walker and Clay Condrey was somewhat of a surprise, but it is also understandable. Kendrick pitched well in some big moments down the stretch, can throw multiple innings if needed and his sinker and slider can keep Rockies hitters in the park. Walker faltered in the late going and Condrey is just coming off an extended injury rehabilitation.

The biggest controversy revolved around Manuel's use of Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ as relievers in game 2. Both pitchers were viewed as the leading candidates to start games 3 and 4, and conventional wisdom would preclude disrupting their rest and preparation for those assignments. Of course this was just speculation since Manuel never named his starters, but weather permitting, one of them had to get the nod this weekend.

Again, these decisions make sense to me. Manuel had the comfort of having 5 starting pitchers worthy of taking the ball. It appears that he was leaning towards using future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez in game 3 anyway, yet limited relief appearances by Blanton and Happ should not compromise them if called upon. They both would have thrown bullpen sessions, so Manuel simply traded adrenaline and intensity for a greater number of sideline pitches. The impact on their arms and respective recovery is the same.

Manuel knows that Blanton possesses a resilient arm and attacks hitters, so it makes perfect sense that he was leaning all along towards using him in a relief role. As he demonstrated on Thursday, his velocity jumps up to the 93-94 range in a short stint with heightened intensity. Happ is the logical choice to pitch game 4 based on his previous success against the Rockies, his season long consistency, his calm and focused approach, and the Rockies vulnerability to left-handed pitchers. And, with limitations from the left side in the bullpen, why not use him situationally in relief in the first couple games?

Pedro gets the call tonight. Although he finished the regular season limited by a neck injury, he has the pitching pedigree and big game credentials to come up big. The frigid weather will be a factor and some are concerned whether it will hurt Martinez's finesse. If he falters, Blanton will be waiting in the wings. If the game is postponed, Manuel might very well opt for Happ, Lee and Hamels as starters over the balance of the series.

Lets give Manuel and the Phillies credit for taking into account the circumstances and being creative towards positioning themselves for success. Importantly, the manager has the full confidence and support of his players. They trust him and even more importantly, they are all focused on winning as a team and willing to take on whatever role is needed to successfully defend their title.

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