Friday, October 29, 2010

An Open Letter to the Phillies' Jayson Werth and Ruben Amaro

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth catches a foul ball hit by San Francisco Giants' Cody Ross in the fourth inning during Game 6 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in Philadelphia October 23, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Dear Jayson and Ruben,

As you well know, the past few years have been a very special time for the Philadelphia Phillies and its loyal fanbase. 

Four division titles, three trips to the NLCS, two National League Pennants, and a World Series ring is the type of remarkable success that has not been common place in this city? Every game is a playoff atmosphere with standing room only crowds filling arguably the best venue in all of sports. 

Baseball pundits and fans have debated whether this is the best era in team history— or even in Philly sports altogether. The "dynasty" word was being tossed around pretty freely, but regrettably has been shelved for now with the Phillies premature postseason exit this year. 

I think you could both agree that the Phillies still have some unfinished business. 

Ruben, it surely won't help the cause if Jayson is wearing a different uniform next season.

Some argue that top prospect Domonic Brown is waiting in the wings, and that this is part of baseball's natural order.  Although he showed some flashes, Brown's three-month tour with the big club highlighted that he's probably not quite ready for prime time. 

And importantly, he swings from the left-side. After the way the Giants lined up lefties in the NLCS to shut down the Phillies left leaning lineup, tipping the scales further in that direction clearly wouldn't improve the team's championship aspirations.

Left field in 2012 sounds just about right.

A lineup with Brown replacing Jayson in 2011 would likely have Charlie Manuel asking for volunteers to move to the right-side to balance things out like a US Airways Express flight attendant.  

Besides providing an important right-handed threat amongst the left-handed sluggers, Jayson contributes to winning in so many other ways. 

His athleticism, instincts and rocket-launcher arm make him one of the best right-fielders in baseball. He gets on base a lot, and then possesses the speed, aggressiveness, and hustle to freely move around them. 

Did I mention that Jayson is the National League's all-time postseason leader in home runs? For a team setting its annual goal to win it all, isn't having proven big game performers critically important? 

He is a true gamer whose total contributions sometimes only show up on the stat sheets in the win column. Additionally, keying in on a non-Sabermetric stat, he ranks very high in "cool" factor.

Jayson had it right when he said a few weeks ago, "Why mess with a winning formula?"

And, Jayson, it is very doubtful that you can replicate the electric atmosphere of Citizen's Bank Park, not to mention the tremendous camaraderie and chemistry with your teammates.  

Speaking of the baseball stadium, wouldn't you agree that it is pretty much ideal for a player of your skills?

You are a perfect fit for this club and this city. And they are a perfect fit for you. 

Why would you want to mess with a winning formula? Why not choose to remain as a key component of something very special that will be recognized in this town for generations to come?

You will be financially set for life with your next contract— here or elsewhere. Why accept anything less than the ideal situation— namely Philadelphia. 

I suspect the past few years have been among, if not the best times in your life. Why walk away from more of the same for a little extra money?

Wouldn't you miss all your close friends in The Bank's right field bleachers? Why risk a case of writer's cramp sending out postcards to stay in touch?

Let's face it, Ruben and Jayson, you need each other. And, Phillies teammates and fans need you to need each other.

So, how can we work this out?

Jayson, although it might not be in your agent's DNA, perhaps you could whisper in his ear to negotiate nicely with the Phillies because they are like family. Tell him that RAJ didn't really intend to make you look bad when he mentioned that RISP stuff. 

After all, didn't the Phillies take a risk on you when others wouldn't and then provide the perfect surroundings for you to flourish? That sounds like family to me.
And, how about telling that agent you're up for a hometown discount? 

Ruben, think about how difficult it would be to fill the gaping hole in the lineup and in right when it comes time to negotiate. 

Remember, too, there's nothing wrong with being creative. A trade here, a future expiring contract there, a deferred payment here, an advertising rate bump there— and you might be able to sell it up the line.  

Consider also that Jayson had something to do with those 100-plus consecutive sellouts. Fans are willing to pay to see winning teams, especially those comprised of winning, likable players with a work ethic. 

He's not going to come cheap, but isn't he worth it? (Or, if you prefer, Werth it?) Proven five-tool players are hard to come by— lets not let him go the way of Cliff Lee. 

Surely, seeing the Giants players dancing on the field last week has to make both of you want to take another crack at getting it right next year. Heck, a few more rings could fit on those hands, so why stop there?

Can't we do this together? Lets finish business the way it was intended. 


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Best Team Ever Heads Home for a Long, Cold Winter

San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Brian Wilson (L) and catcher Buster Posey celebrate as Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard struck out in the ninth inning as the Giants win the National League pennant in Game 6 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in Philadelphia, October 23, 2010. REUTERS/Bill Kostroun (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Without the benefit of a Farmer's Almanac or sophisticated meteorological computer modeling, it is clear that it will be a long, cold winter in Philadelphia.  

The San Francisco Giants ensured as much when they defeated the Phillies last night to wrest away the National League Pennant that had been in their possession for two years.  Regrettably, the Phillies also helped to ensure that with their own continuing inability to generate runs in the postseason. 

Last season's playoff hitting star Ryan Howard stood frozen, unable to pull the trigger on a Brian Wilson 3-2 cutter that barely touched the bottom edge of the strike zone. After a pregnant pause that suspended an entire fanbase, home plate umpire Tom Hallion rung up Howard to end the Phillies two year NL reign. 

The strikeout that left two runners stranded will be replayed for generations to come. It also aptly symbolizes the Phillies disappointing 2010 postseason performance.  

Despite having a high profile and seemingly high power offense, the Phillies simply could not push runs across the plate. They could not come through with big hits or even score runners from third when all they needed to do was put a ball in play. 

The night started with great promise as the team seemed to finally find their missing mojo. Chase Utley's ringing double into the right field corner and Jayson Werth's warning track sacrifice fly staked them to a 2-0 lead in the first. 

Then, it was radio silence the rest of the way. The Phillies reverted back to 2010 form, unable to push another run across the dish with the entire season on the line.

The first inning evoked deja vu that hearkened back to the 2008 and 2009 championship teams. It appeared as if the bats had broken out of their slumber and the Phillies were primed to play to expectations. 

The 2010 postseason reality quickly kicked back in, however, when a "shoulda-woulda-coulda" top half of the third allowed the Giants to even the score. Utley whiffed on grounder that appeared within his reach, Victorino couldn't quite hang on to make a Willie Mays replica catch, and Polanco threw away a swinging bunt.  

Next, a promising bottom half of the inning started with a walk and yet another hit batter. After Utley flipped the ball back to the mound when it caromed back after drilling him just below the neck, Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez went ballistic. 

Isn't the batter who took the heater in the spine the one entitled to be annoyed? 

Sanchez's actions touched off a bench clearing scrum that allowed valuable time for Jeremy Affeldt to get loose in the pen. After the field cleared, Bruce Bochy replaced the rattled Sanchez with Affeldt, who promptly extinguished the rally. 

Giants hurlers worked into trouble over the balance of the game, but Phillies hitters could never cash in.

The Phillies appeared that they were going to breakthrough with two outs in the fifth when Howard lined a double to left center with Rollins on first. Third base coach Sam Polazzo somewhat shockingly held Rollins on what would have been a close play, but one in which the speedy shortstop typically crosses the plate with the certainty of death and taxes.   

In the sixth, the Phils were knocking on the door again when Ibanez doubled to left to start the frame and was moved over by a Ruiz bunt. After working a 2-0 count, pinch hitter Ben Francisco missed a couple hittable pitches before taking a called third strike. The looping curve ball appeared to be high and wide, but as Howard learned later, swinging at anything close was an advisable approach with two strikes. 

After both teams took turns leaving men on base for a long stretch, Juan Uribe jumped on Ryan Madson's first pitch fastball with two outs in the eighth and lofted a high fly ball to right that had just enough carry to reach the seats. The Citizens Bank Park crowd was suddenly silenced as the Giants took a 3-2 lead. 

Bochy called on Thursday's losing pitcher Tim Lincecum. After surrendering singles to Victorino and Ibanez with one out, his night was done. Wilson trotted in with his crazed closer act and got extremely lucky when Carlos Ruiz lined into a double play.  

Brad Lidge loaded the bases in the ninth, but got Wilson to bounce out to maintain the one run deficit.  The stage was set for one last ditch effort to rally to keep the Phillies season alive. 

With one out, Rollins walked, but was erased on Polanco's fielder's choice.  Utley worked another walk, putting the Phillies 2010 season into the hands of their cleanup hitter who had yet to record an RBI in either playoff series. 

Howard lingered in disbelief after being rung up, while Wilson celebrated himself with his signature ritual. Giants players rushed to the center of the field to celebrate their large upset and a trip to the "Fall Classic." 

The winningest team in baseball, the odds-on favorite, and the Phillies' most talented team ever had fallen short of its goal and expectations. 

A season so full of promise was prematurely over. A marvelously talented and highly appealing team was exiting the big stage before the final act. 

All that remains is a cruel winter of wondering what went wrong and what could have been for the Phillies players, coaches, front office, and fans.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I'm Just Saying….2010 NLCS Edition

Random rants, thoughts, and observations.

  • Has Pat Burrell officially worn out his welcome in Philadelphia with his expletive-laced rant directed towards new hometown hero Roy Halladay in Game 5? It was especially odd to see Burrell complaining about a strike call since it has appeared all series that he had incriminating photographs of the home plate umpires. How many times has he taken what appeared to be strikes and then confidently trotted down to first instead of back to the dugout? And, his big double in Game 1 never should have happened since he was already out on strikes— at least once in that at bat. 
  • What happened to last year's NLCS batting hero Ryan Howard? He is too good to have zero home runs or RBI in the 2010 postseason. It makes you think of what the late Richie Ashburn used to say, "Somebody's going to pay."
  • Along the same lines, it stands to reason that Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, and Jimmy Rollins are ready to bust out along with Howard. It has to happen sooner or later, doesn't it? J Roll has surely been flirting with it. 
  • Was Tim Lincecum the artist with lady hair on all those commercials UPS used to run? If not, maybe it was his dad.
  • Speaking of Lincecum and Burrell, did their classless trash talking tirades in Game 5 ignite a spark within the Phillies clubhouse?
  • The Texas Rangers ALCS clinching win last night sets up the potential storybook script that would have World Series TV ratings skyrocketing should the Phillies advance. It doesn't get any better than a Cliff Lee versus Roy Halladay opener. Now, the Phillies just need to win a couple games and Halladay needs to make a quick recovery.  
  • Can umpires fall into a team slump? It appears that way considering the work of the NLCS crew
    thus far. Jeff Nelson blew a clear balk call and Ross Gload being safe to start the ninth in Game
    4. Last night, the Phillies averted disaster when Sandoval missed third base after Nelson
    erroneously called Halladay's bunt fair. Derryl Cousins offered up a coffee can-sized strike zone
    in Game 1 and Wally Bell had the treacherous "Whack-A-Mole" zone in Game 4. 
  • Phillies fans need to be prepared to unleash their best Burt Hooton/CC Sabathia greeting when Jonathan Sanchez takes the mound tonight. The young lefty has enjoyed a breakout season, but has had considerable difficulty settling in during the opening frame. A deafening, anxiety inducing environment might prime the pump.  
  • Regardless of his stats and success, I wonder if Giants closer Brian "Fear the Beard" Wilson's act makes Phillies fans appreciate Brad Lidge that much more? Wilson seems to work extra hard at being bizarre. 
  • The Phillies deserve credit for not over-reacting and staying focused with the plethora of balls thrown at hitters by the Giants pitching staff. A number have connected with various body parts while many more have been aimed squarely at batter's heads. Matt Cain displayed pin point control when he wasn't aiming fastballs at the head or other body parts of Phillies batters. Lincecum seemed to take a page out of Cain's playbook with some similar headhunting tactics in Game 5. Winning is the only priority for the Phillies, but it might be nice to see some Giants similarly eat some dirt along the way. 
  • Considering Cain's tactics in Game 3 and his previous lack of success against them, the Phillies would surely welcome the opportunity for some sweet revenge against him in a Game 7. 
  • Although he has gotten better, Fox broadcaster and former Steve Carlton caddy Tim McCarver still seems intent on making every telecast into a Little League instructional clinic. 
  • It would be interesting to be at the Yankees spring training next year when Cliff Lee sees Steve Swisher for the first time.
  • Jose Contreras has been a great bargain basement pickup for the Phillies this season. Besides "The Big Three," Contreras and Madson evoke the most confidence when I see them take the mound. Any takers for Danys Baez so the Phils could afford to resign the hulking Cuban right-hander?
  • To his credit, Baez has put aside any personal disappointment of not being included on the postseason roster and remained a positive influence in the clubhouse. If he remains on the club next season, perhaps this year's experience will further motivate him to harness his greater potential. 
  • Will Bruce Bochy elect to return Pablo Sandoval to the bench after his shaky performance in the field? That would be fine with me as, despite a down year, he is still one of the Giants scariest hitters. 
  • Who would have known that an aspiring rodeo clown could create so much anxiety for an entire city? 
  • Thursday night, Jayson Werth clubbed his 13th home run in 43 postseason games, including 7 last season. He also gunned down Codeo Ross at third base to deflate a potential rally. Letting him walk via free agency would leave a very large hole in right field  and from the right-side in the lineup. The Phillies need to find a way to keep him…I'm just saying. 

Opportunity Knocks For Phillies to Prove Greatness in the NLCS

Philadelphia Phillies closing pitcher Brad Lidge (3rd L) celebrates with teammates after they defeated the San Francisco Giants during Game 5 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in San Francisco, October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

A mark of a great team is its ability to overcome adversity to achieve success. The 2010 Philadelphia Phillies have surely faced an ample portion of challenges this season with a disabled list transaction report that reads like an MLB "Who's Who" list. 

The team has already proved to be tremendously resilient by turning a two-games over .500 mid-season record into the best record in baseball with a remarkable 49-19 finish.

While many were contemplating writing off the season as a year of bad fortune, the entire Phillies organization remained resolute in their capabilities and optimistic for a successful outcome. No one panicked, no one baled. 

After trailing the Atlanta Braves by seven games just a couple months earlier, the Phillies won the NL Eastern Division going away. Their season ending tally of 97 wins and a rare as Halley's Comet NL All-Star game victory gave them home field advantage throughout the postseason. 

With the "Big Three" anchoring perhaps the best lineup in baseball, odds-makers pegged them as the favorites to win it all heading into the October tourney that spills into November for each league's best team.

Although they looked a little rusty in spots, the Phillies quickly dispensed the Cincinnati Reds 3-0 in the NLDS. As further validation to the oddsmakers, the "Big Three" produced a historic no-hitter in the opener and a brilliant five-hit shutout in the series clincher. 

The team's next destination was a third consecutive trip to the NLCS, this time to face the upstart San Francisco Giants. 

Somewhat surprisingly, that trip found them in a 3-1 hole after four games and facing the possibility of a winter of wondering what could have been. The Phillies were on the brink of elimination.  

It has turned into a potential microcosm of their whole season.  Of course, for that to happen, the Phillies would need to battle back to win the NLCS. 

On Thursday night, the Phillies took one large step in that direction. A 4-2 victory over two-time defending Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum in enemy territory kept them alive and restored home field advantage. 

Somewhat fitting to their seasonal journey, the Phillies' ace of aces, Roy Halladay suffered a groin pull early in the contest and clearly did not display his typical dominating stuff. Also, fittingly, he battled his way through to maintain a narrow 3-2 lead after six innings.

And, perhaps keeping with the script, Jimmy Rollins finally seemed to shake off a lingering hamstring injury that has compromised his running ability through the playoffs. In the seventh inning, seeing J Roll steal second and third base had to hearten his teammates and Phillies fans alike. 

The bullpen came up big with some of its best work all season over the final three innings. Additionally, Jayson Werth provided a huge insurance run with an opposite field homer in the ninth. 

Earlier in the game, Werth gunned down Phillies nemesis Cody Ross at third with a Dave Parkeresque frozen rope from right. Besides helping Halladay escape a jam, the play may have taken a little edge off Cody's magic over the Phillies. 

Of course, two more large challenges remain if the Phillies want to be the first National League team in 66-years to appear in three consecutive World Series. 

Tonight, Roy Oswalt takes the hill in hope of advancing the team to game seven. A revved-up Citizen's Bank Park crowd will be there to offer ample encouragement. 

Should the Phillies win, 2008 postseason hero Cole Hamels is waiting in the wings for Sunday. By then, the electricity at "The Bank" might be enough to power the entire Tri-state area.

Meanwhile, Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers will be looking on, awaiting their 2010 World Series opponent. 

The stage is set.  Opportunity knocks for the Phillies to show their true greatness. 

After fighting their way through adversity all season, a similar course in the postseason would provide further evidence that this is truly a great team. Coming back from a 3-1 NLCS deficit to prevail would only serve to enhance the argument. 

It won't be easy facing a Giants team with its own talented pitching staff and a seemingly unending arsenal of interchangeable parts. Importantly, they also possess a belief that they can win. 

With due respect to the Giants, the Phillies also possess that same belief. This Phillies team is, in fact, a truly special club— and this weekend could go a long way towards demonstrating that further. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bad Decisions Could Cost the Phillies a Championship

Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel waits for make up game against the Colorado Rockies to begin at Coors Field on September 2, 2010 in Denver. The Phillies lead the NL Wild Card race.   UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

There is no doubt that the Philadelphia Phillies have struggled to hit this postseason. And, the San Francisco Giants deserve a lot of credit for their strong pitching and overall 25-man team play. 

Those truths cannot be denied, but ultimately some bad decisions could prove to be the Phillies downfall this season. High hopes— justified high hopes at that— for another World Series Championship may have been lost in the rubble of the Giants Game 4 walk-off win. 

The decisions in question occurred both pre-game and in-game.  The Phillies showed some life by battling back a couple times, but ultimately the most regrettable decision came back to haunt them. 

After the game, Game 4 starting pitcher Joe Blanton described it this way- "We didn't really lose. We just ran out of innings."

Perhaps it was this same convoluted math and reasoning that led Manuel to trust the start to a rusty Blanton with his team down 2-1 in the NLCS and arguably baseball's best pitcher ready to take the ball. 

Although Blanton had been listed as the tentative Game 4 starter, the Phillies probably never attached much likelihood of finding themselves in this position. Confidence ran high that "The Big Three" would provide the upper hand after three games. 

Unfortunately, someone failed to provide the script to Cody Ross and company. 

After the Giants greeted the Phillies in San Francisco with a three-hit shutout on Tuesday, it was time to rethink the original plan. Considering that the Giants ranked first in pitching during the regular season and possessed a 2.11 ERA in the postseason, it was reasonable to assume that the Phillies would need to out-duel them to win. 

The Phillies acquired Roy Halladay to be the team's stopper and provide an indomitable force at the top of the rotation. The organization's sights have clearly been on winning another championship and Halladay was the perfect work horse to lead that effort. 

The Phillies' series deficit with two more games in the city and stadium by the bay against a Giants team growing in confidence called for a revised plan. 

It was time to call on Halladay to pitch Game 4 and Game 7, if necessary. It was also time to call on the other two H2O hurlers to demonstrate its "Big Three" moniker in crunch time.

All three have had a great deal of extra rest over the past three weeks. And, perhaps more importantly, they have all winter to rest. 

The Phillies could ill afford to back themselves into a corner that would require Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels to win out against three talented Giants pitchers. They also could ill afford to further feed the Giants belief that they could pull off a big NLCS upset. 

Unfortunately, that's today's reality. 

Manuel stuck with Blanton, who battled for 4 2/3 innings with what appeared to be batting practice stuff. After a 20-day layoff, the burly right-hander had little juice on his fastball and little precision on his curve ball. 

He gave the Giants a run in the first by repeatedly bouncing balls in the dirt. He committed a cardinal sin of pitching by walking a badly slumping Andres Torres to lead off the fifth after the Phillies had rallied in the top half to give him a 4-2 lead- who, of course, scored. 

Blanton's fastball was generally being clocked at 87-88 mph, but dipped to 86 mph in the fifth. With very little movement and little else to fool hitters, it seemed a matter of time before Giants hitters really squared some balls up. 

Blanton is a competitor, and has a history of solid pitching after the year hits the mid-point. But to paraphrase a famous political quotation— I know Roy Halladay, and he is no Roy Halladay. 

We will never truly know, but the likelihood of the Phillies sitting even at 2-2 today had Halladay pitched seem pretty high. And, even pitching on short rest, the odds of "The Big Three" taking two of three would still seem to be in the Phillies favor. 

Once the game started yesterday, the Phillies compounded the problem with some smaller decisions that proved regrettable.     

With acknowledgement of the club's offensive anemia, it was still a poor decision to send Carlos Ruiz home in the Phillies fifth with Chase Utley on deck. Center fielder Aaron Rowand got to Shane Victorino's single quickly and was in shallow center.

In the Giants sixth, Ross keyed a rally by hitting yet another middle-in fastball that the Phillies continue to feed him. As broadcaster Joe Buck commented, the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing and expect a different result. 

Then, Pablo Sandoval roped a two-run double off a pitch that should have never been called. Letter high 89 mph fastballs tend to land in the seats or bounce off a wall. 

And, most painfully, the decision to call for a Roy Oswalt change-up after pumping fastballs past injured Juan Uribe was a decision that ended in "sudden death" in the contest. Uribe was able to get around on the off-speed pitch enough to lift a walk-off sacrifice fly to left.  

The decisions have been made and there is no going back. The Giants have a 3-1 series lead and can close things out tonight within the friendly surroundings of AT&T Park. 

The series is still not over until one team wins four games and this Phillies team will not quit, especially with "The Big Three" lined up to do battle. Even so, the odds are now against them, particularly since the Giants will trot out their own "Big Three" to oppose them. 

The Phillies and their fans cannot revise history, so the only viable approach is to latch onto the cliches and conventional wisdom such as "taking one game at a time." But still, unless the Phillies can beat the odds, the gnawing feeling will persist for many years to come that it didn't have to turn out this way.

Manuel has been a great choice to lead this club and has been a big part of the current era success. It seems that he missed the mark here, though. 

This Phillies team was positioned better than any team in its long history to win a Championship. A decision not to ride the team's biggest strength, though— its trio of aces— could haunt its stakeholders for a long, long time.  

Right now, the team and its fanbase are left to hope that Charlie's math and logic prevails. The Phillies simply need to win four games to advance to the World Series— and it does not matter which ones. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Playing Phillies Manager: Four Moves for NLCS Game 4 and Beyond

Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel (41) relieves starting pitcher Joe Blanton (R) in the fifth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 2, 2010 in Denver. The Phillies lead the NL Wild Card race.   UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel has played things pretty much straight up over the past two postseasons and has two NL Pennants and a World Series ring to show for it. With his team finding itself down two games to one and the next two contests in AT&T Park, the time is right to veer from previous course. 

San Franciso Giants manager Bruce Bochy adjusted his lineup for Game 3 and it paid large dividends. 

Moving certified Phillies killer Cody Ross up to the five hole put him in position to drive in the games first, and ultimate winning run. The line single to left plated non-prototypical leadoff hitter Edgar Renteria, who had started the rally. 

And, former Phil Aaron Rowand got his first start of the postseason in place of Andres Torres, who has provided nothing offensively other than a breeze from his empty whiffs. Rowand, of course, responded with a double and later scored to extend the Giants lead to 3-0. 

Any notion that Jimmy Rollins might have kick started the Phillies offense with his bases loaded double on Sunday night was quickly dismissed with another moribund postseason showing. 

Yes, Matt Cain is pretty good, but the Phillies have owned him prior to his two-hit, no run work over seven innings yesterday. He was 0-3 with a 6.23 ERA against the Phillies coming into the game. 

Cain, Javier Lopez, and the anti-Beach Boy Brian Wilson combined to shutout the Phillies on three hits. They seemingly alternated between striking out Phillies hitters and getting them to hit routine ground balls to second baseman Freddy Sanchez.  

The time has come for Manuel to change things up to perhaps trigger a spark or avoid digging a bigger hole. Here are four suggestions for tonight's game that could make a difference. 

Make Roy Halladay the Surprise Starter

Manuel and his braintrust mapped out a plan prior to the start of the NLCS that called for a pitching rotation of "The Big Three" and then Joe Blanton with an asterisk. The manager was reserving the right to adjust his Game 4 starter based on circumstances. 

Apparently the asterisk was only meant to come into play if the Phillies trailed 3-0 since Manuel has decided to stick with "Big Joe." After yesterday's game, the manager confirmed that Blanton would be tonight's starter.

Manuel needs to pull an Andy Reid, say "never mind" and pencil Roy Halladay's name onto the lineup card before tonight's game. This is exactly one of the reasons the Phillies were so intent on acquiring the future 2010 Cy Young winner. 

Halladay wants the ball, has pitched successfully on three days rest, and thrives on these types of situations. Meanwhile, Blanton has not started in 20 days.    

With a 2-1 series deficit, it's no time to risk poisoning H2O with gasoline.  

To be fair, Blanton has pitched well in previous postseasons and did some good work down the stretch. However, the combination of the Phillies offensive struggles and the Giants Major League leading pitching staff allows little wiggle room. 

Spotting two or three runs to the Giants in the first, like Blanton has tended to do this season, could be fatal to the Phillies hopes of evening the series tonight. 

If Halladay pitches tonight, he would also be available for a Game 7. Roy Oswalt, who has pitched on three days rest before, could match up against Lincecum tomorrow night. 

Concerns exist whether Cole Hamels could be effective on short rest since he has never done it before. Manuel will never know unless he gives him the chance.

All three pitchers have gotten extra rest over the past three weeks, so a game or two on short rest should definitely be doable. 

Replace Raul Ibanez with Ben Francisco

Raul Ibanez is struggling mightily this postseason. He is hitting just .130 with 0 RBI. 

It seems if he hasn't been striking out, he has been hitting into a double play. Ibanez finished the season strong after a substandard first half, but finds himself scuffling once again. 

Giving him a day off against lefty Madison Bumgarner in favor of Ben Francisco seems in order. When asked yesterday, Manuel cited Francisco's lack of playing time as a key reason not to make the switch. 

This runs counter to his line of thinking regarding his starting pitchers. Although he has not had any plate appearances in the playoffs, Francisco was swinging a hot bat in the last week of the regular season. 

Besides, I thought he owned this town?

Bat Rollins First and Victorino Third

The Giants' mix of lefties and righties in the bullpen caused Manuel to switch Utley and Polanco in the order. This made sense to complicate Bochy's ability to double up on Utley and Howard with a left-handed reliever. 

Watching yesterday, it seemed apparent that Bochy did not fear Polanco enough to remove the side-winding Javier Lopez. Polly hits for average, but his lack of power makes him worth taking the risk. 

Conversely, Victorino has enough pop to make him think twice about that tactic, especially from the right-side. Also, his speed in front of Howard and Werth might create enough distraction to buy them a pitch to drive. 

Here is how tonight's lineup should look:


Take the Plate Back

Yesterday, Cain repeatedly backed Phillies players off the plate. He fired pitches at the heads of Rollins, Utley, and Hamels. 

The headhunting right-hander also fired a fastball into the ribs of Victorino, plunked Ruiz and hit Utley in the knee, although that was missed by the umpiring crew.  

Otherwise, he had pinpoint control. His methodology was pretty obvious, yet it went largely unchecked by the umpires and Phillies pitchers. 

The only way to prevent the Giants, and Mr. Cain, to continue using the same tactics is to fire a few message pitches under the chin themselves. This is not to advocate hurting anyone, but to simply even the scales of intimidation. 

If Giants pitchers are going to throw at Phillies batter's heads, then a few messages need to be sent that those pitchers and their teammates need to stay loose in the batter's box as well. 

Let's hope that Charlie has a few words with his staff before the game tonight. Perhaps the best way to gauge the Phillies fight over the next couple games will be to look at the seats of Giants' players pants. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

The 10 Key Factors That Will Determine the 2010 NLCS

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Roy Halladay smiles while speaking during a news conference before practice for the NLCS MLB baseball series in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 15, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

The 2010 National League Championship has some compelling story lines. 

The Philadelphia Phillies seek to be the first team in 66 years to win three consecutive NL Championships. They also look to move one step closer to staking their place amongst baseball's greatest teams.

While Philly concentrates on continuing its current era's success, the San Francisco Giants are looking to bring the Bay City it's first World Series Championship. 

Since each team clinched early in the week, most of the talk has centered on the series marquee match-up of starting pitchers— and for good reason. Each club sports a "Big Three" unrivaled by any other teams in baseball. 

Tomorrow night's opening game pitching match-up is being billed as the best ever in NLCS history— and for good reason. Besides a dramatic contrast in style, "Doc" versus "The Freak" should provide tremendous theatre to kick-off the NLCS.

Surely these two pitchers and their starting staff cohorts will play a key role in the series, but the outcome will be influenced by many other key factors. 

Also looking a little beyond the bright spotlight that will surround the Citizens Bank Park mound tomorrow evening, here are the 10 key factors that will determine the 2010 NLCS:

How will the closers perform?

The closers on these two teams followed divergent paths over the first half of the 2010 season. 

Giants closer, Brian Wilson was the model of consistency, earning his second All-Star berth in three years. Meanwhile, Brad Lidge continued to be an adventure from game to game.

After the break, however, both pitchers experienced some turbulence at the end of July that raised some concerns. Each pitcher also responded very favorably, offering his best work over the balance of the season.

The free-spirited Wilson went on to record 18 saves with a 0.95 ERA. He finished the year with a Major League leading 48 saves.

In Philly, the straight-shooting Lidge erased the question marks by converting 17 of 18 save opportunities and recording a minuscule 0.73 ERA. He was shutdown a couple times during the year due to a balky knee and elbow, but finished the season with 27 saves and a respectable 2.96 ERA.

Wilson throws harder and has displayed better command over the past couple of seasons. Conversely, Lidge's velocity is down a few mph and he can struggle to throw strikes.

Although both pitchers had highly similar resumes down the stretch, Wilson seems to be a surer bet. In order for the Phillies to win, they will need Lidge to perform similarly to Wilson as he did in the stretch run. 

Manufacturing runs and capitalizing with runners in scoring position.

The Giants formula for success has been to scratch out enough runs to make their   Major League leading pitching stand-up. In contrast, the Phillies feature a highly balanced team that combines strong pitching and offense. 

While they have improved from a year ago, San Francisco still only ranked ninth in scoring in the National League in 2010. The team's lineup has had a substantial makeover in the past 15 months which took them from playoff contender to World Series contender. 

Considering the Giants highly formidable pitching staff, taking advantage of scoring opportunities and playing "small ball" will surely be important to the Phillies in this series— but it will be absolutely critical to San Francisco.

Philadelphia possesses greater quick strike potential with its potent, American League style lineup. Additionally, the Phillies have much better team speed. 

In order to have a chance to win, the Giants will need to move runners around the bases and push them across the plate with high proficiency. Failure to do so, could make for a quick exit.

Roadwork of Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and Jimmy Rollins

One of the elements that makes Philadelphia so dangerous and the odds-on favorite this postseason is its tremendous balance and versatility. They possess the rare ability to beat teams with almost any style of play.

Considering that the Giants play in spacious AT&T Park, which can be particularly unfriendly to left-handed power hitters, the Phillies home run threat will be somewhat neutralized on the road. The stadium's angles and deep right-center alley, however, are very conducive to stretching doubles into triples and taking extra bases in general. 

The Phillies can compensate for the potential loss of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Raul Ibanez big flies with the power alley strokes and base running of Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and Jimmy Rollins. 

Normally, J Roll would be well suited to exploit the AT&T Park configuration, but the lingering impact of his late-season hamstring injury has limited his explosiveness on the base paths. Strong pitching and tight games might require him to open things up a bit rather than continue with the conservative gait that he has displayed since returning to the field. 

In order to be successful on the road, it will likely require Victorino, Werth, and perhaps Rollins flying around the base paths. If the Flyin' Hawaiian is doing his thing in San Francisco, it might make the difference between winning and losing. 

Phillies are becoming postseason graybeards

It has been awhile since the Giants have participated in MLB's fall tourney— 2003 to be exact. Accordingly, the roster is a complete makeover from that squad built around the video game-esque hitting exploits of Barry Bonds. 

San Francisco handled the added pressure of the playoffs well in its first round series against the Atlanta Braves. In fact, the team's hurlers were downright phenomenal, posting a 1.66 ERA in the NLDS.

The stage gets a little bigger and the spotlight a little brighter, though, in the NLCS. 
Save a Pat Burrell or Juan Aribe, this a new experience to most of the players on the Giants roster. 

Conversely, the Phillies are looking to parlay their third consecutive trip to the NLCS into a third straight World Series appearance. 

One of the Giants best hitters this season has been rookie Buster Posey, and their stellar starting rotation is extremely young. It remains to be seen how these young players will react to swimming in uncharted waters. 

Having "been there and done that" provides a definite edge to the team in red, but surely many upstart teams have successfully navigated their way to the "Fall Classic" throughout baseball's history.  

Aces Wild— which team will have the trump card?

Roy Halladay,Tim Lincecum.  Roy Oswalt, Jonathan Sanchez. Cole Hamels, Matt Cain. 

The 2010 NLCS features some of baseball's best postseason pitching match-ups in a long time. 

The opening game pits one hurler coming off a dominant performance that had hitters struggling to simply make contact— against another who was literally un-hittable. "The Freak" versus "Doc."

Two-time-defending Cy Young winner Lincecum whiffed 14 Braves batters in his NLDS start after going 16-10 in the regular season and once again leading the National League in K's.  Halladay is likely to dethrone his opponent with his 21-10, 2.44 ERA regular season resume and, of course, tossed MLB's second postseason no-hitter.   
When games pit ace against ace, the difference between winning and losing can be reduced to the little things.  A couple free passes, a bloop hit, or just one bad pitch that lands in the seats can spell defeat. 

With aces abounding, dueling head-to-head— who can come up just a little bit better? Who can reach back a little bit more in a pressure situation? Who will prevail mano-a-mano? 

Can Giants lefties shutdown Philadelphia's left-handed boppers?

Conventional wisdom over the past few seasons has been for clubs to stack-up  left-handed pitchers against the Phillies left leaning line-up. Besides All-Star pitchers Lincecum and Cain, the Giants plan to send a pair of talented, young left-handers out to the mound. 

Jonathan Sanchez gets the ball in Game 2 after compiling a breakthrough season in 2010. The side-arming lefty posted a 13-9 mark and a 3.07 ERA, while striking out more than one batter per inning.

In Game 4, Madison Bumgarner gets the call after a strong rookie campaign. The 21-year old hurler posted a stingy 3.00 ERA in the regular season and the NLDS. 

Surprisingly, the Phillies broke from past tradition and actually hit better this season against southpaws. A big part of the improvement came from the club's lefty power hitters— Howard, Utley, and Ibanez. 

Consider the splits. The trio batted .274 versus left-handers, just two points lower than their mark against righties. And, the trio's one home run per 27.8 AB ratio against right-handers jumped to one per 19.5 AB against lefties. 

The numbers suggest that this tactic will provide a lesser advantage than previous seasons. Now it's a matter of seeing how it plays out on the field. 

Which Pablo Sandoval will show up?

At the end of last season, the Giants appeared to have found a new star in Pablo Sandoval. In his first season and a quarter in the "Bigs", the burly third baseman posted a .333 batting average with 28 home runs and 114 RBI.

A new hero was born in San Francisco in the form of the "Kung Fu Panda." Despite a very round physique, Sandoval could flat out hit.

After a fast start, the Panda fell on hard times. He slumped badly for three months in the middle of the season, seemed to get straightened out, and then tanked down the stretch. 

Last year's most feared hitter became this year's reserve in the postseason. Sandoval played just two of the four NLDS games, scratching out a .167 batting average with zero run production. 

If Sandoval can somehow find his swing, he could provide a tremendous boost to the Giants sluggish offense in the NLCS. 

The Tortoise and the Hare

With strong pitching on both sides, the less noticed aspects of the game often push to the forefront. Team speed could play a substantial role in this series.

The Giants have perhaps the slowest team in all of baseball. They finished dead last with 55 stolen bases and a 63 percent success rate. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum were the Phillies. Despite an array of injuries that suppressed their totals this season, they still finished fourth in the NL in stolen bases. And, importantly, they continued with their remarkable success rate, posting a Major League leading 84 percent mark. 

Of course, the impact of team speed goes beyond merely swiping bags. It plays out in fielding range, taking extra bases, and putting pressure on the opponents pitchers and defense. 

San Francisco has but one running threat in Andres Torres and is pretty much reduced to moving station-to-station around the diamond. 

Meanwhile, the presence of Victorino and Rollins on the base paths has been very disruptive over the past few seasons. Additionally, Werth and Utley are accomplished base stealers and among the league's best in getting around the base paths. 

Rollins' tenuous hamstring will likely continue to limit his base running in the NLCS. This may be a but self induced to avoid risking a relapse, but if the series or a game is on the line, we may just see J Roll throw caution to the wind. 

Phillies have a large power advantage

The 2010 numbers belie the true differential. Despite hitting just four more home runs in the regular season, the Phillies lineup possess a large power advantage over that of the Giants. 

The simple reason why the final totals were so deceivingly close can be found on the Phillies Disabled List transactions. The club's 2010 campaign was hampered by a multitude of injuries that sidelined and limited the output of six of its eight regulars. 

Philadelphia hit just 166 home runs in 2010— a huge drop from its league leading 224 total a year earlier.

When the Phillies regular starting lineup finally started to get back together down the stretch, the power output started to return to normal. With the lineup now intact for the postseason, the thunder should sound a lot more like 2009 than this injury riddled year. 

Utley, Werth, Ibanez and Rollins have all hit 30 home runs in a season. And, then there is Howard, who averaged 49 over the previous four seasons. After just Utley's home run in the NLDS, could some "Big Flies" be overdue?

Both NLDS series highlighted the importance of solid defense

Both clubs advanced to the NLCS with a little bit of help from their first round opponents. The Braves and Reds were quite magnanimous in gifting runs. 

Atlanta committed seven errors that provided three runs in a very tight, low scoring four-game series. Cincinnati took that to another level by booting seven balls in just three games, which led to six unearned runs. 

The Giants and Phillies ranked third and fourth in National League fielding, respectively. While San Francisco was more sure handed, committing ten errors less, the Phillies made more plays. 

Philadelphia had almost 200 more total chances over the course of the season. Additionally, they turned almost 42 percent more double plays. 

A key differentiator could be out field defense. The slow-footed Giants struggle to track balls down, while Victorino and Werth cover a wide territory with great athleticism. 

Victorino's terrific running stab of a Brandon Phillips drive to deep center might have provided the difference in the Phillies Game 3 clinching win. Those types of plays have come to be expected in Philly, but tend not to be common place in the Bay City. 

The Final Word

The hype about starting pitching is anything but. There is no reason to believe that these talented hurlers will not continue at a high level.

The differential, though, could be that the task got easier for Phillies pitchers— while the task for the Giants staff got much tougher.

The Reds brought an offense to the NLDS that won the "team triple crown" by leading the National League in HRs, RBI, and batting average during the regular season. Conversely, the Giants ranked ninth in scoring.

The acquisition of players during the season, however, has improved their lineup and depth, so they are better positioned to compete than what might be suggested by the numbers. 

On the flip side, the Atlanta Braves limped into the postseason. Two of it's top hitters in Martin Prado and Chipper Jones were sidelined by injury— and their offense overall struggled mightily down the stretch.

The Giants improved lineup and Major League leading pitching staff make them a formidable foe for anyone. They should be able to stay in most every game and will demonstrate the fighting spirt that brought them this far.

Ultimately, though, the Phillies have the starting pitching to match— or top them. They also have a marvelously balanced, experienced, and multi-talented team that will prove to be too much for the Giants.