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. 

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