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. 

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