Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hail to the Prince? Fielder Bests King Cole

Innings two through seven were ever-so-kind to Cole Hamels, but it was the bookends, innings one and eight, that did him in. Hamels gave up five runs, four of which came on two Prince Fielder home runs, and the Phillies snapped their three game winning streak, losing 5-4 in Milwaukee.

Hamels got off to a rocky start, as Rickie Weeks and Gabe Kapler started the game with back-to-back doubles. Then, after a Ryan Braun pop-out, Fielder crushed a ball to right for his second home run of the season and a 3-0 Brewers lead. Corey Hart followed with a single, but after that Hamels settled into a groove. He would only give up one hit between the Hart single and the start of the eighth inning.

Meanwhile, the Phillies offense started off a bit sluggish, but Chase Utley put the Phils on the board in the third with a solo shot to center field. It was Utley's Major League-leading tenth homer on the year and his seventh in as many games. Later, in the top of the fifth, Greg Dobbs hit a two-run shot that tied the game at 3 runs apiece. Then Pat Burrell led off the next inning with a home run of his own, his eighth, giving the Phillies a 4-3 lead and a chance at another comeback win.

Hamels set down the Brewers in order in the bottom of the seventh and could have been done for the night. Correction, he should have been done for the night. After seven innings, Hamels had thrown 110 pitches and with a relatively fresh bullpen, Manuel could have easily gone to any of J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon, or Chad Durbin. Instead, he channeled his inner Dusty Baker and let Hamels hang around for one more. The result? Braun led off with a double and Fielder hit his second home run of the day, putting the Brewers in front 5-4.

As if he were watching the game on tape delay, Manuel finally made the sign to bring Durbin in after Fielder circled the bases. Durbin did exactly what he's done all year for the Phillies: put runners on, but didn't allow any to score, and kept it a one-run ballgame.

In a somewhat surprising move, Derrick Turnbow, one of the many closers-turned-middle relievers on the Brewers, came in to close out the Phillies in the ninth. Turnbow entered the game with an ERA over 9.00, but the Phillies had the 8-9-1 hitters due up, so the lead seemed somewhat secure. Brewers Manager Ned Yost didn't have much of a choice anyway, as they were coming off last night's twelve-inning win over the Cardinals, in which Eric Gagne blew the save in the ninth and needed 27 pitches to do it. Turnbow was one of the few who did not have to pitch yesterday, so he was the logical choice.

Even with logic on his side, the Phillies gave Turnbow all he could handle. Eric Bruntlett started the inning with a ten-pitch at-bat that ended in a strikeout, but then So Taguchi drew a pinch hit walk. With Jayson Werth at the plate and one out, Taguchi took off for second. Jason Kendall's throw went awry and Taguchi made his way to third. Werth had a great chance to tie the game, with a runner on third and one out, but Turnbow struck him out in another lengthy at-bat. Pedro Feliz stepped to the plate representing the Phillies final chance, but he grounded out in short order and that was the game.

I like to think I've been relatively easy on Manuel for the most part this season, but all the blame here has to go to him. Yes, Hamels was on a roll coming into the eighth, but after 110 pitches and with the heart of the order coming up, why not go to the bullpen? If I didn't know better, I would've thought the Phillies were coming off a twelve-inning game as well because what other reason could Manuel have had for not going to Romero here? It's likely that Hamels pleaded his case to Manuel to keep him in the game, but regardless the manager has to execute better judgment in this situation.

Another issue, once again, is the defensive substitutions. Feliz and T.J. Bohn both entered the game in the later innings, replacing Dobbs and Burrell, respectively. The Feliz move is reasonable, as he is a capable hitter (arguably better than Dobbs even if this year's numbers don't reflect it) and there was a left-handed pitcher on the mound when he first came in, but the Bohn one makes no sense.

The logic, if you can call it that, is that when leading, you want a stronger outfield defense than is possible with Burrell in left. In theory that sounds good. In practice it only helps you if the ball happens to be hit somewhere within Bohn's range and beyond Burrell's. Most of the time the difference in range is negligible, as was the case tonight. Braun and Fielder both hit to right field and Fielder's bomb would have taken Michael Bourn with a jet-pack to reel it in. And even that wouldn't have been enough if Super Bourn had been in LEFT FIELD.

It might seem like I'm nitpicking here. As mentioned, the balls were hit to right field and Bohn didn't register an at-bat. While both are true, Bohn could have easily gotten up in a clutch situation. (Sure, he delivered last night, but who would you rather have up with the game on the line: Bohn or Burrell?) Had Feliz gotten a base hit and tied the game in the ninth, the next three batters would have been Utley, Ryan Howard, and, you got it, Bohn.

With a right-handed pitcher on the mound and the hottest hitter on the planet up, what do you think the Brewers do? Probably walk Utley. Then comes Howard, who is giving the Mendoza line more of a fight than he is to most pitchers right now, but he's still a former MVP. If Burrell's in the game, they pitch to Howard and perhaps even Utley, knowing what looms on deck. But with Bohn, why not intentionally walk, or at least pitch around, both Utley and Howard to take on the right-handed hitter with 16 career at-bats? We've seen it before, both this year and last, but Manuel steadfastly refuses to let Burrell stay in any game where the Phillies have a lead, no matter how small.

To make a basketball analogy (it is playoff time after all), this is roughly the equivalent of the Suns removing Amare Stoudemire in favor of Brian Skinner with forty-five seconds left in a game in which the Suns lead by five points, except Stoudemire can't be subbed back in. In theory, that should work out fine. Skinner is a better defender, so his defense should keep the other team from coming back and Skinner's offensive deficiencies shouldn't matter because all the Suns have to do is keep the other team from scoring five points in forty-five seconds The only way this move makes any sense is if the opposing team is practically guaranteed to give the ball to whoever Skinner is guarding, putting his defense to the test.

But what if the opposition avoids Skinner altogether, whether by design or by chance? Then what was the point of the substitution? Now what if the opposing team cuts into the lead or even ties the game? Wouldn't it be better to have Stoudemire out there to possible score a bucket or two and provide some breathing room? Even worse, what if the game goes to overtime and Brian Skinner is your power forward for the duration? And what if this happened game after game after game to the point that some Suns blogger asked an entire paragraph of questions in frustration?

If Mike D'Antoni followed this course of action (provided that the NBA rules changed to make substitutions permanent) he would be run out of town in a hurry. Maybe the basketball comparison isn't perfect, but it helps to bring to light a ridiculous strategical maneuver. One which might not have cost the Phillies this game, but has and will cost them many others.


Jonesy said...

The simple answer, which eludes Pat Gillick, is to try and find a player who has both the defensive chops Charlie wants in left field but also has the ability to not make you want to crap your pants with terror if they come up in a big spot. Surely, there most be someone who can fill that role on the bench. Michael Bourn, perhaps?

Brian Raab said...

Much as I love Bourn, he created the same problems last year. Unless the pitcher was nice/stupid and pitched around him, he was a disaster hitting fifth.