Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lidge Notches Save Against His Former Club

The first time Kyle Kendrick faced Roy Oswalt, the two dueled for seven innings apiece and the Astros ace got the better of the Phillies sophomore in a 2-1 game. This game was a duel, but not between pitchers. Instead the hitters took control and the Phillies triumphed 7-5.

It didn't look to be Kendrick's day from the start, as Michael Bourn led off with a single. Bourn would get out on a Miguel Tejada fielder's choice, but Tejada scored on a Lance Berkman double off the left field wall. Left fielder Greg Dobbs, taking the place of the slumping Pat Burrell, made a valiant leaping effort at the wall, but it was all for naught as it bounced a few feet beyond his reach, allowing Tejada to score easily.

In the top of the second, the Phillies loaded the bases with no outs for Dobbs, who was unable to deliver once again, but Carlos Ruiz came through with one out and singled in a run. Kendrick and Rollins each grounded out to end the threat, but the Phillies had tied the game 1-1. However, in the bottom of the inning the Astros struck again as Brad Ausmus brought in Hunter Pence on a sacrifice fly and the Astros took a 2-1 lead.

But in the third the Phillies offense went to work. Shane Victorino singled and Chase Utley walked, bringing up the suddenly red-hot Ryan Howard. Howard doubled to left, scoring Victorino and tying the game. Pedro Feliz singled in Utley and Geoff Jenkins' fly ball scored Howard. The Phillies left the third with a 4-2 lead, and for a while the lead looked fairly safe.

Kendrick held the Astros scoreless for three straight innings (despite allowing a hit in each one) and Howard crushed an Oswalt pitch over the left field wall to extend the lead to 5-2. However, the sixth inning was anything but kind to Kendrick. He started off by hitting Carlos Lee with a pitch, followed by a Pence single. Ty Wiggington took advantage, bringing both the runners home on a double.

That sent Charlie Manuel scrambling to the bullpen, bringing in Ryan Madson to face Ausmus. (The fact that a new pitcher had to be summoned to face Ausmus and his .210 batting average shows just how much Kendrick had unraveled.) Ausmus greeted Madson with a sacrifice bunt, moving Wiggington to third with one out. With that, Madson's night was over as left-handed Geoff Blum pinch hit for Oswalt and Manuel countered with his own lefty: J.C. Romero. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Blum got the better of Romero, hitting a single to score Wiggington and tie the game, 5-5. Romero got the next two batters to keep it tied and end the inning.

Neither team could score in the seventh, though the Astros came close against Chad Durbin, as Berkman hit another double. Wesley Wright had set down the Phillies in order in the top of the inning. Then came the eighth and Astros manager Cecil Cooper opted to keep Wright in the game with Dobbs due up first. However, Manuel countered by bringing in the struggling Burrell to pinch hit against the lefty reliever and, wouldn't you know, it paid off. Burrell sent Wright's 3-2 pitch the wrong way, blasting a solo shot to left which put the Phillies up 6-5.

Fernando Nieve came in to replace Wright, but ran into trouble of his own, walking Ruiz and allowing a Jimmy Rollins single. Cooper then turned to Tim Byrdak to get out of the jam, but Utley gave the Phillies an insurance run with a two-out RBI single.

After that the game was in the hands of the surprisingly reliable Phillies bullpen. Tom Gordon pitched a perfect eighth, setting up Brad Lidge for a save opportunity against his former team. Lidge got the first two outs with relative ease, but then things got interesting. Tejada singled, bringing up the white-hot Berkman, representing the tying run. This was the first time the former teammates had squared off and it showed, on Berkman's part, as he flied out to left on a single pitch, ending the game.

Once again the Phillies won with their hitting and their bullpen, and did so despite mediocre starting pitching. The team now stands 27-22, still 1.5 games out of first place and one has to wonder whether they can win the division unless the starting pitching is significantly improved. They won today, but did so despite Kendrick rather than because of him. With the firepower in their lineup, they will win a lot of games on offense alone, but even that offense is bound to have some cold stretches. The last series with the Nationals is evidence, as they scored one run in the first two games, before exploding for twelve last night.

It's going to be very hard to go on any sort of winning streak unless the starters (Cole Hamels excluded) give a more consistent effort, or one or more of them are replaced by more reliable pitchers. Of course, it's hard to know where replacements would come from. Starting pitching is at a premium these days and the Phillies don't have much to offer in the way of prospects. Indeed, the best bet might be to gamble with minor league call-ups when they have finally seen enough of Kendrick or Adam Eaton. It worked with Kendrick last season, so perhaps they can catch lightning in a bottle once more. Of course there is no guarantee that J.A. Happ or Carlos Carrasco or whoever might get the nod would be any sort of upgrade, so for now the Phillies will have to make do with the rotation they have.

Kendrick was coming off four consecutive quality starts before his rain-delayed one inning start on May 18th, so perhaps he can turn it around. Meanwhile, Eaton's last start was a good one, so let's hope he can build on that in tomorrow's game. It's not as if the Phillies have much choice but to hope. Still, if the offense can click like it did today on a regular basis, then they can get away with sub-par outings from the 4th and 5th starters.

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