Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Phillies Fall On Walk-Off Slam

With the bases loaded and a 3-1 count to Dan Uggla, Tom Gordon had little choice but to throw a strike. There must have been a sense of relief when the ball sailed toward the strike zone, as Gordon had struggled to find that region the entire inning, throwing only six strikes on nineteen pitches. This pitch found the plate to make strike #7. Only problem is, Uggla was ready for it. He crushed Gordon's fastball over the left field wall for a walk-off grand slam and the Marlins got a dramatic victory (final score 6-2) that put them within two games of the division-leading Phillies, with a chance for a sweep tomorrow.

The final score does not indicate how great of a game this was. For eight innings, the starters dueled. Cole Hamels was his usual self. He shut down eight of the Marlins hitters for eight innings, walking one and striking out a season-high thirteen. The only man standing between him and a shutout was Jorge Cantu, who, for whatever reason, had Hamels' number tonight, belting a pair of solo home runs. Still, those were the only runs Hamels would allow.

Normally that would be enough for the win, but Marlins starter Andrew Miller was equally dominant. Miller went seven strong innings, surrender just one run, a Chase Utley RBI single in the seventh, and left the game in line for the win.

And so it would come down to the bullpens. Justin Miller held the Phillies at bay in the eighth, retiring the side on three pitches. Then came the ninth and Kevin Gregg, who the Phillies seemed happy to see. Pinch hitter Greg Dobbs led off the inning with an infield single and was promptly replaced by Eric Bruntlett. Gregg then walked Jimmy Rollins.

With Shane Victorino coming up and runners on first and second, the sacrifice bunt seemed not only likely, but inevitable. But the Phillies seemed to have their signs mixed up, as Victorino took the first pitch and Rollins put his hands up, as if to say "Hey, wha' happened?" Rollins seemed even more confused when Bruntlett took off for third in what may have been designed as a double steal. Bruntlett did his part, sliding into third, but Rollins didn't see him take off and remained at first. Victorino then struck out looking, on a questionable call that had him livid. Instead of one out and two runners in scoring position, the game-ending double play was still in order.

Fortunately, future MVP Chase Utley was due up. Utley came through once again...sort of. He grounded to Uggla, who tossed to Hanley Ramirez at second for one out and prepared to fire to first and end the game. However, he had a hard time getting the ball out of his glove and the delay was enough for Utley to make it to first in time. Meanwhile, Bruntlett crossed home plate without a throw and the game was tied 2-2.

Gregg then seemed to fall apart. His first pitch to Ryan Howard was wild and allowed Utley to advance to second, causing the Marlins to intentionally walk Howard. This was an odd move considering Howard's .208 batting average and the fact that there were already two outs in the inning. Not to mention, it brought up the surprisingly clutch Pat Burrell. Unfortunately for Phillies fans, Gregg was too wild at this point to give Burrell a chance to add to his 2008 highlight reel. Gregg's first pitch to Pat the Bat hit him on the arm and Burrell took first, loading the bases for Jayson Werth.

Considering Gregg hadn't thrown a called strike since Victorino's at-bat, this would have been a good time to take a pitch or two, just to see if he still had his control. Werth, or perhaps Charlie Manuel (whoever made the decision) had other ideas and Werth bunted on the first pitch. This would have been viewed as very clever had it been a good bunt, as there's no way the Marlins were expecting it, but it was not a good bunt. Gregg ranged a few feet to his right and was able to field it and throw out Werth by a couple of steps.

So instead of a one-run lead and Brad Lidge on the mound, the Phillies got The Setup Man, Tom Gordon. Gordon started out with an ominous four-pitch walk to Ramirez. The Phillies caught a break when Jeremy Hermida popped up a bunt for an out, but that was the only thing a Phillies fielder would catch this inning. Cantu struck again with a single and former Phillie Wes Helms got to passively observe Gordon's work, as he too walked on four pitches.

That brought up Uggla with the bases juiced and no more room for baserunners. Gordon seemed not to realize this at first, running a 2-0 count, before getting Uggla to foul a pitch off. Then Gordon threw another ball, putting the Marlins one ball away from victory. Determined to make the Marlins earn it, at least a little, he fired a strike that never made it to Carlos Ruiz. Instead it met Uggla's bat and left the field, ending the game in the Marlins' favor.

One has to wonder in all this, where was Rollins in the bottom of the ninth? Last time Gordon struggled like this, he came out and calmed him down, but he didn't even approach the mound this time, or even make eye contact with Gordon so far as I could tell. Is it Rollins' responsibility to make sure the Phillies bullpen is focused? Hell no. But it would've been nice. Of course, the real question is, where was Rich Dubee or Charlie Manuel...or even Carlos Ruiz. Not one Phillie, player or coach, went to the mound to talk to Gordon.

Of course none of that would have mattered if the Phillies had scored one more run in the top of the ninth. Despite tying the game, so many things went wrong in that inning. Victorino not sacrificing the runners over (whether he was supposed to or Rollins just thought that was the call) and Rollins failing to recognize Bruntlett taking off for third both nearly ended the game, when Utley just beat out a double play ball. Then came the inexplicable decision to bunt with two outs and the bases loaded. That was a terrible decision for many reasons, most of which are fairly logical and need not be explained here. Bunting with two outs is generally a poor decision, but doing so against a pitcher who has thrown a wild pitch and hit a batter in his last two real pitches (not counting his intentional balls to Howard) is just ludicrous.

It's unclear who made the decision to go for the bunt. It could have been Werth's idea, or it could have come from the dugout, but one way or the other, it was an awful decision and likely cost the Phillies the game. Obviously there's no guarantee that Werth reaches base if he doesn't bunt, but there would certainly have been a better chance.

So now tomorrow's game becomes something of a must-win for the Phillies. With a loss, the Marlins can move within one game of the division and the Phillies lose all the momentum from their impressive Atlanta sweep, that is if all of that didn't leave with Uggla's walk-off slam.

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