Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Phillies-Mets Preview

For everyone who believes in intangibles such as momentum and confidence, this is a huge series. Sure it's only July and even if one team gets swept, they can't wind up more than three games out of first place (and if we've learned anything from the NL East, three games is nothing), but it's still pretty important.

On paper, the series doesn't bode well for the Phillies. The Mets have the clear advantage in two of the three pitching match-ups and the third one, at best, breaks even. Looking beyond the overall season statistics, however, the Phillies have a decent shot to win the series.

Tuesday, July 22
Joe Blanton (5-12, 4.96) vs. Johan Santana (8-7, 3.10)
As mentioned, on paper, this heavily favors the Mets. Santana is one of the best pitchers on the planet, even if he hasn't quite dominated the way he was expected to this season. Blanton has had a poor season and would probably not have been considered an upgrade had the Phillies not been sending a certain Adam Eaton out every fifth day for the past year and a half.

That said, Blanton will have an advantage here. He'll be facing a team that has seen him twice in his career. He'll also get his first taste of the National League and can enjoy that (usually) automatic pitcher out, rather than the DH. (Santana is a good pitcher to start against, in that regard, as he's batting .128 this year.) Furthermore, in his two starts against the Mets, he was dominant, throwing a total of fifteen scoreless innings. Last time, on June 23, 2007, he scattered five hits and one walk over eight innings in Shea Stadium, but Orlando Hernandez pitched seven shutout innings of his own and the Mets scored in the ninth off the A's bullpen. This was not a particularly lucky game for Blanton either. He avoided walks and allowed 13 ground balls to only 6 fly balls. Blanton has been very successful in the past as a groundball pitcher, for the most part, his best starts this year came when he kept the ball down.

While Santana is as intimidating as they come, he is coming off a very poor start. The last time the Phillies saw him, he looked great, allowing two runs over eight innings, but the Phillies won the game anyway thanks to timely hitting and a lights-out bullpen. In his two starts between then and now, Santana has pitched five and four innings, respectively. The five-inning start is a bit deceptive, as he left a game against San Francisco after five scoreless innings due to a rain delay. He had thrown 78 pitches by that point, so he most likely would have gone another 2-3 innings were it not for the poor weather. However, he struggled mightily in his most recent start, against the Reds. He allowed five runs over four innings, all of which came in the fourth. The Mets won the game anyway, rallying against the Reds bullpen. Still, Santana has pitched very well against the Phillies in two starts this year. In fact, he has yet to walk a single Phillie.

As mentioned, this match-up bodes well for the Mets, but not as well as one would think. Santana is the Cole Hamels of the Mets in more ways than one. Besides being the staff ace, he has also suffered from criminally poor run support. Through June and early July, the Mets lost six straight Santana starts, despite the fact that he put up quality starts in five of them. In addition, Blanton has the advantage of starting this game on the road. That may not sound like much of an edge, but considering the reputation of Philadelphia crowds, he should be under less pressure on the road. The last thing he needs is to get booed at home during his first start for his new team.

Wednesday, July 23
Brett Myers (3-9, 5.84) vs. John Maine (8-7, 4.22)
This match-up also looks quite good for the Mets. Maine has been one of the Mets' best pitchers this year and has always fared well against the Phillies. In eight career starts, he's gone 4-0 with a 2.36 ERA. Meanwhile, Myers has a career 5.18 ERA vs. the Mets and, though he hasn't faced them this season, has been awful in general. He'll take on the Mets after trying to regain his focus in the minors for a few starts.

Maine has a clear advantage, taking the season as a whole, but looking at recent trends, the Phillies have a decent shot. While Myers was honing his skills in the minors, Maine has been struggling. In his last start, he couldn't get through the fifth inning, giving up five runs in 4 2/3 innings, as the Mets lost to the Reds. While Maine has put up solid numbers on the season, in some ways he's been the anti-Joe Blanton, averaging 5.65 innings per start. To put that in perspective, that's just a shade better than Eaton (5.47), worse than Myers (5.98), and considerably worse than Blanton (6.35). In fact, Maine has only had one start all season in which he's pitched 7 innings or more.

His control has been the main issue. He is on pace to walk 84 batters, which would be a career-high. His pitches per plate appearance are up to 4.20 (from 4.04 last year) and his pitches per inning are up to 18.3 (from 17.1). These may not seem like major increases, but they add up, as evidenced by Maine's unimpressive number of innings per start. This also plays into the Phillies hands quite well. The Phillies are at their best when they can stay patient at the plate and draw walks. In addition, the Mets bullpen is less than impressive and the longer the Mets have to rely on it, the worse their chances become.

Of course, this all assumes that Myers can pitch a half-decent game. It's quite possible that he'll implode yet again, give up multiple home runs, and give up a lead that even the Mets 'pen can't blow. The Phillies have to hope he can return to form and keep them in the game.

Thursday, July 24
Jamie Moyer (9-6, 3.90) vs. Oliver Perez (6-6, 4.36)
This is the one match-up that appears to favor the Phillies on paper, but in some ways it seems the least likely for them to win. Moyer has had a very impressive season and is coming off two strong starts against good offenses (Florida and St. Louis). All three starts against the Mets have ended in quality starts, but only one resulted in a win. In addition, pitching in Shea should help Moyer.

However, all Moyer's success won't matter if the Phillies can't score. Thus far, against Perez, they haven't. In three starts, Perez has thrown 18.1 shutout innings (though only one win to show for it). Perez is known for some wildness, but he has yet to show that against the Phillies this year. Basically, if he's hitting his spots, the Phillies aren't hitting him. If he comes back down the earth, the Phillies can give him fits (as in April 2007, when he walked seven in 2 2/3 innings), but if he's on, this game is as good as lost.

This will be a trying series, as every one against the Mets has been the last two years, but the Phillies have a shot to take it. In fact, with the match-ups favoring the Mets so heavily (on paper), if the Phillies can take it, it will be a major blow to the Mets confidence. Here's hoping.

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