Sunday, April 12, 2009

Stairs, Bullpen Propel Phils to Victory

It's early, but the Phillies are establishing a trend. Falling behind in the first inning. Of course, the Phillies had to rally from their fare share of deficits last year, so it came as no surprise when the Phillies rallied to beat the Rockies 7-5, bringing their record to 3-3.

Chan Ho Park's first start in a Phillies uniform didn't exactly go as planned. After retiring the first batter, Dexter Fowler, Park allowed four straight hits and two runs. A walk to Troy Tulowitzki loaded the bases, setting up a two-out Clint Barmes single that drove in a pair. The Phillies have already had Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton allow two-run first innings, but Park's four-run, 40+pitch first inning was the worst start of a season that has, thus far, been full of poor starts.

Of course, the Phillies got to hit as well. They got on the board in the 2nd inning as Ryan Howard scored from second on a Raul Ibanez double that ricochetted off Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook. That cut the deficit to three runs, but that didn't last as Fowler led off the bottom of the 2nd with a solo home run, making it a 5-1 game.

Park settled down a bit after that, but due to his high pitch count, he only lasted 3 1/3 innings, before being pulled for Chad Durbin. Durbin did his part admirably, pitching two scoreless innings and even recording a single (his 2nd career hit) in a rare at-bat.

Meanwhile, the Phillies offense worked to chip away at the lead. In the 4th, Jayson Werth singled home Chase Utley to get the Phils back within three runs. Werth followed with another RBI single in the 6th, again scoring Utley, bringing the score to 5-3.

That lead held until the 8th inning, when Utley apparently tired of waiting for Werth and instead opted to drive himself in. Utley launched a two-run, game-tying homer off Manny Corpas and, just like that, the Phillies had climbed out of the hole Park dug.

Madson handled the Rockies in the bottom of the 8th and so it came to the 9th. The Rockies brought in their new closer, Huston Street, hoping to keep it a tie game. However, Pedro Feliz led off the inning with a double to left that landed just fair and Chris Coste sacrificed him to third base. With one out and the potential winning run 90 feet away, Charlie Manuel turned to postseason hero Matt Stairs. All Stairs needed was a deep fly ball. He more than achieved that, blasting a home run over the wall in right center and putting the Phillies on top, 7-5.

Brad Lidge entered to close out the game and managed to retire the first two batters before things got interesting. Jeff Baker singled and Ian Stewart walked, putting the winning run at the plate, in the form of Troy Tulowitzki. However, Lidge took care of business, inducing a Tulowitski groundout to second, preserving the Phillies victory.

It was an impressive win for the Phillies, who had excellent performances from the offense and from the bullpen. However, Park's struggles put a damper on the win. The bullpen excelled today, pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings, but they cannot be expected to do that too often. The Phillies rotation has pitched poorly thus far and, at least based on his first start, it doesn't look like Park will be an innings eater.

The frustrating thing about Park's start is that his difficulty didn't seem to have much to do with pitching in a hitter's park. Only one of his four runs came via the long ball. Instead most of the Rockies' hits were well-struck line drives that would have been hits in any ballpark. He also suffered from a lack of command, inflating his pitch count and forcing him to throw strikes in hitter's counts. Maybe the poor command can be corrected easily enough (as it was in spring training), but this was a very discouraging outing, to say the least.

Of course, in the end all that counts is the W and, while Park had to settle for a ND, at least he avoided the L, thanks in part to Utley, Stairs, and the Phillies 'pen.

On further review:
A likely cause for Park's poor outing is the absence of Carlos Ruiz. Park won his spot in the rotation with a strong performance in spring training. However, during the spring he was caught exclusively by Ruiz. As a result, this start was his first time pitching to Chris Coste, and it showed. The two got their signals crossed a few times, leading to a passed ball in the first inning and probably had a lot to do with Park's poor command. It's hard to say what the Phillies can do about this; whether they can hope that Park adjusts to Coste, or whether they should have Park pitch to Lou Marson until Ruiz returns from the DL, but really it's just worth noting that this unfamiliarity with his catcher probably was a significant cause in Park's difficulty in his first start as a Phillie.

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