Sunday, May 30, 2010

ROY HALLADAY RETIRES -- 27 straight batters

If there were still any lingering doubts among Phillies fans about whether it was a good idea to give up all those prospects and spend all that money on Roy Halladay, it's a pretty safe bet that they've disappeared, at least for today. That's because in the middle of a slump as the team was struggling to hold on to its divisional lead, "Doc" gave Phillies fans one day of pure unadulterated joy, reserving himself a place in baseball by pitching a perfect game against the Florida Marlins.

If you're not already aware, that's pretty rare. You'll hear these statistics quite a bit, but that's because they're pretty remarkable: It was only the twentieth perfect game in the history of Major League Baseball, and only the sixth pitched with the added pressure of a 1-0 score. The fact that Dallas Braden threw one for the A's earlier this season makes only the second time and the first since 1880 that two have occurred in a season. And the Phillies' only other perfect game was thrown by current Hall of Famer and Kentucky senator Jim Bunning during the otherwise infamous year of 1964.

In a sense it was almost surprising that Halladay, one of baseball's best pitchers and a Major Leaguer for twelve years, had not yet notched a no-hitter into his belt (he came only an out away from a perfect game during only his second start back in 1998), given his remarkable consistency and propensity to be efficient and go deep into games. Needless to say, he looked amazing today, hitting all corners with great variety and accuracy. Although he ran several three-ball count, he was unafraid to get out of them by throwing his big curve for a strike. He notched an impressive eleven strike outs along the way and needed fewer exceptional plays in the field than other perfect game pitchers have, though Shane Victorino's fine backtracking catch in centre, a good grab by Chase Utley in the hole, and especially an excellent stop and throw by Juan Castro at third -- retiring pinch hitter Ronnie Paulino for the final out -- were indispensable help.

The game looked like a close pitchers' duel from the start, with Halladay facing the Marlins' excellent Josh Johnson. Johnson was excellent for his own part, and the Phillies scored their only run, all they would need when a misplayed ball in the outfield allowed Chase Utley to take three bases and drive home Wilson Valdez, who had singled.

As early as the fifth or six inning, this game began to feel like something special as Halladay breezed through one one-two-three inning after another, and the late innings began to take on some of the greatest tension possible in baseball as the developing perfect game rode on every hitter he faced. The Miami crowd of over 25,000 got into rooting for Halladay -- no surprise when a perfect game is in the works, but last night they seemed especially eager and early to do so. The mystery was explained when TV shots showed almost all fans wearing red with Ps on their hats in the Phillies' spring training home state.

Halladay stayed true to his humble, serious, and stoic personality, looking all business until after Paulino was retired, then hugging Carloz Ruiz and his teammates with a relieved grin after it was all over. In postgame interviews he gave as much credit to "Chooch" Ruiz as to himself, which was a fitting tribute to an excellent defensive catcher and game calling, and some admirable humility.

This game will be a lifetime good memory -- not only for those involved or at the stadium, but for those of us who had the still rare opportunity to watch it unfold live. For Phillies fans this first perfect game since 1964 -- and first no-hitter since Kevin Millwood highlighted Veterans' Stadium's farewell season by no-hitting the Giants in 2003 -- is another extraordinary highlight from an amazing past few years. For the team, this game could be a catalyst to an extraordinary season. But even if it isn't, it's still something to be savored even on its own.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rollins Returns, Phillies Blast Bucs

The Phillies lineup got a boost last night as Jimmy Rollins returned from injury. He picked up where he left off, going 2-for-4 with an RBI and the Phillies coasted to a 12-2 win over Pittsburgh.

Missing from the lineup was Chase Utley, who got the day off with flu-like symptoms, but the offense performed well in his absence. Rollins took Utley's spot in the lineup and the middle of the order provided plenty of power. Ryan Howard hit a grand slam and drove in 6 RBI and Jayson Werth hit a three-run homer and finished with 4 RBI on the day.

It was a strong all-around performance as every position starter recorded at least one hit and Kyle Kendrick went eight strong innings, allowing just two runs. Recently called up Antonio Bastardo pitched a perfect ninth inning, striking out two of the three batters, to finish off the Pirates.

Rollins' return forces Charlie Manuel to make a decision regarding the leadoff spot. He can put Rollins back in his customary role or he can leave Victorino there, who has a .920 OPS while batting first this season, compared to a .470 OPS in seven games batting seventh. Of course, the difference could just be a matter of Victorino getting off to a slow start. Or maybe it's something about hitting ahead of Polanco, as Rollins was dominant from the leadoff spot as well before his injury.

Most likely Rollins will reclaim his place at the top of the order and Victorino will bat seventh, which may be better for the lineup anyway as Victorino has done an excellent job of driving in runs and his presence at the bottom half of the lineup should create more opportunities for the hot-hitting Carlos Ruiz.

However the lineup looks today, the offense should be fine. The pitching is not in question today as Roy Halladay takes the hill, but on the whole is still a bit suspect. However, Kendrick delivered an impressive start last night and has looked markedly improved in his last three starts. He has a 2.57 ERA in 21 innings pitched in May, compared to a 7.61 ERA in April. Much of this can be attributed to an improved ground ball-fly ball ratio. In May he has generated 39 ground ball outs compared to 32 fly ball outs. In April the ratio was 40:45, and it would have been a lot worse without the eight scoreless innings he threw against Atlanta on April 20th, in which he had 16 ground balls and 8 fly balls.

The bottom line with Kendrick (which should not come as a surprise) is when he keeps the ball on the ground, he wins. In his three starts when he had more ground balls than fly balls, he is 2-0 with a 0.78 ERA. In four starts where he had more fly balls, he is 0-1 with a 8.70 ERA. (He had one start in which he had the same number of ground balls and fly balls. He allowed four runs in six innings.) Again, this shouldn't come as a surprise, but in the last few starts, it seems he has figured it out which is a promising sign.

The Phillies will need lengthy starts like Kendrick's if they are to survive their bullpen troubles. The team is effectively closer-less, with both Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson on the DL. Jose Contreras is the closer for now, but it seems that they will go to a closer-by-committee system to some degree. J.C. Romero notched the save two nights ago against the Brewers, but that may have had more to do with Contreras needing a day off than anything else. The Phillies have leaned heavily upon the trio of Contreras, Danys Baez, and Chad Durbin and one has to hope that Romero, Daniel Herndon, and Bastardo can provide some solid innings as well, as not to overwork Contreras/Baez/Durbin.

Either way, the team is looking very strong right now. If Manuel can continue to piece an effective bullpen together and Rollins makes his presence felt in the lineup, they should be able to further their lead in the division and not look back.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Just for Starters...

This week featured a string of successes from the Phillies' rotation.

Monday: The Return of Joe Blanton. That alone is a success for the rotation, especially having lost J.A. Happ to the DL. Blanton looked like his normal self - he threw 6 2/3 innings, allowed 4 runs, and struck out 4. Normally, the Phillies would be able to outscore 4 runs, but the St. Louis Cardinals staff, led by the impressive 23-year old Jaime Garcia (3-1 with a 1.13 ERA on the season) held them to only 3. Nelson Figueroa also allowed 2 runs, and Brad Lidge pitched a scoreless ninth. The only loss of this week for the Phillies: 6-3, Cardinals.

Tuesday: A fantastic pitchers' duel between Cole Hamels and Adam Wainwright. Both threw 8 innings, allowed 1 run each, and Hamels struck out 8 while Wainwright struck out 6. Hamels started to pitch the ninth, but allowed 2 doubles and was removed for Lidge. 1 run scored, but Lidge finished out the inning. Jose Contreras pitched the 10th, and in the bottom of the 10th, on the fourth pitch of the inning, the Phillies hit a home run to win the game. The batter? None other than Carlos Ruiz. By the way, Ruiz is hitting .315 on the year. 2-1, Phillies.

Wednesday: Kyle Kendrick lives to see another day. With the return of Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ not far behind, Kendrick's struggles in his past few starts seemed to suggest that he would not have it for much longer. Wednesday night, he was spectacular, throwing seven scoreless innings, striking out 3. Between Kendrick and Cardinals starter Brad Penny, it seemed like if someone was going to dominate, it would be Penny. Penny struck out 6 in 6 innings, but allowed 3 runs. All three runs came on home runs by Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino. By the way, Chase Utley is leading the team with 8 home runs right now, but tied for second are Victorino and Jayson Werth with 6 apiece. Also, Juan Castro removed himself from the game in the bottom of the seventh and he now is day to day with a mild calf strain. Danys Baez and Contreras followed Kendrick with one scoreless inning each as the Phillies shut out the Cardinals. 4-0, Phillies.

Thursday: Roy Halladay keeps on doing what Roy Halladay does. Halladay pitched 7 innings, struck out 9, and allowed 2 runs, only 1 earned. Former Phillie Kyle Lohse was only able to get through 4 innings, allowing 5 runs, 3 earned. The 3 earned runs came from a home run by Jayson Werth. Halladay is now 6-1 with a 1.45 ERA. Chad Durbin and Baez pitched scoreless innings to finish the game. Not a whole lot to say about this one except that so far, Halladay has been everything this team could have hoped for. 7-2, Phillies.

Friday: If I were to predict one complete game shutout this week, I would have expected it to be Halladay. Instead, it was Jamie Moyer, who made history last night as the oldest player to pitch a complete game shutout. He allowed only 2 hits, struck out 5, and walked none. He was facing a depleted Braves lineup that was without stud rookie Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, and Yunel Escobar, but remember Moyer is 47 years old. He had thrown two other two-hit shutouts, 1 in 1986 (before I was born!) and then another 20 years later in 2006. The Phillies offense backed him up plenty, scoring 7 runs with the 2-6 hitters in the lineup all having multi-hit games. By the way, Charlie Manuel announced that Brad Lidge would be moving back into the closer role. But Lidge wasn't needed Friday night. 7-0, Phillies.

All five starting pitchers this week threw at least 6 innings and allowed a total of 7 earned runs. I wouldn't expect Moyer to dominate in this way every time he goes, but to see Kendrick and Hamels turn around and have such big successes bodes really well for the rotation going forward. Especially Hamels, who the Phillies would like to see regain ace status, forming that great 1-2 punch with Halladay. Also, if they can keep the bullpen from being overworked, that will lessen the blow of losing Ryan Madson for a spell. What a great start to the month of May.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Non-Phillies Pick of the Week: Week 5

Last week's was a tough game to call and it turned out to be a good one, as Cliff Lee and Colby Lewis pitched to a standstill, before the Rangers took it in extra innings. Charles kept up his undefeated season, as he was the only one of us who could predict that outcome. Here are the results so far:

This week we're picking Wednesday night's Angels-Red Sox game, in which John Lackey faces his former team.

Los Angeles Angels (12-15) at Boston Red Sox (12-14)
Joel Pineiro (2-3, 5.76) vs. John Lackey (2-1, 4.50)


Tough to pick against the Red Sox at home, but Lackey has been mediocre so far and has never pitched well at Fenway Park (5.82 ERA in 12 starts). The Red Sox won the series opener against LA, but were coming off a sweep at the hands of the lowly Orioles. That, and Kevin Youkilis is battling a nagging groin injury and is day-to-day. Both teams are playing below expectations, but I like the Angels' chances here.


Lackey has been off to a slow start this season, but he always gets off to a slow start. His career ERA is below 4.00 from May on, compared to 4.79 in March/April. The Red Sox are at home, they'll be facing Joel Pineiro who hasn't been successful on the road, and they'll be hungry coming off a 3-game sweep in Baltimore.


Lackey and Pineiro have both and up-and-down starts, but Pineiro has had more down than Lackey has, who will be likely to dial it up for a home start against the team he's had so much success with in the past.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Phantasy Pick: Week 5

Ryan Howard

I know, it's not like Howard is riding your bench anyway, but the Phillies take on the Cardinals and the Braves this week, and Howard has fare extremely well against both ballclubs in his career. His success against his hometown Cardinals (1.318 OPS in 30 games) is well-documented, but his 1.126 OPS vs. the Braves isn't too bad either. Add in the fact that he just went 3-for-4 with a double and a home run, all against lefties, in Sunday's game against the Mets, and there's reason to believe he could be in line for an exceptionally big week.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Aces Wild for Mets as Phillies Take Series

On paper, this looked like a very winnable series for the Mets, despite having to play in Philadelphia. In the latter two games, they had their twin aces, Mike Pelfrey and Johan Santana, so after they defeated the Phillies 9-1 on Friday night, Mets fans had to consider the possibility of sweeping the two-time NL Champions at their own park.

But it wouldn't play out that way. On Saturday, the Phillies sent Roy Halladay to the mound to face Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey, to that point, had been doing a Halladay impression of his own, with a 4-0 record and 0.69 ERA. He was one of the few starters who could boast an ERA better than Halladay's. But it wouldn't last. The Phillies lit him up for six runs in four innings, highlighted by a Shane Victorino three-run shot.

That offense was more than enough for Halladay, who introduced himself to his new division rivals by throwing a complete game shutout and improving his record to 5-1. It was an impressive showing by Halladay (though one that's getting more and more familiar) but it was even more important that the offense got going again, especially against a pitcher as hot as Pelfrey. Victorino and Chase Utley both broke out of slumps and it was particularly important for Victorino who had struggled mightily since taking Rollins' place in the leadoff spot.

Heading into the rubber game, the Phillies chances of winning the series looked bleak. They faced the Mets true ace, in Santana, and sent the struggling Jamie Moyer to the hill. The concerns proved well-founded, as Moyer surrendered a three-run homer to David Wright (who has a career 1.174 OPS vs. Moyer) in the first inning.

However, the Phillies bounced back quickly. Placido Polanco broke out of a slump with a solo shot off Santana and Ryan Howard tacked on a two-out solo homer to bring the score to 3-2. Of cousre, in the fourth Rod Barajas hit a two-run shot to bring the Mets lead back to three runs.

Then came the bottom of the fourth. Utley led off the inning with a double, but Howard and Jayson Werth were retired, though advancing Utley to third base. But then things got ugly for the Mets and Santana. Raul Ibanez singled to drive in Utley and Juan Castro followed with a single of his own. With Moyer on deck, the Mets opted to pitch around Carlos Ruiz, who drew the walk, loading the bases for Moyer. Santana fell behind and when the count reached 3-1, the Phillies went ballistic. Moyer took a called strike two, fouled off a potential strike three, and finally drew the bases-loaded walk, making it a 5-4 game and causing the Philles fans to erupt.

The at-bat brought up memories of when Brett Myers' battled his way to a walk against C.C. Sabathia in the 2008 NLDS. On cue, Victorino cranked a grand slam over the left field wall (just like he did against Sabathia), giving the Phillies a 8-5 lead and all of the sudden it sounded like October again. As if that wasn't enough, Polanco then singled and Utley drove him in with a two-run blast. Howard followed with a single and Werth drove him in all the way from first with a double in the gap in right-center. Finally Ibanez, the man who started the rally, grounded out to end the inning, but the Phillies had taken the momentum, and the lead, 11-5.

That would be all for Santana, who seemed off the entire game. Every pitcher, no matter how great, is entitled to a bad start now and again, so there's no sense reading too much into this one, but one has to think this will be fresh in Santana's mind the next time he faces the Phillies. And Moyer, to his credit, settled down and got through six innings. It wasn't a great start for him, but he really only made two mistakes and drawing that walk seemingly made up for the five runs he surrendered. The Phillies bullpen handled the Mets with relative ease. Chad Durbin and Danys Baez combined to pitch three scoreless innings, finishing off the game and giving the Phillies the series.

This week will be a challenging one for the Phillies, as they face St. Louis and Atlanta, but they should get a boost from Joe Blanton's return (making his season debut tomorrow night) and the way the offense came to life over the weekend should inspire confidence going forward.