Tag Archives: San Francisco Giants

Top 5: Pitching Rotations – Revisited

Inspired by a comment left on my preseason rankings, and a bit of revisionism over at good friend Black Label Tennis, I’ve decided to revisit and revise my MLB starting rotation rankings.  With the MLB season nearly halfway over, here’s my take on the top 5 starting rotations.

Even if the Four Aces have been reduced to three, the Phillies still have the best collection of starters in all of baseball.

1. Philadelphia Phillies – I had the Phillies in this spot to start the season, and at the halfway point, I don’t see a reason to change this ranking.  As of writing, the Phillies have the best ERA in the league (3.05), the most complete games (9), and the best ERA+ (126). The Phillies have had 7 pitchers start at least 5 games this season, with only Joe Blanton posting an ERA above 4.  Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels have been Cy Young worthy.  Cliff Lee has had a few ups and downs, but has a 4 game winning streak during which he has given up just 1 earned run in 33 innings.  Sure Roy Oswalt hasn’t pitched as well as many expected, but even in relatively poor form (for him), he has posted a 3.79 ERA with a 101 ERA+.  Kyle Kendrick (4-4, 3.23 ERA, 119 ERA+) and Vance Worley (2-1, 2.83 ERA, 139 ERA+) have performed well filling in for Big Joe and Oswalt.  The Phillies have the best record in baseball and the largest division lead.  The only reason the Phillies don’t have more wins is due to an offense that is impotent at times.  For a great explanation of just how good the Phillies have been, check out this post over at Crashburn Alley.

2. San Francisco Giants – This was a tough call, as San Francisco and my #3 ranked team, the Atlanta Braves, have both pitched extremely well.  In the end, I decided to keep my preseason number 2 in place.  Each of the San Francisco starters, except Barry Zito, who has started just 3 games (there’s always a black sheep), has an ERA of under 4.  Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are studs, and pitching like it.  Journeyman, Ryan Vogelsong has been phenomenal in relief of Zito, posting a 1.86 ERA and a 200 ERA+ in 13 games (11 starts). Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sánchez have also pitched well. It will be interesting to see if Vogelsong can keep up his stellar performance.

Jair Jurrjens has leads a Braves pitching staff that is 2nd in MLB in ERA, behind only the Phillies.

3. Atlanta Braves – Though it pains me, as a Phillies fan, the Braves have earned this spot.  After finishing with an honorable mention in the preseason rankings, the Braves jump all the way to #3 based on the fact that they have a 3.1o ERA and a 123 ERA+.  Jair Jurrjens looks like the early Cy Young leader in the NL.  He leads the National League in ERA (2.07) and ERA+ (183) and has bounced back from a subpar 2010 in a big way.  Tommy Hanson has been nearly as good as Jurrjens, with a 2.48 ERA and 153 ERA+. Brandon Beachy has grabbed the 5th starting spot by posting a 3.22 ERA in 9 starts. Tim Hudson is having another good season, though not as good as last year.  Derek Lowe is the weakest link in the rotation.  Any team that can say that is in pretty good shape.

4. Oakland Athletics – The A’s keep their #4 spot and represent the first American League team to make the list.  The A’s staff has been as good as advertised and have gotten contributions from 9 different starters.  The worst of those 9, Graham Godfrey, has pitched 17 innings over three games with a 4.24 ERA.  The best, Gio Gonzalez (2.59 ERA, 159 ERA+), has been CY Young caliber.  Opening Day started, Trevor Cahill  has struggled as times, but is following up his stellar 2010 with a 2011 that is nearly as good.  Despite getting just three starts from Dallas Braden, he of the perfect game, the A’s have the lowest ERA in the AL.  Not bad for a patchwork starting rotation.

5. Seattle Mariners – The final spot was a tough call.  The San Diego Padres pushed hard for this spot. In the end, the Mariners (who weren’t even on my radar to begin the season) make it into the list because their rotation is the reason they sit just 1.5 games out of first place in the AL West.  Twenty-two year-old rookie, Michael Pineda has been a revelation for the Mariners.  One his way to a 2.45 ERA and 150 ERA+, Pineda has defeated the Phillies (6 innings, 1 ER) , pitched well against the Rangers and Yankees and given up more than 3 earned runs just twice in 15 starts.  Felix Hernandez has been good, though not as good as we have come to expect (3.18 ERA).  Erik Bedard seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in the Pacific Northwest, posting a 2.93 ERA in 14 starts.  The other two Mariners’ starters, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas, both have sub-4 ERAs and 2 complete games a piece.

Dropped Out:  The Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Red Sox and Dodgers both drop out of the list because due to lack of consistency from pitchers expected to perform.

Josh Beckett has looked rejuvenated this season and leads MLB in several statistical categories.

Boston Red Sox – John Lackey has been dreadful for the Sox.  Daisuke Matsuzaka is out for season and pitched poorly before undergoing Tommy John surgery.  Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are both pitching well, just not as well as last season. The lone bright spot for the Red Sox (at least in the starting rotation) is the return to form of Josh Beckett.  Beckett leads the majors in ERA (1.86), ERA+ (217) , is second in WHIP (.924) , and has thrown a complete game.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Who could blame them if they were distracted.  The team has been in turmoil since the offseason and just filed for bankruptcy.   Clayton Kershaw has grown into the #1 starter many expected – 2.93 ERA, 9.87 K/9, 1.029 WHIP.  He leads the league in strikeouts, and has posted back-to-back complete games in his last two starts.  Hiroki Kuroda has ably filled the role of Kershaw’s sidekick (3.10 ERA), but he looks headed out of Chavez Ravine.  The rest of the staff – Jon Garland, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley have all been disappointing.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Top 5: Pitching Rotations

These are heady days for baseball fans.  Every team is undefeated, and hope springs eternal.  With the first games of Spring Training set for Friday, it seemed like it was time to start blogging about baseball again.

A question that seems to be on every baseball fan’s mind is  – who has the best starting pitching staff in baseball?  Below is my humble attempt at answering that question.  Let me know if you agree/disagree.

The Phillies boast a rotation that would make any team jealous. (photo from the4aces.net)

1. Philadelphia Phillies – While this might seem like a homer call, the Phillies have to be considered the best collection of starting pitching in the league.  After pulling off one of the major surprises of the off-season by signing Cliff Lee, the Phillies have four legit #1 starters.  The Phillies (on paper) have the best pitching rotation since the Braves of the early 1990s (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Steve Avery).  This is my initial reaction to the pitching staff – taken from my post Merry Cliffmas and Happy Halladays!:

Think about this, Lee, who won the Cy Young in the AL in 2008 joins a staff that includes: reigning Cy Young winner Roy Halladay; 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels; and 3-time All-Star Roy Oswalt. What other team can match that pitching depth?  The answer – NONE!

Just look at their numbers from last season:

I know that Lee, Hamels and Oswalt did not have great records, look at the other stats! Ridiculous. Also keep in mind that when Oswalt was with the Phillies he was 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. The Phillies now have the best pitching staff in the league.

It doesn’t matter who takes the fifth starter spot (though I think it will be Joe Blanton), the Phillies have the most formidable starting rotation in baseball.

Tim Lincecum anchors the rotation for the defending World Series champions.

2. San Francisco Giants – As seen in last year’s NLCS, the Giants’ pitching staff can hang with the Phillies.  Tim Lincecum, who struggled at times last season, found his form in the playoffs. Matt Cain made the Phillies’ offense look pedestrian. Jonathan Sanchez looks like he is ready to take the next step toward becoming an elite lefty. Madison Bumgarner developed over the course of the season and looks set for a big year.  The only question mark is Barry Zito as the fifth starter, but if he even has an average year (10-14, 4.45 ERA in his time with the Giants) he will be a pretty decent 5th starter.

If Beckett and Lackey can bounce back, the Sox will be tough. (Image from CBS local/Credit: Dan Roche/CBS)

3. Boston Red Sox – Some might question the Red Sox being ranked this highly, especially after the poor performance last season of Josh Beckett, John Lackey and the enigma that is Daisuke Matsuzaka, but I believe that at least one of the aforementioned pitchers will rebound this year.  If more than one can return to the form all have previously exhibited, the Red Sox will have a formidable rotation.  Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 ERA), two guys I thought deserved more Cy Young consideration last season, anchor the rotation.  Even if Beckett and Lackey turn in career average years – 15-10, 3.96 ERA for Becket & 15-10, 3.89 ERA for Lackey – the rotation should be good enough to win the AL East.  Any positive contribution Dice-K can give will be an added bonus.

Trevor Cahill and the Athletics could unseat the Rangers in the AL West. The A's certainly have the pitching.

4. Oakland Athletics – This selection might surprise some, as the Athletics toil in obscurity in Oakland, but the A’s have a legit rotation.  I think this excerpt from a post on pitching rotations sums up the A’s:

Check out these stats and compare them with any pitching staff in MLB: Brett Anderson 7-6 2.80 ERA  75 K’s, Trevor Cahill 18-8  2.97 ERA  118 K’s, Gio Gonzalez 15-9 3.23 ERA  171 K’s, Dallas Braden 11-14  3.50 ERA 113 K’s and a perfect game. Average age…25!!  Oakland led the AL with a 3.56 era, 17 shutouts and held opponents to a .245 batting average.  Question mark is 5th starter but they have many young guys to choose from in the minors and they also signed Rich Harden. If they can get any hitting they could be a team no one would like to play come October.

Clayton Kershaw is my early dark horse for the NL Cy Young. This kid is for real.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers – Four of the Dodgers’ starters finished last season with ERAs under 3.60.  Not too shabby.  Clayton Kershaw led the way with a 13-10 record and an ERA of 2.91 and will be just 23 at the start of the season.  Forming the rest of the rotation behind Kershaw are Hiroki Kuroda (11-13, 3.39 ERA), Chad Billingsley (12-11, 3.57 ERA), Ted Lilly (7-4, 3.52 ERA w/ the Dodgers), and Jon Garland (14-12, 3.47 ERA w/ the San Diego Padres).

In making this list, several teams just missed the number 5 spot (I feel like the top 4 are pretty set).  The St. Louis Cardinals would likely have made the top 5, but with concerns about the health of Adam Wainwright‘s elbow, the rotation is weakened.  Some have been touting the Milwaukee Brewers with Zack Greinke joining Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo at Miller Park.  I think the Brewers have the beginnings of a very good rotation, but it remains to be seen how Greinke will adjust to the NL and whether Marcum is for real.  A third team that many have in their top 5 are the Padres.  Mat Latos and Clayton Richard are two studs at the top of the rotation but after the top 2 there are more questions than answers.  Also, could Latos be in for a sophomore slump? Lastly, the Atlanta Braves are in the discussion as well, especially if Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens can rebound from subpar 2010 seasons.  Looks like I could have found one more team and written a top 10.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Red October: The Curious Incident of Roy in the Nineth

Charlie has made some curious decisions this postseason. Hopefully, they will not cost the Phillies a trip to the World Series.

As I sit here, hours before my beloved Phillies start what could be their last game of the season, I can’t help but wonder what has Charlie been thinking?  I will be the first to admit that I love Charlie Manuel.  He has been a great manager for the Phillies, and has taken them to unprecedented heights for this team, but this postseason has been riddled with questionable calls.

Last night Jayson Stark tweeted the following about one of Charlie’s many puzzling decisions (the decision to have Antonio Bastardo pitch to Buster Posey): “If Charlie Manuel was going to bring in Madson in this inning, not sure why he waited until after Posey doubled off a LHP. Any theories?” My reply sums up my belief on what has happened to Charlie, “Charlie’s body has been invaded by an alien who doesn’t know baseball. Only explanation for all of his curious moves recently.”  For those who haven’t been watching or who have lost count, let’s discuss some of the questionable calls made during Game 4:

1. Allowing Joe Blanton to pitch to Aubrey Huff in the 5th when Bastardo was ready in the bullpen.  Huff went on to hit a run scoring single, driving in Andres Torres who was on second after pinch-hitting for Madison Bumgarner.  Since it is clear that Charlie had decided to pull Blanton at some point in the fifth if he got in trouble, why not play the matchup game?  I know that Huff had a .200 batting average against Blanton going into the game, but those numbers came in a small sample size (21 plate appearances, most of them coming several years ago).  Huff also hit lefties pretty well during his career, batting .275 or 11 points below his career average against righties.  Why allow Huff to hit against Blanton?

2.  Not having Jimmy Rollins bunt with Jayson Werth on 2nd in the 8th. With Werth standing on second with no outs after driving in Ryan Howard, the only logical response would have been to have a struggling Rollins sacrifice Werth to third in an attempt to secure another run.  Following Werth’s double, Rollins popped out and Ben Francisco and Carlos Ruiz struck out.  Werth was left standing on second and the Phillies were staring at a tied ballgame.

3. Also in the 8th inning, not pinch-hitting for Francisco.  Manuel has allowed Bruce Bochy to dictate matchups throughout much of the NLCS and this was another case.  I will excerpt from Jose Arangure Jr.’s article for ESPN to explain why this was ill-advised:

For the most important at-bat of the season to that point, Manuel chose to stick with a player (Francisco) who entered the game with just one plate appearance in the entire playoffs.

Bochy has been extremely reluctant to use Affeldt during the playoffs (he’s pitched just one inning), yet Manuel allowed the entire sequence to be affected by the possibility of Affeldt pitching. This year, left-handed batters had a gaudy .837 OPS against Affeldt, almost 100 points higher than what right-handed batters hit against him.

But Manuel simply could have used Ibanez. Only once in the seven times when Affeldt and Ibanez faced each other — the first time in 2004 — did an at-bat end with Ibanez behind in the count, and not once did an at-bat end in a strikeout. So far Affeldt has been unable to fool Ibanez (2-for-6, including a triple against him during the regular season).

This sight (taken from a game in August) should not have been seen during Game 4 in San Francisco.

4. Using Roy Oswalt in the ninth.  This move baffled everyone.  As I sat on the couch, the twittersphere exploded with tweets of surprise.  Why would Charlie use Oswalt in this spot, potentially blowing him for Game 6?  This game was not an elimination game.  It was an important game, some might even say a must-win, but even with the loss the Phillies are still playing today.  You don’t make moves like using a starter in the 9th inning of a tied game unless the game is do-or-die.  This move makes the non-use of Roy Halladay to start the game even more confusing.  If Charlie was wiling to use one of the starters on short rest (even if it were only in relief), why not start your best pitcher?  Charlie treated this game like an elimination game, and if he felt the game was that important you need to have your best pitcher on the mound.  I respect Blanton, but you have to start Doc in that game.  Now the question remains, what is the rotation going forward?  Does Oswalt still start Game 6, or do you push Cole Hamels up and have Oswalt pitch Game 7? If Oswalt pitches Game 6, how will his Game 4 experience affect his start?

Other than criticism for Charlie’s moves, the Giants deserve some props for playing well and making their own luck.  Last night, in a storm of tweets, I wrote “Seriously! This is getting ridiculous. When do we start discussing Giants as team of destiny? Only way to explain this series.” The Giants have gotten all the breaks and have made his own.  For those keeping score: the Giants have three wins against H2o as starters (2 as starters and one as a reliever), the Phillies have committed errors and wild pitches that have led to runs, the Giants’ pitching staff has been excellent, the Giants have gotten production from guys who are bench/platoon players at best while the Phillies have not been able to hit.  It’s clear that the aura that has been around the Phillies is slightly tarnished and perhaps is on its way to being transferred to the Giants.

The Phillies now have their backs against the wall and need Doc to spin some magic tonight.  Do I think they can come back from a 3-1 deficit? Yes.  ESPN and other media outlets will be trumpeting the fact that 72 teams have trailed 3 games to 1 in best-of-7 postseason series and only 11 came back to win the series.  This fact has no bearing on this series, but is illustrative.  The Phillies have a mountain to climb, but with Doc, Hamels and Oswalt going in some order, they have the pitchers to make it happen.  Will H2o return to their September form and will the offense wake up?  In order to advance, the Phillies need the answer to be yes.

Red October: Phillies vs. Giants

Earlier this evening, as I was coming into the house after work, I noticed a card in the mail.  I could tell by the address label on the front of the envelope that the card was from my wife’s grandmother.  I expected the card to discuss the recent 49ers-Eagles game, as my wife’s grandmother and I have a long-standing bet when the Niners and Eagles play (same goes for the Packers, my wife’s grandfather’s favorite team).  While the card did mention the Eagles/Niners game, she devoted half of the card to the Giants vs. Phillies.  While not normally much of a baseball fan, she just couldn’t resist making a bet (our usual $5) on the series.  She’s quite enamored with Tim Lincecum, but conceded that the Phillies might “have [the Giants] for their breakfast” due to San Francisco’s lack of hitting. Leave it to her to snap me out of my funk and get me to write a blog post about the series.  It’s a good thing the card got here today and not on Monday, or I would have missed out on the opportunity to weigh in on the series before it started.

Prompted by my wife’s grandmother’s comment about San Francisco’s lack of hitting, I decided to look into the offensive stats of both teams.  While San Francisco doesn’t have the offensive talents of the Phillies’ most recent opponents, the Giants are in the upper half (check out the bottom of the table where it displays the rankings) of the National League in most major offensive categories.

Two of the biggest areas of weakness for the Giants are team speed and patience at the plate.  The Giants stole just 55 bases all season, good (or bad) enough to place them in a last place tie in the NL with the Cubs.  The Giants also hit into the most double plays (158) in the NL.  This lack of team speed could come back to haunt a team not likely to have many base runners facing the Phillies pitching staff.  Plate discipline has been another area of weakness, with the Giants ranking 13th out of 16 teams in walks, and 12th in strikeouts.  Clearly this is a team that will swing freely at pitches, which should play into the hands of the Phillies’ pitchers.  That being said, the Giants do have some pop, ranking 6th in homer runs, just behind the Phillies.  It is worth noting that the Phillies rank ahead of the Giants in every major offensive category.

For those that want to use the regular season as a guide for this series, the Phillies and Giants split the series 3-3.  The Giants won 2 of 3 in San Francisco back in April.  The Phillies won 2 of 3 at Citizens Bank Park in August, including a game I was lucky enough to attend and blog about.  In those 6 games, the Giants put up a better batting average (.290 vs. .226) and hit more home runs (8 vs. 3), but the Phillies scored more runs (29 vs. 27).  The Giants put up better pitching numbers posting a better ERA (4.00 vs. 4.50) and a better WHIP (1.204 vs. 1.333).


Will the Giants' pitcher-friendly park be a factor? Or will the Phillies' lefties put a few into McCovey Cove?

Clearly, the teams benefited from playing in their home parks, and it will be interesting to see if that continues.  While the regular season numbers can help paint a picture of what to expect, the teams are both vastly different from even the last time they played.  The Giants went through a poor run of play, but finished the season strong, going 20-10 over the last 30 games.  The Phillies, as has been well documented, were on fire for much of the 2nd half and especially in September.

This series will present some interesting pitching matchups, a point the media has beaten to death.  The first game will see defending Cy Young award winner, Lincecum take on the presumptive 2010 Cy Young winner, Roy Halladay.  As Eno Sarris points out over on Fangraphs, Lincecum has pitched well vs. the Phillies (3.17 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP in seven games) and Halladay has floundered against the Giants (7.23 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in three games), but this means little.  As Sarris writes:

Those numbers are career splits, and what do starts against other iterations of these lineups even mean? Diddly. And then, if we try to boil it down to splits in this season, we get one poor game for Halladay against the Giants (seven innings, ten hits, five runs, five strikeouts and no walks) and one excellent game for Lincecum (eight and a third innings, three hits, two runs, 11 strikeouts and one walk).

Will "The Freak" be able to shut down the potent Phillies offense?

Beyond “The Freak” vs. “Doc”, the pitching will dominate this series.  Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley previews the starting pitching staffs (Blanton and the SF starters, look here for more on H2O), and likens the matchup to the choice between “Maine lobster and filet mignon”, as opposed to Phillies vs. Reds (Maine lobster and Alpo).

Baer also previews the Giants’ starting 8 here, and the Phillies’ here.  I’m not sure that I agree with all of his breakdown of who wins each position.  Baer summarizes his previews like this (my comments in italics following each position):

  • Catcher: PushWhile I have much love for Carlos Ruiz, I think Buster Posey is the better player.  Will Chooch’s experience make this a push? Or will Posey’s superior offense win out?
  • First base: GiantsI have to argue this point, while Aubrey Huff has had a great season, Ryan Howard is still the better player.  While the Big Piece hasn’t driven in any runs and only has 3 hits in 11 at-bats this postseason, he is still a former MVP.
  • Second base: PhilliesI can’t argue this assessment, as Chase Utley is clearly the best 2B in the game, even if he was hurt for part of the season.
  • Third base: PhilliesIf Pablo Sandoval were playing like he did last year, this would be a much closer race, but he has suffered a sophomore slump.  Placido Polanco has been battling an elbow injury, but he is still better than Mike Fontenot or the artist formerly known as Kung Fu Panda.
  • Shortstop: PhilliesJimmy Rollins, who is starting to look a little healthier, is better than Edgar Renteria or Juan Uribe.  It’s just a fact.
  • Left field: GiantsFunny the difference a year makes.  Last year, Raul Ibanez would have beaten Pat Burrell hands down.  This season, Pat the Bat has seen a resurgence while Rauuuuuuuuuuul has started to show his age.  Given Burrell’s resurgence, I would have to agree with this one.
  • Center field: GiantsAndres Torres has been a bright spot for the Giants in his first full season.  I had the pleasure of seeing a game at AT&T Park earlier this season (April 24) with my wife’s cousin and uncle and I remember both her cousin and I wondering why Torres wasn’t playing.  Finally given the chance to start regularly at the beginning of May, Torres has been a revelation.  For he Phillies, Shane Victorino had an up and down year, but the Flyin’ Hawaiian has shown that he can perform on the big stage.  I would call this a push.
  • Right field: PhilliesJayson Werth vs. Cody Ross. Please!  I don’t even need to write anything else.  Plus Werth would win this for his facial hair alone.

I am excited about this series.  I have a couple friendly wagers with my wife’s family (her grandmother and her cousin), and the pitching matchups should make this a classic.  While I think the Giants will put up more of a fight than the Reds, I believe the Phillies are the better team and will win this series in 6.

Missed Opportunities

The Liberty Bell at Citizens Bank Park hasn't rung much in the past 9 games. If the Phillies want to make the playoffs it needs to ring a lot more often.

What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday (8/17), I was in attendance for the game where the Phillies took the Wild Card lead from the San Francisco Giants.  Since that game, the Phillies are 3-6.  They have ceded the Wild Card lead to back to the Giants, and the offense has looked anemic.  This 9 game slump is reminiscent to the offensive struggles the team experienced during June and July.  Since the game I attended, the Phillies have scored 25 runs, an average of just 2.78 runs per game.  It’s amazing they have won three games!  Somehow they managed to score 8 runs against the Giants on the 18th and 6 against the Nationals on the 22nd (both wins).  The other win came in a 1-0 win over the Nationals, where Roy Halladay was his usual dominant self.  During this stretch, the Phillies have lost games where their starters have given up 1 (Joe Blanton on 8/23 against the Astros), 2 (Cole Hamels on 8/24, the 16 inning game), and 3 (Halladay on 8/25, the revenge of J.A. Happ).  These are games the Phillies should win.  The offense, which a year ago was so potent but this year has been streaky, should score more than 2.78 runs per game.

The craziest statistics I came across while researching for this post showed just how under supported Halladay and Hamels have been this season.  In Hamels’ 27 starts. the Phillies have scored fewer than three runs 14 times (follow the link and scroll to the bottom to see the breakdown).  Of those games, the Phillies have been shutout in 4 of them!  With Halladay it is even worse.  While the Phillies have been shutout just once with Doc on the mound, they have scored fewer than three runs 16 times.  Of those 16 games, they have scored one run in 6 of them.  When your two best pitchers have ERAs of 2.22 (Halladay) and 3.40 (Hamels, who has been excellent in the 2nd half with an ERA of 2.83) the team should win more games.  Period!

Thankfully for the Phillies, the Braves have lost three straight and are 5-5 in their last 10 games.  While the Braves have been swooning, the Phillies have missed opportunities to pick up games.  During the last 9 games, the Phillies have lost 5 games to teams they should have beaten (1 to the Nationals and 4 to the Astros).  Given that the Phillies won 2 out of 3 against the Nats, I can’t complain too much about that loss.  What is incomprehensible is the sweep by the Astros.  The team is 11 games under .500 and came into the series 15 games under .500.  While the Astros have played better over the last couple months – they are 26-21 (.553) during July and August – they aren’t a contender.  During that same period, the Phillies are 29-21 (.580).  Most of their starters, with the exception of Hunter Pence (and he might not), wouldn’t start for the Phillies. Their pitching staff consists of a bunch of former Phillies (Brett Myers, Nelson Figueroa, and the aforementioned Happ), Wandy Rodriguez and a guy best known for ESPN comparing him to Chuck Norris after his first start (Bud Norris).  Not exactly a staff that strikes fear into many teams, and one the Phillies certainly should have handled.

Given the Phillies previous dominance at home and the Astros weakness on the road, the sweep is even more difficult to understand.  Going into the series, the Phillies were 42-22 (.656) at Citizens Bank Park.  On the flip side, the Astros were only 22-36 ).379) on the road.  Combine these stats and most would have predicted a Phillies series win, if not a potential sweep for the Phils.

As with the Braves, the Phillies’ main contenders for the Wild Card have been playing poorly over the last 10 games.  The Cardinals are 3-7, while the Giants are 4-6.  The Phillies should give thanks that these teams decided to play poorly at the same time they were slumping.  Entering tonight’s games, the Phillies found themselves. 5 games behind Giants, and were even on losses. The Cards have 3 games in hand (but are playing tonight) and have 1 fewer loss.  Right now, all Phillies fans should cheer for the Nats who take on the Cards tonight.  It could be a tough game for the Nats, as Chris Carpenter is on the hill.

Looking forward, the Phillies need to find their offense and kick it into high gear.  Of the teams they are now battling with, the Phillies have the toughest schedule remaining.  With a West Coast trip – including stops in San Diego, LA and 1 game in Colorado coming up – the Phillies face tough competition over the next week and a half.  The Phillies play just one team the rest of the way who are currently under .500 (the Nationals, for 6 games).  According to the latest Hunt for October on ESPN, the Phillies remaining strength of schedule (SoS) is .505.  By comparison, the Braves have a SoS of .485, the Cards .467, and the Giants .485.

To make things even more difficult for the Phillies, they have 22 road games and just 13 home games remaining. This does not bode well for a team that is 28-31 (.475) on the road.  If the Phillies win 47.5% of those 22 games, that would give them 10 (maybe 11) wins.  If they win at home at their current pace, the would give the Phillies 8 (maybe 9) more wins.  I’m not sure that between 88-90 wins is enough for the Phillies to win the division, and it will be just as tough to win the Wild Card with that number of wins. What all Phillies fans have to hope for is one of their now patented September runs.  If all goes well, the season ending series against the Braves in Atlanta could decide the division and may decide which team is golfing come Columbus Day.

The Phillies clearly have the toughest road ahead and need to take advantage of any missteps the Braves, Cards or Giants make. They haven’t done that over the last few days and might look back at these past 9 games and wonder what might have been.

Wild Night = Wild Card Lead

Citizens Bank Park - My 2nd baseball stadium in less than a week.

Last night, I completed the finally leg of my baseball-centric road trip – taking in the Phillies-Giants game at Citizens Bank Park.  It was a fun game and a special occasion for me, as my family and I celebrated my father’s birthday and my birthday.  The Phillies certainly delivered a great present for both my and my father, winning what became a wild game.  In addition, Chase Utley returned from the DL, which afforded me the opportunity to see my favorite Phillie in action.

Domonic Brown and Jim Jackson doing an interview for Phillies radio prior to the game.

Walking through the stadium to our seats, we were treated to seeing rookie Domonic Brown being interviewed by radio personality, Jim Jackson.  It was pretty cool to see Brown up close and listen to his interview with the former voice of the Flyers, now the voice of Phillies radio.

When I heard the pitching matchups announced for the series, I was happy that Roy Oswalt vs. Barry Zito was the contest for the game I would be attending.  I had seen Zito pitch earlier in the year when I went to a Giants-Cardinals game in San Francisco, so I would have liked to have seen another Giant pitcher (maybe Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum) but I can’t complain too much.  I was exciting to see Oswalt toe the rubber for the Phillies.

Roy Oswalt pitching to Andres Torres

The game did not disappoint, right from the start.  Pat Burrell made his triumphant return to Citizens Bank Park and received a hearty ovation both during lineup announcements and prior to his first at-bat.  He promptly thanked Phillies fans by smashing a home run into the left-field stands to give the Giants a 2-0 lead.  Matt Gelb, Phillies beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, tweeted after the home run “So that’s twice this year when Phillies fans have cheered an opponent (Thome, Burrell) only to have them homer. Stick to booing, obviously.”  Funny, how Phillies fans defy all the stereotypes that sports people want to assign them and are then rewarded with home runs that hurt their team. I suppose people might say that karma is a bitch.  Following a rocky first inning, Oswalt settled down and looked dominant until surrendering a home run to Jose Guillen in the 7th.

For the Giants, Zito pitched well through the first 4+ innings, but then the Phillies strung together a mini-rally in the 5th to tie the game and another in the 6th to take the lead.  Of course, I missed the rally to take the lead, as I was in line to get Crab Fries from the Chickie’s and Pete’s stand.  The line to get the fries was incredibly long, rivaling those at Disney World.  Crazy!  Philly sure does love those Crab Fries.  During the 6th, Jayson Werth finally did something with runners on base (though Placido Polanco wasn’t in scoring position).  Werth has been terrible with runners in scoring position all season, but maybe his double while Polanco was on base will jump-start his season.

Chase Utley, safe at 2nd after a throwing error by Mike Fontenot in the 8th.

The game took a comical turn in the 8th, as the Giants handed the Phillies insurance runs on a balk by Ramon Ramirez and a throwing error by Mike Fontenot.  By the time the Giants committed these errors, the Phillies had already taken a 7-3 lead, but a couple of free run to pad the lead certainly were welcomed.  As for the Phillies pitching, Ryan Madson (he pitched the 8th) and Chad Durbin (pitched the 9th) both looked good.  Madson continued his scoreless innings streak, it’s now 10 1/3 inning over 10 appearances.  Not too shabby.

Placido Polanco standing on first base after one of his 4 hits.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Placido Polanco’s awesome night.  All he did was go 4-5, to take the lead in the NL batting race from Joey Votto.  Polanco ended the night batting .325 to Votto’s .324.  It should be fun to watch Poly make a run at the batting crown.  Hopefully, he has many more 4-5 nights before the season is over.  The Phillies need those types of performances to make the playoffs, and it would be great to see a Phillie win the batting title.  If Poly can hang onto the lead, he would be the first Phillie since Richie Ashburn in 1958 to win the crown!

The Phanatic was happy with the outcome of the game, and is excited the Phillies are now in the lead for the Wild Card.

With the win last night, the Phillies took the lead in the Wild Card race.  They are 19-5 in their last 24 games, and now have a 1 game lead on the Giants and a 1.5 game lead on the Cardinals.  Following the game, Baseball Prospectus puts the Phillies’ chances of making the playoffs at 52%, up 5% with the win.  If the Phillies can win one of the next two games against the Giants, they should end this week in possession of the Wild Card lead.

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Upcoming Posts

Starting Saturday, I will be on a road trip/vacation that will see me hit Cooperstown, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. During that time I plan to blog about my trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Indians game I attend, the Phillies-Giants game on August 17 (I’m hoping for a Tim Lincecum/Roy Halladay matchup) and maybe the first Eagles pre-season game against the Jags. During that time, there may also be a post on the U.S. Open going up, courtesy of resident tennis expert, Vito.

I’m not sure what Indians game I will be going to, though I have the excellent choice of seeing them play the Orioles or the Mariners. The only way my choices could be worse would be if the Pirates were involved. I’m hoping to see Fausto Carmona, the Tribe’s one good pitcher, pitch. I am wondering if the Reading Phillies (my hometown team) game against the Akron Aeros, the Indians’ AA affiliate, wouldn’t be better.

A Week that Could Make or Break Contenders

With the trade deadline come and gone, pennant races throughout both leagues will heat up. In both the NL and AL East, the race has gotten much closer over the last week. The Phillies have pulled to within 2.5 games of the Braves. The Rays are a scant 1 game behind the Yankees after winning their weekend series. Trailing the AL East leaders, the Red Sox are making a run, having won 5 out of their last 6 games. This week could see some movement in the standings, as the contenders all have some tough games ahead of them (some against each other). With the races becoming so close, this week could propel a team into first place, or could crush the hopes of fans along the eastern seaboard.

With the Phillies looking to cut into the Braves' lead, Roy Halladay will go to the mound twice this week.

Both contenders in the NL East have tough weeks ahead of them. The Phillies start the week (on Tuesday) with a 3 game series against the Marlins in Florida, while the Braves take on the Mets in Atlanta.  The Braves and Mets have played 8 times this season, with the Mets owning a 5-3 advantage.  If the Mets can win the series, it will give the Phillies an opportunity to pick up a game of two on the NL East leaders.  While the opportunity certainly exists, the Mets had a horrible July (going 9-17), while the Braves own an MLB best 34-13 record at home.

The Phillies need to win their series with the Marlins, who are coming off a 16-10 July in order to keep pace with the Braves. With Ryan Howard hobbled by a sprained ankle, the Phillies might be without their most consistent offensive threat for some portion of the series. Howard believes he could be back in the lineup for the series opener on Tuesday, but you have to wonder if the Phillies will rest their slugger for a game or two using him for pinch hit duty if necessary. If Howard is rested, Ross Gload or Cody Ransom would likely start at first.  The Phillies will have Roy Halladay, Kyle Kendrick and Roy Oswalt going against the Fish.  Thankfully, the Phillies will avoid Josh Johnson, and will contend with Sean West, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad.  West and Volstad are middling pitchers, neither should scare the boys from South Philly.  Since both are going against superior pitchers, the Phillies are in a good place to win those games.  Will they win those games?  That is another story.  Both are winnable, but they have to go out and get the job done.  Sanchez, on the other hand, is a tough pitcher having a very good season (including a complete game shutout of the Giants in his last outing), and will pitch against Kendrick.  That game looks like the most likely loss for the Phillies; however, Kendrick has pitched well in his last two starts, throwing 13.1 innings, striking out 8 and giving up only 2 earned runs.  The Phillies are in an excellent position to win this series, even sweep it, but they have not performed well on the road.  Their road record currently stands at 23-30, they were just 3-11 on the road in July, and lost 2 of 3 to a Nationals team that is 17 games under .500 and was without their best pitcher in Stephen Strasburg.

Phillies fans will be rooting for Lincecum when he takes on the Braves this week (and not because he is on their fantasy team).

At the end of the week, the Braves will host the surging San Francisco Giants, while the Phillies will return home to the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park to host the Mets.  The Braves will face the top of the Giants rotation, with Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain pitching the first three games.  The series finale will see Jonathan Sanchez take on Derek Lowe.  The Giants won the last series between these two teams (2-1) and posted a .714 winning percentage in July (20-8).  Coming off a weekend sweep of the Dodgers, there is hope for Phillies’ fans.  San Francisco winning is a bit of a double-edged sword, as they are the current leaders in the Wild Card race and could put more distance between themselves and the Phillies.  Despite this fact, I know that I will be rooting for the boys in orange and black (it seems natural for a Philly sports fan, no?).

While the Braves take on the Giants, the Phillies will renew their rivalry with the Mets.  The Mets currently own a 4-2 edge in the season series, but as stated above have been less than stellar over the past month.   The Phillies will face Hisanori Takahashi, Jonathon Niese, and Johan Santana during the three games series, and will counter with Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels and Halladay.  Takahashi was tough on the Phillies in his only start against them this season, pitching 6 innings of shutout ball, striking out 6.  Though, if Blanton can pitch even moderately well, the Phillies should have a chance to win all three games.  Hamels is a better pitcher than Niese, and has been on fire lately.  The Phillies may not face Niese though, as there are rumors that his turn in the rotation will be skipped after he was blasted by the Diamondbacks in his last start.  Sunday’s match up between Santana and Halladay should be a great one, as two of the best pitchers over the last decade will be squaring off.  The last time Santana faced the Phillies he had one of the worst outings of his career, giving up 10 runs in 3.2 innings; and the Cardinals pounded him in his last start, scoring 7 runs in 5.2 innings.

Given the Phillies play of late, I think they pick up a couple of games this week, placing them in excellent position to retake the division lead within the next couple of weeks.  Of course, this prediction is predicated on Ryan Howard coming back to play most of the week.  Without Howard in the lineup, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez would need to continue their torrid post-All-Star play for the Phillies to have a chance.

There hasn't been much good in Cleveland sports for the last several months, and it is unlikely to change against the Sox at Fenway.

Turning our focus to the Al East, the Sox have a massive opportunity to cut into their deficit.  They start the week playing four games against a Cleveland team that just traded its best starter (Jake Westbrook) to the Cardinals, and one of its best offensive weapons (Austin Kearns) and its closer (Kerry Wood) to the Yankees.  The pitching matchups clearly favor the Sox, with John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka lined up for the series.  While the Sox will have to contend with Fausto Carmona in the first game, the pitcher for the 2nd game of the series is undecided, former Sox player Justin Masterson will pitch the third game, and Josh Tomlin, a 25-year-old rookie with 2 starts to  his name (though he has been impressive in those two starts, giving up just 2 runs over 12.1 innings) will start the finale.  While these games might seem like locks, the Sox are only 2-2 against the Indians this season, despite Cleveland’s season-long mediocrity. With momentum from two straight walk-off wins, the Sox are in an excellent position to win 3 or 4 of the games against the Indians.   As for their competition in the AL East, The Yankees face the Blue Jays in New York, while the Rays face white-hot Twins (9-1 in their last 10 games) at Tropicana Field.  Neither series will be easy for the teams with the two best records in baseball.  If either falters, the Sox need to take advantage by winning a very winnable series.

Following the series against the Indians, the Sox will travel to the Bronx to take on the Yankees for 4 games.  Just 3-5 against the Bronx Bombers this season, the Sox cannot afford to lose this series if they want to have a realistic shot of catching the Yankees.  The already potent Yankees lineup was augmented through two trades just before the deadline.  They captured the aforementioned Kearns (8 HR, 42 RBI, .271 avg, and .768 OPS), as well as Lance Berkman from the Astros.  Berkman, a shadow of his former MVP caliber self, still has some pop and fits in excellently at DH.  The Big Puma has struggled at the plate this year, batting just .242 – by far the lowest of his career, but still has 13 HR and a .794 OPS.  He provides an upgrade at DH over the oft-injured Nick Johnson, and can spell Mark Teixeira at first base.  Because the series is 4 games, the Sox aren’t lucky enough to avoid C.C. Sabathia, who will pitch Saturday’s game against Lackey.  The first game will pit Clay Buchholz against Javier Vazquez, while Sunday’s game will be a battle of former Marlins with Beckett taking on A.J. Burnett.  This series presents the Sox with an opportunity to cut into the Yankees’ lead, the question is can they do it?  While the Sox and Yanks battle in the Bronx, the Rays will be taking on Toronto in Tampa, not exactly an easy series.  Pending the outcome of the Sox-Yankess series, the Rays could find themselves in first place at the end of the week.

Big Papi and his clutch hitting have returned for the Red Sox. Will it continue against the Yankees?

I think the Sox will carry their new-found momentum through the Cleveland series, winning at least 3 of the games.  The biggest test of the season for the Sox will come starting Friday.  With their offense and pitching back on track, the Sox have a good chance to split the series with the Yankees.  If they can win the series, they will have passed their biggest test, and shaved at least 2 games off the Yankees lead.

Right now, the Phillies have a 31.9 % chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus, while the Sox have a 26.5% chance.  Hopefully, both the Sox and Phillies take care of business this week.   One of my teams needs to make the playoffs!

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