Wednesday, September 7, 2005

We've seen it happen every September since Larry Bowa took over for Terry Francona. The Phillies fight and fight and contend with the best of them the first four months of the season, but for some unknown reason, [they] just hit the proverbial fan when September rolls around. We all thought it was the manager, and it well could have been, but we now have a new mind at the helm of the Phillies, and it's the same dog and pony show. Bad managing, lackadaisical play. Hey, I'm going to be blunt here: dumb play.

Yes, you did see Jimmy Rollins stumble around first base in the elbow of what would end up being a three-game meltdown by the Phillies. You saw one of the game's better baserunners make a Little League mistake. Yes, you did see Billy Wagner not only give up the game once, you saw him do it in twice, back-to-back to boot. You saw one of the game's best closers give up two crucial games like they had "diseased" written all over them. This is what it has come down to, folks: mistakes. Mis-management. In September, every move counts, and it seems the Phillies keep drawing the "go to jail" card from the chance pile.

After winning the first two games to start September, the Phillies have managed to drop five straight games, three of them to the Houston Astros, who play Minor League-quality teams the majority of the time until the season wraps up on October 2. It was of the utmost importance that the Phillies sweep the series to give themselves the best shot at the postseason. So they dropped the first game, and we said taking two of three would suffice. So they lost the second game, too. Finally, we said, they had better win the third game, or they're in muck and mire. Muck and mire it is, for they dropped three of three to a team they haven't beaten since the Vet was still a couple months away from its implosion.

If there was a trend to follow in the series, besides Ryan Howard being clutch-times-ten, it was the flurry of moves manager Charlie Manuel makes late in games. It's fine to make moves, but moderation is the key. If you start substituting every one of your bench players in, not only does it send a message to your other guys that you don't trust them or believe in them, it leaves you with weak artillery should the game reach extras. Let's go through the moves and do some critiquing.

September 5, 2005 - Game One

Pinch-hit Ryan Howard, who struck out and replaced Tomas Perez at first base, for Brett Myers in the 7th inning.

- Although Howard is one of the few players you want wielding a bat in a key situation, it was blatantly obvious he would be facing a lefty, whom Howard struggles against. It would have behooved Manuel to have used someone like Ramon Martinez instead.

Pinch-hit Michael Tucker, who grounded out, for Jason Michaels in the 7th inning.

- A good move in playing the percentages: Tucker, a lefty, against Dan Wheeler, a righty.

Pinch-hit Kenny Lofton, who singled, for Mike Lieberthal in the 9th.

- In essentially a 2-for-1 move, Manuel obviously felt much more confident with Lofton at the plate than Pratt. Again, I can't argue with this move, except burning two players for a single and some speed might not have been worth it.

Pinch-ran Matt Kata for Ryan Howard in the 9th.

- Why you would put the slower Kata in to pinch run, and let the weaker hitter in Chavez pinch-hit is a mystery that only Charlie Manuel will be able to solve. The logic just wasn't there. Playing the percentages wasn't a factor, as Kata is a switch hitter, and they were facing a righty.

Pinch-hit Endy Chavez, who struck out, for Billy Wagner in the 9th.

- Why would you pinch hit Endy Chavez in any situation unless he was literally your last resort? He's barely hitting .200 with one clutch hit with the Phillies, which came in his very first game in Philadelphia following the trade with Washington. Not only did he embarass himself at the plate, he embarassed his manager and exposed his incompetence.

September 6, 2005 - Game Two

- Nothing really to criticize here, just a shameless loss that can be pinned on the mostly-reliable Billy Wagner.

September 7, 2005 - Game Three

Pinch-hit Tomas Perez, who popped out, for Ryan Madson in the 7th.

- Nothing to criticize.

Pinch-hit Jason Michaels, who walked, for Kenny Lofton in the 8th.

- Manuel was playing the percentages here, but Kenny Lofton is a veteran hitter who can handle left-handers just fine. Save Jason Michaels for later when he would be an improvement in the batters box.

Pinch-hit Michael Tucker, who grounded out and was replaced by Todd Pratt defensively, for Mike Lieberthal in the 8th.

- Another two-for-one deal, and Manuel obviously has more confidence in Tucker at the plate than Pratt. Pratt has slightly better offensive numbers, but Manuel again played the percentages with the left-handed Tucker against a righty.

Pinch-hit Shane Victorino, who singled, for Ugueth Urbina in the 8th.

- Nothing to criticize.

Pinch-ran Endy Chavez for Pat Burrell in the 8th.

- On paper, it sounds like a good move late in the game, but Manuel missed an opportunity to pinch-run for Burrell after he walked in the 8th inning, because Ryan Howard followed up with a double to right field, and with Chavez's speed, he most likely would have scored. Instead, Burrell reached only third, and then was replaced by Chavez. On the ensuing play, Chavez was thrown out at home on a sharp grounder to first baseman Lance Berkman. Bad timing.

As you can tell, Charlie Manuel tried to manage a win out of the Phillies, but after using a total of 14 bench players over the three-game series, he may have done one of many things: sent the message that he doesn't trust his starters to get the job done late in the game, put too much pressure on the bench players to perform (evidenced by Endy Chavez's wild flailing at every Brad Lidge pitch in the bottom of the ninth in the first game), or simply overmanaged. At any rate, Charlie Manuel exposed himself as incompetent, just like Larry Bowa. Of course, it's hard to win with a bench of Minor Leaguers (Shane Victorino, Matt Kata), and guys who should be Minor Leaguers (Tomas Perez, Endy Chavez).

Whatever the case, the implosion of the Phillies should come as no surprise if you've followed the 2003 and 2004 versions. You can rest assured the Astros will make a cakewalk to October, and perhaps the NLDS, while the Phils will battle it out in intra-division play and most likely end up watching the NLDS at home. For once, you can't place the blame on Ed Wade, who made a few brilliant moves during the season, such as acquiring Ugueth Urbina and a solid bench player, while at the same time quelling the second-base controversy by dealing Placido Polanco. He got rid of Tim Worrell and his sporadic contributions to the team and at least got something in return for it, rather than giving him paid leave, and he got Michael Tucker, a seasoned veteran with postseason experience. It's not Wade's fault, he gave Manuel the team, and Manuel hasn't produced, and his team hasn't produced for him.

Unfortunately, as much as the Phillies would like to pick up the phone and call Jim Leyland to come replace Manuel, that is out of the question due to the unproductive meeting the Phillies upper management had with him before they had selected a manager. Leyland, in the interview, required that he be able to deal Pat Burrell if he were to take over the team, and the management would not give him that power. As a result, Leyland immediately declared the interview over.

There's only so much you can do to put a winning ballclub on the field, and the Phillies are almost out of options before it's time to scrap the current model and go back to the drawing board.