Thursday, May 17, 2007

They're right back where they started. Dead even, from 0-0 to 20-20, thanks to a resurgent May (9-6) following a dismal April (11-14). It's a brand new season, as they say, but that's not to overlook the outstanding performances the Phillies have had over the last week and a half.

Matched up against tough pitching and teams on hot streaks, the Phillies have doused their fires and started their own, all without the support of their reigning MVP award-winning first baseman, save for a go-ahead pinch-hit grand slam in Arizona on May 9.

Jump Start

Cole Hamels 7.0 8 5 3 2 9
Freddy Garcia 6.0 5 2 2 0 2
Adam Eaton 7.0 7 3 3 1 4
Jamie Moyer 7.0 6 3 3 1 4
Cole Hamels 7.0 7 2 2 2 7
Freddy Garcia 6.0 8 3 3 2 5
Jon Lieber 8.0 9 2 1 1 5
Jamie Moyer 6.1 9 5 5 2 1
Adam Eaton 7.2 4 2 1 2 5
Cole Hamels 8.0 2 2 2 1 11

The starting rotation has given the Phillies quality starts in 9 out of the last 10 games. They have been pitching impeccably, and that almost became a literal truth as Cole Hamels pitched six perfect innings -- 18 up, 18 down -- on May 16 against the Brewers.

The best thing about the starting rotation's success is that they stay in games well into the seventh and eighth innings, ensuring that Brett Myers -- the only reliable pitcher in the bullpen -- is essentially the only reliever used. The last ten performances by the Phillies' starting pitching: (see table on right)


Believe it or not, the Phillies role players have been an integral part in the Phillies' recent success. Abraham Nunez has 15 hits in his last 32 at-bats, raising his batting average from .220 on May 6 to .320 on May 16. 10 days, 100-point increase. Oh, and he also plays incredible defense.

Then there's Greg Dobbs, who is jokingly referred to as Roy Hobbs ("The Natural") for his 5 HR, 20 RBI during spring training. He hasn't stopped there. As a result of getting regular playing time since May 8, Dobbs has 9 hits, including 2 HR, in 21 at-bats.

On national television in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers, Michael Bourn showed that while he's not exactly a potent hitter, he can turn any menial single-bagger into a triple. In the top of the seventh inning in San Francisco on May 6, Pat Burrell drew a leadoff walk, and Manuel quickly sent in Bourn to pinch-run with the Phillies ahead 7-5. Aaron Rowand hit a fly ball for an out, bringing up Wes Helms. Even with pitcher Kevin Correia fully aware of his intent to steal, Bourn stole both second and third base. In true fundamental fashion, Helms grounded out, but Bourn scored.

Manager Charlie Manuel has frequently used Bourn as a defensive replacement for Pat Burrell in the late innings of games. He's received criticism that it shortchanges the team when they need runs late in the game and they have the light-hitting Bourn up at the plate instead of Burrell, but so far, it hasn't come back to bite Manuel.

If catcher Carlos Ruiz can be classified as a bench player, then he's arguably the most valuable bench player the Phillies have had in years. Going into the season, it seemed like free agent signee Rod Barajas would get the lion's share of the starts behind home plate, but Ruiz has played in 28 of the Phillies' 40 games now, and he certainly has earned it. He ranks in the top-five among rookies in batting average and RBI, and is arguably the best defensive catcher in the league. Duly noted by Phillies' television color analyst Chris Wheeler, however, is his ability to handle the team's diverse pitching staff. Between innings, Ruiz can be seen going over with his pitchers, first, what did and did not work in the previous inning. Then, he'll go over the scouting reports of the upcoming hitters and the tandem will devise a game plan.

Ruiz's shining moment came on May 15, with the Phillies tied with the Brewers 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, when he preempted a Derrick Turnbow fastball and sent it 400+ feet into the left-centerfield seats.

The Phillies' catcher is not only an early Rookie of the Year award candidate, he is also a possible All-Star catcher. He, of course, would have to compete with Brian McCann and Russell Martin -- certainly not an easy task.

Late-Inning Heroics

Just about a month after suffering two heart-breaking losses to the Atlanta Braves in the late innings in consecutive games, the Phillies have exacted revenge on the Milwaukee Brewers, the best team in the National League going into the series.

In the first game, the Phillies were down 6-2 going into the eighth inning with the intimidating task of facing the Brewers' league-best bullpen. Following a six-run eighth inning, Derrick Turnbow's ERA went from 1.76 going into the game to 3.94 when he left, and the Phillies marred the Brewers' perfect 21-0 record when leading after seven innings. [See the graph!]

As if beating the league's best team and the league's best bullpen once wasn't good enough, the Phillies came out for an encore the following night. They had been holding on to a 3-1 lead going into the eighth inning, but Prince Fielder launched a solo homerun off of Adam Eaton down the right field line to bring it to 3-2. Brett Myers came in with one out in the eighth inning, promptly struck out the only batter he faced that inning, and sat down for a while as the Phillies got men on base in the bottom-half, but failed to pad their lead. Almost as if the Phillies games' were in syndication, Myers repeated what so many of the other Phillies relievers had done thus far, and gave up a game-tying homerun in the ninth inning to Johnny Estrada. Myers, however, kept his composure and kept the Brewers off the board otherwise, bringing a 3-3 tie into the bottom of the ninth, and Carlos Ruiz emerged as the hero, hitting a game-ending solo homerun. Once again, the best bullpen blew the game for the Brewers. And how sweet it felt for the downtrodden Phillies. [See the graph!]

Shane's Shame and Shane's Shine

As mentioned in my last entry, right fielder Shane Victorino has made his share of baserunning gaffes. Tack on a few more.

I don't mean to harp on Victorino's shortcomings, but they're amateurish mistakes. Other than his baserunning post-second base, he's been an incredible asset to the Phillies. He ranks third in the league with 14 stolen bases (he's only been thrown out twice; his SB success rate is 87.5% -- incredible), and is the National League leader in outfield assists with six of them (teammate Pat Burrell is just behind him with five). If Aaron Rowand wasn't hitting so well, Victorino would clearly be the Phillies' leadoff hitter with Ryan Howard out of the lineup and Jimmy Rollins subsequently moved to the #3 slot.

2007 All-Star Game: American League vs. Philadelphia Phillies?

Maybe it's just these rose-colored glasses, but the Phillies have some viable candidates for the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Rowand, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, Jon Lieber, and Brett Myers.

Chase Utley, 2B .312 7 33 3 .967 18.4
Aaron Rowand, OF .307 6 20 3 .943 17.7
Jimmy Rollins, SS .286 9 26 9 .877 15.9
Carlos Ruiz, C .286 3 17 1 .745 5.7
Jamie Moyer, SP 4-2 3.48 54.1 32/17 1.16 10.3
Cole Hamels, SP 6-1 3.30 62.2 70/17 1.19 8.8
Jon Lieber, SP 1-2 2.83 35.0 18/12 1.28 8.0
Brett Myers, RP 1-0 1.08 16.2 24/5 1.19 0.9*

*Includes three starts

Battle of the Jimmies

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, normally putrid in April, was easily one of the best hitters in all of baseball, behind Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds, of course. In April, Rollins hit .297 with 9 HR, 18 RBI, and an OPS of .979. The key statistic to understanding Rollins, though, is his walks total. In April, that was at 10.

Now more than halfway through May, Rollins is hitting .267 in the month with 0 HR, 7 RBI, and an OPS of .697. His walks? Two.

The implication, then, is that when Rollins is hitting well, he is patient at the plate willing to walk. When he's slumping, he's not working counts.

Somebody Likes Chris

In my last entry, I detailed how Chris Coste was shafted out of a roster spot he deserved when spring training broke and the team headed back to Philadelphia to start the regular season. As Ryan Howard has been placed on the disabled list, Coste has been called up and will mostly be used as a pinch-hitter. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that he'll get anything more than an at-bat here and there, despite his versatility.