Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Aaron Rowand
Aaron Rowand at a
press conference.

"Driven to deep centerfield. Rowand back... are you kidding me? What a great, great, perhaps game-saving catch by Aaron Rowand!" That was Harry Kalas, as eloquent as you can get behind a microphone, expressing the appreciation that anyone who saw the play has for Aaron Rowand's effort on May 11.

Four days after crashing into the center-field fence at Citizens Bank Park in the first inning, centerfielder Aaron Rowand held a press conference addressing the already-legendary catch, the status of his injury (broken nose) and his take on what "Negadelphians" think about his all-out style of play. He also informed the press that he'd use ten of his fifteen days on the disabled list to recoup, and the last five to prepare for his return to the lineup.

"I think my will to try to help out my team, try to help out my pitcher -- there's no better compliment that you get from playing the outfield than from your teammates, from your pitchers who enjoy having you play defense behind them, and I play hard, and that's it, that's my game, that's how I've played since I was a kid," Rowand explained to the curious congregation of sportswriters.

Rowand's catch was not only an anomaly to see in Philadelphia; it was, as Kalas called, a catch that saved the game for the Phillies and starter Gavin Floyd in the first inning of the rubber match between the Phillies and their division rival New York Mets. The three runs saved by Rowand's catch proved integral, as the Phillies pulled out a 2-0 win in the rain-shortened, five-inning game.

The win got the Phillies back on the winning track after halting their nine-game winning streak with a 13-4 blowout loss to the Mets, and are currently winners of thirteen out of their last fourteen games. The unrelenting style of play of the Phillies as they opened the second month of the baseball season is exemplified in their late-game heroics:

May 1 @ FLA
The Phillies scored four in the seventh and three in the eighth to win after being down 5-1 against 2003 Rookie of the Year and 2005 Cy Young candidate Dontrelle Willis. The seventh was highlighted by a three-run single by Shane Victorino; Pat Burrell added a solo homerun in the top of the eighth to put the Phillies ahead 6-5 en route to their victory.
May 2 @ FLA
Down 5-3 in the seventh inning, Jimmy Rollins homered with two outs. Chase Utley followed with a single, and Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell walked, loading the bases for Aaron Rowand, who followed by hitting a bases-clearing triple that gave the Phillies a 7-5 win.
May 3 ATL
As the eighth inning rolled around, it seemed as if the Phillies were going to waste a solid start by Brett Myers, but Aaron Rowand once again came up with a clutch hit. Trailing 4-3 with Chase Utley on first base following a single, Rowand took a 0-1 Remlinger pitch to the opposite field for a lead-changing two-run homerun, making the score 5-4. Tom Gordon came in for the ninth to notch his ninth save in nine chances.
May 9 NYM
After Tom Gordon blew his first save of the year by serving up a two-run homerun to Carlos Delgado to tie the game at 4-4, Gordon's teammates immediately picked him up in the bottom half of the ninth. With two outs and seemingly no chance to avoid a tenth inning, pinch-hitter David Dellucci hit a triple down the right field line, one-hopping off of the top of the wall near a fan who alertly did not touch the ball. Jimmy Rollins was subsequently hit by a pitch, and Chase Utley drew a walk to load the bases for Bobby Abreu, who had already hit a walk-off three-run homerun against the Los Angeles Dodgers at home this season, giving the Phils their first win of the season. Abreu hit another walk-off, but oddly enough, his hit went only about forty feet in front of home plate, but pitcher Aaron Heilman could not make an accurate throw to get Abreu at first, scoring Dellucci and giving the Phillies a 5-4 victory.
May 12 @ CIN
The Phillies scored six runs in the final three innings to break a 2-2 tie and win 8-4. In the seventh, Jimmy Rollins got to second on a fielding error by Adam Dunn, and quickly scored on a Chase Utley single. In the eighth, Carlos Ruiz hit a sacrifice fly to score Shane Victorino, who reached base by getting hit by a pitch. The ninth inning was a little more wild -- quite literally -- as Abreu, who walked, scored on a Brian Shackleford wild pitch. Shane Victorino then homered to score pinch-runner Chris Roberson. David Bell walked and advanced to third on a Carlos Ruiz single, and subsequently scored when Rick White balked.
May 13 @ CIN
David Bell knocked in Ryan Howard, who reached on a two-base error by centerfielder Quinton McCracken, from second with a double in the seventh inning to break a 0-0 tie. In the ninth, Chase Utley was hit by a pitch, then proceeded to steal second base. Utley advanced to third on a Pat Burrell single, and quickly scored when hard-throwing Todd Coffey uncorked a wild pitch, padding the Phils' lead to 2-0 for another victory.
May 14 @ CIN
After making a quick stop at the emergency room during the night, Ryan Howard hit a pinch-hit solo homerun in the eighth inning off of left-hander Brandon Claussen to tie the game at 1-1. He stayed in the game, replacing Alex Gonzalez at first base. Smart move by manager Charlie Manuel, because Howard came up in the twelfth inning and hit another solo homerun off of left-hander Chris Hammond, to seal the 2-1 victory for the Phillies -- their thirteenth win in fourteen games.

With the Phillies drawing inspiration out of just about anyone and anything, the injury bug -- and the flu bug -- has come to Philadelphia. Catcher Mike Lieberthal went on the 15-day disabled list after being hit by a pitch on May 5 against the Giants'. Relief pitcher Julio Santana went only a week before being injured again. On April 26, Santana went on the 15-day disabled list with gastroenteritis; on May 13, he returned with right elbow tendinitis. And Aaron Rowand, obviously, is out with a fractured nose. The flu hit several players, including Jon Lieber, Gavin Floyd, and Ryan Howard (who went to the emergency room the night prior to hitting two solo homeruns to give the Phillies a 2-1 twelve-inning victory and sweep of the Reds).

Howard, who was criticized early for slumping, has found his power swing and now sits with a .302 average, 12 HR, and 27 RBI. He doesn't worry about the man whom he replaced -- Jim Thome -- who is hitting .298 with 15 HR and 37 RBI. Rookie phenom and southpaw Cole Hamels had an effectively wild debut on May 12 in Cincinnati, going five innings and allowing only 1 hit along with five walks. He fanned seven, four of which against the Reds' two best sluggers in Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Dunn.

Cole Hamels
Cole Hamels at a
press conference.

The starting pitching, labeled the weakness of the Phillies since spring training began, has started to come together, allowing just one run over the past four games (31 innings; 0.29 ERA). Brett Myers has been consistent all year, as he has yet to allow more than three runs in a game and has gone at least six innings in each of his last six starts. Jon Lieber's ERA, which was at 21.60 after his first start, has gone down steadily in each of his last five starts; it now stands at 5.50. The corner-painter has allowed four or less earned runs in each of his last five starts, highlighted by an 8.2 inning two-hit shutout in his last start against Cincinnati.

Cory Lidle's last start against the Mets -- a short-lived two-inning start in which he gave up 8 runs (5 earned) -- is an aberration considering the durable middle-of-the-rotation starter had pitched at least five innings in each of his previous six starts, and allowed four earned runs or less in each of them, as well. Gavin Floyd, on the other hand, has been inconsisent, yet owns a decent 4-2 record with a 5.30 ERA despite giving up 21 walks in nearly 36 innings. Aside from the first inning of his last start in which Aaron Rowand bailed him out, Floyd had been unable to pitch with confidence and it has shown. However, the deeper Floyd gets into the season, the more acclimated he will become as a Major League starter, and the Phillies will be able to depend on him every fifth day as they had envisioned years ago.

Perhaps the most surprising contribution has been that of utility outfielder Shane Victorino. Hitting .519 (14-for-27) in the month of May, the Hawaiian-born switch-hitter has impressively filled the shoes of Aaron Rowand. His 4-for-4 night on May 12 would have satisfied most players, but Victorino chose to grieve about a missed opportunity rather than his career night. The missed opportunity in question: Cole Hamels brought a no-hitter into the fifth inning on May 12, but it was broken up when Reds shortstop Felipe Lopez hit a ball to shallow right-center field that was barely out of Victorino's reach. "I was a little frustrated that that one hit came where I could have made a play," Victorino said. "I did my best to make a play, but came up short." Coincidentally, Jon Lieber also brought a perfect deep into the seventh inning the following night, but on Adam Dunn Bobblehead Night at the Great American Ballpark, Dunn hit a line drive straight up the middle that bounced over the glove of the diving Jimmy Rollins.

Team City Record Win % GB
New York 23-14 .622 --
Philadelphia 22-15 .595 1.0
Atlanta 18-20 .474 5.5
Washington 13-25 .342 10.5
Florida 11-25 .306 11.5

When May rolled around, the Phillies were tied with the Atlanta Braves in second place, six games behind the division-leading New York Mets. Little did they know that at the midpoint of the month, they would be just one game behind the Mets, and 4.5 ahead of the Braves. However, one must approach a Phillies hot streak with caution -- they won 13 out of 14 from May 31 to June 12 last season and lost their next six series and split a four-game series in the twenty-two following games. The Phillies will eventually go cold again sooner rather than later, as all teams do throughout the course of the season; however, the Phillies' season will hinge on how fast they thaw themselves out during the cold streaks.