(Baseball) Heaven Isn't Too Far Away
Call us cynical, but there is no sweeter sound than hearing the boos reign down in baseball heaven as the Phils polish off a sweep of the hurting Cardinals (interesting point: the Cards' run differential this year is +1, yet they are 9 games over .500 with a seven game losing streak. anyone else see a paper tiger?). Unfortunately, we had to watch it all from a hospital bed this week, following a false alarm diagnosis of appendicitis. No matter, things are improving on all fronts, baseball and non. On the field, thanks to explosive run production -- sometimes by longball and sometimes not -- along with competant pitching, the Phils have won 8 of 10, have pulled back into eyeball range of the wildcard stew, and remain above the fold in the nightly national media, althought he last point is mainly due to Chase Utley and the thing that will not be mentioned here.
How can such an underachieving team pull things together so quickly and so convincingly? If only we knew, definitively. But, things are clicking, including:
*Lineup construction: Finally! The current Phils lineup appears perfectly constructed for how the Phils produce. Rollins, when hot, is a fine leadoff hitter with some pop. When he isn't it's depressing. Right now, he's hot, to the tune of 321/389/679 thanks to that two homer game the other night, after having a little injury time off. Dellucci appears to be patient enough to be a good number 2, while the Utley, Howard, Burrell arrangement affords both Utley and Howard more lineup protection than they were getting previously. The new black hole, Rowand and Nunez, is currently split by Cinderella, otherwise known as Chris Coste, the 33-year-old rookie with a hot bat, excellent situational hitting, and occasional pop. If this guy doesn't have a fan club (Coste's Ghosts? Coste's Hostesses) by the next home stand, there is no justice in south Philly. Top to bottom, the team is having excellent at-bats more often than not, fouling off pitches and running deep counts. This maximizes the chances of getting to the starter in the 5th or 6th when he tires and seeing an extra mediocre reliever afterward.
* Starting pitching: Myers and Hamels, a combined 47 years old -- or one Julio Franco, if you're scoring at home -- have emerged as dual aces on an otherwise scattershot staff. Although neither are complete-game workhorses, both have shown to be battlers this year. Myers has pitched reliably since coming back from his incident and Hamels is starting to take off -- he has 44 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings in his past five starts. Together, Myers and Hamels also form an almost perfect twin-bill: Myers is a right-handed power pitcher with a splitter, big curve and a workhorse mentaility. Hamels is a lefthander with a killer change, improving location, and absolutely no lack of self-confidence. They may not be Santana and Liriano, but one can't help but get excited.
* Bullpen management: Sure, cutting Ryan Franklin helps, but somewhere along the line, Charlie Manual decided that he no longer has set roles for every reliever in his bullpen. He's pitching Geoff Geary in the 8th some nights, Aaron Fultz in the 6th or 7th or in mop up, and Arther Rhodes in games when he can't walk in the winning runs. This is a tentative plus, since it means that right choices could leverage more positives out of a fairly inexperienced/washed crew. Much hinges on Madson's production in his new old role and if fairly exciting Fabio Castro earns a promotion from nowhere to Rick White territory. Its hard not to like this card-shuffling though, since it's very un-Charlie.
Another plus of these blowout victories has the been the resting of the presumed back of the bullpen, Rhodes and Gordon. If the mess that is the wildcard truly does come down to the wire and the Phils are truly in the hunt, having these two fresh is a must. Gordon has been everything the team could have asked for this year, aside from blowing that game against the Mets a few months ago.
Which brings us to our last point. This weekend is a golden opportunity for the team to prove its mettle to the baseball public. They face only one of the Mets' big 2 starters in Flushing and will be on national TV both Saturday on FOX and Sunday night again on ESPN. We will see how much Jon Lieber still cares, how Randy Wolf's arm hold out and how Scott Mathieson, who at this time last year was pitching in A ball, does under the bright lights of the Big Apple.
Wild card race or no, there's alot of pride on the line this weekend.