caught looking

a blog about the philadelphia phillies. not to be confused, exactly, with "caught looking" the debut album by independent/unsigned/unheard of singer/songwriter greg roth, who is, coincidently, yours truly.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Storm Brewin'?

Who knew that in only his second major league start, King Cole would be called upon to stop a modest, yet troubling, losing streak? The Phils have dropped two straight walk-off games in Milwaukee, last night on bad pitching and the night before on bad throwing by a pitcher. The bullpen has returned to the top of the list of worries, followed closely by the god-awful bench, injuries, and Gavin Floyd. The offense saved itself last night from being including on that list by stringing together a few hits to score three in the top of the ninth. Last year, it seemed the criticism of the Phils' late-inning nonchalance never ended. One year later, the squad has the Cardiac Kids thing down, even if it doesn't always result in a W. A win that is, not a second term, second generation president. Just wanted to clear that up.

So, this afternoon, Cole Hamels takes the mound against [insert Brewers left-handed replacement starter with a 9 ERA here.] Where have all these southpaw pitchers come from? Looks like the book is out and on the market on the Phils: can't hit lefties, worst in the NL with RiSP, worst hitting starting rotation, Van-Damme-it's-weak bench, and free-swinging leadoff guy in a huge slump. Last night's installment of "This Is Your Lefty," saw some guy send down 6 of 6 in the late innings before former Phils Rule 5-er Derrick Turnbow came in and flippin' struggled.

Currently, the vaunted offense is not so vaunted, injuries or no injuries. So, in the interim, we've been treated to some good pitching. Until the middle of sixth inning last night, that is. Gavin Floyd plunked the leadoff batter in the first, then surrendered a solo HR after getting a DP. As with his outing against the Mets, he then turned bulldog and sat down 12 straight at one point. In the 6th, however, he allowed a baserunner and then a string of hits, before leaving the job of plating runners to Rheal Cormier and his fat-part-of-the-bat non-bender. Cormier's first pitch to Prince Fielder was sharp and Fielder flailed at it. Every pitch after that? Not so good. A string of doubles later, plus a subpar inning by Geoff Geary in the 7th and the Phils were in a hole. Thanks to Arthur Rhodes and his traveling circlus of balls outside the strikezone in the 9th, the comeback proved to be superfluous.

Floyd is a bit of an enigma at this point. Fasano insists that he will get better now that he's using a two seamer, but we still see a two-pitch pitcher without the benefit of consistent location. While Floyd's command was a lot closer to acceptable last night, his pitching from the stretch was not. His troubles in the 6th innings all seemed to stem from the sudden change in delivery. Not having to deal with baserunners for four innings showed that the former first-rounder can handle a potent lineup and get into a groove. His lack of command from the stretch and non-existent changeup (the over-under on how many he threw last night is "one" -- which do you want) expose his very much work-in-progress status.

As mentioned only a few posts ago, the team cannot suffer a letdown during this stretch of baseball if it hopes to hang with the Mets all season. Losing two of three to the Brewers is not the end of the world -- the Mets just did it last week -- but getting swept could be a catastrophe by the time the Red Sox, Mets, and Brewers again stop by in the next two weeks. The legend of Cole Hamels may be ready to be written -- nay, already written -- but the demands on him at this point are kind of silly. This team, despite a nice run lately, is deeply flawed. It is still streaky, still deficient in some critical offensive areas, still undependable on the mound in the middle innings, and still perpetually a man short in situation after situation. Some moves have got to be made soon. Dare we say it? The bench needs one of those whatshumacallits... "professional hitters".

In the meantime, it don't take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Can (should?) a 22-year-old rookie be today's shelter from the storm?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Red Means Both Stop and Go

One color, two very different teams. At least over the weekend. You may remember the Reds from such roles as first place, Central Division. Well, that was a long time ago. Over a week, in fact. After tearing up the league with its potent offense, the Little Red Machine That Couldn't trotted out a merry-go-round of confused hitters for six games, barely making the scoreboard in most of those. Meanwhile, the Phillies Phestival came a week early, showing up on the road in Cincinnati to showcase its new strength: starting pitting. Cole Hamels: one-hit ball in his major league debut. Jon Lieber: perfect through 6 2/3 and one out from a CG shutout. Brett Myers: the usual 7-inning, one-run game. Anyone else see three guys who might like to try on a post season series? The wily veteran, the stud power pitcher, and the cocky left-handed rookie. Sounds like something to read about in October.

We're getting ahead of ourselves here, obviously. Looking in the near future, the Phils have a pretty formidable run staring them in the face. They will be in Milwaukee for three against the respectable Brewers, owners of the most HRs in baseball at the moment -- powered by their own slugging first baseman vying to be rookie of the year -- and takers of 2 of 3 from the Mets over the weekend. They then return home to square off against Red Sox Nation, then visit Shea for three, back home for the Beeracrats and the Nats to close out May. June then begins in earnest with 11 straight games on the road, starting out West.

No doubt, the team is playing good ball right now, the best it's played all year, which, after April, ain't saying much. Lately, the pitching has been sold and the hitting has been timely, if not hot. Their reward? The Mets have cooled off and the Division is a two-horse race at the moment. No rest for the weary in Flushing, either, as the Cards and Yanks come calling before another NL East showdown May 23-25. In that series, if the rotation holds through days off, the Mets will see Gavin Floyd again, followed by King Cole and then Lieber.

One thing about the Phils current starting rotation, for probably the first time since the team has started winning 80-plus games, all five spots feel taken. Granted, Hamels has had just one performance -- and what a performance -- and Floyd has been spotty, but there are no Paul Abbotts or David Coggins taking up space every fifth day. While in reality it's probably too much to ask, the level of play, pitching and otherwise, absolutely has to stay at its current high water mark through to June. No dropping 2 of 3 to lowly Washington. No getting their doors blown off by the cocky Sox like last year. No laying eggs at Shea. They've made incredible progress, injuries and all. If the last two weeks of ball felt like the stretch run at the tail end of last year, the next stretch feels like a trial run through the playoffs. The rookies have been good to the Phils thusfar. How long can it be expected to last?

The next two weeks could be the answer, one way or the other.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Living in the Limelight

Last night's sweet-as-the-punch victory over the hated Mets provided a thousand-and-one big stories, but really, the one to focus on is unquestionably Brett Myers. Simply put, the Phils need an ace and they will not be underbid in the free agent market this year or next, so it stands to reason that as Myers enters his late 20s, the job is his for the taking. Helped by a quick offensive strike last night, Myers pitched the best game any of us has seen him pitch in a while for a few obvious reasons:

1. He out-pitched one of the best of the past 10 years.
2. He cruised through seven innings in a hitters' park against a potent offense.
3. In the eighth, with fatigue staring him in the face, he gave up the big one (a fairly cheap one at that), shook it off, and made the next three hitters look helpless.

Should the Phils make the playoffs this year, Myers has to be -- HAS TO BE -- the Game One starter and last night's performance will be what the team needs, the fans want, and the stage requires.

It is great to see that it is possible.

Presenting, the King

It's go time. Who wants to watch the game Friday night in northern Virginia?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

That King Cole

If the Greatest Prospect in the History of Major League Baseball was any sort of secret at the beginning of the season, those days are gone, long gone, much like no. 713 was Sunday night at the Cit.

Aside from a large crop of stories this week following his third straight mucho impressario outing for AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Cole Hamels has become the stuff of legend in the blogosphere, the mainstream media, and even on the radio. En route to a fortuitous lunch time meet-up with a fellow DC based baseball fan, Hamels became the subject of discussion on the Fantasy Focus radio show on XM Channell 174. Some dude called up asking if it was a wise idea to pick up Hamels immediately and stash him away. The answer was yes -- an answer so last week for us when we nabbed as the secret weapon in our CBS Sportsline League.

As far as the real world, however, things couldn't be more encouraging. For the second straight week, Hamels was named International League Player of the Week. In addition, he was named the top prospect in all of minor league baseball. His stats are pretty well documented pretty well everywhere else. Right now, he is the organization's Dontelle Willis in Steve Carlton's clothing. Sooner or later, the Phils almost have to make a spot for him. What change is made will be the subject of debate up until and even after the moment that change is actually made.

Currently, Pat Gillick is on record as saying he wants to see Hamels rebound from getting roughed up to get a sense of his emotiional resiliency (translation: "I got one softy already soft-tossing on the big club, I can't hadnle another.") Gillick has a reputation as a patient man -- would he care to make it interesting? The thought is, this roughing may not happen in the minors at all, at least for another month. While Hamels has thusfar faced relative subpar competition in the International League, it ain't going to get much tougher in the near future. Scranton, currently in first in their division, does not have a many bumps on the schedule at the tail end of Spring. If the rotation holds, Hamels' next four starts would be:

May 12 vs Ottawa
May 17 at Rochester
May 23 vs Indianapolis (assuming no rotation skip for day off)
May 28 vs Louisville (sunday)

Of those starts, second-place Rochester (17-12) appears to be the toughest game, both because it's the only one on the road and rochester is second in the league in team batting average. All four teams, however, are in the lower half of the standing in slugging percentage and OPS. So, exactly what kind of test Gillick expects is anyone's guess. The best team in the IL, Charlotte, currently riding a 12-game win streak and a league best 24-6 record, doesn't show up on the schedule until mid-June. If everything stays on rotation, Hamels would get the first game of that set, June 13 at home.

That would be awful long time to wait just to see if the league's best team can touch the country's top-rated prospect.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Met With Pride?

Having watched this team sporadically and listened intently for the first six weeks of the season, our original evaluation of the 2006 Phils, pre-8-game winning streak, was that what we have here is failure to do anything especially well. Over the course of April, the team hit poorly in scoring situations, pitched poorly in most situations not involving the 9th inning, and fielded poorly from time to time through the game. And while the current hot streak shows us a team that is fun to watch and entirely capable of wining games from both ahead and behind, let's not get too overanxious. The last three opponants have been a mix of the bad (Marlins), floundering (Braves) and the old and creaky (Giants). Much like last year's 12-1 homestand -- which saw the team go west and struggle in Seattle, scoring 4 runs in 3 games -- the Phils need to pull themselves together when this streak finally ends and they feel their confidence slipping.

That is a worry for another day, however, and that day will be tomorrow when the Mets come to town for a three game set, a trifecta that will show which team is in fact in control of the suddenly medicre NL East. There are so many reasons to want to beat the Mets from their status as the red-headed step-child of New York baseball to the problems they gave the Phils last year to the whole hate-able aura of the thousands of lunkhead fans who come to Philadelphia to out-attitude south Philly's most obnoxious. Last night, Jon Miller or Joe Morgan -- we forget exactly which -- made exactly one good point about the Phils in between sometimes ridiculous discussion about the world of Barry Bonds: when Aaron Rowand came to Phils spring training in clearwater (in a pickup truck driven cross country from the Golden state), he made a point to take every single member of the 40-man roster out for lunch individually at some point. Why? Just cause. Just cause that's what someone looking to lead a team does. And Rowand, currently putting up a nice 311/354/513 line reminiscent of his 2004 career year on the South Side, has been exactly as advertised, probbaly better since moving to the 6th hole. He has been the public backbone this team desparately needed.

What this team never needed, however, was a whiny, self-promoting, public-emoting, media-controlling, virtue-extolling, Biggio-homer-cajoling left-hander throwing teammates under the bus both in season and in the following season. Billy Wagner, with all the class of 'school on Saturday' continues to answer the question no one really seems to be asking: what happened behind closed doors in Philadelphia last year? The answer to you and I is 'not enough to win playoff spot.' For Wagner, however, it appears to be "not enough to make me feel part of a team I was looking to get off of from Day One when I said 'I don't want to be here if there's going to be a bunch of kids (rookies?) running around.'" Last year, some thought Wagner was trying to rally the troops. Looking back, maybe he just wanted to be noted in courtesy class.

Personally, whether or not the Sandman ever enters from Tuesday to Thursday this week, it should be secondary to winning each game before the ninth inning. The Phils have their two best pitchers going in the first two games, their offense seems be adjusting nicely to the newest correct lineup, and they will be at home in front a decent size crowds that want nothing more to laugh at the other team from New York, it's big-spending ways, and its suddenly sensitive stopper.

Thankfully, the good guys rose to the challenge last night in front of a national audience.

Hopefully, there's more in store this week.