Monday, August 3, 2009

Cause for Concern

The Phillies just wrapped up one of the greatest Julys in memory, acquired the reigning AL Cy Young award winner and sit five games up in the NL East, the second largest lead for any divisional leader (behind only the Dodgers' seven-game lead). Which is all to say, things are looking pretty good for the Phils, even after a 3-4 road trip that saw them lose three of four to the Giants.

But there is cause for concern in Phillie-land. Last season, when the Phillies stormed through the second half and carried the momentum all the way to the World Series, their ace pitched like an ace and their closer was, well, perfect. This season, not so much. And that might be the biggest understatement ever written on this site.

We'll begin with Colbert Hamels. Last year, it was his teammates that failed to hit during Cole's starts, thus costing him a better record. His 14-10 2008 regular season should have probably been closer to a 20-win campaign with single-digit losses. His numbers bear that out: 227.1 innings pitched, 193 hits, 89 runs, 78 earned runs, 196 strikeouts to just 53 walks, 3.09 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and .227 batting average against.

Then in the playoffs, he was simply spectacular, going 4-0 in 5 games, surrendering just seven runs the entire way. Even a limp offense couldn't slow him down, and the guy with the golden left arm took home the NLCS and World Series MVPs. Finally, Cole Hamels had grown into the ace.

It seemed like Hamels was ready to take the next step this season, ready to join the ranks of Johan and Halladay, ready to become a perennial Cy Young candidate. Things haven't quite worked out that way. All year long, Cole has gone from looking unhittable to looking like Adam Eaton. From one start to the next, we never know which Cole is going to show up. Is it the one who shut out the Dodgers or the guy who imploded against the Rockies? Yesterday, it was the latter, as a two-out hit surrendered to, of all people, Barry Zito unhinged Hamels.

Game to game, you never know if you're getting the unflappable, focused ace or the guy who seems to lose his cool, starts elevating his pitches, loses focus. It's been a season-long problem, and his numbers show exactly that: 7-6, 123 innings pitched, 139 hits, 4.68 ERA, 1.317 WHIP, .285 batting average against. The only respectable numbers in the bunch are his 107 strikeouts against his 23 walks. The rest show a pitcher that either lacks focus or talent. We all know Cole has talent. Time to regain that focus, stop letting the little things get to him.

Right now, Cole Hamels is far from the pitcher that led the charge last October. Even with Cliff Lee in the fold, that's some serious cause for concern. The ace has to start resembling an ace once again if there are any hopes of another parade down Broad Street.

That goes for Brad Lidge as well, last year's Mr. Perfect.

The Phillies didn't lose a game when leading after eight innings in 2008. Not one. The fantastic work by the bullpen was the reason, from J.C. Romero to Ryan Madson to Scott Eyre to Chad Durbin. But the biggest reason was Brad Lidge, who no matter what was coming in to end the game. In 72 games last season, the new closer went 2-0 with 41 saves in 41 opportunities, striking out 92 batters in 69.1 innings, posting a 1.95 ERA and .198 batting average against while surrendering just two home runs all season.

In the postseason, he remained perfect, and ended Game five, part two in the most perfect of ways, striking out Eric Hinske with his devastating slider to win the World Series. Without him, the Phillies never become World Fucking Champions.

This year, Brad Lidge has been a disaster. In 42 games, he's 0-4 with a 7.11 ERA, 1.79 WHIP and .293 batting average against. He's blown six saves in 26 opportunities (though he hasn't blown a save in a while), and the rest of his numbers are just as atrocious. In 38 innings this season, he's surrendered 44 hits, 32 runs, 30 of them earned, nine long balls and has struck out 41 batters while walking 24.

In non-save situations, Lidge turns into the worst pitcher in baseball. And even though he has not blown a save in forever, the saves he has notched have not exactly instilled confidence. There are always base-runners on, and many times, they score. He has no consistent control and, seemingly, little confidence. He's been so shaky, in fact, that if he continues to struggle, there are those clamoring for Brett Myers to vie for the closer role when he returns from injury.

Now, with the Phils in the driver's seat for the division and an offense that can explode, not to mention a pitching staff that was brilliant in July, they have the makings of team that can repeat. But not if Hamels and Lidge don't straighten themselves out come October. No matter how well the bats hit or how big a boost Cliff Lee is, a team can't truthfully expect to win a World Series when the front of the rotation and the back of the bullpen are the shakiest parts of the team. It's not time to hit the panic button, but it is reason to be concerned.

BallHype: hype it up!

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