Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Never Say Die

That seems to be the motto here in Philadelphia these days. Even when people are writing them off, even with injury after injury after injury, the Flyers just won't go away quietly. Not after being down 3 games to none. Not after their rejuvenated, red-hot goaltender went down … for the millionth time this year.

Nope, because as luck(?) would have it, Michael Leighton was right there, ironically in his very first game back since suffering a high ankle sprain, to fill in for Boucher the way Boucher did for him, and the way he did for Boucher earlier this year. And the way they both did for Ray Emery (remember him?) way back when. All Leighton did from there on out was stop all 14 shots he faced, combining with Boucher for the shutout. Now he'll be the new man in net, hardly an unfamiliar situation for this team.

The resilience has been remarkable. Down 3-0 in the series, all hope looked to be lost, especially when the Flyers surrendered the game-tying goal to former Flyer Mark Recchi (his second of the game) with just 32 seconds left in regulation in game 4. It was crippling, or at least seemed to be. Then all the Flyers did was go out and win in overtime, with Simon Gagne of all people getting the game-winner and series-saving goal in his first game back since breaking his toe in game 4 against the Devils.

Still, it was only delaying the inevitable, right? The Flyers surely couldn't win four in row; hell, they probably wouldn't even make it back to Philadelphia, what with game 5 in Boston and everything. But then the Flyers came out, outshot the Bruins in every period, got up 1-0 on a goal credited to Ville Leino and possibly actually scored by Scott Hartnell, watched their goaltender go down yet again, rallied, scored three more times, took the abuse from a frustrated and physical Bruins team, and got halfway to their goal.

The 4-0 victory made it a 3-2 series, now headed back to Philadelphia with the Flyers having the chance to even this thing up. There's always pressure on the team facing elimination, something the Flyers have faced now for two straight games and handled, something they faced on the final day of the regular season and conquered. But there is no shortage of pressure on Boston anymore either. Not with a game 6 on the road. Not with a seventh winner-take-all game on the horizon. The Flyers looked dead in the water just a few days ago. Now they're very much alive, even without Jeff Carter, without Ian Laperriere, now without Brian Boucher.

The Briere-Leino-Hartnell line was outstanding last night. Both Leino and Briere have been impressive offensively since they've taken the ice, and Hartnell is finally coming around. It only took him eight months, but the guy is finally joining the party. Last night's game was by far Hartnell's best of this entire year, scoring a goal and getting his stick near another (I think the first goal was his still). He was all over the ice, generating chances, staying on his skates and taking the body. Scott Hartnell was actually good.

Richards and Pronger continued to be workhorses out on the ice, with Pronger again leading all skaters in ice time and Richards throwing hit after hit after hit. And Simon added two more goals following his overtime winner from Friday, finally finding himself with a hot stick. The Flyers just won't go quietly into the night, something I don't think anyone really thought this team had in them, not after last season's collapse and what looked to be a repeat this year. They're finally showing the fight we've been craving all along. Let's hope it's not too little too late.

The never say die attitude didn't just apply to the Flyers last night either. We all know how incredibly resilient the Phillies have been over the past few seasons, making come-from-behind victories look almost routine at this point. Well, against the Rockies last night, they came from behind not once, but twice … and then failed to hold the lead. But they still found a way to win, just like you expect good teams to.

With the Phils holding a 5-4 advantage in the 7th, in came J.C. Romero, who promptly blew a save thanks to a one-out walk that killed him and the Phillies. Up a run late in the game, you never, ever want to walk a guy, especially when that guy is a speed-burner like Dexter Fowler. Yet that's exactly what Romero did immediately after being the only Phillies pitcher to that point to actually get Seth Smith out (Smith went single, double, triple in his first three at-bats). Then Brad Hawpe came out first-ball swinging on J.C., ripping a single to right and moving the speedy Fowler from first to third. Romero did make a good pitch to Jason Giambi to seemingly get one steroid-abuser out by another. He got Giambi to shatter his bat and hit a weak blooper, but the damn thing dropped in no-man's land, just out of the reach of Chase Utley, allowing Fowler to score to tie the game. That was it for Romero, whose line went like this: a third of an inning, 2 hits, 1 walk, 1 earned run and a blown save … plus he left with two men on base he was responsible for and just one out.

Great job, J.C. I suggest getting back on the juice ASAP.

When David Herndon and his horrible pitching entered the game, I thought the lead would be lost for sure. But then, as if hearing Harry Kalas on the mic up in heaven reliving his "Chase Utley, You are the MAN!" routine, Chase made a miraculous diving stop on a scorching ground ball, flipped to Wilson Valdez at second who quickly made the toss to first, 4-6-3 double play, threat over.

After Wilson Valdez grounded out to short and Greg Dobbs flied out to start the 8th, the Phils got something cooking. Shane Victorino worked an awesome walk. Then Placido Polanco hit a pop-up right. As soon as he hit it and I saw Brad Hawpe coming in, I starting yelling, "Drop it! Drop it! Drop it!" Wouldn't you know it, Hawpe dropped it. It's the second time this year I've yelled drop it as an outfielder camped under a fly ball by a Phillie, and the second time said outfielder dropped it. True story. With runners on first and third with Chase up, I was sure the Phils were going to take the lead. But the Rockies brought in a lefty that Utley couldn't quite handle, flying out the opposite way to end the inning and leave Victorino stranded on third.

When Danys Baez and his nearly 7.00 ERA took the mound for the 8th, I was convinced again the Phils were going to find themselves trailing before long. But Danys and his stupid name struck out Ian Stewart, then got Miguel Olivo to fly out to Shane to get two quick outs. However, the real Danys Baez then stood up, hitting Clint Barmes with a pitch, and then giving up a single to Phillie killer Ryan Spilborghs and his ridiculous mustache with Seth Smith coming up to the plate, just a homer short of the cycle.

Once Smith stepped in, I said, "Well, this is where he completes the cycle." Only he didn't. Baez collected himself, made a decent pitch and got Smith to ground out to Utley to end the inning. I was stunned. And feeling good. The Phils had the big man leading off and the rest of the middle following.

Manuel Corpas came in and hit Ryan Howard on an 0-2 pitch. Good start. Then he got Jayson Werth to pop out, but he followed that with a wild pitch, putting the go-ahead run in Howard on second. That prompted an intentional walk to Raul Ibanez to get to Chooch and set up a double play possibility. Apparently, the Rockies didn't get the memo on the new and improved Carlos Ruiz. Where in the past, you fully expected the slow-footed Ruiz to ground into an inning-ending double play in this spot, version 2.0 Chooch now turns his swag on in these spots. Why do you think he's kept that batting intro music?

Apparently, Curbball's 3-for-4 night, including a homer and RBI, to that point wasn't enough to make the Rockies think twice. Neither was his well over .300 batting average and ridiculous on-base percentage. Well, if they didn't know all about that before, they sure as shit do now, as Chooch ripped a single through the hole between third and short, bringing home the big man for the go-ahead run. Then Ross Gload followed with a great at-bat, getting ahead 3-1 in the count and looking for a pitch to drive pinch-hitting for the batless Valdez. And drive a pitch he did, smoking a line drive home run to right-center that just scraped over the wall, 9-5 Phils. Good night, Colorado.

Jose Contreras continued his ageless brilliance, going ground out, ground out, double to Giambi and then a fly out to Melvin Mora to end the game. The outing dropped Jose's ERA to a miniscule 0.60 with an awesome 0.77 WHIP. He's been quite a stalwart out there in the pen, just like his receiver has been incredible all season long.

Not matter what some jerk might say, Carlos Ruiz is the most improved player in the entire division, perhaps the entire National League, to this point in the season.

With his 4-for-5, 2-run, 2-RBI, one-homer game last night, the career .254 hitter is batting .354 on this young season. Ruiz has an on-base percentage of .481 presently, a full .133 point higher than his career .348. He's slugging .488, .102 higher than his career average, and his OPS is at .969, .235 higher than his career line. He already has 21 walks, on pace to obliterate his single-season career high of 47. And he's doing it all while continuing to play stellar defense behind the plate. Chooch has been nothing short of incredible. He's putting up all-star numbers and giving an already potent Phillies lineup that much more punch. Once Jimmy Rollins returns, if he ever does, this team won't have a single weak spot outside of the pitcher in the entire lineup if Chooch can somehow keep this up. And with the rotation suddenly settling in, it may just be a matter of time before the Phillies start to run away with things again in the National League East.

BallHype: hype it up!

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