Monday, August 2, 2010

Capital Surprises

One minute, your new ace is in uniform, prepared to take the hill against the division cellar dwellers. The next minute, Roy Oswalt is getting battered around by the Washington Nationals. One minute, you're celebrating an exciting comeback. The next minute, you're wallowing in yet another blown save and another loss. One minute, you see the season flash before your eyes with one frightening injury. The next minute, you hear it's not as bad as you thought and the Phils are celebrating an extra-inning win.

No, nothing really went as expected over the weekend for the Phillies in nation's capital. This was supposed to a series for the taking, another chance to put the pressure on the Braves, especially with newly acquired Roy Oswalt set to make his Phillies debut Friday and Cole Hamels pitching on Sunday. Instead, the Phillies lost two of three to the worst team in the division, missed a golden opportunity to get within a half game of the Braves. As luck would have it, Atlanta did lose two of three as well in Cincinnati, so the Phils are still right within striking distance at just 2.5 games behind the Braves. But they also lost ground in the Wild Card race, now trailing Pat Burrell and the Giants by 3.5 games.

Things started out about as badly as you could expect. On his very first pitch as a Phillie, Roy Oswalt gave up a leadoff triple to Nyjer Morgan, who scored on a ground out by Adam Kennedy. Then things really fell apart in the 3rd, when Oswalt gave up a single to his counterpart, Craig Stammen, then hit Morgan with a pitch. Kennedy followed by laying down a bunt, and not a very good one. In fact, it was a terrible bunt, barely traveling away from home plate, and Carlos Ruiz pounced on it. This had the makings of an easy out at the third to get the lead runner, maybe even the chance for a double play. That's certainly what Ruiz was thinking as he scooped the ball up and fired to third.

One problem: No one was covering the bag. When Kennedy squared, Greg Dobbs started busting in. For some reason, Jimmy Rollins broke for second, despite the fact there was a runner on second heading to third. That meant no one on third, the ball sailed into left field and Stammen scored, 2-0, with Morgan heading to third. A Ryan Zimmerman sac fly later and it was 3-0 Nationals in the third inning. Not exactly the start we were looking for out of Roy.

His final line was 6 innings pitched, 5 runs, 4 of them earned, 2 walks and 4 strikeouts. Like I said, not exactly what we were looking for. No, we were looking for something more closely resembling Craig Stammen's outing.

As Oswalt struggled, Stammen had the Phillies in the palm of his hand. He gave up just one run on a Jayson Werth solo homer, never even feeling the pinch really beyond that. The Phils swung early and often on Stammen, failing to really make him work, and by the time they finally got to him in the 7th on the aforementioned Werth bomb, they were trailing 5-0. And just when you thought maybe the Phils could scrape together a late-inning charge, Chad Durbin gave that run right back and then some, getting tagged for three runs in the bottom of the 7th. Roy Oswalt start No. 1, disaster.

Saturday, I was (un)fortunate enough to not be subjected to watching the Phillies. You see, I was up in New York for a party, drinking my face off. The first thing I heard about the game was someone say, "Joe Blanton sucks." Certainly, the three-run first inning was the catalyst for that. Turns out, Blanton didn't suck so much after that inning, surrendering just one more run in the next 5 innings. And the Phils made one hell of a comeback, started by Wilson Valdez driving in Domonic Brown, then really ignited by a homer from Carlos Ruiz and then capped off by a two-run home run by Raul Ibanez to tie the game followed in the ninth by another RBI single by Curbball to give the Phils the lead. Then Brad Lidge happened.

I didn't see it at the time, and if someone told me about it I was too drunk to remember. But you know the story. Lidge comes in and can't get anyone out. He walks the first guy, then Nyjer Morgan sacrifices, then he walked Adam Kennedy. Two on, one out, Ryan Zimmerman at the dish. And what does Lidge do? He throws a meatball right down the middle of the plate to the best player on the opposing team, a player with a ton of power and a habit of crushing the Phillies. Of course Ryan Zimmerman annihilated the pitch, walkoff. Two games, two losses to the god damn Nationals. Gross.

This bullpen is absolutely going to be the team's achilles heel. No doubt about it. In 2008, the bullpen was so good — Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, Scott Eyre, and the perfect Brad Lidge. Last year, not so much. And this year, disaster, especially of late. Jose Contreras was good early, sucks now. Ryan Madson sucked early, and now he's either great or terrible. J.C. still gets people out for the most part, but he's become a specialist of sorts and still has control issues. Durbin sucked Friday. Brad Lidge has sucked practically all year. And Danys Baez has sucked his entire life. It's reached the point that if this team actually can make it to the playoffs, it's going to practically need Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt to go the distance or damn close, unless the offense just mashes, something they've struggled to do all year.

That struggle looked like it was going to become the defining thing yesterday. Just 10 minutes into the game, I was sending out the message to silver fox and Arkansas Fred that, "Well we're fucked," even as the Phillies held a 1-0 lead in the first. You all know why. Rounding second on a Ben Francisco single that plated Jayson Werth, Howard had to scamper back as the Nats threw behind him. The big fella, apparently completely forgetting about Jimmy Rollins' similar incident last year, didn't slide back. No, he lunged back, putting all his considerable weight on his leg as it hit the bag. Surprising to no one, Howard's leg gave, specifically his ankle, and the big man went down. Hard. And struggled to get up. I saw the entire season flash before my eyes.

It did not look good. Not at all. With Chase Utley already on the shelf and Shane Victorino disabled as well, this was the one guy offensively this team couldn't afford to lose. Yet here he was, writhing in pain. Thankfully, it sounds as though Howard will avoid the DL. All the X-rays were negative, which ironically is positive. Still, there was a dour tone to the game. Sure, Dom Brown continued to impress, singling in Howard's replacement Cody Ransom to give the Phils a 2-0 lead, and Cole went out through the first three innings and breezed, but Howard looked seriously hurt, the team had just lost two in a row to Washington, and the bullpen was a mess. Not even Roy Oswalt could offset all that.

Then Ryan Zimmerman was at it again, as Cole lost it a bit in the 4th and Zimmerman doubled in two runs to tie the game. Two innings later, Adam Dunn absolutely destroyed a high inside pitch, crushing a two-run homer, 4-2 Nats. It was getting late in the game, Howard was hurt and a sweep at the hands of Washington looked imminent. Thankfully, Placido Polanco had other ideas, doubling in Jimmy Rollins — who, hey, actually got on base for once! — in the 7th, then tied the game when Ben Francisco drove him in. Cole went out for one more inning, set down the Nationals in order and left with the game tied and 10 strikeouts on his belt.

That's when, given Durbin's performance Friday and Brad Lidge blowing yet another save on Saturday, you could forgive Phils fans for expecting the worse. Only the worse never happened. For once. J.C. Romero and Ryan Madson combined for six outs and no runs as the game went to extras. Jose Contreras kept the bullpen slate clean in the 10th. Then Placido played hero again, giving the Phils the lead with an RBI single to plate Valdez, and then adding insurance by scoring on yet another Jayson Werth double. Glad to see that guy hitting again.

Then, with that all-important insurance run, Brad Lidge came out once again in a save opportunity. As terrible as he looked on Saturday, he was equally as awesome yesterday against the heart of Washington's lineup. He went 1-2-3, getting Zimmerman to ground out, Josh Willingham to fly out and Adam Kennedy to fly out to left to end the game. Somehow, he's going to find a way to do that regularly, because the Phils need Lidge to be an effective closer. He doesn't have to be perfect. Far from it. He just needs to be decent, and this team will have a chance to get back to October and back to the World Series. The problem is, he hasn't been decent since 2008. And most of that time was with a healthy Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Here's hoping Howard's not out long and Chase returns soon, because with this bullpen, the Phillies are going to need as much offense as possible to make another deep run.

BallHype: hype it up!

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