Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Braves to Phillies: 'Here, Just Take This Damn Thing Already'

The Atlanta Braves have lost four of their six games in September. They lost five of seven games from Aug. 19 to Aug. 17, including four in a row. They were just two games over .500 in July. Yesterday, they lost 3-1 to the terrible Pirates going against a pincher who came in with a losing record and ERA around 6.00. Which is all to say, the Atlanta Braves are doing everything in their power to literally hand the division over to the Phillies, yet the Phillies still haven't quite taken it.

This weekend, the Phillies had a golden chance. The Braves lost Friday night to the Marlins, opening the door to draw within a game. After exploding for 12 runs against the Rockies on Thursday, you sort of expected the Phillies, even with all their offensive struggles this season, to light up the very pedestrian Chris Capuano on Friday and cruise to victory. After all, Chase erupted for six RBIs including a grand slam, Ryan Howard belted another home run and the offense was rolling. Then again, perhaps we should have all known better — Cole Hamels was on the hill after all, and we all know the Phillies don't score runs for Cole.

Of course, they didn't. Facing a Chris Capuano and his pedestrian 4.62 ERA, the Phillies managed to scrape together just four hits all night and one run — and even that was more luck than good hitting. It took a miscommunication between Ryan Braun and rookie centerfielder Lorenzo Cain to even allow the Phils to score that pathetic run. The number of mistakes on the play were comical.

For starters, the ball was simply a routine fly to left-center off Shane Victorino's bat to lead off the second. It was very clearly and very plainly the centerfielder's ball. Any centerfielder in the majors should have and would have gotten there, called off the leftfielder and made the play … except for Cain. Cain got over there in position, but never once called off Ryan Braun, instead sort of peeling off and letting Braun take it. That was a dumb move, but in fairness to Cain, Braun was calling it the whole way, never stopped calling, and then just let it drop at the last minute. That allowed Shane to get to second, Raul pulled the ball to second to allow Shane to get to third with one out, and Carlos Ruiz chopped one to short, allowing Victorino to score on the groundout thanks to going on contact.

That's how the Phils scored their only run. And it counted as one of their four hits. Not good. Luckily, Cole Hamels was good. Very good. Damn near unhittable good. Hamels went seven innings, surrendering just three hits and striking out 7 without surrendering a single run. Then Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson were perfect in the 8th and 9th, capping off the 1-0 win and pulling the Phils to within a game. Though it was hardly the type of win that justified any sort of confidence in the offense after Thursday's 12-run performance. It almost cost Cole again, who unjustly sits at 9-10 on the season despite rebounding about as well as anyone could have hoped this season.

The way he's been pitching, it's clear he wants to be in first place again. But you gotta wonder at times if his offense does. Because they just haven't had it this year.

Even on Saturday, when the Phils kept pace with Atlanta's win against Florida by beating the Brewers 5-4, the runs weren't easy to come by. Sure, they scattered nine hits, but they rarely strung them together. Sure, they hit two solo home runs, but that didn't even keep pace with Milwaukee's four solo shots off Roy Halladay, who was uncharacteristically missing his spots and serving up meatballs all while fighting himself and the home plate umpire. On more than occasion, Roy stared in at home plate after a ball was called, took long trips off the mound and snapped his glove on throwbacks from Ruiz, clearly showing his displeasure with the strike zone.

It was nice to see them get a win and pick up Roy on a day that he just didn't have his great stuff, but it took an especially awful play by Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy to score the game-tying and game-winning runs courtesy of a sac fly by Placido Polanco. I honestly have never seen a catcher literally move out of the way of the ball to avoid a collision as Lucroy did instead of going toward the ball and catching it, let alone watch a catcher compound that by not getting over to cover and block home plate. It was crazy.

Then on Sunday, the Braves fell behind 6-1, came all the way back to tie it, yet still lost 7-6 in heartbreaking fashion, opening the door for the Phils to tie them for the lead in the NL East. So what do the Phillies do against familiar face Randy Wolf? They manage just two runs and seven hits against him, as Randy kept the Phils off-balance all day.

That was absolutely not enough with Kyle Kendrick on the mound, as Kendrick suffered his third straight shit start, giving up five runs on 7 hits in four craptastic innings. Kendrick has done a decent enough job most of the season, but now he's finally beginning to show his true colors. He sucks, and he needs to be trotted out there as little as possible from here on out. Skip some starts, use a Nate Robertson or Vance Worley. Do whatever you gotta go do to keep this guy off the rubber.

As bad Kendrick was, and as bad the bats were, the Phils still had a golden opportunity to make it a game again in the 8th against righthander John Axford. Axford walked both Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino — Howard after getting Placido Polanco to ground out and Shane after striking out Jayson Werth. That brought up the 7 spot in the order, at the time occupied by Ben Francisco. Everyone in Citizens Bank Park and every Phillies fan watching, myself included, expected Charlie to go to his bench full of lefthanded hitters to pinch-hit for Francisco. Raul Ibanez was available. So was Ross Gload. Even Dom Brown and Greg Dobbs were on the bench. And Brian Schneider too. The entire bench as was a god damn leftorium.

In that spot, a three-run home run would have tied the game (the score was 5-2 Brewers). Naturally, you wouldn't go with Brown because a) he's a rookie and b) he's struck out a ton and looked awful of late. And you wouldn't go with Dobbs because Dobbs hasn't been remotely good since 2008. Schneider isn't the greatest hitter in the world either, so that left either Raul or Gload. Either player would have been a good choice. Gload is a pinch-hitting specialist, and one who hits all sorts of home runs. Raul is an everyday player and a guy who hits his fair share of homers as well.

Personally, I favored Raul because Gload is just coming off the DL and hasn't had that many opportunities to get his timing back. Either way, I would have loved to have seen one of those guys up there. And I should have. But I didn't. Because Charlie stuck with Ben Francisco — the same Ben Francisco who had struck out his last two at-bats. Unsurprisingly, Francisco fouled off two very hittable meatball fastballs before flying out weakly to right to end the inning and the threat, and for all intents and purposes the game. That's what you call horrendous managing, leaving the right-handed Francisco in the game when you had two power-hitting lefties on the bench, both of whom are better hitters in general than Francisco. Way to go, Charlie. Way to go.

That was one way to waste an opportunity to finally get back in first, but it certainly wasn't the worst way. No, that happened yesterday in the opening game of the day-night double-header.

With the Braves inexplicably continuing their downfall by losing to the Pirates, the Phils did one better (worse?) by allowing a rookie who hadn't even gone past six innings all season in the minors to pitch six innings of one-hit, shutout ball in an embarrassing 7-1 loss. And Adalberto Mendez probably would have made it even more embarrassing for the Phils if he hadn't left the game after injuring himself running to first on a single.

Even though Vance Worley, who was called up from Lehigh Valley to get the spot start, picked up the loss, you can't fault him. He surrendered just two runs in his five innings, striking out five and instilling more confidence than Kyle Kendrick has of late. The offense was just lifeless again. Against a rookie. Then Chad Durbin and Mike Zagurski got rocked.

Durbin has been tremendous practically all season, but this is a little cause for concern. It's his second bad outing in a couple of games, perhaps raising a red flag that he's out of bullets. Hopefully not, because the guy has been a vital part of the pen this year. Zagurski, well, he just proved yet again that he's not major league material. His resemblance to Pukemon certainly doesn't help things.

Thankfully the Phillies' bats woke up in the nightcap, specifically with a five-run inning in the 2nd, to finish Labor Day a half game behind Atlanta and get Roy Oswalt the win. Shane had three hits, an RBI, a run scored and two stolen bases batting leadoff. Placido was 2-for-4 with a double, triple, two runs and two RBIs. Chase also went 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a run. And Raul had a two-hit game of his own, scoring a run and driving one in. Even Jimmy got in on the action, singling and scoring, while Curbball got an RBI on a bases-loaded walk and scored a run himself. The man is clutch. The same cannot be said of most of the other hitters this season.

Thanks to that Braves loss, the Phils had a chance to be in sole possession of first place by taking both games of the double-header. That did not happen, as they split.

For a while now, the Phils have been inching closer and closer to the Braves. Now they're as close they can be to first without actually being at least tied for first, but it hasn't been pretty. The Braves have been trying to hand the division over to the Phils for some time. Now is as good a time as any to finally take it. And run with it.

Somebody should tell the bats.

BallHype: hype it up!

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