Monday, April 11, 2011

The Good (Chooch and Shane), the Bad (Friday) and the Flyers

Quite an eventful weekend for Philadelphia this weekend. It began with three of the four major sports teams in this city in action on Friday night and ended with a career day for Carlos Ruiz, a division title for the Flyers and yet another series win — and nice bounceback game from Cole Hamels — for the Phillies.

Friday night was the perfect time to have a relaxing, stay-at-home Friday night. The Flyers, Phillies and Sixers were all in action. The Flyers took on potential (and as it turns out eventual) first-round opponent Buffalo in a huge game for both teams — the Sabres needed a point to clinch a playoff berth, and the Flyers needed a point to stay ahead of the Penguins and two points to have any hope of catching the Capitals. The Phillies opened their third series of the year against their toughest division opponent, traveling down to Atlanta for their first road series of 2011. And the Sixers hosted the Raptors in their third-to-last game of the season, needing a victory to keep within reach of the Knicks.

So instead of going out, we got a case of beer and some food and watched the games on our two-TV setup.

Early on, things were going perfectly. The Flyers jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first on a goal by Scott Hartnell and outshot the Sabres 13-10. At the same time, the Phillies scored three quick runs off of Tim Hudson in the first two innings, giving ace number 2 Cliff Lee a 3-0 lead right out of the gate. And the Sixers, who tipped off the earliest, outscored the Raptors by 10 in the first quarter and took a 12-point lead into half.

It was roughly around that time when Adam EatShit said, "So, 3-for-3 tonight? We went 0-for-3 the other night, so looks like 3-for-3 tonight."

And with that, the jinx was on. After being spotted a 3-0 lead after two, Cliff Lee began to unravel. He couldn't locate his pitches for the life of him, lethal for any pitcher but especially for Lee, an ace that relies on location much, much more than stuff. Damn near every pitch Lee threw either caught too much of the plate or was up in the zone. Immediately in the bottom of the 2nd, he gave all three runs back, giving up three straight hits to start the inning — a triple by Jason Heyward, double by Alex Gonzalez and single by Freddie Freeman — followed by another double by Martin Prado.

From that moment on, Tim Hudson calmed himself down and shut down the Phils, while Lee couldn't right himself. Just two innings later, Lee continued with his struggles, hitting a batter to lead off the inning and getting tagged for three more runs before his night was through.

Lee lasted just three and a third innings, getting shelled for 10 hits and six runs. It was kind of funny that the night before, my roommates and I were talking about how Roy Halladay never really gets shelled, while Cliff will get smacked around a couple times a season. Same with Cole and Oswalt and most pitchers. But Halladay always seems to give up 4 runs or fewer, typically only surrendering more than that a couple times year. Even when Halladay is fighting himself, he finds a way to have a decent outing at worst. Lee, like every other pitcher in the world, has a night like he did Friday when he's fighting himself. That's baseball.

But even with Lee's clunker, the Phillies still had a chance in the game and a huge opportunity to get to Hudson again. In the 5th inning, right after Lee gave up his final three runs, the Phils answered. Kyle Kendrick of all people started the rally by leading off with a single. Then Shane Victorino — who has made a career of killing the Braves (I mean, who can forget the walkoff throw to preserve Brad Lidge's perfect 2008 season?) — made it back-to-back singles. After Placido Polanco grounded into a fielder's choice, Jimmy Rollins reached on an error, loading the bases with just one out for the red-hot Ryan Howard.

Howard has been absolutely smashing the ball early on, putting together great at-bats and making solid contact all year long. Down three runs in the 5th, the Phillies needed to at the very least get one run home and get some momentum. That meant all Howard needed to do was put a decent swing on the ball — worst-case scenario with a good at-bat he gets a sac fly at makes it a two-run game, best-case he gets a hit and scores a couple runs or more, making it a one-run game, tie game or even taking the lead with a grand slam. But instead, on a freakin 1-0 pitch, Howard check-swings and makes contact, softly hitting it right back to Hudson. Disaster. Hudson calmly begins the painfully easy 1-2-3 double play to end the inning. It was the biggest at-bat of the game, and Howard made a completely boneheaded play.

Why was it boneheaded? For starters, he was up 1-0 in the count with the bases loaded. In that spot, the pitcher has to come to you, or you don't swing. He has nowhere to put you, and you're ahead in the count. You look for your pitch to drive there, simple as that. If it's not that pitch, you leave the bat on your shoulder. Howard didn't do that. After laying off a low slider — the pitch that has given him trouble in his career but the same pitch he's been so disciplined at laying off of this year — Hudson threw another, not wanting to give in to Howard with a fastball. Only this time, when the only he should not have done in that spot is swing at a low slider, Howard began his swing at a pitch that clearly he didn't want to hit. Dumb. And to make matters worse, he stopped his swing, practically bunting the ball right back to Hudson to start the easy double play. Here's the thing: If you're going to go ahead and swing in that spot, then just swing. Don't try to stop it. Even chasing a bad pitch, if Howard just lets loose, he has a chance to hit it hard somewhere and potentially score a run. Maybe he grounds into a double play anyway, but at least he gives himself a shot at a hit. By checking his swing, he simply made the entire thing easier for Atlanta, and he did it in a spot where it is insanely stupid to check your swing: up 1-0 in the count with the bases loaded. That's just bad baseball. Stupid baseball. And it derailed any chance at a comeback right there because Hudson cruised the rest of the way before handing it over to the young, flame-throwing duo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. Venters struck out the only batter he faced, Raul Ibanez, and Kimbrel had a 1-2-3 ninth for the save.

Not exactly the way you want to start a series, with your prized offseason acquisition getting knocked around and your cleanup hitter having a miserable at-bat with the bases loaded.

As all that was going on, the Flyers saw their 1-0 lead vanish just 25 seconds into the second period, then found themselves behind a goal less than four minutes later.

There's nothing more dangerous than a desperate team just trying to get into the playoffs, and the Flyers saw that firsthand. Suddenly, a once promising night looked much more bleak. And to pull the trifecta of disappointment, the Raptors came roaring out of the locker room in the second half to outscore the Sixers 30-19 in the third quarter, all but erasing that 12-point lead. Just like that, it was a one-point game, thanks largely to Jerryd Bayless inexplicably going off.

Thankfully things turned around a bit. The Phillies couldn't come back, but the Sixers and Flyers responded. Thaddeus Young continued his monstrous stretch of play, scoring 20 points of the bench, and Elton Brand continued what has been and for some reason still is a quietly excellent season. Brand led the Sixers with 22 points and added 8 rebounds in the 98-93 victory, a win that showcased team basketball coming out on top over great individual performances.

As I mentioned, Jerryd Bayless had a career night, dropping 24 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals, and he was complemented by fellow youngster DeMar DeRozan, who added 27 points and went 11-12 from the line. DeRozan and Bayless really did have nice games, but they simply didn't get quite enough help. Ed Davis was the only other Raptor to score in double digits, posting a very respectable 14 and 10 double-double. But other than that, the Raptors got very little from anyone else besides Reggie Evans and his usual gritty play. The former Sixers power forward, by the way, had a game-high 15 rebounds.

Conversely, Brand and Young had plenty of help from all over the lineup. Four other 76ers netted double-digit points, with Andre Iguodala getting 16, Jrue Holiday with 13, and Jodie Meeks and Evan Turner each putting up a 10 spot. Jrue also had an all-around good floor game, dishing out a game-high 11 assists to go along with 4 rebounds, 4 steals and a block. And even though Meeks continued to struggle mightily with his shot, shooting just 2-11 from the field and 2-9 from three, he found other ways to contribute, like getting to the line 6 times and grabbing 7 rebounds from his two-guard position.

That's what makes this Sixers team so fun to watch and what has them back in the playoffs. They get contributions from so many guys, something they have to do with no discernible superstar. Andre Iguodala is playing the best defense of his life and has cut down on his shots. Elton Brand looks nothing like the washed-up, injured player he was before, even if he isn't quite the perennial 20-10 all-star he once was. Thaddeus Young has been the team's best player for a few weeks now, or at least their most energetic. Jrue had taken another step forward in his second season. Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes know their roles and perform them admirably. And Lou Williams, who is hoping to be healthy for the playoffs, has combined with Thad to be one of the most potent offensive one-two punches off the bench in the entire NBA.

Then you add Evan Turner's slow development, Andres Nocioni prepared for whatever minutes Doug Collins gives him and the options on offense (Speights) and defense (Battie) at the power forward position. The Sixers won't win a playoff series, and they'll probably have a hard time winning more than a game against either the Celtics or Heat, whichever one they play. But Doug Collins has this team heading in the right direction and playing the type of basketball no one really expected in year one after the debacle that was Eddie Jordan.

As the Sixers were holding off the Raptors, the Flyers also responded themselves, though admittedly, it looked like they were going to squander yet another game and fall into a tie with Pittsburgh. A couple minutes after Buffalo took the lead, Darroll Powe made a rare mistake, the firing a clearing attempt in his own zone over the glass and out of play — a 2-minute penalty. A power-play goal for Buffalo would make it three straight and probably spell death for the Flyers in the game. But instead of letting up a dagger of a goal, they scored one of their own, as Claude Giroux found Kris Versteeg for the shorty, tie game. And less than a minute later, the Flyers found themselves back on top as Danny Briere a one-timer past Jhonas Enroth off a great spinning play to enter the zone and tremendous feed by Scott Hartnell.

Quite a roller-coaster of a period. Up a goal, then down a goal, then up a goal again. Essentially, the Flyers treaded water in the period, but it was incredibly frustrating at first, then incredibly exciting. But the euphoria of getting the lead back wouldn't last. Sensing the urgency of the situation and needing at least one point to clinch a playoff berth, the Sabres sent Ryan Miller out for the third period. Miller stopped all 8 shots he faced in the period. Sergei Bobrovsky did not.

With less than 10 minutes remaining, Nathan Gerber used his speed to enter the zone, cut to the middle of the ice, and as the screen was setting up, he sent a backhander high to Bobrovsky stick side that found its way in. Bob never even saw the shot, and just like that the game was tied.

Luckily for the Flyers, Buffalo ragged the puck for the final minute instead of going for the regulation win. All the Sabres needed was a point to get in the playoffs, so they didn't want to take any chances at losing in regulation. And the Flyers were perfectly content with that, because getting the overtime point meant they would stay ahead of the Penguins. Of course, it would have been nice to get two points, but that didn't happen, as Buffalo made quick work of the Flyers in overtime, scoring just 1:16 in to end the game.

The good news was the Flyers gained that all-important point to stay ahead of the Penguins. But it was hardly the type of statement you wanted to see out of them following Pittsburgh's charge to overtake them. And it was yet another loss in a two-month stretch filled with losses. Point or not, a loss is a loss.

And that made two losses out of three Philadelphia teams in action despite great starts by all of them. What started out as a wonderful Friday night devolved into a drunken malaise that pretty much sapped all the energy out of everyone. There would be no going out and having a good time. It was just finishing up the beer and going to bed. Hopefully Saturday would yield better results.

Unfortunately, Saturday started out a lot like Friday. In their afternoon start in Atlanta, the Phillies again jumped on the Braves early. Shane Victorino continued his assault on Atlanta, leading the game off with a double, and a few batters later Ben Francisco brought him home with an RBI single. But Roy Oswalt looked like he was having the same problem Lee had the night before, albeit to a smaller extent. Roy just didn't seem like he quite had command of his pitches, leaving a lot of them up in the zone. And in the third, it cost him, as the Braves strung together three hits to get two runs before Nate McLouth lined into a double play to thankfully stop the bleeding.

I thought it would be deja vu all over again. The Phillies catchers had other ideas. The very next at-bat for the Phils, Brian Schneider got those two runs right back and gave the Phils the lead again by absolutely destroying a Brandon Beachy meatball after Beachy had just thrown five straight balls — walking Raul and falling behind Schneider 1-0.

I mean, he just absolutely crushed the ball. It was the type of approach that Howard should have had in his bases-loaded at-bat Friday. Schneider got ahead 1-0 and sat dead red for his pitch. When he got it, he made Beachy pay.

Of course, Brian Schneider wasn't the real story on Saturday. No, that distinction belongs to his fellow backstop and teammate Carlos Ruiz. With the day game after a night game, Ruiz was given the day off, or at least supposed to have the day off. But when the Phillies were still only up a run in the 7th inning against a lineup that includes Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla, Brian McCann and Jason Heyward, Charlie was going to do everything he could to get some more runs. Raul helped him out by leading off the 7th with a double. That's when Fredi Gonzalez went to his bullpen, bringing in lefty George Sherrill, who the Phillies know well, to face Schneider. That's when things go interesting.

The Phillies had the lead. There was a runner on second with no one out. Brian Schneider had already homered today, he was giving the starting catcher a much needed and much deserved day off, and he's a lefty who could conceivably pull the ball to the right side, even off a lefthanded pitcher, to move Ibanez to third with less than two outs. A lot of managers in that spot would have left Schneider in the game, given his big home run, and let his starting catcher truly have a day off. But Charlie didn't like the lefty on lefty match-up, so he called Schenider back and pinch-hit John Mayberry. Mayberry, who already has a walkoff hit to his credit this season, didn't disappoint, singling to left center to put runners on first and third with no one out. Sherrill, clearly rattled, walked Wilson Valdez.

With the bases loaded and the pitcher spot due up, Manuel didn't hesitate. He called on Ruiz to pinch-hit. Sherrill was lifted for Scott Linebrink, who quickly got ahead of Ruiz 0-2 with two sinkers. Then, inexplicably, Linebrink threw an 0-2 fastball right down the middle, and Chooch turned on it. As soon as he hit it, I started screaming, "CURBBALL!!!!!!!" You just knew it was gone. Ruiz demolished it, hitting his first career grand slam to put the game away.

He added an RBI double before it was all said and done, finishing with a career-high 5 RBIs and hitting his first career grand slam. Not bad for a guy who wasn't even supposed to be playing that day.

Let's face the facts, if you don't like Carlos Ruiz, you can just get the hell out. I love that guy.

So Saturday got off to a good start, and the Flyers decided to keep the good times rolling. Just 16 seconds into their final game of the regular season, Kimmo Timonen gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead. And just 31 seconds later, Ville Leino made a long stretch pass that Scott Hartnell flagged out of the air onsides, burying the breakaway.

Just 47 seconds into the game, the Flyers had a 2-0 lead and it looked like they were going to end the regular season with an emphatic victory. I had a feeling the Flyers, after all their struggles of late, would destroy the Islanders on Saturday. New York was a team the Flyers owned all season, and you know the Flyers were looking to put together a full 60 minutes of hockey before the postseason begins.

But as incredible as the pass was by Leino to spring Hartnell for the goal, the play he made later in the period was just as bad, if not worse. Up 2-0 and needing two points to clinch the Atlantic Division no matter what Pittsburgh did in its finale, Ville Leino made an absolutely inexcusable play. Instead of getting the puck deep on a rush, he tried to make a pass back to the point he was already high near the blue line. Instead of connecting, it sprung Michael Grabner the other way for the breakaway. Grabner made no mistake, easily depositing the puck between Bob's gaping five hole to make it 2-1.

It was exactly the type of play that makes you understand why the Red Wings traded the infinitely talented Leino away. He is an incredible playmaker, a creative scorer, and I'm thrilled he's a Flyer. But then he'll go and make an absolutely crippling, stupid play like that, one that completely changed the momentum of the game. No wonder Leino has been the taking the brunt of Peter Laviolette's ire of late. It's plays like that that drive a coach nuts.

Then the Islanders added a power play goal to tie it after Andrej Meszaros was called for a questionable elbowing call, but one that is defensible for the referee. While the replay showed Meszaros didn't connect with an elbow, he did go in high, making it seem like an elbow.

Just like that, the quick start was erased. But again the Flyers responded as Danny Briere continued to be hot. Birere rushed up the ice and lifted a backhander right past the swiss cheese that Rick DiPietro has become, giving the Flyers the lead again. Of course, the Flyers surrendered the lead before the period was done, because no lead is safe with this team anymore. It was a pretty dumb goal, with Bobrovsky losing sight of the puck as it slid right by him in the crease to a wide open John Tavares. Tavares tapped it in for the tie, and Bob was pulled for surrendering 3 goals on just 10 shots.

After the Islanders took a 4-3 lead in the first minute of the second period, we were completely disgusted. Adam and I discussed how pathetic this team is with the lead, when I said that beyond Chris Pronger's absence, this team really misses guys like Simon Gagne and Ian Laperriere. Gagne and Laperriere were excellent defensive players (an underrated part of Gagne's game), two guys who rarely made mistakes and knew to always make the smart, simple play with the lead. These Flyers, for all the talent they have assembled, just don't make the game simple for themselves when they get the lead. Damn near everyone tries to do too much entering the zone. They make stupid, ill-adivsed cross-ice passes. They try to dump the puck back or juke someone coming out of their own zone instead of just chipping the puck out of the zone and living to fight another shift. They turn the puck over at the blue lines and in the neutral zone. It's maddening. When you have the lead, you get the puck out and get the puck deep, then work and win battles. That's how you close out games, not by trying to make the cute, perfect pass or highlight-reel goal. Yet most of these guys just don't seem to grasp that a lot of the time.

Thankfully, the Flyers did wake up, thanks largely to Andrej Meszaros.

Meszaros was named the Barry Ashbee Award winner this year, given to the Flyers' best defenseman, and Saturday night he showed just why. For starters, Meszaros was flying all over the place, laying out Islanders with big checks, standing people up at the blue line and joining in on the rush offensively. And with the Flyers trailing, he tied the game in the second, then assisted on the go-ahead goal by Scott Hartnell — his second assist of the game and Hartnell's second goal. Then he made it a two-goal lead with a power-play goal in the third, as the Flyers added an empty-netter by Darroll Powe to win 7-4 and clinch the second seed in the East as the Atlantic Division champions.

Meszaros, easily the best offseason addition for the Flyers, was far and away the player of the game. He has come to Philadelphia and put the struggles of the past two seasons in Tampa behind him. Playing on a team with defensive stalwarts like Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen (and Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn), Meszaros has been the most impactful all season long. He was no different Saturday night, literally willing the Flyers to the division crown.

He got some help from Hartnell and Briere, as that line is getting hot again going into the postseason. And Brian Boucher was oustanding in relieving Bobrovsky, stopping 24 of the 25 shots he faced and giving Flyers fans confidence that he will do a great job, just as he did last year, if Bobrovsky should stumble in the playoffs.

When it was all said and done, it was an odd game. The Flyers surrendered a two-goal lead and then coughed up another lead, ultimately finding themselves behind before scoring four unanswered goals. It was hardly the statement type of game we all wanted to see, but it did garner two points and prevent a huge collapse.

The Flyers are the Atlantic Division champions, the second seed in the East, and they take on the very same Buffalo team they lost to ini overtime Friday night in the first round.

So Saturday was infinitely better than Friday, and I celebrated accordingly, drinking more than enough drinks with a few of my friends. And the weekend culminated with Cole Hamels throwing a gem yesterday to make up for his god-awful performance in his season debut. Cole responded with 7 innings of shutout ball, striking out 8 will giving up just 4 hits and a walk. It was a great outing, finishing off with ease by Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras, with the offense using a solo home run by Shane and small ball to win 3-0 and improve to 7-2 on the season, winning all three series thus far.

Curbball provided the biggest single-game highlight with his pinch-hit grand slam and five-RBI, three-inning day, but it was Shane Victorino that had the best series. Shane continued to be a Brave-killer going 9-for-13 with a double, homer, five runs, three RBIs and two stolen bases in the series. I'd say he's enjoying the leadoff spot thus far.

Sixers take on the Magic tonight without Andre Iguodala, trailing the Knicks by a game for the sixth seed, and the Flyers being the postseason at home on Thursday against the Sabres. The Phils begin a three-game set down in Washington to take on Jayson Werth and the Nationals.

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