Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Forgot About Ben

It must have been strange to be Ben Fracisco in 2011. Think about it. The guy went from the opening-day starting right fielder for the National League favorites, a guy both the Phillies and fans hoped would fill the considerable shoes of the recently departed Jayson Werth.

After a nice start in the first couple series, Francisco started to slump and slump hard. Just like that he went from starting right fielder to goat. Fans were all over him, and everyone under the sun wanted Domonic Brown to take his place. Eventually, he did. And even when Brown adjusted slowly to the majors, no one was calling for Francisco to return to the lineup — they were calling for a new right fielder. Enter Hunter Pence, all but banishing Francisco to a few at-bats a month.

In seemingly a blink of an eye he went from potential breakout star to whipping boy to afterthought. But a funny thing happened to Francisco as his playing time decreased. He became a better player. He started to get consistent hits either in spot starts or a pinch-hitting role. And by the time September was through, Francisco was on a hot streak at the plate.

And boy, did the Phillies ever need Ben Francisco and his bat last night.

It was quite a strange game given its ebb and flow. Right out of the shoot, you could tell the Phils were in trouble at the plate. Not only was Jaime Garcia throwing strikes, but he was throwing nasty strikes. The ball was darting out of his hand, with pitches either running one way or the other or dropping off the table. His stuff was good. Real good. And he was breezing through the Phillies lineup, to the point that it looked completely effortless.

On the flip side, Cole Hamels wasn't his sharpest. He, too, was throwing strikes, but he just couldn't put anyone away. Give the Cardinals credit, they were laying off many of Cole's disappearing changeups, fouling off and spoiling good pitches and just making him work every at bat. Great approach by the Cards.

The way it started out, you got an uneasy feeling if you were a Phillies fan. Especially since once again the bottom of the St. Louis order proved to be a nuisance, particularly Ryan Theriot.

Every playoff series that your favorite team plays in, there will inevitably be a guy on the opposing team that emerges as the guy you absolutely start to hate. Through three games in this series, it's not even close regarding the Cardinals. I hate Ryan Theriot and his stupid face. This guy didn't even start in game 1, and now the Phillies can't get him out as if he's Albert Pujols. For god's sake, the guy had four hits last night and is batting .667 in the series. Read that again, .667, from a guy who hit .271 this year. God I hate him so very much.

Anyway, through five innings, Garcia had barely broken a sweat while Hamels was already approaching 100 pitches. But a funny thing happened. Around the 4th or 5th, the Phillies, even though they weren't getting results, started to work better at-bats, while Hamels, who threw a shit ton of pitches in the first few frames, began to look sharper and throw fewer pitches per inning. You could kind of feel the tide starting to shift.

And in the 6th, the momentum really began to sway in Philadelphia's favor. Hamels led off the inning by absolutely smoking a ball to left field, the hardest hit ball since Hunter Pence's one-pitch laser line out in the first. Unfortunately, Allen Craig made a nice catch on it, but the pitch by Garcia was a sign of things to come. Two batters later, Chase Utley singled, and Hunter Pence was intentionally walked after Utley advanced to second on a wild pitch. Jaime did get Howard to ground out and end the threat, but he labored through the inning and showed some vulnerability.

Cole came out in the bottom half and struck out the side, though he had to work too as that little shit Theriot got a two-out single and John Jay walked. But still, really nice job by Cole, who after laboring a bit early really bore down and pitched a great game.

By the way, my roommate and I have been wondering why the Phillies are not pitching Theriot inside at all. The guy has absolutely no power and never even remotely tries to pull the ball. He looks to go the other way all the time. To us, it seems like pitching him outside is exactly what he wants the Phillies to do. And that's what they've been doing. As a result, they can't get the fucker out. Why not start pounding him inside, either with fastballs or even soft stuff, to make it more difficult for him to go the other way? It's been bothering us that they just keep working him outside. Clearly it's not working. Time to try something different.

Back to the game. The 6th inning proved to be the one that gave the Phils confidence against Garcia, and it carried over immediately in the 7th. For the first time all game, a leadoff batter reached base, as Shane Victorino singled to begin the 7th. He quickly moved to second on an extremely lazy and uncharacteristic passed ball by Yadier Molina, but John Mayberry, despite his best efforts to hit the ball to the right side, could not move Victorino to third, popping out to shallow right. Then Placido Polanco, who has been absolutely nonexistent at the plate, grounded out to third. So a runner at second with no one out turned into a runner at second with two outs. Not good.

Up stepped Carlos Ruiz, who had been struggling almost as much as Polanco at the dish. Earlier in the game, he got his first hit of the series on a high chopper that got over David Freese's head, but it was hardly an intimidating hit. Where Theriot and John Jay were killing the Phillies at the bottom of the order, Polanco and Ruiz were not making St. Louis pay. Despite that, La Russa and Garcia decided to intentionally walk Ruiz to get to pinch-hitter Ben Francisco.

It was a curious decision for sure, but I'd be lying if I said I thought it was a dumb decision. Let's face it, even with Francisco's impressive numbers at the end of the regular season, no one really expects much out of him. Honestly, when he was announced as the hitter, I said I'd almost rather have Raul Ibanez pinch hit against the lefty in an RBI spot than have Francisco in there. Raul has had some pretty clutch hits for this team this year, whereas Francisco hasn't done much at all. And Adam EatShit said there's absolutely no pressure on Francisco here because no one actually expects him to get a hit.

Then just like that, boom, 3-0 Phils.

When he hit it, it was more of a stunned excitement than the normal pure and utter joy from us. I mean, we were pumped and jumping and thrilled, but it was more quiet, more watching in disbelief than exploding with rowdiness. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the biggest hit of Ben Francisco's career. From potential hero, to goat, to afterthought, to the hero we were all hoping for, albeit in an unexpected capacity. Unreal.

However, the game was hardly over. Vance Worley came in for the bottom of the 7th and after getting Rafael Furcal to ground out, he lost Craig and walked him, an absolute no-no. It was the second time on the night that the Phillies walked Craig ahead of Pujols. You cannot do that. Ever. I don't care if you have to throw the ball right down the middle of the plate to Craig, you do not walk him in front of Pujols. That's just asking for trouble.

Of course Pujols followed with a single, his third hit of the night after doubling twice off Hamels, and Freese wound up singling him home to make it 3-1. Still, Vance got out of it, and we all expected Charlie to turn to either Brad Lidge or Antonio Bastardo in the 8th. With Theriot scheduled to lead off, we thought it would be Lidge in to start the inning with Bastardo warming up and ready to go at the drop of a hat.

Manuel went a different, surprising route. Worley, who gave up two hits and a walk, went back out there to start the 8th. None of us knew what the hell was going on, and it backfired. Of course it did, because Worley had to face Theriot. Naturally that fucking guy got his fourth hit of the night, and Worley's night was done. In came Bastardo, who did his job by getting Nick Punto to fly out. And here's where Charlie did another strange thing.

After Bastardo got Punto out, Matt Holliday was introduced as the pinch hitter. Holliday has an injured hand and hasn't started because he says it's too painful and not strong enough to allow him to hit with his hands. With that in mind, it would make sense to pound Holliday inside with a pitcher who throws hard and has a heavy fastball. Bastardo is that guy. And even though he's lefthanded, he's been great against righties and seemed like the perfect guy to attack the injured Holliday. So of course Charlie takes out Bastardo and turns to Brad Lidge, a guy who basically throws 80 percent sliders these days. Baffling decision, and again it did not work.

Lidge gave up a single to Holliday on a looping slider, followed by another single to shallow left that dropped in front of Mayberry, loading the bases. Fuck.

That was it for Lidge, as closer Ryan Madson came in, but the situation was precarious to say the least. We were sitting on pins and needles. But no need, because Madson, who really has been nothing short of awesome this year, got Craig to ground into the inning-ending double play, 3-1 lead still in tact. Holy shit.

It was huge for two reasons. Number one, it got the Phils out of the inning without surrendering a run. And number two, it ensured that Albert Pujols could not come to the plate as the tying run, because he was left sitting in the on-deck circle.

And it's a good thing, because Pujols led off with his fourth hit and third double of the game and wound up scoring. But it didn't matter. Madson shut the door and finished off the five-out save for the 3-2 win, and the Phils are up 2-1 with a favorable pitching matchup of Roy Oswalt taking on Edwin Jackson tonight with a chance to advance.

All thanks to Ben Francisco, the most unlikeliest of heros, a guy many of us forgot about a long time ago.

P.S. Go check me out at Ed the Sports Fan, where I'll be taking over writing duties on Wednesdays.

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