Thursday, May 31, 2012

Phillies, Dead or Alive?

It has been a strange two months in baseball, and no team has represented this odd start than the Philadelphia Phillies.

Everyone knew scoring runs in the early season would be an issue with the team's two highest-paid and most talented offensive players on the shelf.

Putting even more pressure on an aging and injured Phils squad, many thought, would be an improved division basically from top to bottom. The Braves were already a good club, now with a full year of Michael Bourn to build on. The Nationals brought in Gio Gonzalez to team with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman, not to mention the eventual call-up of Bryce Harper to infuse the lineup. Miami hired Ozzie Guillen, inked Jose Reyes and nabbed the reliable Mark Buehrle and talented - albeit insane - Carlos Zambrano. And the Mets, well, they couldn't get any worse.

Things weren't going to be easy for the Phillies at the start. And they weren't. As expected, Philadelphia struggled early on to score runs. Jimmy Rollins couldn't get going. Shane Victorino was his streaky self. Hunter Pence tried to make up for the absence of Utley and Howard every at-bat. Placido Polanco continued to age. John Mayberry took a step back. Utley's replacement, Freddy Galvis, was fantastic in the field but nothing to write home about with the stick. The only players doing any sort of consistent hitting were Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre, a career eight-hole hitter and a slap hitter.

To make matters worse, the starting pitching was not quite as great as it has been. Roy Halladay, while still better than 90 percent of the pitchers out there, didn't look as dominant as he has. Cliff Lee is awesome, but the man still is winless. Though Cole Hamels has elevated his game yet again, pitching at a Cy Young level.

Still, it wasn't enough. The losses were piling up, the Phils fading, and even more injury has begotten the Fightins. Vance Worley was shelved. Laynce Nix hurt. Cliff Lee had his issue. Cole Hamels got suspended. Now Roy Halladay's shoulder is falling apart and the Phillies are dead last. The sky is falling on Ruben Amaro's grand experiment.

That's how it feels anyway. Then you look at the standings this morning, following the Phils' 10-6 victory over the Mets last night, and you realize this depleted, struggling team is just three games back from first place.

Judging by the way both fans and media alike have many times left this team for dead, you'd think they were already looking at a 9, 10, 11 game hole. I have to admit, it certainly feels that way. Watching the 2012 version of the Phillies is painful. They aren't cruising by people with either insane pitching completely neutering the opposing offense or a slew of home runs carrying them to a power surge. Many of the games are close, low-scoring and utterly agonizing to witness. Yet they are two games over .500 and just three games out of first with plenty of games to play and potentially some reinforcements coming in.

How have they done it? Well, two men have carried this club more than any others. The first is the man this franchise desperately needs to find a way to sign, the left-handed former World Series MVP who only gets better with every passing season.

Cole Hamels has been nothing short of phenomenal. Where Halladay and Lee have had hiccups, Cole has been brilliant. This is now his staff, at least for this year, and his team. He's among the league leaders in damn near every pitching category, and now with Halladay on the shelf, he's the man who will be tasked with leading the rotation. Judging by the way he's been going and the resolve he's developed the past few years learning from the likes of Halladay and Lee, the Phils are in good hands there.

The other man helping keep this team afloat is the man Hamels chucks the ball to, the one and only Carlos Ruiz. I've already written about Chooch and what he's been doing this season. Simply put, he is right there with Yadier Molina as the best catcher in baseball right now. The man has continued to handle the pitching staff magnificently, and now he's become the team's most lethal and reliable hitter. Hell, even when he doesn't start, he's coming in and turning the game around like he did last night. It's frightening to think where this offense would be without him, and where this team would be without Ruiz and Hamels.

Thankfully, behind the strength of those two, the development of Galvis and some strong play from the likes of Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton, the Phils are well within striking distance, even if no one realizes it.

Of course, they still are in last place. And now, they are without Roy Halladay for 6-8 weeks, yet another injury to one of the team's aging stars. It makes it all feel like this is a lost season for the Phillies, like they are dead in the water.

But then you look up and see those standings, see how close they really are, and you wonder if maybe they are in a better position than it seems. Yes, Halladay is out. That is a huge blow. And the timetables on the return of Utley and Howard are still unknown. But at some point, they will be back, giving a boost to the offense. The rotation still has Lee and Hamels as a dynamic 1-2 punch, not to mention a closer who remains perfect in save opportunities. If they can hold it together and keep within striking distance, the second half could be their time to strike.

Still, it's hard not to wonder where exactly the team is right now. No Halladay, no Utley, no Howard. A shaky bullpen, inconsistent offense. It's not inconceivable to envision this season becoming a lost cause.

But it's not lost yet. Not by a long shot. Just look at the standings. It feels like the Phillies are dead, but they are very much alive.

Friday, May 25, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The Philadelphia 76ers are on one of the weirdest playoff runs I've ever seen. Tomorrow, they face a game 7 in Boston, with the winner advancing to take on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

That's right, this 8th-seeded Sixers, a team many, including myself, were wondering at the end of the regular season if it would be better to just drop out of the playoffs and improve their draft stock, is just one win away from making the Eastern Conference Finals. It's pretty odd, yet here we are. So here is an add rap dedicated to Andre Iguodala.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Just Enjoy the Ride and A.I.

I've been spending the entirety of this Sixers playoff run with a cynical, "yeah but" attitude. I know I'm not the only one, but I certainly have been as vocal about this team's flaws and proclaiming this a smoke and mirrors situation. Maybe it's just the Philadelphia in me.

But after last night, I'm putting that all on the shelf until the offseason. It just doesn't make sense to do it anymore. No matter what I truly feel about the makeup of this team moving forward, it's undeniable that this whole thing has been fun. Last night, when I honestly thought they may get blown out and end their season, the Sixers stood tall, outplayed the Celtics and forced a game 7 Saturday night in Boston on the backs of Jrue Holiday and Elton Brand, not to mention a nice pregame push from the Answer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Turning Point: Iggy Missed Both

For the Sixers to realistically hav a shot at advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, they really needed to win game 5 on Boston's home floor. Having to win back-to-back games, with one of them being a game 7 in Boston, is just too much to ask of a young, offensively challenged team like Philadelphia.

Last night, the Sixers had a tremendous opportunity to take game 5. They came out and played arguably their most impressive offensive first half of the playoffs, posting 50 points after 2 quarters and taking a three-point lead into the half. Ironically, it was Elton Brand, the same guy I buried yesterday, leading the way.

Again behind Brand, the Sixers came out in the third and extended their lead. Minutes later, Andre Iguodala swiped the ball and broke the other way. Paul Pierce reached out and grabbed Iggy to prevent a momentum-building breakaway dunk and was called for a clear-path foul. Up stepped Iguodala to the line with the chance to give the Sixers a 6-point lead and the ball. It was an opportunity for the Sixers to go ahead by 8 or 9 ponts and take further control of the game. It was the type of moment that can really swing the game one direction or the other, a big moment for the Sixers to exert themselves.

Instead of doing that, Iggy missed both freebies. Then Spencer Hawes turned the ball over on the ensuing possession, and the wheels came completely off. Moments later, the Celtics took the lead and never looked back, ultimately blowing out the Sixers for an emphatic 101-85 victory to take a 3-2 series lead.

Following that huge missed opportunity, the Sixers' offense reverted back to its painful form, settling for contested jump shots and becoming a mess with turnovers. The Celtics suffocated Philadelphia on the defensive end, then went to work offensively. Rondo was magnificent, Garnett dominant once again and Brandon Bass of all people was carrying the scoring load. Boston saw a young, inexperienced team in a moment of weakness and made sure to strike while the iron was hot. And it all started with those missed free throws by Andre Iguodala.

Look at the play-by-play, and it tells the same story. Following that dreadful sequence, the Celtics went on a 10-run to take a 6-point lead, a lead that would only grow as the game went on. Doug Collins even brought it up during a timeout, as TNT showed us him telling his team they had the ball with a lead and chance to extend that lead with the clear path foul and let it slip away. That was the pivotal sequence of the game, the moment that truly determined which way this one was going. Andre Iguodala and his Sixers failed. The Celtics, with their Hall of Fame roster and mountain of experience, took the reins and then stomped out Philadelphia.

Now, I'm not going to go out and kill Andre Iguodala for this. Truthfully, the man has hit more clutch shots this postseason than he ever has, and he's only increased his trade value. I will admit that I cannot understand how in the hell the guy has progressively gotten worse at the free throw line, going from a career-best 82 percent free-throw shooting in his third season (after shooting 74.3 percent and 75.4 percent in his first two seasons) to 72.1 percent, 72.4 precent, 73.3 percent, 69.3 percent and finally a career-low 61.7 percent this season. It seems counterintuive that a player would get worse in that area, yet here we are.

Still, while the sequence that included the missed clear-path free throws and ensuing turnover was the turning point, it's an indictment on the whole team how this game spiraled out of control. The best players for the Sixers last night were arguably Elton Brand and Lavoy Allen, and let's face it, if those two guys are your best players on any given night, your team is in trouble.

No matter how many times this team surprises me with a huge comeback or a resilient effort, no matter how far this Sixers team goes in the playoffs, I can't help but see a completely flawed roster. Spencer Hawes is too soft to be worth the trouble on a team in flux. Iguodala needs to be traded so his talents can be utilized appropriately on a team that needs a great defender and very nice all-around player, not a star. Elton Brand is on his last legs and should be amnestied so he can ride out his twilight somewhere else. Lou Williams is a great spark plug, but he's not what this team needs.

It needs a superstar. It needs to find out if Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner will ever be able to take the next step and be cornerstones of the franchise. It needs to get Thaddeus Young on the court more. Did I mention it needs a superstar? The Sixers won't get any of those things if they continue to be a mediocre team with a flawed roster devoid of a go-to guy, a game-changer. They just won't.

The Sixers aren't a team ready to take on those pivotal moments and own them. They had the opportunity last night, a huge opportunity to get within one victory of the Eastern Conference Finals. But they couldn't do it because this team just isn't quite good enough to do it. After all, they are an 8 seed that got extremely fortunate with the injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, an 8 seed that backed its way into the playoffs. Let us, and more importantly let the Sixers ownership not forget that, while enjoying this surprising ride for what it is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Doug Collins, Lavoy Allen and Elton Brand Walk Onto a Court

I'm not even going to attempt to break down the Sixers' mind-bending 92-83 victory Friday night to even up the series with the Celtics at two games apiece. The Sixers were down 14-0 to start the game, down 15 half and felt like they were down even more, yet somehow managed to win. I watched the entire game, and I'm still not entirely sure how it happened.

Nothing about that game made sense. I mean, Andre Iguodala even became supremely clutch, scoring five straight points and essentially putting the game out of reach. It was stunning, crazy and inexplicable, so there's no reason to do anything but marvel at this oddity of a game and enjoy.

However, there is something worth discussing here that everyone can make sense of - Doug Collins' blind loyalty twoard starting Elton Brand.

It was brought up during the broadcast by Doris Burke. Burke was discussing how well Lavoy Allen has been playing in the series, particularly noting how Kevin Garnett, who absolutely killed the Sixers in the first three games, struggled most when Allen was on the floor guarding him.

With that in mind, Burke said Doug Collins was going to try to manage Allen's minutes to mathc up with KG to have Allen out there whenever Garnett was on the floor. This makes a ton of sense, for obvious reasons.

Here's the thing ... Garnett starts the game. He is a starter for the Celtics. Lavoy is not a regular starter for the Sixers, and he was not out there to start game 4. This despite Collins' admission that he wants Allen out there whenever Garnett is out there to neutralize him as much as he can.

So why wasn't Allen out there to start? Because Doug Collins won't even consider starting the game with Elton Brand on the bench because he just couldn't do that to the guy. Burke said she asked Doug point blank if he has considered sitting the struggling Brand down and starting Allen, and he said not for a second.

Not for a second? Really? How does this make any sense to anyone? Listen, I respect the professionalism and hard work of Elton Brand as much as anyone. I wasn't a fan of the signing and didn't like him prior to becoming a Sixer thanks in large part to being a former Blue Devil. But since he's been here, he's been the utmost professional, never complains and goes about his business. Last year, he was quietly the team's best player. But let's face it, it's the end of the line for Elton Brand. He has absolutely no lift anymore. He can't consistently hit his jumper like he used to. His neck and other injuries have rendered him damn near useless on the court.

Meanwhile, Allen has been battling and giving Garnett fits when they're matched up. Collins even admits this. Yet he won't start Allen over Brand out of some misplaced loyalty. Burke found this admirable. I found it offensive.

A coach's job isn't to be the most loyal guy in the world. It's to put his team in the best position to win. Elton Brand was on the floor over Lavoy Allen as the Celtics were jumping out to a 14-0 lead. Lavoy came in and helped reverse that and cut into the lead for a short while. He's the guy who should be out there to start at power forward, not the broken-down Brand.

Everyone who has watched the Sixers this postseason and especially this series knows this. Hell, Doug Collins even knows this. But he won't pull the trigger on making the move that is so obvious it hurts to see it ignored.

Again, I respect Elton Brand to no end. He won me over, even though his contract has been an albatross and I think the Sixers should use the amnesty clause on him this offseason. And I love the passion Collins brings, the way he keeps his team fighting to the very end, the way he loves Philadelphia and the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall, the way he's brought some excitement back to professional basketball in this city. But this is an area where Collins' loyalty to start Brand is putting the Sixers in a bad spot.

I know the minutes played and who is on the court come crucnh time are more meaningful than who starts and who comes off the bench, and Allen has rightfully been seeing the floor more than Brand. But maybe the Sixers wouldn't get themselves in these big holes if Collins made the switch from Brand to Allen in the starting lineup.

Then again, maybe not. Who am I to really say? After all, the Sixers are already farther along in the playoffs than anyone thought they'd be, and somehow they are just two victories away from the Eastern Conference Finals, somehow, some way.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Let's Talk About Carlos Ruiz

It wasn't that long ago that this stocky catcher who grounded into a ton of double plays and wasn't much of a threat at the dish came up to split to time with a cache of unimpressive catchers for the Philadelphia Phillies.

As two-time all-star and 1999 Gold Glove winner Mike Lieberthal's career was winding down, Phillies fans were falling in love with the underdog story of Chris Coste and the absurd mustache of Sal Fasano. That was the summer of 2006, and that same season, one Carlos Ruiz, a former infielder with little catching experience, came up and made his Major League debut in limited action.

Not much was made of the then-27-year-old backstop from Panama. The Phillies certainly weren't overly impressed with him, otherwise they would not have gone out and signed Rod Barajas in 2007 to be the starting catcher, with Coste as the backup. But pitchers notoriously hated throwing to Coste, and Barajas was a colossal bust. As in arguably the worst catcher in Phillies history. He's certainly the worst one I remember.

That opened the door for Ruiz, who played in 115 games and became the starter, mainly because the pitching staff absolutely loved throwing to him. In just his second year in the majors, Ruiz was already becoming excellent at calling a game. At the same time, he hit a respectable .259 with 54 RBI.

With that breakout performance, the starting catcher job was Ruiz's in 2008. But while he continued to be stellar behind the plate, he had an atrocious season in the batter's box. Ruiz, or Chooch as his teammates began calling him, hit a dismal .219, had a dreadful .320 on-base percentage and an even more dismal .300 slugging percentage. He hit just 4 home runs and drove in just 31 RBI in 117 games, while grounding into an absurd 14 double plays. The man just couldn't get the job done with the stick. But his defense was so stellar and his backup, still Coste, was losing his short-lived MLB talents. Thus, Ruiz was the man tabbed to handle the staff in the 2008 postseason.

Then a funny thing happened during that 2008 postseason. Not only did Ruiz help Cole Hamels become a household name and NLCS and World Series MVP, Brett Myers become stable, Jamie Moyer continue to defy age and Joe Blanton become unbeatable, but he began to come through with huge, clutch hits. Who will ever forget his walkoff swinging bunt to win game 3 of the World Series? Philadelphia fell in love with Chooch, who was integral to the Phillies becoming World Fucking Champions.

From that moment on, Ruiz has owned the catcher position here in Philadelphia and has done nothing to lose that spot. In 2009, he returned to his rookie year form at the dish - still not a great hitter, but respectable for No. 8, especially one who handled the pitching staff so well. And he continued to be clutch in the playoffs, earning the nickname El Senor Octubre. Cliff Lee came to Philadelphia via trade and turned in a couple of his most impressive streaks of his career throwing to Chooch, including his absurdly dominant 2009 postseason run.

Lee gave Ruiz a ton of credit for his success, and he wasn't the last star pitcher to do so. The following season, the Phillies brought in the great Roy Halladay. Pitching to Ruiz, Halladay, who had already won a Cy Young in Toronto, did a couple things he'd never done. First, he threw a perfect game against the Marlins. Then he made the playoffs for the first time, and in his postseason debut tossed a no-hitter against the Reds, giving a Chooch a huge hug.

Halladay took home the NL Cy Young in his first season in Philadelphia, and he gave a ton of the credit to Ruiz, a catcher he said he rarely ever has to shake off. The bond grew strong between the two. Real strong.

That same season, Ruiz did something no one expected. He became a disciplined hitter, one who stopped swinging at everything and started working counts. And what a difference it made. Ruiz incoceivably became a .302 hitter and quite literally became as difficult an out as the Phils had on their roster, a huge luxury for the 8-hole hitter.

Last seaosn, he continued to impress, batting .283 while still doing a marvelous job with the talented Phillies pitching staff.

And so far in 2012, with the Phillies desperately needing someone to step up offensively due to the absence of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Ruiz is turning in his best season yet at the age of 33. As of today, Chooch is leading the Phillies by a large margin with a .363 average, .405 OBP, .619 slugging percentage and 1.024 OPS, blowing his career marks out of the water in the early going. He leads the team in hits and RBI, truly flourishing at the plate and behind it. So much so that there isn't a catcher on the planet having a better season.

Ruiz leads all MLB catchers in average, slugging, OPS, hits and RBI. He's second in home runs and on-base percentage. And his defense hasn't dropped off a lick. The man has gone from an afterthought, late-season call-up, a guy who wasn't supposed to amount to much, into the best catcher in 2012 thus far. He's transformed from an unknown to the most beloved player on the team. He's gone from a good defensive catcher with little offensive game to an excellent hitter capable of winning a Gold Glove at the same time.

All of the sudden, the Philadelphia Phillies are Carlos Ruiz's team. He's the one keeping this team afloat and giving fans a reason to still tune in. He's the one leading the way. Who would have ever thought that just a few short seasons ago?

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Tonight is a Boston invasion here in Philadelphia. Not only do the Celtics take on the Sixers in game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Wells Fargo Center, but the Red Sox come down to Citizens Bank Park to kick off a three-game set against the Phillies. So with that in mind, why not a song about Boston - particularly since that song brings together Boston, my pen name, Schoolhouse Rock and Ween?

Friday, May 11, 2012

'Iggy's Gonna Miss Both'

At approximately 9:40 p.m. last night, a short burst of text messages came flooding through my phone.

It all started with the Sixers, down by three to the Bulls with less than two minutes left, playing some truly stupid basketball. At this point, there was no reason for the Sixers to take a three unless a wide open opportunity presented itself, and there was certainly absolutely no reason to force a three. Yet there they were, taking two horrid, unnecessary threes at absolutely innopportune times. First, it was Jrue Holiday double-clutching and forcing up a three that stood no chance with 1:39 remaining. Thankfully, Thaddeus Young was there to grab the offensive board and kick it out to Lou Williams. Only Lou immediately dribbled left as Chicago threw a double team at him, and instead of making the right play, Williams attempted a three with two guys in his face, one of them being the 7-footer Omer Asik. And no, he did not make it.

That's when the texts started to roll in:

My friend Tommy: Fuckin Lou

Me: What, you don't like an unnecessary 3 over 2 guys, 1 a 7-footer?

silver fox: I hate this team

Me: Is it wrong if I hope they lose so they git rid of guys?

silver fox: No. If you asked me in the third I woulda said yes, but after watching this I changed my mind

After a missed three by C.J. Watson, the Sixers cut it to a one-point game on a great pass by Thaddeus Young to a wide open Spencer Hawes underneath. It was immediately followed by some of the worst defense in the history of the world coming out of a Chicago timeout, with Spencer Hawes popping out and showing on a screen instead of allowing Evan Turner to fight through and get to Watson. As Hawes showed, Asik rolled to the rim, and no one picked him up, leading to an embarrasingly terrible uncontested slam, three-point lead for Chicago once more.

However, there was Thad again to save the day, driving to the hoop for a layup to make it a one-point game again with 12.8 seconds remaining.

Then, inexplicably, Jrue did not foul C.J. Watson immediately on the inbound, instead letting the Chicago point guard bleed a few seconds off the clock. I was incredulous as Jrue let Watson get away ... but it actually became a blessing in disguise. Why? Because Watson, a good free-throw shooter, inexplicably gave the ball up to Asik, an absolutely atrocious free-throw shooter, and Hawes immedately fouled him with 7 seconds left.

Asik proceeded to miss both, Andre Iguodala grabbed the rebound and then finally did something every Sixers fan alive has been begging him to do for years: he took the ball strong to the hoop. It was amazing to watch. Over the years, we've been watching Iguodala, one of the best finishers around the rim but a mediocre to poor jump shooter, instead opt for difficult fall-back jumpers and contested shots in crunch time, not go to the hoop. This time, Iguodala finally listened, got fouled and headed to the line with the chance to give the Sixers the lead and put them in position to advance to the second round for the first time since 2003.

That's when the texts started again.

Me:Iggy's gonna miss both

silver fox:I'll be stunned if he doesn't

Arkansas Fred: Misses one

Me:I was gonna say both

(Iguodala makes the first)

Me: Huh

Arkansas Fred:No way he makes the second

(Iguodala makes second, Sixers lead 79-78)

silver fox: Wow

Then for good measure, Iguodala blocked the last-second heave, and the Sixers advance.

The texts continued.

Me: Great, same team next year

Arkansas Fred: I still can't believe he made both

Now don't get me wrong, it was great to the Sixers advance to the second round and nice to see Andre Iguodala finally come through with a signature moment. The Wells Fargo Center was rocking, and this team has given the Philadelphia faithful a reason to be excited about professional basketball again.

But now I'm terrified that this 8th-seeded team toppling the top-seeded Bulls will be misconstrued and misinterpreted by management as a sign that these current Sixers are right where everyone wants them to be. They are not. Of course it's always impressive to move on in the postseason no matter the circumstances, but let's not pretend that this No. 1 Bulls team was the same No. 1 Bulls team the Eastern Conference has grown accustomed to seeing. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose was lost for the series in game 1. Joakim Noah got injured shortly thereafter. And several other key players for the Bulls were hobbled.

Meanwhile, the Sixers were healthy, and they had to scratch and claw their way to defeating the Bulls without their best two players. Hell, in game 5, Philadelphia only scored 26 points in the entire first half, and scoring was a struggle all six games, just as it was the second half of the regular season. Even if they manage to beat the aging Boston Celtics in the next round and make the Eastern Conference Finals, it would be foolish to think this team is capable of truly competing year in and year out for a championship. More importantly, proceeding as such would be shortsighted and detrimental, putting the franchise's true contending date even frrther in the future.

I fear advancing another round could cloud management's judgment. I fear it now means Spencer Hawes will be back, and Andre Iguodala will remain. I fear that the same 76ers that we saw thrive early on only to fade and then stumble into the postseason will be brought back for another go-round. And that's not going to get the franchise any closer to a championship than any of the other moves the past decade.

Unless this team somehow miraculously goes on a run to the NBA Finals - it won't - it has to retool. Hawes should not be re-signed. Lou Williams should be allowed to walk. Andre Iguodala should be traded. And Elton Brand should be amnestied. Hand the keys to Jrue and Evan Turner full time, find out what you have in your two young backcourt players and go from there. Because as much fun as this season was at the beginning and now is once again moving on to the next round, there was not a Sixers fan alive who didn't think the same thing as I did: "Iggy's gonna miss both."

When an entire fan base is truly, supremely surpised that its team's franchise player actually made clutch free throws to win a game, you know your team is not where it needs to be. Even after last night, and for all the tremendous things Andre Iguodala does as the most underappreciated best player on his team in the NBA, the next time the game is in his hands, I and the rest of Philadelphia will be thinking the same thing: "Iggy's gonna miss."

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The Sixers just advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since Allen Iverson was in his first go-round with the Sixers. Now A.I. is in the Swizz Beatz video.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

That Familiar Philadelphia Feeling

Flyers eliminated from the playoffs? Check. Sixers squander a chance to advance to the second round by scoring just 26 points (26!) in the first half? Check. The Phillies blow a four-run lead to drop their second straight and remain in the basement of the NL East? Check and check.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are back in familiar territory as Philadelphia fans, and last night was a culmination of what life was like before the World Fucking Champions went strolling down Broad Street.

I spent the night at the Wells Fargo Center with a bad feeling from the get-go. A lot of people were jumping on the theory that the Flyers would collectively raise their games and individually step up in the absence of Claude Giroux, feed off the home crowd and stave off elimination for another day. And hell, if that happened, who knows what could happen? Claude would be back and raring to go in game 6. Win that, and it's a coin flip game 7 at home.

I was not so optimistic. Trading your best player for Zac Rinaldo isn't my idea of a good omen, even if every player in that locker room knew he had to elevate his game, and even with Andrej Mezsaros finally returning to action to replace the struggling Andreas Lilja. So as I took my seats up high behind the net manned by Ilya Bryzgalov, I expected the worst.



However, the Flyers came out with perhaps their best start of the entire postseason, if not the best start since game 6 against the Penguins. Philadelphia finally got its forecheck going, was controlling the puck and spending lots of time in New Jersey's zone. Zac Rinaldo came out with a ton of energy, hitting every Devil that moved, including this annihilation of Anton Volchenkov that really juiced up the crowd and help ignite the Flyers.

Shortly after a delay to get Volchenkov off the ice (he returned to action later), Max Talbot put the Flyers ahead thanks to some good, hard work by Brayden Schenn and Danny Briere. The Flyers had a lead, were pressuring the Devils and looked a lot more like the team that disposed of Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh in the first round. The Talbot-Rinaldo-Sean Couturier line was providing a ton of energy and taking it to Jersey, and the other lines were following suit.

But it wouldn't last. As has been the case damn near every time the Flyers have scored the game's first goal, their fortunes reversed. The Devils began to clog things up again and tighten up defensively, and just a little over two minutes after Talbot lit the lamp, Bryce Salvador beat Bryzgalov to tie the game. Eight-plus minutes of hard work and solid hockey went right down the tubes ... then the wheels came off.

Kimmo Timonen corralled a puck just inside his own blue line with David Clarkson bearing down on him. Timonen calmly played the puck back to Bryzgalov, who seemingly had plenty of time to move the puck either behind the net up the boards, outlet to Braydon Coburn or just fire it up the ice. Instead, he did this:

Granted, Timonen probably shouldn't have even played the puck back to Bryz seeing as he's not exactly adept at handling the puck, but come on now. He had so much time and so many options that it's unfathomable that Bryz would do what he did. First, he hesitated way too long despite having plenty of time to move the puck. Then he tried to put it the only place he couldn't, right back where it came from. And it led to one of the most back-breaking goals in recent memory.

That was all she wrote for the Flyers. After that, the Devils picked up their play and began to look like the same stifling defensive team that has dominating the Flyers all series long, while Philadelphia reverted to a team that couldn't even get past the neutral zone. It became New Jersey's game the second Bryzgalov made that indefensible gaffe.

Meanwhile, the Phillies were blowing a four-run lead, and the Wells Fargo Center was beginning to empty after Ilya Kovalchuk made it a 3-1 game 5 minutes into the third. I stayed to take in the pathetic seen, and the highlight was a slight confrontation caused by some Devils fans who threw beer on damn near our entire section. The Jersey fans in questioned were summarily kicked out, basking in the glow of the Devils doing what they had made a habit of doing to the Flyers in the 1990s and early 2000s.

By the time the dead Flyers were lining up for handshakes, the Phillies were in the midst of losing 7-4. Fantastic.



It's really hard to wrap my head around just how much of a slide the Flyers went on between rounds 1 and 2. After exploding offensively against the Penguins with a potent power play and looking a team that you could never count out, the Flyers morphed into a lifeless bunch. It started with the first period in game 1, when the Devils came out and completely owned Philadelphia in every aspect of the game. But that was easy to explain away and blame on the layoff after sitting a week prior to the start of round 2. And not much was thought of it when the Flyers then went on to reverse course, eviscerating Jersey in the second and third periods and winning in overtime to take a 1-0 series lead.

However, the first period of game 1 proved to be no fluke. The Devils outworked the Flyers in every game there on out, dominating the puck, throwing a ferocious forecheck at the Philadelphia defense, cycling with ease, clogging the neutral zone and suffocating the Flyers' forwards so much that their speed became irrelevant. New Jersey was just the better team in this series. They won all the battles, did all the little things and put the Flyers in their place. It was an impressive effort all around by New Jersey, and a lifeless one by the Flyers. It's hard to even say anyone played well for the Flyers in the series. Certainly no forwards stood out. Bryzgalov was average to bad at times, and he was actually the best Flyer in a few games. And the defense got owned by Jersey's physical, powerful style. Honestly, I think everyone looked bad with the exception of Braydon Coburn. He was the best Flyer this series in my eyes, a true workhorse, but then again, he wasn't immune to Jersey's relentless attack.

It truly was a team effort. Jaromir Jagr completely disappeared. So did Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds. Scott Hartnell too. Even Claude Giroux was a completely nonfactor with the exception of his two points in game four. At the end of the day, the Devils just wanted it more and played far better hockey. It is what it is. And what that is is a familiar feeling - the Flyers bowing out before any of us were ready for them to be done.

Just like the Phillies sitting in last place was quite the familiar feeling before the days of Charlie Manuel and Citizens Bank Park. And the familiar feeling would stick around late through the night.

After the game, I hopped on the subway and headed home. Once I got the el, I checked my phone to see the Sixers' score. The game had to be at or close to half, so I figured I'd get an update and then watch the second half at home. When I checked my phone, I first thought my eyes deceived me. With just a minute left in the 2nd quarter, my phone read, the Sixers had just 26 points. That can't be right. Maybe there was a delay and it was still the first quarter. Or the Scorecenter app was malfunctioning.

I checked back a couple minutes later, and there it was: Halftime, Bulls 35, Sixers 26. What? Really? I texted silver fox to see if this was true. He said it was. I was stunned.

Now, I know the Sixers are not a very dynamic offensive team, but 26 points in a half? That's unheard of. And to do it in a game in which they could eliminate the opponent and advance to the second round for the first in forever? Pathetic.

I'm not even sure how that happens, and needless to say, I wasn't excited to watch the second half of a game in which a combined total of 61 points were scored after 24 minutes of play. But I'm some sort of sports masochist, so I did, and what I saw in the second half was another horrible half of basketball, albeit one with a lot more points. Now the series sits at 3-2, though the Sixers do come home tomorrow with a chance to close things out.

Still, it was familiar watching the Sixers struggle. Just as it was familiar to see the Flyers get eliminated early and the Phillies lose in painful action as basement dwellers. It's like my entire life as a Philadelphia sports fan prior to 2008 all over again.

The Same As He Ever Was: Mike Richards and the L.A. Kings

The Same As He Ever Was: Mike Richards and the L.A. Kings

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Idiocy of ‘Going by the Book’

Last night, I attended my first Phillies game of this slow-starting 2012 season. I might as well have just stayed home in my warm, dry living room, because what I witnessed was a travesty of logic by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.

Things started out all well and good, with the Phillies scoring a run in each of the first two innings to take a 2-0 lead. Roy Halladay was mowing down Mets and cruising, even if he was throwing a decent number of pitches.

Then in the 6th, after getting two quick outs, Roy thought he had Mets leadoff hitter Andres Torres struck out. The home-plate umpire disagreed. I couldn’t really tell if it was a strike or not from my seats, but Halladay was peeved. And he let it get to him. As in, he lost his cool, then lost his command, then lost Torres for the dreaded two-out walk.

Then some guy I never heard of with a long name singled, followed by David Wright smoking a double down the third-base line to tie the game. Roy went from a perfect 6th with a shutout intact to allowing the Mets to pull even in a matter a minutes. Not good.

However, the Phils came storming back an inning later, with Juan Pierre getting a leadoff walk pinch-hitting for Halladay, followed by a Jimmy Rollins single. Off to a good start. Here’s the thing, because Charlie Manuel inexplicably batted the struggling John Mayberry second, a guy who probably hasn’t bunted once in his entire MLB career was up in a clear bunt situation. It was an odd choice to hit Mayberry second to begin with, seeing as both Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco are much more prototypical two hitters, where Mayberry is much better suited for hitting down in the order (well, prior to this year, when he hasn’t been suited to hit anywhere).

Now it all came to a head. The Phillies needed a bunt. John Mayberry most likely cannot bunt. And while he did square around at first, he ultimately swung away, flying out to shallow right and not even moving one runner, let alone both. Dumb move number one by Charlie. But hey, at least Mayberry made two very fine plays in the field.

The good news is that Shane followed with an infield single to load the bases with one out. Excellent. All the Phils needed now was for Hunter Pence, a guy who has power and certainly is capable of hitting it to the outfield, to hit a fly ball that didn’t even have to be all that deep with Pierre on third. Instead, Pence hit a dead double-play ball because he’s an undisciplined hitter. And while at first he was called safe by beating out the throw (he looked out to me in real time anyway), the run was wiped off the board as Victorino was called for being out of the base path on his breakup attempt or something. Or maybe the call was overturned. They don’t tell us anything at the game, obviously, and Twitter was of little help.

Either way, double play, inning over, game still tied. Fantastic. Dumb Phillies baseball at its best. And it was only just beginning.

After Antonio Bastardo got through the 8th with no damage, the Phils started to get cooking again. Ty Wigginton led off with a single. Carlos Ruiz followed with a nice bunt that turned into a bunt single when the pitcher fell down. Then Polanco, who conceivably could have done this in the previous inning had he been hitting second, laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to get Ty to third and Ruiz to second. Here’s where Charlie made another stupid move.

We’ve all seen that Freddy Galvis cannot hit. Roy Halladay is almost his equal in average this season. So with Galvis up, naturally Charlie would pinch-hit for him right? Bring in Pete Orr and force the Mets’ hand. That way, they can decide whether or not they want to take their chances with Orr or walk him to load the bases to bring the force at home into play. Instead, Charlie keeps in Galvis and the Mets wisely decide to pitch to him. Freddy has one of the most awful at-bats I’ve ever seen and grounds into a fielder’s choice out by hitting the ball about 30 feet right back to the pitcher. Two outs. Awesome.

But wait, it gets even better. Laynce Nix stepped into the on-deck circle and was announced as the pinch-hitter. As expected, the Mets then brought in a lefty. Obvious, but sometimes those are the breaks. Nix is the team’s best RBI man on the bench, he was brought in for this very type of at-bat, so you take your chances with him, right? I mean, the guy is one of the few Phillies actually hitting over .300 and he has 10 RBI in 50 plate appearances. He’s the guy you want up there.

That is, unless you’re Charlie Manuel, who decided to “go by the book” at the stupidest time ever. When the Mets brought in the lefty, Manuel replaced Nix, his best bench hitter, at least powerwise, and completely wasted him in a tie game in the 8th. And who did he replace him with? Erik Kratz, a 31-year-old who had a cup of coffee with the Pirates, where he sucked, and an even shorter cup of coffee with the Phils last year.

He’s a career minor-leaguer. And since he’s been called up, he hasn’t gotten a single hit, entering the game with a .000 average in a couple appearances. Let me make this as clear as possible: Charlie Manuel wasted his best bench hitter in a tie game in the 8th in a clear RBI spot against a division opponent in favor a career minor leaguer who quite literally cannot hit. A braindead toad could not have made a dumber decision. Shockingly, Kratz struck out to end the inning. And by shockingly, I mean expectedly.

We all know the rest. The new closer came in in a non-save situation, sucked and gave up a home run to some scrub, a guy who had never had a Major League hit before in his life. Game over. After five years of being spoiled beyond belief, we have been reminded in this early going of what being a Phillies fan has been like the majority of my life, and the majority of their existence. Minus Utley and Howard and with an aging roster, they just aren’t the fun, enjoyable team they’ve been the past half decade. That doesn’t mean they can’t turn it around, but right now watching the Phillies is like pulling teeth. And the dumb decisions by the manager aren’t helping.

Friday, May 4, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance: RIP MCA Edition

Back in 2008 when I transitioned from the sportswriting world to the publishing industry, I found myself with a lot of free time at work. Being an avid reader of blogs and a writer myself, a novel idea came to me one day while I was staring at the clock waiting for 5 o'clock to come: Why not start you own blog?

So one day, I just up and did it, creating this here site and naming it after an inside joke I started with some friends. You see, back before the Phillies were perennial contenders, they sucked. Hard. The winning was few and far between, and the star power even fewer and farther between. So when word spread that the Phillies were building a new stadium - their current home at Citizens Bank Park - I began calling it the House that Glanville Built, after Penn grad and former Phillies centerfielder Doug Glanville, a good player and one of favorites, but hardly a star. Naturally, it seemed like the perfect name for my long-winded, absurd missives.

At the same time, I also had to come up with a pseudonym, an Internet pen name. The reason for that was twofold: 1. Many bloggers had pseudonyms in keeping with the Internet spirit of anonymity; and 2. I was doing some posting during work hours. So I tried to think of a name, and it came pretty quickly actually. You see, the Beastie Boys are one of my favorite musical acts of all time, and my favorite Beastie Boys song is "Paul Revere." Then I threw Reverend in front of it because it sounded kind of catchy and I did a whole of preachy writing in the early days about swinging at the first pitch after the pitcher just walked the bases loaded and the like. It seemed like a good fit. Not a very exciting story, but that's how the name was born.

I bring this all up because in case you haven't heard, Adam Yauch, aka MCA from the Beastie Boys, died today of cancer. Beyond being a musician, Yauch was also an avid basketball fan. I saw the Beastie Boys perform at Penn's Landing back when I was in college, and he was talking about how heard of this sick point guard here in Philadelphia named Maalik Wayns, back before Maalik was a McDonald's All-American. Oh, and the Beastie Boys played "Paul Revere" at that show, a song they hadn't performed live outside of their hometown New York City in more than five years, almost as if they knew I was attendance. MCA also shot one of the coolest basketball documentaries that's come in a while,Gunnin' for that #1 Spot.". He truly was a man who brought music and sport together.

My condolences to his family and friends. RIP, MCA.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Joe the Lumber Gets Phils Back on Track

This afternoon's Phillies game played out the way you would expect a lot of Phillies games to play out this season. Average offense (4 runs on 9 hits) and the pitching staff making it stand up. One thing that may not have been expected was that it was Joe Blanton on the mound making those runs stand. And he was brilliant.

After last night's crazy and annoying game, the Phils were in desperate need of a great outing by Blanton for several reasons. First, they saw the ace of their aces, Roy Halladay, have arguably his worst start as a Phillie. He surrendered 8 runs over six innings, failing to protect the 6 run lead he was spotted by a stunningly lively Phillies offense. The offense battled back to retake the lead, only to lose a heartbreaker in extra innings. It was so frustrating to watch a team that has been struggling so much offensively waste its best offensive output of the season. It was an extremely tough loss, and the Phils needed to rebound from it. Second, last night's long game left the bullpen depleted. And third, the Phillies are heading into an incredibly tough series against the first-place Nationals this weekend, a series that holds about as much importance as an early May series can. And man did Joe deliver.

Big Joe just went out and threw a complete game shutout. He allowed just three hits. He struck out six and walked none. He pounded the strike zone, throwing only 88 pitches, 67 of which were strikes. He flat-out dominated the game. It was his first complete game since 2007, and his first as a Phillie. And it came at the perfect time. The Phils were able to overcome last night's debacle, take two of three from a team ahead of them in the division standings, and get a little momentum as they prepare to face the team they are chasing for first place.