The Tenth Inning – Week 15

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The Tenth Inning – Week 15 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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It’s not often a team can pull off an eight game winning streak, but that’s exactly what the defending champions have done. It’s also fairly uncommon that the defending champions can fly under the radar when they’re once again winning what it considered to be a tough division and doing so with a sub-.500 home record. Yet here they are, your 2009 Philadelphia Phillies – very unnoticed and winners of 12 of their 13, including their last eight. So using this as virtually the midpoint of the season, it’s time to analyze what the chances are of seeing the first back-to-back World Series winner since the Yankees owned the event from 1998-2000.

The Phillies have never had an issue scoring runs, especially not since they moved into the Little League-sized ballpark that is Citizens Bank Park. This year, though, hitters like Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, who have historically had dramatically better numbers at home, have produced more on the road that in Philadelphia. That could be, perhaps, the reason why the Phils have a 22-23 record at home, but are now an MLB-best 29-15 on the road after taking all three from Florida in Miami this past weekend. With Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez, the homerun power is certainly there, but again, all three of those players bat left-handed, and they have already been exposed slightly by teams that have good left-handed relievers (or, for that matter, starters). It feels weird to say that the second-highest scoring team in the NL and the fourth-highest scoring team in baseball needs to add another bat, and I’m not entirely sure where that player would even PLAY, but considering the team’s two best pinch-hitters are also lefties (Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs), adding a right-handed power bat should actually rank fairly high on GM Ruben Amaro Jr.’s priority list. All of that said, this team will score runs regardless, and they have a good deal of clutch performers to boot, so this is not exactly an area of concern.

I’m putting defense here because it’s entirely contingent upon the offense, and vice versa – the players who hit are also the players who field, so they go hand-in-hand. Defensively, it’s a close race between Shane Victorino, Torri Hunter, and Carlos Beltran for best defensive centerfielder in the game right now. My nod would be to Beltran for most areas, but Victorino does have the best arm of the three. Werth also has a fairly strong arm in rightfield as well, making it difficult for opposing runners to take extra bases against those two. On the infield, Pedro Feliz will likely win a gold glove this season, and Ryan Howard appears to be using a gold glove sometimes, so the disparity between the corner infield positions is considerable. Utley’s never been known as a defensive whiz, but he and shortstop Jimmy Rollins have combined to form a pretty good double play combo. Behind the plate, Carlos Ruiz is beginning to be recognized as one of the best defensive catchers going, as anyone who watched Brad Lidge last season can attest. He got a number of close calls because of Ruiz’s fantastic glove work behind the plate, and he blocks almost everything in the dirt, which is crucial when catching a pitcher with a hard, diving slider like Lidge.

Welcome to the Achilles’ heel for the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies. Last season, the Phils got a spectacular season from ace Cole Hamels, solid starting from the rest of the rotation, brilliant relief work from the middle men and set-up crew, and a once-in-a-lifetime performance from Lidge as the closer. This season, all four of those areas have dropped off, some of them dramatically. Hamels is clearly not the same pitcher he was last season – he desperately needs another offseason, and preferably a long one, to allow his arm to fully recover from his 2008 season, and it doesn’t look like that will be happening. Meanwhile Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton are still flirting with ERA’s at or above 5.00 (Blanton is at 4.44, Moyer is at 5.58), which is actually a vast improvement for both of them from even a month ago. The saving grace has been the emergence of J.A. Happ, who is 7-0 with a 2.68 ERA. Relying on that to continue, however, is dangerous, as teams will see more of him and learn “the book” on him, so to speak. As for relief pitching, Lidge’s issues have been well-documented, including right here in this space, and he’s still carrying around a 7.02 ERA – not exactly the shut down closer he was last season. Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero have been solid again, but like the rest of the staff, not as good as last season, which could mean a much different end result than last season, as well.

If last weekend was any indication, the Mets and Marlins are fading and fast, and the Braves simply don’t have enough to compete this season, even if Tim Hudson returns. That means the Phillies will win the NL East for a third straight season, partly because of the talent and partly by default. The interesting element here will be if this team clinches a week or two before the end of the season. The last two seasons, they had to catch and then fight off the Mets down to the final weekend, meaning their concentration, focus, and determination were all at high levels for the entire month of September. In ’07, they didn’t clinch until the final day and then played a team (Colorado) that clinched even later after a one-game playoff and then beat the Phillies at their own game. In ’08, they got one day to rest and regroup without feeling a full let down. This team is so driven and focused, and they fed off of the Philadelphia-New York rivalry so much in the last two seasons, that the absence of the Mets as contenders and the possibility of clinching in mid-September could put them in unfamiliar territory. I believe this is a team that can withstand a few weeks of meaningless baseball and still be ready come October 1, but too many other teams have failed to flip the switch back to up-tempo baseball that the idea still has to be mentioned that this team could do the same.

Final Analysis
If the season ended right now, the Phillies would get the Giants in the first round. My gut says that the Wild Card will actually come from the Central, meaning the Phillies would get the Central winner. Either way, they would have home field in the first round. They should be able to handle San Francisco, Chicago, Colorado, Houston, or Milwaukee regardless of the round, but right now, the Phillies simply don’t have the pitching to compete with the Dodgers or Cardinals, the only two teams I think can beat Philadelphia in the NL (thus last week’s power rankings). Right now, they would only have to get through one of the two, since LA-STL would be a first-round series, but I just don’t see the pitching staff being able to keep either of those teams from scoring more than the Phillies offense can muster in the pitching-dominated playoffs.

Result: Dodgers 4, Phillies 2 in the NLCS.

Trivia Question
Two tie-ins on this question: Today in 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. Later that season, the New York Mets completed what was, at the time, the biggest turnaround in one season to win the World Series. They did not, however, finish in last place in 1968, managing to win one more game than the Houston Astros that season. Also, the team the Phillies beat last year (Tampa Bay Rays) was a worst-to-first team, but obviously they failed to win the World Series. Thus, only one team has ever actually gone from last place to World Series winner in one season. Who was that team?

Last week’s answer: Ten active players attended the 1996 All-Star Game, the last time the NL won the event, including six first-timers. Below is a list of the players, their team at the time, and what number appearance the 1996 game was for them (* = starter):
Ken Griffey Jr.* – Seattle Mariners (7)
Chipper Jones – Atlanta Braves (1)
Jason Kendall – Pittsburgh Pirates (1)
Pedro Martinez – Montreal Expos (1)
Troy Percival – Anaheim Angels (1)
Andy Pettitte – New York Yankees (1)
Alex Rodriguez – Seattle Mariners (1)
Ivan Rodriguez* – Texas Rangers (5)
Gary Sheffield – Florida Marlins (3)
John Smoltz – Atlanta Braves (4)
Note: Tom Glavine also was on the NL team, but retired earlier this season without throwing a pitch.

2009 Playoff “Dead List”
The playoff dead list is on hiatus this week. Had it not been, I would have selected the Pittsburgh Pirates, so take solace Pirates fans – you still have a week to change my mind.

This week, watch for…
1) Phillies look to continue streak (vs CHC, 7/20-22)
2) Mets and Marlins try to stay afloat (NYM vs Was, Hou; FLA vs SD, LAD)
3) AL West tests (Tex vs Bos, 7/20-22; Min @ LAA, 7/23-26)

Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper

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