You didn’t think my vow of positivity would last long, did you?
In last week’s edition of Phillies notebook, I decided that I was tired of bashing the Phillies’ offense and figured you were tired of hearing it, too – so I decided to point out some things that were going well.
This week, while the offense has been inconsistent – the spotlight of negativity shines brightly on the Phillies’ bullpen, which coughed up two leads (on Wednesday in Atlanta and on Friday in Washington), and lost both games in the 11th inning.
The problems are not so much on the back end of the bullpen, where I gave high marks to Jonathan Papelbon (now 9 for 9 in save opportunites, with a 0.82 ERA) and Chad Qualls (who got hit and got wild Friday night, but entered the week with opponents hitting a paltry .160 against him). I could include Antonio Bastardo (2.84 ERA, scoreless in 8 of 10 appearances) in the list of effective relievers. Even Charlie Manuel recognizes Bastardo’s value, having said recently “what he needs is we’ve got to get him out there more.” After his first 7 appearances spanned parts of an inning, Bastardo’s last 3 appearances have been for full innings, and perhaps as a result, he is riding a 3 perfect inning streak. It helps Bastardo – and in turn the team – to have Joe Savery to turn to as a situational lefty in this bullpen. While Savery did let the Nationals extend a 5-1 lead to a 7-1 lead Saturday, and the hit he gave up Friday turned into an earned run, Savery still brings value to the team and should stick when Cliff Lee is activated Wednesday. Maybe Bastardo will reclaim the 8th inning, though Manuel may look at matchups when deciding between Qualls and Bastardo in the 7th and 8th innings. Each of them recorded a win this past week.
The guys who are not bringing much to the table are:
Michael Stutes: First a shoulder injury in spring training, then perhaps rushed back, and now Stutes officially has a rotator cuff strain and sits on the DL with his 6.35 ERA. In short, Stutes was handled poorly – maybe because the bullpen the Phillies wanted to bring north already looked thin. That’s still no excuse. It’s a good thing the injury isn’t worse – because Stutes played a key role last season, and will likely be counted on again this season, assuming he regains his health.
Jose Contreras: Was Contreras (9.53 ERA after mopping up in a 7-1 game with a scoreless 8th inning Saturday) also rushed back? Or is he just about finished as a major league pitcher? Contreras had the benefit of starting his season continuing his rehab from 2011 Tommy John surgery, and made his Phils debut on April 20. While the strikeouts are there (7 in 5.2 innings), Contreras has given up 9 hits. He turned a blowout in Arizona on April 24 into a nail-biter and started the 8th inning debacle in Atlanta on Wednesday. Contreras can’t be trusted in high-leverage situations and may be in danger of getting released by the All-Star break.
Michael Schwimer: If there was an uglier inning this season than the 8th inning in the Phillies’ 15-13 loss to Atlanta, we haven’t found it. Schwimer is Stutes’ replacement – and threw gasoline on the fire that Contreras started Wednesday. After pitching a perfect inning in his 2012 debut on April 25 in Arizona, Schwimer has given up runs in 3 straight outings, sending Wednesday’s game into extra innings and taking the loss in the 11th inning in DC two nights later. With a 6.35 ERA (ironically the same ERA as the guy he replaced) and 4 walks against only 2 strikeouts, Schwimer has got to be the guy heading back to AAA when Cliff Lee is activated Wednesday.
A final note on the bullpen – it’s a fair question whether Charlie Manuel should have turned to Papelbon at some point in the 8th inning Wednesday, before the Braves tied the game. Papelbon pitched more than an inning 4 times in 2011 for Boston, 7 times in 2010, 7 times in 2009, 13 times in 2008, 4 times in 2007 and 18 times in 2006. In fairness, Papelbon had pitched in each of the prior two games – though he threw 16 pitches Monday and just 10 pitches Tuesday (Contreras and Schimer combined to throw 36 pitches in the ill-fated 8th). It will be interesting to see if Manuel, with the bullpen’s struggles in getting to Papelbon, ever does go to his closer in the 8th. He did not do so at all with Ryan Madson in 2011, nor with Brad Lidge in 2008-2010 – though he did do it with Brett Myers on several occasions as closer in 2007.
Halladay’s chicken-and-egg situation: Roy Halladay, staked to a 6-0 lead going into the bottom of the 5th inning Wednesday, uncharacteristically gave up a 6-spot, punctuated by Brian McCann‘s grand slam (see where McCann rates on our prior Top 10 list of Braves we love to hate). Halladay did not make it through the 6th, giving up 8 earned runs in total. It was later announced that Halladay had been given permission to leave the team after the game for a personal/family matter, and would rejoin the team Friday in DC. Whether the personal issue weighed on Halladay (who has now lost 3 straight starts) during his outing, or whether his outing led to the issue, we don’t know – and may never know. We’ll definitely keep an eye on Halladay’s next outing, which is scheduled for Monday night at home against the Mets.
Kudos to Blanton: Joe Blanton pitched his first complete game as a Phillie Thursday afternoon, an 88-pitch masterpiece in a 4-0 win at Atlanta. He picked a particularly good time in a getaway day game after a brutal 15-13 loss the night before, giving the beleaguered bullpen a day off. The timeliness was compounded knowing that Kyle Kendrick, who has struggled while replacing Cliff Lee, was due to pitch the next day and likely would need a lot of bullpen support. While the stakes were not nearly as high, Blanton’s performance was somewhat reminiscent of Curt Schilling‘s 2-0 complete game in Game 5 of the 1993 World Series, after a 15-14 loss the night before, which also featured a nightmarish 8th inning (6 runs scored by Toronto to provide the winning margin). Of course, it did take Schilling 59 more pitches than Blanton to get through his outing.
Train in vain: Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz is having a phenomenal week at the plate. While Ruiz normally saves his batting heroics for the postseason (hence his ‘Señor Octubre’ nickname), this week he had a 7 RBI game against the Braves in a losing effort. Since last Saturday, Ruiz has hit 3 homers and knocked in 14 runs. Before that explosion, Ruiz had 2 HR and 4 RBI on the season. While his 7-game hitting streak came to an end Saturday, Ruiz’s .325 batting average is tops among the team’s regulars.
Who’s on third? The Phillies caught some tough breaks Friday night in their 4-3 extra inning loss to the Nationals. Amazingly, umpire Joe West found a new way to stick it to the Phillies. West missed Friday night’s game due to illness, and there was no replacement. The umpiring crew worked without a third base umpire. The fun began in the first inning, when Nats rookie phenom Bryce Harper appeared to take a full enough swing, but home plate umpire Rob Drake called it a checked swing. With no third base umpire to appeal to, Charlie Manuel yelled at Drake from the dugout, and Drake immediately ejected him. Manuel came out of the dugout to argue further; after the game, Manuel made it clear that Drake thought Manuel was arguing that the location of the pitch was a strike. When Manuel told Drake he didn’t have a problem with that, but thought Harper had swung (replays clearly showed that Harper’s bat went well beyond the front of the plate), Drake said he didn’t think so. If Drake wasn’t in over his head trying to umpire two bases at that point, by the 7th inning, it became obvious – when Carlos Ruiz‘s sharp grounder over the bag at third was called foul by Drake. Again, replays showed that the ball was fair, though it took its first bounce past the bag in foul territory. Instead of scoring the insurance run that would have been the winning margin, Shane Victorino had to go back to second. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Victorino was then thrown out trying to steal third, and again, the call was blown – this time by second base umpire Andy Fletcher. In the end, the Nats won in 11 innings.
Bad Natitude: The Washington Nationals have been embarrassed by Phillies fans taking over Nationals Park. The Nationals organization has gone so far as to block ticket orders for Phillies games in DC to credit card purchasers with Philadelphia-area zip codes (that’s OK, Phillies fans can buy seats in prime locations from bailing Nats season ticket holders on TicketNetwork, but I digress). Rather than trying to make the series with the Phillies a tougher ticket for all, the Nats seem content with 34,000-39,000 fans at their games (capacity is 41,487) – as long as the majority are Nationals fans. It’s all part of a campaign they call “Natitude.” It nay be working, as Washington won the first two games of the series and have beaten the Phillies 7 times in a row dating back to last season. Before we get carried away, keep in mind that the Nationals rotation this weekend was Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, while the Phillies sent out Kyle Kendrick, Vance Worley and Cole Hamels.
Looking ahead, part I: Ryan Howard is in Clearwater, Florida doing “baseball-related activities.” Chase Utley is expected to join Howard sometime next week, probably after attending his “All-Star Animals” annual charity event to benefit the Pennsylvania SPCA on Thursday night. Utley is with the team in Washington, just as he joined them in Arizona a little over a week ago. It will be a fun race to see who gets back in the lineup (my bet is Howard by about 2 weeks) or if either one beats Utley’s 2011 debut date of May 23 (my guess is no – that both will be back sometime in June).
Looking ahead, part II: It’s hard to say something bad about Jim Thome, who is an all-around good guy and future Hall of Famer (see Eric Fisher’s article, “Class is in session,” written after Thome’s 600th career home run). Thome had to be placed on the disabled list this week, after injuring his back sliding into second base after a walk last Saturday. He may stay there a while. Thome is just 2 for 18 on the season, with no extra base hits. While it’s probably hard for Thome to play frequently in the field, and equally hard for him to get into a hitting groove without regular at bats, the writing seems to be on the wall that Thome’s second stint as a Phillie will likely end the way his first stint did – with Ryan Howard replacing him. It’s nearly impossible to fathom the team parting company with Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix or Juan Pierre. Unless John Mayberry (0 HR, 2 RBI, .218 avg in 55 AB’s) is optioned to AAA to make room for Howard – which is a distinct possibility despite Mayberry’s value as a right-handed platoon/bench bat – the only other logical move for Howard’s activation is Thome’s release or retirement. Stay tuned.
Looking ahead, part III: The Phillies will try to avoid the sweep and end the 7-game losing skid to Washington with a more fair fight on the mound – with Cole Hamels facing Jordan Zimmermann. If the Phillies lose, they will fall the furthest out of first place that they have been this season (6.5 games – a place they haven’t been since July 22, 2010). The Phillies will also be trying to salvage a .500 road trip against their top rivals in the NL East. Monday night kicks off a 3-game set with the visiting Mets, and after a home off-day Thursday, the Phillies close out their season series with the Padres, then finish up the 8-game homestand with a pair against the Astros the following Monday and Tuesday. The Phils’ 3 guests are all very beatable teams, and it’s imperative that the Phillies take advantage and post a winning record, especially with 2 outings each from Halladay and Lee in those 8 games.