As a pinch hitter for Ron Opher in this week’s Phillies Notebook, I feel obligated to make a positive contribution. In the spirit of positivity, allow me to point out how much better the Phillies have been playing since the All-Star break.
Let’s not get carried away. My purpose is not to raise false hopes about stealing the second wild card. Yes, I know the Cardinals overcame a 10½- game deficit in late August to earn a wild-card berth and, after beating the Phillies in the first round, went on to win the World Series. But, barring a miracle, it’s not going to happen for the Phillies.
Entering their series with the Brewers, the Phillies are 10 games behind the Cardinals and Pirates, who are tied for the National League’s second wild card berth. If the Phillies (54-63) win two-thirds of their remaining games, winning at a .667 clip, they would finish 84-78, which will likely leave them a few victories short of making the playoffs.
But let’s return to being positive. Since the All-Star break, the Phillies have won 7 out of 10 series. Two of the lost series came against the Braves.
If we remove the Braves – who also swept the Phillies just before the All-Star break – from the equation, the Phillies have played .667 baseball since the All-Star Game. If we included the Braves, the Phillies are winning games at a .566 pace, which would have them in wild card position if they had played that way all season.
The major reason for the improvement is starting pitching. It’s true that July had some crazy games, such as the three straight 7-6 victories during a sweep of the Brewers. But starting pitching has been the key to the Phillies’ improvement.
Cole Hamels is leading the charge by the starters. His scoreless innings streak stands at 22, including shutouts of the Marlins and Braves.
It’s not simply the Hamels show. During the past 15 games, the Phillies have registered 5 shutouts. Kyle Kendrick even got into the act Tuesday with seven shutout innings during a 1-0 victory shutout of the Marlins. Roy Halladay has made four straight quality starts, although his reduced velocity Wednesday against the Marlins could be cause for concern.
During these 15 games, the starters have pitched at least seven innings and given up four or fewer runs 11 times. In the other four games, Worley twice gave up four runs while pitching fewer than six innings. Kendrick had the other two bad starts during this stretch, although, to be fair, one of them came when he was a last-minute starter due to the Joe Blanton trade. Kendrick is the only starter to give up more than four runs during the Phillies’ past 15 games.
Hamels, Halladay and the victory-challenged Cliff Lee have pitched well during August. This is what Phillies fans expected at the beginning of the year. The starting pitching would be the strength of the team and give the Phillies a chance to win virtually every night.
Unfortunately, the Phillies still have major weaknesses. The bullpen is unstable and unreliable. Wednesday’s 8th-inning meltdown (6 runs allowed) during a 9-2 loss to the Marlins was the latest in a long list of examples.
Defense is still a problem. Base-running mistakes are still occurring. Situational hitting is still lacking.
Starting pitching can cover up for a lot of weaknesses. But, if the Phillies continue to get strong starting pitching and win a significant number of their remaining games, it shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking they don’t need to address these problem-areas during the offseason.
Starting pitching can’t cover up for everything. That’s a lesson the Phillies should have learned this season.
DR. ROLLINS AND MR. HYDE: The series against the Marlins featured the best and worst of Jimmy Rollins. During the second game of the series, Rollins led off the game by crushing a home run off Josh Johnson. That run held up in a 1-0 Phillies victory. Fittingly, Rollins played his 1,731st game at shortstop for the Phillies that night, passing Larry Bowa for the top spot in franchise history.
The next day, a 9-2 loss to the Marlins, Rollins failed to run out a groundout. He jogged to first base rather than running hard.
This is something we’ve seen far too frequently during Rollins’ career. Manager Charlie Manuel should have removed Rollins from Wednesday’s game. As I write this Thursday morning, Manuel still has a chance to send a message by benching Rollins tonight.
700 CLUB: Not only did Rollins pass Bowa on the games-played-by-a-Phillies-shortstop list during Tuesday’s game, but the victory was Manuel’s 700th as a Phillies manager.
NO SWEEPS: Wednesday’s loss to the Marlins prevented the Phillies from achieving their first road sweep of a 3-game series this season.
MAYBERRY MISHAPS: John Mayberry Jr. has turned into an adventure in the outfield – and that’s not meant in a positive way. Earlier this month, he failed to run directly back to the fence on a long fly ball against Cliff Lee. Consequently, a catchable ball barely sneaked over the fence became a home run.
During Wednesday’s loss to the Marlins, Mayberry appeared to break late on a ball that fell for a double, but that wasn’t his biggest mistake. On a flyout to center field, Mayberry inexplicably threw to third base, where, even with slow-footed Carlos Lee running, he had no chance to get an out. Because the throw should have gone to second base, shortstop Jimmy Rollins was positioned as the cutoff man in that direction. With no cutoff man stationed in the direction of third base, the runner on first base was able to tag up and reach second, putting runners on second and third with one out instead of having a double-play situation.
Because of Mayberry’s mental mistake, the Phillies had to walk the next batter, loading the bases, in order to create a force play and possible double play. If he continues to make mental mistakes, Mayberry might just play himself right off the roster.
GIANT PROBLEM: The playoff race received a shakeup Wednesday when Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games for having elevated levels of testosterone. Cabrera, who is batting .346, will miss the Giants’ remaining 45 regular-season games and the first five games of the playoffs – if the Giants make the playoffs.
The Giants fell one game behind the Dodgers in the NL West race Wednesday night. Cabrera’s suspension makes Hunter Pence, acquired from the Phillies at the trade deadline, even more valuable.
COMING UP: After the Phillies finish up their road trip with a four-game series at Milwaukee, they return to Citizens Bank Park for a 10-game homestand. But the Phillies might not enjoy the home cooking.
They host the Reds for four games, the Nationals for three games and the Mets for three games. The Nationals and Reds, both in first place in their respective divisions, have the two best records in Major League Baseball. After finishing the homestand against the Mets, the Phillies hit the road for series against the dreaded Braves and, yes, the Reds.