Sunday, October 4, 2009

Off to a Good Start!

This year's edition of the Flyers seems to be off to a flying start. They're 2-0, and Ray Emery has looked absolutely phenomenal so far. He shut out Boston in the first game and outplayed Martin Brodeur, generally acknowledged to be one of the two or three best goaltenders to ever strap on a set of pads, last night, 5-2. Emery looks like the hot-handed goaltender who led the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. "If he had any doubters, I think he's proved them all wrong," said rookie winger James van Riemsdyk after the game. "He made some sick saves," said Ian Laperriere. "When you see a guy make saves like that, everybody on the bench gets a boost. In this league, you go as far as the goalie takes you." If Emery keeps playing this well--and keeps his head on straight--he should have a tremendous year.

In the wake of last year's painful playoff defeat at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, this team has a lot of important questions to answer. "The mentality is probably different than last year," said Briere, of the team that started last year at 0-3-3 but still managed to tally 99 points. "Last year, we were maybe a little overconfident, a little too loosey-goosey. This year, there's a little bit of an attitude change." In other words, this team now understands that this is a serious business that must be taken seriously in order to have a realistic chance of winning it all.

This year's edition of the Flyers is very different from last year's team. Sure, the stalwarts, like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Scott Hartnell, are all back, and all are expected to have big seasons again this year. In addition to these important links in the chain, the Flyers also expect a lot from proven veterans like Simon Gagne and Danny Briere, who seems to be healthy again after an injury-plagued season last year.

In addition, the Flyers have added defenseman Chris Pronger, who is known as a hard-hitting defender who can also move the puck. More than anything else, Pronger brings a winning record and a fierce attitude to the game, and he's known as a leader wherever he goes. Hopefully, some of his fierceness will spread itself around to the rest of the team, which will hopefully show some of the attitude of Broad Street Bullies teams of the past. Kimmo Timonen, who remains one of the NHL's best defensemen, joins Pronger and gives the Flyers two of the leagues most reliable defenders.

At the same time, the Flyers have to play smart and avoid stupid penalties. "Discipline is going to be the big thing," said Timonen. "We can't take six, seven, eight penalties every game. That was a problem last year. That has to change. If you look at the good teams and how they win, they don't take penalties." Or, if they do take them, they kill them. So far this year, the Flyers have done just that.

Before the season opener, coach John Stevens observed, "It's a matter of starting better and finishing stronger. They all make a difference in the end. We've gone through a lot of experiences the last two years. Now it's time to put it all together." So far, Stevens and his team are off to the best possible start. Let's hope that they continue to play this well for the entire season.

I'm looking forward to what looks like it's going to be an excellent season for the Flyers. Let's see how it plays out. So far, so good.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Magic Number is 0!

The Phils clinched their third straight National League Eastern Division title in grand fashion last night, dispatching the Houston Astros 10-3. The actual victory didn't clinch it--a few minutes before the last out of the Phillies game, the Marlins defeated the Braves to eliminate Atlanta. It didn't matter.

Pedro Martinez struggled last night, giving up three runs in four innings. Luckily, the Phils' bats awakened last night. Raul Ibanez set a career high with his 34th homer of the season, and the Phils coasted to victory behind excellent relief pitching by Kyle Kendrick, who took over from Martinez in the fifth. Scott Eyre came out to pitch the ninth inning, and got the first two outs quickly. With two outs and the Bank rocking, Charlie Manuel made the slow trudge to the mound. He signaled for beleaguered closer Brad Lidge to close it out.

"Awesome," said Eyre. "I looked at Charlie and said 'I'm good with this.' Normally I would have been like, 'Come on!' But he should be on the mound for the last out." The crowd, recognizing what Manuel was doing, went nuts.

"That's what I wanted to do," declared Charlie. "I wanted him to pitch in front of the crowd. I thought it would be good for him and the crowd and crowd responded good. It was the ideal situation for me to run him out there. I want to get his confidence back because I know how talented he is. I wanted him pitching in that situation."

The pumped up closer needed one pitch to finish the job, inducing a game ending out. "That was huge," said a grateful Lidge. "I was really hoping he would. A lot of guys down there in the bullpen deserve it. The other guys have all done a great job, but I was hoping and praying it would be me tonight. This season has been a grind, no doubt about it. I always felt like it was going to end well, no matter what. I think it's going to. I really believe it will."

And the little ballpark erupted. Once again, the Phils were division champs, and Charlie Manuel let his weary veterans celebrate and enjoy the moment. "I let them celebrate because it's more their celebration and I like it that way better," said Manuel. "They're the ones who play. They're the ones who got it done and that's kind of how I like it."

All that was missing was Harry Kalas. The players spontaneously included the legendary late broadcaster in their celebration, congregating around the memorial to Harry on the outfield wall, pounding it with glee, and including the memory of their legendary play by play man in their joy. Chase Utley even offered Harry a celebratory cigar. Somewhere, I have no doubt that Harry and Whitey Ashburn are enjoying this moment.

"This what I came here for," declared Ibanez after the game. "I came here because it's a great ballclub. But I didn't realize how special a club it is until I got here."

The joy of the night was tempered by the news that Jamie Moyer, who has meant so much to this team for the past three years, would need season-ending--and perhaps career-ending--surgery to repair three torn tendons in his abdomen and groin that gave way in Tuesday night's game. But Moyer was there, where he should have been, celebrating with his teammates. It remains to be seen whether he will ever pitch in the major leagues again at 46, but he is an important part of this team.

I particularly like the photo above. That's Jamie Moyer on the left and Pedro Martinez on the right. They're two old pros who, between them, represent 477 major league wins. Moyer, of course, is from the Philadelphia area and won a World Series with his hometown team. Martinez was a member of the 2007 New York Mets team that melted down and blew a large lead to the Phillies, and Martinez took Moyer's place in the Phillies' starting rotation. It was undoubtedly a bittersweet moment for both of them that also demonstrates what class acts both of them are. The Phillies are better off for having both of them.

And so the Phillies move on to the playoffs, adding more luster to the greatest decade in the history of the franchise. Not since Connie Mack's A's dynasties has Philadelphia enjoyed so much prolonged success on the diamond as it has this decade, which has featured seven straight winning seasons, three straight division championships, and a World Series championship. The regulars will rest for a few days while the Phils try to claim the home field advantage through the National League playoffs; the Dodgers are locked in a great race with Colorado, who have closed to within 2.5 games. The Dodgers and Rockies finish the regular season against each other in a weekend series that I will watch with great interest.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And the Magic Number is 1

After losing five of seven and conjuring up the ghosts of 1964, Charlie Manuel called a team meeting of his slumping Phillies before last night's game. He told his team that they needed to relax and just play ball, and they did just that last night.

Carried by a huge fourth inning grand slam by third baseman Pedro Feliz, the Phils beat the Astros 7-4. "It was a big swing," said Feliz. "Four runs on one swing." He was right. "Oh, it was huge," declared Ryan Howard, "especially because we've been scuffling with the bats, getting runs. Any time you can hit a grand slam, that's pretty big. That definitely catapulted us."

J. A. Happ, who definitely did not have his best stuff last night, nevertheless won his 12th game of the season, running his record to 12-4. Happ pitched 5.2 innings, battling for every pitch and every out. When he finally ran out of gas after throwing 120 pitches, Charlie Manuel brought in Jamie Moyer, and the 46-year-old southpaw put out the fire, stranding two runs. He then pitched a shutout seventh inning before having to be helped off the field after tweaking his groin. It's unknown how long Moyer might be out. Happ's performance last night, on a night when he clearly didn't have his best stuff, probably went a long way toward nailing down his position as the frontrunner for the National League Rookie of the Year award.

Manuel then brought in Ryan Madson, who pitched two shutout innings to earn the save. Madson only needed 9 pitches to close out the Astros in the 8th, so Manuel elected to leave him in the game. Madson got in trouble to open the 9th, but then struck out two tough hitters in Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence to end the game to the cheers of a huge and vocal crowd. "The crowd definitely helped," said Madson. "When I went out there for the ninth, they made some noise."

The Florida Marlins helped the Phillies out last night by hanging on to beat Atlanta 5-4 after inducing Chipper Jones to hit into a huge ninth inning double play. That reduced the Phils' magic number to 1, and resulted in them clinching at least a tie for the Eastern Division title. The Phils play the Astros again tonight, with Pedro Martinez on the mound with a chance to clinch the title and permit Charlie Manuel to rest his weary regulars--Chase Utley looks completely worn out after hitting a couple of weak ground balls last night, and Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have both played more than 150 games and look tired too--for a few days before the playoffs begin.

Let's hope that they can do so tonight so that the remaining four games become meaningless.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jeremiah Trotter is Back!

The Eagles signed Jeremiah Trotter to a one-year, league minimum contract today. The prodigal son returns to the team that first drafted him in 1998. A four-time Pro Bowler, Trotter makes his return to the Eagles after last playing for them in 2006. After the Eagles cut him during the 2007 training camp, he spent the season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He did not play in 2008. However, he came into camp at 257 pounds, and is apparently in great shape.

"I always dreamed I would retire as an Eagle," said the 32-year-old Trotter, who declared that he still has at least three years of good football left in his body. "Hopefully, that can still happen."

"Jeremiah Trotter has always been one of my favorite players," said head coach Andy Reid in a press release. "He has worked very hard to keep himself in shape and we are pleased with where he is physically. We are excited to give him an opportunity to contribute to our football team." In order to make room for Trotter, the Eagles cut quarterback Jeff Garcia, whose time in Philadelphia was bound to be limited once Kevin Kolb demonstrated that he was competent as an NFL starting quarterback. Also, Garcia fumbled one of the two snaps that he got in last Sunday's game, costing the Eagles a touchdown by the Chiefs. "Jeff Garcia is a true professional and I know the players and coaches appreciated having him around these last two weeks," continued Reid. "There is no doubt Jeff can still perform at a championship caliber level in the National Football League."

Trotter made a deal with linebacker Tracy White and will wear his old, familiar number 54. Trotter is one of the all-time Eagles greats on defense. He had at least 100 or more tackles and led the team in that category in five of his seven seasons in Philly. He also became the fourth linebacker in team history with at least four Pro Bowl appearances, joining immortals Chuck Bednarik (8), Maxie Baughan (5), and Bill Bergey (4). As of the end of the 2007 season, Trotter has played in 134 games (with 117 starts) in his career, tallying 1201 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 9 interceptions (two returns for touchdowns), and 8 forced fumbles.

His role with the team remains undefined. "I don't think they brought me back to play special teams," Trotter noted. With the Eagles' linebacking corps thinned by injuries, Trotter may well see significant playing time, particularly if he performs at something close to his old level of excellence. At the very least, it will be interesting to see how Reid decides to use Trotter.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Not Bad. Not Bad at All.

The Eagles thrashed a roadkill team in the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday. The thrashing was not unexpected. The Chiefs are just awful, perhaps as bad as last year's Detroit Lions (congratulations to the Lions on breaking their massive losing streak, by the way). Something would have been wrong if the Birds hadn't beaten them badly.

The bigger questions were whether the defense would perform and how Kevin Kolb would do. The answers to both questions, fortunately, were excellent. The defense swarmed, put a ton of pressure on Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassell, and bottled up the Kansas City offense. The Birds held Cassell to 14-18 and only 90 passing yards, while sacking him three times. They also held bruising running back Larry Johnson to 38 yards on 19 carries. "The main thing we needed to do was we needed to take [Johnson] out of the game," said safety Quintin Mikell. "That was our focus all week--kind of make them one dimensional."

More importantly, the blitz--missing against Drew Brees and the Saints last week--was back. "Everyone in there today, I guarantee you, was still thinking about what happened last week," said Mikell. "We don't want that to happen again, so we had to out there and...get our swagger back." Let's hope that the swagger--and aggressiveness--is back for good.

Kevin Kolb proved me wrong--I admit it. It does, indeed, appear that he has the ability to be a successful NFL quarterback. He went 24-34 foe 327 yards and 2 touchdowns without an interception, making him one of only a handful of NFL quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards in his first two games as a starter. He hit moving targets, including a nifty 64 yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson in the first quarter, and Brent Celek had a bunch of catches for more than 100 receiving yards. Jackson and Celek have demonstrated that they are legitimate offensive threats.

Michael Vick played a few downs, and looked uncomfortable. He simply didn't look like he really wanted to be out there.

LeSean McCoy played his first game as a starter at running back after Brian Westbrook's ankle sprain prevented him from playing. McCoy had 84 rushing yards on 20 carries, did not lose the ball once, and scored a touchdown. He's still very young and very inexperienced, but he demonstrated that he has the basic tools to be a successor to Westbrook. With all of his injuries, I fear that Westbrook is about finished, so I tip my cap to the Eagles for being proactive and seeking out a successor to him in the draft.

The Birds are 2-1 going into the bye week. They play another bad team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in two weeks. Tampa is 0-3 and just benched its starting quarterback, Byron Leftwich, and they're in disarray. Andy Reid has indicated that he expects Donovan McNabb back for the Tampa Bay game, four weeks after breaking his rib. I have gained confidence in Kolb, as he has earned it, but given a choice between Kolb and McNabb remains a no-brainer. I would rather see McNabb out there leading the team, and he will be a welcome sight once he returns to action.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

It Doesn't Look Like Tyler Walker is the Answer, Either

Tyler Walker got his first prime time shot last night, coming into the bottom of the 9th inning in a 5-5 tie in Milwaukee last night. He promptly gave up a single to the lead-off hitter, and then the next hitter, Ryan Braun, hit a two-run walk-off homer to win the game. Walker faced two hitters and didn't get an out. "When one run is going to end the game, you've got to get that first guy out," noted Walker. "Then the pitch to Braun was not quite away, not quite down enough...Now I have to regroup and come back at them tomorrow."

Of course, the Phils shouldn't have been in that position in the first place. A costly 6th inning error by Jimmy Rollins cost two runs and permitted the Brewers to tie the game. Starter Kyle Kendrick pitched 4 innings and gave up three runs. He also balked and made a throwing error that cost him an unearned run. Jamie Moyer pitched 4 solid innings in relief of Kendrick, but he was the victim of Rollins' error and probably deserved a better fate.

Chase Utley, the usually dependable second baseman and number 3 hitter, is 1-13 this series, and appears to be pressing.

"I know some say it's in the bag," Charlie Manuel told his players after the game. "We ain't got a thing yet." How true. His bullpen is atrocious, and his hitters are pressing and not delivering when the team needs them to do so. His team appears to be complacent, because it demonstrates no sense of urgency. "I'm not [complacent]," said Manuel. "You'll have to go ask them. I talk to them every day, and I hadn't seen nobody tell me that. I'm not taking it for granted that we've got the division won. No. Not at all."

Let's hope that his players got the message, because time is now running very, very short.....

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is Tyler Walker the Answer?

The Phils won in Milwaukee last night, 9-4. They ran up a lead that not even Brad Lidge could have blown (although Lidge didn't pitch), thanks to a 5-run inning in the 8th that included a 3-run homer by Jimmy Rollins (his 20th) of the season. The game marked the return of J. A. Happ, who pitched 5.1 solid innings in his second start since straining a rib cage muscle. The bullpen did a solid job, although Clay Condrey gave up two unearned runs in the bottom of the 9th to make the game closer than it should have been. The magic number is now 4 with ten games left to play.

Tyler Walker pitched the 8th inning last night. He struggled a little bit, but managed to get out of a jam without giving up a run. Walker may well be the best option for a closer that the Phillies have now, with Lidge as ineffective as he has been. Charlie Manuel was coy about the whole thing.

Chollie talked to reporters before the game, and the inevitable questions about who might close came up. One asked whether Tyler Walker might deserve a shot to close. "Yeah, I mean, that might be what we have to do," responded Manuel. "We'll see. Whatever we think. Whatever we want to do. I'll do that. We've got to win some games." When asked whether he would still stand by Lidge and Madson, he shrugged and said, "I don't know. You can call it whatever you want to call it." He reiterated his point that there weren't many available options. "If you look and se what our pitching situation is right now and who we have there, I mean, you know...."

Walker seems to be a viable option. He's been a closer before, posting 23 saves with the San Francisco Giants in 2005. He's been effective for the Phillies this year: He's held the other team scoreless in 23 of his 28 appearances, and opposing teams have batted only .215 against him. However, he nearly gave up a grand slam last night, when a long fly ball was caught on the warning track to end a major threat by the Brewers in the bottom of the 8th inning. Walker's problem is that he's effective, but not overpowering. He lacks a dominating out pitch like Madson's heater or Lidge's slider (when it's working).

The problem is that the other options aren't great. J.C. Romero remains injured, and has four saves in his career. He's a specialist against lefties and often will face only one or two hitters in an appearance. Chan Ho Park, out with a hamstring pull, has two saves in his career. Clay Condrey is not a closer. Brett Myers is hurt. That leaves a starter--either J. A. Happ or Pedro Martinez--as an option, but neither is suited to the role, and neither has much experience pitching out of the bullpen. Consequently, it's not known whether they have the ability to bounce back quickly after an appearance.

Thus, given the fact that neither Lidge nor Madson are effective as closers, Tyler Walker--shown in the photo above--seems to be the best choice by default. How he will perform in the role remains to be seen, but he can't do any worse than Lidge and Madson, who have 17 blown saves between them.