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.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

11 Blown Saves and Counting....

Brad Lidge, also known as The Human Incendiary Device, got lit up like a Christmas tree last night, not only blowing his 11th save of the season, but also losing the game to the pesky Florida Marlins in the bottom of the 9th. Lidge came in with a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the 9th, promptly gave up a lead-off double, and ultimately gave up 3 more hits to blow the game. The Phils lost 7-6, wasting another decent but not overpowering effort by Cole Hamels and homers by Ryan Howard (his 42nd) and Raul Ibanez (his 33rd, tying his career high), as well as two RBI's by Hamels. Lidge is now 0-8, with a gruesome 7.48 ERA. And yet Charlie Manuel continues to trot this guy out there.

When the lead-off hitter hit his double and then advanced to third on a fly ball by the next hitter, I had an immediate sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing that the the tying run was on third base with only one out, and because I just have no confidence at all in Lidge. Unfortunately, my fears were rapidly proved well-taken.

"Him and Madson, that's what we've got in the back end of the bullpen right now," explained Charlie. "He's struggling. At the same time, it's hard for us to close a game out. It's tough. It's kind of what we've got. I mean, I've got confidence in him. I keep running him out there. Hopefully he does the job. I pull like hell for him every time he goes out there, believe me."

I understand pulling like hell for him, but I don't understand the confidence. Lidge has demonstrated that he's not worthy of that confidence now. "It's frustrating," admitted Lidge. "I'm disappointed. They hit the ball tonight and did a good job. Hopefully tomorrow I'll get a chance to get something started again." I hope not. We can't afford it.

A little of Charlie Manuel's frustration crept through last night, which is no surprise. "The bottom line is, when you're winning going into the ninth, you have to win the game," he declared. "The big thing is we're not closing the game out. When you're leading going into the eighth and ninth, you're supposed to win a high percentage of those. I don't know exactly what the percentage is, but it's...damn high." The problem is that with Brett Myers, Chan Ho Park, and J. C. Romero all out injured, Manuel has few options available other than Madson and Lidge. Madson has not set the world on fire as a closer, either, so there really aren't many moves available to the manager. Perhaps it's time to give Sergio Escalona a shot, because he can't do any worse.

Manuel is, of course, absolutely correct about that. The problem is that with the 2009 version of Brad Lidge, it's not going to happen. The bottom line is that a team with no effective closer has almost no chance of succeeding in the post-season where pitching makes all the difference. I hate to admit that, but it's the truth.

As the regular season winds down with performances like last night's, I hold out little hope for the prospects of repeating as World Series champions.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

And the Magic Number is Now 6....

The Phils beat the Atlanta Braves 4-2 yesterday in a rain-delayed game. A nearly two-hour rain delay cost Cliff Lee another win, as the rains came halfway through the fifth inning, and Lee was unable to return after the lengthy rain delay. Lee pitched four solid innings, giving up one run on five hits. Instead, Tyler Walker, who pitched two innings, got the win. In the process, the Phillies snapped Braves' rookie Tommy Hanson's scoreless inning streak at 19. They tagged Hanson for seven hits and four earned runs.

Lee didn't want to come out of the game, even after the delay. "I let them know I wanted to go back out there, but I'm not going to sit there and argue with them over it," he said. "I wanted to go out and they know I wanted to go out. They were saying it's not really worth the risk. We still won the game, so it doesn't really matter."

The bullpen did an excellent job. "We got some good work out of our bullpen," declared Charlie Manuel. "We got some good work our first night in here, and we got some good work today." Brad "Light 'Em Up" Lidge got his 31st save, but it was yet another shaky and unpredictable performance by him. Lidge gave up a walk to Brooks Conrad, who then advanced to second base as a result of Lidge's not watching him. Conrad then scored on Brian McCann's single. Lidge then retired the side by striking out Nate McLouth to notch the save, but by giving up the run to Conrad, his ERA puffed up to a really hideous 7.24, which is, by far, the highest ERA of any major league closer. It's not even close.

Shane Victorino was ejected in the second inning after arguing being called out while trying to steal second base. Although he only played two innings, at least it wasn't as a result of still being under the weather from a stomach virus that caused him to miss the two previous games. Carlos Ruiz, who sprained his wrist last week, missed another game, with Paul Bako doing the catching.

We also learned why Brett Myers hasn't appeared in a game in over a week. "He's got some soreness in the back of his shoulder," declared Ruben Amaro, Jr., the team's general manager. "We've been kind of protecting him. I guess he sustained it about eight or 10 days ago....He's scheduled to see (team physician) Mike Ciccotti on Tuesday to see of there is anything really serious about it. [The training staff] is saying it's a possible strain." Let's hope that it's not anything serious, as the Phillies will need a healthy and effective Myers int he post season.

The Marlins lost, meaning that the magic number is now 6. The Phils are off tomorrow, and then have a three game set against the Fish. If they sweep the series, it's over. Let's hope that the Phillies will be celebrating in Miami this week.

Defense? What Defense?

With the combination of the death of defensive coordinator/guiding light Jim Johnson, and the departure of Brian Dawkins, the unquestioned leader of the defense, I have had serious concerns about the viability of the Eagles' defense all season. Once middle linebacker Stewart Bradley went down with a blown ACL early in training camp, the depth of my concern only grew. The defense played beyond my wildest expectations last week against the Carolina Panthers, and deceived me about how good the defense really is. Today, Sean McDermott's defense showed its true colors, and believe me, it wasn't pretty. Not pretty at all.

Today, the defense ran into the superb Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, and Brees ate them for lunch. The Birds lost really, really ugly today, 48-22. In many ways, they were their own worst enemies--they fumbled the second half kick0ff on their own 20 yard line, and New Orleans immediately took the ball in and scored. Kevin Kolb also had an interception returned 95 yards for a touchdown in the closing moments of the game. The defense was just atrocious. It allowed Brees to go 25/34 for 311 yards and 3 touchdowns, and gave up a total of 421 yards of offense. The defensive line got almost no pressure on Brees. He was sacked a couple of times, and knocked down a couple of times, but it wasn't enough to rattle a cool customer like Drew Brees. For a team that lives and dies by its defense, those numbers just are not acceptable.

"We're the team that we had last week," said safety Quintin Mikell. "This week, it's almost a game where you gotta watch the film, learn from it and move on. That's just not what we do around here. We were playing on our heels. We weren't playing aggressive. You can't do that against a good team. And they're a good team. They came out and they made a lot of good plays. But I feel like we're a good team too. We just didn't play our best game tonight." That's for absolutely certain. If that was their best game, it's going to be an ugly season.

Kevin Kolb did better than I might have hoped. He went 31/51 for 391 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. One of those touchdowns was a 71-yarder to DeSean Jackson in the first quarter, that happened when the Saints blew a coverage and Jackson found a seam and got free. The Eagles also made good use of the Wildcat formation during the first half, gaining some decent yardage with it, but as soon as the Saints got a lead, Marty Morninhweg stopped calling it and stuck with a conventional offensive set. Kolb showed some maturity in the wake of the loss. "There really are a lot of things I can learn from and do better at," he said after the game. "It's a shame." About his three interceptions, he said, "The last one is Hail Mary, the other two, they were bad throws. I left them inside. You can't do that on those routes. That's on the first page of the quarterback book. It upsets me that I made errors. To be fair, Kolb probably played well enough to earn another start next week if Donovan McNabb is not ready to go. The offense wasn't great--coughing up four big turnovers--but it wasn't terrible, either. I'm not particularly worried about the ability of the Birds to put points on the board, even though Brian Westbrook appears to have injured his ankle. In spite of it all, they will score plenty of points this season.

Andy Reid was very blunt in his assessment of the game. "An absolutely horrendous performance," he correctly stated. "We made too many mistakes. That's my responsibility. Wasn't right today, and phase of it...The first half, we had way too many penalties. We were lucky enough to keep it close. We came out in the second half and turnovers, penalties, and everything else. That's my responsibility. It's my football team. It's my job to make sure they play better than that." Let's hope he does so, and quickly.

I am very, very worried about the defense, or lack thereof. If they don't find a way to play more like they did in the season opener, when they had a slew of turnovers, it's going to be a VERY long and unpleasant season for the Eagles, and it's upon the shoulders of the coaching staff to turn this around and get the defense straightened out before next week's game, or it could be another long and unpleasant day again next Sunday.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Dominating Cole Hamels is Back

Cole Hamels pitched 8 dominating innings last night, giving up only four hits, one run, and one walk while striking out 10 and delivering an RBI single. The Phils won, 4-2, improving their record to 85-60. They now have a 7.5 game lead and their magic number is 10. They've won 8 of their last 10 games and seem to be on a roll. They are on a pace to finish with 95 regular season wins, which would exceed last year's World Series championship season mark by 3 (last year's team finished the regular season at 92-70). "That's why people come to see us play. We're an exciting team to watch," observed Jayson Werth of the team's 35th consecutive sellout last night. "We can play different styles at any point."

The starting pitching, in particular, has been absolutely superb for the past several weeks. He's 3-1 with a 1.43 ERA in his last 5 starts. Hamels has reduced his ERA from 4.78 to 4.07 as a result of three straight excellent outings, and appears destined to end the season with an ERA below 4.0 after hovering at or above 5.0 for most of the season. Hamels has gotten hot at just the right moment, as the team makes its stretch run for the playoffs and World Series.

The team seems to understand where things stand. "You have to enjoy it," said Hamels. "It's being out there. Knowing what's at stake. I bear down better." Indeed he has, and at just the right time of the season for it to really count.

Brad Lidge got his 30th save of the season by pitching the 9th inning. Lidge gave up a run after a triple that actually skipped off the glove of a diving Jayson Werth, playing centerfield after Shane Victorino left the game due to gastrointestinal distress. Other than that fluke hit, Lidge had strong stuff and seemed to be in command of it, which is a hopeful sign as the Phils head for the regular season finish line with 17 games left to play. "The last couple of outings have been real constructive," said Lidge. "I can definitely use a few more outings."

We can only hope that Lidge's turn-around is for real. He and Ryan Madson have combined for 16 blown saves this year, and it doesn't appear that Brett Myers is ready to close. "Watching him the three or four times we've run him out there, he's not quite ready," said manager Charlie Manuel of Myers. "He still has some problems at's kind of like he's back in spring training. He's not 100 percent. He has soreness, which is kind of normal because he missed so much time. Right now, he's not ready to be turned loose." Although Manuel wouldn't rule out using Myers as a closer in the postseason, it's clear that he's not counting on him being available or ready. And so the Phillies will either sink or swim with Lidge.

Time will tell. The Phils now have 17 games in 17 days to close the regular season, with a series against the banged-up Atlanta Braves beginning tonight.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Magic Number is 11.....

The Phils came within one out of doing something that they haven't done in 40 years last night...Tyler Walker gave up a run in the top of the 9th inning, keeping the Phils from posting three straight shutouts for the first time since 1969. Instead, they won 6-1, behind 6 gritty innings by Joe Blanton, who ran his record to 10-7.

The Phils scored their first run on a double steal by Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Utley stole home and Howard second. As an added benefit of his weight loss, the big fella has 7 steals this year; he had 2 in his career before this year. Utley also stole second base later in the game, giving him 21 for the season. Jayson Werth's breakout year continues, as he hit a grand slam in the 7th inning for his 34th homer of the season. He now has 88 RBI's and should finish with at least 90 for the season.

There's no glory in beating the incredibly woeful Nationals, who now have 95 losses for the season and seem a sure bet to lose at least 105 games this year. However, championship teams have to do well against the second division teams, and the Phils have feasted on the Nationals this year. They have one more to go against the Nats tonight. The Phillies are now 24 games over .500, tying their highest winning percentage of the season to date.

And the good news is that Clay Condrey was activated from the disabled list after a lengthy stay, and J. A. Happ will make his first start since September 2 on Friday night. The starting pitching has been spectacular for the last week. Greg Dobbs, the excellent pinch hitter and utility man, also returned from a lengthy stay on the disabled list yesterday, too. Things are really beginning to look up for the prospects for the postseason.

The bad news is that Chan Ho Park, who has been excellent since going to the bullpen, suffered a badly pulled hamstring last night when he felt something pop. He will be out indefinitely, and may very well miss the postseason as a result. He's been effective, and will be missed.

Goodbye and Good Riddance to Shawn Andrews

Once upon a time, Shawn Andrews was an All Pro offensive lineman. A first round draft choice of the Eagles, Andrews turned out to be a real head case. It began last year, when Andrews missed a big chunk of the season battling depression and then having back surgery. When he did return to the team, Andy Reid shifted him from his natural position, guard, to right tackle, and he proved to be the linchpin of an improved offensive line. However, Andrews is flighty and mercurial, and he seems to be far more interested in becoming a hip hop artist than in playing football, more hipster than offensive force to be reckoned with. Andrews has posted several bizarre videos on YouTube, including an especially strange one called Get Your Michael Phelps On".

This summer, he claimed to be having back problems, and tweaked his back running wind sprints at training camp. Although he was medically cleared to play, Andrews claimed he was in too much pain to take the field, and that proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Yesterday, the Eagles placed Andrews on injured reserve for the season, meaning that his career with the Birds is probably over. "Despite receiving medical clearance from back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins late in the summer, Andrews was unable to overcome back pain to get on the field in the days leading up to the opening game of the regular season in Carolina," said a team statement. Read between the lines: Andrews was unwilling to play hurt. In a game where playing hurt is the norm--remember that Donovan McNabb once played an entire game on a broken leg--Andrews doesn't have the heart or the character to do so. A professional football team has no place for someone without the heart and commitment to do what it takes to win.

The fact is that the Eagles have a lot of trouble with the offensive line. With Andrews and Todd Herremans out, the offensive line is the team's biggest question mark. That the Eagles have washed their hands of Andrews under these circumstances plainly says that Andy Reid has had enough of Andrews and that he doesn't view him as worth tying up a roster spot. As columnist John Smallwood put it, "This is the Eagles throwing their hands in the air. This is Reid acknowledging he misread Andrews' commitment to the Eagles. It's cauterizing a wound before the body bleeds out. It's the right move. A football team cannot thrive with players like Shawn Andrews around. The bond in a locker room comes from each player believing that each of his teammates is willing to sacrifice for the whole."

Clearly, Shawn Andrews was not willing to make that sacrifice, and clearly, Andy Reid decided it was time to remove a cancer from the locker room, much as he did with Terrell Owens. Good riddance.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jeff Garcia Redux

With Donovan McNabb down with a broken rib, the Eagles surprised me yesterday and signed their former back-up quarterback, Jeff Garcia, who was cut by the Oakland Raiders last week. During his last stint with the Eagles, Garcia had a great run, leading the team into the playoffs after McNabb went down with a blown ACL. Garcia did a great job, and then left the team to seek greener pastures and a starting position, because he was not going to be the starter in Philadelphia once McNabb returned. He spent several years as the starting quarterback for the woeful Raiders, and was cut at the end of training camp this year. It looked like the end of the road for the 39-year-old Garcia. And then McNabb had a rib broken on a cheap shot after the play ended, and an opportunity for Garcia to resurrect his career arrived.

With Michael Vick not eligible to play this week, and the unproven and unimpressive Kevin Kolb scheduled to start this week, the team needed a back-up quarterback. The Eagles tried to re-sign A. J. Feeley, whom they cut last week, but Feeley had already signed with the Carolina Panthers and was not available. Given the terrible quarterback situation in Charlotte, I certainly can't blame Feeley for seeking out and getting the best deal he could, and I wish him well. He's always been a good guy and a capable back-up, and I hope he finds success with the Panthers.

So, with Feeley unavailable, the Eagles snapped up Garcia. The signing prompted a positive response from McNabb. "Adding Jeff Garcia to the roster is a great idea," wrote McNabb in a statement posted on his blog last night. "He knows our offense and how we do things around here. He's a great teammate, and I look forward to working with him again."

Andy Reid said, "Jeff's going to come on board with us for who knows how long here. We're lucky that Jeff was available. Someone who knows the offense, has been very, very successful in the offense, and can come in and also be a positive influence for Kevin Kolb and everyone else int he locker room. It's a unique situation because Michael [Vick] is suspended for a week and Donovan's banged up. So we don't know how long Donovan's going to be and at the same time we need a second quarterback in there if needed this weekend."

Garcia was his usual classy self. "I am excited to come back to the organization, not excited to come back due to Donovan's injury," he stated. "But I am looking forward to contributing any way I can, whether it's for a week or two weeks or the entire season." The truth is that I would really prefer to see Garcia as the starter this week than Kevin Kolb, because I have this sneaking suspicion that Kolb is never going to get any better than what he is now, which not very good at all. I hope I'm wrong about that, but Garcia at least is a proven commodity and a proven winner. Kolb is untested and unknown, and I have little faith in him.

Redemption Comes in Unpredictable Ways....

Two Phillies pitchers found redemption yesterday as the Phightins eliminated the hapless Muts from any chance of making the postseason by taking both games of a double header.

In the first game, Kyle Kendrick, who played such an important role in the 2007 miracle finish and then was so disappointing last year that he didn't make the postseason roster, pitched a superb game in the first game of the doubleheader. Kendrick pitched into the eighth inning, mixing up his trademark sinker ball, cut fastball, slider, and change-up. He took a shutout into the eighth inning before giving up a two-run homer to first baseman Daniel Murphy, and he left to a standing ovation from the sell-out crowd. "It felt good," he said of the crowd's reaction. "The fans were a little hard on me when I was dealing with last year's struggles, but today was pretty special." He has returned a much more mature pitcher with an array of pitches at his disposal. He's only 25 years old and could enjoy success in the major leagues for years to come.

Of course, Brad Lidge nearly blew the game for Kendrick, giving up two runs in the top of the ninth in a real white-knuckle save. He hung on and the Phils won 5-4. I still can't get comfortable with the idea of Lidge being the closer going into the postseason, but we shall see. He claims he's almost where he needs to be in spite of his horrific ERA of more than 7.0.

Then, in the second game, the years peeled away and the Pedro Martinez of 1999 made an appearance. Pedro pitched 8 gritty, magnificent shutout innings in a 1-0 win, running his record with the Phillies to 5-0 (the team is 7-0 in games in which he has pitched), dropping his ERA to an excellent 2.87. Pedro threw 130 effective pitches in 8 full innings, and he dominated the hapless Muts. Charlie Manuel almost pulled Martinez in the 8th, when the Murphy got a lead-off double. With two outs and Murphy on second, Manuel came out. "I didn't like it, but Chase said 'He might get you. He might not get you.'" Utley asked Martinez "if I wanted the guy, and I said, 'Yeah, I want him.' Charlie asked me the same thing. So I convinced him to give me one more out."

"When I went to the mound, I was leaving him in anyway, because I liked him on their hitters," said Manuel. "Just looking in his eyes told me that he wanted him."

Martinez threw a nasty change-up in the dirt, which Carlos Ruiz blocked. Murphy unwisely took off for third base, and Ruiz made a perfect throw to gun him down. As shown in the photo above, Martinez clenched his fist and left to a loud standing ovation from the appreciative faithful, which had been loudly cheering him all evening. It was his 130th pitch, something he had not done since 2003.

"If I'm healthy, I feel like I am able to do anything anybody does," declared Pedro after the game. "I came here with the mentality that I came here in the last quarter of the season to help this team when it matters the most. And I think today was a good example of what really matters to this team." Right now, Martinez is making a very strong case for being included in the postseason rotation, and if he keeps pitching as well as he has been, it will be very difficult to leave him out of that postseason rotation.

Ryan Madson pitched a 1-2-3 9th inning to nail down the save for Martinez, who was just superb last night. For one night, at least, the 37-year-old turned back the hands of time and looked like the ace that he was for so many years.

Kyle Kendrick and Pedro Martinez both found redemption agains the Muts last night. I'm happy for both of them.

The Phils now have a 6.5 game lead with 20 left to play. The magic number is 14.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Good Start, But.....

The Eagles started their season with an impressive 38-10 win over the Carolina Panthers today in Charlotte. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme was booed off the field by the Carolina fans after a wretched performance of 7-17, with 4 big interceptions, including two by cornerback Sheldon Brown. Carrying on Jim Johnson's tradition, the defense's blitzes kept Delhomme off balance and wreaked havoc on the Carolina offense, prompting Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith to say, "Offensively, we just sucked. Let's be honest." The Birds' defense scored one touchdown with a fumble return, and shut down the Carolina offense. The Eagles held Carolina to 72 rushing yards and only 136 passing yards, with two quarterbacks combining for a bad 13-28 with 5 interceptions. DeSean Jackson had an incendiary 85 yard punt return for a touchdown.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that Donovan McNabb broke a rib on a third quarter touchdown run that put the Birds up 38-10 when he took a cheap shot after the play had already ended. The terribly unimpressive Kevin Kolb finished the game with a 7-11 performance for only 23 yards. It appears likely that McNabb may miss some time as a consequence of the broken rib, and the thought of Kolb starting at quarterback next week against New Orleans scares me to no end, as I am far from impressed by what I've seen from him so far in his career.

And so the Eagles begin the season with a dominating win on the road over a good Carolina team, but they may have lost their leader, McNabb, to a broken rib in the process. "Don is very resilient," declared Brian Westbrook, who had 64 yards on 13 carries, "He heals fast." Let's hope that Westbrook is right, because I just have no confidence at all in Kevin Kolb's ability to lead this team.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Looks Like Charlie's Finally Had Enough.....

The opener of the Phils' series in Washington against the lowly Nationals was one of the stranger games in my recent memory. First off, the Phightins hit 5 solo homers tonight, scoring 5 runs. Raul Ibanez, who finally seems to have broken out of his long slump, hit 2. Jayson Werth had one, Chase Utley had one, and catcher Carlos Ruiz had the fifth. The Phils are now the 12th team in the history major league baseball with four players with 30 or more homers (Howard, Ibanez, Utley, and Werth), while Ruiz has raised his batting average to almost .260. Ruiz has been contributing lately.

Pedro Martinez gave Charlie Manuel another quality start in running his record with the Phillies to 4-0 with 6 1/3 solid innings. Brett Myers pitched 1 2/3 shutout innings, and then Charlie brought in Brad Lidge. And Lidge did his very best to blow the save opportunity, leaving after getting one out, hitting a batter, walking another, and throwing a wild pitch. When Charlie finally came and got Lidge, the bases were loaded with one out and 9th inning homer specialist Ryan Zimmerman coming up with the winning run on first base. Fortunately, Ryan Madson struck out Zimmerman and then induced cleanup hitter Adam Dunn to ground out to end the game. And so the Phils won 5-3 against the dreadful Nationals in a game that should not have been that close. The photo is of Ryan Madson accepting congratulations from Carlos Ruiz after bailing Lidge out of his mess.

"That's a tough call," said Manuel. "I have all the respect in the world for Brad. I know how good a closer he is, and I know how great he can be. I've still got all the confidence in the world in him. But I'm sitting there and I didn't have a very good feel about the game. And I made up my mind that I wanted to try Madson. Things will work out and be OK, but at the same it's real tough." No doubt--Manuel has undoubtedly been dreading this day's arrival all season. "Let me tell you something," he continued. "When I tell you he's my closer, I don't tell lies. I don't like to go back on nothing. But the team and the game is bigger than my heart and it's bigger than anything else, if you want to know the truth. Winning a game is what it's all about. It's baseball and why I manage and it's what comes first."

Before the game, Charlie Manuel gave the beleaguered Lidge a vote of confidence, and he was rewarded with yet another really dreadful performance by his erstwhile closer. I just can't help but ask myself--when is Charlie finally going to face the truth and recognize that Lidge has no business closing this year, especially when he has a healthy and very effective Brett Myers to call upon. Perhaps tonight was the final straw. I surely hope so.

The Pittsburgh Pirates

I would be remiss if I did not at least acknowledge an all-time mark for futility set by the Pittsburgh Pirates yesterday. The Pirates clinched their 17th consecutive losing season yesterday, meaning that the last time that they won anything--and they did win their division in 1992--Barry Bonds was still playing left field for them, and wasn't yet a juicer. That 17 year streak is a new major league record for futility. It's a very dubious honor at best.

I actually have a real soft spot in my heart for the Buccos. I lived in Pittsburgh from August 1983-May 1987, and I went to a lot of Pirates games. I was at opening night in 1986, which was great fun, although I froze my ass off that night. I had only a suit coat to wear, and it got MIGHTY cold long about the 7th inning. I saw R. J. Reynolds hit a lead-off homer off Doc Gooden as the Mets began their World Series run. In those days, the Pirates were atrocious, and nobody went to their games, so management came up with a great idea--every Wednesday night home game was Buck Night. It went like this: a buck to get in, a buck to park your car, and for a third buck, you got a Coke and a hot dog. Even on my extraordinarily limited student budget, that was an entertainment value. My roommate Al and I spent many an enjoyable Wednesday evening sitting in the cheap seats, smoking bad cigars and drinking warm Iron City, watching the Pirates lose game after game. I saw one of Barry Bonds' first games in the major leagues, and I was at Three Rivers Stadium the day Mike Schmidt hit his 500th homer off Don Robinson in the 9th inning of a game to win one for the Phightins.

Pitt's law school--my alma mater--stands on the spot where old Forbes Field stood. The next building over, called Forbes Quadrangle, has home plate imbedded in the floor where it would have been in the old stadium. The angle in the old wall in center field and the flagpole there still stand, and there used to be a brass plaque embedded in a parking lot marking the spot where Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series homer went out to beat the Yankees. I spent many an hour wandering around those spots while a student at Pitt, and as a baseball fan, it still thrills me to stand in some of those historic spots and think about all of the great players who also stood there.

I also remember some great rivalry games between the Phils and Pirates in the 1970's, when those two teams dominated the National League East for nearly an entire decade. I particularly remember the 1979 pennant race when old Pops Stargell and Dave Parker carried the team to its last world championship over a much better Baltimore Orioles team. I remember Kent Tekulve, and Manny Sanguillen, Jim Rooker, Rick Rhoden, Bruce "The Barber" Kison, and Bob "The Gunner" Prince, and especially Roberto Clemente, possibly the best right fielder to ever take the field.

I rooted for the Pirates when they were awful, and I enjoyed the success of their fine teams in the late 1980's and early 1990's, and I regret their lack of success today. This team is saddled with a tiny market, no budget, terrible ownership, and a lot of mediocre players. Unfortunately, they seem destined to continue to be awful, which is too bad. I'd love to see them at least break the .500 barrier last year, because as it stands, they've joined the true pantheon of epically bad baseball teams with this dubious honor they've just achieved.

Monday, September 7, 2009

I am Genuinely Concerned

The Phillies' bullpen blew another one today, meaning that the Astros swept the series from the Phils. The Phillies should have taken two out of four from the 'Stros, and they have their bullpen to blame for the two losses.

J. A. Happ strained an oblique and was unable to go today, so Jamie Moyer got a start and gave the Phillies six quality innings, giving up only two runs on a homer by Hunter Pence. It was a quality start by true professional, who not only has been ready to go whenever called upon, but who has really pitched well since being bumped from the starting rotation in favor of Pedro Martinez.

The Phils scored three runs today. Ryan Howard drove in 2 of them, with a solo homer and an RBI single. Raul Ibanez, whose bat seems to be waking up after a hellacious slump, also had a solo homer, his 28th of the year, immediately after Howard's homer. Both Chase Utley and Shane Victorino played today despite being banged up, but Utley contributed nothing, going 0-4 with a strikeout, as his slump continues. Victorino went 1-5 and scored a run with a sore knee.

And then Chan Ho Park, who has been fairly reliable out of the pen, walked in the losing run in the 7th inning in a poor performance where he gave up 2 hits and 3 walks in just 1/3 of an inning, wasting Moyer's fine start and robbing the team of an opportunity to chalk up a win when it needed one. That's Park in the photo, reacting to his walking in the winning run. He should be disgusted with his awful performance today. Brett Myers pitched a shutout inning in a mop-up appearance.

I am genuinely concerned about two things: (a) the general lack of reliability emanating from the Phillies' bullpen and (b) the lack of meaningful offensive production. The combination of the bats going cold and the generally poor performances out of the 'pen mean that the relievers aren't holding the skinny leads they're being given, and then the offense sputters and cannot come from behind. It's cost the team at least three wins in the past seven days, and it's not acceptable.

I don't know what the solution is, but Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel need to figure it out much sooner than later. Not surprisingly, Charlie unloaded on his team after the game, and rightfully so. Let's hope that the message got through....

The Phils' lead has shrunk to 6 and the magic number remains stuck at 22. There are only 27 regular season games remaining for this team get itself straightened out and back on track.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

That's 10 Blown Saves and Counting....

Brad Lidge blew another save tonight, his tenth of the season, dropping his record to 0-7. The Phils took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the 9th tonight, and as I have come to expect, he not only blew the lead, he blew the game. That's now 10 blown saves by Lidge, plus another 5 by Madson. That's a staggering number.

To his credit, Lidge recognizes that his performance just won't do. "The slider that we've been working with, the control wasn't there," he said. "For whatever reason, I've had a hell of a time getting back into consistently repeating the delivery pitch after pitch after pitch." He is enough of a realist to know that the explanations, while insightful, are not enough. "Three good [games], one bad one. Three good ones, one bad one. That's not good enough." No, it certainly isn't, and the Phillies cannot afford ANY more bad ones from him.

Brett Myers pitched a solid inning in his first performance after his return from the disabled list, and he was rock solid.

The Phils simply cannot afford any more losses in the 9th inning. Now that Brett Myers is healthy and back, it's time for Charlie Manuel to give him a chance at closing, something he did well in 2007. The Phillies cannot afford any more of Lidge's meltdowns. I understand that closers have delicate mentalities, and I likewise understand that Manuel has stood by his man all season long out of necessity. However, he now has a real and viable alternative in Myers, and it's hight time that he avail himself of that choice. Ten blown saves by Lidge is more than enough and the team cannot afford an eleventh.

C'mon, Charlie. It's time. I understand loyalty, but it's time to make a change, because Lidge simply is not doing the job.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pedro Delivers

Well, the Phillies' bats are still quiet, but they delivered two runs last night against the National League's best pitcher, Tim Lincecum. Those two runs were enough.

Pedro Martinez needed only 87 pitches to get through 7 very solid innings last night. He gave up 5 hits and no walks, with 9 strikeout and only 1 earned run, a lead-off homer by Eugenio Velez. The Pedro Martinez who pitched last night looked like the Pedro Martinez of 1997--dominant, hard to hit, and efficient. "I flashed back to the good old times," Martinez said. "I don't have the power I used to have, but I always said it's not about power, it's about hitting your spots." Martinez dueled Lincecum pitch-for-pitch, hitter for hitter, and he was simply superb in improving his record to 3-0 with the Phillies, and lowering his ERA to a solid 3.52.

Lincecum had 11 strikeouts, and dominated the Phils for much of the game. "He reminds me a little bit of me, but he's twice as good as me at this time of my career," Martinez said of Lincecum. "It took me seven years to win a Cy Young." Lincecum made up a mutual admiration society for the old pro. "It's ridiculous how nasty his stuff still is," he said of Martinez. "When you watch him, it's obvious he knows what he's doing out there."

The Phils relied on a solo homer by Jayson Werth, his 30th of the season, adding to his career high, and a clutch double by Ryan Howard and some excellent baserunning by Chase Utley who scored from first on Howard's double to tally the game-winning run. Ryan Madsen pitched a solid 8th inning, and then Brad Lidge finished it--not before giving up a walk and a hit--in the ninth for his 28th save before a huge--sell-out--crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

The starting pitching continues to do as well as it has since the All Star Break, the Phils will stay in the hunt of things. "It goes without saying that we can beat people a lot of different ways," observed Werth. "Our starting pitching has definitely been upgraded. We've got some guys coming back, too, to bolster up the pen. We're going to be tough. We're going to be tough down the stretch. And hopefully when it gets down to the playoffs we'll be tough again this year." Utley sounded a similar note. "I think last year it showed in the playoffs that pitching and defense can win you a lot of games," he said. "You're not going to score every single night. You're bound to run into a tough pitcher occasionally. But if you have good pitchers on your side and play good defense, it's going to be a good game." Exactly correct on both counts. And, on top of it all, Brett Myers came off the disabled list yesterday after a very strong outing in relief with the Iron Pigs. The bullpen just improved.

Let's hope that their bats wake up soon, because if they do, the Phightins are going to be very tough to beat......

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Bats Have Gone Quiet

For the past several games, an alarming season-long problem has become much more significant. All season long, the Phillies have stranded too many runners in scoring position, instead relying upon the long ball to win games. They got shut out 4-0 last night by Brad Penny, who came into the game with an ERA in excess of 5.0. The night before, they got Cole Hamels only one run. They've certainly had plenty of opportunities to score runs in these situations, but they have failed miserably to deliver in the clutch, stranding runner after runner in scoring position.

Again, this sort of impotence is going to make it really difficult for this team to repeat as World Series champions. It's very alarming, and it needs to end very soon. I don't know what can be done about it, but Chollie needs to do something to light a fire under these guys soon before they begin to fritter away that comfortable lead that they've built up.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What a Performance by Hamels

Cole Hamels demonstrated that he meant business last night, pitching a complete game 1-0 shutout in which he gave up only two hits and one walk--the only baserunners for the Giants for the whole game--and had 9 strikeouts. Hamels needed less than 120 pitches to go the distance, and he was nothing short of spectacular.

This performance comes on the heels of his last start, when he pitched 8 shutout innings against Pittsburgh before the bullpen blew the game for him. He has shaved half a run off of his ERA in those last two starts, and he looks like the World Series MVP again. It's taken him a big chunk of the season to get on track, but if these last two outings are an indicator of what we can expect the rest of the way, a post-season rotation of Hamels, Cliff Lee, and either J. A. Happ or Joe Blanton looks very, very good from where I sit.

Keep up the good work, Cole.

I'm a little worried about the offense, which hasn't been managing many runs lately; the Phils have been winning with good pitching for the last week or so. The night's only run was the result of a Ryan Howard double (he actually had two doubles for the game), and that run stood up. The Giants are a good team--and a potential first round playoff opponent--and the Phillies had better start scoring runs again if they hope to have a chance to win the whole thing again.

All things considered, though, I can't be too unhappy with a win after a performance like the one that Cole Hamels gave last night.

Comparing Teams

Since the Phillies appear to be headed toward their third consecutive National League Eastern Division championship, it brings back memories of the 1976-1978 edition of the team, which also won three straight division championships. I think it makes for an interesting comparison.

The 1976 and 1977 editions of the Phillies each won 101 regular season games, the best regular season records ever posted by any Phillies team. The 1978 team slipped to 90-72, but still won the division by 1.5 games. That run, wherein the Phillies posted a combined record of 292-194, was the best in the history of the franchise. Many say that the 1977 team was the finest that the franchise has ever fielded. Of course, they suffered an epic meltdown during the first round of the playoffs and were eliminated by a Dodgers team that was clearly not the better team. As great as those Phillies teams were, they never reached the World Series.

The current incarnation of the Phils went 89-73 during the regular season and then went 92-70 in 2008. This year, they are on a pace to finish the season at 95-67, which would give them a three-season combined record of 276-210. From a wins and losses standpoint, the current incarnation does not appear to be as good as the mid-1970's edition of the team, but for one major factor: the 2008 team is the defending world champion, while those mid-1970's teams never made it to the big dance.

From a personnel standpoint, the 1970's edition featured names that are now legendary in Phillies' lore: Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Fame third baseman often considered the greatest to play his position; Steve Carlton, the Hall of Fame hurler who won 329 games and four Cy Young Awards in his storied career and was one of the finest left-handed pitchers to ever toe the rubber; Tug McGraw, the Irish sprite who saved game after game; fiery shortstop Larry Bowa, Garry Maddox, the gazelle-like centerfielder, Greg "The Bull" Luzinski, the power hitting but immobile left fielder; Bob Boone, the superb defensive catcher who had some pop in his bat, and others. Those Phillies teams were just loaded with talent.

The current edition features second baseman Chase Utley, who is well on is way to a fifth straight season of 100 RBI's or more; first baseman Ryan Howard, the "Big Piece", who reached 200 career homers faster than any player in the history of the game; shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who already has one MVP to his credit, and who plays superb defense in addition to being the engine that makes the team run; emerging star right fielder Jayson Werth, Cliff Lee, like Carlton a lefty who gets people out, and Cole Hamels, who could be great.

From a talent standpoint, I think I like the current edition of the team better. It's more balanced, and it features some truly gifted young players. Utley, Howard, and Werth probably haven't even reached their potential yet, and certainly are in the prime of their careers. The point is that with judicious monetary management by the front office, these Phillies could be competitive for years to come. The 1970's team had its last hurrah in 1980 when, driven by Pete Rose, the Phils won the franchise's first world championship. In 1981, they lost all of their momentum with the unfortunate players' strike, and they were never the same again. Let's hope that nothing similar happens to the current edition of the team.