September 28, 2007
About two weeks ago, I got an e-mail from ESPN's Joe Lunardi, the original Bracketologist whose work I eat with a spoon every winter. Joe, a big baseball guy, and I have been talking about getting together for a game now that I'm back in New York, and he wanted to invite me to a Phillies/Braves game at Citizens Bank Park during the last week of the season. I quickly accepted, and with crossed fingers, said, "Maybe it'll even be an important game." Just a couple of days ago, I was holding out similar hope, only it was for the idea that the Braves, rather than the Phillies, would be making news. After all, the Braves had been coming on strong and closed to within three games of the wild card on Tuesday night. A win Wednesday would make Thursday's game an elimination game of sorts.
While I was noodling over scenarios between those two teams, I was also going on radio, on TV, and on the Internet, and telling anyone who would pay attention that the Phillies weren't going to catch the Mets, that the New Yorkers' late-season scuffling wasn't going to cost them the division, that they would probably get straightened out with Pedro Martinez on the mound against whatever is left of the Cardinals.
These two storylines came together last night as I stood amidst a boisterous, towel-waving, giddy crowd of 40,589 (their ranks swollen by a huge walk-up), watching the Phillies win for the 11th time in 14 games and move into a tie for first place in the National League East.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: sometimes, being wrong isn't all that bad. I had as much fun last night as I've had at a ballpark in a long time, caught up in the enthusiasm that the crowd has for this Phillies team, a flawed, fun, streaking group of players who have come back from the near-dead to take control of their own playoff destiny. Not since the 2002 Division Series in Anaheim, when I watched the Angels dispatch the Yankees in a hail of Thundersticks and singles, have I felt a crowd get this behind a ballclub, and be this into a game.
The linescore makes it look more like a blowout than it really was. In fact, the Phillies' early 6-0 lead might never have come about if not for one mistake by starter John Smoltz. After Jimmy Rollins opened the first with a single, Shane Victorino laid down a nice bunt between the mound and the third-base line. Smoltz got to the ball, but should have eaten it; it was going to take a perfect throw, and Smoltz made his falling away from the play. The throw tailed on him, flying past Mark Teixeira and down the right field line. Rollins scored all the way from first-watching him reach fourth gear was a highlight of the evening-and Victorino went to third. With the corners in on the grass, Chase Utley hit a ball off of Teixeira's glove that scored Victorino, and Howard followed with a two-run home run for a 4-0 lead, and pandemonium.
Now, rewind and recreate the inning from the point at which Smoltz gets to Victorino's bunt. If instead of throwing it to a cutting Kevin Curtis he instead puts it in his pocket, the Phillies have first and second with no one out. Teixeira is playing normally for Utley, and the same ball becomes a 3-6-3 or 3-6-1 double play. With two outs and a runner on third, Howard is almost certainly pitched around, yielding two outs, two on, and Aaron Rowand at the plate.
There's no saying that the Phillies wouldn't have scored a bunch of runs and won the game anyway in that scenario. Smoltz's error-or errors, if you want to ding him for both the decision and the throw-completely changed the game, eventually providing Kyle Kendrick a comfortable cushion for his unimpressive stuff. Allowed by his offense to make a mistake or two, Kendrick tossed zeroes into the sixth, keeping the ball down for most of the night before elevating a couple of pitches to Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira. His six-inning, three-run outing was Kendrick's 13th quality start in 20 tries, and if many of those are the traditionalist-angering type, such as last night's, a team with the Phillies' offense finds those performances incredibly valuable.
I spent a lot of time talking about Kendrick with one of Joe's friends-also named Joe, giving our group three of us-and we concluded that he's a staff filler, a number four, a guy whose main value will be in the innings he throws, not necessarily their quality. At what he'll be paid for the next few seasons, that's not bad; I see more downside than upside, however, especially given the environment.
Speaking of that environment... CBP's reputation as a bandbox is well-earned. Howard's home run benefited from the porch in right field, and Pat Burrell's was a nine-iron shot that might have been an out in 27 other ballparks. At game's start, the wind was blowing out so fiercely that I predicted a 21-20 game; the wind died down steadily as the game progressed, but I can only imagine that on days it stays windy, it's like pitching in the fourth circle of hell. The ballpark feels small, the way Wrigley Field or Fenway Park does, contrasted to, say, the sense you get at Jacobs Field or Comerica Park. As a fan of variety in baseball environments, I love them all, and I would love to see a Phillies/Padres matchup in the postseason, just for that clash of extremes.
Other notes from last night, and in looking forward to what should be a great weekend: