October 16, 2009
Well, as expected, Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels combined to allow nine runs in 10 innings, the Phillies scored all eight of their runs against left-handed pitchers, and Brad Lidge converted his third consecutive save opportunity.
This is why baseball brings you back year after year after year. Because while the big picture is viewable, while you can see things over the long term, the next moment is completely inscrutable. It fools you again and again. The things that aren't going to happen over a season or a career happen in a game, every day, and they make you get out of your seat and cheer, or slump into it with a sigh. Baseball provides more "I didn't see that coming" moments than any other. It's why the extended postseason works-when you match up baseball teams, any result is within reason. There aren't significant favorites or massive underdogs, there are just great players playing baseball.
Last night, the hitters got the best of two starters who might well both go on to Hall of Fame careers, might win multiple Cy Young Awards, might be the center of a number of championship teams. Kershaw can be unhittable at times, throwing both his fastball and a sharp curve with the same motion, locating each in the strike zone or somewhere else, as he chooses. Hamels is a power lefty who already has a World Series ring on his hand, and not because he was just along for the ride-he was the Phillies' best pitcher one year ago as they captured the World Series. Any analysis of last night's game would have foreseen a pitchers' duel, and for four innings, that's what we had.
Then baseball happened. Kershaw lost the strike zone, then his catcher. An eighth-place batter who plays for his glove hit a three-run homer, and a cleanup man who doesn't hit left-handers popped a two-run double. Suddenly Kershaw wasn't a Wi-Fi Age-version of Koufax, but just a 21-year-old kid with an incomplete beard who had to be sent to his room for not doing his assigned chores.
The game moved on from there, with Hamels getting knocked around himself and departing an inning later, and the game being turned over to the bullpens, a spot that should have favored the Dodgers. It didn't. Phillies relievers pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth, stranded a leadoff double in the seventh, scuffled out of trouble after allowing three straight singles to start the eighth, and gave up a single and a walk in the ninth, sandwiched around a double play. The Dodgers batted .400/.444/.467 against the Phillies' bullpen, a great night, but scored just two runs, not enough to win.
That two runs might have been enough had George Sherrill had a better night. Starting the eighth with the Dodgers down 5-4, Sherrill had his worst outing since coming over, walking Howard and Jayson Werth, and then, perhaps trying to hard too throw strikes, surrendering a three-run homer to Raul Ibaņez. Sherrill was the right pitcher at the right time-Hong-Chih Kuo pitched the seventh and is apparently not able to go back into a game after sitting-but he failed on this night, struggling with location and eventually surrendering the runs that would provide the Phillies their margin. This wasn't Jim Tracy putting his charges in a tough spot; Joe Torre pressed the right buttons and on this night, his players didn't quite come through.
I should mention Torre's other decision that was questioned, the one to leave in Kershaw in the fifth. After the home run to Ruiz, Kershaw walked Hamels, which is usually a sign that you have to go get the guy. He bounced back to retire Jimmy Rollins and strike out Shane Victorino, though, leaving Torre with a good-albeit a bit off-lefty on the mound, two outs and two left-handed hitters coming to the plate. It didn't work out-Chase Utley walked and Howard hit a double off a poorly-located fastball-but the decision to leave the southpaw in rather than burn a different left-handed pitcher there was a reasonable one. Kershaw was seemingly righting himself, and the matchups for the Dodgers were favorable. Torre didn't make a mistake there, results notwithstanding.
The Phillies just did their jobs, scoring all eight runs off three swings of the bat, which has been their program all year long. Ruiz, Howard, and Ibaņez all took advantage of hittable pitches, the first two getting ahead in the count, the latter jumping on a pitch after two straight walks. Charlie Manuel didn't exactly get shutdown relief work, but he did aggressively mix-and-match just as he did in the NLDS, save for allowing Andre Ethier to get a free shot against a right-hander in the eighth as the tying run. Scott Eyre had been throwing, and in future games, it would behoove Manuel to make that switch, as Ethier is to the Dodgers' lineup what Howard is to the Phillies-the lefty who should be aggressively attacked with lefty relievers. Ethier's double in the seventh off of Antonio Bastardo isn't enough to change the proper approach to pitching to him.
Almost immediately after the game, I did my weekly Sporting News Radio spot (NyQuil'd up, no less) and was asked about Lidge, about whether his success over the past week would bolster his confidence in a way that improved his performance. I understand why the question would be asked, but I fail to see the connection between short-term results-end results, even as the inputs haven't been great-and the next outing. Lidge has three straight saves, but he's allowed four of 10 hitters to reach base, he has one strikeout and added just one swing-and-miss to his collection last night. He's barely effective, much less at all approaching his 2008 level. The cut fastball may eventually be a weapon for him, but right now it's just another pitch he's not locating very well. The 0-2 slider Lidge threw to Matt Kemp needed to be buried, and instead it was thigh-high. Maybe this is stubbornness, but I don't see anything from Lidge to indicate that he's back in any meaningful way.
The Phillies are in great shape now, with a 1-0 lead and a good matchup as they take on Vicente Padilla. Padilla relies heavily on his fastball and has struggled against lefties his entire career. His numbers since coming back to the NL are strong, and he pitched well against the righty-heavy Cardinals last week, but the Phillies are a different animal. They match up well against Padilla, so well, in fact, that they're in strong position to win today and take a commanding 2-0 lead. By winning last night, the Phillies have dramatically improved their chance of advancing to their second straight World Series.