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June 18, 2010

One-Hoppers

Game Story: Phillies at Yankees, June 17

by Jay Jaffe

So it turns out the solution to all of the Phillies' problems may have been as simple as a rematch against their World Series foes. Mired in a slump for the past three weeks, their offense finally broke out against the defending world champion Yankees, scoring more than four runs in back-to-back games for the first time since May 20-21. Meanwhile, a pair of their soft-tossing starters subdued the majors' highest-scoring offense, helping the Phils to win their first series since the calendar flipped to June.

The Phillies came to the Bronx having lost 14 of 20 while being outscored 98-48. The slide knocked them back eight games in the NL East standings, from a generous 4.5-game lead to a 3.5-game deficit. Their generally robust offense had suffered through a famine of epic proportions, as they were shut out six times — including three in a row by a Mets squad that came into their series a game under .500 — and limited to one or two runs another five times. Meanwhile, they broke out for more than five runs just twice. The offense as a whole had hit just .221/.291/.309 in that 20-game span, with big boppers Chase Utley (.153./253/.208), Jayson Werth (.164/.261/.262) and Ryan Howard (.230/.305/.365) particularly subdued. The absence of Jimmy Rollins, who's been limited to just 12 games this year, certainly didn't help matters, as fill-ins Juan Castro and Wilson "Exxon" Valdez combined to hit .220/.247/.268.

The Phutility continued on Tuesday night, as the Yankees got the better end of the marquee matchup between CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay, winning 8-3. The Yankees scored five runs in the second and third innings against Halladay via Brett Gardner's two-run triple, Curtis Granderson's solo homer, and Nick Swisher's two-run shot, and they added another solo dinger by Mark Teixeira, thus doubling the Doc's season total for homers allowed. Sabathia cruised through the batting order the first time through, striking out six of the first 10 hitters. He came unraveled in the fourth inning after an Utley grounder deflected off his pitching hand, ultimately yielding four hits and three runs in the frame, but in his other six frames he yielded just one hit, and no runs, and the Yankee offense gave him enough to make it stand up.

That wasn't the case on Wednesday night. Even with Alex Rodriguez back in the lineup after a four-game absence due to hip woes, the team scraped together just two runs and three hits in eight innings against 47-year-old Jamie Moyer. The ancient ex-Mariner generated just two swings and misses and never topped 83 MPH, but he kept the Bronx Bombers off balance for long enough to become the oldest pitcher ever to beat the Yanks despite not throwing a single pitch that topped 83 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the Mr. Hyde version of A.J. Burnett showed up. The control-challenged starter yielded four walks and a pair of solo homers to Werth and Howard, ultimately departing after retiring just 10 of the 21 hitters he faced, trailing 6-1. That was more or less all she wrote.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel had elected to flip-flop Moyer and Kyle Kendrick in the rotation, as he preferred the contrast in speeds and styles following Halladay. Generally an eminently hittable pitcher, Kendrick came into the game with a 4.80 ERA and just 4.3 strikeouts per nine, yielding a .276/.328/.481 line to opposing hitters even with a better-than-expected .284 BABIP. "Nice night for a ballgame - I expect the runs to rain down on Kyle Kendrick," I noted en route to the stadium. Famous last words.

Jolly Cholly's gambit worked again, as the Yankees lineup looked every bit as ineffective against the sinkerballer on Thursday night in front of a crowd that included more than its share of Phils phans. Throwing his 87-91 MPH sinker about 60 percent of the time and mixing in his changeup and cutter, Kendrick got just four swing-and-miss strikes all night, but two of them came on strike three on the the first two Yankee hitters, Derek Jeter (a changeup) and Curtis Granderson (a sinker). That set the tone, as the Yankees managed just three baserunners in the first five innings, failing to get a runner past second base.

Yankees starter Andy Pettitte kept things close. Even with Manuel doing what Joe Sheehan and others have called upon him to do for years — split the lefty-swinging Utley and Howard in the lineup for just the second time all year (the first was Tuesday night), accomplishing this by using Placido Polanco in the third spot — Pettitte dominated the Phils the first time through the order. He got first-pitch strikes on the first eight hitters and needed just 28 pitches to complete three perfect frames, a natural extension of the dominant form he's shown thus far this year via a 2.47 ERA and an AL-best .651 Support Neutral Winning Percentage.

The Phillies broke through in the fourth, however, as Shane Victorino dunked a single into right field, went to second on an error by third baseman Ramiro Peña, playing the field while Rodriguez DHed. Peña simply picked his glove up too early on Polanco's grounder in anticipation of starting a 5-4-3 double play. One pitch later, Howard laced a single to right field to score Victorino. The Flyin' Hawaiian figured in the Phillies' scoring in the fifth as well. Pettitte walked number eight hitter Carlos Ruiz, who bedeviled the pinstripes last October (.333/.478/.722), and with two outs made his one big mistake of the night, leaving an 86 MPH cutter middle in. Victorino didn't miss it, sending the ball 358 feet down the left field line for his 11th homer of the year, tying Howard and Werth for the team high.

Pettitte put on a clinic in self-flagellation when asked about the pitch after the game. "I wasn't wholeheartedly behind the pitch I threw to Victorino," he told reporters, adding descriptions such as "stupid pitch," "poor decision," "bad strategy," and "not a whole lot of purpose" while all but asking the press corps for a sword with which to commit hari-kiri.

Nonetheless, Pettitte bent but didn't break, stranding five baserunners over his final two frames while keeping the score close. The Yankees finally got on the board in the sixth, turning a two-out walk by Mark Teixeira and back-to-back singles by Rodriguez and Robinson Cano into a run. With A-Rod having gone first-to-third on Cano's RBI single, they were poised for more, but Polanco made the defensive play of the night when he snared a pop foul off the bat of Swisher, sprawling out on the rain tarp and leaning over the railing to make the catch. A stellar play.

As you might expect with two pitchers who came into the game ranked in the majors' top 25 in first-pitch strikes (Pettitte 15th at 63.7 percent, Kendrick 24th at 62.5%), the game had gone rather briskly up to that point, taking just over 90 minutes to play the first seven innings. But things slowed to a crawl once both managers went to their bullpens. David Robertson came on in the eighth, having allowed just two runs in his last 13 innings going back to May 8 and stranding both runners he'd inherited. He pitched a spotless inning, but Joba Chamberlain, who had yielded just one run and one inherited run in his previous 6.2 innings this month to lower his Fair Run Average to 3.85, did not. Chamberlain immediately surrendered a loud double off the right field wall to Ruiz, his second two-bagger of the night, generating a mixture of cheers for "Chooch" from a very vocal contingent of Phillies fans, along with the requisite boos for Joba from impatient Yankees fans.

Those fans had every reason to be frustrated with Chamberlain, as Valdez slapped a single up the middle to score Ruiz, then stole second base. Chamberlain walked Victorino, then departed in favor of Damaso Marte, who despite having not allowed a run or an inherited runner to score since May 14 was still carrying a 5.96 FRA and a -0.5 WXRL. He walked Utley to load the bases, then yielded consecutive sacrifice flies to Polanco and Howard to blow the game open at 6-1. Chan Ho Park would come on to exacerbate the situation after yet another Marte walk, yielding an RBI double to Raul Ibanez, but just when it looked as though the Phillies would add two more runs to their ledger, the umpires called Ibanez out for being struck on the foot by the ball on Ben Francisco's single. The contact was tough to see both at the field level and on the replay, but after the game, Jeter was adamant that the impact had changed direction of the ball. The umps, after conferring, agreed.

Still, the 7-1 hole proved insurmountable for the Yankee bats. While they may have salivated — relatively speaking — at the thought of trying to come back against Brad Lidge while down by two runs given that Lidge had pitched a shaky 31-pitch ninth the night before, Manuel was able to use the reborn Jose Contreras and J.C. Romero to round out Kendrick's strong effort. The win kept the Phillies 3.5 games behind the Braves and three behind the Mets in the NL East, while the Yankees' loss kept them tied with the Rays atop the AL East, with the Red Sox closing in to just two games back. Rest assured that you haven't heard the last from these teams.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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