Welcome back to Game of the Week. It was close, but my experiment in democracy produced a winner–readers picked Roger Clemens against Brett Myers over Brandon Webb against Byung-Hyun Kim. For Webb fans, rest assured that I’ll try to pick up one of his matchups in the couple of weeks that remain in the regular season.
Voters indicated that the Astros game was appealing as much for the visiting team as for the living legend on the mound. Coming in, the Phillies are alive in the wild-card race, tied with the Giants and trailing the Padres by 2 1/2 games. Since they traded Bobby Abreu to the Yankees, the Phillies have posted a 25-17 record, Ryan Howard has hit 21 homers–one every other game–and driven in 51 runs. Since the All-Star break, Howard leads all batters with a 1320 OPS, head and shoulders above the next man on that leaderboard–Atlanta’s Adam LaRoche, with an OPS of 1174. The Phillies have the top offense in the league by runs scored (773), are second in OBP (.344), and third in SLG (.445). They have hit the third-most home runs in the league (195), largely on the strength of Ryan Howard’s 56 homers. Abreu or no Abreu, they’re an offensive juggernaut.
So let’s take a look at the lineups for tonight’s game:
Phillies Astros EqA VORP EqA VORP Jimmy Rollins, SS .272 38.6 Willy Taveras, CF .244 7.1 Shane Victorino, CF .264 13.1 Craig Biggio, 2B .248 10.2 Chase Utley, 2B .293 54.2 Morgan Ensberg, 3B .287 15.8 Ryan Howard, 1B .338 74.2 Lance Berkman, 1B .332 61.3 David Dellucci, RF .293 17.2 Aubrey Huff, RF .257 1.7 Pat Burrell, LF .287 18.3 Luke Scott, LF .360 27.6 Mike Lieberthal, C .252 4.5 Adam Everett, SS .220 -7.4 Abraham Nunez, 3B .181 -20.5 Brad Ausmus, C .210 -16.1 Brett Myers, P -.156 -5.5 Roger Clemens, P .107 -0.8
W-L IP SO/9 SNLVAR ERA RA+ Brett Myers 10-6 169.0 8.57 4.6 4.05 1.12 Roger Clemens 6-4 91.3 7.78 3.9 2.27 1.83
Even without Abreu, the Phillies lineup is stacked with lefty bats. Sticking out like a sore thumb in this crowd is Abraham Nunez, who took over third base after the Phils dealt David Bell; by VORP, Nunez is now the worst position player in the majors.
On the Houston side of the ledger, Brad Ausmus has to settle for being the fifth-worst offensive player, but he has much more company than Nunez does in the Astros lineup–Adam Everett is almost a game below replacement level with the bat, and only three players in tonight’s lineup have an Equivalent Average over .260. Lance Berkman is very quietly having one of the best seasons in the NL. It says a lot, however, that second place on the team in VORP (on offense, at least) is held by someone with fewer than 200 plate appearances. Luke Scott isn’t the second coming of Barry Bonds–he’s just a 28-year-old cornerman who enjoyed a second straight solid season at Round Rock. The gains he’s made in power and walk rate over the past three years suggest that he might be able to put together a major-league career, but at his age, he’ll have to hurry.
On the mound, Clemens is making his first start since September 4, when he strained his groin muscle pitching against these same Phillies. Including the five innings he pitched that day, Clemens has allowed only three runs over his last four outings. Clemens starts off the game well, going 1-2 on Jimmy Rollins before Rollins hits a roller to second base. Clemens’ mechanics remain beautiful: his body goes directly forward, putting all of his weight behind the ball, which he delivers from that high three-quarters delivery. He’s cranking the fastball at 91 MPH in the first inning, but we should see some higher numbers as the Rocket loosens up. Shane Victorino strikes out on a 2-2 count, swinging over the forkball three straight times. Clemens’ forkball is in the mid-to-low 80s, and on television the pitch looks like a ball thrown straight at the dirt in front of home plate. At the plate, in real time, it looks like the pitch drops away at the last moment.
Clemens has had trouble in the past when batters learn to lay off the forkball–although Clemens has a sharp curve, he almost never throws the pitch, so if you eliminate the forkball, the Rocket becomes a one-speed pitcher. Utley works a full-count, two-out walk, producing the matchup we’ve all been waiting for, the big slugger against the legendary strikeout pitcher. Or so we thought. Utley, ignored by Clemens, takes off for second base, and makes it without a throw. Clemens says a silent “thank you” and gives Howard the open base, an intentional walk.
It looks like a smart move for Houston–except that Clemens’s control, which wasn’t looking terribly sharp to begin with this outing, abandons him after the free pass he gives Howard. David Dellucci walks on five pitches, loading the bases for Pat Burrell. Burrell swings at the first pitch, a ball high and away, fouling it back. Clemens’s fastball is coming a little more quickly now, getting up to 94 MPH. The count goes full on Burrell, and Clemens tries to jam him with a pitch in on the hands, which Burrell cranks to the short porch in left field for a grand slam and a quick 4-0 Phillies lead.
In the bottom of the first, Brett Myers takes the mound. Myers’ mechanics aren’t as pretty as the Rocket’s–his arms and legs go flying a bit, cluttering up what is a very similar delivery. He’s throwing the fastball about 92 MPH, he has a great curve, a nice slider and what looks like a straight change. Tonight he doesn’t seem to be featuring the cut fastball that was so widely praised last season. The speedy Willy Taveras leads off with a weak grounder up the middle for an infield single. That brings up Craig Biggio. Although Biggio is 40 years old, the baggy uni and oversized helmet he wears makes him look like a little kid who’s wearing his older brother’s hand-me-down gear. Faster than it took to write that sentence, Biggio is out on a pop-up to the catcher. Morgan Ensberg gets caught looking at some 94 MPH heat for a strikeout, and Berkman gets under a good 3-2 pitch, for a short fly to right. Inning over.
In the second inning, Clemens continues to be a little shaky–his control clearly isn’t there, and he actually walks Myers during the opposing pitcher’s turn at bat. In the third, we get another confrontation between Howard and Clemens. Howard’s from the school of batting that starts their stance wide turns about halfway to facing the pitcher, and then crouches-or at least as crouched as a 6’4″, 260-pound guy gets-while waiting for the pitch. Howard looks at two fastballs for strikes on the outside corner, then Clemens puts him away with a forkball well off the plate in a perfectly-executed set-up.
In the fourth, Clemens finds himself in trouble again. He’s struggling with his control, but the problem doesn’t seem to be his mechanics, nor is he walking around the mound, as he tends to when he has a leg injury. Pat Burrell leads off with a flare to right, good for a single. Catcher Mike Lieberthal rips the first pitch he sees from Clemens into the leftfield corner for a double that leaves men on second and third. Abraham Nunez, racing Brad Ausmus for the “worst VORP” title, strikes out swinging at a nose-high fastball. Brett Myers comes up again, and quickly falls behind Clemens 0-2 on a couple of foul balls. Clemens doesn’t get the call on a good-looking curve on the outside corner, then runs the count full trying to get Myers to go fishing for the forkball. So Myers walks, again. Now, Myers can’t hit, and Clemens isn’t a wild pitcher (1.97 BB/9 this season, 2.90 BB/9 career), so this is a bit odd. Chris Sampson is warming up in the bullpen, and when Clemens goes 3-1 on Rollins, it seems like Sampson won’t be ready quickly enough. But Rollins bails the Rocket out, bouncing a grounder directly to Adam Everett, who makes a quick flip to Biggio to start the 6-4-3 double play.
Meanwhile, Myers has been cruising through the first three frames. Leading off the fourth, Craig Biggio is overpowered by Myers, taking a fastball down the pike, swinging nowhere near the curveball, and fishing low for the slider. As always with a player of Biggio’s vintage, there’s retirement talk, but he has 2,916 hits for his career. There’s no hope of his reaching 3,000 this season, but the milestone would be within reach with regular playing time next year. However, Biggio is having the worst season of his career, worse even than his dismal 2002, the season that saw the veteran second baseman exiled to the outfield.
Maybe Myers is trying the same pitch pattern when he starts off Ensberg with a fastball over the plate, but the Astro third baseman crushes it for a solo shot. Myers allows homers at a much higher rate to right-handers than left-handers-this is Myers’s 20th homer allowed to right-handers, against seven allowed to lefty batters. On a 3-1 count, Lance Berkman hits a ball hard, but right at the left fielder for the second out. Aubrey Huff has a tough eight-pitch at-bat against Myers, but works his way on board with a walk.
Facing Luke Scott, Myers loses control of his breaking pitches, running the count to 3-1, and causing Myers to groove the fastball, which Scott deposits into the Astros’ bullpen in right-center. The score is now 4-3, but just when it looks like the Astros might have Myers on the ropes, the really dismal part of their lineup is due up. Everett is hacking, and he lines a single to center field. Brad Ausmus, who knows that every out is valuable in the battle for worst VORP, fouls out to Howard to end the threat.
In the fifth, both sides go down in order, Clemens again striking out Howard, but on three forkballs low and away this time around. Those three pitches might be Clemens’s best of the night, but it looks like Howard is pressing a bit. This might be related to the manufactured brouhaha about Howard being the “real” single-season home run record holder if he finishes the season with more than 61 dingers. There are two reasons this doesn’t wash. First, for a 62-homer season to hold the record, the Mitchell commission would not only have to invalidate Barry Bonds’s record season, but also Mark McGwire‘s and Sammy Sosa‘s 60+ home-run seasons, finding that the sluggers were using steroids at the time they broke the records. That’s a pretty speculative proposition in the absence of any admissible evidence. Second, it’s a claim that Howard is clean, which, with all due respect, is a bit stronger statement than anyone should be comfortable with. All that you can say about Howard is what you can say about Bonds or Gary Sheffield or Jason Giambi since 2004–that they’ve all passed their drug tests. If you’re going to sneer about undetectable designer drugs or HGH with regard to these guys, you have to accept that anyone could conceivably be dirty, even Howard.
In the sixth inning, Chris Sampson takes over for Clemens, who’d thrown 100 pitches across five frames, a count driven up by his five free passes. Sampson matches zeroes with Myers for two innings, at which point both leave the game, Sampson replaced by sidearming lefty Trever Miller and then Chad Qualls, and Myers replaced first by Tom Gordon‘s main setup man, Geoff Geary, and then lefty Matt Smith. Smith is part of the meager swag the Phillies picked up from the Yankees for Abreu, and he hasn’t allowed a run in limited major-league action this season. With two outs in the eighth, Smith is brought in to turn Berkman around to his weaker side of the plate–but since Berkman is still pretty good batting right-handed, he is able to single, bringing Aubrey Huff to the plate as the potential go-ahead run. Phil Garner skips looking for a pinch-hitter for Huff despite his being brutal against lefties, and Smith quickly gets ahead of him 1-2.
At this point, we get a bone-headed play from Berkman. He takes off for second, and is picked off easily by the southpaw. Howard throws to second for the tag, and despite Berkman’s innovative effort to avoid the tag–he looks something like an iguana skittering across a recently-waxed hardwood floor–he’s called out, and the inning is over. Coming into the game, the Astros were the third most frequently picked-off team in the NL, and draws them into a tie at the top of the leaderboard with 20.
Qualls is the second-best reliever in the Houston pen, but he nevertheless walks Burrell to lead off the ninth. In one of those moves you only see in March or September, Charlie Manuel sends Michael Bourn to pinch-run for Burrell, but the young speedster then immediately gets picked off of first by Qualls. This is tragic, in that Bourn could have been the beneficiary of that rarest of rarities, a Abraham Nunez base hit with two outs. Instead, the inning ends when Qualls strikes out the Sausage-Beater, Randall Simon, who was brought in to pinch-hit for Smith, stranding Nunez.
In the bottom of the frame, Phillies closer Tom Gordon takes the mound. Although the decision was instantaneous once Simon pinch-hit for Smith–or maybe earlier–it might have made sense to have one of the Phillies’ lefties start the inning against Huff prior to bringing in Gordon. Gordon falls behind Huff 2-0, and the right fielder rips a grounder down the first-base line off of Howard’s glove for a two-base error; speedy organizational soldier Charlton Jimerson pinch-runs for Huff. After a Luke Scott pop out, Chris Burke pinch-hits for Everett, and he grounds a ball which Nunez cuts off, only to bounce the throw to first. That’s charitably scored an infield single that Jimerson didn’t advance on, so there are now men on first and second. Jason Lane is summoned from the dog house to pinch hit for Ausmus. Lane lofts a fly ball to left… which is dropped by Jeff Conine. The runners are as surprised as everyone else, and caught flat-footed, Charlton Jimerson is just able to make it into third ahead of Conine’s throw. Burke also advances up to second, so that’s bases loaded, one out, and all three baserunners are the product of bad defensive play by the Phillies.
Humberto Quintero pinch-hits for Qualls, and maybe that’s the first time in major-league history that a one player whose name starts with Q pinch-hits for another. It’s a reflection of what’s left on the Astros bench, because Garner has already used Orlando Palmeiro and Mike Lamb, leaving guys like Quintero or Eric Bruntlett. Quintero has shown a bit of pop previously in the minors, but this season at Round Rock was rather disappointing in that regard (.298/.352/.425). Unhappily enough, Quintero grounds to Chase Utley on a 1-1 pitch, and Utley starts a 4-6-3 double play to end the ballgame. The Phils move up to only a game-and-a-half back of the Padres for the wild card, while the Astros move even further from relevance.