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First up, some admin: I have to move tomorrow’s chat session to Monday, as I’ll be doing an ESPNews hit tomorrow afternoon. I figure it will either be a chance to break down some playoff matchups–save some questions for Rany Jazayerli, who’ll do the same on Tuesday–or do live commentary while a one-game playoff is going down. In any case, it’ll be fun.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been getting the distinct impression that if the Phillies were to win the Wild Card or something more, your response would be one of intense irritation and disdain. Am I right on this? Be honest….

–S.H.

S.H. is a long-time BP reader, someone whose opinion I take pretty seriously. I got this e-mail, and another like it, last week, and the two made me realize that I’ve missed this story badly. I can’t deny that I have completely ignored the Phillies as they’ve played .630 ball the last two months to be make themselves one of the last teams standing in the NL. They outlasted the frontrunning Reds, the darling Marlins, the veteran-laden Giants and my personal choice, the Diamondbacks. Briefly atop the wild-card chart, they’re now a game behind the Dodgers with four to play.

Am I irritated? Disdainful? Hardly. I just never took them seriously, having watched them deal away one of their best players and get zero 2006 value in return. They were off the radar by choice, as far as I could tell. That they played well in the immediate aftermath of the deal struck me as fortuitous, the product of a stretch in which David Dellucci hit like the departed Bobby Abreu for three weeks and Ryan Howard hit like Babe Ruth‘s big brother for a bit longer. Even when September started and they were hanging around the top of the crowded wild-card race, I dismissed their chances in relation to those around them, expecting the Dellucci/Howard-fueled run to end.

There was more to the story than that, though. The Phillies’ late-season success is also about the pitching staff, specifically a rotation that has become one of the deepest and most effective in the game over the past six weeks. Take a look at the difference in their runs scored and allowed in August and September and before.

              R/G    RA/G
April-July   5.06    5.29
Since        5.89    4.65

It’s a 16% bump in scoring and a 12% drop in runs allowed, and given that a run saved is slightly more valuable than a run added, the Phillies’ surge is pretty much equally due to their play on each side of the ball. Their run scoring is attributable to just a few players; Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have carried the team, especially in September. The team is getting almost nothing from the outfielders; Shane Victorino has been exposed in full-time play, Pat Burrell was good in August but lousy after, and the last-minute pickup of Jeff Conine hasn’t helped matters. Chris Coste has been a godsend, providing some offense at the bottom of the order. Most of the time though, if you can get past Utley and Howard, you’re in good shape.

The pitching staff’s work has been much more balanced. Cole Hamels has joined Brett Myers to create a homegrown front of the rotation that commands the strike zone with power stuff. Myers still fights his longball tendencies, but in September, the two have combined for ten starts of 2.73 ERA ball. Jamie Moyer replaced rookie Scott Mathieson in mid-August and was a massive upgrade: at least six innings in all seven of his outings, with an ERA of 4.27. Jon Lieber is on one of his runs, a 43/4 K/BB in his last 10 starts and a 3.24 ERA.

The seasonal numbers won’t reflect it–the disastrous Ryan Madson shift, too many empty outings by fill-ins–but the Phillies’ rotation right now is as good as it has been since the 1993 team won the NL pennant with four starters with at least 190 innings and an adjusted ERA of 100 or better. That’s the last Philly team to go to the playoffs; it’s amazing to think that with all of the wrangling over payrolls and revenues and how they affect the game on the field, the Phillies–who have the fourth-largest market in the U.S. to themselves–have never gone to the playoffs in the three-division era.

The bullpen’s work in last night’s amazing comeback win over the Nationals-eight pitchers combined to allow three runs in eight innings-belied its problems. It is unquestionably the Phillies’ weak link, with only Geoff Geary pitching well in a significant role. (Matt Smith, the “major leaguer” who came over from the Yankees for Abreu, has done well in an extremely limited role, as has Aaron Fultz). Tom Gordon has pitched just 13 2/3 innings in the two months, allowing nine runs. The Phillies need the starters to work deep into games, and they need to avoid contests like last night, because they don’t have the arms for it.

For the Phillies to finally play in a Division Series, they’ll have to make up at least one game on the Dodgers in the next four days. They have one more game in D.C., then they close with a three-game series at the Marlins. The Phillies essentially ended the Marlins’ season over the weekend, so there may be a revenge angle in play. As tired as the young Marlins have looked this month, they’re not the Royals or the Devil Rays; they can give the Phillies trouble. They won’t have their best starter going again. I made an error yesterday when I suggested that Myers would start a potential one-game playoff. Actually, it would be Hamels, who’s not scheduled to pitch again this year. The Phillies miss Anibal Sanchez; however, they’ll see two tough lefties in Scott Olsen and Dontrelle Willis. It’s going to be a tough series.

Of course, the Dodgers have to go to San Francisco, perhaps the worst place for them to have to play games that don’t mean anything to their opponent. The Dodgers/Giants rivalry is the most heated sports one west of the Hudson River, and you can bet that Barry Bonds will play at least two of the three games. The Dodgers have played poorly on the road–35-42–and they will get both Matt Cain and Jason Schmidt, so they’re in about as bad a shape as the Phillies are.

The Dodgers could still win the NL West, although they’d have to pass the Padres to do it. (They’ll lose a tiebreaker.) The Padres have a two-game lead on the Phillies with four to play, and they go to Phoenix for four game. It’s not impossible that they could fall into a playoff or even out of the picture entirely, but given how well they’ve played in September, it’s not likely.

The Playoff Odds Report gives the NL West teams a big edge, with the Phillies having just a 25% chance to get in. Of course, the percentages can swing a lot from day to day at this time of the year, and they will all weekend. I expect the Padres to go to October as the NL West champions, and the Dodgers to join them as the wild card. Even a slim one-game lead with four to play is difficuly to surmount. The Phillies may well be the third-best team in the NL right now, but the four months of mediocre baseball might be too much for them to overcome.

  • We’re a lot more certain this morning of the other race in the NL. After it looked like the Cardinals were going to lose another game in which they had been tied in the seventh-on a Scott Rolen throwing error and a wild pitch–Albert Pujols ended the NL MVP discussion with a homer that will be replayed during every Cardinals’ postseason game. This team desperately needed a win, and its best player delivered it. Credit Anthony Reyes for a good start against a team that is tough to beat, and both So Taguchi and Aaron Miles for working the walks that set up Pujols’ blast.

    The drama should be over now. The Cardinals needed one win to get back on track, and with the Brewers coming into Busch this weekend, they should have themselves straightened out. I won’t say this often, but I’m fairly sure that the streak was building on itself, especially given the way in which the losses were happening. Clearing the deck with a W should relieve a lot of the pressure and enable the Cardinals to put away the division.

  • The Astros are keeping it interesting, though. By coming back from a 6-1 sixth-inning deficit, and getting a ridiculous 12 innings from their bullpen, the ‘Stros limited the damage to their tragic number with a 7-6, 15-inning win in Pittsburgh. Down to their last out in the ninth, Luke Scott singled in Willy Taveras to tie the game, and they got a run in the 15th off of Jonah Bayliss. They’re trying to play the Pirates today, but it looks more and more like it will have to be rescheduled for Monday.
  • The Reds, however, are done. Two-and-a-half games out of first with five games to play, they sent Chris Michalak to the mound against a team that is loaded from the right side. I suppose if they’re not going to take their situation seriously, there’s no reason for us to do so.

    Michalak lasted just three innings, but the real problem was the offense. The Reds got the leadoff batter on in six of the first eight innings, but went 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position and left 15 men on in a 7-2 loss.

    I’m on board with the idea that the Reds are out of the race in no small part because of the Wayne Krivsky notion that he needed middle relievers more than he needed 25% of his starting lineup. The Felipe Lopez/Austin Kearns trade damaged the Reds’ offense and didn’t come close to addressing their pitching issues. There’s no way to evaluate their season without placing that deal front and center.

    However…

    Do you think things might have been different if Adam Dunn shown up for the second half? With another 0-fer last night, Dunn dropped to .153/.344/.264 in September, .230/.367/.426 since the All-Star break. He has killed the Reds for two months, batting .170 in the middle of the lineup with just 13 extra-base hits. That’s not a slump; that’s a disaster, and it’s gone unnoticed in part because guys like me are so used to defending Dunn that we didn’t look at him when doing the Reds’ autopsy. Unlike in past seasons, when Dunn was criticized for his approach while still being productive, this time the big guy is a big reason why the Reds have failed. Stathead favorite or no, Dunn deserves a load of criticism for his part in this season.

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