Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Witness to History: Stephen Strasburg

I don't usually write about something that doesn't involve the Phillies in some way (and in a way this does, further down the line this season), but attending a certain rookie's debut at Nationals Park last night leaves me no choice. I also don't usually give this much of a play-by-play recap, but this experience deserves nothing less.

Stephen Strasburg. 21 years old. The most highly hyped prospect in baseball history, if one looks at the myriad vehicles for hype we have these days. Sure, he was scouted. He was written about by insiders and those with passing interest alike. His minor league starts were broadcast. He was blogged about. He was the subject of tweets across the country. None of that mattered though, for the record books. Last night did.

I arrived at the stadium a little over an hour before the first pitch was thrown. The atmosphere was nothing short of electrifying, if that description even does it justice. I had felt nothing like it at a sports game since going to the clinching games 5a and 5b of the 2008 World Series at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia (See, I can always bring it back to the Phillies). This was the second sold out game at Nationals Park I had been to, but the other was opening day this year, and that crowd was not exactly tilted heavily towards the hometown team. My friends and I settled into our seats to watch the fireworks begin.

(Photo courtesy of Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

The first three pitches to Pirates leadoff batter Andrew McCutchen clocked in at 97, 97, and 98 miles per hour. So that part of the hype was real enough. The umpires weren't calling too many strikes in that at bat or the next one of Neil Walker, but Strasburg still got outs, a sharp liner to short and a grounder to first. Then Lastings Milledge struck out swinging on a filthy curveball. The crowd was on notice.

Garrett Jones started the second striking out swinging on a 99 mph fastball. Delwyn Young followed swinging through another disgusting curve. Andy LaRoche deflated the crowd a bit with a single to right field, but Strasburg and the crowd came roaring back when Ronny Cedeno struck out swinging through a 89 mph changeup. Yes, you just read that correctly.

The third arrived, and Jason Jaramillo (former Phillies prospect) was utterly paralyzed striking out looking at a sick curveball. The Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens struck out swinging on a 98 mph fastball. Andrew McCutchen grounded out in his second at bat of the game to end the third, and end Strasburg's streak of six straight strikeouts (around Andy Laroche's single) going back to the first. Six strikeouts through three shutout innings. The excitement was building, and I was running out of adjectives to text people about the performance I was witnessing.

The fourth spelled trouble for Strasburg. He made three bad pitches, the last of which was a home run to Delwyn Young. fortunately he had gotten a double play ball right before that, so the damage was limited to two runs. Andy Laroche followed by popping out to end it, but the strikeouts had stopped, the runs had started, and the crowd was clearly concerned. Still, even if he got through just one more inning, with no more runs or strikeouts, that would have been quite the rookie performance.

The fifth began, and Strasburg looked as if the fourth inning never happened. Ronny Cedeno struck out swinging on yet another 99 mph fastball (no tiring out for this Strasburg guy), Jason Jaramillo weakly grounded out, and the pitcher was called out on strikes. The crowd knew that the momentum was becoming unstoppable.

The sixth inning arrived. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Lastings Milledge all came up to the plate. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Lastings Milledge all struck out swinging. 11 strikeouts now for the phenom.

With Strasburg's pitch count in the low 80s, it was unclear whether he would come in again for the seventh inning, after Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said earlier in the day that they would limit him to 75-100 pitches and he probably would not go more than six innings. He came right back out though. Garrett Jones reached a 2-2 count in a six pitch battle, then swung straight through the seventh, another incredible curve. Strikeout number 12. The crowd roared. Delwyn Young swung, looked, and swung again and was down on strikes, with the entire crowd on its feet, the fever pitch only increasing. Strikeout number 13. In the final at bat of the seventh inning, Andy LaRoche looked at a curveball that dropped in for a strike. He swung at an impossible to hit curveball. With the count 0-2 and the 14th strikeout at stake, the entire sold out crowd of over 40,000 shook the stadium, yelling "STEPHEN STRASBURG" in perfect unison. Andy LaRoche swung through yet another 99 mph fastball. The crowd exploded. All else is now history.

(Photo courtesy of Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

I cannot do justice in words to what witnessing this performance was truly like. You can read all about just why it was so historic from Jayson Stark's column on the game and all its stats, obscure and obscurer. All I know is that I saw a pitcher pitch, at the age of 21 and in his first major league game, as if he was one of the best pitchers in the game today. Indeed, Curt Schilling said that Strasburg would be one of the best pitchers in baseball immediately, a statement which met with more than a bit of skepticism when Schilling made it a little shy of a month ago. Now there is little doubt that Strasburg can be just that. Though it's premature to say that he will do so, after a few more games like last night's, it will be a matter of when, not if.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Signs of Life?

Last time the Phillies were discussed in this space, Roy Halladay had pitched a perfect game following an eked out 3-2 win the night before. Not much of note has happened since then, except the fact that the Phillies are out of first place, having been shut out 1-0 by the Marlins following Halladay's perfecto then losing three straight to the Braves, the new team atop the NL East. Chase Utley is having the slump of his career and has to simply wait it out, and Ryan Howard isn't too far behind. That, coupled with the fact that many of the other bats have fallen silent, Jimmy Rollins is still disabled, and Placido Polanco was out for a few games, has spelled offensive disaster.

Chase Utley, wondering where the hits have gone
(Photo courtesy of Wilfredo Lee/AP)

All is not lost, however. The Phillies won 3-2 last night over the Padres, the team with the best record in the National League. Roy Halladay followed up his perfecto with a fine seven inning, two run performance, and he even singled and scored the first Phillies run of the night on a two run homer by Shane Victorino in the 3rd. Victorino later doubled and scored the go ahead run on Jayson Werth's bases loaded walk off Padres starter Mat Latos in the 5th. This was only the third win for the Phillies in two weeks, but the offensive has ended the streak of repeated shutouts. The team still hasn't scored more than three runs in a games since their May 21st 5-1 victory over the Red Sox, the night before Daisuke Matsuzaka nearly no-hit the Phillies and the slump of all slumps began.

 (Photo courtesy of David Warren/ staff photographer)

In the midst of all this offensive impotence, the strength of the pitching staff has been a bit overlooked. Pitching was arguably the biggest question mark going into this season for the Phillies, but the rotation has for the most part been solid through these hellish last two weeks.

We all know the offense will come out of this. Contact has been made more frequently, the runs have started trickling in, and luck will start swinging back towards the Phillies soon enough. The Braves have been on an absurd hot streak, and it would certainly be nice for that to end soon. I don't have as much confidence in the Braves getting a lot worse as I do in the Phillies getting a lot better, but I do believe things will even out. I'd like to think that by the All-Star break in a little over a month, we'll all look back on these last two weeks and wonder where this hiccup in an otherwise great season came from.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mr. Perfect: Roy Halladay, You ARE the Man!

I must confess, I was not watching last night's baseball game for most of it. I had to drive somewhere as it began, and I heard the first inning on the radio, where Roy Halladay threw more pitches than I would have liked but had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts. A good way to start the game, I thought, but I turned off the radio to go to a Memorial Day barbecue and didn't think more on the game other than to text Google every so often for the score. About two hours later, I was sitting watching the Flyers and Blackhawks beat up on each other, and after the 1st period ended 3-2 Flyers, my friends and I decided to turn off the TV to go back outside into the nice late spring evening and eat some more delicious food.

Then I got the text message. It read: "roy halladay has retired 24 a row...consecutively..." I got the message. Frantically, we went back to turn on my friend's TV, which of course didn't have cable. I decided to throw etiquette to the wind and we asked the host if he could get his laptop, and I got to as fast as I could and saw that wonderful "live look-in" button. I clicked, and was met with the pleasant blue screen of the middle of the 9th. We sat and waited, crowded around a laptop.

The game returned, and when it did, the atmosphere in my host's tiny living room was electric. Fredi Gonzalez, the Marlins' coach, had decided to throw three consecutive pinch hitters at Roy Halladay in a bid to stop perfection and tie up what was still only a 1-0 game. Mike Lamb was the first, and he hit a pitch about as far as any was hit that night, to straightaway center. Shane Victorino moved back, but clearly had room and made the catch. Wes Helms was next. Halladay threw a 1-2 pitch to the inside corner that froze Helms for a called strike three. I was ready to jump for joy or scream in agony at this point. Finally, Ronny Paulino came to the plate. On another 1-2 pitch, a curveball from Halladay, Paulino hit a grounder to the left side. Juan Castro gloved it on the run, spun around, and fired to first. My heart stopped. The throw could have been too late. The throw could have been too high or too wide. But no, like the rest of the game, it was perfect. For the second time in Phillies history and the 20th time in baseball history, perfection was achieved. As Jayson Stark wrote, it was, indeed, a Halladay to Remember.

Roy Halladay, perfection achieved
(Photo courtesy of Wilfredo Lee/AP)

There are many videos of highlights out there to relive just how amazing this night was for Roy Halladay. Personally, I like watching all 27 outs, which you can see over at the 700 Level along with another great recap of the game. Enjoy.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Slumping Towards Mediocrity, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slump

This will be brief, since the Phillies haven't given me much to write about since I last wrote. Since one week ago, the Phillies have scored a total of three runs, all in the 9th inning Sunday afternoon after Tim Wakefield left the game with an 8 inning shutout going. To put it another way, the Phillies have scored runs in one of their last 47 innings of play. To put it another way, they have now not scored runs off a starting pitcher in their last 35 innings facing opposing starters. I could go on, but let's hope tonight makes this all moot. As Paul Hagen wrote today, the Phillies cannot afford to become complacent in the NL East right now. Even a rare team meeting called by Charlie after Wednesday's second shutout in as many nights did not galvanize the team to do much of anything offensively yesterday.

Everyone knows that slumps happen in baseball, especially to this often potent Phillies team, but this one is particularly rough to watch. For some good perspective on it, read Bill Baer's take over at Crashburn Alley on why we shouldn't be rushing for the panic button right now. I agree that it isn't time to panic, but three consecutive shutouts by the Mets of all teams is really, really hard to watch. I know the slump will end, but I don't want have to write a blog post before that happens about how the Phillies have set a new record for consecutive innings being shutout. The players should be in worrying about this right now and be doing everything they can to fix whatever is not clicking. As a fan, however, it's time to stop worrying and love, or at least tolerate, the slump.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Autograph War: Wild Thing vs The Bull?

Special Guest Post by Skyline Stories (@SkylineStories)

I'm hoping there was an autograph war between Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams and Greg "The Bull" Luzinski on Sunday's Phillies game.

Luz signs at his Bull's BBQ stand. But on Sunday, he had some competition as "Wild Thing" -- the former Phillies closer for the 1993 World Series team and former manager for the now-defunct minor-league Atlantic City Surf of the Atlantic League -- signed copies of his new book "Straight From Wild Thing."

"Please, no memorabilia," a sign read.

Publisher Triumph Books didn't get reviews for the book -- but who needs those when you have THE MULLET on the cover?

From Triumph's Web site:
Though his successful pitching career is behind him, Mitch is still standing up in Philadelphia and telling it like it is. "Straight Talk from Wild Thing" is the story of his career, but more than that, it is inside baseball seen from many perspectives: sitting on a 10-hour minor league bus ride, standing on a pitcher's mound, and sitting in a clubhouse, a dugout, and a ranch in Texas, where a man who"retired" at age 32 struggled to figure out what to do next.

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Wakefield Baffles Batters and Halladay Loses, as Phillies Drop Red Sox Series

Special Guest Post by Skyline Stories (@SkylineStories)

Who's more likely to throw 8 shutout innings -- Roy Halladay, the former Cy Young award winner who leads the National League in complete games and shutouts, or Tim Wakefield, a 43-year-old knuckleballer whose last win was in July 2009?

If you picked Wakefield, then you'd be nuts. Except the improbable happened, as Wakefield bewildered the Phillies yesterday in an 8-3 win.

The last time I saw the two teams play was for Daisuke Matsuzaka's debut in a Major League ballpark in 2007, the crowd and media buzzing in anticipation of his fabled gyroball. But this was an awful game. The Phils couldn't hit, Dobbs and Hoover had costly errors, and Halladay had his worst start ever as a Phillie, per

Wakefield was only three innings from his first shutout since 1997, and became the oldest AL pitcher to throw that many shutout innings since fellow knuckleballer Charlie Hough in 1992, according to Of Wakefield's 103 slow-slower-really slow pitches (see below), most were knuckleballs that ranged from 65-68 mph, and later mixed in fastballs and curveballs (!).

Though I'm a Phillies fan, I wanted manager Terry Francona to leave him in for the shutout. Instead, he brought in Ramon Ramirez and the Phils rallied for 3 runs, too little too late. But Francona told that Wakefield was gassed: "He said in the eighth […] he was starting to feel it. But I certainly would have let him go back out. He said he had enough."

The big concern for the Phils is Halladay. Last outing he threw an unbelievable 132 pitches, and though he looked strong in the first few innings, he didn't have as good location in the later innings. But Halladay and Manuel reject that's why Halladay had a poor outing. "[B]ody-wise I felt great, it was just a matter of making pitches," Halladay said at the press conference.

I disagree with PhilliesNation who thinks it's just one rough start against a "Red Sox team that has owned him throughout his illustrious career," and The700Level who chalks it "up to one of the five bad starts" that Doc says he's allotted. As Baseball Prospectus concluded, after 121 pitches "a manager may be gambling with that pitcher's next 4 or 5 starts at the very least."

We'll see in his next start.

Next up for the Phils are the Mets. Let's hope the Phils fare better on Tuesday night, when the Mets start R.A. Dickey -- another knuckleballer.
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Saturday, May 22, 2010

2010 Jimmy Rollins, We Hardly Knew Ye Redux

For the first time since the home opener introductions on April 12, the Phillies were back to their regular lineup in its regular order. Cole Hamels was once again pitching, and all looked right for the Phillies entering interleague play against a struggling Red Sox. I got home in the middle of another nerve wracking 9th inning, just in time to see J.C. Romero walk Adrian Beltre to load the bases with David Ortiz on deck as a pinch hitter. It's a wonderful thing that David Ortiz is no longer the feared slugger he once was, otherwise the ball he hit to straightaway centerfield would have easily been a grand slam that tied the game at 5-5. Instead, Shane Victorino caught the ball to end the game. All seemed good for the Phillies to me, until I read the first recap. Then I discovered that Jimmy Rollins had strained his right calf. Again.

Rollins left in the 6th with a re-strained right calf.
(Photo courtesy of Steven M. Falk/ staff photographer)

Before I get to the latest in the injury problems for the 2010 Phillies, let's rewind a bit. Where I last left you, Roy Halladay had thrown a complete game loss to the Pirates last Tuesday. This followed a big outing by Kyle Kendrick and the offense on Monday, which saw Kendrick pitch eight innings and the offense score 12 runs to destroy the Pirates 12-2. This followed the weekend sweep of the Brewers, who looked every bit the 2nd to last place team that they currently are. Coming off that and the big win on Monday, Halladay's CG loss took the wind of out the Phillies sails going into a two games series against the Cubs.

The first of those games was another tough loss that saw another wasted effort by Jamie Moyer, who pitched seven innings and gave up only two runs. At this point, I have to say that Moyer, who was demoted to the bullpen last year and had three offseason surgeris, is the frontrunner for comeback player of the year. Hopefully he continues his ageless success. Still, the Phillies only managed one run and lost 4-1.

Thursday afternoon, they managed to score four runs on the long ball, with Chase Utley effortlessly hitting a baseball into the right field seats in the 1st and Jimmy Rollins coming up with a clutch three run homer to break the 1-1 ball game in the 6th. However, Joe Blanton, who mostly mowed down the Cubs through the first six innings, gave up two more runs in the 7th and the game was tied 4-4 on a homer given up by Antonio Bastardo in the 8th. Ibanez came through with a clutch single to make it 5-4, and Jose Contreras had an epic save that followed a hit batsman, a single, two strikeouts, and a pop out. Whew.

Now we can talk about last night, the kickoff bash of 2010 interleague play. The Red Sox came to Philadelphia hoping to continue their hot streak at Citizens Bank Park of recent years, and ran into the wall of Cole Hamels, who had looked an awful lot like the 2008 Cole Hamels in his last four starts. He pitched seven innings, gave up one run, and struck out eight. The offense was keyed by homers Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, the latter of whom continues to show why the Phillies should pay him lots of money for many years. Between those long balls and Hamels' ace-like performance, the Phillies won 5-1 after the bullpen gave fans a few heart palpitations for good measure.

 Cole Hamels, apparently possessed by some sort of demon
(Photo courtesy of Stephen M. Falk/ staff photographer)

The hitch in the game was the aforementioned re-injury to Jimmy Rollins in the 6th. This was his first game back in the leadoff spot, and probably his last for a few days at the very least. He's saying all the right things and swears that it wasn't nearly as bad as the first time he strained it. For now, he'll most likely rest tonight and tomorrow and then the Phillies will see how he's feeling. I thought I was done saying this for the season, but once again: get well soon, Jimmy.