Thoughts on the first of seven games that will define the Phillies' season.
It’s naive to believe baseball’s all-time longest rain delay didn’t take a physical and mental toll on the Phillies last night in D.C. The lethargic play from both squads, and 3-1 final outcome, certainly reflect the 12 p.m. start time and 5 hour delay, on top of the drain of yesterday’s emotional, nail-biting marathon. What kind of rhythm were you in last night at midnight? Ready to get a jump on taxes, I'm sure.
But fatigue isn’t the only excuse why the Phils find themselves on the brink of playoff elimination. The Phillies must sweep the Marlins, and the Giants must take two of three from the Dodgers to force a playoff. Two sweeps, and the Phils are in.
For all intents and purposes, the season should be over following a three-game sweep at the hands of the worst team in the division. We could point the finger at screwed calls, the MLB front office, Mother Nature, lack of timely hitting, poor strategy, and as the players would honestly attest, over-anxiousness and nerves as reasons that contributed to the collapse in D.C.
A 162 game season is a large sample, but sometimes a sweeping generalization can reveal the whole story. The Phillies are 83-76, a little better than average. That will get you close, but not close enough. This means you will lose to teams like the Nationals. And as it turns out, they will finish the season under .500 against them.
The Phillies thought they were doing themselves a favor by taking sole possession of the Wild Card lead. Record-wise, they were. By controlling their own destiny, they basically narrowed the season to seven games with Houston, Washington and Florida – a perfect opportunity to prove they are more than just "a little better than average."
Instead, they have lost three of the four games, and have framed off a nice abridged version of the season for fans to put under manageable scrutiny. And so we shall.
Brian Schneider delivered yesterday's only timely hit with a three-run single in the sixth. This kind of hitting represents the single biggest glitch of Version 1.1. The four-five-six hitters have combined for only four RBIs in the three losses, all coming from Ryan Howard, and in the 8-7 win, they knocked in nary a run. They’re stranding too many damn base-runners. Simple as that.
This cycle will inevitably lead to deflated and demoralized play. Was Jeff Conine thinking about his 0-for-7 collar from Wednesday when he went hitless on Thursday? It’s likely. Whenever one doubts toughness or moxie, you’re treading on thin ice. But the fact is, when the pressure was off this season, the Phillies turned it on. When goals were set, and "magic numbers" levied, they have fallen short, including their goal to win big at home during April.
Pressure might explain some of the residual glitches. Though Lieber and crew didn't walk anyone last night, Phillies pitching has allowed 16 free passes including Monday’s game. At least 10 of them came close and late in ballgames.
Starting pitching isn’t setting the world on fire, either. When Jon Lieber was signed before the 2005 season, it wasn’t to spot a poor lineup three runs over 5 1-3 innings in a game with serious playoff implications. The one-two punch of Brett Myers and Cole Hamels couldn’t deliver memorable September memories, either. The Astros figured out curve-happy Randy Wolf his second turn through the order. At least one of these guys should have come up bigger.
We talked about the "not ready for prime time" managing Tuesday, and some of those points were supported on the playing field, in particular, the way Ryan Howard has had his legs knocked out from under him. Teams have adjusted to Howard, but the Phillies have not readjusted themselves. There has been no attempt to think outside the box by Charlie Manuel, which is what managers must do in playoff-type games.
Now, the Phillies are off to Florida on short rest to play in what could accurately be described a playground pickup game for the Marlins. After a season of overachievement, the young Fish are officially out of the playoff hunt, thanks in no small part to the Phils. They weren’t expected to get even this close. They've got nothing to lose and will be dangerous.
You could say the same about the Phils and their own unexpected post-season run. Therein lies the rub. The bonus of October baseball could set the groundwork for a pickup game of their own.