On The Edge Blog

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fightin' Phils vs. the Evil Empire

If you listen to the national media, you might not know it, but our Philadelphia Phillies are the defending World Series champions, and despite what you may have heard, the New York Yankees have not dethroned our Fightins.

And they won’t dethrone our Fightins.

If this were 1999, I would be worried about the Phillies having to face the Yankees in the World Series. Those Yankees had won two of the last three World Series titles, and seemingly could pull October victories out of thin air.

Luckily for us, it is 2009, not 1999.

There isn’t a “Yankee mystique” for the Phillies to worry about.Our Phillies won’t have to play at “The House That Ruth Built,” which was the home of 26 World Series champions. They will play games 1 and 2 at “The House That Steinbrenner Bought,” which is home to none of that storied history in the Fall Classic.

In fact, right now, the Phillies are the team with postseason mystique on its side.Nineteen Phillies know how it feels to be called “World Champions of Baseball,” while just five Yankees have won World Series rings, and four of those—Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada—are holdovers from New York’s success in the late 90s. The rest of the Bronx Bombers, such as Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, and Hideki Matsui, have only known failure in the postseason.While there is no mystique about these Yankees, they are a good team.However, they aren’t the best team in the World Series this year.

We know that both of these squads can hit, as the Phils and the Bombers each led their league in runs scored during the regular season, so this series will come down to pitching, which is where Philadelphia has an edge, despite what everyone else tells you.

Yes, Rivera is the best closer in baseball history, but he can be beaten. While he has the most saves in postseason history (Fun fact: Brad Lidge is second), and sports a miniscule 0.77 career ERA this time of year, he also has a few of the biggest blown saves in postseason history.If you think the Phillies’ hitters don’t stand a chance against Rivera, I will kindly ask you to check out how the Yankees’ seasons ended in 2001 and 2004. After that little history lesson, go ask Huston Street and Jonathan Broxton about how tough the ninth innings are when trying to close out the Fightins.

I won’t try to fool myself into thinking that Lidge is better than Rivera at closer, but for the first eight innings, the Phillies hurlers have the upper-hand.

Everywhere you turn, someone on television will tell you about how great Sabathia has been for the Yankees, but do you know who has been better? Cliff Lee.

While Sabathia has struggled against the Phillies in his last three starts, giving up 12 runs in 17 2/3 innings (6.11 ERA), you know who is 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA over the last two seasons against the Yankees? Cliff Lee.

Do you know who has a better ERA, more complete games and more shutouts than Sabathia this season? You guessed it; it’s Lee.

As for the rest of the starting rotations, I would take Pedro Martinez, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton over A.J. Burnett and Pettitte, especially once the Yankees’ trio begins pitching on short rest because they don’t have a fourth starter.

While Sabathia has been a workhorse, both Burnett and Pettitte have trouble going deep into games, averaging just over six innings per start, while allowing too many baserunners. The pair comes into the postseason with WHIPs of 1.40 and 1.38, respectively, with Burnett allowing 4.22 walks per nine innings, and Pettitte surrendering 3.53 BB/9.

From the National League dugout, none of the Phillies’ starters allow free passes at nearly this rate, which should concern Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

This means that the Phils need to continue their patience at the plate, and as long as they don’t go into a prolonged slump with runners in scoring position, neither pitcher should give the Phillies’ hitters a problem.

Moving to the bullpen, while J.A. Happ, Chan Ho Park, Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin all could pitch more than one inning regardless of the batters due up, the Yankees middle relief is completely a mix-and-match unit. Phil Coke and Damaso Marte have each pitched in four games and logged just 1 1/3 innings pitched this postseason. Joba Chamberlain, despite all of the hype, has recorded just eight outs in six appearances out of the bullpen.

At this point, Girardi only has four pitchers that he trusts to send to the mound, and other than Rivera, none are worthy of being feared.

After all of this analysis, I can find plenty of reasons for the Phillies to repeat, and if I wanted to, I could use the same set of statistics to show why the Yankees could win their 27th World Series title.

At this point, the Phillies need to keep playing like champions, while getting contributions from the entire lineup. Do that and they should win.

Regardless of all the hype, this year’s World Series promises to be much more competitive than last year’s, and hopefully we will be attending a parade late next week.

Prediction: This series will go six games, but “New York, New York” won’t be the Frank Sinatra tune playing after the final out.

Like the “On the Edge” blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week, we will discuss the first two World Series games, and preview the NFL’s version of the Philadelphia/New York rivalry.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eagles unravel against the Raiders

Trap game.

When the Eagles finished bumbling around in the Black Hole of the Raider nation, it provided credence to the term “trap game,” because there was no reason that this Eagles team should ever lose to a team led by JaMarcus Russell.

However, after watching that debacle, I am scratching my head about how much trouble the Birds might be in for because the Raiders basically just drew up the blueprints for how to beat the Eagles.I know that the Eagles’ defense only gave up 13 points, but that is because Russell is the worst quarterback in the NFL, not because they actually played well.

At this point, it is pretty much a certainty that the Eagles will allow the opposing tight end to have a career day, and Raiders tight end Zach Miller was no exception. Miller caught six passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, which accounted for more than 62 percent of Russell’s passing yards for the game. That comes a week after Kellen Winslow caught nine passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles’ 33-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

When tight ends are shredding your defense, it means you have problems at linebacker, which is something I have been complaining about since February!However, the linebackers didn’t merely turn in an epic failure trying to cover Miller, it looked like they had never witnessed a play-action pass before.

How many times could the Raiders fake a handoff to the left, only to roll back to the right and pass to the fullback in the flat? Apparently, it was at least five times because Raiders fullback Gary Russell caught five passes for 55 yards, including a 13-yard reception on 3rd-and-10 with less than two minutes remaining to essentially end the game. On that type of play, at least one player needs to stay at home, instead of chasing the potential running play to the left side.

After watching the linebackers provide almost nothing in terms of big plays last year, I assumed that they could at least be in the vicinity of a pass-catcher, but after watching this game, I don’t even think that is possible, especially with Jeremiah Trotter and his 75-year-old legs slowly grazing around the field.

While I’m ripping on the defense, I have to ask a rhetorical question: “Why is Asante Samuel in the NFL if he is afraid of contact?”

If you watch highlights from this season, you will see that Samuel has four interceptions, but only 14 tackles. That is because his tackling technique is to merely fall down and then pray that his shoulder hits the lower leg of the ball-carrier. You will also notice that every time this technique fails, he stays down for a few seconds to make it seem like he really tried to come up with the tackle, but injury prevented him from making the stop.

I haven’t seen a player more afraid of contact since Deion Sanders and his patented “slap fight” tackling technique. If I were an offensive coordinator, I would call running plays that went directly at Samuel until he was taken off the field, and then I would throw the ball at his replacement, Ellis Hobbs, and the Eagles’ defense would be burnt like toast.

Switching to the other side of the ball, the supposed depth on the offensive line, which the Eagles bragged about during preseason, was proven to be a complete sham this week.

When Jason Peters left in the first quarter because of a knee injury, the Eagles surrounded center Jamaal Jackson with four backups. As a result, Donovan McNabb spent the rest of the afternoon running for his life, while making errant throws that most likely were dropped if they actually managed to reach the receiver.

Using King Dunlap, Nick Cole (who I am still very high on), Max Jean-Gilles and Winston Justice on the offensive line, McNabb was hurried 18 times, hit 15 times, and sacked six times by a Raiders defensive that managed just nine sacks in its first five games.

I don’t know how the Eagles can fix this mess in the trenches, but it looks as if Peters will be healthy enough to play left tackle on Monday night, and hopefully Todd Herremans will return from injury as well. The real mystery is why Jean-Gilles is playing in place of Stacy Andrews. It would be nice to see Andrews get healthy and bring some stability to the right side of the offensive line.

Now if only someone in the front office would pick up the phone to bring back Jon Runyan, because I can’t imagine what New York’s front seven will do to this pathetic group of linemen in two weeks.

Prediction for the Eagles’ Monday night game with the Washington Redskins: Eagles win 16-12, in a typical Eagles/Redskins ugly battle.

Like the “On the Edge” blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week, we will discuss the Eagles’ first divisional game against the Redskins, and hopefully be rejoicing about the Phillies making a repeat appearance in the World Series.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lidge slams the door on Colorado; Phils head to L.A.

“Don’t change horses in the middle of a race.”

“Dance with the one you came with.”

No matter what cliché you want to use, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel probably has heard it before during his four decades of baseball experience, and in the National League Division Series, he looked like a genius by following those simple clichés about loyalty.

Heading into the playoffs, nobody, probably including Manuel, knew how the Phillies’ bullpen would perform against the Colorado Rockies, let alone who would be getting the call each time he made a pitching change.

Apparently, the one thing he was certain about was that if the situation presented itself, the Phillies’ playoff hopes would be placed in the shaky hands of Brad Lidge.

Throughout the season, Manuel kept telling everyone who would listen that Lidge was his closer and the coaching staff would work with the reliever until he regained his form from 2008.

He wasn’t joking.

Despite blowing a Major League worst 11 saves, Lidge was handed the ball in the ninth inning of both the third and fourth games of the NLDS, and he rewarded Manuel’s loyalty with two saves and a trip to Los Angeles for a date with the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

Two years ago, I remember writing about how the 2007 Phillies battled back to win the division, much like the Cleveland Indians from “Major League.” In the NLDS, it was time for the sequel, “Major League 2,” as Lidge played the role of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, struggling all season to recapture his success from the previous year, but coming through in the playoffs.

The biggest problem for Lidge this season was his inability to throw strikes, but in Colorado, his slider was finally breaking at the right time, and his fastball wasn’t tailing away.

I don’t know if he is finally healthy, or has figured out how to pitch successfully despite his injured knee. While Lidge continues on the path of returning to 2008 form, the rest of the bullpen remains a mystery.

Luckily for Manuel, Cliff Lee tossed a complete game in the series opener, but in game two, it was clear that Manuel didn’t really trust anyone in his bullpen, or else starting pitchers Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ would not have been called in for middle relief duty.

It appeared that Manuel may have trusted Ryan Madson, or at least considered him the lesser of all evils. Madson rewarded Manuel’s faith by giving up leads in both games three and four, proving, yet again, that while he may be the most talented pitcher on the staff, he crumbles when put in a pressure situation.

Madson blew six save opportunities during the regular season because he will look sharp, but then inexplicably miss his spots at the worst possible time, just like he did on Sunday and Monday. (For proof, check out highlights from his blown save against Baltimore back in June. Carlos Ruiz wanted the pitch low and inside against Brian Roberts, but Madson left the ball right over the plate, about belt-high, and it was next seen entering the stands in right field. The same thing happened earlier that week when former Phillie Rod Barajas crushed a ninth-inning homer to centerfield.)

With Madson struggling, and with Brett Myers’ health and effectiveness still an uncertainty, the Phillies will have to get through the late innings by using only Scott Eyre, Antonio Bastardo, and Lidge, along with the inconsistent Chad Durbin as a situational righty. In the middle innings, keep expecting to see Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, because Manuel doesn’t have enough other options to get the ball to the suddenly stable Lidge.


Quick thoughts from the division series round:

* No wonder the national media thinks the National League is inferior to the American League. Vicente Padilla and John Smoltz both were released by American League teams this season, but wound up throwing a combined nine innings in the deciding game of the Cardinals/Dodgers series. In fact, Padilla threw seven scoreless innings for the Dodgers, just two months after the Texas Rangers, who were starved for pitching while fighting for a Wild Card spot, sent him packing.

* How great will it be to watch the NLCS without having to listen to Fox announcer Joe Buck gushing about how awesome Manny Ramirez is? It was torture last year to hear Buck say how the Dodgers would battle back every time the Phillies scored.

* What has gotten into C.C. Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez? These two serial October choke-artists must have turned back their mental calendars to May, because both Yankees shined against the Twins. Sabathia entered this year’s playoffs 2-3, with a 6.25 ERA in postseason play, but gave up just one earned run in 6 2/3 innings against the Twins. Rodriguez, whose playoff struggles have been well chronicled, seems to be on his way to erasing his October demons, hitting .455 with two homers in three games against the Twins.

Prediction: Phillies in 6, setting up a battle with the Yankees, although I would prefer to face the Angels.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Phillies playoff preview!

I know that if I really analyze the Phillies’ statistics this year, there would be a lot to be concerned about heading into the National League Division Series battle with the Colorado Rockies.

However, I am going to look on the bright side, and remember that the Phillies are the defending World Series champions, and haven’t let me down in exactly two years - coincidentally against the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series.

Yes, I could choose to look at the fact that Brad Lidge has blown 11 saves this year. Also, the fact that Ryan Madson has blown six saves while filling in for Lidge does not inspire confidence. In contrast, Huston Street has saved 35 games for the Rockies, blowing just two save opportunities all season. Before even getting to Lidge or Madson, the Phillies will be without J.C. Romero, who was dominant last season in the playoffs, and would be the first man to come through the bullpen door if a tough lefty were at the plate. Brett Myers and Chan Ho Park, two pitchers who were penciled in to be key bullpen components, are also injured.

Looking at the starting pitching, I could point to Cliff Lee’s 5.59 ERA in September, or the 10 runs that Joe Blanton has given up in his last two starts, if I really wanted to dwell on the negatives.

Wow, people could really drive themselves crazy thinking about all of the things that could go wrong and all of the reasons that the Rockies will quickly bounce the Phillies from the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. But, instead of thinking about all of the bad things, remember that the Phillies are the defending the World Series champions. Everyone except Raul Ibanez and Cliff Lee know exactly what it takes to get to the World Series, and more importantly, win the whole thing.

With that, here are some thoughts and statistics that should inspire confidence heading into the NLDS:

* Cole Hamels loves pitching in big games, as we saw last year, when he went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five postseason starts. He also has surrendered just two home runs in his last eight starts, which shows that he is keeping the ball down in the zone. In his previous nine starts, Hamels struggled with his control, and surrendered 11 home runs in the process.

* J.A. Happ has been successful in both the bullpen and the rotation, so no matter where he ends up, expect good things from the potential National League Rookie of the Year. Out of the bullpen, Happ went 2-0 with a 2.49 ERA, and as a starter, he was 10-4 with a 2.99 ERA, so whichever role Charlie Manuel chooses for Happ, it should be considered a point of strength.

* The Rockies’ bats are worse against left-handed pitchers compared to when they face righties. The Phillies could potentially send Hamels, Lee and Happ to the hill in the first three games, and watch the Rockies struggle to get on base. The Rockies line (batting average/slugging percent/OPS) against righties is .264/.445/.791, but against lefties, it is .253/.430/.765.

* In six head-to-head games this season, the Phillies’ bats greatly outperformed the Rockies’ bats, hitting .302, compared to Colorado hitting just .251 against the Phillies pitchers. In those six games, Chase Utley hit .421, Jayson Werth hit .391, and every Phillies starter hit at least .286, except for Ryan Howard, who hit .250. In comparison, most of the Rockies’ big names struggled, with Todd Helton and Clint Barmes each hitting .190, while Troy Tulowitzki hit just .200 in the six games.

Overall, I know that there is a lot to be concerned about, but these are the defending World Series Champions, and when they are firing on all cylinders, nobody can beat them, and as we have seen throughout this season, even when guys are struggling, they still were winning games.

Bold predictions:

* Hamels and Lee each pitch at least seven innings games 1 and 2.

* Pedro Martinez will validate my midseason prediction that he will be dominant out of the bullpen.

* Antonio Bastardo will be this year’s version of K-Rod from the 2002 World Series champion Anaheim Angels.

* No goalie controversy for the Flyers this year! (Sorry, I love hockey!)

* Phillies in four, setting up a showdown with the St. Louis Cardinals.


Like the “On the Edge” blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week, we will discuss the Eagles’ matchup with the Buccaneers, and talk about where the Phillies stand after two playoff games.

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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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