Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Some Questions To Ask

           Before we get going, I thought this would be a nice time for a little pop-quiz.  I know no body wants to read the sports section of a newspaper and have to take a quiz, but this one will be a little fun.  Well, at least it was fun for me to come up with the questions.  Plus it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out the correct answers.  The answers will be displayed at the bottom of the column.  Don’t cheat!

            1.      True or False: The defending Super Bowl champs are 13-0 in season-openers over the last 13 years.
2.      True of False: The Dallas Cowboys are 6-0 all-time in season openers versus the New York Giants.
3.      True or False: Roughly five minutes after the Giants lost to the Cowboys last week, Eddie Hedes started making excuses.
4.      If “Dallas Cowboys > New York Giants” is a true statement, and Dallas Cowboys = Shawn McFarland and NY Giants = Eddie Hedes, then what else must be true?
5.      The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Viking and Arizona Cardinals all currently have more wins than the New York Giants.
6.      Despite their loss, the Giants still looked better than the Philadelphia Eagles.

            Now onto something that popped into my head the other night.  Thought I would share it with everyone…
            In this day in age when every athlete who accomplishes any sort of crazy  feat is eventually suspected of steroids, one person in particular has seemingly dodged the HGH bullet.  That person is Serena Williams.
            My suspicion arose the other night as I laid in bed and watched some highlights on ESPN.  As the replays went on, they showed Williams serve three aces in a row – all over 110 miles-per-hour – and fist pump afterward to the point where her bicep looked photo-shopped onto her arm.  If someone had digitally removed her body and left just her arm, and then asked me to guess who the arm belonged to, my first guess would have been Evander Holyfield followed by Deebo from the Friday movies.
            This is when someone from my generation says, “I’m not sayin,’ I’m just sayin.’”  I’m not sayin’ Serena Williams is definitely on steroids, I’m just sayin’ that if she would be the odds-on favorite to win an arm wrestling tournament at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York – maybe she should at least be tested.
            The whole steroid debate doesn’t really have me going one way or another.  Baseball was loaded with users.  I get it.  Football probably is too although no one would ever admit it.  Honestly, if practically everyone was on it then I don’t see the big deal.  It was a somewhat level, albeit juiced, playing field.  It’s impossible to tell who is or isn’t juicing anymore, so I’m over it.
Most people use steroids or HGH more for quicker healing rather than a performance enhancer.  The only people I have ever had a problem with were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa because they are only known for their power and wouldn’t have amounted to much without the homerun chase of 1998.  Thankfully they have seen been ostracized.  Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were Hall of Fame quality before they allegedly started juicing so I don’t hate them as much as other people do.  All I know is that my all time hero, Ken Griffey Jr., never juiced.  That dude got hurt way too much to be on anything.
So, with Williams, I’m not saying she is taking steroids.  She has always been a muscular woman.  I probably wouldn’t care even if she was.  All I am saying is that I am surprised the idea has never brought up.  After everything with A-Rod, Rafael Palmeiro and Lance Armstrong, you never know what will come out five years down the road.

Quiz Answers: 1. False: The Giants’ loss was the first for a defending champ since 1999. 2. True. 3. False: It only took 30 seconds. 4. Shawn McFarland > Eddie Hedes. 5. True. 6. Very True.
            I’d just like to point out that I didn’t say one word when all you Giant fans were talking noise last week.  But if you are going to dish it out then you better be ready to take it.

Borre blurs Huskies' vision

     Not too long ago, ADIDAS came out with a few advertisements in which it proclaimed “Fast Don’t Lie.”
After last Friday night, the company may want to recruit Pleasant Valley’s Austyn Borre to be the new spokesman for its marketing campaign.
     The Bears’ freshman running back ran around, through and away from the Dieruff defense last weekend on his way to racking up a school-record 246 yards and four touchdowns on just eight carries. As if his 30.75 yards-per-carry average wasn’t enough, it becomes even more amazing when one finds out that Borre did all of that in just a little over a quarter of play.
     Borre’s most recent performance proved that his 100-yard effort against Nazareth on opening night was no fluke. Perhaps more importantly, it has also earned him the TIMES NEWS Football Player of the Week award for week number two.
     “It feels great to win an award like this, especially with me being a freshman in just my second week,” said Borre, who was clocked with a 4.5 in the 40-yard-dash earlier this year. “But I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without my offensive line. They opened up the holes for me. Without them or the rest of my team, I wouldn’t be able to put up the numbers that I did.
     “The blocking was perfect and everything was wide open. It was an amazing night. It is something I will never forget.”
     Borre began his night against Dieruff much like he did against Nazareth. Whereas the 5-9, 180-pound back took his first carry versus the Eagles 75 yards to the house, he grabbed his opening carry last week and ran 59 yards before being taken down at the six-yard-line. He gained three more yards on his next carry before fullback Josh Thornton plunged in from three yards out to cap the scoring drive.
     Borre would total nine yards on his next three carries before breaking out in a major way. His final three totes of the night went for 62, 46 and 67 yards - all touchdowns. They made for the third, fourth and fifth carry of his young career that have gone for 46 yards or more.
     Pleasant Valley possessed the ball for a total of two minutes and 39 seconds while Borre was in the game. That means he ran for 246 yards in only 159 seconds. Do the math and that’s an average of nearly 1.55 yards-per-second. And as we all know, a football player doesn’t run continuously while his team has possession. The offense has to huddle up and call another play before handing the ball off again.
     “He really is a special kid,” said head coach Jim Terwilliger. “I haven’t seen a kid with his attributes, especially his speed, at this young of an age. As good as he talent-wise, he is a great worker and a good character kid. It’s always ‘yes sir, no sir’ with him. He is all about getting things done and is a results-oriented kid.”
     Through the first two weeks of his career, Borre has run the ball 19 times for 351 yards (18.47 average) and six touchdowns. His eye-popping stats at the middle school level (5,152 yards and 69 touchdowns in 20 games) had his coaches drooling at the thought of what he could do at the varsity level. However, no one expected him to be this good right out of the chute.
     “He has done a tremendous job of working hard and putting himself in a position to be successful,” said Terwilliger. “He has done a nice job in two games, but here we sit at 1-1. Now we are looking at game number three. I think our goal is to not look at what we have done, but look at what we have to do to move forward. I know Austyn feels the same way and we are excited to see what the rest of this year brings.”
     As for Borre, he couldn’t have imagined a better start to his high school career.
     “No, I don’t think I could have,” Borre said. “These past two weeks have been great and I am happy with my numbers, but I am never satisfied. I am going to continue to work hard and try to get better every week. It’s all about putting points on the board and helping my team win games.”
     Borre had just one goal in mind when he practiced with the program over the summer. Now that he has since checked that task off the list, he has reset his goals for the remainder of the year.
     “Before the season, my only goal was to play varsity,” admitted Borre. “I didn’t care about any stats. I just wanted to play and help my team win games.
     “Now that I accomplished that, I would like to help the team win the Mountain Valley Conference championship. Rushing for 1,000 yards would be nice too.”
     While Borre will need help from his teammates to accomplish the former, he has put himself in a great position to achieve the latter.
     Pleasant Valley fans who watch Borre the rest of this year may not want to blink much. Otherwise they might miss him.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Phillies Still Fighting For Playoff Berth

While there are still 40-plus games left in Major League Baseball's 2012 regular season, it has already seemed like an eternity for the Philadelphia Phillies and their fan base.
However, despite what seems to be the most injury-plagued season any single team has had in baseball history, along with a few underachieving stars, the Phillies are still alive in the playoff race.
I know it sounds absurd to think that after everything the Phils have been through that they actually have a shot at the post-season - especially when they can't even trade for players without them coming to town and getting hurt (see Nate Schierholtz). I don't blame you. I don't entirely believe it myself. But it's true.
The division is out of reach. That shouldn't be news to anyone. When you see the number 19 in the 'Games Back' column as of Friday afternoon, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Phils won't be winning the NL East for the sixth straight year. Still, as of Friday, at least they were out of the basement. It only figures that the team I suspected to compete with the Phils for the division crown at the beginning of the year, the Miami Marlins, would be worse.
Thanks to MLB's rule change this year where two Wild Card teams make the playoffs (each will play in a one-game playoff before starting the NLDS series), the Phils will have one less team to jump over in the Wild Card standings. Prior to Friday's game, Philadelphia was 11 games back and in seventh place in those standings. That means that only 11 games and five teams stand between the Phils and a possible post-season berth.
Though it seems like a long shot, all that Phillies fans should be asking for right now is a chance. And there is one. Two teams ahead of the Phils, the Atlanta Braves (leading the race with a 69-49 record) and the New York Mets (nine games behind Atlanta), have both shown the ability to go into major slumps at the worst possible time. The Braves lost 21 of their final 32 games last year, including each of their last five, to miss the playoffs entirely after it seemed like they were going to push the Phils for the division title.
Every Phillies fan knows about the Mets historic collapse in 2007. Jimmy Rollins said the Phils were the better team. Everyone in New York hated him. Analysts called him crazy. Turns out Rollins would have the last laugh. Despite leading the division by seven games on Sept. 12, the Mets went on to lose 12 of their last 17 games. It was the beginning of the Phillies' NL East reign. Heck, the Phils' post-season may have turned out a little different that year had they not gotten the red-hot Colorado Rockies in the first round. Why do I bring that up? BECAUSE MATT HOLLIDAY STILL HASN'T TOUCHED HOME PLATE!
Besides Atlanta and New York, the other five teams ahead of the Phillies are Pittsburgh, Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco. All four of those teams are playing slightly above .500 ball since the All-Star break. St. Louis and San Fran are both 18-14, while Pitt and 'Zona are 17-16. The Phils are 17-14 in that time frame. These numbers show that while it will require a run at some point, and the middle receivers to somehow miraculously turn it around, the Phils still stand a shot at moving up the board if the other teams continue to play at their current level or go into a slide.
Again, I know this may be a lot of wishful thinking, but until the Phils have been mathematically eliminated I am not ruling anything out. I don't know how anyone can after watching the Boston Red Sox go 7-20 down the stretch last season. Sure, the Phils will need five different teams to go into coinciding slumps, but there is a first time for everything right?
The two biggest and obvious problems for the Phillies are 1. the amount of teams that they will need to jump and 2. going on a roll when apparently no lead is safe with their current bullpen. In the end I think those two factors, probably the latter more so than the former, will end the Phillies' five-year post-season run.
Regardless, I haven't heard a fat lady singing yet. The Phillies haven't given up and neither will I.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Out With The Old(er), In With The New(er)

            Major League Baseball’s July 31st trade deadline saw two Philadelphia Phillies get shipped out of town.
            Centerfielder Shane Victorino and leftfielder Hunter Pence were both dealt to National League West teams on Tuesday.  Both seemingly the casualties of a huge payroll, and being practically unsignable after this year, Phillies’ general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. decided to deal the outfielders and get something in return while he still could.
            I can understand trading Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers.  There was no way the Phils could have given Victorino the contact he was looking for.  Especially with having just signed Hamels to the second-richest pitcher contract of all-time.  Amaro recently said in an interview that Hamels’ contract had nothing to do with it, but I’m not buying it.
            The one I can’t fully understand was Pence’s deal.  I know he was eligible for arbitration and would require about $14M next year, and I know he wasn’t playing up to his potential.  But again, much like my Hamels argument, I ask ‘why unload one of your youngest, most talented players?’
So what Pence is due to make a large amount of money.  Haven’t you been selling out the park every single night for the last three years?  Amaro has shown the ability to fork out the cash when the time calls for it.  Trade or release someone else.
Jimmy Rollins.  Ryan Howard.  Chase Utley.  Roy Halladay.  Placido Polanco.  I suspect all five of those player’s careers will be over within the next three to four years (or close to being over).  Pence just turned 29 in April and would still have a few years left after all those guys are gone.  But in the end it all comes down to Amaro’s philosophy of dealing someone when he feels that he won’t be able to resign them.
In the end I feel like we have to give Amaro the benefit of the doubt.  While Pat Gillick was responsible for the World Series winning team in 2008, and Amaro did have most of the same players the following year, he still got the Phils back to the Fall Classic.  He still got the pieces to set a franchise-record for wins in a season.  He bought when the team was fighting for a ring, and now he is selling when the team is in the basement.  As much as I hated to see those two players go, it’s only good business.
Also making the trip from Philly to LA was Joe Blanton.  The Dodgers claimed Blanton off of waivers on Friday and was sent across the country for either a player to be named later or cash considerations.  Again, this was a move to free up money.
Cliff Lee was also claimed off of waivers by the Dodgers on Friday, but a deal doesn’t seem likely according to reports.  That would sure be a lot of money for LA to take on.  Plus, the Phils have the luxury of getting the exact deal they want or taking Lee back off waivers. 
But enough about the guys who left town.  Let’s take a look at the guys who are joining the organization.
C Tommy Joseph (acquired in the Pence deal): Joseph is a 6-1, 215 pound catcher who just turned 21-years-old.  He was named the Giants’ No. 5 prospect by MLB.com heading into this year and possesses some serious pop.  Last year at the AA level Joseph connected for 22 homers and drove in 95 runs in 127 games.  He had a respectable .270 average with a nice .471 slugging percentage.  I would think that he figures to be Carlos Ruiz’s replacement whenever the time comes.
P Seth Rosin (acquired in the Pence deal): Rosin is a studly 6-6, 250 at 23-years-old.  Before the trade he had struck out 68 batters in 56.1 innings, albeit it was at the A level.  He had only walked 18 batters in that time and possessed a .228 batting average against.  He was used as a starter (5 GS) and a reliever (34G, 10 SVs) and should only get better with age.
OF Nate Schierholtz (acquired in Pence deal): Schierholtz has been a platoon outfielder for the majority of his career, but will probably see plenty of time in the Phillies’ outfield now.  Schierholtz is a .270 lifetime hitter and had 45 hits in 175 at-bats with the Giants before being traded.  His best year was last year, when he hit .278 with nine homers and 41 RBIs in 115 games.  Not spectacular, but what do you expect to get in return when you are trying to free up money.
P Ethan Martin (acquired in Victorino deal): Martin was the Dodgers’ No. 8 prospect prior to the year and had some pretty impressive numbers before the trade.  Martin boasted an 8-6 record at the AA level with a 3.58 ERA.  His walk to strikeout ratio isn’t great (112:61), but he has only served up five homers in 118 innings.  He has a .214 batting average against, including a .171 average against righties.
RP Josh Lindbolm (acquired in Victorino deal): Lindbolm has been quite respectable in his two years in the majors.  This year he was 2-2 with a 3.02 ERA before being dealt.  He’s given up 42 hits in 47.2 innings, but has 43 strikeouts to go along with those numbers.  Either way, we all know the Phils could use some bullpen help and Lindbolm’s numbers are just as good – if not better – than anyone in the pen right now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is Shane Victorino On The Way Out The Door?

Will Shane Victorino be the first main piece of the Philadelphia Phillies to be traded?
It’s looking more and more like that is going to be the case.
Early on Monday, FOXsports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi reported that one high-ranking executive expected Victorino to be the first ‘big name’ to be traded before the July 31st deadline.
Yes, this executive thinks that the 31-year-old center fielder will be dealt pretty soon, before the likes of Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Zack Greinke, Justin Upton, Carlos Quentin, Josh Willingham or Francisco Liriano.  Considering the recent reports about the Cubs wanting to trade Dempster this very week, a deal involving Victorino would have to be right on the horizon for the executive’s theory to be true.
Regardless of when it happens, most Philly pundits fully expect Victorino to be traded sometime within the next two weeks.  It’s not rocket science when one thinks about it.  Victorino, who is making $9.5M in the last year of his three-year deal, is seeking a new five-year contract north of $12M per year.  Considering the Phillies’ current financial situation, and the fact that the team is trying to sign someone much more important to its future success in Cole Hamels, there just isn’t enough money left in Citizen's Bank to ink the Flyin’ Hawaiian.
Teams that have been linked to the trade talks include the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the San Francisco Giants, the Texas Rangers and the Miami Marlins.  Oddly enough, all but one is a National League team.  Who it will be is anyone’s guess, but the Phils’ six-game home stand beginning on Friday could be Victorino’s last in South Philadelphia.
Later the same day, Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com reported that the Dodgers have shown some interest in Jimmy Rollins.  He wrote that Rollins is part of a long list of players the Dodgers are looking at and may be the most intriguing.  However, it will all come down to Rollins.  As a 10-5 player (ten years in the bigs, five with the same team), he has the luxury of a full no-trade clause and can choose whether or not to accept any deal.
Meanwhile, other reports have surfaced about the Phillies putting together a substantial offer for Hamels.  It is said that the Phils have no problem giving Hamels a contract much like they did to Cliff Lee (five-years, $120M).  Others believe the Phillies will have to do at least as good as Johan Santana’s six-year, $137.5M deal in order to keep him away from free agency.
Needless to say, the next two weeks figure to be pretty interesting for the Phillies, their management and their fan base.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Good Riddance 'Big Baby' Howard

            “He is LeBron James Jr., but worse.”
            Up until about two weeks ago, that was the phrase I used to describe the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard.
            Since then things have only gotten worse for the Magic and their fan base.  So much so that I think Howard might be making a run at the award currently owned by John Edward.  For those who have no idea what I am talking about, click and enjoy.
            I have been an Orlando Magic fan since the early-to-mid 1990s.  Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway was my favorite player growing up.  Some of it had to do with Lil’ Penny and their Nike commercials.  Part of it was his point-forward game that allowed him to shoot and slash at will.  Of course, the Magic having a young and dominate Shaq Daddy didn’t hurt either.
When Shaq left Orlando for Los Angeles I felt betrayed.  How did it happen?  Whose fault was it that the situation had come to this?  I was too young to know what had happened.  Plus SportsCenter didn’t run literally 24 hours at the time.
A few months ago I was in denial about Howard wanting to be traded.  It was happening again.  The best center in the league was once again leaving my team.  I wanted the Magic to do anything and everything in order to make him stay.  I even went as far as messaging him on twitter and telling him that he needed to stay in the Magic Kingdom.
From that time until now, my world has completely reversed.  I have since sent him another twitter message.  However, this one said to do whatever it took to ensure that he would never come back to Orlando.  Who knows if he got it, but isn’t that what twitter is for?
Look what has happened in the time since Howard’s first (denied) trade request.  All he did was complain publicly about the team’s make-up, attempt to and succeed in getting the franchise’s winningest coach fired, not join in-game huddles on national television, nearly get into a fight with his ‘best friend,’ and allegedly accuse management of blackmailing him into singing a contract extension.
With that, I say that I am sorry LeBron.  I am sorry for lumping you into the same group as this baby.  While I did lose some respect for you with the way you went about leaving Cleveland, and the fact that winning just one title in that city would have made you a God forever, at least you didn’t do everything in your power to throw a potentially title-contending team into the rebuilding process.  You may have inadvertently thrown the Cavs into a rebuilding stage, and cop out of proving you can win a title by yourself (cough, Howard, cough), but at least you left without tarnishing your image as a grown man.
LeBron didn’t say anything during his last year in Cleveland.  He said he would talk about his free agency after the season and went about his business.  He didn’t throw his coach and general manager under the bus.  He didn’t demand a trade.  He didn’t flip-flop about his future and cry to the point where his teammates wanted to fight him.
Howard, on the other hand, said he wanted out of Orlando during the middle of the season.  Then he denied it publicly and said that he wanted to stay.  Then he said behind closed doors – which eventually became public – that he still wanted out.
Then, during the stretch run of the regular season, he has the most awkward press conference in sports history.  I respect Stan Van Gundy for coming out and saying that he knew Howard wanted him fired.  He was tired of the BS.  Then Howard walks over, not knowing what the heck is going on, and puts on a performance that has him nominated for this year’s award.
As if it things weren’t already going downhill, after that it was like riding a slip-n-slide down Mount Everest.  Coincidentally, Howard’s back started hurting a few weeks later and was out for the season.  They say he had surgery, but who knows.  I don’t believe anything he says anymore.
Then a report surfaced a few days ago that he and Jameer Nelson had to be separated in practice toward the end of the year.  If Nelson, the one who used to do everything with Howard, wants to punch his lights out – then you know things had to have gotten pretty bad.
As a sports enthusiast and Magic fan, I am personally sick of hearing about Howard.  The player who I once viewed as one of my favorites has become the player I despise the most.  Not for wanting to leave, but for going about it the way he did and being a bleep-ing bleep.  I hope he gets traded to the Wizards or the Bobcats.
That way he can really see what it is like to have ‘no one around him.’

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Phillies Mid-Season Report

            As of Monday, the Philadelphia Phillies had played exactly half of their 2012 baseball schedule.
            Their record at the time: 36-45.  Eleven games back of the first-place Washington Nationals in the National League East.  Eight games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card.
            Never thought I would use the words “back of,” “Nationals” and “Pirates” when describing the Phillies, but I guess there is a first time for everything.
            Things are becoming extremely bleak for the Phils.  And as someone who has tried to remain as optimistic as possible during the team’s injury-plagued and seemingly exciting-less season, I am running out of cards to play.
            I was in the car Monday and had on some sports talk radio about the Phillies.  I only had time to catch two callers, but both recommended making changes to the managerial staff.  Needless to say, I was blown away with how ridiculous it sounded.
            Let me get this straight.  When the Phillies go at least .500 every year under Charlie Manuel, including winning 90-plus games each of the last four seasons, it’s all the players doing?  Manuel had nothing to do with the team’s 2008 World Series title or its franchise-record 102-win season?  However, once the team experiences one sub-par year, which has been marred by injuries and underachieving play by almost everybody on the roster, it is time to cut him loose?  Did those callers forget where the Phils were before Manuel took over?  Did they completely erase the late-90s and early-2000s from their memory banks?
            As someone who has actually sat in the Phillies’ press room, asked Manuel some questions and heard him respond to others, I can say without a shred of doubt that he is still the right man for the job.  While others may think it is time to panic, Manuel isn’t about to jump off the ledge.  He has stayed even-keel through it all.  And it is that personality that had all of his players singing his praises back in 2008.  Manuel should be the Phillies’ manager as long as he wants to be.  After all, I don’t see him stranding runners on third base or coming in out of the pen and blowing whatever lead the team had at the time.
Besides, all the panic is relative.  The fans who are acting as if the sky is falling are a direct result from the team’s success over the last five years.  Now that the Phils have won five straight division titles and have gone to consecutive World Series they have to do it every year.
News flash people: that’s not how things work.  “Stuff” happens.
With all of that said, it is looking more and more as if this will be the year Philadelphia’s reign finally ends.  Or at least takes a one-year hiatus.
The average record of the Wild Card team over the last three years has been 91-71.  In order to get to that record the Phils would have to go 55-26 (68 win percentage) in the second half of the season.  At this point in time, I don’t think that is looking like an achievable task.
Despite the Phillies’ tumultuous first half, they haven’t been a terrible team according to the numbers.  Here are my first-half grades for the team:

Hitting: A –
At first sight of this grade one might think I am crazy.  However, considering how the Phillies started the season and where they are now, they should be given their props.
As of Monday, Philadelphia was third in hits (749), sixth in stolen bases (72) and eighth in batting average (.264).  It also ranked in the top half of the league in runs (347), homers (79), RBIs (331) and slugging (.406).
Take into account that the Phils have done practically all of that without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and one can see why I am willing to give such a high grade.  They have done better than most teams would have had they lost their two biggest bats.  However…

Situational Hitting: C –
This is why the Phillies have been losing games.
I was shocked to learn these stats though.  The Phils are fifth in the league with the bases loaded (.313), eighth in runners in scoring position with two outs (.260) and 13th with runners in scoring position (.250).  Those numbers kept me from giving them an F.
I can remember countless times this season when the Phils left runners stranded on third with less than two outs.  I am not sure exactly which game it was, but I even recall them leaving a runner on third with no outs.  It was embarrassing.  When it happened, I remember thinking that that was the sign that this wasn’t going to be their year.  The Philadelphia teams of the last five years would have found some way to get that run in.  I mean all someone had to do was hit the ball hard and fair.  That memory alone trumps the semi-decent stats.

Starting Pitching: C
No matter how bad the Phillies’ offense could be, the starting staff was always expected to keep the team in the hunt.  That hasn’t been the case for the most part.
Philadelphia’s starters are a combined 27-33 on the year.  Between the first and sixth innings, the Phils rank 14th in ERA (4.02) and 19th in hits allowed (477) – not exactly quality stuff.  Still, they rank first in strikeouts (445) and fourth in WHIP (1.23) over those innings.
Vance Worley (2.92), Cole Hamels (3.08) and Roy Halladay (3.98) are the only starters with an ERA under four.  Cliff Lee and Joe Blanton are both over four, while Kyle Kendrick is over five.  Blanton and Kendrick are both producing as expected, but Halladay and Lee are definitely far worse.  Furthermore, only Hamels (.232) and Worley (.247) have a batting average against under .250.
To top things off, it was recently reported that the Phils are gauging league interest on Hamels.  I understand the whole money situation, but why they would try to deal the staff’s best pitcher with the most years ahead of him instead of Lee or Halladay is beyond me.

Relief Pitching: D (with Papelbon); Z – (without Papelbon)
Jonathan Papelbon has been everything the Phillies expected.  He is 18-for-19 in save chances, has a 37:7 K-to-walk ratio, a .223 BBA and has given up just 25 hits in 29.2 innings.
Everyone else has been absolutely terrible.  Even Antonio Bastardo has been off.  While he does have a .218 BBA, he has given up 12 earned runs in 27 innings.
From the seventh inning on, the Phils rank 22nd in WHIP (1.36), 28th in strikeouts (239) and 29th in ERA (4.40) – and that’s with the help of Papelbon’s numbers.  Virtually nobody has been able to come in and hold a lead at any point this season.  Anybody who has watched this team on a regular basis knows that this has been the biggest pit-fall.

Defense: B –
Some might think the defense has been a major problem this year and in some instances it has.  But when one looks at the numbers they will see that it might not be as bad as initially thought.
No Phillies pitcher has had more than five unearned runs scored against him.  Many may feel that Lee has been at the brunt of some bad defensive play, but all 41 of the runs that he has allowed have been earned.  In fact, Blanton and Kendrick (five each) have the most unearned runs scored against them.
The Phils have committed 48 errors (T16th) and possess a .984 fielding percentage (T12th).  Sure they are in the middle of the pack, but when one looks at their stats from last year’s 102-win club (74 errors, .988 FP) they will see that there isn’t much difference.  Last year’s 74 errors ranked 29th last year, while the fielding percentage (currently only .004 better) was first.

            How things go in the second half is anyone’s guess.  One can choose to be optimistic or pessimistic at this point.  Personally I wouldn’t argue with a fellow fan if they went either way.  Regardless, here’s to the Phillies’ second half being better than their first.
            Oh, and not trading Cole Hamels.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tampa Brings With It Sweet Memories, But No Time For That

            The moment will live forever in Philadelphia Phillies lore.
            Phillies fans everywhere can almost assuredly replay and describe the memory at the drop of a red and white hat.
            The Phillies’ Brad Lidge stands in the stretch and delivers an 0-2 pitch to Tampa Bay’s Eric Hinske.  Hinske swings over Lidge’s deadly slider, which had worked beautifully so many times throughout the year, to get strike three and clinch the 2008 World Series.
            Lidge jumps and falls to his knees with his arms extended toward to sky.  Catcher Carlos Ruiz throws his mask aside, sprints out to his pitcher and falls into his lap.  The two embrace as the rest of the team piles on in celebration.
            As a 29-year-old Phillies fan, it was the first and only World Series winning moment that I have gotten to see.  I can remember standing in front of my television literally shaking in anticipation of Lidge’s third strike.  The feeling was much better than the one I had in 1993.  Lord knows that isn’t a memory I like having embedded in my brain as the Phils’ previous shot at greatness.
            This weekend, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia’s paths will cross once again as the Rays come to town for a three-game set.  It will mark the first time Tampa has returned to South Philly since it had to watch the Phils celebrate their world championship.
            Tampa’s roster has changed quite a bit since 2008.  Only six of the 17 players that played in Game 5 are still on the team (B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, David Price, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and J.P. Howell).  Four others that were on the roster remain today (Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, James Shields and Jeff Niemann).
At the time, it was the Rays’ starting rotation that was credited with getting the team to the Fall Classic.  Now, only two of their five starters remain (Price and Shields) as Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir all wear different uniforms.
            Tampa hasn’t had a return to glory since.  After going to the World Series, the Rays finished third in the AL East the next year and missed the playoffs altogether.  They then finished first and second respectively in 2010 and 2011, but fell in the ALDS both times.
            The story has been eerily the same for the Phillies.  While they did get back to the World Series in 2009, they have lost in the NLCS and the NLDS each of the last two seasons.  That is certainly something not to be expected of a 90-win team.
            Philadelphia has had a lot of turnover on its roster as well.  In fact, it has fewer players from the 2008 season still on its team than Tampa does.  Only Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick and Ruiz walk around the Phillies’ clubhouse with 2008 championship rings in their possession.  Though the team has still been one of the best in baseball over the last three years, not many can say they were a part of the title run roughly 1,200 days ago.
            I am sure there will be a lot of reminiscing going on this weekend by most of the Phillies’ fans and commentators, but the Phillies themselves can’t afford to get caught up in all of the memories.  Coming into Friday, the Phils are a full nine games back of the NL East leading Washington Nationals and five-and-a-half games behind the Giants and the Mets in the wild card.
            Sure, there is a lot of time left in the season and when healthy the Phils’ roster is good enough to make a run.  However, no one knows for sure if or when they will ever be fully healthy.  Considering the way things have gone so far, Philadelphia should not be taking anything for granted.  The Phils should start playing with a sense of urgency as soon as possible, because before they know it – there won’t be much time left.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Phillies' Chase Utley To Begin Rehab Assignment

            The time is finally here.
            After playing in two extended spring training games last week, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley will begin his rehab assignment Tuesday in High-A Clearwater.  So far Utley has missed the team’s first 62 games.  With some hope, and a pair of pain-free knees, he may be able to make it back for the last 80.
            Utley is expected to start out as the designated hitter before testing his chronic knees in the field.  He can play as many as 20 games while on assignment and it looks as if the Phils are going to try and get him as many at-bats as possible.
            When asked last week about his feelings on the positive reports of Utley’s progression, manager Charlie Manuel was quick to point out that he hadn’t even really played yet.
            “I think (the return of Ryan Howard and Utley) is going to help us,” said Manuel.  “But I also feel like we have to have all of those guys back (including Roy Halladay, Michael Stutes and Laynce Nix).
            “Those guys got in the game, but they didn’t play.  They just hit.  There is a big difference in that.”
            Hitting hasn’t been the problem for Utley.  He recorded five hits, including two homeruns, in his two extended games.  The trouble has come in the field with the acts of squatting and making quick, lateral movements.  There have been talks about Utley playing at first base upon his return to hopefully lessen the load on his knees, but the injury status of Freddy Galvis will probably play a big role in that.
If everything goes right for Utley and he experiences no setbacks, he could be activated as late as July 2.  Regardless, it is nice to know that something is at least going in the right direction for the Phillies.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dodgers Get Revenge On Phils At Worst Time

            The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies have made a lot of history together over the last few years, with the Phils being the sole beneficiary of the past.
            Four years ago, Philadelphia defeated Los Angeles four-games-to-one in the National League Championship Series and went on to the World Series.  The Phils eventually won the Fall Classic for the first time since 1980.
            A year later the Phils would deal the Dodgers a case of déjà vu, as they again knocked off the west-coasters four-games-to-one en route to their second straight World Series appearance.
            Since then the Phillies have had the Dodgers’ number.  Coming into this week’s four-game series, the Phils had won nine of the last 12 contests between the two teams over the last two years.
            However, just when a struggling, injury-plagued Philadelphia team needed some wins the most, Los Angeles came to town and decided that now was the best time to reverse the trend.
            The Dodgers finished up their four-game sweep of the Phillies on Thursday and in turn extended the Phils’ season-worst losing streak to six games.  Four of those losses have come by one run, including the first three games of the series.  The Phils ended up 1-6 on their seven-game homestand – a homestand manager Charlie Manuel hoped would have turned out a lot better.
            “I think the fact that we have had trouble playing at home, I felt like it didn’t matter who was coming into town,” said Manuel following Wednesday’s loss.  “We had to have a good homestand.  Right now, we aren’t getting it done.  It has gotten bad right now, but we have to come right back out and play (Thursday).
“Everything about our team is whacked up right now.  Our offense, our pitching.  Sometimes we don’t play very good defense.  We actually aren’t playing good enough to win right now.  That’s basically what it is.”
Adding to a laundry-list of problems, Philadelphia has not shown the ability to rally late in games.  Whereas in years past the Phils always believed they could come back from any deficit thanks to their potent lineup, Thursday’s loss drops them to 0-23 when trailing after seven innings and 0-25 when trailing after eight.
To make matters worse, second baseman Freddy Galvis was placed on the 15-day disabled list after straining his lower back on a swing in Wednesday’s game.  He will join eight other Phillies who are currently on the DL.
            “It’s just another one of our guys going down,” said Manuel.  “I mean, what more can I say?  Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.  They definitely aren’t going to postpone the games or quit playing.  We have to come out and play.  That’s how I look at it.  When you get knocked down what do you do?  You get up.  That’s what we have to do.”
            It is hard to expect a team to compete for a division title, let alone a playoff berth, when it has had players such as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Vance Worley, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard out for an extended period of time.  All-in-all, 13 different players are on or have been on the DL at some point this season.
It is starting to get to a point where anything that can go wrong, will go wrong with the Phillies.  Manuel addressed that theory Wednesday night.
“I can say this, don’t expect us to be in first place right now,” Manuel said.  “That’s kind of how I look at it.  I mean we are definitely trying our best.  I can’t get upset at that because I know our guys are giving us everything they have.  We’re just not getting it done.
            “I feel like everything that is going wrong, sooner or later it is going to be like the stock market and bottom out somewhere.  Then we will start working from there.  Hopefully that was (Wednesday).”
            Things have kind of flip-flopped for Philadelphia over the last month and a half.  While the Phillies’ offense has looked much better and the team has raised its batting average from .239 on April 21st (22nd in MLB) to .266 through June 6th (T-4th), the pitching staff’s ERA has risen from 2.41 (2nd) to 3.82 (12th) over the same time period.  Having to rely on sub-par starters like Kyle Kendrick (4.44 ERA, .289 BBA) and Joe Blanton (5.27 ERA, .293 BBA), along with a handful of shaky middle-relief pitchers, will do that.
            The rollercoaster that is the Philadelphia Phillies’ 2012 season continues in Baltimore on Friday.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Red Sox vs. Phillies - A Year Of Perceptive Change

            This past Sunday, the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies wrapped up their three-game inter-league set in the City of Brotherly Love. 
            The setting was a little out of the ordinary to say the least.  Not because it was an inter-league series, which will become far less out of the ordinary next season when inter-league games take place every day.  But whereas last year the Red Sox (46-34, 2nd place) and the Phillies (51-31, 1st place) were both multiple games over .500 and atop their respective divisions at the end of the series, this year both teams are at or below .500 and in the basements of the AL and NL East.
            It's funny how much can change in a year.  Coming out of spring training last March, both the Sox and the Phils were the runaway favorites to represent each league in the 2011 World Series.  This year, after falling way short of their expectations last September/October, both teams are struggling just to find an identity.
            September’s events in Boston were well documented to say the least.  On September 3, 2011 the Sox were 84-54, held a nine-game lead in the wild card standings, and had a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs.  Twenty-seven games and a 7-20 record later, Boston found itself out of the playoffs and the owners of one of – if not the – worst collapses in baseball history.
            The collapse cost manager Terry Francona his job and had him publicly slandered in the media for his usage of pain medication on the way out.  General Manager Theo Epstein bounced.  Closer Jonathan Papelbon left.  Outfielder Carl Crawford was and still is hurt.  And nothing has seemed to go right since.
            Philadelphia’s story was the complete opposite.  The Phils ran away with the division, as they posted the most wins in baseball (102) and set a new club record in the process.  They also boasted one of the best starting rotations in history with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.  Despite all of that, they were beaten in five games in the NLDS by the red hot St. Louis Cardinals – who eventually went on to win the World Series – and were left with nothing to show for their historic season.
            Now, just 13 months after being anointed the future AL and NL champs, Boston and Philadelphia are fighting to stay afloat.
            “Sure, it can be very close,” said Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel on peoples’ perceptions and the line between winning and losing.  “There is definitely a fine line.  That’s why you play the games.
“It gets down to who plays the best and how much you want it.  I think Boston is going to be okay and I think we are too.”
With the win, Boston moves to 20-21 and has won eight of its last ten.  However, the Sox are still 6.5 games back of first-place Baltimore.  The two teams begin a big three series on Monday.
Meanwhile, the loss drops Philadelphia to 21-21 and five games back of Atlanta.  Interestingly enough every team in the NL East has a winning record.  Still, five games is far from insurmountable considering it is only the end of May.
A good sign for the Phillies is that their offense has seemed to wake up as of late.  They are 7-3 in their last ten games and have scored at least four runs in six of those contests.  Philly will host second-place Washington for three games starting on Monday.
“I think our offense is getting better,” said Manuel.  “I think we are hitting some balls good.  We only scored one run (Sunday) of course, but I think that in the last two weeks our offense is definitely getting better.”
The next month will prove to be a key stretch for the Phils.  They will play ten teams over the next 30 days, eight of which currently have a .500 record or better (Washington, St. Louis, New York Mets, Miami, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay).  Manuel acknowledged that it is going to be a make-or-break month for his team, but that he thinks they are ready for it.
“I think it is going to be a test for us,” admitted Manuel.  “I think we can handle it.  We have to play good and I think we can.  Of course we have to be more consistent.  That’s what we talk about every day.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Hamels Debate: Why He Should Re-Sign With Philadelphia

            A lot has been made of Cole Hamels and his current contract situation with the Philadelphia Phillies.
            Hamels’ current deal will end following the 2012 baseball season and will ultimately set him free onto the open market.  Since training camp, and even hopefully now as the season progresses, working out a contract with the left-hander has been the Phillies’ No. 1 goal.
            While the contract talks have seemed to subside with the grind of the early season, the thought that Hamels could potentially leave Philadelphia is still in the front of everyone’s minds.  Yes, the only ‘ace’ to bring the city its first baseball championship since 1980 four years ago, could be wearing another uniform come next spring.
            Just the thought alone makes every Phillies fan cringe.  However, trying to be as optimistic as I can, here are some reasons why I feel Hamels should stay in the red, white and blue.  Let’s all hope he reads this.
            First off, we have to realize that there is no loyalty in sports anymore.  So while I would like to think that because the Phils drafted him, groomed him, and had him become a NLCS and World Series MVP under their watch would have an impact on his decision – I’m not going to count on it.  You can’t really blame him either.  Nowadays a team will cut or trade a player the instant he stops producing at his expected level regardless of what he has done in the past.  It’s only right for the player to look out for himself.
            As always, the main sticking point seems to be the money.  As of the end of March there were reports floating around that Hamels was seeking a six-year, $137M deal.  The Phils were only looking to go four years since Hamels would be 34 by the end of his proposed deal.  Still, I don’t think that should matter.
            For the past few years the Phillies have been adamant about not going over into the luxury tax.  Nevertheless, they still went out and signed Cliff Lee before last year when all the while they were saying it wouldn’t be economically possible.  I assume they signed Lee with the intent of winning now.  Well if they are so intent on winning now, and only have a window of two-to-four years with this current group, then why not sacrifice some tax dollars to keep one of the best pitchers in the league.  I am sure they will make their money back with the way Citizen’s Bank has been filling up.
            If the Phils do sign Hamels to his $25M-a-year contract then they will almost assuredly have to say goodbye to Shane Victorino.  Victorino ($9.5M) is also a free agent at the end of this year, along with Joe Blanton ($8.5M) and Jim Thome ($1.5M).  Hunter Pence, who is currently making $10.4M, will be eligible for arbitration.  There are a bunch of other players on the team that are making under $1M who will be arbitration eligible, but the only one likely to see a substantial raise is Vance Worley.  But if the aforementioned three walk and free up $19.25M, and perhaps Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard restructure their $20M contracts for the good of the team, the money will be there to get a deal done.  It’s a lot to ask, but it is possible.
            Now I am sure the newly-owned Los Angeles Dodgers can and will offer more money than the Phillies.  It doesn’t help that the San Francisco Giants just gave Matt Cain $112M for five years.  And to make matters worse, there were reports in mid-April that suggested Hamels’ next contract could fetch between $150-175M on the open market.  The Phils definitely can’t do that, but they could give him close to what he wants ($25M-year) for the next three years.  Which leads me to my next point…
            The reverse of only being concerned about the money is wanting to win now.  If Hamels truly wants to win now, and assuming the Phillies are healthy for the next few years, there is no other place outside of Arlington, Texas that offers him a better chance of winning another World Series title.
            While Texas’ lineup may be the best in baseball, the Rangers don’t possess the starting staff or the closer that the Phillies do.  And everyone knows pitching usually wins in the playoffs.  If Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Howard and Pence can stay healthy for the majority of the time in the next three years, the Phils’ lineup will still be able to compete with the best in baseball.  Throw in Halladay, Lee, Worley and closer Jonathan Papelbon and the team’s staff is one of the best.  This group of players is enough to have the Phillies contending for the next three years.  Not many teams can say that.
            That’s why if I were Hamels’ agent, I would suggest signing a three-year deal with Philadelphia.  Not only will he get to contend for a World Series title every single year (something the LA Dodgers can’t say for sure as of right now), but he will still be young enough at the end of the run to get another big deal.  Hamels will be 31 in three years, and if he wanted to, he could then leave for LA and link up with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw while they are still in their prime.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility for a 31-year-old left-hander to still get a $100M deal.  Just look at Cliff Lee.
            Will any of these things play a factor or be on Hamels’ mind once the 2012 season ends?  Who knows.  But they are at least a few ideas he should consider before signing on the dotted line with any team for that matter.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Heartache for Hope

Over the last couple of years, concussions have been pushed to the front of the sports world.  Concussion awareness has risen dramatically mainly due to the rapid growth of head injuries in football and hockey.  Whereas years ago players would be able to talk themselves back into the game just minutes after taking a serious blow, now a plethora of tests must be done by a team’s training staff before the player can even think about going back out and competing.
Nowadays many studies are being done on both the short-term and long-term effects of head injuries.  Even high schools have started a new IMPACT test to gauge the ‘baseline’ of an athlete’s mental capacity.  Unfortunately, computer tests can only show a doctor so much.  It is only when they actually get to examine the physical brain that doctors can see the real damage taking place.
Sadly, the medical world will have yet another brain to study after Wednesday’s events.
Ex-NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who is mostly known for his time in San Diego along with his short stints in Miami and New England, shot himself in the chest at his San Diego home two days ago.  He was 43-years-young.
Seau is the second former NFL player to commit suicide in the last two weeks.  Ray Easterling, a safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s and a plaintiff in a largely-known lawsuit against the NFL for its mishandling of concussions, also shot himself back on April 19.  While it is impossible to immediately know if concussions and head trauma contributed to Seau’s death, it isn’t that hard to draw a connection.
The thing that leads me to believe that concussions definitely played a major role in Seau’s death is the fact that he knowingly shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain.  Chris Duerson, who also played safety in the 80s and 90s, was found dead last year from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  Prior to killing himself he had sent a text message to his family saying that he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine.  The University just happened to be studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological degenerative disease, caused by playing professional football.  Less than two months later it was confirmed that he had suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.  Although Seau did not leave a note or send any other texts besides “I love you” to his ex-wife and three children before committing the act, it is too eerily similar to Duerson’s actions to believe it was merely a coincidence.
It’s a shame to think that someone was in that bad of mental shape, whether he was suffering from dementia or deep depression, and still had the wherewithal to know to preserve his brain in hopes of helping the future.  Seau had decided that he didn’t want to deal with his issues any more.  Regardless of one’s view on suicide, either religiously or politically, they can’t say he did it selfishly.  He may have hurt his family members in the process, but obviously he was hurting just as much.  At least he knowingly left the part of him that could perhaps save future athletes from a similar fate.
This latest incident will only add to the ongoing media attention being given to head injuries.  The NFL currently has a large number of lawsuits being brought against it for its previous lack of concussion safety and prevention.
The NFL now finds itself between a rock and a hard place.  I would bet in the coming years that it will almost certainly be forced to change its rules even further.  Sooner or later I would expect that any player who is forced from a game with any kind of head injury will absolutely not be allowed back that day.  And if a concussion is suspected, he will be ruled out for at least a month.
Furthermore, the NFL will probably have to make even stricter rule changes.  This is where the problem comes in.  Regardless of any precaution that can be taken, football is a violent sport.  So does the NFL not change its rules and perhaps take on the perception of not taking action on the subject, or does it make more hits illegal and remove kickoffs at the expense of being called ‘soft’ by its players and fans?
I find it kind of funny that while almost every football player says they willingly played through concussions and would still do the same if they had to do it over again, they are awfully quick to sue the league once their playing days are over.  Tell me how that works.  If you knew the consequences at the time, don’t act like you didn’t know them afterward.  Instead of suing the league, how about letting them put that money toward more medical research.
Times are changing when it comes to head injuries in the world of sports, especially football.  Hopefully all of the heartache now will lead to a better understanding in the future.
RIP Junior Seau.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Phillies Battle Back To .500

            It has been an April full of questions and criticism for the Philadelphia Phillies.
            Without their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters in Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the Phils have had a tough go over the first 24 games of the 2012 baseball season. There have already been times when the offense looked so abysmal that writers and fans were ready to throw away any championship aspirations.
            Yet, after Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves, the Phillies find themselves just 2.5 games back of the first-place Washington Nationals in the NL East.
            Through all of Philadelphia’s so-called problems and deficiencies, the team has won five of its last seven games and now sits at 12-12 on May 1. The good vibes should be increased by the fact that the Phils have scored at least five runs in four of those wins.
            As one would expect, the Phillies’ recent run has improved their offensive numbers.  In just nine days the Phils have doubled their homerun total (seven to 14) and have nearly doubled their RBI total (40 to 75). In that time they have also risen in the rankings in batting average (22nd to 15th), runs scored (29th to 25th), hits (19th to 12th), on-base percentage (27th to 25th) and slugging percentage (29th to 25th). Although some of the improvements have been minimal, at least they aren’t going in the other direction.
            One main reason for Philadelphia hanging tough is closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon locked down his ninth save Tuesday night and has yet to blow a lead this season. He boasts an outstanding 0.82 ERA and WHIP and has a batting-average against south of .170. The only earned run he has allowed all year was a solo homerun to Miami’s Austin Kearns. That came in his second appearance of the year on April 9 and was in a non-save situation. On top of that, the right-hander has not allowed a hit in his last six appearances.
            Still, the Phillies’ playoff hopes will rely on their offense producing at a much more consistent clip. Things are starting to look up even without a timetable for Utley or Howard’s return. Jimmy Rollins currently has a four-game hitting streak in which he has raised his average from .216 to .247. Placido Polanco has risen his average over 70 points in the last two weeks. Catcher Carlos Ruiz (.309), left fielder Juan Pierre (.313) and utility man Ty Wiggington (.317) are all hitting over .300. That’s nice considering Pierre and Wiggington weren’t considered to be every-day starters entering the year. Lastly, Laynce Nix has even made the most of his recent opportunities and is hitting a respectable .281.
            The only Phillie that has gone in the opposite direction as of late has been Shane Victorino. Victorino has been in quite a slump, as he is just seven for his last 45. His average has fallen from .315 to .229 since April 20.
            Now is not the time for Phillies fans to put their heads down. Despite all of Philadelphia’s supposed ‘problems,’ it currently sits just a few games out of first place in the division. Sure it may be the Phils’ roughest start since 2009, but keep in mind they still went to the World Series that year.
If Utley and Howard can return sometime in early-to-mid June with the team still within striking distance, and even though that is a big ‘if,’ they will be in great shape for the stretch run. All the Phillies have to do is keep themselves afloat until that time.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Phillies' Offensive Woes Continue

            The Philadelphia Phillies’ offensive woes continued Sunday with their 6-1 loss to the San Diego Padres.  It was the first time this season the lowly Padres have won back-to-back games.
            Much was made about the Phillies’ powerless lineup entering this season.  However, it is hard to believe that anyone thought it would be this abysmal.
            Pitching certainly hasn’t been the problem for Philadelphia.  Entering Sunday’s contest, the Phils were ranked in the top-five in all of baseball in team ERA (No. 2 at 2.41), walks allowed (No. 5 at 36) and WHIP (No. 5 at 1.11).  Then again, with the starting staff that Philly possesses, those kinds of numbers were expected.
            It is the offense that has failed to show up through the first two weeks of the season.  Sunday marked the tenth time in 16 games that the Phils scored two or less runs.  It wasn’t until May 15 of last year that the Phils failed to score more than two runs for the tenth time.  They went on to do that in 50 of 167 games in 2011.  Although it may be a stretch to actually happen (or is it?) and Philadelphia fans sure hope it doesn’t happen, the Phils are on pace to score two or less runs in 100 games this year.  The return of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will definitely help matters, but neither had a timetable for their return.  Their supposed eventual return, or a trade, may turn out to be the only way to find some offensive production.
            Philadelphia’s offensive futility isn’t fun to write about, but the numbers have to be documented.
            Philadelphia is one of five National League teams with its leading hitter batting less than .300.  Through Saturday, Shane Victorino led the team with a .293 average.  The other four teams include Cincinnati (7-9), Milwaukee (7-9), Arizona (7-8) and San Diego (4-12).  It isn’t surprising that each of those teams is under .500.
            The Phillies’ RBI leader, Hunter Pence, has a mere seven on the year.  Only Pittsburgh possesses a team RBI leader with less than Pence.
            Things only get worse when looking at the team stats.  The Phillies rank in the bottom half of all of Major League Baseball in seven major offensive categories.  These numbers are through Saturday.
  • .239 average – 22nd
  • 42 runs scored – 29th
  • 121 hits – 19th
  • 7 homeruns – T27th
  • 40 RBIs – 29th
  • .279 OBP – 27th
  • .320 SLUG – 29th

Despite the terrible numbers and being in last place in the NL East at 7-9, there is still more than enough time for the Phillies to right the ship.  The Washington Nationals lead the division with a 12-4 mark, but have only played one team with a winning record (New York Mets) and will be hard pressed to keep up their winning play all season long.  Also, the Atlanta Braves (10-6), Mets (8-6) and Miami Marlins (7-8) have failed to take any real advantage of the Phillies’ downtime.
Still, a game lost is a game that can not be made up in the standings and the Phils’ offense hasn’t shown any signs of waking up.  While it is early, Philly shouldn’t be wasting any time in trying to find a solution to its offensive problems.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sean Bianco’s arrival cemented with Wrestler of the Year Award

            Ever since he joined the Pleasant Valley wrestling team as a freshman in 2009, big things have been expected of Sean Bianco.
            The then 103-pounder was destined for greatness and didn’t disappoint in his first varsity season, as he racked up 20 wins and was a regional qualifier.
The following year he bumped up to the 112-pound weight class and grinded out 25 wins on his way to placing sixth at districts for the second consecutive year.
            Bianco then took the next step in his evolution this past season.  And it was a mighty big one.
            The 113-pound junior finished 2011-12 with a remarkable 41-4 record and defeated all challengers in his quest for District 11 and Northeast Regional gold.  His great season, along with his dramatic improvement from the previous two years, has earned him the TIMES NEWS Wrestler of the Year award.
            “It is a big accomplishment for me,” said Bianco, who finished the regular season with a 34-2 mark.  “It was one of my top goals coming into this season.  It feels great to be recognized as the best wrestler in the area.”
            While Bianco managed to win gold at both districts and regionals, his path to the top wasn’t as smooth as one might think.  Heading into Pleasant Valley’s dual match with Northampton late in the season, Bianco sat at 29-1 with his only loss coming at the Reno Tournament of Champions to this year’s California state champion Isaiah Locsin (10-7 decision).  Bianco dropped an 8-5 decision to the Konkrete Kids’ Zach Valley (who eventually finished fifth at states) that day and came to a crossroad.
            “I think the pressure had built up and somewhat got to him that match,” recalled Pleasant Valley head coach Mark Getz.
“Sean wasn’t used to being undefeated in the state of Pennsylvania and I think it took a toll on him.  I pulled him aside afterward and told him to relax and take some time off.  He got away for a few days, came back and wrestled very well the rest of the way.”
            Bianco remembered the conversation as well.
            “As I was winning, I could feel the pressure building up,” Bianco admitted.  “Coach talked to me afterward and I realized that I wasn’t the best.  I think that loss got me refocused and I ended up going all the way to states without losing.
            “I guess it’s possible to go undefeated, but it may not be the best thing for you.  You can get too cocky and I think that happened to me in the match with Valley.  That loss put me back in my place.  I never like to lose, but it turned out to be the best thing for me.”
            Following that match, Bianco would not lose again until the second round of the PIAA state tournament.  Bianco exacted revenge on Valley in the district semi-final and won by a 5-3 decision.  He would go on to defeat Stroudsburg’s Guesseppe Rea 9-5 in the final to win district gold.
            Bianco rode the momentum he had built up all the way through regionals.  He won his first two matches by a combined score of 23-4 before dispatching of Rea once again.  This time Bianco pinned Rea in 2:42.
            “The rematch with Valley was big,” Bianco said.  “It was the semi-final and I used our previous match as motivation.  It felt great to get some redemption.
            “The two matches with Rea were great as well.  We were both nervous in the district final, but I was determined to win.  That win gave me a lot of confidence heading into the regional final because I knew I had just beaten him.  Confidence can go a long way.”
            Unfortunately, the state tournament didn’t go quite as well as Bianco planned.  Bianco received a tough draw and fell to two wrestlers who went on to finish third and fourth.  Still, both were close matches that ended in a decision.
            “Sean had a terrific season,” said Getz.  “He was one of the toughest kids on the team and is very physical on the mat.”
            While his performance at states wasn’t his best, it will certainly provide Bianco with motivation as he heads into his senior season looking to take the final step in his high school career.
            “Two of my goals will be to defend my district and regional titles,” said Bianco.  “There are only a few two-time district and regional champs in PV history and I would like to add my name to that list.
            “I accomplished a lot this year, but next year I want to be standing on top of that podium out at Hershey.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

Phils Quiet Critics with Wins Over Marlins … For Now.

     It may have only been the second series of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, but the Phillies’ three-game set with the Miami Marlins already had the feeling of importance.
     After dropping two of three games to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the season-opening series, and only scoring six runs in the process, a majority of the Phillies’ followers started to act as if the sky was falling.
     Then came Monday’s game with the Fish. Despite striking out nine batters, Cole Hamels was knocked around for four runs (three earned) on eight hits in 5.1 innings of work and seemed to only make matters worse. It may have sounded ridiculous to most level-headed fans who realize that the baseball season is a marathon and a not a sprint, but in a way the Phils’ fifth and sixth games almost became must-wins to some.
     Fortunately the Phils helped everyone step back from the ledge by beating the Marlins on consecutive nights to win their first series of the year. Besides calming the hysteria for at least a few more days, the Phils also stopped themselves from losing their first two series of a season since 2007.
The Fightins didn’t do it against slouch competition either. They were able to beat the Marlins’ top two pitchers in Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
     Wednesday night, the Phils touched up Johnson for a career-high 11 hits over 3.2 innings. Philly scored seven runs in the game, six off Johnson, and more than doubled its offensive output through the first four games.
     Thursday night wasn’t as easy, but the Phils managed to get the job done thanks to a couple of long balls. After going hitless through the first three innings, Shane Victorino got the Phils on the board when he went deep with a solo shot. John Mayberry Jr. later singled in Hunter Pence to make it 2-0. Ty Wiggington then added another solo homer in the seventh to give the Phils a lead they would never relinquish. In the end, Philly racked up at least eight hits for the second consecutive night.
     Although he was pleased with his team’s offensive awakening over the last two games, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel didn’t see it as a knock on Miami’s two aces. And, considering their track record, rightfully so.
     “Johnson and Buehrle are two different types of pitchers,” said Manuel. “Johnson didn’t pitch at all last year and I think it has shown in his last two starts. I think as the season goes and he gets into the hot weather he will get more velocity on his fastball. That separation (in speed) in his pitches will make him that much better. I thought his command (Wednesday night) was pretty good, but I think when he starts throwing more his pitches will get better.
     “Buehrle gets the ball and throws it and tries to keep you off balance with his off-speed stuff. He keeps good composure. When you get something slow and up, you better hit it.”
     Regardless of the Phillies’ early-season woes and the calendar still reading April, it was a statement series. Miami went out and acquired some big pieces in the off-season with the hope of ending the Phils’ five-year reign as division champs. They signed Buehrle, along with All-Stars Jose Reyes (SS) and Heath Bell (CL), all within four days of each other in December. A month later they traded for bi-polar starter Carlos Zambrano. Sure he is crazy at times, but when his stuff is working he can be tough to beat.
     The Phils didn’t see Bell or Zambrano, but did see their fair share of the other two. With the two wins they were able to defeat the Marlins’ No. 1 and No. 2 starters and held Reyes to a 2-for-12 line with one run scored.
     Along with getting some overdue run production, the entire Phils team flashed some leather and played great defense throughout the series. It is something that they have done throughout the first six games and it has kept them in every game except for one. Manuel feels as long as his team continues to play stellar defense they should be able to win games regardless of their makeshift lineup – which was already different for the fifth time on Thursday.
     “Yeah, I think we are going to win some games,” said Manuel. “If we play the way we can then I think we stand a good chance of winning some games.
     “Our defense is good. Our defense is really good. We can catch the ball and we can throw it and that’s what we have to do. At the same time, that’s part of every good team.”
     While Philly has yet to play a week’s worth of games, its two wins against its divisional up-and-comer were big. Not only did the two victories get the Phils back to .500, but they may have sent a subliminal message to the Marlins that regardless of who they have on their roster – they still have to go out and play the games. At the same time, as Manuel was quick to point out, there is still a long way to go.
     “I am pleased we won the series,” Manuel said. “That’s what we need to do. But at the same time (Miami) has a good ball club. They are like we are right now. We are just starting the season.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What Is Really Up With Chase Utley

On Tuesday, CSNPhilly.com reported that Philadelphia Phillies’ second baseman Chase Utley will be leaving the club and returning to Arizona to work with his physical therapist.
Utley will be rehabbing his degenerative knees with the same therapist that he went to see earlier this spring.  Ruben Amaro Jr., Philadelphia’s General Manager, spoke on the topic.
"He's been progressing pretty well, but he has to build on the progression," Amaro said. "He's going to go back and see Brett Fischer in Arizona and then he's going to meet the club when we go out to the West Coast. I'm not sure quite how long he's going to be there, but it's kind of more intensive one-on-one work."
The West Coast trip Amaro is alluding to will run from April 16-25 when the Phils visit the Giants, Padres and Diamondbacks.
Last year Utley was limited to 103 games, his fewest since taking over full time in 2005, and did not play his first game until May 23.  Though he did miss the first month and a half, only twice after he resumed playing (once was the All-Star weekend) did he sit out more than two days.
Still, Utley’s knee problems have not gone away and seem to be getting worse with time.  Whereas last year the problems were mostly with his right knee, things have changed this year.  Last week ESPN’s Jayson Stark published an article in which Utley seemed ‘a little worried’ about his future.

While Utley expressed optimism about his long-term future, he admitted he was "disappointed, upset and not happy" about the unexpected problems that developed this spring in his left knee.

"My right knee last year was the one that bothered me and my left knee felt pretty good," he said of the injury that landed him on the disabled list for two months last season. "This year, it's the complete opposite."

Stark went on to report…

Utley also disputed that he was suffering from patellar tendonitis, despite the fact that Philadelphia's team doctor, Michael Cicotti, made that diagnosis a year ago.
Cicotti said in a statement last spring that Utley was dealing with patellar
tendonitis, chondromalacia and bone inflammation.

"I don't have patellar tendonitis," Utley said Sunday. "What it's called is chondromalacia, which is a little ruffling of the cartilage underneath the patella. And it's not that bad. It's not bad enough to have microfracture surgery," he continued. "It's not bad enough to end my career. It's an issue that I'm going to have to deal with. There's a lot of wear and tear in this game. I just have to get things around my knee to move better, to take a little pressure off my knees."

Are these reports true?  Is the Phillies' medical staff coaching Utley on what to say to the media and keeping his real problems a secret?  Only a select few know the honest answer to that question.  But, with all these medical words flying around, I decided to find out exactly what is going on with Utley and have it explained in simpler terms.
Fortunately, I have a good friend that graduated with me from the University of Pittsburgh that is well educated in these types of things.
His name is Joseph T. Rauch.  Rauch spent four years at Pitt and graduated with a BS in Athletic Training.  He later attended Widener University and received a Doctorate of Physical Therapy.  He is currently the Director of Rehabilitation and Head Baseball Athletic Trainer at the University of Cincinnati and has worked with the Bearcats for three years.
While Rauch does not have any exact knowledge of Utley’s situation, he was able to shine some light on the diagnosis of chondromalacia.
“Chondromalacia is usually found on the underside of the patella or kneecap,” said Rauch.  “Basically, it is the blistering or wearing away of the articular cartilage on the underside of the patella bone.
“At the end of all long bones, including the femur and patella, there is articular cartilage, similar to gristle on the end of the chicken bone.  This articular cartilage is what creates a healthy joint.  Any injury involving the articular cartilage can be devastating because once articular cartilage is damaged it does not grow back.”
So how does this condition affect Utley?
“A baseball swing or the rapid reaction to a hit ball can cause significant pain and, more specifically, swelling,” Rauch said.  “A human knee can hold up to 200 cc's of fluid, but at just 20 cc's the quadriceps begin to shut down.
“Your grandma has arthritis because the articular cartilage wears away.  The same thing can happen to athletes post-injury.  Basically a 32-year-old baseball player will be walking around on 50-year-old knees.”
Rauch went on to say that patellar tendonitis would only add to the problems.  Furthermore, a player with tendonitis or chondromalacia can presumably continue to play and dodge microscopic surgery as long as they can tolerate the pain.  However, if a player has cartilage issues, it could be a ‘big, big problem.'
As of now, the only treatment for chondromalacia and tendonitis is rest and physical therapy.  Unfortunately for Utley, he may never get the rest he needs until he hangs up the cleats.  For the Phils' sake, hopefully he can tough it out for a few more years.