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, 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.