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.