Friday, September 25, 2009

The Bullpen Follies


This is the time of year when El Hombre can count on a call from Deep Nose, elated Miami Hurricane alumnus and keeper of all things Phillies for the rogues and misfits who comprise our long-time season-ticket consortium for the World Champions. DN is in full accumulation mode, which means he is trying to gather as many ducats as possible for the post-season, the better to feed the hunger of our group and its ancillary members, not to mention his own speculative efforts on Stub Hub. He’s a busy man, that Deep Nose, but his efforts always result in maximum opportunities for us, and that’s a good thing.

While Hurricane QB Jacory Harris, who is so smooth he should travel with backup singers, has Deep Nose’s mind dancing, so too does the specter of a Phillies-Yankees World Series. Not only would it afford the local nine a chance to erase the stain of the four-game sweep at the hands of the Bombers in 1950, but it would also allow Deep Nose to pull in a pretty penny for some of the preferred seats in our allotment. “I hadn’t even thought of that,” DN said when reminded of the possibility. One imagines his eyes taking on cartoonish dollar-sign shapes at the thought of investment-banking pirates shelling out top dollar to see A-Roid choke in the Fall Classic.

Trouble is, while the Yankees could well find themselves making TV executives smile with a run deep into October – and perhaps, for the first time, November – the Phillies may not hold up their end of the bargain. The team’s travails as it careened toward the NL East title, a designation that sounds better than it really is, have fans’ minds and stomachs in an uncomfortable twist. This is a team with so many flaws, it’s a wonder it will end the season with about 95 wins. That is in large part a testimony to its ability to beat up on the rotten teams in the NL East, most notably the fetid Nationals (15-3) and the odious Mets (11-6). Without those teams to slap around, the Phils could well be scuffling for a wild card spot.

But they will enter the post-season as division champs, provided they take care of the minor business of whittling that magic number of four down to nil, a task the Milwaukee Brewers will no doubt be happy to make easier. And if the Phils can charge down the stretch, they might even find their way to the top spot in the league, or at least the number two position, behind the Dodgers. That will guarantee home-field advantage in the opening, best-of-five crapshoot, never a bad thing.

Once there, however, the Phillies face some big-time obstacles that could well prevent a repeat championship performance. Last year, the Phils were an imperfect team with a perfect bullpen. This year, they are an imperfect team with an imperfect bullpen. That’s not a good condition for a title aspirant. Closer Brad Lidge has blown 11 saves and might have to enter the witness protection program if he fails to do the job in the post-season. It would be nice if fireballing Ryan Madson could take care of the job, but he doesn’t seem to have the, ahem, fortitude to handle the responsibility. For a while, Brett Myers and Chan Ho Park were candidates, but injuries have waylaid each of them, and they will be lucky to be eligible for action in the playoffs, much less handle a job as vital as the closer’s. The most recent germination from manager Charlie Manuel’s fertile mind was Tyler Walker, a journeyman reliever who has looked good at times this year but hardly imbues the populous with too much confidence. The top resume item he can muster is 23 saves for a 2005 Giants team that finished 12 games below .500.

While the bullpen staggers through September, trying to get healthy and appear reliable, the Phillies lineup continues to live for the big inning and the patron saint of Earl Weaver: the three-run homer. A sacrifice fly is as rare as a reasonably priced concession item at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies’ inability to manufacture runs is almost pathological. It’s almost as if winning a game 4-2 with a bunch of hits, sacrifices, stolen bases and walks is sacrilegious. Playing long-ball is fine when the Nationals are in town, but when the weather turns colder, and the collars become tighter, it’s not so easy to swing freely.

The saving grace for the Phillies might just be its starting rotation, which could be the deepest in team history. When a team’s wins leader is relegated to the bullpen, something good is happening. But it’s dangerous to think that the same guys who throw into the eighth inning in August and September can do that in October. A hundred pitches don’t go as far in the post-season cauldron as they do on a sultry summer evening. The bullpen will have to perform.

So, Deep Nose will continue his hunting and gathering, and the Phillies will continue to madden fans with their nightly bullpen travails. Let’s hope they can figure things out in time for October baseball, if only to see the smile on DN’s face when he can list lower-level Series tickets against the Yankees for obscene amounts of money. The team owes him that much.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The NC2A is considering taking actions to reduce drastically the burdens on athletes in Division II and might even cut back a little in D-I basketball. Of course, no cutbacks are needed in big-time football, with its 12 (and sometimes 13) game regular season, conference title tilts, bowl games and year-round conditioning. The NC2A really cares about its student-athletes. (Cough, cough.) That’s why it can’t have a playoff…The Pirates drew a robust crowd of 3,000 to Thursday’s game against the Reds, and one of the reasons given for the intimate gathering was the nearby G-20 summit. Yeah, fans couldn’t wait to get a look at Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. It couldn’t have been that a matinee between the rotten Bucs and floundering Reds was as attractive as the idea of the torrid love affair between Papa John Phillips and his daughter Mackenzie, could it? Nahhhh…The announcement that Russian gazillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is buying the New Jersey Nets had to strike a little fear into the team’s players. On other NBA teams, poor play or a rotten attitude will result in a trip to the bench. With Prokhorov in charge, the same behavior may earn an exile to Yakutsk…Can’t understand why the NHL is having so much trouble getting its Phoenix franchise stabilized. Hockey has such a great history and tradition the desert. Boneheads…The city of Industry, which sits about 15 miles east of Los Angeles, has cleared a major hurdle in its bid to build a stadium that could lure an NFL back to the nation’s second-largest market. Imagine the excitement as fans cite 62 leisure alternatives to watching the L.A. Jaguars play in person. By the year 2025, the franchise will be looking to move, just as the Rams and Raiders did before it.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Michael Vick makes his triumphant return to the NFL Sunday when the Eagles play Kansas City, and his presence on the active roster should help the team ratchet the drama quotient sky high. There shouldn’t be too much trouble this week, since starter Kevin Kolb has done nothing during his career to warrant any complaining about the deployment of Vick, who could become the greatest option QB in NFL history. In two weeks (the Birds have a bye next Sunday), however, things could get a little dicey. Donovan McNabb isn’t the most secure fellow around, and his return to the offense, coupled with Vick’s insertion, could lead to some friction. Number Five groused about not being able to generate sufficient offensive flow when Vick was used in an exhibition game. Imagine how he’ll handle being moved to the slot while Vick runs veer plays during contests that count. Meanwhile, Vick has said he thought he’d be starting for a team by now, a laughable statement from someone who brings more baggage than an airport porter and was never a pinpoint passer to begin with. Vick should take his 8-10 snaps Sunday, try to outrun a couple linebackers and keep his mouth shut. He certainly deserves a second chance, but he has to prove himself after a two-year layoff and demonstrate that he can thrive in a grown-up offense, not a run-and-gun scheme, before someone will consider him worthy of a starting gig.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Thursday night’s loss to South Carolina proved that the hype surrounding Mississippi was irrational and the by-product of college football’s propaganda partners’ needs to prime the promotional pump in advance of each season. The Rebels were anointed the nation’s hot team, along with Oklahoma State (hello, Houston) on the basis of an upset win over Florida and a triumph over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl last year. All of a sudden, the Rebs were top-10 – and Thursday, they were top-five – material. The loss shows just how ridiculous it is to publish polls in August and early September, before teams have shown anything. If the popularity contests didn’t matter in the formula to choose a “national champion,” it wouldn’t matter, but because the USA Today election is part of the BCS scheme, it should have its basis a little more in fact than conjecture, since an early poll establishes an artificial hierarchy that rewards name brands. Take the Houston/OK State situation. The Cougars go to Stillwater and slap around Boone Pickens’ all-stars. That earned them a spot in the polls seven place behind the Cowpokes. That makes sense. At least the Harris Interactive Poll, which is comprised of a motley bunch of ex-coaches, B-list journalists and other assorted characters, doesn’t debut until next Monday. Perhaps its voters will take into account that success is earned on the field, not by a program’s tradition. Then again, given its track record and the asinine nature of the BCS, no one should count on anything of merit coming from the Harris poll. Get ready for another season of nonsense that devalues the world’s greatest sport.


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