CD's Connect The Dots... A Key Week

(Photo: Bradley C Bower/AP)

In honor of the upcoming Olympic Games, it should be noted that baseball is much more a marathon than a sprint. Still, there tends to be in any season a point when the best rise up to let one and all know that they realize the race has reached an important moment and begin to turn on the afterburners. The Philadelphia Phillies may have reached just the moment in what is for them a very...key week.

Certainly many a skeptic would argue that with more than 60 games still to be played, one single week in late July would hardly classify as a potential turning point in a baseball campaign and normally the skeptic would be correct. History has shown that very few pennants are won in July, not with the dog days of August and the frenetic nights of September still beckoning ahead. Yet, many a pennant has been lost in July, when a team with playoff aspirations continues to struggle to find a true identity and begins to aimlessly lose games they once anticipated winning.

On June 13 The Phils bludgeoned the St. Louis Cardinals 20-2, merely the fourth time in three weeks that they had put up double digit offensive numbers. Included in this impressive offensive burst were not one but two games of 20 run offensive explosions. Clearly the team seemed to be operating on all cylinders and many a baseball scout even began to whisper the notion that the 2008 Philadelphia Phillie juggernaut might soon surpass the legendary 1977 team in terms of talent and hitting prowess.

Whether it was a mistaken assumption or a case of too much too soon and much too easy, the team has not even closely resembled the '77 crew since that night. In fact, the Phightins' have been in free fall condition ever since, losing 18 of the last 30 games and averaging barely four runs per game since that fateful night in the Gateway Arch City. No longer is the team mentioned as one of the best in team history but rather as a team that will need to improve just to make it past the Mets and Marlins and into the National League playoffs come October.

Which is precisely why this week of six games, three road contests with the New York Mets and three home stints against the Atlanta Braves, has suddenly taken on such importance. Not simply because both teams are key rivals in the suddenly tight Eastern Division, nor simply because a continued slip up would necessarily make it impossible to rebound and recover during the final two months of the season. Rather, it is because there are so many subplots woven into the theme of this week's game stories that well could effect the team for the remainder of the year. Not to mention that next Thursday is July 31, the final day to make trades without a player first passing through waivers. The Phillies historically have been active at the July trading deadline and if rumors are to believed, the team is still in search of a left-handed relief specialist and possibly another hard-hitting outfielder.

Of course, one of the teams biggest needs, a solid innings eating starting pitcher has seemingly been supplied with last week's acquisition of right-handed Joe Blanton from the Oakland Athletics. Blanton came not without a high price though...three minor league youngsters, including two of Baseball America's four top-rated Phillie prospects, second baseman Adrian Cardenas and left-handed pitcher Josh Outman. The other player, outfielder Matt Spencer was rated as the number twenty eight prospect within the organization at the beginning of the year.

Still, on balance, this was a deal that needed to be made even should Cardenas eventually become an everyday player with the A's and Outman returns to his previous role as a starting pitcher with gusto. Simply put, the Phillies badly needed a starting pitcher on a staff that appeared at least two arms short. Outside of lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer and righty Kyle Kendrick, the rotation has left much to be desired this season and it seems inevitable that Blanton will improve greatly on the recently poor performances of now deposed Adam Eaton.

Thus, Blanton and his immediate ability to lift the sagging spirits of his new and recently moribund teammates will be put of full display this week as he not only takes on the Mets at Shea Stadium but returns to make his home debut at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday against the Braves. No one is expecting Joe Blanton to dominate but it seems imperative to the cause that he at least display the skills that have made him a starting pitcher well known for hurling deep into games on a regular basis.

Cynics of the deal are completely unimpressed with Blanton's 5-12 record and unsightly ERA but this is a hurler who was considered skilled enough to be Oakland's opening day starting pitcher and has won a total of 42 games entering the '08 campaign. Even more important is the fact that he routinely pitches over 200 innings a year, a statistic that should make him quite popular with Philadelphia's bullpen crew. Equally important is the fact that Blanton has become accustomed to pitching in a pennant race with Oakland and is unlikely to feel any undue pressure to impress his new team.

History has been quite kind to hurlers leaving the American League for the National League and the recent success of both C.C. Sabathia and former Blanton teammate, Rich Harden bodes well for both the Phillies and their newest trade acquisition. Also, coming from the American League where he routinely faced Mets ace lefty Johan Santana, he is unlikely to be overcome with first game jitters when he faces the former Twin southpaw at Shea Stadium on Tuesday night.

If the idea of Joe Blanton making his Phillie debut is not enough to make it an important week, then the fact that he will be followed in the rotation on Wednesday by another opening day starting pitcher, Brett Myers should do the trick. Yes, the Phils opening day hurler, recently banished to the minor leagues to rediscover the talent that once made the team think he could win 15-17 games this year, will face the Mets in the second game of the series.

While the team is attempting to downplay the significance of Myers' starting assignment, it would not take too much chutzpah to suggest that the fate of both Myers and his team are inexplicably intertwined as July slowly gives way to the month of August. If the volatile right-hander cannot regain the form that allowed him to be a regular and consistent winning starting pitcher between the years 2002-2006 then the team is not likely to make it back-to-back Eastern titles this year.

On paper, the return of Myers and the addition of Blanton completes what could be a very formidable five man rotation. Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer have been a solid lefty duo this year and Kyle Kendrick has now won 18 of 26 decisions since his surprise arrival to the major leagues in May of 2007. Critics still consider his stuff to be mediocre but he pitches with intelligence and maturity and seems quite capable of confounding his critics for the remainder of the campaign.

Should Blanton and Myers pitch well this week it would undoubtedly lift the sagging spirits of a team that appears to miss the leadership and clubhouse presence of departed center fielder Aaron Rowand more than anyone cares to acknowledge. In fact, it was precisely at times like this, "the times that try men's souls" as Thomas Paine was wrote, that Rowand's often vocal leadership would most come into play.

Much has been made, and far too much debate has taken place, about the effect of the loss of Aaron Rowand on a daily basis. Ultimately the debate is now irrelevant but it is now quite clear that the team's current leadership group of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard is not nearly as outwardly emotional as was the tempestuous Rowand.

It behooves the Phillies threesome to make this a week to remember after far too many reasons to forget the previous six. All three have struggled offensively, though Howard's power numbers remain impressive and his final home run and RBI totals are once again likely to be prodigious. Yet, his average continues to hover around the .230 mark and this has only been amplified by a lineup that now appears to have far more holes than was previously anticipated.

Although he would never admit it, many long time baseball insiders are convinced that Rollins is still not healthy and this has contributed mightily to his so far disappointing season. A player like Rollins depends greatly on his legs and many people who have watched him on a regular basis suspect his hamstring is still bothering him somewhat. Nevertheless, his importance in the lineup cannot be overstated and this week would be a good time for him to begin his ascension towards the offensive numbers that most have been accustomed to for the past several years.

Chase Utley has been hitting at about a .270 pace since mid-May and this would be a good time for both Rollins and Utley to regain the form that made them such a dangerous tandem last year. This would not only help make the Phillie offense more lethal but would also increase the RBI opportunities for both Howard and slugging left fielder Pat Burrell.

Speaking of Burrell, now might be a good week for Manager Charlie Manuel to change his policy of replacing Burrell so early in games when the team has a lead. This has become a source of irritation for Burrell, a proud man and a guy who has taken winning quite seriously during the past season-and-a-half. He has been replaced as early as the seventh inning when the team has a lead but this has proven to be disastrous on more than one occasion when the Phils lost the lead and eventually the game in extra innings.

The missing bat of Pat the Bat has certainly contributed to a few of these defeats and his absence has only been exacerbated by the weak hitting of his defensive replacements, So Taguchi and Eric Bruntlett. On a team that has struggled to score runs consistently for a month and a half now, Burrell's absence from the lineup has been quite noticeable.

It might be a good week to begin a new policy of keeping Burrell in the game until the ninth inning, when ace closer Brad Lidge comes on to save a game. Lidge has thus far been perfect [21-21] in save opportunities and not one of them has been because of a game saving catch by either Taguchi or Bruntlett. This situation should be addressed and the sooner the better. Now, in a week that is so important, might well be as good a time as any.

It also would be as good a time as any for the slumbering bats of outfielders Shane Victorino and Geoff Jenkins and catchers Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste to reawaken from a long and decidedly unpleasant sleep. Combined with the slumping stances of Rollins, Utley and to a lesser degree, Ryan Howard, the hitters have placed far too much pressure on a pitching staff that has for the most part been solid, especially in the bullpen.

In fact, the Phillie relievers, led by Lidge, have been the best and most consistent in the National League. Righties Chad Durbin and Ryan Madson and lefty J.C. Romero have combined with Brad Lidge to form what is the deepest and most versatile bullpen the team has had in many years, probably since the days of Steve Bedrosian, Kent Tekulve and Tom Hume in the mid-80's.

Yet, GM Pat Gillick is forever tinkering and look for the Phillies to bring in another lefty reliever before the end of the month. He has had extensive trade discussions with the Pittsburgh Pirates about southpaws Damaso Marte and John Grabow and has also had his team scouts watching Matt Smith in the minor leagues in hopes that the former Yankee lefty can soon return to Philadelphia for the stretch run.

Although he would prefer to find a lefty reliever for his staff, the Phils might also begin thinking about the prospect of adding right-handers like Kris Benson or Carlos Carrasco to the staff should the opportunity present itself. Benson has struggled mightily in attempting to regain the form that once made him the top amateur draft pick in the nation with the Pirates, but he recently threw a fairly impressive stint at Lehigh Valley in Triple-A and might finally be ready to deliver on the promises he made upon signing a contract with the Phillies back in the spring.

Young Carlos Carrasco is also an interesting player to watch in the coming months. Many scouts believe he has the stuff to win at the major league level right now and although the Phillies would like to move slowly with this 21 year old phenom, circumstances might demand a swifter course of action. At any rate, he is a name worth remembering for the not too distant future.

Gillick would also like to add one more bat to the roster before the end of the month, and his preference would be an outfielder with power and good defensive skills. This would not only enhance a suddenly shaky bench but might also help alleviate the power shortage that inevitably takes place when Burrell is replaced by either Taguchi or Bruntlett. Given Gillick's track record it would not be a surprise if he inquired into the availability of former Phillie and current Cleveland Indian, David Dellucci.

This move would not only add a player that the team is familiar with but would add a solid lefty power bat to the roster, not to mention a player with a decent glove in left field. The Indians, who have made it clear that they are very open to revamping their roster before the July 31 deadline, might be inclined to move Dellucci for a price that might not be as steep as it once was. Stay tuned.

Regardless of whether or not Marte, Grabow, Smith, Benson or Dellucci make their way to the City of Brotherly Love, expect the team to add a new face or two between now and the July 31 trading deadline. Simply put, the National League East race is far too close, and Gillick in unlikely to leave any stone unturned in his desire to bring a championship to Philadelphia in what he insists will be his final year with the team.

Yes, the National League season is indeed a marathon but even during the course of a long jaunt any runner will admit to one moment during the race when winning or losing is determined by one small change of pace or deciding kick. The Philadelphia Phillies would do well to recall the advice of the long distance runner and change their pace to press for that one deciding kick in this their upcoming and potentially most important...key week.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast
 


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