In Cincy, ‘V’ is for ‘Votto’, and ‘Victory’

It has been 73 years since St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Famer Joe ‘Ducky’ Medwick hit .374 with 31 homers and 154 rbi to lead the National League in all three categories, in the process becoming the last man to win the ‘Triple Crown’ in the senior circuit.

It has been 15 years since the Cincinnati Reds won their only NL Central Division crown, and 20 since their last National League pennant and World Series titles in 1990. In fact, it has been a decade now since their last winning season, when the 2000 club led by returning-hometown hero Ken Griffey Jr led the club to a 2nd place finish.

In short, it’s been a mostly long, hard ride for the fans of the Redlegs out in western Ohio since the days when Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and the rest of the ‘Big Red Machine’ under manager Sparky Anderson were dominating the National League during the 1970’s.

But in 2010, the winning is back in the Midwest. Victories have piled on top of victories, and the team woke up this morning in first place, 20 games over the .500 mark, 4 games in front of the previously favored St. Louis Cardinals. But the letter ‘V’ does not only stand for those ‘victory’ totals this summer in Cincy. The letter also stands for ‘Votto’, as in Joey Votto, the team’s 1st baseman and leader whose performances are MVP caliber, and also have him challenging to win the Triple Crown.

Votto woke up on Saturday morning with a .327 average, 31 homeruns and 91 rbi. He has also scored 90 runs and even stolen 11 bases. Votto’s average has him 7 percentage points ahead of fellow Triple Crown contender Albert Pujols and Colorado Rockies’ phenom Carlos Gonzalez at the top of the NL leader boards. The 31 homers have him tied for 2nd in the league with Adam Dunn, 4 behind Pujols. The rbi total leaves him 3 behind Pujols.

The fact that both Votto and Pujols are legitimate Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player contenders in the NL is, in fact, being bolstered by the competition to get their respective teams to the top of the NL Central standings at the finish.
 And the two clubs will meet one final time head-to-head, next weekend in Saint Louis, in what should be a major showdown for both team and individual honors.

Pujols’ place among the leader boards is expected most seasons. He has already won the NL MVP Award three times, including in the last two straight seasons. He is a 5-time winner of the NL Silver Slugger Award as the top offensive player at his position. Twice he has won the NL Hank Aaron Award as the top hitter in the league. His team is also a perennial contender, with the Cards having won the World Series as recently as 2006, another NL pennant in 2004, and the Central Division 7 times in the past decade.

The Reds and Votto have now emerged to challenge on both the individual and team fronts. As a 1st baseman, Votto is a direct challenger to Pujols’ dominance of the position over recent years. Here in Philly we are happy to have Ryan Howard and his prodigious power manning 1st base, but the numbers prove out that both Pujols and Votto are far superior all-around offensive threats the ‘The Big Piece’.

Many of Votto’s hits this year have been of the game-winning or game-changing variety, further highlighting his MVP candidacy. But he is far from the only reason that the Reds are in contention. They have an excellent all-around veteran infield with 3rd baseman Scott Rolen, shortstop Orland Cabrera, and 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips. Right fielder Jay Bruce is considered one of the best up-and-coming players in the game in his own right. Their young pitching staff has deep talent, and is supported by strong closer Francisco Cordero.

The Cincinnati Reds are back, and with players like Joey Votto leading the way, it appears at this point that they will remain strong contenders in the National League for the foreseeable future. That future is bright not just for the team, but also for the 1st baseman himself, who turns 27 years old on September 10th, and is thus only beginning what should be the prime productive years of his career.

Phillies Are Now Slump Proof

Throughout the stretch run of the 2010 season and again in at least both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, given reasonable health, the Philadelphia Phillies will remain a contending baseball team.

They will remain so because their trade deadline acquisition of right-handed starting pitcher Roy Oswalt has now made them virtually slump-proof.

Every team will go through slumps during the course of a 6-month long, 162-game season. The slumps will come because the team doesn’t hit collectively on a consistent basis.

The slumps come because injuries hit. Sometimes, as with this year’s Phillies team, those injuries occur to multiple key players at the same time.

They come at times because there is simply not enough pitching, and bad pitching gets beaten up by good professional hitters.

The one thing that can make a team ‘slump-proof’, or much more unlikely and infrequently than other teams to a slump or multiple slumps during a long season, is the presence of consistently strong starting pitching.

The Phillies now run three true ace starting pitchers at other teams: Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. The odds that all three will lose their respective turn through the rotation are long. The odds that will happen twice in a row are even longer.

Most teams want to have what is known as an ‘ace’, or a ‘stopper’. A true ‘ace’ is a top-of-the-line starting pitcher, one of the perhaps twenty best starters in the entire game.
The nickname of ‘stopper’ comes from the fact that when a team does enter into a slump and loses 2-3-4 games in a row, the ‘stopper’ will usually take the hill. He tosses a gem, shuts the opposition down, and stops the losing skid before it gets too long.

Keeping slumps from getting lengthy increases the odds over time that your club will stay in contention. What the Phillies now have with their ‘Big Three’ are three aces, three stoppers. This not only decreases the odds of a slump, it also increases the odds of the Phillies win more often than not.

If the ‘Big Three’ win most of their starts, that means the Fightin’ Phils are going to win at least three of every five games most turns through their rotation.

Winning three out of five means that you go 3-2. Do that over 150 games and your record is 90-60 with a dozen left to play. That is going to be enough to get you into the playoffs the vast majority of seasons.

The Phillies situation becomes even stronger when you consider that the fourth and fifth starters would be Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick. While not aces, these two pitchers certainly are going to win a few themselves.

Last night, Halladay took the hill in New York against the Mets. The Phillies by any measure have slumped in the Big Apple this season. They had not yet scored there this season, and had wasted a gem by Hamels the night before in a 1-0 loss.

They needed Halladay to be an ace, a stopper. Halladay shutout the Mets over eight strong innings, followed by a Ryan Madson tight-rope walk in the 9th for a 4-0 win.

Combined with a loss by Atlanta, the Phillies have now moved back within two games of the Braves in the National League East standings.

So far in the 2010 season Halladay has fashioned a 15-8 record with a 2.24 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP, and 175 strikeouts in 193 innings pitched.

Oswalt and Hamels records are not as good. However, Oswalt mostly with Houston and Hamels here in Philly have been two of the least-supported pitchers in the game. Oswalt has a 3.34 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP with 134 strikeouts in 148 innings. Hamels has a 3.33 ERA with a 1.23 WHIP, and 157 batters over 154 innings.

Of Halladay’s 25 starts, 19 have been what are known as ‘Quality’ starts, meaning he has pitched at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs. It is the ultimate sign of at least keeping your team competitive in the game.

Hamels figure is 14 of 24 starts, Oswalt is at 17 of 23 starts. Between the three of them, that means 50 of their 72 starts have been quality enough to give their team a better than average chance of winning. In many cases, those starts have actually been better than the minimum six innings and three earned runs allowed.

This is what Atlanta will be up against as they try to hold off the Phils for the rest of August and through September into early October. The Phils will keep the pressure on as they run out quality starters for most every game the rest of the way.

Atlanta has a good staff with Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. But Jurrjens and Hanson don’t have the pennant race pedigree of the Phils’ three aces.

While the Phillies are about to get their two most important veteran bats back into their lineup in Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Braves have lost their lineup’s biggest veteran leader in Chipper Jones for the rest of the season.

Barring injuries to any of the ‘Big Three’, and with reasonable results from Blanton and Kendrick, the Phillies are now slump-proof. With control of their contracts for at least the next couple seasons, the Phillies should remain contenders for the foreseeable future as well.

Hamels Frustrating Season Continues

We all know that good pitching stops good hitting most of the time, and that games start to get tighter and more tense as pennant races begin to heat up in mid-August and on into September. But three teams battling in a pennant race (well, at least two really are) all playing a 1-0 game on the same night?

Here in Philly we all witnessed the Fightin’s latest frustrations at the hands of a knuckleballer. This time it was Mets righty R.A. Dickey tossing a 1-hitter, of all things. And the one hit was a simple flare that dropped in off the bat of pitcher Cole Hamels. Meanwhile the Braves and Mets were both winning 1-0 games on the same night, the Atlanta win opening up a 3-game lead for them in the division race.

The Phils are playing a bit shorthanded still with both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley out of the lineup. But no hits from anyone in the lineup against a guy who throws most of his pitches at maybe 75mph? You can’t smartly adjust your approach for one game in a known situation like that, especially when it’s already happened to you multiple times in 2010?

A couple of months ago my wife and I had the misfortune of watching the Phils get similarly shut down by the Red Sox extremely hittable veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in person at Citizens Bank Park. I remember clearly turning to her around the 3rd inning after she said “They better start hitting soon” and telling her something to the effect of “They’ll have 7-8 runs at least before this game is over.” The joke was on me.

Last night, the joke was on Hamels – again. He has been simply masterful for the better part of this season, and yet sits here in mid-August with a 7-9 record. The frustration began on April 18th when Hamels allowed just 7 hits and no walks while striking out 8 over 8 strong innings vs. the Marlins, only to take a loss. An 8-inning no decision on May 4th vs. the Cardinals, an 8-inning 3-hitter vs. the Padres on June 7th, 7-inning 5-hitters vs. the Twins on June 19th and Pirates on July 1st.

Perhaps the worst for Hamels was an 8-inning 1-hitter vs. Saint Louis on July 22nd. So far in August, Hamels has now made three starts. He has allowed just 17 hits and 2 walks across 22 strong innings while striking out 29 batters. For all that excellent work, his win-loss record in those games is now 0-2.

By any reasonable and fair measure, Hamels could very easily have a record somewhere in the 18-4 neighborhood, which would clearly leave him as a leading Cy Young candidate. His season line includes a 3.33 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, a 157-48 K-BB ratio, and fewer hits than innings pitched. He has been dominant. That he is not contending for his first Cy Young is the fault of the Phillies hitters.

To the absolute credit of the 26-year old lefty, Hamels has grown up. He has not allowed the continual frustrations of the offense to affect him. In the past, any signs of negativity clearly got to the emotional Hamels. He would roll his eyes, stalk around the mound, slam down the resin bag, look Heavenward for answers. This year, no matter the circumstances, he has simply taken the ball and fired.

The maturation of Cole Hamels is something that should benefit the Phillies in September, as should the support of talented veterans Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt joining him this year at the top of the rotation. The return of Howard and Utley will hopefully help the offense begin to get him the results that his pitching has deserved. For today, however, it’s another frustrating morning for the talented young lefty and his 2-time defending pennant winning ballclub.

Broxton Ain’t This Bad, Phillies Fans

Carlos Ruiz took a hard slider from Dodgers’ closer Jonathan Broxton and shot it on one big hop off the wall in left-center field in the 9th inning at Citizens Bank Park last night. Jayson Werth easily scored the tying run, and right on his heels was Ben Francisco with the winning run as the Phillies rallied from 9-2 down entering the bottom of the 8th and 9-6 entering the 9th to defeat LA by a 10-9 score.

As all Phillies fans (and Dodgers fans) are well aware of by now, this latest incredible late rally to overcome Broxton and the Dodgers is not the first time that it has happened, not by a long shot.

Flashback #1: October 13th, 2008: National League Championship Series game four in Los Angeles. The Phillies are leading by 2 games to 1, but the Dodgers are winning by 5-3 after 7 innings and appear ready to wrap up the 4th game to tie the series, with the next one on their home turf as well. But in the top of the 8th, Shane Victorino rips a 2-run homer off reliever Cory Wade to suddenly tie the game. When Carlos Ruiz follows with a single off Wade, manager Joe Torre goes to his bullpen and calls on big flame-throwing Jonathan Broxton to shut the Phils down. Phils’ manager Charlie Manuel counters with the free-swinging veteran lefty pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, who blasts what turns out to be a game-winning 2-run homer off Broxton. The Phils wrap up the series the following day.

Flashback #2: October 19th, 2009: Stop me if you think you’ve heard this all before. National League Championship Series game four, this time in Philly. The Fightin’s are again leading by 2 games to 1, but again the Dodgers lead late, and this time it seems that time is about to run out for the Phillies. There are two outs with two runners on base as shortstop Jimmy Rollins steps in against Broxton. One more out and the Dodgers tie the series up. Instead, Rollins turns on a Broxton fastball and shoots it up the right-centerfield gap, splitting the outfielders. Both runners score as the Phillies and their delirious fans at Citizens Bank Park celebrate yet another miracle over Broxton and the Dodgers. The Phils blitz LA two nights later and advance to the World Series for the 2nd straight season.

So all that leads up to last night’s dramatics, which are only slightly less incredible due to the stakes being a bit lower in a regular season matchup as opposed to a pivotal playoff game. But for the 2010 Phillies, every win is important as they attempt to maintain some momentum and stay close to the front-running Atlanta Braves while waiting for their numerous injured players to recover. The Braves were off on this Thursday night, and as the Phils entered their half of the 8th trailing by that 9-2 margin it appeared as if a loss was about to sink them to 3 games back in the NL east division race.

They put together a little rally and closed the gap to 9-6, and still down by that margin as they came to the plate in their half of the 9th there was some hope. Torre again called on his big closer Jonathan Broxton. Now at this point, some Phillies fans who don’t know better might be asking “Why?” Well, as it turns out, Broxton is really good at what he does. He does everything you want a closer to do, from giving up fewer hits than innings pitched, to striking out more than a batter per inning, to striking out about 3 hitters for every walk allowed. His fastball comes in at a consistent 96-98mph, he saved 36 games a year ago and has 21 more already this year. He is the prototypical big armed closer that every team loves to have.

Jonathan Broxton is good, Phillies fans. Joe Torre knows it, and didn’t hesitate to call on his big horse of a closer once again to try and finish the Phillies off last night.

When Broxton grazed Placido Polanco’s jersey to put the leadoff man aboard, the crowd remembered, and rose to roar and remind Broxton. An epic battle followed with newcomer Mike Sweeney, who worked a walk on a full count pitch. Jayson Werth then walked fairly easily, with Broxton appearing to come more unnerved as each pitche missed the strike zone. At one point, Torre went to the mound and clearly asked his closer “Due you trust your stuff?”. He must have gotten the right answer at the time, because he left the clearly struggling pitcher in the game.

So with the bases loaded, Broxton induced Ben Francisco to bounce a ground ball to 3rd baseman Casey Blake. It appeared to be a relatively easy double-play grounder, the kind the Dodgers closer would happily trade a Phillies run for in order to get the two outs. But instead of two outs and a 9-7 lead, all hell broke loose for the Dodgers closer – again. Blake anticipated the ball’s bounce, and somehow it stayed down on him, rolling under his glove and into left field as both Polanco and Sweeney scored to cut the lead to 9-8. Oh, and there was still nobody out.

Werth was now the tying run at 2nd base and Francisco was the game-winner at 1st as catcher Carlos Ruiz stepped into the batter’s box. Ruiz has begun to put together a nice little season for himself as he has developed fully into an integral part of the Phillies’ lineup, and has also fashioned himself a well-deserved reputation as a clutch hitter. That the Phillies announcers even considered the idea that Manuel would have Ruiz bunt the runners over was ludicrous, but they said it anyway.

There would be no bunting from the Phillies catcher. On a 1-1 pitch, Broxton unfurled a hard, low slider, and Ruiz was right on it, driving it deep into the left-centerfield power alley where it one-hopped high off  the wall. Werth held up momentarily to ensure that the ball wouldn’t be caught, and so as he romped home with the tying run there was Francisco flying on his heels with the winner. The Phillies rushed from their dugout and mobbed the heroic “Chooch” as the half of the crowd that hadn’t left early erupted in pandemonium all around them.

For the Dodgers and Jonathan Broxton it was yet another disastrous, epic meltdown for the ages. How many disastrous meltdowns for the ages can one team and one pitcher have against any one other ball club anyway? While rightfully celebrating a great victory, the Phillies and their fans simply cannot hope that they will continue to catch Broxton like this in key moments of big games. He is simply too good, too talented, to allow this to keep happening.

Look Out Braves, Phillies Gettin’ Healthy

The Phillies activated Shane ‘the Flyin Hawaiian’ Victorino today from the 15-day DL, optioning lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo back to AAA Lehigh Valley. It’s a good news-bad news deal for the Phils, who really could use that 2nd lefty out of the pen to complement J.C. Romero. Bastardo has done well in his opportunities, has a nice arm, and will undoubtedly be back no later than September 1st for the stretch run. His demotion is the bad news.

The good news is that Victorino is back. He will be ready to go tonight vs. the Dodgers, though it is unclear as to whether Charlie Manuel will have him back in the starting lineup right away. I can’t see why he wouldn’t be manning centerfield and hitting either leadoff or in the #6 slot, however, because he proved in a pair of pretty strong rehab outings the last two nights that he was just fine.

Shane’s return to the club continues the Phillies’ return to overall health. Primary setup reliever Ryan Madson returned in early July after missing two months of the season. Starting shortstop Jimmy Rollins returned in mid-June and is still working his way back to full health after missing nearly two months worth of the season. Starting 3rd baseman Placido Polanco returned in mid-July after missing over three weeks, and starting catcher Carlos Ruiz returned in mid-July after missing nearly a month.

With the return of Victorino and his 15 homers and 20 steals production to the lineup, the Phillies have just two more big pieces left before they can call themselves truly, fully healthy. Those two missing pieces may be the two biggest pieces, and when they return it will be akin to the club signing two major free agents and adding them to the lineup.

Starting 1st baseman and cleanup hitter Ryan Howard has missed the last ten days with a sprained ankle, and he will likely be out another week. Starting 2nd baseman and #3-hole hitter Chase Utley has missed a month and a half, and was just cleared to begin hitting again. He is due to return in about two weeks.

Somehow through all of these injuries (none of this has even mentioned the loss for the season, possibly his career, of veteran lefty Jamie Moyer) the Phillies have managed to fight back into the East Division race and the NL Wildcard race. The club currently stands just 2 1/2 games back of the Braves in the division, and Atlanta is just now learning that it has lost veteran 3rd baseman and leader Chipper Jones for the season due to injury.

With the trade deadline acquisition of righthander Roy Oswalt from Houston, the Phillies rotation big three of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt should make them virtually slump-proof for the rest of the season, no matter what the offense does. But that offense should now begin to get significantly better with the return of the starting lineup. Not only will that everyday lineup be better, but the bench will then be deeper and even more ready with everyone having received increased playing time.

It looks like the Atlanta Braves and the rest of the National League are going to have a healthy and confident defending champion stomping around in September. The fans who have continued to fill Citizens Bank Park all summer long and kept the carnival atmosphere around the team going strong through the dog days should finally be rewarded as the season rolls into it’s most exciting final few weeks.