NL East Serves Notice to Phillies
The Phillies open a series against the Atlanta Braves this Memorial Day only a half game up on them in leading the division. Not surprising is that the Nationals are in last place with the Marlins; what is, though, is that they are both only four games out of first place. Almost 50 games into the 2010 campaign and the Phils so far are caught in the tightest division battle in both leagues. It appears as if their rivals did not get the memo that the Phightins were supposed to waltz to another NL East title and a third straight date in the Fall Classic.
To be fair, the year has not started like they would have hoped. For starters the main piston in their offense, Jimmy Rollins, has been battling calf issues that have landed him on the DL twice. Placido Polanco was hit on the elbow by a Tim Hudson pitch and has missed some time, and it also got him a pre-cautionary MRI which came back negativeâ€¦..which is a positive. Their main set up man Ryan Madson lost a fight with a chair and broke a toe kicking it (the chair emerged unscathed) and will have missed at least 8 weeks when he comes off the DL. Last yearâ€™s NL Rookie of the Year runner up and starting pitcher J.A. Happ, who has missed a bulk of the year with arm troubles and made only two starts, does not even have a return date projected. Number three starter Joe Blanton missed some starts with the injury bug but is back.Â Finally you have Brad Lidge who has only thrown a little over 3 innings so far but is about to be activated again probably this week.
So,to recap, they have been missing for extended periods of time, their lead- off man, #2 hitter, set-up man, a decent young starting pitcher, their #3 starter and a closer coming off an awful year where they are trying to figure out, well, if he can still close. This has meant that the defending NL Champs have at times sported a left side of an infield showcasing some combination of Juan Castro, Wilson Valdez and Greg Dobbs. The bullpen rotation is a bit of a hodge podge based on who is available and pitching well at the time. Their closer is the 39-year-old (I will take the over) Jose Contreras who has three saves this year which also happens to be the first three of his career.
Starting to see the ugly picture I am drawing? Granted, every team deals with different levels of severe injuries but the Phillies can take solace in that despite all of their issues they are seven games over .500 and in first place. When you are banged up it is much nicer to be the chasee and not the chaser as it takes a lot of the desperation and pressure off of not falling out of the race and having to make up ground.
One question that the Phillies and their fans have to ask themselves is that is this going to be one of those years where no one is healthy and the whole season will be a battle to stay afloat or is this a just a bump in the road where you are happy hitting it in April and May and not September? I see their two biggest threats being the Mets and Braves. I do not see the Nationals being ready for prime time and though the Fins are oozing with young talent (keep your eyes open for super stud outfielder Mike Stanton who should get called up this week) you know their ownership will not go out and get a missing piece for the stretch run if they need one.
The Braves are an interesting squad with a solid starting staff led by Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, and Tommy Hanson and the closer Philly fans love to hate in Billy Wagner. The Bravos weakness is on offense as Chipper Jones continues to have age catch up with him and is batting below .250 and Brian McCann is much better than a .260 hitter. They do have a team that is giving it all they have for their retiring future Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox who knows a thing or two about winning, and a five tool 20-year-old phenom in Jason Heyward. Heyward leads the team right now in homers and runs batted in, is second on the team in runs scored and total bases, and is batting over .300. I also heard he was going to fix the oil pipeline in the Gulf and be the lead prosecutor for the Government if they pursue a case against Goldman Sachs. It is safe to say that the Commissionerâ€™s office already has his name engraved on the NL Rookie of the Year award.
There will be friends that are not going to be happy with me for writing this, and I hope they do not taser or vomit on me in retaliation, but I want the Mets to stay in contention. No rivalry in this area makes baseball better than when the Mets and Phils are at each others’ throats. The NY versus Philly tension, obnoxious fans, players trying to psyche one another out, the all or nothing outcome where there is no runner up but just a loser given the scarlet â€œLâ€ that the media and fans brand you with.
A few weeks ago the Mets looked dead with a manager soon to be looking for another gig. In a blink of an eye they took two of three from their crosstown rival Yankees and threw up an impressive three straight shut outs against Philadelphia, and now are only three games back. The arrival of Ike Davis, who can get it done at the plate and in the field, has definitely breathed new life into the team not to mention they have Jose Reyes back now, David Wright, who is better than what he is showing at the dish, Jason Bay starting to hit and Rod Barajas doing his best Mike Piazza imitation.
The Mets have a horse in Johan Santana to match Roy Halladay, not to mention a #2 in Mike Pelfrey who already has seven wins. What makes the Mets dangerous is the following; listening to NYâ€™s WFAN they were saying that if the Mets can give owner Fred Wilpon some signs that they are legit then Wilpon would go out and make a serious acquisition of say a Roy Oswalt or some other guy Phillies fans may have heard of beforeâ€¦.Cliff Lee. These teams are scheduled to play September 24-26 in Philadelphia. If they are separated by a game or two in the standings and you see Santana, a revenge minded Lee and Pelfrey due to pitch, how are you feeling? Depends on the fans of what team you ask I guess. God forbid Lee joins the Mets and they steal the division, in that case I have three words for the Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr., â€œwitness protection program.â€
If I am the Phillies and their fans I am not panicking just yet. Patience. They are in first, let the players heal and rehab as needed, everyone knows they turn it up a notch come August so just keep it close and stay within a few games of the division lead until the home town nine are hitting on all cylinders. Should it look like players will be lost for the season or miss serious chunks of time then formulate a Plan B, but do not doing anything drastic at the moment. Their farm system is a bit thin in the upper levels so it may be a challenge picking up an impact player at the trade deadline, and they have to be thinking about adding another starter to give Halladay some support.
I just checked the score and the Phils are down 6-0 to the Braves in the fifth and will be in second place if they lose. Forget what I wrote and sound the alarms, it is time to panic.
- Letâ€™s give Ken Griffey, Jr. a break for his alleged nap time indiscretions in the Marinerâ€™s clubhouse in the middle of a game when they were looking for a pinch hitter. You try being over 40 years old and having to watch that under achieving Mâ€™s team and their putrid offense for three hours a night and see how you make out. They are a cure all for sleep disorders.
- â€œI want to go to Minnesotaâ€ ranks up there with saying â€œHoney, I want to see Sex and the City 2â€ as phrases I would never catch myself saying. After seeing Target Field,, though I have to admit that I am intrigued by how the park looks and think the old school Twins logo in the outfield that shows Minnie and Paul shaking hands after a homer is classic. Also digging their off-white pinnies that they sport at home on occasion.
- If you collected baseball cards in the 1980s and are looking for a light summer read then I have the book for you â€“ Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson. I spent countless hours, and money earned from delivering papers in my youth, on this â€œcardboard crackâ€ and had a blast. The book traces the origin of baseball cards and how greed and over production pretty much sank the hobby. Whenever a book allows you to step back and remember being a kid and all the good times you had with the friends you grew up with than it has done its job. I am also pleased to say that I am an adult and no longer buy cards for myself. I buy them for my boys now. Come on, it is a tough rehab program; once I buy them for my grandkids I am done. Unless of course I have great grandkids.
Matt Aber is a baseball enthusiast who thinks you should never use e-tickets in place of actual game tickets. He is an advocate of the national organization called The Miracle League which allows special needs children to play baseball.
He encourages you to support this worthy cause and learn more at www.miracleleague.com