Bill Conlin: For Phillies, Sergio Escalona's shifts have saved rocky moments

Cole Hamels' performance in the first half of season has been worrisome.
Cole Hamels' performance in the first half of season has been worrisome.
Posted: July 14, 2009

SEISMOLOGISTS HAVE the Richter scale to measure the duration and impact of earthquakes.

Earthquakes never take a day off. Or even a minute. That little needle is constantly jiggling on seismographs around the world.

The Phillies use an Escalonograph to measure the duration and impact of their 2009 roster moves.

It would be wrong to review a Phillies first half that ranged between unreal and surreal without a nod to GM Ruben Amaro's bridge over troubled waters, a rookie lefthanded relief pitcher named Sergio Escalona.

The kid is 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA for 6 1/3 innings of varsity work and all he's got to show for it is a lousy E-ZPass, good, one assumes, for unlimited travel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension. Driving to Reading, he's on his own.

Leaving this frequent transactions flier, this bullpen commuter, out of a first-half evaluation of the defending World Series champions would be like writing at some length on the Phillies' often disorderly march to the All-Star break without once mentioning Cole Hamels. So this grizzled halftime commentator will not ignore a troubling performance by the Phillies' anointed ace and dual October MVP, or the 10 call-ups and send-downs Escalona has handled during a season that began in Reading, shifted to Allentown and has taken him to wherever the Phillies have a game scheduled.

Look for a new computer game: "Where in the World is Sergio Escalona?"

Drew Carpenter sent down after a spot start. (Escalona called up.) . . . John Mayberry called up. (Escalona sent down.) . . . Mayberry sent down. (Escalona called up.) . . . Antonio Bastardo called up. (Escalona sent down.) . . . Spot starter Kyle Kendrick sent down. (Escalona called up.) . . . Tyler Walker called up. (Escalona sent down.) . . . Brad Lidge on rehab assignment. (Escalona called up.) . . . Lidge activated. (Escalona sent down.) . . . Scott Eyre on rehab assignment. (Escalona called up.) . . . Eyre activated. (Escalona sent down.) . . .

You get the idea.

Just past the midpoint of the long haul, the potent lineup is finally intact. Jimmy Rollins is back doing his if-he-scores-Phils-win thing after a protracted slump that appears to have been more stubbornness than erosion of skills. Raul Ibanez is back from the DL with his lethal swing. Manager Charlie Manuel promises the 37-year-old leftfielder will not be as much of an iron man the rest of the way. The 1-through-7 offense is as productive as any in the game, with more off-the-charts heroics in the wings. Pick your poison. One side, there's Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, each on track for 40-plus homers and 100-plus RBI. Other side, steady-run-manufacturers Pedro Feliz and Rollins fronting Ibanez in his career-year mode. Shane Victorino playing windshield wiper in center and a slashing afterburner behind Rollins. Chooch Ruiz and Paul Bako? Hey, call a good game, guys, and keep the baseball off the backstop.

The rotation came up big on the 9-1 homestand against the National League's lame and halt. Coming off a butt-whipping by the American League East and the Braves, the Mets, Reds and Pirates were a sight for rag arms. But the longer view reveals a mess. And despite significant contributions to the rotation chaos by everybody but sudden rookie of the year candidate J.A. Happ, the focus of concern swirls around Hamels.

Just about every phase of Cole's game is fair game for rebuke. Lefthanders with plus fastballs and plus-plus changeups don't allow 117 hits in 98 innings pitched. They just don't. The No. 1 starter does not come to the break 5-5 with a 4.87 ERA. That's unacceptable. Fans talk about a dream top-of-the-rotation of Roy Halladay and Hamels. Uh, better check that. If you want to nudge reality ahead of hypothetical, Happ has been the ace of this staff at 6-0 with a 2.90 ERA since Chan Ho Park grooved himself to middle relief.

Hamels was supposed to set the tone for a staff that has seen two-fifths of the Opening Day rotation fall by the wayside. Instead, he became Exhibit A for the damage major league hitters can do to baseballs that split the heart of the plate.

And this staff has had bleacher-dwellers during the Phillies' record run of SRO crowds hollering "Incoming!" Hamels has given up a distressing 15 homers, three in his last outing by the normally inoffensive Pirates. All came on mistakes that split the plate like the white line on a highway. It has been catching, as well, although the epidemic of long balls infecting the staff could be labeled "uncatchable."

Joe Blanton, rock steady this month, has 19 homers on his stat sheet. Jamie Moyer, who actually leads the staff with eight victories, also leads the staff with a less-than-surprising 21 bombs. Jamie's mistakes show up on International Airport radar.

But here's where the Escalonograph has come into play. The slots in the rotation that don't belong to Hamels, Blanton and Moyer have been shared by no fewer than seven starting pitchers. Park-Happ have accounted for a slot-low 16 homers, 11 by J.A., five by Chan Ho, who has been a studly presence since returning to the role he performed with distinction for the Dodgers last season.

That leaves the former No. 2 slot first occupied by Brett Myers until he was disabled by the dreaded hip-labrum malady. Now it is the Myers-Carpenter-Kendrick-Bastardo-Lopez slot. And it hasn't been nearly as bad as it could have been. These patched-together, Escalona-summoned, emergency arms have produced an 8-7 record, also 21 homers - 17 by Myers. And what were the odds that collection would be tied with Moyer for the staff lead in wins? Or that Hamels would have fewer victories than Moyer, Escalona Inc., Blanton and Happ-Park?

With the exception of the early Hamels meltdown in a game the Phillies won with a miraculous ninth-inning comeback, the starters recently have shown signs of stability. With or without Roy Halladay, and more likely with Pedro Martinez, there is probably enough there to carry the Phillies to their third straight division title.

Sure it is right to worry about the penchant for nobody's-perfect Brad Lidge and suddenly mistake-prone Ryan Madson to throw their best pitches right down Broad Street. Lidge and Madson have served up an amazing 12 big flies between them in just 76 2/3 innings, a high total for the setup and closer frames.

As for the can't-miss therapy the addition of Halladay would represent, don't buy into the hype. The 1977 Reds stunned the baseball world by trading at the deadline for the great Tom Seaver. The Phillies were eliminated by the Dodgers in the playoffs that season. Despite Seaver's 14-3 contribution for Sparky Anderson, the Reds won just 88 games.

CC Sabathia, last year's prize, was last seen in the National League Division Series watching Shane Victorino touching 'em all behind three teammates. And CC hasn't exactly been dealing B-Bs for the Yankees. Sabathia has the same 8-6 record as Jamie Moyer.

The Phillies are going back to the postseason for a third straight season, unless the rest of the division is showered with fairy dust. And once the games of October begin, all bets are off for every team. Two hot pitchers in the unforgiving best-of-five division series format can leave the best team in the game facing a long winter.

Just ask Pat Gillick, whose magnificent 2001 Mariners went a record-tying 116-46, then were taken out by the Yankees in five games. *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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