Paul Hagen: Phillies would be wise to keep their foot on gas in NL East

John Russell: realistic
John Russell: realistic
Posted: August 21, 2009

ANYTHING CAN happen in the waning days of the schedule. Just ask the Mets. And it would be foolish to write off the Marlins, especially since they expect to get starter Anibal Sanchez back in their rotation tonight.

Regardless, the Phillies are in pretty good shape right now. They have a decent margin for error. They hit a lot of home runs. They have Cliff Lee. They sell out almost every game.

Yeah, life is good down at One Citizens Bank Way. A third straight division title appears likely. Now the goal is just to increase their lead as much as possible and prepare to make another run through the playoffs.

Or not.

It is, to borrow a word from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, counterintuitive. Having a huge lead allows the manager to set up his pitching rotation for the postseason and to rest key players down the stretch. But there's a pretty good body of evidence to suggest that's not the advantage it would seem.

Here's what has happened over the last 10 years to the team that finished with the biggest lead in its division:

None won the World Series.

One made it that far.

Four lost in the League Championship Series.

Five were bumped off in the first round.

Take last year, for example. The Angels cruised through the regular season, winning the AL West by 21 games. Then they won only one game in their Division Series against the Red Sox.

This year, even though they went into last night with a 44-16 record since June 11, they haven't been able to completely shake off the Texas Rangers. And, says centerfielder Torii Hunter, that's a good thing.

"You need that push," he explained. "You don't want a 20-game lead and to be so comfortable that you get to the playoffs and lose your mojo. You want to be pushed to the end."

Baseball is a game of focus and concentration. Even big-leaguers, it seems, can lose that intensity if they find themselves in a comfort zone down the stretch instead of having to fight just to make it to the playoffs.

If nothing else, it's a soothing thought for Phillies fans next time the team hits a rough patch.

The hot corner

* Catcher Lou Marson, one of the four minor leaguers the Phillies sent to the Indians in the Cliff Lee trade, is expected to play in the big leagues next year but will ultimately face competition from Carlos Santana, currently at Double A Akron.

* The Twins have promoted reliever Loek van Mil to Double A New Britain and he brings new meaning to the phrase "big righthander." The Netherlands native stands 7-1 and, if he makes it to the majors, would become the tallest pitcher in history.

Around the bases

* The Pirates are well on their way to a record 17th straight losing season. Manager John Russell refuses to single out the critics. "Until we win, we're fair game," he said. "The only way we can change the way some people think is by winning."

* Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter bought the postgame spread while on a rehab assignment at Class A Rancho Cucamonga. That's normal. What happened next wasn't. Every player who ate the chicken parmesan, including Hunter, came down with food poisoning. "It's like Russian roulette - I shot myself," he said.

On deck

CHEERS:

For Twins catcher Joe Mauer. A spirited debate is developing whether Mauer, who entered yesterday batting .380, or Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira is the front-runner to be voted the American League's Most Valuable Player.

Mauer's response? Going into last night, he was hitting .465 in August with seven homers and 20 RBI. And that's at a time of year when a catcher might figure to be a little worn down.

"It's fascinating to watch," said manager Ron Gardenhire. "It's almost becoming normal. And that's scary."

JEERS:

For Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, who went on the disabled list last week after being hit in the, uh, groin area by a sharply hit grounder.

That would have been bad enough - although probably not bad enough to land him on the DL - except for one thing. He wasn't wearing a protective cup. On purpose. Said it was a comfort issue.

That's a decision that shocked a lot of major leaguers, especially considering how quickly a hard-hit ball can get to third. Mark DeRosa, of the Cubs, said it was "absurd" to even consider and added: "I tell you what, I don't take the team picture without wearing a cup."

BY THE NUMBERS:

7: Cycles this season, most recently by Felix Pie on Aug. 14. That's the most in one season since 1933 (8).

15: Straight games with 10 or more hits for the Marlins going into last night, the longest such streak since the 1937 St. Louis Browns. Has the trade for Nick Johnson made the difference? "It may not be a coincidence," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Believe it or not, we preach taking pitches, working the count, but haven't seen it."

30: Home runs allowed by Orioles pitchers in the first 18 games of August. "With all due respect, what it is is throwing the ball right down the middle of the plate," said manager Dave Trembley.

UP NEXT:

After being released by the Red Sox, future Hall of Famer John Smoltz once again will try to prolong his career when he starts Sunday for the Cardinals at San Diego.

"I didn't deliver [in Boston]," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "My results weren't good but they weren't as far off as people imagine. I think I can get healthier [after shoulder surgery] and make some mechanical changes that I need to make. I think I'll be a very effective pitcher."

Weeklings

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett, on manager Joe Maddon, who dyed his normally gray hair jet black in preparation for the team's upcoming Johnny Cash-themed road trip: "I didn't recognize him. Twice."

MINOR LEAGUE GAME OF THE WEEK:

It looks as if two top major league starting pitchers might face off during their rehab assignments at Triple A Gwinnett on Sunday. If all goes according to plan, Tim Hudson (Tommy John elbow surgery) could start for the Braves' top farm team against Jake Peavy (torn ankle tendon), who would be pitching for the White Sox' Charlotte Knights affiliate.

STAT OF THE WEEK:

Royals righthander Zack Greinke leads the American League with a 2.44 earned run average. Kansas City is 11-14 in his starts.

There's a simple explanation. The Royals scored three or fewer runs in 16 of his 25 starts, two or fewer in 10 of them and have been shut out four times.

Greinke's most recent loss came Wednesday to the White Sox. His teammates didn't get a single hit with a runner in scoring position. Which was inevitable since they didn't have an at-bat with a runner in scoring position.

FINE WHINE OF THE WEEK:

Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols is one of baseball's most celebrated players. But because of the steroids cloud that hangs over the game, he still feels persecuted. "I'm the one guy that everyone can't wait until I fail," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It seems like everybody just wishes me the worst. That's the way it is. What can you do?"

Finally

Sometimes it seems that nothing is going right for the Cubs this year. A team many thought would be in the World Series wouldn't even make the playoffs if the season ended today. Ace righthander Carlos Zambrano, who has been on the DL three times since signing a 5-year, $91.5 million contract, admitted he's been "lazy" when it comes to staying in shape. Although he's denied it, there continues to be speculation that a fed-up manager Lou Piniella will walk away at the end of the year with 1 year remaining on his contract. Moaned general manager Jim Hendry: "We just haven't played up to our capabilities. It's kind of a mystery to all of us."

So maybe what happened last Sunday at Wrigley Field was inevitable. The start of the scheduled game against Pittsburgh was delayed because of an impending storm. Sure enough, it rained hard for about 20 minutes. After that, nothing. For 2 hours the Cubs waited for another front to arrive. It never did.

When the game was finally called, still without more bad weather, the crowd hooted and booed. "We saw some rain coming on the radar. We did the best we could," Piniella said.

That's just the kind of season it's been on Chicago's North Side.

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