Bill Conlin: Phillies' manager's moves could go down in infamy

Charlie Manuel visits J.A. Happ, who lasted one batter and one line drive to the knee.
Charlie Manuel visits J.A. Happ, who lasted one batter and one line drive to the knee.
Posted: October 09, 2009

WILL TERRIBLE Thursday be remembered by Phillies fans as a pitching version of 1977's Black Friday?

The question hangs like a cloud of frozen breath in a walk-in freezer after an excruciating, 5-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies. It will be answered this weekend in a Denver ballpark where the fans will turn blue long before those mountains on a chilling Coors can.

Between them, starter Cole Hamels and manager Charlie Manuel might have blown up the jury-rigged pitching staff in Game 2 of a National League Division Series that appeared so signed, sealed and all but delivered after Wednesday's sandblasted, 5-1 victory over the resilient Rockies.

Now . . .

Hamels pitched to his 10-11 record. Nothing more, nothing less. The 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP pitched more like a VMP-Vexed Matinee Person. He pitched like an expectant father waiting for a phone call that his overdue wife, Heidi, had gone into labor to deliver their firstborn. And sure enough, the man who hates day baseball - with cause, it would appear - was informed by clubhouse manager Frank Coppenbarger that Heidi was in labor the instant he reached the dugout after Manuel pulled him for pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs with one out in the fifth.

What followed ended most of the cat-and-mouse game Manuel had been coyly playing about how he planned to use his pitching staff behind Cliff Lee's complete-game masterpiece. The plot had thickened when Game 3 starting candidate Jay Happ was warming up in the ninth inning.

Charlie waved that off as "just getting loose, that's all." Besides, it was Happ's side day for a Saturday start and he would have thrown about 25 pitches in any event. He even could have come into a left-on-left situation and been OK for a Saturday start.

But when Hamels left trailing the Rockies and sinkerballing righthander Aaron Cook, 4-0, Manuel managed more like it was Game 7 of a World Series than Game 2 of an NLDS where he already held a 1-0 edge. He managed as if all the rules of how to use a staff in this pitch-counting, pitcher-pampering era were suspended.

After Hamels came the deluge . . .

Potential Game 3 starter Joe Blanton worked a 15-pitch, 1-2-3 sixth. So the peanut gallery nodded sagely and said, "OK, that's it. Happ pitches Game 3."

Not so fast. Blanton came out for the seventh inning and threw just four more pitches. Ryan Spilborghs doubled into the leftfield corner on a ball with more hang time than an NFL punt that just eluded a plodding Raul Ibanez. Clint Barmes dropped a perfect sacrifice and Blanton's ill-advised throw to third was late.

Happ was up and throwing by then and the press box sounded like a town meeting on health care. Who pitches Game 3? Game 4? Does this mean Pedro Martinez, born in the Dominican Republic where 72 degrees is sweater weather, gets to throw his touch-sensitive repertoire in Ice Station Coors, where the game-time temperature could be 27?

Four pitches later, it got worse. Much worse.

Happ replaced Blanton when lefty pinch-hitter Seth Smith was announced. Smith ripped a wicked smash that caught the Rookie of the Year candidate just below the left knee. Jay was still making wobbly throws off the mound when Manuel waved in Scott Eyre.

Eyre had the special distinction of being the fourth pitcher of the afternoon - but the first who was an actual reliever.

Before Shane Victorino's liner to second with the tying and winning runs on base ended the tense game of slow-motion chess, Charlie had used Brett Myers, who drilled Troy Tulowitzki on the left elbow with an apparent "get-even" fastball, Antonio Bastardo, who struck out lefty pinch-hitter Jason Giambi, and Ryan Madson, who pitched an overpowering ninth.

Seven pitchers. And five of them began the season as starters.

So, what about it, Skip? You losing your marbles? You know something about the possibility of a Saturday coldout that even Accu-Weather's Joe Bastardi doesn't? Or are you just throwing pitching protocol to the gelid winds that await in the Mile High City?

The manager sounded like a man leaning heavily toward the "no-tomorrow" solution - even though he is dead even in the best-of-five barefoot walk over live coals.

When asked if Blanton could come back to start Game 3 on 1 day's rest, Manuel replied with a stream of vintage jabberwocky.

"Yes, I do, yeah," he said. "I played 20 years. I've been around the game 47 years. Yeah, I think he can do it, yes. Yes, I do. I've seen guys come back and pitch 3 or 4 days in a row who are starters; how about that? Yeah, I've seen 'em do it."

Odds are, when Charlie witnessed that, his nickname was Aka Oni (The Red Devil) and he was playing in Japan, where pitchers wear arm abuse as a badge of honor. Or in the very low minors. Even Robin Roberts didn't start more than every other day down the stretch in 1950.

"You can write whatever you want to write, and you can voice your opinion and everything," Manuel said rhetorically. "Yeah, it can be done. And sometimes those are the chances you have to take. That's part of the game. Funny game. That's how you've got to play it sometimes."

And then he loped to the clubhouse with that head-bobbing gait, a lightship winking hopefully in a sudden ocean of storm.

Send e-mail to

For recent columns, go to

comments powered by Disqus