Paul Hagen: Phillies have playoff pieces in place

Charlie Manuel: It's up to players.
Charlie Manuel: It's up to players.
Posted: September 03, 2010

YEARS AGO, somebody suggested that the San Francisco Giants should replace the playing surface at Candlestick Park with paper. Punch line: Because the Giants always look better on paper.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has been preaching all year that nothing happens automatically, that all the talent in the world doesn't matter if All-Stars don't play up to their press clippings. And he's absolutely right. If you don't believe it, take a glance at St. Louis where a Cardinals team that boasts three of the best starting pitchers in baseball (Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia) and the lethal bats of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday has somehow contrived to lose 13 of its last 17.

On paper, though . . .

The road to the World Series might just wind through Citizens Bank Park once again.

Yeah, yeah, the Phillies have the fourth-best record in the league. And, yeah, this is a team that showed plenty of vulnerability while being swept in a four-game series at home by the out-of-contention Astros last week. The Happless Phils have rarely looked so hapless, batting just .217 in the series and going 3-for-23 with runners in scoring position.

The thing is, the next four games were even worse. They batted .137 . . . and won three of four at San Diego and Los Angeles.

So that's the first point. Even in going to the World Series the past 2 years, this team has never been especially good in low-scoring games. In 2008 and 2009, they won a total of 22 games when scoring three runs or less. This season: 18 already.

That becomes even more crucial in the postseason where teams never face a fifth starter and only face a No. 4 on occasions when it's absolutely unavoidable. Which leads to point No. 2.

Roy Halladay. Cole Hamels. Roy Oswalt. That sort of says it all. Starting pitching is always the key once the playoffs begin.

The final point is offense. Even with terrific pitching, teams still have to score some runs to win.

It remains the opinion from this comfortable repose under a spreading shade tree, ice tinkling gently in the lemonade glass, that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard could have used longer rehab stints. Probably Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, too.

It seems nonsensical to use real games that count in the standings to rediscover an eye and timing that have grown rusty while on the disabled list. That, after all, is what rehabs are for.

But . . . it hasn't cost them. They still lead the wild card, are still in striking distance of the Braves in the National League East and now that core quartet is showing signs of coming around. It's not a bad position to be in.

There are sure to be those who complain that this declaration is premature. On the other hand, yesterday was the day the Phillies required their season ticketholders to pay in full if they want to keep their seats for the postseason. So nobody's really in a position to claim that looking ahead has somehow jinxed them.

The Padres have hit the skids. The Reds, as well as they've been playing, are largely untested under the big, bright, night lights of the playoffs. Come to think of it, the Braves haven't survived the regular season for the last 4 years now.

The Phillies have been inconsistent much of the season. It doesn't take a seamhead to realize that being shut down just a game or two at the wrong time can end the dreams of another world championship in a hurry.

On paper, though, the Phillies are right where they need to be. Now it's up to the players to go out and write the proper ending.

Around the bases

* Didn't you used to be Carlos Carrasco?: Traded to the Indians as part of the Cliff Lee deal, the one-time Phillies top prospect made his first big-league start of the season Wednesday against the White Sox. The 23-year-old righthander didn't get a decision, although he allowed just three earned runs in 7 1/3 innings. Tribe manager Manny Acta, noting that Carrasco was still hitting 95 mph in the eighth, said he was "great."

* Didn't you used to be Gio Gonzalez?: The A's 24-year-old lefthander channeled his inner Mark (The Bird) Fidrych after giving up a sixth-inning home run to Josh Hamilton on Sunday.

"I had a pep talk with the baseball today," he said afterward. "I grabbed the ball and started yelling at it. 'C'mon, do your job!' "

Did he get a response? "The baseball told me, 'Calm down, relax.' " Added Gonzalez: "I'm losing my mind."

Gonzalez came to the Phillies, along with Aaron Rowand, for Jim Thome in December 2005. Pretty good deal. He was sent back to the White Sox, with Gavin Floyd, for Freddy Garcia a year later. That didn't work out so well.

* Game plan of the week: Before facing Mark Teixeira yesterday, Oakland's Dallas Braden was asked how he planned to pitch to the streaking Yankees first baseman. "I might just roll it up there and hit him lightly on the ankle," he joked. Braden ended up leaving in the sixth inning, with his team down 1-0, with heat-related cramps. The Yanks won, 5-0.

* Minor league promotion of the week: The Wilmington Blue Rocks held a "Tribute to Scrapple" last night including The Scrapple Olympics and Mr. and Mrs. Scrapple.

* Tonsorial note of the week: The latest in the will-he-or-won't-he haircut standoff on the South Side of Chicago is that, according to the Boston Globe, Manny Ramirez was flying in his personal barber from Los Angeles to trim his dreadlocks. This has become a big issue around the White Sox since it is owner Jerry Reinsdorf's edict and manager Ozzie Guillen has made it clear he has no intention of enforcing it.

* Down time: On their way to a record 18th straight losing season, the Pirates also have the worst record in baseball. Asked how he feels about that during an online chat, club president Frank Coonelly responded: "It stinks. It's embarrassing, painful and incredibly aggravating . . . The losing is unacceptable and will change."

* The anti-Pirates: The Yankees have already assured themselves of their 18th straight winning season, only the third time a franchise has accomplished that feat, joining the 1926-64 Yankees and the 1968-85 Orioles.

Phair and phoul

* Now it can be told: Astros owner Drayton McLane told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he knew Roy Oswalt wanted to be traded to the Cardinals and wouldn't have stopped a deal. "That was not a roadblock," he said. "I think [trading within the division] used to be something you avoided. That's not how I viewed it. It just never really materialized."

The Phillies, obviously, are pleased that the Cardinals came up short.

* WAR games: Wins Above Replacement is a sabermetric tool developed by Sean Smith of BaseballProjection.com that attempts to measure how many wins a given player adds to his team above what the player who would take his place would give.

As of yesterday, Phillies ace Roy Halladay led all National Leaguers with a 6.3 followed by Tim Hudson (6.2), Adam Wainwright (6.0), Adrian Gonzalez (5.9) and Josh Johnson (5.8). Interesting, while four of the top five in the NL are pitchers, position players dominate the AL list: Robinson Cano (6.4), Miguel Cabrera (6.3), Evan Longoria (6.3), Josh Hamilton (6.0) and Sin-Soo Choo (5.4).

* Small ball: Writing on baseball-reference.com, Steve Lombardi notes there have already been 24 no-hitters or one-hitters this season. That's the most since there were 26 such games in 1988.

And no team has been involved in more of those games than the Phillies. There was Roy Halladay's perfect game against the Marlins on May 29, of course. They also held the Cardinals to a lone hit in 11 innings on July 22. And they have lost three times while being held to one hit: May 22 at Red Sox, Aug. 13 at Mets and Aug. 30 at Dodgers.

The only other team involved in five such games is the Tampa Bay Rays.

* Numerology: Phillies broadcaster Gary (Sarge) Matthews played with five different teams during his 16-year major league career but wore only two numbers: No. 34 with the Phillies from 1981-83 and No. 36 with the Giants, Braves, Cubs and Mariners.

His son, Gary Matthews Jr., has played for seven major league clubs and has worn nine numbers: 21, 51, 22, 25, 36, 13, 14, 24 and 19 twice.

* Add Matthews: Why didn't Sarge wear No. 36 with the Phillies? Because it was officially retired in honor of Robin Roberts in 1962, even though he was still an active player at the time and pitched until 1966.

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