Whatcha think now, Chipper?

Posted: September 06, 2011

IT'S NOT LIKE the Phillies didn't expect Cliff Lee to be good. Terrific, even. Hell, before they made him the most highly paid per annum pitcher in baseball history, he'd won a Cy Young, made a couple of All-Star teams, established himself as a stellar postseason performer.

The season he's putting the finishing touches on, though, is edging dangerously close to "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" territory.

He gave up one run in the entire month of June. Two in August. Opened September with his sixth shutout of the season last night against a Braves team that could very well stand between the Phillies and the World Series before it's all over. Gave up five hits, two of which actually left the infield.

Nobody's pretending that this series against Atlanta was any sort of postseason referendum, although the 192nd consecutive sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park did attempt a disorganized tomahawk chop with the Phillies batting in the eighth.

And Braves third baseman Chipper Jones did tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution coming in that he liked his team's chances head-to-head against the Phillies, reasoning that they were the only team in baseball this season to have beaten Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels.

Lee's response was to dispatch the Braves with ease, needing just 100 pitches and 2 hours, 24 minutes to complete what turned into a 9-0 rout. The Phillies' lead over the second-place Braves is back to 8 1/2 games.

Again, Lee's success shouldn't shock anybody. He's been really good for a long time. But he now has more shutouts this season than he'd had in 218 career starts coming into the season. And he topped 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career.

Afterward, he shrugged it all off. Said he's always had high expectations for himself. Said he doesn't buy the theory that internal competition with the other aces has pushed him to a higher level.

None of this will necessarily matter if these teams meet again in the National League Championship Series. Last night, though, everything went right for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard was walked twice, once intentionally, with runners in scoring position. Both times, Hunter Pence came through with base hits, accounting for three runs.

Then, when the Braves pitched to Howard, he singled in the third and homered in the seventh.

John Mayberry Jr. got a rare start against a righthander, Derek Lowe. He walked twice and scored a run.

An Atlanta error led to a pair of unearned Phils runs in the fourth, when the score was still close.

And then there was Chase Utley. There has been a gathering clamor in recent days for manager Charlie Manuel to give the hard-nosed second baseman a day off. Maybe more. Critics point to the fact that he missed nearly 2 months at the start of the season with a mysterious knee ailment, that going into last night he was in a free fall, hitting .206 in his last 25 games, .135 in his last eight. The consensus was that he was breaking down in front of our eyes.

Asked before the game about the wisdom of sitting Utley, Manuel just smiled.

"For me, it's hard to sit Utley right now," he said calmly. "I'm a firm believer that there is a time to sit guys. But, at the same time, I'm a guy who believes in working through slumps. Utley has been hitting one or two balls [hard] a night. He's getting on his front side some.

"But, believe me, if anyone is going to work through it, it's going to be Utley. It's that time of year to stick with him and see if he can get through it."

Because Utley singled sharply in his first at-bat and tripled off the top of the wall in right in the fifth. Twice he flied out to the edge of the warning track in deepest centerfield. He scored two runs.

Manuel owes Utley a beer for making him look prescient. Or maybe Utley should ask his manager for some lottery numbers.

Right, right?

Charlie Manuel says people shouldn't read too much into the fact that he started righthanded-hitting John Mayberry Jr. instead of Raul Ibanez against righty Derek Lowe last night.

"Ibanez played 14 innings [Sunday]. Ten days or a couple weeks ago, [head athletic trainer] Scott Sheridan told me to keep an eye on Raul and give him a break sometimes. Mayberry has been going so good and he had a good game against Lowe [earlier this season].

"I talked to Raul today and I want to get John Mayberry some playing time. At the same time, I don't want to forget about Raul. I want to look to get John [in the game], even at first base at times and in rightfield or centerfield when we need to give [Shane] Victorino a break or [Hunter] Pence. But I want to give John some more at-bats."

Phillers

Ryan Howard got a standing ovation in the fifth inning - for catching a pop foul. Howard slid into the railing down the first-base line and made a Web Gemquality play while laying on the ground to retire Alex Gonzalez. "How I held onto it, I don't know," Howard said with a laugh . . . Howard now has 284 career homers: 82 when the game was tied, 101 when the Phillies were ahead and 101 when they were behind . . . Cliff Lee joined Steve Carlton, Chris Short and Cole Hamels as the only Phillies lefthanders to reach 200 strikeouts in a season.

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