Wednesday, October 07, 2009

In theory, the baseball playoffs is the time of season when the game narrows to just its very finest teams locked in epic combat. In practice, I can hardly remember ever seeing a post-season when all of the teams looked more like ruptured ducks than this one. There is something glaringly wrong with every single contender. With the Phillies, it is the complete chaos that is their relief pitching, the inconsistency of their starting pitchers, and the team’s almost mystically terrible hitting with men in scoring position. I have never seen a team more dedicated to the solo homerun than the 2009 Phils, nor more willing to leave the bases loaded while trying to hit bombs when a blooper to left would score two runs. Last year at this time, if you remember, I had doubts about the starting pitching. The Phils resolved those over the playoffs and it was a starting pitcher, Cole Hamels, who was the Most Valuable Player both of the National League Championships & the World Series. If Charlie Manuel can get this current batch of underachievers to snap to once again, he will easily qualify as one of the miracle workers of this sport.

On paper, the Phils are the best team in baseball since the days of the Bash Brothers in Oakland some 20 years ago. Ryan Howard is the best pure power hitter in post-steroid baseball. There is not one weak spot in the starting lineup & the usual number six hitter, right-fielder Jayson Werth, would be batting clean-up on most of the other teams. In practice, the Phils had to scramble to win the National League East for the third straight year, thanks in good part to the collapse of the bullpen. In 2008, Brad Lidge saved 48 games in 48 tries, which is about as good as it gets, even as he turned more than a few three-run leads into one-run victories. This year, given more one-run leads to save, he’s lead the major leagues in blown saves, to such a degree that the last month has been an open casting call for a closer. Ryan Madson, last year’s set-up specialist, the man who pitched the 8th inning, has done the best, which is not all that great. Last year’s seventh-inning specialist, J.C. Romero, missed the first 50 games as the latest casualty in baseball’s moral panic over chemically enhanced performance. When he came back, he got hurt and missed more time. And when he came back again, he had a season-ending injury. The Phils’ best version of a replacement for Romero, Chan Ho Park, has himself been hurt. The top two starters, Hamels and Cliff Lee (last year’s American League Cy Young winner) have been great one game, terrible the next, as has Pedro Martinez, rescued from retirement by a team that had seven legit major league starters on its roster, as if quantity could mysteriously turn into quality.

Fortunately, there is no other team that isn’t similarly hampered. So the only thing I can tell you about the playoffs this year is that the Yankees will lose. Having clinched first is invariably the kiss of death. Year after year the teams with the most wins disappear early in the playoffs precisely because they’ve been coasting to victory and can’t turn it back on all of a sudden when it counts. Actually, had this year’s Brad Lidge been last year’s version, the Phils would be facing the same problem, which may be the silver lining in all his struggles. But if the Phitins’ pitching doesn’t suddenly look as good on the mound as it should on paper, this will be short & painful to watch.