19 Innings We May Never Forget

I had surgery on my ruptured Achilles’ tendon at the end of March, so I missed about of month of work.  I ended up back at work right at one of our busiest times, so I have been digging out of the absence for a couple weeks now and just was not back into the BSB mindset…and, then it happened.  And, to steal a line from just about every baseball writer who ever lived (and the title of a fantastic book by the perpetually likeable Tim Kurkjian), Is This a Great Game of What?

In baseball, you never know what will happen, when it will happen, and who will be involved...and that is why we love it!

Baseball.  There is no other sport like it.  Its rich statistical and anecdotal history beautifully colors its fascinating present adding layers of intrigue and complexity to every game, every inning, and every at-bat from April to October.  Don’t miss a game or you just might miss something that you will never forget.

And, that was Wednesday night.  A seemingly benign regular-season game in the middle of a 4-game series sitting with still over 100 games left until any legitimate talk of the postseason suddenly and without warning became a moment that will live on with us for, well, forever.

Wednesday night is why baseball is great.  Every night is a stage on which there is the potential for something that will last in our minds forever.  And, we never know when, where, or how it will play out.  And, even more intriguing, we never know who will play the defining roles.  So, let us take a moment to honor those that gave us that incredible Wednesday night.

Wilson Valdez
If we are talking memorable moments, there is nowhere else to start but with Wilson Valdez.  Prior to Wednesday, Valdez was known (and mostly beloved) by Phillies fans as the 32-year old utility guy who stepped in amidst injuries to play over 150 games for the Phils since the beginning of 2010.  I never jumped on the Valdez love train because I always saw him as a AAAA player that we were unfortunately stuck using.  But, everyone’s view of Valdez changed in the 19th inning on Wednesday when he took the mound, threw some strikes, hit 90 on the gun (even shook off Dane Sardinha as if he had a whole array of pitches from which to choose), and got through a hitless, scoreless inning that included facing the reigning NL MVP, one of the best hitters (and biggest wusses) of a generation, and arguably the league’s hottest hitter.  After the game, the DelCo Times beat reporter, Ryan Lawrence, asked him (tongue-in-cheek, presumably) how many pitches he had, and Valdez replied, dead serious, something to the effect of “I’m not sure, I haven’t counted them.”  My favorite part, other than him shaking off the catcher, was the array of various camera shots of Valdez in the dugout in the bottom of the 19th with a serious look on his face and an icepack on his arm, like a starting pitcher, trying to make sure he has enough left for the 8th inning.  My other favorite part was Valdez becoming the first guy since Babe Ruth to get the win in a game he started as a position player.  Any sentence with “Wilson Valdez became the first player since Babe Ruth to _____” is a great sentence – and why baseball is so fantastic.

Ryan Howard
Howard’s 10th inning home run to tie the game and keep it going (a blown save by Reds closer Francisco Cordero that cost his team the game and his bullpen-mates NINE MORE INNINGS) seemed like just an exciting clutch hit.  But, in the end, it opened the door for memories.  But, Howard has plenty of nights to shine.  This night was for the little guys.

Danys Baez
Not exactly the greatest Phillie to ever wear pinstripes, Danys Baez was probably on his way to the waiver wire and the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs when he inevitably clears waivers.  And, he was left as the last man in the bullpen and took the proverbial “one for the team.”  Baez, a short reliever his whole career, threw SEVENTY-THREE pitches over 5 one-hit, scoreless innings against one of the best offenses in baseball.  In fact, the whole bullpen combined for this line:  12.0 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 10 K.  Oh, and that does include Wilson Valdez…

Carlos Ruiz
On May 8, the Phillies placed catcher Carlos Ruiz on the disabled list with an inflammation in his lower back.  On Wednesday – 17 days later – Ruiz crouched down and received 298 pitches over the course of his 18 innings.  Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever caught – or even gotten into the catcher’s position – but, to put it bluntly, it sucks.  It is painful just about everywhere, but particularly your knees and your back.  And, after these 18 innings behind the dish, what did Chooch do?  Well, since the nine remaining Phillies in the game included backup catcher Dane Sardinha, Chooch grabbed a tiny little infielder’s glove and made his way to his new position – third base – for the 19th innings, as his good buddy (the starting secondbaseman) took the mound for his first ever pitching appearance in a game with an umpire.  The first pitch that Valdez threw to NL MVP Joey Votto was a foul pop up down the thirdbase line.  All you see as the cameras scroll to the ball is the back of the #51 jersey as Ruiz is high-tailing after the popup.  He even dove into the stands, like a graceful infielder, as the ball landed harmlessly three rows deep.  This is the stuff this new era Phillies team is built on.  And, it is amazing.

Brandon Phillips (via Jimmy Rollins)
Gotta give a shoutout here to one of the most underrated players of our generation, who doesn’t get enough positive attention paid to his ability and production and doesn’t get enough negative attention paid to the lackluster effort with which he seems to approach the game (maybe on is the reason for the other…).  In the 11th inning, four Reds hitters, in succession, went HBP-walk-walk-walk, and yet they did not score because Phillips was picked off second base by J.C. Romero.  In an unconfirmed observation, many people think that Jimmy Rollins (who is friends with Phillips off the field) knew the pickoff play was on and started talking to Phillips right before Romero wheeled and fired.  You can definitely see Phillips turn toward Rollins (away from the base) just as Romero is turning – and Phillips is out by a mile.  Pure Jimmy, pure awesomeness.

Scott Frantzke
And, finally, I have to give one small bit of recognition to Phillies play-by-play guy Scott Frantzke, who was spectacular (as always) over the entire 19 innings.  Frantzke has such a natural ease to him when calling a game.  He seems to just intuitively know when to be serious and when to add levity, when to be brief to let the pictures tell the story and when to be detailed and thorough, and particularly, when to elicit a listener’s emotions and when to elicit his intellect.  He really shined during those 19 innings.  He appreciated the moment without trying to be a part of it whatsoever.  He made all of us that were still awake in the wee hours of the morning on a “school night” feel glad that we fought off the yawns to witness history on this random Wednesday in May.

And, that is what it was – history.  That is what we saw that night – the kind of history that forges memories.  And, in the end, the only thing that truly lives forever is our collection of memories.  Well, friends, we added one this week.

Phillies Report Card #5

Valdez capped off an eventful game, and week, for the Phils

Record since last Report Card: 6-5

Overall Record: 31-19 (1st in division)

Throughout the season (roughly every 10 games) we’ll review how the Phils have been performing over the past week or two and hand out some grades.  These grades reflect the team’s performance since the previous Report Card.

It was definitely an eventful 11-games, with the 19-inning thriller on Wednesday that saw Wilson Valdez end up as the winning pitcher, and also the season debuts of Chase Utley and Domonic Brown, giving fans hope that the offense can finally get going.  On to the grades…

Position Players:
More of the same from the offense, though they definitely gave some reason for hope with a solid showing in the Reds series this week.  Their 10 runs on Monday ended a streak of 9 straight games without scoring more than 3 in a game.

Even though Dom Brown has struggled out of the gate (3 for 18), considering the other two right field candidates (Francisco and Mayberry) were a combined 9 for 55, it’s nice to have him back in there getting another big league shot.  Worth noting that two of Francisco’s three hits were homers, and Mayberry’s value increased (in my mind) by playing a solid center field in place of the injured Victorino.  It will be interesting to see who leaves the roster when Victorino returns.  It could be time to say goodbye to Rule 5’er Michael Martinez.

Ryan Howard ended a 20+ AB hitless streak with a homer on Saturday vs. Texas.  That seems to have gotten him on track because he’s 9-25 with two homers, three doubles, and five walks since Saturday’s game.  That second homer was a big one: it tied Wednesday’s game in the bottom of the 10th.

The offensive star of this stretch was Ibanez, who led the team in average (.317), home runs (3), and RBI (9).  Chooch is on his first nice run of the season, hitting .310 (9-29).  Utley is just 2-14 to start, but he did hit a solo homer in garbage time of today’s 10-4 win.  The offense has had some nice, brief stints like this Cincy series already, but they haven’t been able to keep it going.  Maybe with Utley on board, that will change.

Grade:  D

Starting Pitchers:
There’s absolutely no cause for concern, but worth mentioning that the Phils’ starters have been merely solid (instead of spectacular) for about three weeks now.  Over these last 11 games, there were definitely a few gems, but even more than a few ho-hum, nothing special starts.

Cliff Lee walked a career-high six in a loss to the Cards and gave up 4 runs in a win over the Reds today.  Though, in between those two starts he turned in the Start of the Week, shutting out his old team, Texas, over 8 innings, giving up 5 hits and striking out 10. 

Halladay and Hamels each allowed three runs (and Doc gave up 11 hits) in somewhat shaky starts vs. Cincy, but they were both pretty dominant in wins over the Rangers and Rockies, respectively, in their prior outings.

Oswalt came back from his injury with two solid starts, but despite allowing just two earned runs in his 12 innings of work, he came away with a loss and a no-decision.  Finally, Kendrick and Worley each made a mediocre start in place of Blanton, who is back on the DL.

Grade:  B

Maybe the undercovered and underrated aspect of this team right now is the performance of the relief corps.  Despite surrendering a three-run homer and taking the loss vs. Cincy on Tuesday, Ryan Madson has been so good that Charlie Manuel has basically said that he plans on leaving him in the closer role, even when Lidge and Contreras are back.  Madson was flawless in his four other outings, picking up three saves.

I said in the last Report Card that Worley could evolve into the Chad Durbin role.  Well, now it looks more like Michael Stutes fits that bill.  He’s been looking dominant, with a lively, mid-90’s fastball.  In these 11 games he pitched 4.1 shutout innings with 8 strike outs.  Bastardo continued to pitch well, also.  Contreras came back today, with a 1-2-3 9th inning.  When Lidge returns, the back of this bullpen is potentially really strong, with Madson, Contreras, Lidge, Bastardo, and Stutes.

Even the lesser relievers were good this week.  David Herndon came back from AAA and threw 5 scoreless innings over three games.  And Danys Baez was the true hero of Wednesday night’s epic win, coming on in the 14th inning and throwing 5 shutout innings, throwing 73 pitches, and giving up just one hit.  And Wilson Valdez gets a mention here, thanks to his scoreless 19th inning.  All told, the ‘pen threw 35.2 innings in these 11 games, allowing just 7 earned runs, good for a 1.77 ERA.

Grade:  A

Phillies Report Card #4

Time may be running out for Francisco to claim the RF spot

Record since last Report Card: 4-5

Overall Record:  25-14 (1st in division)

Throughout the season (roughly every 10 games) we’ll review how the Phils have been performing over the past week or two and hand out some grades.  These grades reflect the team’s performance since the previous Report Card.

The Phils are roughly halfway through their first tough stretch of the schedule, and the results so far are underwhelming.  They dropped 5 of 9 games to their chief divison rivals, Atlanta and Florida.  On to the grades:

Position Players:
As the team continues to wait for Chase Utley to come to the rescue, the offense continues to sputter along.  Over these last 9 games, they averaged just 3 runs, with the team batting average hovering around the Mendoza line.

Placido Polanco’s move from 2nd to 3rd in the line-up seems to coincide with a lengthy slump, as he hit .182 (6-33).  Polanco is a questionable #3 hitter at the best of times, but when he’s not even hitting many singles, he’s a black hole in the middle of the order.  Meanwhile, despite a couple big hits, J-Roll’s resurgence was stalled.  He produced just a .260 OBP and had no stolen bases out of the leadoff spot.

The Ben Francisco-as-right-fielder experiment will come to a decision point in the near future, so he needs to get it together.  He hit just 2 for 22 in this stretch, while John Mayberry delivered a 2-run homer in Atlanta on Sunday when he got a start in Francisco’s place.  With the team needing every little bit of production it can find right now, Charlie may have to make the move to Mayberry.

Not that they were that good, but Howard and Victorino were the best of the bunch.  Howard hit three homers with six RBI, even though his average was just .207.  Victorino had a 15-game hit streak end on Saturday, though he was mostly just getting one hit every game.  He did have five extra-base hits though, including homer.  But he left that game Saturday with a sore hamstring and is day-to-day for now.

Carlos Ruiz came back from the DL just as Schneider went on the DL.  Chooch ended a 26 at-bat hitless streak (stretching back to before his injury) with a single on Sunday in Atlanta. 

The team’s stellar defense wasn’t evident over the past week.  Most notably, they made three mistakes (though just one error) in the 8th inning on Tuesday that led to the Marlins’ game-winning run in a 2-1 loss.

Grade:  D

Starting Pitchers:
The team got a sense of “how the other half lives” when the starting pitchers turned in just a solid effort over these nine games, rather than spectacular.  The poor offense doesn’t seem like such a problem when the starters are giving up 1 or 2 runs every time out, but we saw what happens when that luxury disappears.

Cliff Lee struck out a ridiculous 16 Braves, but gave up three runs and lost.  He also surrendered three in a no-decision to the Marlins.  Blanton gave up just five runs combined in two starts, but he only made it through 5 innings each time.  In Hamels’s two starts, he struck out 16 with just 2 walks, but he gave up 7 runs and, like Lee, took a loss and a no-decision.

The Start of the Week goes to Halladay but, tellingly, he took the loss despite allowing one earned run in 8 innings of work against the Marlins.  He was a victim of those 8th inning defensive breakdowns (error by Rollins, passed ball by Sardinha, poor play by Polanco) that led to an unearned run and a 2-1 Marlin win.

Kyle Kendrick made his first start of the year, in place of the injured Oswalt, and gave up no runs on two hits in 5 innings in a win over the Braves.  Oswalt is expected to return on Tuesday in St. Louis.

Grade:  B

I don’t want to jinx anything, but for the first time in his career, Ryan Madson is finding success in the closer role.  He saved all four wins over this stretch, giving up just two hits, one walk, and no runs.

Getting the ball to Madson, though, has been interesting, as Charlie has had to patch together a group of inexperienced and/or unreliable arms in the 7th and 8th innings.  Charlie has said that he views Bastardo as his 8th inning man at the moment, and Bastardo did nothing to lose that spot, with three scoreless outings.

J.C. Romero and Danys Baez would seem to be leading candidates to fill key roles in this depleted pen, but they don’t seem up to the task.  Both men, unfortunately, have looked similar to the largely ineffective relievers they were a year ago.  Romero’s wildness has returned, with 4 walks in 3.2 innings, including two runs allowed in Saturday’s loss in Atlanta.  Baez was also touched for two runs by the Braves in the late-innings of a loss.

When you have two backend relievers hurt, you hope that’s an opportunity for others to emerge and prove themselves.  The man that may have taken advantage of that (as well as injuries to starters) is Vance Worley.  He had two great starts but, of course, spots in the this starting rotation are pretty hard to come by.  Worley may make himself into a valuable relief pitcher for this team, very possibly filling the Chad Durbin role once the ‘pen is at full strength.  Worley bridged three innings from Blanton to Madson against the Marlins, giving up one run.  He also got the ball in the 8th inning of a one-run game in Atlanta on Friday, and got the job done.

Scott Mathieson was called up and had one appearance, giving up 2 hits and 2 walks, but managing to give up no runs in his one inning.  It could’ve been nice to see him get a quick shot at redemption, but he hasn’t appeared in any of the six games since that outing, and it seems very possible that he’ll be headed back to AAA when Oswalt returns tomorrow.

Grade:  B-

Phillies Report Card #3

Raul got back on track vs. the Nats

Record since last Report Card: 6-3

Overall Record: 21-9 (1st in division)

When the Phillies signed Cliff Lee in December, everyone expected the team to just run over the league in 2011 and maybe challenge the ’01 Mariners for the most wins of all-time.  Preseason injuries to Chase Utley, Brad Lidge, and Domonic Brown, followed by in-season injuries to Jose Contreras and Joe Blanton, and painfully slow starts from Raul Ibanez and Jimmy Rollins left Phillie fans more than a little concerned about the team’s fate.

Despite all those issues, the team has hit the 30-game mark with a .700 winning percentage.  Even better, Ibanez and Rollins have started to hit the ball, and all five injured players appear reasonably close to returning to action.  The baseball season is a roller coaster for almost every team and, right now, the Phillies are riding high and things look really good.

One thing that may change that is the upcoming schedule.  The team has benefitted from a pretty easy slate thus far, but their next seven series are against the Braves, Marlins, Braves, Cardinals, Rockies, Rangers, and Reds.  They look ready to take on anyone, but we’ll see.  On to the grades:

Position Players
We can’t say that the offense has found any consistency yet, but they did score 7 or more runs in four of the nine games since the last Report Card, which is huge progress from what they had been doing.  Charlie Manuel shuffled the top of the order a few games ago, moving Rollins back to lead-off and bumping Victorino and Polanco down to 2nd and 3rd. 

But even before he made that change, the top four hitters in the order were producing and really carrying the offense.  Polanco (13 hits, 6 RBI) and Victorino (11 hits, 2 HR, 5 RBI) continued their solid starts to the season, and Ryan Howard posted a monster game last Friday against the Mets, with two long homers, including a Grand Slam.  J-Roll has gotten going as well, hitting .350 with a HR, 2 steals, and 6 walks over the last 9 games.

Ibanez fell one at-bat short of the team record for longest hitless streak (35 AB’s) when he picked up a double vs. the Nats on Tuesday.  In that three-game set, he went on to collect 8 hits, with three doubles and two homers, breaking out of his epic slump in a big way.

Aside from Ibanez in the Nats series though, the Phils got very little from 5-8 in the order.  Francisco, Valdez, Pete Orr, and Brian Schneider (filling in for an injured Ruiz) combined to hit just .212 with three extra-base hits.  That’s combined, of course, with the 0-35 from Ibanez prior to the Nats series.

Grade: C+

Starting Pitchers:
If you throw out Roy Oswalt’s start in Arizona last week, which you should because it’s clear that his mind was much more on his family back in Mississippi than on pitching, it was really another dominant stretch from the Phillie starting pitchers.  In eight starts, Halladay, Hamels, Lee, and Vance Worley (in for the injured Blanton) went 6-1, threw at least six innings in every start, had 61 strikeouts to just 10 walks in 58 innings, and had an ERA of 2.01.

Halladay and Hamels share the Best Start award, as each had a complete game with just one run allowed.  Lee took the only loss, giving up four runs to Arizona, but he did strikeout 12 in that game, so he wasn’t exactly struggling.

Worley, who also pitched well in a brief stint last year, showed again that he belongs on a big-league roster.  He pitched six innings in each of his starts, allowing just one run combined and picking up two wins.  If Blanton stuggles when he comes back (or perhaps if the Phils find someone willing to take him in a trade) Worley looks like a solid option for the fifth rotation spot.

Grade:  A

The short-handed pen continues to hold its own, and picked good times to have bad outings.  David Herndon gave up three runs in the 9th last Friday, but the team had a 10-0 lead, and then Danys Baez surrendered three in the 9th on Wednesday, but a 7-1 cushion made it meaningless.

Ryan Madson had three scoreless outings (no save opportunities) and Kyle Kendrick and Michael Stutes also pitched well.  Antonio Bastardo gave up a run in two separate outings, the first two runs he’s allowed on the season.  J.C. Romero returned from his injury with a scoreless inning on Wednesday.

Grade:  B-