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September 7 2006

The list of things going wrong for the Phillies suddenly has to expand to include not just the pen but the offense, which has banged out a total of seven runs in the last three games.  The Phillies are getting little from either corner outfield position, third base or second base.  And really, corner outfield and third base are some places where you'd hope to get some offense.  And yes, there was that thing where Chase Utley won the game in extra-innings with a dramatic home run, but even he seems lost up there most of the time these days.  It's too many guys to be not hitting and the Phillies chances are slipping away.

What is firing on all cylinders for the Phillies is the starting pitching.  With Randy Wolf's performance last night the Phillies have now gotten nine consecutive games in which their starting pitcher has allowed three or fewer runs.

The Phillies lost to the Houston Astros last night, dropping the game 5-3 to fall to 70-69 on the year.  On the strength of a no-hitter by Anibal Sanchez, the Florida Marlins have moved into a tie with the Phillies for second place in the NL East with both teams 16 1/2 games behind the first place Mets.  Both teams are three games behind the Padres in the hunt for the Wild Card with 23 left to play.  The Phillies will be in Florida tonight for the first of a critical four-game series.

Randy Wolf got the start for the Phillies and seemed to struggle but wound up with a nice line.  He went six innings, allowing two runs on five hits and three walks.  Two of the hits he allowed went for extra-bases, both doubles, and he struck out four. 

Wolf looked like he was in for a long night after the first three men he faced.  He got Willy Tavares to strike out on a 3-2 pitch, but then went 3-2 again on Biggio and walked him.  Lance Berkman was next and he doubled Biggio in, putting the Astros up 1-0.  The count went full on Jason Lane as well, but Wolf struck him out on a pitch that looked outside.  Wolf got Aubrey Huff to fly to center to end the inning.

Wolf got a 1-2-3 second.  In the third, Taveras singled with one out before Biggio popped to first for the second out of the inning.  Berkman walked, putting runners on first and second with two down, but Wolf struck out Lane to end the inning. 

Burke doubled with one out in the fourth and Adam Everett followed with a walk.  A single by Brad Ausmus scored Burke and sent Everett to second with the Astros up 2-0.  Andy Pettitte bunted, sending the runners to second and third with two outs before Wolf struck out Tavares to end the inning. 

Wolf allowed a one-out single to Berkman in the fifth but got the next two to set the Astros down.  In the sixth, Burke was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, but the bottom of the Astros lineup went in order to end the inning.

Geoff Geary came in to start the seventh with the score tied at 2-2.  He got the first two men he faced, and Manuel called on Matt Smith to face Lance Berkman.  Smith struck Berkman out to end the inning.  It's the second time in two games that Smith has done a nice job against Berkman, one of the best hitters in the National League. 

Geary pitched to a 2.93 ERA in July and a 2.04 ERA in August.  So far in September he's been charged with just one run on two hits in 4 1/3 innings.

Ryan Madson came in to pitch the eighth in a 2-2 tie and set the Astros down 1-2-3.  He returned for the ninth with the score still tied and gave up a leadoff single to Orlando Palmeiro.  Ausmus bunted pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett to second for the first out of the inning and the Phillies intentionally walked Mike Lamb.  Taveras was next and his singled on a soft line drive past Ryan Howard, loading the bases with one out.  Madson came up big next, striking out Biggio for the second out of the inning and bringing Lance Berkman to the plate.  Madson got ahead of Berkman 0-2 before Berkman doubled down the left field line, clearing the bases and putting the Astros up 5-2.  Fabio Castro relieved Madson, walking Luke Scott before getting Huff to fly to left and end the inning.

The question of the night is who should have pitched to Berkman.  The answer for me is that, if he's healthy, it should have been Tom Gordon, even though it's true that the switch-hitter Berkman is much better against righties (322/428/666) than lefties (270/375/443).  With Arthur Rhodes unavailable with shoulder stiffness, the choice came down to the young lefty Fabio Castro, Gordon, or leaving Madson in.  I don't have much confidence in Castro to get the job done at this point -- we've seen the 21-year-old in one big situation and he got blown up.  Madson and Gordon are both righties, but Gordon hadn't thrown 31 pitches on the day when Berkman stepped to the plate.  It would have been a good time to give the ball the best pitcher in your pen.

The Phillies lineup against lefty Andy Pettitte went (1) Rollins (2) Victorino (3) Utley (4) Howard (5) Burrell (6) Conine (7) Ruiz (8) Nunez.  The issue of the month seems to be who is going to hit behind Ryan Howard.  Burrell's in an awful stretch but he's still the answer.  The issue is way-overblown, Howard hit 14 home runs last month with Burrell hitting behind him.  If you want, move Howard to three and hit Utley four if you think it's that big of a problem.  I don't think it is.  Burrell is 3-for-his-last-19 with two singles and a double -- that's a huge problem because he's a big part of the Phillies offense and they need him to produce.  Where he hits in the lineup is less significant. 

The Phillies went 1-2-3 in the first.

In the second, Burrell drew a one out walk and Conine and Ruiz followed with singles to load the bases.  Nunez grounded into a double-play to end the inning.  This season Randy Wolf's 200/263/267 line in 15 at-bats is better than the 194/263/249 line that Nunez has posted in 253 at-bats, although Nunez does have more extra-base hits than Wolf, pounding out nine compared to Wolfie's one.  Nunez has had an awful year at third, the Phillies should try something else.  How 'bout Jose Hernandez?

Victorino singled with two outs in the third, but Utley followed with a ground out to short that ended the inning. 

The Phillies went 1-2-3 in the fourth.  Carlos Ruiz led off the fifth with a home run, his second of the year, which got the Phillies within one at 2-1. 

The sixth was a problem.  Victorino led off with a single, Utley walked and Howard reached on a spinning dribbler back to the pitcher that Pettitte couldn't handle.  The bases were loaded with nobody out and Burrell struck out.  Conine was next and he grounded to short.  The Astros were unable to get the double-play and Victorino scored from third to tie the game at 2-2.  With runners on first and third and two outs, Ruiz flew out to left to end the inning.  Awful at-bat by Burrell when the Phillies needed more from him.

In the seventh, pinch-hitter Jose Hernandez singled with one out and Rollins followed with another single, putting runners at first and second with one down for Victorino.  Victorino flew out to center and Utley struck out to end the inning.

The Phillies went 1-2-3 in the eighth and entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 5-2.  Randall Simon grounded to short for the first out of the inning.  Nunez was next and he hit a fly ball to right that Huff dropped for an error.  Dellucci was next, pinch-hitting for Castro, and he was hit by a pitch to put runners on first and second.  Rollins followed and he hit a ball into the gap in right-center.  Willy Tavares made a nice play in center, cutting it off quickly and making an accurate and unlikely throw to get Rollins at second while Nunez came in to make the score 5-3.  Rollins made a mistake on the paths, you can't give away an out there, but it took a nearly perfect play from Tavares to get him.  Victorino was next and he hit the ball hard to first base, but Berkman handled it to end the game.

There's a whole bunch of everyday players on the Phillies who aren't hitting at all:  Burrell, Nunez, Utley and whoever's playing right field.  That's too many. 

Rollins was 2-for-5 with an RBI. 

Victorino was 2-for-5.  His numbers on the year are impressive, he's at 294/355/432 after hitting 330/391/495 in August while playing tremendous defense.  He's 11-for-30 in September.

Utley not so much.  He seems bit by the late season swoon that got him last year.  He was hitting .324 on August 17 and ended last night's game at .305.  He's 1-for-his-last-15 with six strikeouts.   After on-basing .320 in August he's on-basing .321 in his first six games in September.  It's not like the Phillies can do something to get him better pitches -- it doesn't get much better than hitting in front of Ryan Howard.

Howard was 0-for-4 with a strikeout. 

Burrell was 0-for-3 with a walk and a terrible at-bat with the bases loaded in the sixth. 

Conine was 1-for-4 with an RBI.  He's 5-for-his-last-22 with four singles and a double.  The Phillies need Dellucci producing against righties in the worst way.  I expect we'll see him tonight against righty Josh Johnson.

Ruiz looked good with the bat.  He was 2-for-3 with a home run.

Nunez was 0-for-4.  He's 3-for-his-last-21 with three singles.  His .512 OPS is last in the National League among players with 125 or more plate appearances. 

I think the Phillies have one more run in them.  I expect the bats will pick up soon and they'll go on a tear.  If it starts tonight, however, it will have to be against tough righty Josh Johnson, whose 2.99 ERA is second-best in the National League.  If it doesn't start soon it will be too late.

Jon Lieber faces Johnson tonight.

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