The Phillies Go to Hollywood

One of the “responsibilities” of blogging about your favorite team is that you need to put up fresh content in a timely fashion. Sometimes, I’ll start jotting down my thoughts on the game before the game is over. Tonight, for instance, I started writing after Ryan Madson gave up the lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. I said, among other things, that the Phillies should blame themselves as much as they should blame the umpires (for the non-interference call on Dexter Fowler).

Then the Phillies, as they have so often done over the last few years, staged an epic comeback. Last night, a lot of Phillies fans made deals with supernatural beings to ensure a victory for the good guys. I can’t imagine too many of us still had souls to spare for Game Four. But whatever we offered tonight was enough, as the baseball gods smiled down on us. The Phillies matched the Rockies’ three bottom of the eighth runs with three in the top of the ninth to take the lead. Game, set, match.

Ctrl + A. Backspace.

I have never been happier to completely scrap my work.

As with Game Three, Four was a real nailbiter. The Phillies carried a one-run lead into the sixth inning, padded it to two runs, then it was back to one run by the top of the seventh. The bottom of the eighth saw some strange events, some lucky Rockies hits, and a lot of frustration with Ryan Madson. Then we had the comeback in the top of the ninth. The tension in the bottom-half. The jubilation when Lidge got the third out.

I like to think the win probability charts I post here from FanGraphs are not just indicative of, well, win probability, but of a fan’s emotions throughout the game as well. Look at the graph above and you can get a good idea of what Phillies and Rockies fans alike were going through. It’s not healthy!

Ryan Howard got the big blow against Huston Street, but credit has to go to the hitters ahead of him for working the count. Even Greg Dobbs, who led off the inning by striking out, saw five pitches. Rollins saw six and singled. Utley saw seven and walked. Howard saw four. Jayson Werth, after Howard’s game-tying double, saw six pitches before driving in the go-ahead run.

When Shane Victorino made the second out of the inning, after Rollins singled, the Rockies had more than a 96% chance to win the game. After Werth drove in the Phillies’ fifth and final run, that percentage was all the way down to 19%. That’s a 77% shift between four batters.

Controversy

When we Phillies fans were throwing objects at our televisions and shouting expletives during the bottom of the eighth, there was a controverisal play that was indicative of the way the entire playoff landscape has looked this season.

Dexter Fowler was on first base, and as Todd Helton seemed to do all series long, he hit a weak grounder in the middle of the infield that caused havoc. Fowler bolted for second base, Utley charged in and fielded the ball in Fowler’s base running path. The speedy Rockies center fielder hurdled Utley — and made physical contact with him — and evaded the tag. Utley quickly flipped the ball behind him to Jimmy Rollins, covering second base. The ball ticked off of Rollins’ glove and both runners were safe.

Charlie Manuel came out to argue with the umpires for not calling interference. Here is MLB’s official interference rule on the matter:

INTERFERENCE
(a) Offensive interference is an act by the team at bat which interferes with, obstructs, impedes, hinders or confuses any fielder attempting to make a play.

By even the loosest definition of the terms, Fowler obstructed, impeded, hindered, and/or confused Utley, so he should have been out. Instead, no interference was called and Fowler eventually came around to score on a weakly-hit Jason Giambi single to left field.

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UPDATE: On MLB Network, Matt Vasgersian claimed that the TBS replays showed that Fowler never made contact with Utley. I find that hard to believe and still don’t see what they supposedly see. But at any rate, it’s still interference according to the definition above: “impedes, hinders or confuses”.

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Umpires have been making extremely poor calls throughout the playoffs, no matter which series you pick. I can’t recall the last time the umpiring has been so blatantly poor in the playoffs. The Jeffrey Maier incident comes to mind, but that’s just an isolated incident and not a trend.

What’s Next

The Phillies stay westward as they will meet up with the Los Angeles Dodgers for a rematch of last year’s NLCS, only this time the Blue Crew has home field advantage.

Cole Hamels will pitch Game One of the NLCS on Thursday, while the Dodgers are still setting up their rotation.

The Phillies won only three of the seven games against the Dodgers last season, but they didn’t do much better last year, winning four of eight. On first glance, the Dodgers seem to have the advanage pitching-wise, but the Phillies have the better hitters, fielders, and runners. We’ll see if that holds up — check back tomorrow for a series preview.

Game graph above courtesy FanGraphs.

While America Sleeps, Lidge Saves

If you were sleeping while the Phillies finished off Game 3 of the NLDS at 2:15 Eastern, well, your cardiologist will be happy to hear that. For those of us who resisted the urge to sleep and ignored tomorrow’s responsibilities, we have a whole host of health problems thanks to the lack of sleep and the intensity of the situation Brad Lidge found himself in. Personally, I made a pact with Satan to ensure that the Phillies kept the lead — I don’t know what everyone else did. Carlos Gonzalez voodoo dolls, maybe? (Those didn’t work!)

What was easy to the 2008 Phillies has been extremely difficult to the ’09 squad, especially when it comes to finishing out games. Starter J.A. Happ struggled and could only go three innings, putting strain on the bullpen. Joe Blanton came in and pitched two and two-thirds effective innings with the only blemish coming on a solo home run hit by Carlos Gonzalez (who was 3-for-4 with a walk, double, home run, RBI, and a stolen base on the night).

As in Game 2, another Phillies’ left-handed pitcher came up limping. First, it was Happ when he took a line drive off of his shin thanks to Seth Smith. Tonight/this morning, it was Scott Eyre in the seventh inning when he attempted to field a Dexter Fowler sacrifice bunt. He appeared to roll his ankle and was unable to make the play. As a result, Manuel had to call on Ryan Madson to limit the damage, making it all too clear that Lidge would be relied upon to close out the game should the Phillies take the lead. If Eyre is unfit to pitch, Sergio Escalona — another left-hander — could be called upon to take his spot on the roster in the NLCS.

The game featured 11 plays with a Leverage Index of 3 or higher, according to FanGraphs. Two of them — sacrifice flies by Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Howard — resulted in runs, and only two of them resulted in the batter reaching base. When Huston Street started the top of the ninth inning, the Rockies had a 50% chance to win. After he got the third out, the Rockies’ chance to win was at 21%. When Lidge got Brad Hawpe to ground out to Chase Utley to start the bottom of the ninth, the Rockies had a 12% chance of winning, but after Carlos Gonzalez walked and stole second base, that went all the way up to 29%.

You can understand why just about anyone viewing the game had lumps in their throat and were busy dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on their contracts with the devil.

It is a shame that most of North America, or at least those on the East coast, were sleeping while this game coursed to its end. Game 3 was the epitome of what playoff baseball is all about: minimizing mistakes, maintaining control in bad situations, and making smart tactical decisions. For instance:

  • When Eyre hurt his leg or ankle (we should know details later today), the Rockies had runners on first and third with no outs. Even worse was that both runners, Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler, are extremely fast. Since a pitcher coming in after an injury gets as much time as he needs to warm up, Charlie Manuel chose to bring in Ryan Madson, even though Chad Durbin had been warming up for a while. Rather than save Madson for the ninth inning when the Phillies have a lead (which wasn’t a guarantee, of course), Manuel used his best relief pitcher in a crucial situation.

    Madson did allow Gonzalez to score from third base on a Troy Tulowitzki sacrifice fly, but it could have been much worse. According to Baseball Prospectus, teams are expected to score 1.77 runs (or 2, if you round up) in that situation. Madson sandwiched strikeouts of Todd Helton and Yorvit Torrealba around that run-scoring out.

    Good managers realize that they should use their best pitchers in the most important situations.

  • Jimmy Rollins singled to lead off the ninth inning against Huston Street. The Phillies, known almost exclusively for their power, played small ball. Manuel instructed Shane Victorino to sacrifice bunt to move Rollins to second base. Shane laid down a perfect bunt, and Street was looking down the barrel at Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, and Raul Ibanez coming up with one out and a runner in scoring position.Rollins eventually scored on a Ryan Howard sacrifice fly following a controversial infield single from Chase Utley.
  • In the bottom of the ninth with one out, Carlos Gonzalez had a great at-bat against Lidge. Lidge fell behind 3-0 but battled back to get the count to 3-2. Gonzalez fouled off some vicious sliders that most hitters — at least last year — would have swung and missed at. Gonzalez drew the fourth ball on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. While Lidge faced pinch-hitter Jason Giambi, Gonzalez then stole second base. Up to that point, that stolen base was the second-highest-leveraged situation.
  • Lidge got Giambi to pop out in foul territory for the second out, but Phillies and Rockies fans alike knew that it wasn’t over yet. Lefties have mashed Lidge all year, and Helton is no exception. Over his career, Helton has four hits (two doubles and a triple) in 11 at-bats against Lidge.

    Charlie Manuel strode to the mound for a chat with Lidge, his catcher, and the Phillies infield. Presumably, Manuel said that Helton could be pitched around with first base open. And that’s exactly what Lidge did. Helton drew the five-pitch walk, and Lidge had to face the right-handed Troy Tulowitzki, 0-for-3 against Lidge, instead.

    It was risky, putting the winning run on base almost intentionally. But that risk is a safer bet than the risk of facing Helton in that situation. The gamble paid off, as Tulowitzki popped out to left fielder Ben Francisco to end the game.

The Phillies emerged victorious in a well-fought, tooth-and-nail game in frigid Colorado weather that ended at 2:15 Eastern. Now, they look to clinch the series behind Game One ace Cliff Lee at 6:07 Eastern this evening.

For those of us who have to wake up at 7:30 AM, we have just over five hours of sleep to work with. The players don’t like the game times, and neither should the fans. It’s shameful that a vast majority of kids and responsible adults were unable to stay up late enough to watch the game. MLB’s devotion to its broadcasters will eventually cost them present and future fans of the great game of baseball.

Game graph above courtesy FanGraphs.