Chase Knoblauch

Two throwing errors (one justified) in two NLCS games from the right arm of Chase Utley, the best defensive second baseman in all of Major League Baseball. Fortunately, the late Mrs. Olbermann was not in the crowd at Dodger Stadium today. Or, even if she was, ghosts can’t get hit by baseballs anyway because ghosts can pass through physical objects — everyone knows that.

Pedro Martinez pitched like a future Hall of Famer would pitch in a League Championship Series game: seven innings, no runs, no walks, two hits, three strikeouts. Aside from a fourth-inning Ryan Howard opposite-field solo home run, Dodgers starter Vicente Padilla matched Martinez pitch-for-pitch. Pedro left after seven innings with his team clinging to a 1-0 lead.

As was the case last night and all season, the Phillies’ bullpen has a penchant for making an already interesting game much more intriguing. That bullpen was shaky in the eighth inning, enough so that Charlie Manuel may have morphed into Tony LaRussa. Manuel used five pitchers in an attempt to get three outs.

To be fair, bad luck is as much to blame as the bullpen for the situation in which the Phillies found themselves. Casey Blake led off the eighth inning with a BABIP-inspired ground ball that ticked off of Pedro Feliz’s glove.

Ronnie Belliard then attempted to bunt Juan Pierre, pinch-running for Blake, to second base. Many would agree that Belliard is not a world-class bunter, but he had the mother of all bunts: perfectly placed so as to draw both the pitcher and the charging first baseman towards the ball, but distant enough from both with enough speed behind it that it squirted between the both of them (causing Chan Ho Park to slip a la Scott Eyre in the NLDS, sans the minor ankle injury). The mother of all bunts allowed Pierre to reach second base and Belliard to claim first base safely.

Then, of course, came the Utley throwing gaffe on yet another dead-to-rights double play ball. After that, well, that tends to happen to houses made of mere playing cards. A Jim Thome single and a Rafael Furcal walk later, Andre Ethier strode to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in a 1-1 ballgame. Ethier fell behind in the count 1-2, but fouled off a couple pitches and forced Happ to find more of the strike zone. He didn’t. Happ eventually walked Ethier to force in the go-ahead and eventual game-winning run.

Walks and fielding errors. Last night, walks sunk the Blue Crew. Tonight, the free pass and yet another Utley misfire trashed one of the better post-season starts by a Phillie.

Instead of going back to Philadelphia up two games to none, the series is essentially a five-gamer now. Game 3 has noted Phillie killer Hiroki Kuroda against Clifton Phifer Lee. Game 4 will see Randy Wolf against, likely, Joe Blanton.

This didn’t fit into the above narrative, but I’d be remiss not to throw some compliments in the general direction of Carlos Ruiz. After last night’s heroics, Ruiz went 1-for-2 with a walk, stole a base, and threw out Matt Kemp on the base paths as well. Recently, I took the time to re-argue the merits of the theory of clutch, but Ruiz may force me to reconsider. I like the cut of his jib.

Game graph above courtesy FanGraphs.

Why Blame Anyone but Hamels?

Typically, sportswriters tend to save their hyperbolic assertions for after the post-season, on subjects like possible locales for free agents, or necessary trades. Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News, however, isn’t waiting around with the local baseball team on a path to another World Series appearance. This is an actual quote from his article today.

What should be remembered from last night’s game is the 360 pounds of ineptness around second base.

First of all, if shortstop Jimmy Rollins cleanly fields the routine, two-hop doubleplay ball from Andre Ethier, Hamels and the Phillies escape the fifth inning with no blood loss.

Second, if Chase Utley cleanly transfers Rollins’ toss, the Phillies still have a chance at getting Ethier at first base. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t happen. Utley threw the ball into the dugout.

Ah, yes, those inept middle infielders of the Phillies, always letting us down. Let’s look at how bad Chase Utley is defensively. From FanGraphs (image edited for brevity):

Oh, Chase Utley is the best defensive second baseman? Drats!

Rollins, by all accounts, has regressed defensively. According to Bill James Online, the biggest problem for Rollins has been fielding balls to his left. Overall, he has saved 19 fewer runs in 2009 than in ’08. Still, per FanGraphs, Rollins has been a slightly above-average fielder. Slam him for his poor offensive season, sure, but one cannot make an argument that Rollins has been a poor defender compared to his peers.

What happened last night is that Rollins was a victim of bad timing. Throughout the season, fielders will lose line drives in the stadium lights or in the night sky, infielders will have to adjust for tricky hops on grounders, and sometimes the ball will get super-glued to the webbing of the glove. That was what Rollins had to deal with when Andre Ethier hit him that dead-to-rights double play ground ball. It wasn’t a deficiency on his part, just a fluke occurrence that happened to cost the team a run and an inning-ending out.

As the TBS broadcasting crew aptly pointed out last night was that because Rollins had to take the extra second to fish the ball out of his glove, the timing of Utley’s footwork was disrupted. As a result, he had to throw off of the “wrong” foot, couldn’t muster enough velocity, and couldn’t direct the ball as accurately as he would on the other foot. That is of no fault on Utley since it was a result of Rollins’ fluke mishap.

If you’re not convinced, find yourself a ball that resembles a baseball. If you’re right handed, try pushing off with your left foot and landing with your right foot, and try to hit a target about two feet by two feet within about a second and a half while moving and trying to avoid a 170-pound athlete hurtling his body in your direction. That Utley airmailed the ball into the visitor dugout is no surprise and certainly not a reason to brudge the Phillies’ middle infield.

All that error did was allow one run to score. The Dodgers still only had a runner on first base with two outs and Manny Ramirez at the plate. Ramirez was 0-for-2 against Hamels to that point. In the first at-bat, Hamels threw Ramirez six fastballs in an eight-pitch at-bat in the first inning. Ramirez struck out on a low-and-away change-up. He saw six more fastballs in a seven-pitch at-bat in the third inning.

Speaking about the error, Hamels said:

It takes a lot out of you. Those guys are very tough hitters. You get them in a position where you can seal the deal, and you don’t, it takes a lot of emotion to get through that. I really thought we had that.

Good pitchers do not dwell on the past. They do not let defensive miscues, questionable umpire rulings, or the other team’s fans get to them. Hamels was visibly flustered following the Rollins/Utley blunder. Instead of sticking with what worked against Ramirez, Hamels diverged from the game plan and threw Ramirez three straight change-ups.

Let that sink in: three straight change-ups. And without showing him a fastball in that at-bat.

A change-up is supposed to create the illusion of being a fastball due to the pitcher’s arm action, and as a result, the hitter will swing too early and either completely miss the pitch or make weak contact. What is a change-up “changing” if it doesn’t follow a fastball?

Unsurprisingly, Ramirez hit the third change-up into the left-center field stands for a two-run home run that shortened the Phillies’ lead to one run. That is Hamels’ fault and Hamels’ fault alone; not Utley’s and not Rollins’.

Hayes is missing the obvious culprit when he writes [sic], “A doubleplay, and Russell Martin doesn’t score from third to make it 5-2. A doubleplay, and Manny Ramirez doesn’t come to the plate at all that inning.” Hamels could have  stuck with what was working, but he didn’t. He let the defensive miscue affect him and alter the way he was approaching the Dodger hitters.

Despite becoming a father after his start in the NLDS, Hamels has displayed a lot of immaturity for a pitcher who is supposed to be the ace of the Phillies’ pitching staff. That couldn’t be any more clear than with his comment about Ramirez hitting that two-run home run after he got ahead 2-0 in the count:

Who looks for a changeup 2-0?

Hitters, Cole.

Hitters, when you throw them two straight change-ups and don’t establish your fastball.

Game One in the Bag

Three big hits, eight runs.

Throughout the NLDS, the Phillies showed they can score runs without the use of the home run. Tonight against the Dodgers, they scored 75% of their runs via the long ball.

So much for small ball. Just typical Phillies baseball. You hang ’em, they bang ’em, as they say.

The action commenced in the top of the fifth inning after Raul Ibanez singled and Pedro Feliz walked. Catcher Carlos Ruiz took the opportunity to get the Phillies’ train rolling. Clayton Kershaw showed Ruiz only fastballs, so it was no surprise that the fourth pitch of the at-bat was deposited in the stands in left field for a three-run home run, giving the Phillies their first and only lead of the game.

Later in the inning, Chase Utley drew a two-out walk with Jimmy Rollins on second, bringing up Ryan Howard for that despised lefty-on-lefty match-up. To put it in the words of from The Fightins:

Take your lefty/righty splits and shove them […]

Howard did in fact shove them… in the form of a two-out, two-run double that increased the Phillies’ lead to 5-1.

As was pointed out in the series preview,

The good news is that while Dodgers starters strike out more hitters, they also walk more — 3.45 per nine innings to the Phillies’ 2.48. We learned in the NLDS in Colorado just how important working the count and drawing walks can be.

The Dodgers did strike out six Phillies, but they walked seven, and four of the seven Phillies who walked came around to score.

The walks were critical in the eighth inning when Joe Torre brought in southpaw George Sherill to face two of the Phillies’ left-handers, split up by Jayson Werth. Ryan Howard and Werth drew easy five-pitch walks, which allowed Raul Ibanez the comfort of hitting with runners on first and second and nobody out. Sherrill’s first offering to Ibanez was a slider that didn’t slide. Ibanez scalded that slider beyond the stands in right-center, padding the Phillies’ lead to 8-4.

The Ruiz three-run home run and the Ryan Howard two-run double in the fifth inning proved critical as the Dodgers recouped three of the runs in the bottom half of the inning. Similarly, after Ibanez hit the three-run round-tripper in the eighth, the Dodgers took back two more on account of some poor pitching from Ryan Madson.

The Blue Crew applied relentless pressure: only in the third and fourth innings did the Dodgers fail to have a batter reach base. Overall, they had 14 hits and drew 3 walks. While Kershaw’s poor start and Sherrill’s shoddy relieving are easy culprits for the loss, they should also blame their inability to capitalize on those rampant run-scoring opportunities the Phillies’ pitching staff provided. They were 3-for-14 (.214) with RISP and left ten runners on base.

Madson aside, the Phillies’ bullpen did what they needed to do to bring the Phillies closer to the 27th out. Chan Ho Park in particular came up aces when the Phillies were staring down Andre Ethier at second base with no outs and a meager 5-4 lead. Park got Manny Ramirez to ground out weakly to the left side, keeping Ethier at second base. Unproductive out! Matt Kemp struck out on a well-placed 96-MPH fastball that was over the plate, but out of the strike zone. Finally, Casey Blake feebly grounded out to Chase Utley to end the threat.

It’s the Phillies bullpen — of course there won’t just be one nerve-wracking inning. Brad Lidge jogged out to the mound in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run lead. That’s before a pitch was thrown. Phillies fans were already biting their fingernails.

To start the inning off on the wrong foot, Matt Kemp smoked a low two-strike slider into left field for a lead-off single. Here we go again! It’s June 5 all over again! Or June 6. [rimshot]

A ray of sunshine appeared, a heavenly choir sang, and the Phillies’ knight in shining armor strode to the plate in the person of Casey Blake. Among all the players who participated in Game One of the NLCS, Blake was the least productive going by Win Percentage Added. As bad as Kershaw was, the 21-year-old accrued only -.301 in WPA. Blake was -.354, and he would earn about half of that by grounding into the pitcher’s best friend: a rally-killing double play.

That made only two outs, though. Lidge had one more to go. Yet more opportunity for head- and heartache.

What is the most painstaking way to walk someone? That’s right: getting ahead 0-2 in the count, then losing him. Such was the case with James Loney, who drew a two-out walk after falling behind 0-2. That brought the tying run to the plate in the person of one Ronnie Belliard, or Manny’s Little Brother.

In a 1-1 count, Old Reliable, Lidge’s low-and-away slider, induced Belliard to pop up weaky to Jimmy Rollins.

Ballgame. Tally up the expletives, sighs, and fist pumps. Game One is in the bag.

According to the TBS broadcast, 14 of the last 17 teams who have won the first game of a League Championship Series have gone on to win the series and advance to the World Series. Huzzah!

Game graph above courtesy FanGraphs.