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10/07/2007 11:11:00 AM

NLDS: Rocktober, Baby

By Cliff Corcoran

Of the 21 teams that have lost the first two games of a best-of-five series at home, only one ever came back to win the series -- the 2001 New York Yankees, who rallied to beat the Oakland A’s. Make that one out of 22 teams, as the 2007 Phillies joined that list last night by getting swept by the upstart Colorado Rockies.

Proving once and for all that the Coors Field humidor has changed the face of Colorado baseball, Phillies starter Jamie Moyer and Rockies rookie Ubaldo Jimenez were locked in a scoreless duel through four and a half innings last night. With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Rockies catcher and eighth-place hitter Yorvit Torrealba singled off Moyer and was bunted to second by Jimenez. That brought would-be series MVP Kazuo Matsui (there are no official MVPs in the Division Series) to the plate with two outs. Matsui lifted a flare to the left field gap, but left fielder Pat Burrell took a dreadful route to the ball, cutting in too sharply and reaching out and falling to his left as the ball skipped by him to the wall. Torrealba scored and Matsui had a triple. The ball might have dropped in front of Burrell even if he had taken a better route, and Moyer got Troy Tulowitzki to pop out to strand Matsui at third, but with the catcher Torrealba running, there’s a chance that Burrell could have kept the run from scoring, or even thrown Torreabla out at home had he kept the ball in front of him. Instead, the Rockies led 1-0 and needed just nine outs to win the series.

Jimenez had been spectacular up to that point, allowing just a first-inning single to Ryan Howard and a pair of walks, retiring 11 straight at one point, and facing the minimum after the Howard single, thanks to an inning-ending double play in the fifth. One of Jimenez’s weaknesses, however, is an occasional loss of control, and Jimenez’s string of 11 straight retired ended when he walked Carlos Ruiz in the fifth inning. In the top of the sixth, Jimenez started Moyer out 3-0 before pouring in strike one and watching Moyer top what would have been ball four to first base for the first out. Jimenez then walked Jimmy Rollins, who promptly stole second, then walked Chase Utley.

With Rollins’ successful steal of second, Torrealba had failed to throw out 33 of the last 35 men who had attempted to steal on him. Trailing 0-1 with a pair of excellent baserunners on first and second (Rollins had stolen 41 bases in 47 attempts on the season, Utley was nine for ten), Jimenez struggling to find the strike zone, and just one out in the inning, the double steal was in order in the hope of getting Rollins to third so that the game could be tied on a productive out from Burrell. If nothing else, Burrell, who drew 114 walks during the regular season, should have been looking to work the suddenly wild Jimenez into a favorable count and perhaps load the bases for Howard.

As Burrell strode to the plate, Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca visited the mound and Jeremy Affeldt and Ryan Speier began to get loose in the Rockies’ bullpen. Jimenez was officially on the ropes, the Phillies’ season had life.

Jimenez’s first pitch to Burrell, a fastball in on the hands, would have been ball one, but Burrell, perhaps trying too hard to compensate for his misplay in the previous half inning, swung and popped the pitch up to shallow left field. Two outs. Rollins still on second. Jimenez regrouped and got Howard to ground out to end the inning, and, though Shane Victorino would homer on a hanging slider to tie the game in the next inning, the Phillies never appeared as close to a victory as they did in the sixth inning, and the last eight men the Phillies sent to the plate were retired in order by the stellar Colorado bullpen.

The Rockies broke the tie in the eighth with three straight singles off lefty J.C. Romero. Righty pinch-hitter Jeff Baker delivered the decisive blow to score Garrett Atkins with the series-winning run.

Despite being a Rockies fan, Bugs and Cranks’ Mark Townsend also saw Game 3 as a missed opportunity for Philadelphia:
Baker’s heroics were undoubtedly aided by Charlie Manuel’s inexplicable decision to leave his lefty, J.C. Romero, in to pitch to him. There are few things I can tell you for sure about Jeff Baker as a hitter, one of those few things is that he hits 50 points higher against lefties for his career. I’m a firm believer that playing the percentages is overrated. However, that didn’t seem like a good time to challenge them.

I’m not here to tell Mr. Manuel how to do his job, or how his Phillies should have approached this game, but I am shocked they didn’t play with more desperation. They didn’t play a poor game mind you, but they didn’t exactly do anything to take the game either. At no point did they resemble a team on the brink of elimination.

To be honest, I was worried Philly would throw all caution to the wind in hopes of sparking a comeback. To spark the lights out style of play they used to win the NL East. It never happened, and it never happened because they didn’t make it happen. The Rockies were ripe to be beaten in Game 3, and the Phils didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

The big story in Philadelphia this morning is the failure of the Phillies offense, which was the best in the National League during the regular season, but scored just eight runs in the three-game series and hit a collective .172/.274/.366. Five of the top stories in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section this morning either reference or are entirely about the Phillies’ offensive failings, though Up in the Rockies’ Tom Stephenson points out that, "the Phillies offense didn’t go completely silent; they hit five homers in the three-game series. The only problem for them was that all five of the homers came with nobody on base, and they accounted for five of the eight runs the Phillies scored in the series."

Ruiz was Philadelphia best hitter in the series, going 3 for 9 with a double and a walk. Howard was the only other Phillie with three hits, but he had three more at-bats than Ruiz, drew no walks, and struck out seven times, going down looking against Manny Corpas in the ninth inning of each game. Ruiz’s double and Rollins’ triple, both of which came in the second inning of Game 2, were the only Philadelphia extra-base hits that came with men on base (in fact, the only other extra-base hits by the Phillies in the entire series were those five solo homers). Those two hits gave the Phillies their only lead of the series, which lasted all of one inning.

The flip side of that is the tremendous performance of the Rockies’ pitching staff, which had a 2.33 ERA and allowed just 16 hits while striking out 26 in 27 innings. While Matsui, who went 5 for 12 with a double, two triples, and a grand slam, was the individual star of the series, the Rockies pitchers are the reason their team will make its first-ever appearance in the National League Championship Series, where they’ll face another young, underrated, largely home-grown team from the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Beer Leaguer’s J. Weitzel is gracious in defeat, and Jonk at The Good Phight is already planning next year’s roster, but I’ll give the final word to Bad Altitude's Mark T.R. Donohue, who was at Coors Field last night, broom in hand, and suggests Gogol Bordello’s "Steart Wearing Purple" as the official theme song of Rocktober.


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10/05/2007 09:54:00 AM

NLDS: Season on the Brink

By Cliff Corcoran

It took just six pitches for the Rockies to jump out to a 2-0 lead in Game 2 of the Cinderella Series. After a Kaz Matsui groundout, both Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday homered on the first pitch they saw from Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick. Five pitches later, Jimmy Rollins homered on the first pitch thrown by Rockies starter Franklin Morales. It was clear then that this was not going to be another taut pitchers duel like Game 1. A Rollins two-RBI triple in the bottom of the second gave the Phillies their first lead of the series, but it was short-lived.

Kendrick stranded Matsui, who had led off with a double, in the third, and was in the process of stranding Garrett Atkins, who led off with a double, in the fourth when the worm turned for the Phillies. After getting a fly out to left and a pop up to keep Atkins on second with two outs, Kendrick pitched carefully to number-eight hitter Yorvit Torrealba, ultimately issuing an intentional ball on 3-1 to bring up the pitcher's spot with Atkins still standing on second base.

Morales had not pitched well over the first three innings, but he had three strikeouts and worked a 1-2-3 third thanks to an excellent play by Todd Helton to pick off Ryan Howard following a hit-by-pitch. Nonetheless, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle decided to pinch-hit rookie Seth Smith for Morales, and on a 2-1 count Smith hit a slow roller up the third-base line that Wes Helms was unable to make a play on, thus loading the bases for Matsui.

With that, Phillies manager Charlie Manual took the long walk to the mound to remove Kendrick and bring in Kyle Lohse, who got ahead of Matsui 1-2, but then put a fastball in exactly the wrong spot and Matsui launched it over the right-field wall for a game-breaking grand slam. SI's Jack McCallum roasts Manual for the move, but the Philadelphia Inquirer's Phil Sheridan defends the Phillie skipper:

It was a decision that blew up for four Colorado runs, that turned a 3-2 Phillies lead into a 6-3 deficit, that sucked the oxygen out of rowdy Citizens Bank Park.

But that doesn't make the decision wrong, not given the situation Manuel was handed by his players' performance and by the limitations of his bullpen. . . .

It is grossly inaccurate to say Kendrick was lifted for giving up a weak infield single. He was lifted because of the rockets hit by the first two hitters in the fourth inning, and the earlier rockets hit by the next three batters due up.

Whether it was the right move or not, it didn't work. The Rockies added four more in the sixth when Manual decided to bring in Jose Mesa, which is never the right move, on their way to a 10-5 victory and a 2-0 advantage in the series.

The good news for Phillie fans is that their big bats are waking up. Rollins drove in four of the five Phillie runs in Game 2 and hit a tater and a triple in his first two at-bats. Howard crushed a home run in the sixth inning for the fifth and final Phillies run. Chase Utley, who struck out in his first five at-bats of this series, singled in two of his last three trips on Thursday.

That might all be too little, too late, however, as the Phillies' hopes of a comeback in this series rest on their becoming just the second team in baseball history to win the final three games of a best-of-five series after losing the first two at home, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that the next two games will take place in the thin air of mile-high Coors Field. The Phillies' Game 3 starter, 45-year-old veteran Jamie Moyer, exuded calm and confidence while talking to the media after Game 2, but no team could possibly be more confident than the Rockies, who have now won 16 of their last 17 to go from fourth place in the NL West to one game away from the National League Championship Series.

Bad Altitude's Mark T.R. Donohue thinks the Rockies are benefiting from a lack of organizational baggage:

You know what I think the biggest story of this series is so far? It's not Clint Hurdle's sudden Midas touch for weird, counterintuitive substitutions working out for the best. It's not the violent and painful ineptitude of all Phillies pitchers everywhere. It's not Matt Holliday's sexy, sexy chin scar.

It's that the two teams entered the playoffs on similar hot streaks and have reacted to them in opposite fashions. The Phillies, with a history of failures and collapses and a fanbase so abused that it lashes out like a caged animal, felt pressure. Lots of pressure. The magic of their comeback against the Mets came with a lot of weight and responsibility attached to it because long before any of the current Phils put on a uniform their forebears made choking hard a cheesesteak-linked trait. The Rockies? They have no history. What do they have to worry about?

As if they didn't have enough momentum, the Rockies have improved their team karma by voting a full playoff share to the widow of Mike Coolbaugh, who was killed by a line drive while coaching first base for the Rockies' Double-A affiliate in Tulsa. Phillies fans harping over Manny Corpas's alleged ball doctoring just seems all the more petty by comparison. Corpas, of course, denies everything.

Finally, if Moyer and the Phils do manage to extend the series with a win on Saturday, Sunday's starter would be Thursday's goat Kyle Lohse,not ace Cole Hamels, who would be pitching on three-days rest. Since the Phillies have to sweep the next three games anyway, the decision ultimately comes down to having Lohse, who retired four straight after Matsui's grand slam, start Game 4 or having Kendrick start Game 5 after Hamels -- who missed a month toward the end of the season with a sore elbow—goes on short rest.

The Rockies, of course, could render all of that moot with a win in Game 3.


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10/04/2007 09:38:00 AM

NLDS: Rockies-Phillies, Game 2

By Cliff Corcoran

The Rockies broke serve right away in the Cinderella Series as Jeff Francis's bad fifth inning in Game 1 was a run better than Cole Hamels' bad second inning. Mix in a solo homer by Matt Holliday off Tom Gordon for some late-game insurance and you've got a 4-2 Rockies win and a Phillies team desperate to leave their home park with a split.

As it turns out, on an afternoon when many were concerned about the negative effect that the shadows encroaching on home plate might have on the hitters, it was the sun beating down on the pitchers mound that might have helped Colorado. Hamels started the game in long sleeves on a muggy day and had trouble throwing his changeup for strikes in his fateful second inning due to the sweat dripping down his pitching arm. Hamels switched to short sleeves after that inning and retired 12 in a row, but the costume change came too late as the 41 pitches Hamels threw in the second ultimately forced him out of the game in the seventh, when he reached his 115-pitch limit.

While Hamels was burning up in his long red sleeves, the Rockies' young lefty ace Jeff Francis, to borrow a postgame phrase from reliever Brian Fuentes, came "blazing out of the gate," striking out the first four men he faced. Cool and collected in his black vest and short sleeves, Francis cruised through the first four innings before giving up consecutive solo homers to righties Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell in the fifth, but he didn't falter, nor did the Big Three out of the Colorado bullpen, LaTroy Hawkins, Fuentes, and Manny Corpas. In the words of Bugs & Cranks' Mark Townsend, "What a beautiful thing is it is to have three relievers with closer stuff and slow heartbeats."

That's right, the Rockies can pitch. That they're pretty good at catching the ball has quite a lot to do with that. After I weighed in on the Colorado defense here, a colleague directed me to this partial listing of 2007 Ultimate Zone Ratings (MGL's advanced fielding statistic), which backs me up big time on shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, first baseman Todd Helton and left fielder Holliday, but suggests that the Rockies are clamping down on opposing offenses despite the more dubious performances of third baseman Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe.

(The Philadelphia Inquirer's Paul Hagen has a very different theory as to why at least some of the Rockies have been pitching so well.)

Whatever the reason, the Rockies completely stymied the Phillies' big bats, as the top four men in the order went 0 for 15 with nine strikeouts, four of them by Chase Utley, and a lone walk by Jimmy Rollins. Meanwhile, Colorado's MVP candidate crushed a ball just foul down the left-field line in the second inning that sailed clear out of Citizens Bank Park. Holliday eventually struck out in that at-bat, but he kept his chin up and homered in the eighth.

This afternoon, the Phillies try for that split by sending rookie Kyle Kendrick to the mound. Remarkably, Kendrick, who is 22 and has made just 20 major league starts, is the more seasoned of the two starters in as Colorado's Franklin Morales, 21, has just starts on his big-league resume. Kendrick joined the Phillie rotation in mid-June and handled the Rockies well at Coors in early July, but he was roughed up by the Rox in Philly three weeks ago. Keep your eye on Helton, who tripled in his first postseason at-bat in Game 1, and Hawpe today as lefties have hit .321/.374/.549 against Kendrick, a righty, this season.

As I suggested in my piece on the Rockies' defense, Morales, has succeeded due in large part to his high groundball rate and the Rockies' excellent defense. That's fitting as Morales joined the Colorado rotation in late August when Aaron Cook, another groundballer, hit the DL with an oblique strain. The left-handed Morales just might be better than Cook. The only concern is that he's still developing, and has yet to throw as many as 90 pitches in any of his major league starts, which could put an added strain on the Rockies' bullpen. Morales threw five shutout innings at Citizens Bank Park on September 11, the first of three starts in which he didn't allow a run and the beginning of a franchise record 20 consecutive scoreless innings. In that outing, Morales got 11 of his 15 outs via ground balls and strikeouts. Morales had a 2.05 ERA on the road during the regular season and held lefties to just four hits in 31 at-bats (.129/.206/.226). That could be bad news for Utley and Ryan Howard. The Phillies have their work cut out for them.


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10/03/2007 08:17:00 AM

NLDS: Rockies vs. Phillies

By Cliff Corcoran

Let's call it the Cinderella Series. On the morning of Sept. 13 the Phillies were seven games behind the Mets in the NL East. They proceeded to go 13-4, including a three-game sweep of the Mets at Shea (the Phillies won their last eight head-to-head matchups with the Mets), to capture the division on the final day of the season. On the morning of Sept. 17 the Rockies were in fourth place in the wild-card race, five games behind the Padres. They then went 13-1, including a three-game sweep of San Diego at Petco (the Rockies won six of their last seven head-to-head matchups with the Padres), to win the wild card via the seventh one-game playoff in major league history.

The Rockies' 14-1 record over the final 15 games of the season had only been matched once -- by the 1965 Dodgers, who went 14-1 prior to defeating the Twins in seven games in the World Series. The only team ever to finish the season with a 15-game winning streak was the 1960 Yankees, who lost the World Series on Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run despite outscoring the Pirates 55-27 over seven games.

Add to that the fact that the Rockies have only made one postseason appearance in their 14-year history, that coming when they won the inaugural NL wild card in 1995 and promptly lost the ALDS in four games to the Braves. The Phillies, meanwhile, haven't seen the postseason since 1993. In fact, the first pitch Cole Hamels throws to Kaz Matsui this afternoon will be the first postseason pitch thrown by a Phillies pitcher since Mitch Williams' fateful offering to Joe Carter that ended the '93 World Series.

Adding to the fairy tale flavor is the fact that these two teams are primarily home grown. That group includes six of the Phillies' expected starting nine today (including their ace starting pitcher and the top four men in their order) and seven of the Rockies' starting nine, from Rookie of the Year candidate Troy Tulowitzki to veteran Todd Helton, who was third on the active list of most games played without a postseason appearance prior to today's game.

Also among those homegrown players are the two leading candidates for NL MVP in Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday. The choice between the two is almost impossible to make. Holliday's Rockies were the less likely postseason participant, but Rollins' Phillies made the Mets the victims of the second greatest collapse in baseball history. Holliday bore more of his team's offensive load, while Rollins was supported by MVP-quality seasons from Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but, as a shortstop, Rollins plays a much more valuable defensive position than Holliday, who is a left fielder. In terms of raw numbers Holliday was far more productive than Rollins, but Holliday also got a much larger boost from his home park than Rollins did. Then again, Holliday was still more productive than Rollins on the road, hitting .301/.374/.495 to Rollins' .293/.352/.507 (both play in divisions otherwise composed of pitchers parks; Holliday's park-adjusted road OPS+ was 130 to Rollins' 129). Holliday was easily the most valuable Rocky this season, while Rollins had the fifth-highest OPS+ on the Phillies and was not even the most productive member of his team's double-play combination.

Is it really fair to leave Utley out of this conversation because one of the league-leading 25 pitches that hit him broke his hand in late July, costing him a month of the season? Is the fact that Rollins played more this season than any other player in the history of the game (his 716 at-bats and 778 plate appearances established new single-season records) part of why he deserves the award or merely why his counting stats look so impressive? Rollins is the favorite for the award because it makes for a good story. Rollins, the small, scrappy, be-nicknamed shortstop, bragged that his Phillies were the "team to beat" in the NL East back in February, then backed it up by leading his team to the division title with his best major league season, including becoming just the fifth man in the last 50 years to hit 20 triples, but I can't see the logic in penalizing Holliday for being a strong, strapping lad and keeping his mouth shut. After all, Holliday tripled in his team's clincher, too, and with Willy Taveras on the shelf, he's the Rockies' second biggest stolen base threat after Matsui.

The focus on Rollins and Holliday underscores the sort of series this is likely to be: a high-scoring one. The Phillies have the second-best offense in baseball after the Yankees, and both Citizens Bank Park and Coors Field are run-inflating ballparks. As always, the Rockies offensive numbers have been inflated by their ballpark (though not quite as much as in the pre-humidor era), but they're still a very good hitting team, as evidenced by the fact that Brad Hawpe, who hit .273/.368/.462 on the road this year, is their sixth-place hitter.

With that in mind, the Phillies' home field advantage is significant, as at least one game in this series will likely be decided by who has the last chance to score. The Phillies have another advantage, however, and that is today's starter, Hamels. The Phillies' 23-year-old lefty is a stone cold ace, and came up huge in the biggest game of his life on Friday night, pitching the Phillies to a one-game lead in the division with eight innings of shutout ball and 13 strikeouts. If he turns in another start like that tonight, I might start believing some of the things that have been written about him on the internet.

That's not a slight at the Rockies' own lefty ace, Jeff Francis, who will start against Hamels today, but as good as the 26-year-old Francis is, he's no match for Hamels, and was actually the loser in the one loss in the Rockies' 14-1 stretch to end the season. Francis was roughed up badly in both of his starts against the Phillies this year, most recently allowing eight runs in 3 1/3 innings at Citizens Bank on Sept. 13. Hamels, on the other hand, has never faced the Rockies in his young career, which is an added disadvantage for the Colorado offense tonight.

The Phillies announced their NLDS roster yesterday. They'll carry 10 pitchers, with a rotation of Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Lohse (though Lohse will be available out of the pen for the first two games), and a bullpen that includes starter-turned-closer Brett Myers, Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, and fire-starting veterans Antonio Alfonseca and Jose Mesa. That short bullpen gives the Phils a seven-man bench with three catchers (starter Carlos Ruiz and backups Chris Coste and Rod Barajas), seven infielders (stars Rollins, Utley, and Howard plus the third-base platoon of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs, and reserves Abraham Nuñez and Tad Iguchi), and five outfielders (starters Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand, right-field platoon Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth, and speedster Michael Bourn).

Free-agent bust Adam Eaton and injured reliever Geoff Geary (strained flexor pronator in his pitching elbow) are the notable omissions. Meanwhile, the three catchers have something to do with the fact that Ruiz is still nursing a sore left elbow after getting hit by a pitch in the season finale on Sunday. Ruiz had the swollen elbow drained on Monday, and got an MRI on it yesterday. Mike Carminati over at Mike's Baseball Rants argues that, if Ruiz is hurt, the Phillies should have devoted his spot to an extra reliever and carried the two healthy catchers. "Mike Piazza he ain't," sez Mike.
One interesting change in the rules this year is that teams will be allowed to replace injured players on the roster during a playoff series with the approval of the commissioner (previously they had to play short-handed and alter their roster for the next series if they advanced). Eaton and outfielder Chris Roberson will travel with the Phillies in case they need to be added as injury replacements.

The Rockies are waiting until the last minute to announce their roster. The major items that have leaked out thus far include the fact that Francis and rookie southpaw Franklin Morales will start the first two games (one assumes Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Fogg will start the other two, likely in that order, as Aaron Cook is still rehabbing his strained oblique). Ramon Ortiz, who earned the win in Monday's playoff against the Padres, will not make the squad, nor will center fielder Taveras, who is still out with a right quadriceps strain, leaving Ryan Spilborghs to start in center as he did on Monday, or infielder Ian Stewart. Mark Townsend of Bugs & Cranks offers his preferred roster, though he'll have to sub in Seth Smith, who got a big hit in Monday's win, for Stewart.

A position-by-position comparison of the two teams can be found over at Baseball Analysts, while Dan Lucero of Up in the Rockies offers his own breakdown here. David Cohen of The Good Phight, who contributed the Phillies side of the Baseball Analysts comparison, breaks down the Rockies' regular-season dominance of the Phillies that was otherwise masked by their 4-3 head-to-head record. Erik Grissom at Philliesflow recaps those seven head-to-head contests, while The Rocky Mountain News' Paul Willis stokes the fires by reminding us that the season series ended with a beanball war and Alfonseca being suspended for four games after throwing at Helton's head.

Those looking for still more to read can check out yesterday's workout-day interview with Hamels, Utley and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel here, or join Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Inquirer to catch up with the 1993 NL champion Phillies and get their takes on this year's squad. The Denver Post's Troy E. Renck does the same with the 1995 wild card winners. Finally, for those still debating it, Iowa resident Tim McClelland, the veteran home plate umpire who made the controversial game-ending safe call on Holliday on Monday, discusses that call as well as the doubts about Garrett Atkins' double earlier in the game with the Des Moines Register.


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