Tonight begins the Phillies Rite of Ascension. In the next three weeks the Phillies will play teams loaded with offense, sitting atop their divisions, or both. So far, this young team has earned success beyond expectations, but their mettle has not yet been tested like this. On the one hand, a good showing in the next 23 games will settle concerns that their success is entirely illusory. On the other, any Klingon will tell you that every Rite of Ascension involves pain-sticks (click link to see what I looked like for the middle 3rd of this game).
The Tigers wielded the pain-sticks ably in tonight's game, especially the middle of the order. J.D. Martinez thru Nick Castellanos went 9-14 with 4 HRs, 5 Rs, and 5 RBIs. Three of those dingers were hit in the bottom of the 5th, when Martinez and Cabrera chased Vinny Velasquez from the game and then Castellanos tagged reliever Colton Murray. These were all solo homers, which is good I guess, and the booth's comments about how good solo homers-against are, relatively speaking, led me to this imagined conversation:
T-Mac (after Martinez HR): Well, if you're gonna give up homers, at least make sure no one is on, right?
Stairs (swinging hockey stick): Yeah, exactly.
T-Mac: And that ties the game. But, hey, no one was on. So, it could have been worse.
Stairs (stops swinging stick, stares blankly): How could anyone else have gotten on?
T-Mac: I guess you're right. It's a Catch-22.
*I glance at the stove, wondering whether to hit myself or my TV with the cast-iron skillet*
At the close of the 5th, the Tigers led 4-3 and that lead felt insurmountable. However, the Phillies surmounted it in the very next inning, when Tommy Joseph blasted a hanging curve from Mike Pelfrey into the RF bleachers. And for about 30 minutes, if you crossed your eyes just right, you could see the Phillies squeezing another run across the plate and the bullpen delivering one more in a long series of heroic performances. But, alas, in the bottom of the 7th, after a clean 6th and in his third inning of work, Murray gave up a a lead-off double to Cabrera, who moved to third on a wild pitch that Cameron Rupp failed to close the five-hole on. Victor Martinez then dunked a single into RF to bring Cabrera home for the final run of the game. Cabrera is eminently strandable on 2B given his eternal slowness and his ephemerally bum knee. So, that wild pitch looms a bit larger than it would normally.
The Phillies made little noise against the Tigers bullpen. A team can only take so many pokes with a pain stick, after all.
- Vincent Velasquez pitched only 4 innings in this game, despite throwing 95 pitches. Between his approach and the Tigers' excellent lineup, VV had to work extremely hard for every out. From the very beginning VV seemed afraid to allow any contact, trying to slip almost every fastball into a tiny window low and away. And at least the first time through the lineup he insisted on throwing almost exclusively fastballs. Of course, the Tigers' hitters are too good to get beat by anything but the best fastballs. They did not chase them off the plate. They fouled off some. Hit others. And, to VV's credit, they swung through some as well, enough that he struck out two in the first. But his four-seamer often didn't show the life he's had on it at other times this season. As good as the Tigers are, they started sitting on the fastball low and away, and VV couldn't command his other offerings well enough to get them off his fastball. Matt Winkelman suggested to me he's still learning how to pitch. That seems right to me. As an illustration, take Cabrera's first AB. VV worked ahead of Cabrera with fastballs and then continued to pound fastballs in or just out of the zone. With his keen eye and quick hands, Cabrera worked the count full (and VV's pitch count near 20 on the third batter of the game), eventually drawing a walk. VV never threw Cabrera a breaking pitch. It seems to me VV might have saved himself some pitches if he at least showed Cabrera a breaking ball to cause him some hesitation against the fastball. I realize his game plan has been to use as many fastballs as possible the first time through the order, but an adjustment seemed called for here.
- Odubel Herrera was benched after the top-half of the 7th inning because--we can infer--he failed to run hard to first on a ball hit back to the pitcher with a runner on second. Initially, Herrera busted out of the box, but when he saw the pitcher snap his chopper, Herrera slowed his gait to the bag. As it turns out, the pitcher took his time looking Peter Bourjos back to second and, then, double-clutched or stumbled on his throw to first, which made the play look close even though Herrera was jogging. Assuming the pitcher's behavior was not caused by Herrera's gait, we might think Herrera could have beaten the play to the first base bag. I'm not sure that is a safe assumption, but it certainly did not look good for Herrera that he jogged through a close play. Pete Mackanin said something to Herrera at the end of the half inning and David Lough took his place in CF when the Phillies took the field for the bottom half. Now, you'll probably see plenty of commentary about Mackanin teaching Herrera--and the rest of the team by his example--that every play matters and every play calls for maximum effort. Some will say the lesson was appropriate and taught appropriately. Others, will deny one or both of those claims. In a season where winning is still not the primary objective for the management of the team, I'm fine with Mackanin basically conceding the game by removing Herrera (and leaving Murray in for a 3rd inning of relief rather than using a warm David Hernandez). But I'm also not sure he did it purely to teach a lesson. Herrera has suffered back issues recently. He sat a game last week to rest it. And early tonight he indicated to Juan Samuel that his lower left back was bothering him as he ran to first. It is entirely possible that Mackanin saw Herrera's reaction to his chopper as an expression of his nagging injury and decided to get him some rest. If it hurts too much to run that ball out, then it hurts too much to play a game in a season that will almost certainly end with the 162nd game.