Tag Archives: Phillies

Cole Hamels, on the Full Season

The season is gloriously over, with the Phillies winning the World Series on the back of (among others, of course), Cole Hamels.  Hamels had an excellent season, and is expected to finish in the top 5 in Cy Young Award voting, likely falling behind Johan Santana, and Tim Lincecum, falling into the mix with Brandon Webb and teammate Brad Lidge. The numbers:

Player: Innings, ERA, HR/BB/SO

Hamels: 227.3, 3.09, 28/53/196
Santana: 234.3, 2.53, 23/63/206
Lincecum: 227.0, 2.62, 11/84/265
Webb: 226.7, 3.30, 13/64/183
Lidge: 69.3, 1.95, 2/35/92

Now, last season, while talking about the Beckett vs Sabathia Cy Young debate, Joe Posnanski wondered why we don’t count post-season numbers when considering candidates.  I happen to agree with him, and though it might not be entirely fair, here are the new number for the candidates, counting all their regular season, and postseason work:

Hamels: 262.3, 2.92, 30/62/226
Santana: 234.3, 2.53, 23/63/206
Lincecum: 227.0, 2.62, 11/84/265
Webb: 226.7, 3.30, 13/64/183
Lidge: 78.7, 1.83, 2/38/105

As neither the Mets, Giants, or Diamondbacks made the postseason, only Hamels and Lidge had the opportunity to augment or diminish their overall 2008 performances.  Both pitchers were better in the postseason than the regular season, so the race gets tighter.  Converting their counting numbers to rate stats, we can compare the pitchers on a per-inning basis:

Pitcher: HR/9, BB/9, SO/9

Hamels: 1.03, 2.13, 7.75
Santana: 0.88, 2.42, 7.91
Lincecum: 0.44, 3.33, 10.51
Webb:  0.52, 2.58, 7.27
Lidge: 0.26, 4.94, 11.94

Hamels shows by far the best control of the group, and posts a solid strikeout rate, but suffers from a bit of a home run tendency.  1.03 HR/9 really isn’t so bad–it’s about league average–but running with this group, Hamels is the clear trailer.  Santana is better, though not by a large margin, while Webb and Lincecum dual it out among starters, and Lidge laps the field.  It’s worth noting that Santana, Webb, and Lincecum all pitch in home run unfriendly home ballparks, though oddly Santana posted similar Home/Road homer splits, and both Webb and Lincecum were better on the road.  In fact, Lincecum was much worse in San Francisco than he was elsewhere.

In contrast to Hamels excellent control is Lidge’s wildness.  His walk rate is more than double both Santana’s and Hamels’, and is nearly double Webb’s.  Lincecum is wild in his own right, though his 3.33 isn’t quite in the same league as Lidge’s 4.94.  I’m not sure if walk rates tend to go up or down for starters and relievers (taking a quick and dirty scan of a few guys who have done both, I think walk rate drops somewhat), but needless to say, whatever trouble Lidge seems to ever find himself is likely self-produced.  5BB/9IP is just crazy.

In Lidge’s favor is that he counteracts his walk issues by striking out just about everyone he sees.  About 45% of the outs Lidge generated were by the K.  More than a third (36%) of the batters who came to the plate against him walked away after striking out.  The only starter who can even see Lidge’s K rate is Lincecum with a 10.51.

I’m no sabermetrician, obviously, but it seems to me that Hamels has a fairly compelling Cy Young case if one considers his substantial innings advantage.  Forgetting about Lidge for the moment, strictly on an inning by inning basis, Hamels is probably ahead of Webb, and pretty even with Santana.  Despite the walks, Lincecum seems to have a good claim to the prize.  Of course, weighted by innings advantage, Hamels closes the gap on Lincecum, but by how much, I cannot say.

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Squeezing the Zone

We’ll get onto the Playing Favorites in the NL soon, but for now, just a quick Pitch F/x aside.  I was at the Phils – Mets tilt featuring Johan Santana and Cole Hamels on April 18th.  The two were pretty even in their handling of the opponent lineups, until the 8th inning, when the opponents started handling them.

Two men in the row behind me commented that the umpire, Brian Runge, appeared to be squeezing the strike zone on Hamels, or stretching it a bit for Santana.  I’m not sure if any of the wizards at Baseball Prospectus or elsewhere have tracked any sort of tendency among umpires to give better calls to the larger celebrity among players, and we’re not about to go in a full-blown study here, but we can at least look at the location of the calls from that game for both pitchers.

All these charts are taken from Jnai’s website, which can be found here.  If you have any interest in Pitch F/x, I cannot recommend this tool highly enough.  It’s thoroughly wonderful.  And a big thanks to TangoTiger, who seems to always find the most wonderful toys.

Anyway, here are the pitch locations from 4/18/08 for pitches thrown by Hamels.

If you click on the picture, you should get a slightly larger image.  It’s a bit hard to read, anyway, but here are the facts:

Hamels threw 5 pitches well within the strike zone that were called balls.  Most of these are located in the lower left quadrant of the strike zone.  All 5 were in the lower half.  He also threw several pitches that were on or near the border of the strike zone that were also called balls.  Hamels threw one pitch that was outside the zone which was called a strike.  It would certainly seem that Hamels was getting squeezed a bit.  Well, a good amount.  The question, of course, is, was Johan Santana getting the same treatment?

Here’s the same chart, but for Johan:

Santana also gets a few would-be strikes called balls, though only one or two of these are egregious (one all by itself in the bottom right, and another one high in the zone, in the middle).  The rest are all on or near the strikezone border.  Santana did get four pitches outside the zone for called strikes, as well.

It would seem that Santana did get a bit more benefit of the doubt than Hamels, as Runge was more likely to call a ball a strike for Johan than for Cole.  Obviously, we’re only talking about 5-10 total pitches, here, but the difference between a 1-0 count and an 0-1 count are significant.  Needless to say, Brian Runge, at least from Friday night, is not a friend of the Curious Mechanism.

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Cole Hamels, 4-2-08

The Phillies best pitcher, Cole Hamels, made his first start of the season on Wednesday night.  The Phillies normally mighty offense couldn’t muster a runner past first base, and so Hamels was hung with a loss, despite pitching well.

By the numbers:

8IP
5 hits (1 HR), 2 BB
6 K
11/8 GB/FB
1 run
106 pitches
GameScore 72

From those numbers, we can say that Hamels pitched a really nice game.  The 6 strikeouts is slightly below his career strikeout rate, but not much below, and the skimpy walk total is par for the course.  As is the home run, for the matter, as Hamels allowed 25 homers in 28 starts last year.

Major League Baseball, last year, began a system of pitch tracking that they call Pitch F/x.  This system uses a number of high speed cameras positioned around the ball park to follow the path of the ball from the pitchers hand to the catcher’s mitt (or the hitter’s bat), and calculate the ball’s speed and trajectory.  The system has been installed in every ballpark, I believe, and many of the kinks that existed last year have been ironed out.  Really, this is one of the biggest advances in baseball analysis in years, as it allows, essentially, for rigorous objective analysis of performance in a way that can only normally be done by the subjective measure of scouts.  While in the past, a pitcher might be categorized as having a huge curveball, we can now say exactly how big it is.  A hitter might be said to be a mistake hitter–that is, he only makes solid contact when the pitcher accidentally leaves a pitch in the middle of the zone, or if a slider doesn’t, ya know, slide.

What we’re going to do with it is, well, look at some pitchers.  Probably mostly just Phillie pitchers, but we’ll see how good we get with the data, and how it all strikes our fancy.

Anyway, and now what you’ve all been waiting for: CHARTS!

It is said (“Who says it?”, “They.”, “They talk a lot, don’t they?”) that a pitcher needs four things to succeed.  Namely: velocity, movement, location, and deception.  With Pitch F/x, we can talk about the first three things.  Velocity, of course, is the most famous of all these, as every baseball fan can name their favorite flamethrower,  whether it’s someone like Joel Zumaya recently, or Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, or going back a bit farther, someone like Sudden Sam McDowell or Walter Johnson.  Flamethrowers get all the love.  If you can throw 95, some baseball team is going to want you.

Movement, of course, refers the “break” of the pitch.  When Bad News Bears’ ace Amanda Whurlitzer tells you that her curveball breaks 2 feet, she’s talking about the kind of movement she gets on the ball.  The most common way to discuss movement is to imagine a straight line from the pitcher’s hand to the cather’s glove.  Whatever sort of deviation from this line the ball makes on its actual path is, often, considered the “break”.  This isn’t necessarily the best way to think about pitch movement, but we’ll talk about that in a moment.

Location is simply where the ball is when it crosses the front of home plate.  The plate is merely 17 inches wide, and your average batter’s strikezone starts about 19 inches above the ground, and extends another 25 inches from there.  The upper limit of the strike zone is just over 3 and 1/2 feet up.  Throwing a pitch on the corner, low and away, is a strike.  Throwing a pitch straight down the middle is a strike as well, but those pitches are bit more likely to end up near the outfield wall.  As everyone’s favorite soft tosser, Greg Maddux, once said, “You can do a lot of things when you put the ball exactly where you want it.”

Deception is the one thing we can’t really measure with Pitch F/x, though it is about as important as the other three.  Most pitchers, if not all pitchers, involve a certain amount of deception in their delivery of the ball.  Whether it’s using their body or their glove to hide the ball before releasing it, or using a slow windup to screw up a hitter’s timing, deception is certainly important.  Unfortunately, at this time, we can’t really talk about it.

Let’s look at location first.  This chart is easily the most difficult to look at of the three we’ve got, so, don’t worry, if you make it past here, it’s smooth sailing.

What you’re looking at there, is the location of nearly every pitch Hamels threw on Wednesday (a few pitches weren’t documented by the Pitch F/x system), as seen by the catcher.  The black square in the middle represents the approximate strike zone.

We can see that Hamels was a bit on the wild side on Wednesday, which is also indicated by the fact that 12 of the 32 batters Hamels faced worked at-bats of at least 4 pitches.  Other things we can learn are that Hamels tends to throw his fastball up in the strike zone (despite the wildness, most of the blue dots are in the upper half of the chart), he keeps his changeup low in the zone, and he appears to have little idea where his curveball is going to go.  High, low, inside, outside, that curve could be going anywhere.  On the upside, Hamels threw a lot of curveballs on Wednesday (19 of them), which is encouraging, since at times last year, he seemed to go throw games where he wouldn’t throw more than a couple of curveballs.   Curveballs (and other breaking pitches) are often referred to as “feel” pitches, because the pitcher must grip the ball somewhat delicately (to keep the speed of the pitch down), but apply substantial fingertip pressure on the ball to get the kind of spin neccessary to create break.  The traditional wisdom is, basically, practice makes perfect, and so the more Hamels throws the pitch, the more likely that he’ll start to harness it a bit better.

Let’s take a look at pitch speed now:

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to get Excel to create a scattergraph with a line of best fit, so you’ll have to make do with my squiggly lines for the time being.   The vertical axis here indicates pitch speed, while the horizontal axis refers to time.  That’s what the (blue) line for the fastball is slightly longer on both ends than either of the other lines: Hamels’ first and last pitches were fastballs.  Things to note: Hamels fastball was greatly exaggerated when he first came up.  First, Hamels was reported to throw in the low to mid 90s, then just the low 90s.  The truth is the Hamels tends to throw in the mid to upper 80s.  Or, at the very least, that’s how he was throwing on Wednesday night.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with this, though I’d be curious to know how many other pitchers are as successful as the Phils’ ace with a fastball as slow as his.

Also worth looking at is the separation between Hamels’ fastball and changeup.  Now, the idea behind the changeup is that, coming out of the pitcher’s hand, the pitch looks like a fastball.  The hope is that the pitcher can do everything just as he does with a fastball–same delivery, arm speed, arm angle, and release point–but pitch the ball at least 7 mph slower than the heat.  Hamels is outstanding in this regard, as his changeup often sits 10-12 mph slower than the fastball.

Hamels curveball is interesting.  It’s just a smidgen slower than his changeup, but it breaks significantly more, so I wonder how it appears to a hitter.  When Hamels can throw it for strikes, especially, it appears to be quite the formidable third pitch.

A few facts:

Fastest FB: 88.5
Slowest FB: 83.1
Average FB: 85.6

Fastest CH: 77.9
Slowest CH: 74.4
Average CH: 76.3

Fastest CB: 74.8
Slowest CB: 69.8
Average CB: 71.8

Now, getting on to movement.  This is an easy graph to look at, but it’s somewhat difficult to understand.  A quick primer: as we previously mentioned, people intuitively talk about the break of a pitch thrown relative to a straight line, drawn from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt.  This line, however, isn’t realistic.  A ball cannot be thrown straight like that, as the effects of wind resistence and gravity cause the ball to sink, and, to a lesser degree, move left or right.  The amount of spin put on a ball (backspin on fastballs, front and sidespin on various breaking pitches) cause the ball to drop and rise, cut and tail.

The graph below shows the break of pitches relative to a pitch thrown with no spin whatsoever.  That mean, essentially, a ball that is thrown and the only action on it is caused be gravity.  As you can see, pitches thrown with backspin resist gravity a bit–thus, a fastball with a substantial amount of backspin appears to “rise”.  The ball isn’t really rising, of course, it’s just sinking less than expected.  As for the horizontal deviation from the center of the graph, this results in tailing or curving action.  On this graph, the pitches that are shown to the left of center are pitches that bore in on a righthanded batter (and away from a lefty), whereas the pitches to the right of center move away from righties and in toward lefties.

It’s perhaps worth noting that how crazy some of this is.  Toronto Blue Jays blog recently took a look at RHP AJ Burnett’s first start of the year, and provided a graph much like this one.  You can find it here.  Burnett throws the same three pitches as Hamels.  Both Hamels and Burnett throws a fastball that rises about 10 inches, and Burnett’s cuts substantially, moving back toward a righthanded batter between 5 and 10 inches.  Hamels doesn’t get that kind of lateral movement, but the movement he does get is more interesting, in a way.  Because, you see, the ball can go anywhere.  Only 20% of his fastballs behave the same way Burnett’s do–that is, by tailing back toward a lefthanded batter (again, Burnett’s pitch is the same because, he’s a RHP with a FB that tailed toward a righty batter).  The other 80% actually move away from lefties.  Now, I’m not sure how he accomplishes this.  If he’s throwing a different fastball, it only shows up in the movement.  Average speed of fastballs that head left: 85.6 mph.  Average speed of fastballs that head right: 85.6.  I haven’t looked at Hamels’ pitch data beyond this start, but it’s very interesting (to me, at least), that he can make a baseball go both ways.  If I get the chance, I’ll try to figure out if he’s doing this on purpose–he may have a tendency to throw the one kind of FB to lefties, and the other to righties.

Comparing Burnett and Hamels, again, we can see that Burnett throws an occasional changeup that moves back toward righthanded batters  quite a bit, but doesn’t rise or drop much at all.  Hamels throws his change frequently (about 30% of his pitches on Wednesday were changes), and while his doesn’t move laterally quite as much as Burnett’s, it rises quite a bit more.

And now the curveball.  Burnett’s drops between 6 and 11 inches, it would seem, and curls away from a righthanded batter about 1-4 inches.  Hamels?  Well, he throws some kind of gem.  The pitch sinks about 4 to 8 inches, but can move laterally, away from a lefty, anywhere from 1 to 7 inches.  In fact, nearly half of his curveballs broke more than 5 inches away from a lefty bat.  That’s a nasty pitch, it would seem.

There’s a ton of information available here, and I’m just learning to manipulate it.  We’ll try to keep using it throughout the season, though I doubt we’ll regularly post things as lengthy as this.  Generally, I suspect, we’ll use Pitch F/x to illuminate only one aspect of a player’s performance: just the movement or location or speed of a pitcher on a given night, or to see what, exactly, Shane Victorino is able to hit, if anything.

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Ed Wade Continues to Bring Veteran Relievers to Phillies

Astros (and former Phillies) GM Ed Wade completed a trade with current Phils GM Pat Gillick last night, sending Geoff Geary, Michael Bourn, and minor league third baseman Mike Costanzo to Houston for closer Brad Lidge and infielder Eric Bruntlett.  [Link]

Personally?  It’s hard to tell what’s happening with Lidge.  His numbers were mostly good in 2006, though his home run rate was elevated, and his general luck worsened, and posted a hefty 5.28 ERA.  Last year, his K/9 rate was down, and his home run rate was almost identical to 2007, and yet the ERA dropped to a nice 3.36.  The question is, of course, whether Costanzo or Bourn turn into league average every day players.  Costanzo is a slugging third basemen with a pretty good eye at the plate, but he’s a catastrophe in the field, and will likely have to be moved to first base or left field.  Plus, there is, apparently, some question about whether his swing translates to the majors.  Bourn is a very light hitting speedster, who may or may not have some semblance of plate discipline.  He’s certainly a good baserunner, and appears to be an above average defensive outfielder, but I have serious reservations about whether his bat can play every day in the majors.  Given Costanzo’s and Bourn’s 11 combined years until free agency versus Lidge’s 1, it would seem that if either Bourn or Costanzo pan out in the majors, Houston gets the better end of the deal.

For the time being Brett Myers will move back into the Phillies rotation, and Lidge will assume closer duties.

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Shut It Down

The moral of the story?  You can never have enough good, young, pitching. 

The Phillies season ended a couple of days ago, on Saturday night.  Honestly, I’m not too heartbroken about it.  Sure, I’m disappointed, but, honestly, I didn’t think they’d even get to play three extra games, so  the losses were easier to handle.  Hell, they barely held a lead during the entire series, so, after game 1’s loss, it’s not like Philadelphian hopes were sky high.  We’ve seen this kind of thing before. 

I like this team.  I liked last year’s team, too.  When they win, they’re a blast to watch.  Home runs and doubles and stolen bases.  Offense everywhere, desperately trying to outrun the pitching.  The Phils pitchers allowed 11 runs as often as they allowed none, and they allowed 10 runs more often than either.  Thankfully, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley,  Ryan Howard, and The Bat powered a sensational offense that could keep up with the tragic work of Adam Eaton, Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, JA Happ, Antonio Alfonseca, Jose Mesa, Francisco Rosario, Mike Zagurski, JD Durbin, and Matt Smith.  Well, maybe they couldn’t keep up with Jose Mesa.

So, why did this team fail so very quickly in the post season?  Quite obviously, the pitching.  Sure, it’s easy to blame the offense, which only showed up in Game 2, but if the pitching was any good, they could’ve at least made a fight of it.  Game 1 pitcher Cole Hamels is fantastic, but got roughed up for one inning, and the Phils couldn’t pull out a win.  It happens.  The problem is, after Cole, there’s a bunch of pitchers who could be aptly nicknamed, “Meat”.  The Phils rotation contains one Probably Win in Hamels, and 4 (well, three in the playoffs) Probable Losses in everybody else

The rest of your 2007 starting rotation was Kyle Kendrick, Kyle Lohse, Jamie Moyer, and the exiled Adam Eaton. 

Kendrick is popular in Philadelphia, but, frankly, I’m going to be nervous and mildly upset if he’s in the starting rotation next year.  For Philadelphians, he’s the 2007 version of Chris Coste.  Coste, of course, came up to be backup catcher last season, and managed to bat .328 for the Phils in just under 200 at-bats.  He was a 33 year old rookie, with an ugly swing and modest defensive abilities.  But when he was brought back this year, a lot of Phillies fans, myself included, were bothered.  Just about no one expects a lot out of their starting catcher, let alone their backup, and it would seem that between Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste, the Phils had enough catching to suffice. 

Kendrick is different, however.  His shortcomings as a pitcher (namely, the inability to miss bats) cannot be hidden as they are with Coste.  Coste doesn’t get too many opportunities a year, so whenever he lucks into a hit, it’s fantastic–his legend grows.  Kendrick spent all of 2007 getting lucky.  If he’s a starter next year, one of three things will prove true: 1) If successful, he’s the luckiest pitcher in baseball. 2) If successful, he has some skill that I cannot yet find.  3) If he’s unsuccessful, he’s stopped possessing the kind of luck that allows every opponent line drive to sail right at Pat Burrell.

Jamie Moyer is 44 years old.  There’s no need to joke about his age.  I believe he has one more year on his contract, and I would expect much of the same from him next year, as he gave the Phils this year.  He’ll give the Phillies some innings, but the offense is going to have to be awake for him to get wins. 

Kyle Lohse is a free agent, and a mediocre pitcher who is about to get heavily overpaid.  He’s probably gone.

Adam Eaton is stuck on the roster for the next two years, and he’ll be spending the offseason talking to a sports psychologist.  Frankly, I don’t think his feelings are the problem, I think it’s his hanging breaking balls. 

Oh, the bullpen? 

Down the stretch this year, the Phillies relied heavily, and almost exclusively, upon Brett Myers, Tom Gordon, and JC Romero.  Myers, of course, is a converted starter, and both Brother Goose and Mrs Thursday inform me that the Phillies intend to keep him in the bullpen.  I guess he likes it there. 

Gordon is almost 40, and has shoulder problems, but is mostly effective when he’s healthy.  The Phils should do everything they can to keep him healthy (limit his workload, specifically), but they should not enter the season relying on him in any fashion.  His injury history since getting here is too troubling for that, and it’d be a mistake to expect his presence in the eighth inning all the time.

Romero, I believe is a free agent.  He’s an interesting sort of pitcher.  At least, I’ve never seen anyone who can be as successful as he is while walking so many guys.  As a Phillie this year, Romero pitched 36 1/3 innings, struck out 31, and walked 25.  Twenty-five!  He countered the walks by only allowing 15 hits, and only one of those was a round-tripper.  I have no idea what to make of him.  He was tragic as a Dodger last year, but decent the two years before that in Minnesota.  If he can be had a decent price, I’d resign him, but again, I wouldn’t hope for too much. 

Other arms?  The Phils have Scott Mathieson in rehab, still.  If he still throws 95, he’s a useful arm for the bullpen.  Ryan Madson, who absolutely carried the bullpen for most of the season while Myers and Gordon were hurt (and, at times, even when they were healthy), should be back next year, and I think he’s their “8th inning” guy.  At least, I think he’s the best bet for all the pitchers they currently have.  Alfonseca, Mesa, Condrey, and Smith should never see a Phillies uniform again.  Mike Zagurski and Geoff Geary, though I love them both, are fringe players at best, and neither can be relied upon in a close game. 

What the Phillies need, they really don’t have, and they probably can’t get.  Sure, they are going to need an upgrade at third base, and they’ll need to figure out what to do about the outfield, but the pitching is what sank the ship. 

Starting Rotation:

SP1 – Cole Hamels (L)
SP2 –
SP3 –
SP4 – Jamie Moyer (L)
SP5 – Adam Eaton

That’s two slots they need to fill.  Almost all good major league teams fill their pitching needs from within.  The Phillies have zero prospects who are ready to step in and be a 2 or 3, or even a 4 or 5. 

Their bullpen, theoretically, looks something like this:

CL – Brett Myers
RP – Ryan Madson
RP – Scott Mathieson
RP – Tom Gordon
RP – JC Romero
RP –

That bullpen already looks shaky.  The top 2 guys are fine, even though Madson is coming off an injury.  Mathieson is coming off an injury, and has very little major league experience, and I’m not sure if he’s ever pitched out of the ‘pen before.  Gordon is old, and broken down.  Romero is a wildcard and could produce an ERA under 3 or over 6, depending on factors I can’t guess.  Again, the Phils need somebody to pitch in that final slot, and he better be closer to Madson’s quality than to Antonio Alfonseca or Geoff Geary’s.  In fact, if El Pulpo or Geary is that 6th spot, I’m going to be very sad. 

By my count, the Phillies need 5 more pitchers (2 starters, 3 relievers) who are at least league average next year, and I don’t expect them to get more than 2 (Mathieson, unknown) from within the organization.  Good luck, fellas.  See ya in February. 

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Fathers and Sons

I’d love to scream and jump for joy right now, but my voice is as hoarse as a 90 year-old lung disease victim.  I was going to write something on Saturday, about Friday night’s Phillies game, but was busy almost all day, and so today, a post about the weekend’s games, about the playoffs, and anything else I happen to think of.  This is a long post–just over 2300 words, so, ya know, make sure you’re comfortable. 

Friday night’s game attendance came about on Thursday night, when older brother of Mr Thursday, the freakishly tall Stork, phoned to ask if freakishly tall younger brother Goose, and I, wanted in on standing room tickets.  We said yes, and to add an extra for Mrs Thursday. 

Going into the game, given the way the Kyles (Kendrick and Lohse) had delivered the previous two games (out-dueling John Smoltz and Tim Hudson), and the way Hamels hadn’t yet gotten his command since his return, I was honestly nervous about a sort of let down game.  I thought we might see 5-6 innings out of Cole, with a lot of deep ball counts, and while he wouldn’t be terrible, we’d definitely need a good game out of the offense for the win.  This fear gained a little traction as Hamels took the mound, as the Nationals clobbered a couple of Hamels pitched, but thankfully, the balls flew directly toward Phillie defenders.

In the second inning, everything changed.  Hamels threw lots and lots of strikes, and the Nats were swinging wildly at curveballs and changeups for the next 7 innings, barely able to make any contact at all.  Hollywood Hamels seemed to enjoy the hell out of his first Big Game start.  He pitched 8 innings, giving up no runs, striking out 13, walking 1, and allowing only 6 hits.  I said after the game that is was the best pitched game I’ve ever seen live.  Brother Goose called it the second best he’s seen, after witnessing Kevin Millwood’s no-hitter a couple of years ago.  Regardless of its rank in our personal pantheons, Hamels performance was electric.  One fan, sitting 20 rows in front of us, held up a sign, which read METS down the left side, but across it read “My Entire Team Sucks”. 

The lineup wasn’t half-bad, either.  Rollins kept plugging along, stealing bases and playing excellent defense.  Utley hit a double, Howard hit a home run.  Shane Victorino nearly threw Ronnie Belliard out at first base in the first inning.  Aaron Rowand made a sensation diving catch late in the game, which was wonderful not only on its own merits, but it immediately brought the fans to their feet, thus crushing the relentlessly obnoxious Wave that had been circling the stadium like turn in a toilet bowl.  The Phillies win 6-0. 

Saturday rolls around, and Mrs Thursday and I go to a nearby festival for bratwurst and brewery tours, missing the beginning of the game.  By the time we return, and plant ourselves in front of the game, the Phils were floundering a bit.  Some bad, bad, bad defense by the usually excellent Carlos Ruiz and the Thank-God-He-Can-Hit Ryan Howard give the Nationals a lead, which Matt Chico and the bullpen refuse to relinquish, despite some threats from the Phillie lineup.  No dice, and with John Maine almost throwing a no hitter, and the Mets win 136-0, and move back into a tie for the NL East crown. 

So, Sunday rolls around.  Its Papa Thursday’s birthday, so at the game, once again are Goose and Stork, the freakishly tall older and younger brothers.  Also there is Mama and Papa Thursday, and Mama Thursday’s brother his wife, the Aunt and Uncle.  We’re somewhat spread out through the stadium, with Mama and Papa high in right field, while Stork and Aunt and Uncle recline in a nearby section, and Goose and I enjoy the shade in the 400 level, high above home plate. 

We walked in a few minutes before the first pitch.  Making our way through the concourse, the already largely filled stadium absolutely exploded.  Running over toward the field to see what’s going on, Goose uses his freakish height to ascertain the situation.  Marling 4, Mets 0, in the first inning.  Things are looking fantastic. 

We take our seats, already yelling about the glory of the Florida Marlins.  The crowd is outstanding.  For the first few innings, every strike called produces a war-cry, every ball, gets an ump jeered.  The crowds screams “MVP” as Jimmy Rollins singles, steals second, then gains the attention of Nat pitcher Jason Bergmann for wandering to far from the bag.  Bergmann throws and looks over a couple of times, and Jimmy promptly steals third, and then scores on Chase Utley’s line drive.  A few innings later, Howard opens things up with a line-drive 2-RBI single over Ronnie Belliard, who had been shifted into shallow left field.  Not much later, a Rollins triple scores two more, and Ryan Howard’s final home run of the regular season puts the Phillies up 6-1. 

Charlie Manuel didn’t mess around during the game, and brought in the big 3–Tom Gordon, JC Romero, and Brett Myers, to lock things up once Moyer handed over the keys.  With 1 out in the sixth, and two on, Gordon induced a double play to escape trouble.  Romero carried the load for two stellar innings, and handed the game to Brett Myers for the ninth.  The crowd was on its feet. 

Myers pounds Dmitri Young with curveballs, striking him out.  As he strikes out Young, the right field scoreboard announces that the Mets have lost to the Marlins, and the Phillies are 2 outs from the playoffs.  The next batter, Austin Kearns, gets ahold of a Myers fastball, and sends hit skyward, but the ball lands comfortably in the soft hands of Michael Bourn, who took over leftfield for Pat Burrell. 

And then came my favorite part of the game.  One out away from the division title, the Opening Day starter, Brett Myers, receives the ball back in the infield.  It seems weirdly appropriate that the opening day starter would somehow become the final game’s closer.  Meanwhile, the crowd has erupted.  There are no words to describe these kinds of frenzy.  We’re not chanting or clapping or singing.  There are 45,000 people jumping and roaring with as much sound as they can muster, after screaming just the same way for the previous 3 hours.  Whatever anyone had left in their throats, they used at that moment.  Myers took a moment, walking behind the mound with the ball, facing out toward centerfield, while we screamed.  I don’t know what he was thinking about, out there.  Just taking a deep breath, perhaps, to calm down.  Maybe just soaking all this in, what it means to these fans, when he gets this final out.  

Andy, who infrequently writes for this site, calls from New Orleans, as he’s watching the game on GameCast.  It’s too loud in the stadium, so I just tell him to listen, and he gets to hear the crowd as the game ends.  The first pitch, a strike, and the crowd somehow gets louder.  Then a ball, and then two fouls.  Finally, another pitch–I have no idea what he threw–and Wily Mo Pena swings through it.  I’ve never heard anything so loud.  Goose and I leapt, screaming, into the air, and grabbed each other, hugging, screaming, and pointing to the sky, to the field.  The players come rushing in from the field, from the bullpen, from the dugout.  Pat Burrell tackles Brett Myers.  Jimmy Rollins finds a microphone–Jimmy who proclaimed the Phillies the team to beat in January, and who played every game.  The stats indicate that, even after missing a month, Utley was the most valuable player on the team this year, and probably the most valuable in the entire league.  But Jimmy, this year, represented every reason why fathers bring their sons to baseball games.  He played every game, only taking a couple innings off at the end of blowouts.  He played very well, too.  He hit and ran, and turned double plays.  Nobody in Philadelphia was more fun to watch, this summer, than Jimmy Rollins.  He might win the MVP, and he might not deserve it, but I don’t care about that.  As soon as Jimmy picked up that microphone and tried to thank the Phillies fans for the season, for showing up, for being loud, well, the only thing that could be heard were 45,000 voices crying “MVP! MVP!” again and again.  By the time we relented, the part of Jimmy’s speech that could be heard were, “We’ll see ya in the World Series.”  The crowd continues its madness. 

Ryan Howard and Chase Utley tried similar speeches, and Citizens Bank Park speaker system similarly succumbed to the might of the roaring crowd.  The jumbotron showed a fan with a sign, “From the Phillies –  Thanks to the Marlins and the Nationals, and See You Next Year, You Stinkin’ Mets”.  A perfect summary. 

After we cleared out, the seven of us met in the parking lot, to hang out and watch the honking, celebratory cars depart.  Stork, the older brother, is a big football guy who likes baseball.  Goose and I are mainly baseball people.  Papa Thursday loved the Phils when we were  younger, driving us to a couple of games every year, and telling us stories about Jim Bunning and Lefty and The Bull and Tug and Michael Jack Schmidt.  About the 1980 team with its “We are not afraid, we have Del Unser”.  He recalled the misery of 1964 before it became vogue to do so.  He couldn’t believe the 5-1 trade for Von Hayes when it happened.  In 1993, when I was 9 years old, he made a habit out of predicting home runs by Pete Incaviglia.  He probably wasn’t right as often as I remember, but as a 9 year-old, I was flabbergasted by this talent.  He taught us how to throw baseballs, and how to hit them.  How to take a lead at first base.  But in 1994, when the strike hit, he left baseball.  You can’t play baseball for love, but then stop playing it because of money, he thought, and to a fair degree, he was absolutely correct.  My brothers and I, following the lead of our father, were similarly crushed, and likewise ditched the game–the MLB, the Phillies, Little League, all dead to us. 

Somehow, we got back into it.  I think I was the first to return, in 1998 or ’99, but Goose and Stork followed shortly thereafter.  Pops Thursday wasn’t interested.  He wasn’t interested in games on TV, or in attendance.  In 2003, he went to his first baseball game since attending Game 4 of the 1993 World Series.  This time, for a Steve Carlton bobblehead giveaway.  Over the next three years, he went to a game or two each year, and slowly refound his interest. 

By the time Christmas rolled around, Goose and I had given him tickets for the upcoming season.  6 games, including Opening Day and the final game of the year.  Opening Game was, almost predictably, a disappointment, as the offense fails to come alive, and the Phils pitching isn’t quite enough.  Complaints about the times of games getting changed kept flying for the next few months.  Somehow, though, this team got through to him.  All-business Utley who plays stellar second base, and runs out doubles every other game got his attention.  Howard’s bombs did likewise.  Hamels dazzling pitching, Kendrick’s surprising success after his callup.  Jimmy’s leadership, hustle, and all-around excellence.  Good performances from Dobbs and Werth off the bench.  Pat Burrell “coming alive”.  Shane Victorino and Aaron Rowand locking down the right and center portions of the outfield.  There was just a lot to like about the team, and the elder Thursday was caught up in it. 

That culminated yesterday.  For the first time in 14 years, a Phillies team with something to play off, came through win it mattered. 

Baseball is a community game.  It’s not like basketball or soccer or even hockey in that, with the right equipment, you can do it on your own.  And football only requires someone to catch and throw the ball with.  Baseball needs more people.  People to throw and catch and field and run.  The game is so nuanced, that it’s nearly impossible to become good at it without a lot of help.  Likewise, it’s celebrated by a community.  After 162 games, a baseball team is like family.  You’ve spent time with them almost every day for six months.  When they succeed, far more than when, say, a football team succeeds, the success is shared by the fans.  It can never feel as good to win the Super Bowl, as it does to win the World Series.  If you’re unsure about that, ask Bill Simmons. 

And so, when I was 5 or 6 and my father bought me a glove and took me to cold April games in Veterans Stadium and told me stories about no hitters and grand slams, it was a memorable part of my childhood.  They’re some of the best and most distinct memories of time spent with my father.  He left baseball, and for the first time, this year, with this team coming through and making the playoffs, his children helped give it back to him. 

There’s no point in trying to predict the playoffs.  There’s no analysis to be done.  The team that plays best in a short stretch, and gets lucky, will win it all.  We’ll be watching, father and son, and rooting, for the Phillies. 

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PHILLIES! PHILLIES! PHILLIES!

Is there no way for me to enlarge the font?  I’d like to be in giant letters, proclaiming the citywide awesome with vigor and volume to anyone who enters my webspace. 

The wildcard is for pussies.  We’re going for the division. 

Hamels, still recovering from injury, starts tonight, the first game of a 3 game SEASON.  The Mets play the Fish, and the Phils play the Nats, but both teams are really facing each other.  The division might take 90 wins.  It’ll almost certainly take at least 89, even with the Mets floundering. 

The Phils have gotten solid pitching the past 2 games, from Lohse and Kendrick and won solid, but fairly close victories.  Tonight, I want a Roman triumph.  I want to win by such a margin that the Mets, who have been in first place for the past 159 games, feel like they can’t catch the team they’re tied with, whether they win or lose. 

I want Murphy’s Law in Shea Stadium.  I want a divine hand at the Bank. 

I’ll be at the game tonight, with Mrs Thursday, and the Brothers Thursday.  I’ll be there on Sunday as well.  It’s Papa Thursday’s birthday.  With a little luck, Sunday won’t be about drama and competetition.  With a little luck, the Phils will just have a day  to celebrate their first postseason birth in 14 years, and their second since I was born. 

With just a little more luck…

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