Thursday, April 26, 2007

It's Early Until It's Late

By Jared Trexler
The Phanatic Magazine
It's just five games. Just like it was only 15 games in baseball's worst start of 2007.
From sharing a spot in the cellar with the Royals to climbing the rung to join Alex Rodriguez and his underachieving Bronx friends, five games is the perfect medicine during baseball's first month.
It keeps everything in perspective. Like possibly the Phillies aren't as bad as they started. And likely, aren't as good as they have shown recently.
Perspective points at two wins or mediocre Cincinnati, a rain-date victory over Houston with Chris Sampson on the mound and a pair of W's against the worst team in baseball. So, the Phillies haven't exactly been steamrolling the Glory Day Yankees.
Hell, they haven't even been playing team's their equal.
Yet, there is comfort to find in every victory. The Phillies had a tendency to play down to their competition last season, but during this win streak have battered and beaten down teams not matching their talent.
You look at the ever-changing early season baseball statistics and Aaron Rowand, a career .282 hitter who batted just .262 a season ago, is tied with Todd Helton for fifth in batting average. Pat Burrell leads the league in on-base percentage at an astounding .485 clip. Jimmy Rollins leads the league in total bases and home runs -- yes, lead-off hitter Jimmy Rollins. Chase Utley already has a league-leading 13 doubles.
Cole Hamels has already struck out 15 batters in a game. Freddy Garcia picked up his first win in just his second start.
And yet the rosy picture painted during the last five games only masks this team's still glaring deficiencies. Their Opening Day starter was moved to the bullpen because, well, the bullpen stinks.
Outside of Antonio Alfonseca and his minuscule 0.77 ERA in 10 games, Ryan Madson blew two early games and needed three straight flawless performances to lower his ERA to 4.26. Francisco Rosario has been underwhelming since coming over from Toronto. Matt Smith -- the centerpiece of the Bobby Abreu trade last summer -- has an 11.25 ERA, a WHIP of 3.75 and he can't retire left-handers, which is a problem as the only southpaw in the bullpen.
And then there is Tom Gordon, who just recently started throwing his curveball, has already blown two saves and questions about shoulder stiffness and age persist.
The bench may be even worse. Gregg Dobbs is batting .174, Rod Barajas clubbing to a grand total of .182, Jayson Werth at .250. Abraham Nunez (.136) and Michael Bourn (.236) so bad at the plate they are usually entered into the game as bunters, pinch runners or defensive replacements.
With the game on the line and the pitcher's spot due up, which player above evokes confidence? The guy who missed all of last season with a wrist injury?
So, there are still problems. Rowand, Rollins and Burrell will likely come back toward their career means. The good news is Utley is starting to hit, and Carlos Ruiz has shown enough that the cringing thought of a platoon with Barajas has gone by the wayside.
Ryan Howard, he of the .213 batting average, three homers and 12 RBI needs to start making contact. Granted he's struggled, yet is still on pace for 28 homers and 112 RBI with a ridiculous OBP in the mid 4's. He's batting 131 points behind Burrell and only trails him in OBP by a count of .481 to .417. So, once the big man starts using the entire field instead of opening his shoulder and trying to pull a pitch on the outside black, the hits and likely more homers will come.
They must.
Several career starts have kept the Phillies afloat long enough to salvage a decent first month. They've given Howard time to figure it all out. And they've given GM Pat Gillick the opportunity to shore up the bullpen and bench.
It's only five games just like it was only 15. Overreaction comes if glaring holes aren't filled by summer's march toward the playoffs.
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Jared Trexler can be reached at jtrexler@phanaticmag.com
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