One Night in Philadelphia
Momentum doesn't exist in baseball, at least as far as I can tell. Last night's thriller in Philadelphia will probably not propel the Phillies to another 10 consecutive wins and by the same token, it's not yet time for Cubs fans to "wait 'til next year" either. But the game seemed to accentuate so much about the constitution and performance of each team in 2009. It was a great game, one of the very best I have seen this season, and yet even well before Jayson Werth's game-winning home run, I couldn't help but marvel at Philadelphia's resilience and Chicago's offensive futility
Phillies starter Joe Blanton is exactly the kind of pedestrian right-hander the Cubs pounded on in 2008. Blanton's ERA has improved a bit since last year but make no mistake, he's the same pitcher he has always been. He has good control, can mix in some decent strikeout numbers from time to time and still gives up the long ball with the best of them. Coming off of a 10-1 loss at the hands of Rodrigo Lopez (Rodrigo Lopez!) and in the thick of the NL Central, the Cubbies had a chance to bounce back against Blanton.
On the hill for Chicago was Rich Harden, sort of the anti-Blanton. Whereas Harden's former Oakland teammate puts up strong innings numbers at right around a league average clip, Harden battles injuries and inconsistency constantly but sports the potential to dazzle on a given night. His performance last evening against the National League's best lineup was yet another painful reminder of just how good the Cubs pitching has been this year with so little to show for it.
A look at the Cubs and Phillies rosters, and even their 2009 statistics, would suggest that the teams are not too far apart.
PHI 107 96
CHC 88 114
The Phillies hit the hell out of the ball and pitch just ok, while the Cubs are lights out on the mound and can't hit for their lives. But look at their respective lineups (cOPS+ = career OPS+).
PHI cOPS+ CHI cOPS+
C Ruiz 79 Soto 112
1B Howard 141 Lee 122
2B Utley 131 Fontenot 99
3B Feliz 85 Ramirez 113
SS Rollins 97 Theriot 91
LF Ibanez 116 Soriano 114
CF Victrno 99 Fukudome 97
RF Werth 112 Bradley 116
As constructed, it doesn't seem like there should be a whole lot of difference between the two clubs. And I suppose in reality, there is not. The Cubs are just 6.5 games worse than Philadelphia. It is easy to get swept up in the negativity that can surround a club and with such high expectations coming into this season and a high-profile free agent flop (to date) like Milton Bradley on the roster, the Chicago media is already trying to figure out whom to blame for the Cubs' failed campaign. And yet they are just two games out of a playoff spot. It's funny, too. I wonder how many in the Chicago media who are crushing the Cubs are card-carrying members of the "pitching wins" club.
In last night's game, Chicago managed to take Philadelphia out of their comfort zone. The Phillies win by outslugging teams, but here they were at their hitter-friendly home ballpark going deep into the game in a 1-1 tie. Blanton and Harden were both very good, and then each handed the ball over to their respective bullpens. The relievers would somehow outdo both of them.
The devil is in the details, however. Both bullpens were excellent but here is what the Cubs mustered against Philadelphia relievers over the final six inning of the game. They managed to get on base just once when Brad Lidge plunked Aramis Ramirez. They saw just 61 pitches over that six-inning stretch. They did not get a hit, they could not work a walk. They rolled over. Philadelphia, on the other hand, saw 86 pitches in 5.2 innings. They made Chicago's bullpen work. Aesthetically, it was easy to tell the team that has been playing winning baseball and the one who has been underachieving all year, even as they were locked up 1-1 long into the night.
Here is the best analogy I can think of. Think of the 5th set of Wimbledon this year. Neither Andy Roddick nor Roger Federer could break the other, not until the 30th game at least. But that was because each dominated on their own serve. I liken the Cubs performance in extra innings last night to a tennis player that holds serve, only to make a bunch of unforced errors on their opponent's second serve. Sure Chicago's pitchers deserved credit for getting that far into the game but Cubby batters could not manage one base-runner against Chan Ho Park. Ryan Madson I understand, but Chan Ho Park!?!?
One mark of a great team is the ability to win games consistently in a variety of ways. Philadelphia hung tough for 12+ innings last night and finally delivered in dramatic fashion in the bottom half of the 13th. For their part, the Cubs pitched it well as they had all year but didn't hit and didn't show a whole lot of character. In other words, on a big stage in a big game playing the hottest team in baseball they squandered a golden opportunity - not by playing particularly badly but rather just by being the team they have been all season.