NLDS Preview: Phillies vs. Rockies

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phillies_091006.jpgThe good news for fans of the Colorado Rockies is that their team — on the strength of their big 2007-esque second-half surge — is once again baseball’s feel-good story.

The bad news? The Phillies don’t really care.

Since firing manager Clint Hurdle and replacing him with Jim Tracy, the Rockies have gone 74-41 (.643) to go from last place in the NL West to within three games of catching the division champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

The NL wild card entrant scored the second most runs in the National League, were second in home runs, second in on-base percentage, second in slugging and fifth in stolen bases.

Even the pitching was improved with solid seasons from Ubaldo Jimenez and Jason Marquis, plus the emergence of Jorge De La Rosa (16-9), who finished 16-9 after losing his first six starts.

But now the bad news: De La Rosa will be a non-factor, as his injured groin will keep him out at least until the NLCS, should the Rockies manage to advance that far.

Also, the Phillies are simply a terrible matchup for Colorado.

2009 NLDS Probables
Game 1: Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Cliff Lee
Game 2: Aaron Cook vs. Cole Hamels

Game 3: J.A. Happ or Joe Blanton or Pedro Martinez vs. Jason Hammel
Game 4: Whoever is left vs. Jason Marquis

Game 5: Jimenez vs. Lee

The Phillies appear to have the edge in starting pitching, though maybe not as big an edge as it appears at first glance. Lee started hot after joining Philly at midseason, but had mixed results down the stretch, including a six-inning, seven-run outing against the Brewers on Sept. 25, and a three-inning, six-run outing against the Astros on Sept. 4.

2008 playoff hero Hamels was spotty all season, a maddening occurrence that continued into September. And Happ, the Phillies’ most consistent pitcher over the course of the season, faces — against all logic — an uncertain role.

On the Rockies’ side of things, Jimenez has blossomed this season , and Cook and Hammel have been solid. But without De La Rosa, and with Marquis coming back to Earth after a dazzling first half, the edge has to go to the Phillies.

THE OFFENSES
As mentioned above, the Rockies have been a run-scoring machine this season despite the loss of Matt Holliday in an offseason trade. Troy Tulowitzki has been the star, reverting to 2007 form (better, actually) after a 2008 season hampered by injuries. His .297/.377/.552 line makes him the big threat in a solid Rockies lineup.

The problem is the Phillies’ offense is even better. Put together a powerful lineup with stalwarts Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, throw in a career season from Raul Ibanez, and you have a force to be reckoned with.

The Phillies led the NL in doubles, home runs, slugging percentage, RBIs and runs scored. They were also second in stolen bases, with Utley, Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino each swiping at least 20 bags. Once again, edge goes to the Phillies.

Numbers
Phillies won season series 4-2
Phillies outscored Rockies 31-28 

Runs per game
Phillies: 5.06
Rockies: 4.96

Runs allowed per game
Phillies: 4.38
Rockies: 4.41

Overrated angle
The Phillies bullpen:
Yes Brad Lidge has had an awful season. Yes Ryan Madson has had moments where he has struggled. But this is a short series with two off days (if it goes to a fifth game), and the Phillies have a wealth of starting pitching. Some combination of Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ and Pedro Martinez could be available in relief, taking pressure off the back end guys. And Lidge finished the season with three scoreless outings. I’m not saying he’s anywhere near 2008 form, but that’s gotta be a good sign right?

Underrated angle
The lefty-righty matchups:
With De La Rosa out, the Rockies have no left-handed starters to face a Phillies lineup dominated by lefties (Ibanez, Howard, Utley) and switch hitters (Rollins, Victorino). On the other side of things, the Phillies are loaded with left-handed starters (Hamels, Happ, Lee) to face a Rockies lineup dominated by left-handed hitters. This will give Philly a huge edge.

Prediction:
Despite the matchup problems, the Rockies — led by Tulowitzki — should be able to score some runs on the Phillies. The problem is Colorado’s pitchers should struggle against that dominant Phillies lineup. And when you consider the Rockies’ home/road splits (51-30 in Denver/41-40 away from Denver) the Rockies really needed homefield advantage to make this happen.

Phillies in 4.

Willie Mays gets a cable car named after him

Major League Baseball hall of famer  Willie Mays, who spent the majority of his career as a center fielder with the New York and San Francisco Giants, smiles as President Barack Obama honors the 2012 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants baseball team, Monday, July 29, 2013, during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. The team beat the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series, their second championship since the franchise moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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This is not exactly stunning news, but it’s Willie Mays’ 85th birthday today and any excuse to talk about Willie Mays is a good one. Happy Birthday, Willie!

The pretext is a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about how The Greatest Baseball Player of All Time (my view anyway) is getting an iconic cable car named after him. An icon named after an icon, I guess. The cable car is, appropriately, number 24.

Next month I’m taking my kids on vacation to California and we’re spending a few days in San Francisco. It’ll be a shame when I tell them we have to cancel half of a day’s plans while I make them wait for one particular cable car to come by so they can take my picture with it, but that’s just what they have to deal with given that I’m their dad.

Carlos Gomez calls out a hit piece-writing columnist

Houston Astros' Carlos Gomez (30) reacts after hitting a double in the second inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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Yesterday I wrote about a column written by Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. It was about Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez, who has had a poor start to the year.

The column, as I noted, was a hatchet job, blaming Gomez for the Astros’ problems despite the fact that Gomez is by far from the biggest of the Astros’ problems. It was particularly bad in that it presented an unedited bit of broken English from Gomez which seemed calculated to cast Gomez in a bad light. Many journalists were critical of Smith in this regard, noting that he could’ve used a translator, could have paraphrased or could’ve done some mild correction via brackets, as is often done with quotes from non-native English speakers.

Last night Gomez took to Twitter to call out Smith himself:

It’s possible to write a column about how a player hasn’t lived up to expectations without being an insensitive jackass. It’s possible to do so even in the sharpest of ways. Smith didn’t do that, however, and didn’t make an effort to try, it seems. Gomez is right to take issue with it. And I suspect that Gomez’s teammates and organization take issue with it too. Which likely doesn’t bode well for Smith getting cooperation from others in the Astros family.

Reminder: athletes are not heroes

Zack Greinke
Associated Press
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This is something of a “greatest hits” piece and it’s topic I’ve talked about here before, but I’m reminded of it again because of Facebook’s memories thing which tells me I wrote about it seven years ago today back when I was still doing stuff at my old Shysterball blog at the Hardball Times.

The topic: ballplayers as heroes. The subject of the 2009 post on the matter was Zack Greinke, who was then beginning his breakout year with the Kansas City Royals. A columnist talked about how uplifting Greinke’s story was, what with him having overcome some struggles with anxiety disorder which had caused him to leave the game for a brief period. In early 2009 he was back, baby, and better than ever and many wanted to turn him into something larger than just a ballplayer excelling at his craft.

In the post I wrote about how, while such an impulse was understandable, it was a dangerous one as athletes have been made into heroes for years and years and, so often, they end up disappointing. Because we built them up so high, however, we don’t see such instances as the mere exhibition of human fallibility. We see them as some greater failure or even a betrayal, which is both ridiculous and unfair to these men and women, even if they have failed in certain ways. They have worked hard all of their lives to be good at a particular sport. They did not promise us glory or inspiration, yet we assume that they owe us those things. Their failures, however they are manifested, are matched by our failures at expectation management.

But it’s even more pernicious than that. Because, as I wrote at the time, when we create heroes, we necessarily create the need for villains and we will go out of our way to find those too, justified or otherwise:

“Hero” is too strong and baggage-laden a word anyway. As [Bill] James notes, it places a heavy burden on young men, and these guys are under such scrutiny day-in and day-out that they really don’t need it. What’s more, the term hero it necessarily assumes its opposite — villain — and demands that we search them out too. You know, to restore balance to the universe and everything. Often — as in the case of A-Rod and Gooden and Bonds and all of the others — they’re the same people, just older . . . Hero creation, worship, and subsequently, destruction has long been a part of baseball. But it’s not an essential part, and in my mind not a desirable part.

Seven years later we’re still doing this. As Bill James noted in his “Historical Baseball Abstract,” “When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent.” Many of them, like Zack Greinke, will prove to continue to be fine older men, just as they were fine young men. Some will not. Would it not be better if we didn’t get so invested in how fine a young man any one of them is? Or, short of that, if we didn’t act so betrayed and victimized if they turn out not to be such a fine young man?

I like to hear a good story about a baseball player who, by all outward appearances, seems like a good person. But I’m content to give such a story a smile and leave it at that. If we require heroism, there are people who do truly heroic things in the world beyond throw baseballs.

Andrew McCutchen apologies to an official scorer he said should be fired

Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) watches from the dugout during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Pittsburgh. Detroit won 7-3.(AP Photo/Don Wright)
Associated Press
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Andrew McCutchen made an error on Wednesday night. He thought he shouldn’t have been charged with one on the play, however, and afterward said “whoever scored that an error should be fired. That’s unbelievable. I did everything I could to catch it.”

It was a dumb comment for two reasons. First, a player “doing everything he can” on a play doesn’t make a misplay not a misplay. The “e” ain’t about effort, man. I realize scoring has gotten somewhat lax in recent years and players are routinely not given errors if it looks like they really, really tried, but there is not an intent element to the crime of making errors on the playing field. If you muff one, you muff one.

It was a dumb comment for another reason, and that’s that it was just not very nice. As we noted when David Ortiz or some others have made publicly disparaging comments about official scorers, it’s the ultimate punching down. These are people who have other jobs, aren’t public figures, don’t get paid a lot and really, really don’t have it in for anyone. Publicly criticizing them is bad enough, publicly demanding their jobs is pretty low.

Thankfully, with a day’s worth of reflection, McCutchen realized that this was the case and apologized. There aren’t public words from McCutchen available, but the club said that he reached out to the scorer and personally apologized. As he should’ve.