About a week ago, I used this same space to opine on how the Phillies would defeat the Rockies en route to their second consecutive NLCS appearance. I compared the two lineups, discussed the three-man rotations each team would employ, and analyzed the differences between bullpens.
But none of that information could predict the ensuing drama, intensity, and fingernail loss from Citizens Bank Park to Coors Field, over the next several days. Game Four was an instant classic, no matter what team you root for. Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez each pitched brilliantly, giving their teams exactly what they needed—a chance to win. Five days after breaking down in the fifth inning of Game One, Jimenez was able to regroup and fire seven innings of two-run ball.
Lee had his second consecutive stellar postseason outing, allowing three runs (one earned) over seven innings, lowering his ERA to 1.10 in two starts.
In the eighth inning of the final game, the Rockies took the lead on a fluky dribbler to Chase Utley, a ball hit slowly enough to let Dexter Fowler time a leap over the second baseman and find himself safe at second after Jimmy Rollins mishandled Utley’s toss. Jason Giambi tied the game at two with an opposite-field single. Then then Yorvit Torrealba, over whom TBS announcers Brian Anderson and Joe Simpson frustratingly kept foaming at the mouth, doubled in two to put the Rockies ahead 4-2.
Quick rant: While I understand and respect his late-season surge, there is no difference between regular-season Torrealba and “post-season Torrealba,” as the broadcasters kept labeling him. He doesn’t turn into a superhero during the playoffs; he’s just had two well-timed hot streaks in three years. Hooray, let’s give him a three-year, $11 million deal that he’s not worth.
Back to Game Four. With two out and two on the ninth, Ryan Howard sent a blast into the Colorado night that narrowly missed going out, plating Rollins and Utley and placing himself on in scoring position for Jayson Werth, who followed with a game-winning single. Scott Eyre and Brad Lidge shut the door, and the Phillies got on a plane back home to pack for Los Angeles, since they were literally out of clothing.
Who was to blame for the Rockies’ meltdown? Well, there are two fingers to point: one at closer Huston Street, who barely escaped Game Two with a save before losing Games Three and Four, and the “genius,” Jim Tracy. Let’s start with the manager.
Tracy’s lack of common sense showed exactly why the closer position is vastly overrated, and cost the Rockies the chance to send this series back to Philadelphia for a fifth game. With Greg Dobbs, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard (all lefties, with Rollins and Victorino being switch-hitters) due up to start the ninth, there is absolutely no reason that Street, Tracy’s struggling right-handed closer, should have been on the mound instead of lefty Joe Beimel.
Why bring in Beimel, a late-season addition with only four saves in eight seasons, in the ninth inning of a crucial game?
Because the heart of the Phillies order is left-handed heavy, and that power is greatly diminished with a lefty on the mound. That isn’t a secret, nor is it up for debate. Even if Tracy needed to go with Street, he should have been wise enough to lift him after Victorino reached on a fielder’s choice to make it one-on, two-out. If not, then he absolutely should have made the switch after Street walked Utley, leading to a match-up with the most dangerous hitter in baseball vs. right-handed pitching—Ryan Howard.
Think that last statement contained some hyperbole? Think again. Against righties in 2009, Howard had a major-league leading .693 slugging percentage and 1.088 OPS. He led all players with 39 home runs against right-handed pitchers, three more than Mark Reynolds, who had 57 more plate appearances off righties.
It is a no-brainer. You lift Street to bring in the lefty Beimel. Howard is Babe Ruth against righties (.320/.395/.683,) and Chad Tracy against lefties (.207/.298/.356.) This was the time in a game where a smart manager makes a pitching change, despite titles or feelings or absurd baseball traditions. Yes, Street was 35-for-37 in save opportunities during the regular season, but this marked his third time facing the Phillies in as many games, and he had struggled mightily in his previous two outings.
Beimel represented the Rockies’ best chance of escaping the ninth, but the overrated title of “closer” once again carried more weight than it should have, and Tracy will have the next six months to kick himself for bringing Beimel in to face Miguel Cairo instead of using him two batters earlier.
In contrast, Charlie Manuel let the game dictate who pitched the ninth inning for his team. With a horde of lefty pinch-hitters on the Rockies bench and the ninth spot due up leading off the ninth, Manuel brought in lefty specialist Scott Eyre. This made perfect sense, as budding superstar (and lefty) Carlos Gonzalez was due up next, and Todd Helton two batters after him. Eyre got two outs and put two men on base, and finally Manuel went to closer Brad Lidge to face the right-handed Troy Tulowitzki. For the second time in as many nights, Lidge retired Tulowitzki with two outs and the tying run in scoring position to end the game.
Before the series started, I labeled Tulowitzki the key to the Rockies’ success. Suffice it to say, he came up small in these four games. He went 4-for-16 in the series, striking out twice and grounding into two double plays. He managed to knock in three runs, but one was a meaningless ninth-inning double in Game One. Another came on a sac fly with runners on the corners and one out, tying Game Three at five in the seventh inning when every Rockies fan was left wanting more. And the third came on an RBI double that plated Todd Helton for the Rockies’ first run in Game Four. But one pitch after that, Tulowitzki foolishly ran on a line drive right at the glove of Pedro Feliz and was doubled off second base, killing the rally that he helped start.
Tulo wasn’t terrible, but he had the opportunity to be great in this series, and couldn’t live up to the standards he set during the course of a brilliant 2009 regular season. It wasn’t just their shortstop, though. The entire Rockies offense stunk with runners in scoring position and left too many runners on base to ever seize control of a game in this short series.
When it mattered most, the Phillies took advantage of Colorado’s inability to break a game open. This experienced, multifaceted Philadelphia lineup got it done with the long ball, and finally began cashing in by playing small ball. Situational hitting had plagued the Phillies all season, but in this series, they used patience (19 walks), several stolen bases and sacrifices, and success in one-out/RISP chances and two-out opportunities with a runner on third. Production was found at the top of the order and the bottom, where Carlos Ruiz had a key hit to put the Phillies up 2-0 in Game One and was the X-factor in Game Four with two RBI singles that gave the Phillies two different leads.
The Phils’ glaring weakness coming into the series was the relief corps, but the back end of the bullpen got the job done. The bullpen as a whole allowed four runs over 11.2 innings in the series, and Ryan Madson, Eyre and Lidge each shone in different situations.
Eyre entered a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh inning of Game Two, but surrendered only one run. Madson came into a first-and-third, no-out pickle in the seventh inning of Game Three, but surrendered only a sac fly between two strike outs to save the Phils. And Lidge, 11 blown saves and all, shut the door on the Rockies with the tying and go-ahead runners on base in the final two games of the series.
As predicted, the outcome of this series was much different than when these teams met in 2007. The Phillies’ success can be attributed to plate discipline, timely hitting, great work from the bullpen (mixed with a lack of timely hitting from the Rockies) and the unquantifiable asset of postseason experience. The Phillies simply don’t get caught up in the moment anymore. They’ve been to the mountain-top and have used their past successes to lead them toward future ones.
Manuel called the sweep his team suffered at the hands of the Rockies three years ago a “character-builder,” one that showed him and his team that they were too young and immature to perform at a higher level just yet. It would take more than talent and the love of the three-run homer for his Phillies to conquer playoff baseball the way they did during the regular season.
Last year, they grew up. This year, they want to show everyone just how big they’ve gotten.