Thursday, May 24, 2012

Random Past Game: September 1, 1997

My apologies for the length of time between posts. Hopefully I'll be able to get some more of these out soon.

Date of Game: Monday, September 1, 1997
Location: Veterans Stadium
Opponent: New York Yankees
Final Score: Phillies 5, Yankees 1
Winning Pitcher: Curt Schilling
Losing Pitcher: Hideki Irabu
Home Run: Tony Barron

Phillies Starting Lineup
Midre Cummings, cf
Mickey Morandini, 2b
Scott Rolen, 3b
Rico Brogna, 1b
Mike Lieberthal, c
Billy McMillon, lf
Tony Barron, rf
Kevin Stocker, ss
Curt Schilling, p

Yankees Starting Lineup
Derek Jeter, ss
Wade Boggs, 3b
Bernie Williams, cf
Tino Martinez, 1b
Paul O'Neill, rf
Chad Curtis, lf
Joe Girardi, c
Rey Sanchez, 2b
Hideki Irabu, p

About This Game: Of all the polarizing issues concerning Major League Baseball, few have been as divisive over the past decade and a half as Interleague Play. It seems as though everyone loves it or hates it with no middle ground. It was an idea that had been kicked around for decades before finally becoming a reality after the 1996 season, when the decision was made to put Interleague games on the 1997 schedule. Teams in a given division in one league would compete in regular season games against their divisional counterparts in the other league (NL East vs. AL East, Central vs. Central, West vs. West). This format stayed unchanged through the 2001 season, after which the matchups generally rotated through divisions, with "regional rival" series and occasional matchups that were seemingly scheduled at random for no apparent reason. The Houston Astros will move to the AL for the 2013 season, meaning each league will have 15 teams. This odd number means that there will be at least one Interleague matchup every day of the season. It may be a hard concept to swallow for many, but it's obviously one that everyone will have to get used to.

As for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997, well, it didn't really matter what league their opponents hailed from for much of the campaign. It was a team that found itself 32 games out of first place at the All-Star break with a record of 24-61. That mark eventually sunk to 30-72 and the only real drama to the season seemed to be if they could avoid setting the all-time record for losses in a season set by the 1962 New York Mets. From that point, however, the Phils suddenly and perhaps inexplicably heated up. Their record over the season's final two months was tied for the best in Major League Baseball with their opponents on this Labor Day afternoon at Veterans Stadium, the New York Yankees.

Despite 20 wins in their previous 30 games, the Phillies were buried in last place in the National League East with a record of 50-82, 33 games behind the first place Atlanta Braves and 15.5 behind the next-to-last Montreal Expos entering play on September 1. The previous day's 2-1 loss to the Tigers in Detroit clinched the fourth straight losing record for the Phils, and 10th in the last 11 years. The defending World Champion Yankees sat at 79-55, which was 6.5 games behind the frontrunning Baltimore Orioles in the AL East but 7.5 games ahead of the Anaheim Angels in the Wild Card standings.

Curt Schilling would take the mound for the Phillies in this Labor Day matinee. One of the ballclub's few bright spots during the dismal first half, Schilling was one of baseball's top hurlers in '97 but to that point had only a 13-10 record to show for it. He'd be opposed by Hideki Irabu, a highly-touted Japanese import who was having his share of problems living up to the hype and getting accustomed to life in the Major Leagues. Things rarely go exactly as planned in sports, but on this day it was everything Phillies fans could've hoped for and more.

Right from the start, Schilling's stuff was electric as he struck out Derek Jeter and Wade Boggs looking to open the game while getting Bernie Williams on a grounder to Kevin Stocker to set the Yankees down in order. The offense would get Schilling what turned out to be all the runs he needed in the bottom of the first, as Mickey Morandini and Scott Rolen singled with one out before advancing to second and third on an Irabu wild pitch. Rico Brogna went down swinging for the second out, but Mike Lieberthal picked him up with a base hit to score Morandini and Rolen for the early 2-0 lead. Schilling had what some folks these days call a "shutdown inning" in the second and he did it in style, striking out Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, and Chad Curtis in order. The Phils loaded the bases with two outs in their half of the second, but Rolen went down swinging to end the threat. As it turned out, that was probably the only negative aspect of this game for the Phils.

Aside from a one-out single by Rey Sanchez in the third, the Yankees weren't able to muster any kind of offense through four innings. On the other hand, the Phillies were about to break the game open. Tony Barron began the bottom of the fourth with a bang, as his leadoff home run made it 3-0 in favor of the home team. Stocker followed that up with a double, then Schilling reached on a bunt single when no Yankee picked up his sacrifice attempt. The frazzled Irabu then threw a wild pitch, allowing Stocker to score the fourth run for the Phils. An infield single by Midre Cummings sent Irabu to the showers, with Brian Boehringer taking over on the hill. Morandini's fly to center was deep enough for Schilling to move to third, and after Cummings was picked off first, Rolen singled in Schilling to make it 5-0. The time spent on the bases didn't have any negative impact on the Phillies' ace as he worked a perfect fifth inning, striking out O'Neill and Joe Girardi in that frame to bring the total up to nine on the day.

While it was mostly smooth sailing for Schilling, the Yankees did make a little noise in the sixth. Sanchez, whose single in the third represented the only New York baserunner to that point, doubled to start the inning. It didn't seem like it would matter much, as Tim Raines (batting for Boehringer) and Jeter went down swinging. The leadoff double wouldn't be stranded, though, as Boggs singled home Sanchez to get the Yankees on the board. Williams followed with a double to send Boggs to third, but Schilling escaped further damage as Martinez popped to Rolen to retire the side.

The Phillies were unable to add to their lead, but it mattered little with Schilling in complete control. He worked around a one-out double by Curtis in the seventh, upping his strikeout total to a baker's dozen after getting O'Neill looking and Sanchez swinging. Scott Pose (batting for reliever Graeme Lloyd) and Jeter went down on strikes to begin the eighth, and after singles by Boggs and Williams, Schilling put a stop to any potential two-out rally by getting Martinez swinging for his 16th and final strikeout. The only booing directed at the Phillies on this day occurred in the bottom of the eighth, when Mike Robertson was sent up to pinch-hit for Schilling. Ricky Bottalico was summoned from the bullpen to wrap things up, and he did by getting the Yankees in order to finish up the 5-1 victory. Schilling improved to 14-10 on the season en route to a 17-11 final mark with a league-leading 319 strikeouts. Irabu dropped to 4-3, he'd finish at 5-4 with an ERA of 7.09.

Incredibly, Schilling's dominant performance may not have been the most impressive by a Phillies pitcher in their three-game set with the Yankees. Mike Grace shut New York out on three hits the next night, facing the minimum of 27 batters thanks to two double plays and a caught stealing. Like Schilling, Grace did not walk a single Yankee, however his only strikeout that night came when he got Raines looking to end the game. The Phils would complete the three-game sweep by rallying from a 4-1 deficit in the series finale, with a bases-loaded walk to Barron by Mike Stanton in the ninth forcing Gregg Jefferies home with the winning run in a 5-4 triumph.

The late surge to conclude the '97 season wasn't nearly enough to prevent a second straight last place finish for the Phillies, as their 68-94 record found them 33 games behind the Division Champion Braves and 10 games in back of the fourth-place Expos. Arriving at such a mark, however, was so miraculous that Terry Francona received votes in the Manager of the Year balloting and finally seemed to provide some hope that there were better days to come. The sweep at the hands of the Phils was only a minor misstep for the Yankees, as they'd finish at 96-66, two games behind the AL East Champion Orioles but 12 games ahead of the Angels in the Wild Card race. New York's season ended in the American League Division Series, as the eventual AL Champion Cleveland Indians defeated the Yankees in five games. It was a minor blip on the radar for the Yanks, as 1997 was the only year between 1996 and 2000 in which they did not win the World Series.

Personal Recollection:  I was at this game, sitting out in right field at the Vet. The word I keep coming back to when remembering this day is "electric," which is very rare when describing the atmosphere at a Phillies game in the mid to late 1990s. It really hadn't been like that since the 1993 World Series and it would be a long time before that level of excitement returned.

As you can probably imagine, there were a large number of Yankees fans among the 50,869 in attendance that day, but they were kept in check by Curt Schilling and the Phils. To be honest, I was always kind of indifferent towards the Yankees to that point. Aside from a World Series between the two 47 years earlier, there was no rivalry to speak of. Even when the Yanks were in the World Series the year before, I was rooting for them because they were playing the Braves. That was really the first time I felt any level of contempt towards them. The level of dislike never reached the level as that of other NL East teams, but I suppose that was one positive of Interleague Play for me. I won't say I hate Interleague, but I would've never had a problem with it being discontinued. I guess it is what it is. It isn't going anywhere, so it's kind of a moot point now.

You may be wondering why there were Interleague games being played so late in the season. That's just the way they were scheduled throughout the year, with one round being played in mid/late June and another being played Labor Day weekend and week. There was some backlash among teams in both leagues, who preferred to be playing within their own league with the season entering the home stretch. The following year, the Interleague schedule went to something more like it is now, though for a few years the series immediately preceding and succeeding the All-Star break were against opponents from the opposite league.

Back to Schilling, he was basically a man among boys on the mound that day. I've made my thoughts on Curt Schilling known on here before, so no need to rehash. Anyway, the most mind-boggling thing about that game to me isn't the 16 strikeouts, but the fact the Yankees managed to get seven hits against him. Probably the most dominant seven-hit performance you'll ever see. Poor Mike Robertson, getting booed when he was announced as a pinch-hitter. Of course, the boos were good-natured and not directed at Robertson himself, but still.

With 1997 being Interleague's inaugural season, this was the first time the Phillies and Yankees played meaningful games against each other since the 1950 World Series, which New York swept in four straight games. So I guess you could see this series sweep as some small measure of revenge for the Whiz Kids, which was sadly magnified less than a week later when Richie Ashburn died suddenly, hours after calling a Phillies-Mets game at Shea Stadium.

In an era lacking in fun times, the Phillies provided the home fans with a highly enjoyable afternoon of baseball at the Vet. On the way home, I wondered just when we'd see the day when those kind of moments became commonplace. It took some time, but eventually they did.

That's my story on September 1, 1997. Do you remember this game? If so, feel free to share your own recollections!

Monday, May 21, 2012

The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it

I am normally pumped to see any Phillies game, well except for the On Deck series… It just is not so this year. This is something that really bothered me. I have had season tickets for most of my adult life and much of my childhood. That being said, I have endured some horrendous teams, games, seasons, and players. So I sat back and tried to rationalize why is this? Granted winning is way more fun, but the answer is not so simple. I have made a few postulations which I will talk about in the following paragraphs.

There is not one single player on the team that is playing that I can identify with or get behind. In 1988 I had Chris James or Marvin Freeman I liked. In 1998 there was Borland, Zuber, and Gomes. There is just not that player on this current team that I feel that same way for. Last year it was Wilson Valdez. A gun of an arm and I was in attendance for marathon game he pitched. Maybe that player was supposed to be Dom Brown or Mayberry. It has thus far just not worked out. I kinda feel like Annie Savoy when Nuke and Crash both left the Durham Bulls. I am going through the motions, but something just isn’t right.

Hey speaking of something just isn’t right… Rollins has been a squid at the plate. I admire Charlie sticking with him and letting him try to get out of his funk, but Pierre is hitting .319, so I think he deserves the lead off role. When things go wrong like this, you blame the player, but you also have to lay honus on the manager. Charlie has used 30 plus different lineups, but Rollins has been cemented at the top for most of them. This may sound crazy, but Ruiz is on fire. Slot him in the 4 or 5 hole. Move Pence to the 3 spot, he should get a steadier dose of fastballs here in front of the hot Ruiz, it is more of his comfort spot. I would run this lineup out there for a try: Pierre, Polanco, Pence( The Killer P’s), Ruiz, Victorino, Wigg./Mayberry, Rollins, and Galvis.  At 7, Rollins would get a chance for RBI’s and act as a sort of secondary lead off hitter.

There is a lack of vitriol for any NL East opponent. I’ve hated the Marlins, Mets, and Braves…but frankly they just aren’t worthy of my hate right now. So that leaves tonight’s opponent, The Nationals. We basically would just destroy this team and clinch the NL East against them every year. Now they have a pitching staff that is better than the Phils. ERA’s don’t lie folks. Three of the Nat’s 5 starters have an ERA in the 2’s. Only Lee and future Dodger, Hamels, have ERAs in the 2’s. Harper is ready to step into the role of my most hated player. He is young, arrogant, and good.  Hey will be the new Chipper for years to come to Phillies fans. I expect a cacophony of boo’s for him tonight and do not condone Redmond’s battery throwing antics. That is a story for another time, but Redmond may have fired the first shot at JD Drew that fateful night at the Vet.

My final point is this. I am certain they are playing hard and trying, but for whatever reason, I don’t think it has shown as hustle and grit on the field. Wiggington is a disgusting fat body, but his laissez-faire half ass running to first on a ground ball is reminiscent of that sloth Bobby Abreu. When hearing he won a Rawlings Gold Glove, Ozzie Smith promptly threw all 13 of his away. Victorino swinging at the first pitch after the guy in front of him walked. Rollins popping up twice a game. Mayberry doing his best Pedro Cerrano impersonation at any breaking ball. Pence loving high fastballs more than Liscio’s bread (worst commercial ever).

Now here is the glass is half full side. There probably was someone like me in May 2010 and May 2011 in San Francisco and Saint Louis… guess what? They are World Fucking Champions right now. Stay close and work out the kinks now and catch fire in September and October. I’ll TOTALLY take an 85 win season if it comes along with a World Series championship. Hell, the MLB is like in house league 8-10 baseball, everyone makes the playoffs…The Phils may be 80-82 and be able to take the title.

The bumps in the road just make the ride more fun. The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it. Think 2007, just with  better playoff showing.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sad State of Affairs at The Bank

I just got home from tonight's game versus the Mets.  I would normally refer to them as the "Stinkin'" Mets, however I'm pretty sure this evening's stench emanated from the home dugout.  I'm going to put it bluntly: This Phillies team is not good.  There are holes up and down the lineup and the bullpen is positively atrocious.  Again, my apologies for going all pessimistic, but neither Ryan Howard and Chase Utley nor Ryan Howard and Chase Utley circa 2007-2009 could fix what's wrong here.  It saddens me to report that I left a game early for the first time since moving back to PA four years ago.  That's how bad it's gotten.
One of the most glaring deficiencies I can see is that this isn't exactly a likable team.  Freddie Galvis is a guy we can root for, but to put too much energy into him is going to put undue pressure on a kid who's playing extremely well, out-of-position.  He swings a historically light stick, thought tonight he provided some fun and fireworks.  But he's not the guy to get the job done day in and day out.  To elevate him to hero status too soon could destroy his confidence when he inevitably levels off.  Guys like Ty Wiggington and Juan Pierre are serviceable; Laynce Nix had a nice pinch-hit RBI double tonight.  But these guys aren't the face of a team.  They're role players.  Jimmy, who would be the face of the team, mentally checks out at the oddest times.  Victorino is solid, but he's not a superstar.  The team is loaded with role players.  
The pitching staff is likable.  That is, until Cole Hamels runs his mouth.  We all knew he plunked Bryce Harper.  Many of us agree with it.  But the kid retaliated by stealing friggin' home.  It was over.  But Cole opened up and now the whole league lost a little bit of respect for the Golden Child.  And his team, at the same time.  Nice work, MVP.  Make sure you get your whole face covered (he "bronzes" before games) next time you take the mound; you might have to take some questions afterward.
Guys like Doc and Lee are workhorses.  Fat Joe keeps throwing like he has in 2012, he'll just be Phat (or the relevant, 2012 edition of that word.  Word?)  Vance Worley is doing his part, for the most part.  The rotation is one aspect around which the team and the fan can rally. 
Then you get to the bullpen.  I was joking with the folks sitting in front of me tonight about "Now all they have to do is get nine outs and we're good."  The man of the couple turned and said, "That's the problem."  There's no disguising it.  All any team has to do is endure six or seven innings without allowing the Phils to take too sizable a lead and then tee off on the bullpen.  Kyle Kerndrick coming on to pitch another inning after giving up three runs and the lead in the seventh was insulting.  Hence, the fans let the boos fly.
I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Phillies fan; I watched Tugger K Willie Wilson in 1980 as a six-year-old; I endured decades of losing; I celebrated another Series win in '08 by talking on the phone with the purest baseball fan I have ever met, my grandfather, who was 83 at the time and equally as elated as I was, if not more so.  I love Phillies baseball.  To hear the fans at CBP boo as Kendrick blew the lead, I hurt.  Not for that bum Kendrick.  Not for Charlie.  I hurt for the little kid that was seeing his first Phillies game tonight.  I hurt for the little boy in me that will always root, root, root...  
*I have to make this point quickly: Hunter Pence does not deserve to be booed.  He dropped a routine fly ball because he was trying to get the ball out of his glove and make a throw.  Bad play.  Certainly not something you expect from a major leaguer, especially a beloved Phillie.  It was an error.  That's all.  He didn't give up the lead all by himself.  And he's not been a Phillie so long that we've seen him screw up repeatedly.  He has seven homers this year so far.  He's not a power hitter, yet in this lineup, that is what is expected and he  is delivering.  Those boos were unfounded, the result borne out of a fanbase that listens to too much talk radio.  OK, I'm done with that...
Back to Kendrick.  It can't feel good to walk off the home field, where four years ago you won a World Series, while getting booed.  He may as well have been getting stoned.  And not in a good way.  Man.  Kyle Kendrick got beat up on and on his way off the field tonight.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear his wife gave him a black eye tonight after the game.  Dude took a beating.  But he should be able to take it and get back up.  He's a pro.
They all are.  It would be nice to see them shake this funk and get their heads out of their asses.  But this is 2012.  These are not your 2008 Phillies.  This bunch will have to claw and scratch if they are to compete.  We shall see...
I'm looking forward to our guys righting the ship.  I'm looking forward to going down to the park again and watching baseball.  I'm looking forward to sitting through a full, nine-inning game again.