The Phillies passed a major signpost in this season of high expectations last week, and so far they are even more remarkable than we imagined. Despite injuries, slumps and some alarming declines, the Phils are on a pace to win more than 100 games for the first time since 1977.
As they reached the midway point with an eventful week against the Red Sox and Blue Jays, the Phillies proved the most basic principle of baseball. Pitching is the one essential ingredient to success. Great pitching – courtesy of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Antonio Bastardo – can cover up a multitude of sins.
And make no mistake. These Phillies are far from a model of perfection. In fact, 2011 has been a disappointment individually for many of the players and a medical challenge for one third of the 40-man roster. A staggering total of 14 players have been on the disabled list in the first half, including the top three relievers, the star second baseman and two of the five pitchers in the starting rotation.
Meanwhile, who would have believed the Phillies of 2011 would be coasting through their division and on a team-record pace for wins with so many players underperforming? For example, Carlos Ruiz is hitting 50 points less than he was last season, and Ryan Howard is down 40 points. Raul Ibanez is hitting 50 points under his career average, and 40 points lower than any season since he became a regular more than a decade ago.
Even the most reliable hitters have been not so reliable, for a variety of reasons. Chase Utley missed the first six weeks with a knee injury, and Placido Polanco has dropped 50 points in just the last three weeks. The most consistent hitter has been Shane Victorino. How unlikely is that?
But none of it matters, not when Halladay is a lock every five days, not when Lee is reeling off consecutive-game shutouts, not when Hamels is maturing into a pitcher who belongs right next to those two. And Bastardo’s numbers look like a series of typographical errors. One hit allowed every three innings? Three runs in 30 appearances? No one in baseball is performing at that level.
Finally, there is the man presiding over all of this chaos, Charlie Manuel, the most difficult manager to understand in Phillies history. No, I’m not talking about his fractured diction. I’m talking about his puzzling game strategy, his even more confusing explanations, his consistent inconsistency.
It all works. Somehow, it all just fits together. The first half of the 2011 season was all we could have hoped for, despite the tribulations. And with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of pitching, the second half promises to be even better.
Jagr the Dinosaur
The spectacular youth movement of the Flyers continued over the weekend when they added youngster Jaromir Jagr to the roster. . . . Hey, wait a minute. Jagr is 39? The Franklin Institute currently features him in its dinosaur exhibit? What’s going on here?
Exactly what the Flyers are thinking in these turbulent times is anybody’s guess. They unloaded the cornerstones of their roster, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, 10 days ago for players who can’t legally drink yet, and then they signed the top free-agent goaltender in the NHL, Ilya Bryzgalov, to a monster contract.
OK, so far, so good. The next step was to flirt with another mega-deal, this time with Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay. According to reports, the paperwork was ready on a 12-year, $115-million offer sheet for the 21-year-old center. But then something crazy happened. Instead of attempting that coup, the Flyers signed Jagr, who hasn’t played in the NHL since 2008.
Did the Flyers get cold feet in the Stamkos deal? Did they forget that Jagr was known as a bad locker-room influence in his previous stops on the NHL tour? Isn’t Jagr exactly the kind of player (like Richards and Carter) the Flyers are trying to eliminate from their roster?
I know, I know. I’m supposed to be providing answers here, not questions. But there’s no way to pretend I have any idea why the Flyers brought Jagr here. Until a few days ago, he was not part of the master plan. Now that he is here, we all have to wonder if there is really a master plan at all.
Big, expensive and completely made up
As the idiotic NFL lockout finally reaches its end – I’m still predicting Thursday as the day for agreement – anticipation is building over the bold and dynamic plan to improve the Eagles that is about to unfold. Remember, coach Andy Reid and even owner Jeff Lurie said they’ve got something really big planned.
Big, maybe. Expensive, no chance. In fact, the price tag for the top free agent, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha of Oakland, already appears to be scaring away our bold and dynamic team. The latest word is that the Birds are finding more appeal in Pittsburgh corner Ike Taylor, who is less talented but much cheaper.
And then there is the frightening report that the Eagles are about to acquire troublemaking, over-the-hill defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth from Washington. Because new defensive-line coach Jim Washburn was able to control Haynesworth in the player’s early days in Tennessee, everyone is assuming he’ll be able to do it again. Well, I’m assuming he won’t. This is a horrible idea.
As for the status of backup quarterback Kevin Kolb, well, he can pretty much book his flight out of town right now. The latest rumor is that Seattle will offer first and third-round draft picks for the not-so-heir apparent to Donovan McNabb. Yes, this is a stunning offer, if true. And I would still keep Kolb because Michael Vick is an injury waiting to happen, and the Eagles will probably screw up those picks anyway.
In short, the bold and dynamic plan of the Eagles promises to be neither. What it figures to be is cheap and bizarre. But things could be much worse. We could have no football season at all in 2011. Then what would we complain about?
–Angelo Cataldi is host of 610 WIP’s Morning Show, which airs weekdays 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
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