Phillies

Phillies had 2 massive extra advantages in 2008 NLDS vs. Brewers

Phillies had 2 massive extra advantages in 2008 NLDS vs. Brewers

You need a lot to break right to win a championship in any sport but particularly in baseball, where we routinely see the best team fail to win it all. It doesn't matter how you've performed in the preceding six months and 162 games, any team is susceptible to a bad week in October.

The 2008 Phillies were not the favorite to win the World Series when that postseason began. They had won 92 games with a prolific offense. The Cubs won 97, and in the AL, the Red Sox, Rays and Angels all won 95-plus.

The teams with the two best records in baseball that year (Angels at 100-62, Cubs at 97-64), were dispatched quickly in the playoffs, with the Cubs suffering a sweep to the Dodgers in the NLDS and the Angels going down in four games to the Red Sox in the ALDS.

Who knows how much differently the 2008 playoffs would have gone for the Phillies if they drew the Cubs or Dodgers in the NLDS, or the Red Sox instead of the Rays in the World Series. It obviously doesn't matter because reality > hypotheticals, but that 2008 postseason was a good example of timing being everything.

The 2008 Phillies were a better team than the 2008 Brewers, but they also had two huge benefits in that series beyond home-field advantage. Those benefits were the Brewers' top two starting pitchers.

CC Sabathia was the blockbuster trade acquisition in '08. The Brewers acquired him on July 7, three weeks before the deadline, and he dominated for more than two months. In 17 starts with Milwaukee, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Ridiculously, he pitched seven complete games with three shutouts in those 17 starts.

But by the time the postseason began, Sabathia was spent. His start against the Phillies in Game 2 of the NLDS was his fifth straight start on short rest. Four days earlier, Sabathia had thrown 122 pitches in a complete game.

It was clear pretty early in that game that Sabathia was not the pitcher he was down the stretch, and Phillies fans will never forget the second inning. (We will explore the famous nine-pitch Brett Myers walk and Shane Victorino grand slam in more depth Tuesday.)

The other advantage the Phillies had was that the Brewers' rock that year, Ben Sheets, found out at the end of the regular season that he needed Tommy John surgery and would be unable to pitch in the playoffs. Sheets, who had a 3.24 ERA in 128 starts from 2004-08 and was a four-time All-Star, never ended up making a postseason start. 

Had he been healthy, Sheets would have started Game 1 for the Brewers ahead of Sabathia. Instead, that Game 1 start went to Yovani Gallardo, who had torn his ACL on May 1 and was unable to return until the final week of the regular season. 

Gallardo went on to have a decent 12-year career but he wasn't ready for that big moment in enemy territory in '08. The Phillies scored three runs off of him (unearned because of a Rickie Weeks error), and that was plenty of run support for Cole Hamels.

The Phillies clearly benefitted from the Brewers' starting pitching situation that October, but that doesn't discredit the business they took care of. In the NLDS, Prince Fielder went 1 for 14 (.071). Ryan Braun, who would go on to become a career Phillie-killer, had just an OK series, reaching base in five of 17 plate appearances and going hitless with runners in scoring position until his final at-bat of the series, an RBI single with the Phillies up five runs in their Game 4 clincher.

The Brewers hit just .206/.271/.254 as a team in that series with one home run against the Phils.

The re-airs of the Phillies' entire 2008 playoff run begin tonight on NBC Sports Philadelphia. The NLDS runs this week from Monday-Thursday, followed by the NLCS next week and the World Series the week after.

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Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Vince Velasquez, looking to earn one more shot in the Phillies’ starting rotation, might have taken a step in that direction in an intrasquad game Tuesday night.

The right-hander was impressive in four unstructured innings of work. (We call it unstructured because he faced an extra batter in some innings to get his pitch count up.) He gave up two hits and a walk and did not allow a run. He struck out six.

Velasquez, who turned 28 in June, apparently did not just put his feet up and wait for baseball to return during the shutdown.

He spent time adding a cutter and improving his changeup. He used both pitches effectively in Tuesday night’s outing. He still has that power fastball and a breaking ball. A deeper, more consistent mix might allow him to finally unlock the tantalizing potential he has shown since arriving in the organization as part of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade in December 2015.

“I thought his cutter was good,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s been a good pitch for him. It’s allowed him to use both sides of the plate.”

Velasquez has had two strong outings in intrasquad action over the last week. He is battling Nick Pivetta for the final spot in the rotation. The runner-up in the competition will start the season in the bullpen.

After Tuesday night’s intrasquad game, Girardi was asked if Velasquez has moved into the lead in No. 5 starter’s derby.

“He’s looked really good his last two outings,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you can ignore what he’s doing.”

Velasquez went 7-8 with a 4.90 ERA in 33 games, 23 of which were starts, last season. Inconsistency and the inability to get into the middle innings with a reasonable pitch count led a move to the bullpen. Eventually, a need arose in the rotation and Velasquez found himself back there. That’s where he wants to stay, but time may be running out. The Phils have Spencer Howard on the way and in a short, 60-game season can’t afford to give Velasquez a long leash if he continues to be inconsistent.

It’s time to cash in on that potential.

A change in pitching coach might help Velasquez. Bryan Price believes in moving the ball up and down in the strike zone. The previous regime, trying to capitalize on Velasquez’ power, stressed pitching up in the zone.

Last week, catcher J.T. Realmuto spoke optimistically about Velasquez. Realmuto sensed that Velasquez was doing more “pitching” than “throwing.”

There is a difference.

“He worked on a new pitch during the quarantine, mixing in a cutter now, and he's using his changeup a lot more than he has in the past, so just the pitchability from him,” Realmuto said. “I was talking with Bryan Price about it. We're not going to be so one-dimensional with him. We're going to move the ball around the plate, pitch up and down, mix the changeup in, mix that cutter in. He's always had that curveball. He’s looked really good. I expect big things from him.”

We’ve heard that before about Velasquez. The clock is ticking. Maybe this is the year something clicks. The Phillies certainly won’t complain if it is.

While Velasquez is trying to win a spot in the rotation, Zack Wheeler’s spot is safe. He faced 19 hitters and did not allow a run in the intrasquad game. He is in line to start the second game of the season — family life permitting. Wheeler is due to become a dad in the next couple of weeks and that real-life event will sideline him for at least a start, maybe two. This is why guys like Velasquez, Pivetta, Cole Irvin and others are having their innings stretched out. There may be starter's innings available even after the fifth starter’s job is settled.

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Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

About nine months after free agency opened, Yasiel Puig has finally found a home. He agreed Tuesday to a deal with the Braves, which means the Phillies could see him 10 times in 2020.

The Braves are still a contender but were reeling and needed to make some sort of move to add more talent to their roster. Over the last two weeks, they've seen superstar Freddie Freeman and top reliever Will Smith test positive for COVID-19, while Nick Markakis and Felix Hernandez have opted out of the season.

Puig, 29, will likely play right field and bat in the spot Markakis would have occupied. The Braves still have a strong outfield with Marcell Ozuna in left field, Ronald Acuña Jr. in center and Puig in right. To optimize for defense, they could play Ender Inciarte in the outfield and have either Ozuna or Puig DH.

There was so much fanfare over Puig when he debuted with the Dodgers seven years ago, but he hasn't been able to replicate the production from his first two seasons. He's settled in as a .260-ish hitter with mid-20s home-run power and an on-base percentage right around the league average. In fact, in back to back seasons, he has hit exactly .267 with exactly a .327 OBP.

In 141 career plate appearances against the Phillies, Puig is a .301 hitter with eight doubles, three triples, three homers and 18 RBI.

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