At the risk of being the master of the obvious, the Philadelphia Phillies are red hot right now.
They’ve won 17 of 20 games in September, and boast a current 10 game winning streak. The next hottest team in the NL—now that the Colorado Rockies have re-entered Planet Earth—is the Chicago Cubs, who are a tepid 7-3.
So, what does this all mean? Their brilliant play the last, especially, 58 games (43-15 since July 20) has put them in great shape down the stretch. Which begs the question: Now that they only have to win four out of nine games (and perhaps, not even that many to clinch home field advantage throughout the postseason) do they keep “gunning it” or think about resting some of their stalwarts?
With their sweep of the Atlanta Braves, the Phils (92-61) are not only six games ahead of the Braves, but they are also six games ahead of all of the other contenders for possible home field advantage in the NL—the Giants, Reds and Padres (as well as the Braves) each have 67 losses.
Even in the unlikely event that one of these teams wins out, the Phillies—with just four more wins—clinch the best record in the National League. With the way they are playing, one would think that they will do this within their next two series—three at home versus the Mets starting tonight, followed by three at Washington. That huge series in Atlanta to end the regular season would project to only be huge for the Braves’ wild card hopes.
So, now what? In a season that has seen most of their regulars spend time on the Disabled List, assuming that they clinch home field advantage with 3-5 games left to play, what do they do?
Option A: Why change a winning formula just before heading into the playoffs? Indeed, if the Phils win 8 out of 9, they can win 100 games this year. But that’s kind of a “nice-to-have” milestone, and not a necessity. The main reason to keep their feet on the gas is to avoid any letdowns or bad habits going into the postseason. Remember that the NLCS is only a best of 5, before the best of 7 format comes into play.
With the H2O of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt almost unhittable these days, and our heart of the order (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth) looking like themselves again, the Phils are very tough to beat and it’s been a thing of beauty to regard. It’s especially beautiful to watch the Fightins when they aren’t committing the kind of base running and field gaffes that sometimes plagued their 2010 campaign.
This school of thought would say that you keep this lineup burning on all cylinders, and don’t worry about playing the Dobbs, Franciscos, Mayberrys and Browns. Don’t mess with success!
Option B: Skipper Charlie Manuel—assuming the Phils fulfill their magic number of four with a handful of games left on the schedule—should look to rest certain players. Even more so in a season that has seen all those players wind up on the DL.
One has to wonder if Utley and Howard—who are looking better these days, but may not be 100% healthy—can benefit from being spelled for a game or two. Another reason to take this approach is to keep the bench sharp. Players like Ross Gload, Brian Schneider, Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown may not start in the playoffs (well, they won’t unless there’s an injury or two), but they may be called upon as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement.
Another guy to keep an eye on is the ace, the seemingly indefatigable Roy Halladay. Doc has pitched 241.2 innings this year, a big workload that has him leading the NL, and tied for first (with the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez) in the majors. Superb as he is, he has looked just a little tired of late, and not quite up to his considerable standards his last several starts Halladay has yielded either three or four earned runs in each of his last six starts, and has only exceeded seven innings in one of his last seven.
Conclusion: Over the last few years, Manuel has always seemed to push the right buttons for his team; he simply has a great handle on his players. I would look for guys like Utley and Howard to get a day off or two, and while Doc may take the ball as expected two more times, Manuel won’t be afraid to use his bullpen a little sooner in his starts. Gload, Schneider, Francisco and Brown should all get some at-bats down the stretch.
Sometimes personal milestones and possible awards play a factor in this, and while I don’t think that this is a priority for Manuel, he is somewhat of a player’s manager. More on this below.
Gold Notes: Halladay (20-10, 2.53) appears to be in a three-man race for the NL Cy Young Award, along with the Cards’ Adam Wainwright (19-7, 2.45) and Ubaldo Jimenez of the Rockies (19-7, 3.00). If I had a ballot, they would be my top three—in that order. More analysis of the race for various awards will follow the regular season.
Halladay, Oswalt (2.80) and Hamels (2.93) are three of only 12 NL starters with ERAs under 3.00. For most of the season, the Cardinals (with Wainwright, Jaime Garcia (2.70) and Chris Carpenter (now at 3.20) had this distinction.
With 11 more strikeouts in his next two starts, Oswalt will join Halladay and Hamels as members of the 200 “K” club. The longtime Astros ace has done so twice before, the last time in 2004.
That RBI machine named Ryan Howard does not seem to have a reasonable shot at claiming another RBI crown. At 104 ribbies, he trails Carlos Gonzalez (113), Albert Pujols (112) and Joey Votto (106). Going into 2010, “The Big Piece” had led the league in this department the last two years, and three times in his four full seasons.