Philadelphia Phillies: 10 Things We Learned from Opening Weekend
I had the pleasure and privilege of attending all three games this weekend for the Phillies. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. The weather did not stop more than 45,000 "phanatical" fans from showing up at each game and proving once again that the stigma of the Philadelphia fans that booed Santa more than 50 years ago is indeed history.
I have written previously about how picking against the Phillies has become the sexy thing to do with the national and even local media. Whether it was the injuries, personnel decisions or the Braves being the best team ever built, the most anticipated season in the entire 121-year history of Phillies baseball lost much of its luster leading up to Opening Day.
A few of my colleagues and myself have tried to keep to keep things positive and remind everyone that we still are indeed the team to beat. Philadelphia, we are finally the Yankees (without selling our souls to the devil). Enjoy the moment. Still, many fans had their reservations and needed these three games as insurance that this team that Ruben Amaro has built can be as good on the field as it looks on paper.
I understand that these three games were against the lowly Astros and it has only been three games, but here are 10 things we have learned about the Phillies thus far, besides them being undefeated!
1. It's Not over Til It's Over!
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I will give the 10,000-plus fans who left Friday's game against the Astros the benefit of the doubt as to why they left the game early. This team never gives up, and no lead is ever safe. Only the Reds had more come-from-behind victories last season than the Phillies.
The Phillies had as many hits through seven innings on Friday (two) as Brett Myers, but that did not stop them from piecing together six singles to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off win.
The never-say-die attitude was truly on display on Friday and what a way it was to start off the season. The Phillies finally got it going when Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard started with singles off Brandon Lyon. Ben Francisco singled in a run (Werth ever penny...) and was there any doubt whether Carlos Ruiz would get a clutch hit? He singled, and Wilson Valdez (the guy can play) hit a game-tying single that kept the bases loaded with one out.
John Mayberry then sent a shot over Michael Bourn (against a right-handed pitcher), kicking off a celebration for many of us that didn't stop until late Sunday afternoon.
2. Benny Fran
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He may have had some shaky plays in the outfield over the weekend, but hopefully you realized that the guy can play. He has a fluid swing, he can run and he has a heck of an arm. The integration of Francisco into the lineup has given the team life and given fans a reason to breathe easier after Jayson Werth.
Look for him to sharpen his play in right field the more he is out there. Are you a believer in Francisco yet, or is still too early?
3. Wilson Valdez
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Watching Wilson Valdez throw the ball in person is an absolute treat. He has a cannon for an arm and will be an adequate replacement for Utley until he comes back (eh, if he comes back). While I still believe Valdez should be playing third base and Polanco second while Utley is out, (see key error on Friday) Valdez brings a ton of energy to the team that is contagious.
He is a contact hitter who will take pitches and slap the ball around and will continue to be a servicable player on the team. He was a great pickup who will prove again to be a bargain this season at $400,000.
4. Starting Rotation Is Pretty Good
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I think we can all agree that the Astros stink, and they will be lucky to win 75 games this season. Still, they were in line to win a game that Doc Halladay started, only to see their closer blow a two-run lead.
If that wasn't detrimental enough, they had to come back the next night and face another top 10 pitcher in Cliff Lee. He only racked up 11 strikeouts while walking none to earn the W.
OK, thank goodness we don't have to face either of those guys again this series! No, you just have to face Roy Oswalt who has a career ERA of 3.18 and is 151-83 in his career. He also throws a 93 mph fastball and a 65 mph curveball.
At least it's only a three-game series and you don't have to face Cole Hamels and his 95-mph fastball..
National League, don't expect the Phillies to be swept very often this season, not when you oppose four guys (I think Blanton will have a great year by the way) who will make it very difficult to score three runs against them.
5. Back End of Pen Is Your Friend
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The injury to Brad Lidge may actually be a blessing in disguise. The Phillies are forced to pitch Danys Baez, and if they can get anything out of him, the bullpen has the potential to turn into a strength and not a weakness as projected.
Lidge has been as up and down as a roller coaster the past two seasons.
Jose Contreras throws one of the heaviest pitches in the game and he has the demeanor and ability to close games out for the Phillies. He had 57 Ks in 56.1 innings pitched last season for the Phillies.
Many thought Ryan Madson would be the guy getting the nod at closer when Lidge went down, but Madson will continue to be filthy out of his set-up role.
With four pitchers that have the ability to go the distance every time out and pride themselves on pitching as many innings as they can, having a solid set-up man and closer are keys to the Phillies success. They have both of those in Madson and Contreras. If Lidge can come back healthy, this bullpen can be even more dominant.
6. Ryan Howard
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The Big Piece has been a notoriously slow starter throughout his entire eight-year career. The saying with Howard is that he "heats up with the weather." Like I said earlier, I was at all three games this weekend and it was pretty cold. That didn't stop Howard from scolding the ball.
His swing looks in midseason form as he is driving the ball to the opposite field and pulling it as well. He is hitting for average and for power and all Phillies fans know that Howard has the ability to carry the team for a long period of time.
Hopefully the big man can stay hot and add another MVP trophy to his already stacked collection.
7. Phanatic Is a Beast
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To the lighter side of sports, watching the Phanatic dance in front of Angel Sanchez to Lady Gaga's "Born this Way" while he was taking practice swings, made me proud to be a Philadelphian.
Not only do the Phillies have the best stadium, pitching staff and team, but they also have the best mascot in sports. If you have a bald head and are attending a Phillies game, wear a hat if you don't want to be Frenched by a seven-foot hairy monster from the Galapagos.
8. Small Ball
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Jimmy Rollins stated in the offseason that he would not change his approach this offseason and "why would I?" Philly fans have been begging for Rollins and Victorino to hit the ball on the ground for years, but this may be the season that the Phillies play a little small ball.
With Victorino, Polanco, Rollins, Francisco, Ruiz and Valdez, they no longer have the lineup that features three to four guys capable of hitting 30 home runs. Heck, at this point in his career Ibanez is more of a contact hitter than a power hitter. The Phillies showed during the opening weekend that they have more hitters in this lineup who make contact than in recent years.
The Phils won their first two games without a home run, and that should have Phillies fans excited. They pieced together base hits and that will serve them well throughout the season. The power will come for guys like Howard, Rollins, Fransisco, Ibanez and Utley (if he returns), but seeing solid at-bats and swings is key to scoring runs. Especially the past two days, we have seen a lot of solid contact that needs to continue throughout the season if the Phillies expect to score runs.
They don't need to score many runs with the type of pitching the Phils have.
9. Cliff Lee and Philadelphia Equals Love Story
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To be completely honest, I could not fully enjoy Doc Halladay's magical first season with the Phillies because I still missed Cliff Lee. There is no debate that Halladay is the superior pitcher and he is the best pitcher in the game, but Lee will always have a special place in the hearts of Philly fans.
Whether it was the non-chalant no-look catch of a pop-up, the behind-the-back snag of a line drive, the utter dominance Lee displayed in the biggest of stages against sports' most storied franchise, or all of the above. He has forever endeared himself into the hearts of Philadelphia.
The best fans in America felt cheated when the Phillies brass stated: "We needed to replenish the farm system."
Their intelligence felt disrespected as a clear case of salary cutting. They made a decision that they did not want to compete with the rest of the bidders when Lee became a free agent.
Philadelphia could not be silenced. Talk radio and television rang out during the entire 2010 season of the injustice which was the trading of Lee. Lee himself even spoke of his love of the town and his "utter shock" that he had been traded.
It is not often in sports when a franchise admits its mistakes (i.e Philadelphia Eagles) but credit has to be given to the Phillies ownership for breaking their own rule (no more than three years for a pitcher) and going all-in this season.They righted a wrong and brought back the player that the fans loved the most, the player that never should have left in the first place.
And plenty of credit needs to go to Lee and his family. They did not hold the trading of him away to the western part of the country against the Phillies. They went with their heart and chose Philadelphia over everywhere else. Sure the Phillies gave him a huge contract, but he still took at least $20 million less to play here, not chump change.
This will go down as one of the greatest love stories in Philadelphia history and it was rekindled Saturday night. The eighth-largest crowd ever at Citizens Bank Park roared (myself included) at every little thing Lee did. Whether it was his name being announced, striking out 11 Astros, a sacrifice bunt, or striking out at the plate, Philadelphia fell in love all over again.
One of the best pitchers in the game chose you Philadelphia. The atmosphere that you create is something that is unmatched in baseball.
Rob Maaddi of NBCsports.com reported Lee stating: ""I can hear the noise, hear the volume, It felt good to know fans are excited to see me back. You try not to focus on it too much and get hitters out, but I gave myself a minute to notice it."
If you looked around the stadium last night, there were signs saying "Welcome Home Cliff" and "Brother Lee Love." No, the guy has never won a World Series here, yet, but there is no denying that Cliff Lee and Philadelphia is a true love story.
10. Best Fans in Baseball
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The Phillies have sold out 126 consecutive games at Citizens Bank Park. They sold over three million tickets before a pitch even was thrown this season. Phillies merchandise is flying off the shelves faster than the Air Force jets that flew overhead at the home opener.
Any way you slice it, the fans are the reason the Phillies were able to bring together one of the greatest pitching rotations (on paper) in baseball history. Three of the best pitchers in the game waived no-trade clauses and took less guaranteed money to play at Citizens Bank Park.
So why do the fans of Philadelphia still get categorized by a complete idiot who decides to vomit on a little girl, or Santa being booed over a half-century ago? Dodger Stadium has had seven people stabbed in their confines in the last decade, but does the national media report that? Absolutely not.
I would match the pure passion that is exuberated by the Philly Phaithful 365 days a year to any fanbase in the world. We have a team that is as talented as any team in baseball, and expects to win. Philadelphia deserves another parade down Broad Street, and from where I was sitting during the first three games of the season, Philadelphia should be as confident as ever that the dream will become a reality.
What do you think? Were these three games enough to give you confidence that the Phils are the team to beat? Or did the Phillies just dominate a poor team?