By Bill Campbell
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — I wonder when the last opening day to a baseball season was cancelled. It happened to the Phillies this week. Pushing back a full day for the opener is quite rare. It might happen about as frequently as cancelling the World Series because, in many ballparks, the opening game represents the biggest crowd that the home team may draw all season. You can bet that the Phillies powers-that-be had several meetings and conference calls before they finally decided to push the home opener against Milwaukee from Monday night to Tuesday afternoon. There also was a pitching change to contemplate: Kyle Kendrick instead of A.J. Burnett. But Kendrick started the first game on Tuesday and the Phils lost the first of three to Milwaukee, 10-4.
There was more than one story to put to ink. We can’t forget that of Ryan Braun who made his debut here in the third inning on Tuesday night to a chorus of boos, reminding him that many fans haven’t forgiven or forgotten his involvement in the PDA scandal last year. However, Braun silenced many of his critics hitting three home runs and seven RBI’s in the game. The Braves really had this one in the bag early though the Phillies refused to give it away. They came from 1-6 to 3-6 with five walks and seven hits and threatened to make a contest out of it. Cries of “Comeback” bounced around the stadium but errors and flubs haunted them. Brad Lincoln allowed a double and hit a batter before giving up Braun’s third homer, a shot to left-center in the eighth. The Brewers’ bullpen held the Phillies to just one run in four innings. Milwaukee out-hit the Phils, 15-9, and the Phillies left eleven men on base in front of a non-sellout crowd.
On Wednesday night, pitchers Roberto Hernandez (1-0, 3.38) and Matt Garza started. Ryan Braun made his presence known again, hitting a two-run triple during a three-run eighth inning rally to lead the Brewers to a 9-4 win. Carlos Gomez and Mark Reynolds homered and Jean Segura doubled to drive in a run for Milwaukee. Hernandez allowed four runs – three earned – on seven hits in five innings while coming within one strikeout of matching his career high with nine. Manager Ryne Sandberg said, “Hernandez threw the ball well. He was mixing his pitches and did a nice job.” Unfortunately, it was in a losing effort. Sandberg also talked a lot about B.J. Rosenberg who pitched for a second day, inheriting problems created by pitcher Mario Hollands. Adrian Beltre blasted a single to right and the game was over, 3-2. But Sandberg wasn’t upset with Rosenberg. “Coming out of spring training, he was throwing the best as far as throwing strikes and doing the job as a seventh or eighth inning right-handed pitcher,” said Sandberg. So he seems to have some trust in the young player in tight situations.
Thursday night’s outing was no better, with the Phils going down 9-4. Milwaukee battered the Phillies with 25 runs and 38 hits over the three-game series. During their opening-season win streak, the Brewers have batted .320 and outscored their opponents 42-18. Cliff Lee struck out eight and walked none but he allowed eight hits which led to three runs in six innings. Chase Utley was back and had two hits. Marlon Byrd homered and had two RBIs. On Friday, the story was no better: a 6-2 loss. The Brewers outpitched and outhit the Phillies all three days. “The good news is they are leaving town,” said Ryne Sandberg. “Now we have to concentrate on gaining some momentum.”
You’ll be hearing a lot of talk about the Phillies’ lacking in attitude or energy after this disappointing series. But the team itself must be concerned about their missing swagger since they took to the field at 2:30 for batting practice and stayed on the field. It’s never a good idea to let your opponent get a 6-run lead on you. We all want to believe that this is just a shaky start and that three poor games do not make a season. But the Phillies need to get some zip in their step – in a hurry. A mediocre start and a half-empty ballpark at Citizen’s Bank Park don’t bode well.
Baseball, our great national game, occupies most of the spring beginning in early March and continuing through the World Series in October. If you’re interested in baseball, you’re interested in pitchers. The pitchers we know as artists on the mound have various ways of working on hitters. The best way to work on them is with a fastball. A pitcher without an overpowering fastball works the counts very carefully and tries to retire the hitter by winning those counts. If he owns a true fastball pitch, he can be golden because he can rely upon it to get past the most threatening of hitters. Baseball is a speed game – speed on the mound, at bat, in the outfield, running the bases. It is also a thinking man’s game, particularly in selecting pitches. So much depends on the catcher. I enjoy watching Carlos Ruiz work with pitchers, getting them through tough spots and easing them through others. I still recall watching him work Roy Halladay through his perfect game here a few years back. Those two players were at their best, communicating as only they could on their best day.
In years past it was essential that successful teams include in their rosters players who combined speed, strength and smarts, if you will. Of late, the bullpen has become a very important part of the game and a focus for finding players who possess all three characteristics. A bullpen typically was made up of guys who simply weren’t good enough to start every four or five days but who could come in and help bail out a starter from a bad situation or relieve him when the game was already won. Now, it’s more complicated, the teams want more from the relievers. In years past, pitch count and pitch velocity weren’t tallied and measured the way they are today. Now the bullpen has become an important feature to every team. The Phillies’ bullpen no longer boasts the presence of Roy Halladay, who retired at the end of last season. Cliff Lee remains, after an excellent 2013 season, though he is off to a somewhat uneven start. Cole Hamels is still recovering from tendonitis, though his return is charted for the end of April. A Phils pitching staff with Kyle Kendrick and A.J. Burnett at its starting core is not one to be feared and the pitchers are, let’s face it, one injury away from disaster. They need a fifth starter badly. Manager Ryne Sandberg appears ready to tweak the lineup every day. He has a separate challenge with this pitching staff, both starters and relievers. No one envies him at the moment on either front. We can’t forget, however, that one of the biggest problems in the series with Milwaukee was the lack of hitting. If the Phillies are to win over the course of the 162-game season, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Domonic Brown and crew have got to get the hits going and keep it that way. The best of pitchers can’t make up for a lack of hits and this team has struggled behind the bat for the last few years. All the good defense in the world can’t make up for the lack of an offensive game.
In basketball in recent years, the name of the game has been very much about defense. I believe you will find that, in this sport, the team that plays the best defense is the team that will win more games in the long run. Of course, the three-point shot has added much to the game, requiring more skill than straight shooting. But defense, be it man-to-man or zone, sets up the play and provides opportunities to prevent a score, rebound a shot, take off down the court again and again. Basketball has always been about speed but strength is equally important to players who have to run repeatedly over the course of four quarters. Intelligence about how to play, to anticipate, to move enters into it as well. We saw some great basketball in the recent NCAA tournament with players who had the speed and endurance to get through some very exciting and demanding contests. Hats off to UConn for its win.
The recent release of Eagle DeSean Jackson, who quickly signed with the Washington Redskins, has had us talking in Philadelphia. Jackson has always had the speed necessary to win. We’ve known that, if the ball gets into his hands, he can explode on the run at any time. We’ll miss seeing that here. But in his case, speed was not enough. From what we’re reading, building up his strength and being wise about taking part in practice, participating in team off-field events, committing himself to the good of the team were not necessarily what counted to him. For whatever his reasons, it seems that Coach Chip Kelly had had enough and the front office backed him up on it. So now we’ll see DeSean Jackson return to Lincoln Financial Field as a Redskin this fall. This should be interesting.