Monday, June 12, 2006

Zephyr Power

The New Orleans Zephyr's pitching staff shut down a big-hitting Phillies lineup in a dominant display of pitching. Shawn Hill went seven innings, giving up just two hits. He was on yesterday. Even from my seats in the nosebleeds behind the plate, I could see that his two-seamer was moving like crazy. He walked a few too many batters, as he couldn't consistently throw his curve for strikes, but for the most part, he was firmly in command.

He was relieved by two other Zephyrs, Bill Bray and Saul Rivera. Rivera's was a garbage-time mopup role, but Bray's was crucial. His eighth-inning performance, in which he darted into then back out of danger thanks to a clutch strikeout of the dangerous Ryan Howard on a vicious slider, held the Phillies off the scoreboard, setting the stage for the Fick and Ward Homerpalooza in the bottom of the inning.

But the Majority Whip goes to Cap'n Clutch, Jose Guillen. Making his first start since coming back from his hamstring injury, Guillen had the big hit of the game, a clutch two-run double right down the left-field line. Last year, Guillen would press in those situaitons, thinking (presumably) that he had to be the man. With the team humming along without him and the dominance of Soriano, perhaps he'll be able to relax and perform in the role that best fits him: complimentary slugger.

Guillen also made a terrific running catch on a Pat Burrell drive into the gap in right-center. From the crack of the bat, I was sure it was in the alley. My eyes instinctively tracked Marlon Byrd, who was running hard (but even when he's running hard, he looks like he's jogging). But, there, in the corner of my eyes, streaked Guillen, galloping and fielding the ball at a full sprint, taking away a sure double. I guess his hamstrings aren't a question now.

It's been trendy to run down Guillen at BPG. Even our intrepid MLB.com beat writer has noted that the clubhouse was better without Guillen in it. (To that I'd say that that's probably more a function of the team winning games over the last two weeks. Winning usually begats chemistry, not vice versa)

But there's no doubt that Jose Guillen makes this a better team. Sure, he stunk on ice earlier, but his time off probably helped heal some of the many nagging injuries he had. Don't forget that you could've made a legitimate case for Guillen as an All-Star last year. Sure, he tailed off. Sure, he can't really hit for power in this park (even as it seems that he's been more pull-conscious this year). But even with a 'bad' season last year, he still hit .283/ .338/ .479. And despite his late-season slump, he still finished with a 118 OPS+. (Meaning he was 18% better than average, which is excellent).

To put that in perspective, his .817 OPS from last year would make him the third best hitting Nat (behind Soriano and Johnson). If you don't want that in your lineup, you're crazy. Especially when the alternative is Marlon feckin' Anderson.

  • Pat Burrell is a great hitter, and he certainly had a hot bat this series, but he demonstrated that he's the kind of player that's exploited by RFK. Time and time again, balls were hit to leftfield that he just butchered. He was unable to cut off a number of balls, leading to extra bases for the Nats (conservatively, I'd say they took 3-4 extra bases off his fielding in this series alone).

  • Conversely, Soriano has started to look, dare I say, smooth in left? He's clearly reading the ball really well off the bat, getting a good jump, and taking the correct line to the ball, even on those nasty slicing liners that ate him alive earlier. He still plays a few steps too deep, but he's making most of the plays he should make. Over the last few weeks, he's only butchered a few plays, and his most notable error (against Atlanta) was one that was more mental than physical.

  • Cole Hamels got knocked around a bit, but this is a kid to watch. He was unable to throw his big, slow curve for strikes, but if he had, wow. His slider is nasty, freakin' nasty, tying up Nats bats inside. His fastball was in the 92-94 range, but because of the control problems he had with the curve, the Nats were able to sit on it, leading to their runs.

    In fact, if his control hadn't failed him in the second, when with two outs he walked Soriano and Clayton ahead of Guillen's double, it could've been an entirely different game. Those were his only two walks in the game, to go with eight strikeouts. I definitely am not looking forward to facing him in the coming years!

  • So 3/4 from the Phillies. If Saturday's Lame Duck Winner, Jose Vidro, had been able to cash in with runners on, it could've been a four-game sweep of a team that was reasonably hot before coming here.

    I really don't know what to make of this team. The team can't keep playing like it has for the last three weeks, just as it couldn't realistically play as bad as it did for the previous three. There's a middle ground in there somewhere.

    But when you look at the individual parts, no one, other than Soriano, is really playing over their head. Everyone's giving about the performance you'd expect. Can they keep it up? I dunno. But it's exciting to find out!
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