Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who Should Start Game 7 for the Phillies?


The Philadelphia Phillies team, and particularly manager Charlie Manuel, are approaching their current situation in this World Series in exactly the manner you would expect. They are taking things one game at a time with the announcement that the starter for Game 6 of the series back in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium will be veteran Pedro Martinez.

Once the Phils won the 5th game and cut the Yanks lead down to 3-2, that was pretty much a forgone conclusion. Martinez started in Game #2 and pitched effectively, and also has the experience and mental makeup to thrive in that pressurized atmosphere. So the Phillies will once again put the ball in the hands of the man who has stated that he is the Yankees' "daddy", hoping that he can help force a decisive 7th game.

What Manuel has not done is announce who his starter would be for that 7th game. That is likely because he really hasn't fully committed to a final decision in his own mind, simply wanting to focus on getting the series tied. But that hasn't stopped the talking head 'experts' on both television and radio, or the armchair managers in homes across the Delaware Valley, from both speculating on the choice and tossing in their own two cents worth of advice.

Depending on how Game #6 plays out and what pitchers might have to be utilized to get through that game, and assuming that the Phillies are even able to win and get things tied up, the choices are somewhat limited. Many of those chiming in from the outside are calling for the choice to be rookie lefty J.A. Happ, who was one of the Phillies' best starting pitchers this season and who at this point is well-rested. Happ has not pitched since going 1 1/3 innings in Game #3 on Saturday night. He would be pitching with a full four days of rest if not used in Game #6.

However, my choice to start that Game #7 would be possibly the next-to-last man that many Phillies fans would want to see make the start, particularly in light of his struggles during much of the 2009 season and the results of his start in Game #3, as well as his comments following that start. My choice would be to have Cole Hamels make what would be his normal start on normal rest.

There are a number of reasons that I think Hamels both deserves and would be the best choice to make this start. First, Hamels would indeed be on his normal pitching day with four full days of rest. Second, he only threw 69 pitches in Game #3 over just 4 1/3 innings. He has had plenty of rest, is healthy, and would be physically capable of giving the Phillies a strong starting effort.

Further, I don't think that Hamels was very far away from a strong start in Game #3. He no-hit the Yankees for the first three innings, and allowed just a hit and a walk through the first four. Overall he had a 49-20 strikes-to-balls ratio. Of course, he imploded in the 5th inning, allowing small things to bother him and snowball into a 3-run inning and a 5-3 Yankee lead that they would never relinquish.

This has been Hamels downfall throughout the entirety of the 2009 season, and particularly in the post-season. He is throwing well and then something - not getting a perceived strike call from an umpire on a close pitch in an important situation, or a rare fielding miscue from one of his usually sure-handed teammates during an important situation - gets him upset and throws him off his game. He allows the situation to control him rather than keeping his composure and plowing through the setback.

This is a maturity issue for the still-young and possibly still-future staff ace. Last post-season, Hamels was on top of his game and gained confidence with each strong outing. He rolled through lineups like a machine, and was named both the NLCS and World Series MVP as his club won a championship. This year he has struggled through injury, inconsistency, bad weather, and just plain dumb-luck. There is every reason to believe that in the future he will rebound nicely.

But right now, most fans don't think that the team can trust Hamels, particularly in a winner-take-all pressurized 7th game of the World Series scenario at Yankee Stadium in front of hostile fans against a potent lineup with his psyche so fragile. Frankly, I believe that their thinking is all wrong on the situation.

Hamels has indeed been fragile and inconsistent. He has also, however, shown tantalizing glimpses and even whole games where he was his dominant self, including his most recent start. The important thing to remember here is that this would be the final game of the season for every Phillies pitcher. Every single active pitcher on the staff would be available for some length of time, with the possible exception of Pedro, and even that would depend on how long he goes in Game Six.

So you can start Hamels in the familiar role, but it is not a typical start. You hope that you get the Hamels who started Game #3 and who controls the Yankees early while the Phils bats get on the board. But you don't have to depend on Cole to go deep into the game. At any point at which he looks like he is losing control of either his pitches or his emotions, you get him out of the game. Maybe that doesn't happen until deep. Maybe he rolls along and gains confidence and gives you a shutdown performance.

The important thing is that, with no more games on the schedule, everyone is in the bullpen. Happ is ready early. Game #4 starter Joe Blanton is ready with 3-days rest to give you an inning or two. The usual bullpen arms like Durbin, Eyre, Myers, Park, Madson, and Lidge are all ready. And with the circumstances of this game, all are ready for situational relief at any point in any inning. Finally, Cliff Lee is even available for an inning. It will be his usual 'bullpen' day anyway, so he should be fully capable of giving you at least one full inning.

So the bottom line is that you start Cole Hamels and hope for the best, and the odds are that with the spotlight on him and with something to prove, he will give you a solid performance. If not, you not only have a short leash, you have absolutely no leash if you see him start to get into trouble in any way from the start of the game onward. Happ is ready to go at the outset in case something happens early, and everyone is ready during the game if they are needed.

Of course, that is all for fan and media discussion at this point, because the focus of the team will be right where it should be, on winning Game #6, whatever that takes. If that means you need Happ to throw a few innings, then you use him and you do what it takes to tie the series up. Because without winning this next game, a decisive and penultimate Game #7 will forever remain a "what if" scenario. Cole Hamels should start Game #7 for the Phillies, but they still have to get there first.

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