NEW YORK - So here's the million-dollar question to be answered over the last 62 games of this incredibly flammable Phillies season:
In 2008 which is better to have down the stretch, a solid staff of starters with an erratic and undependable bullpen, or a solid bullpen with an erratic and undependable starting staff?
For six innings of last night's wild 8-6 Phillies victory, the New York Mets showed how they had shaved that 7 1/2-game lead the Phillies once held over them. Good to great starting pitching, enough offense to support it, a shortened end game that allowed its suspect bullpen to excel.
For six innings, the Phillies displayed painfully how they had lost the lead - lousy situational hitting, poor to mediocre starting pitching by anyone not named Moyer or Hamels. Last night it was newcomer Joe Blanton with the familiar self-inflicted wounds, walking guys on four pitches, walking pitchers, hitting guys with pitches, falling behind dangerous batters.
"I was really disappointed with myself about the walks," Blanton said after allowing five runs in his first six innings as a Phillies starter. "Especially the pitcher. That's definitely not what I wanted to do."
Over the last three innings, we saw why there is so much doubt about the Mets' high-priced team, and still plenty of hope surrounding the Phillies. Rudy Seanez, J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin kept the Mets off the board for two innings, allowing Brad Lidge to record his most improbable save of the season.
Improbable because the Phillies batted around and scored six runs in the ninth inning against four Mets relievers, disintegrating yet another fine eight-inning outing by Johan Santana against the Phillies. Despite the absence of closer Billy Wagner due to shoulder spasms, Mets manager Jerry Manuel lifted Santana after 105 pitches, figuring his bullpen - which had a string of 21 scoreless innings before the All-Star break - could protect a three-run lead.
That they couldn't again puts into doubt the contention that the Mets' impressive starters will be the difference in this referendum of a race.
As does the performance of the latest Phillies starter to take the hill. For two innings last night, Blanton looked like that second-half pitcher his career numbers say he is. He churned through the Mets' order in the first on 11 pitches, threw 19 strikes in his first 31 pitches as he escaped minor trouble in the second by striking out Santana with two on. Most inspirational were those early 2-0 counts, the ones that Adam Eaton and tonight's starter Brett Myers have tortured you with all season.
In the first he challenged David Wright with a 2-0 fastball. Wright took a huge swing and missed. In the second, he fooled Mets catcher Ramon Castro with a breaking ball on 2-0.
In the third . . . well that was Eatonesque. He walked Jose Reyes on four pitches. He hit Endy Chavez, a .255 hitter, with a 1-1 pitch. After battling back from a 2-0 count against Wright, Blanton hung a breaking ball that Wright ripped down the leftfield line for an RBI double.
But after Chavez was easily gunned down at the plate and Carlos Beltran grounded a 3-2 pitch to first, it looked as if Blanton would limit the damage - a key characteristic that would separate him from the two mentioned above - if he could retire Carlos Delgado.
If we are to believe Blanton is an upgrade from Eaton or Myers, we have to believe that he is more of a pitcher than either, that he conducts the kind of risk management that wilier arms - like Jamie Moyer - do. And to listen to both him and manager Charlie Manuel, he was trying to do that when he dropped a 3-2 74-mile-per-hour fastball wide of the plate.
"It wasn't even a strike," he said. "I went back and watched it."
Delgado, the Mets' hottest hitter, hit it anyway, over the rightfield wall, and the Phillies were once again in a hole. It got bigger when Castro dropped a two-run shot just beyond the reach of Pat Burrell in the fifth.
"That one was a mistake," said Blanton. "And it cost me."
So who is he? A battler whose 5-12 record indicates more hard luck than hardheadedness? A guy who will build on the good part of last night and become that added dependable arm this team so desperately needs?
Or a guy who will torture us, like the man he replaced, with self-made messes and self-inflicted wounds?.
After his first night in a Phillies uniform, it's still a matter of interpretation - just as it is to assess these two teams over the final 62 games. Phillies fans will sweat out the first six innings, Mets fans the last three. If there is a constant, it is that it looks to be a bumpy ride for both, with a lot of scares and thrills. *
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