LOS ANGELES - Remember when it was appropriate to label the Phillies, and their pitching, inconsistent? When it seemed reasonable to wonder if last year's World Series run had created not only a psychological hangover but also a dozen or so tired arms? When the shaky rotation struggled into May and inspired the thought, "Maybe this is just who they are?"
It is time to tentatively strip the rotation of that "inconsistent" label. For the first month and a half of the season, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Joe Blanton, Jamie Moyer, and Chan Ho Park combined with the bullpen to give the Phils a National League-worst 5.63 earned run average, making a winning streak virtually impossible.
But now the rotation finds itself in a renaissance despite a season-ending injury and a demotion to the bullpen. You know that winning look the Phils have lately? Just more evidence of how important starting pitching is to the overall aura and self-esteem of a baseball team.
Let's look at why each spot in the rotation has improved:
Hamels: No more freaky bad luck (though you can blame this column for the jinx if something happens this week). His season was never in as much trouble as it appeared. For more than a month, though, one unfortunate event led to another. After experiencing tightness in his pitching elbow, he had a cortisone shot in mid-March that delayed his preparation for the season and led to ineffectiveness in his early appearances. Just as he began to rediscover his stuff, Hamels was hit in the shoulder with a line drive on April 23. In his next start, he sprained his ankle while fielding a bunt.
But, luck aside, his repertoire has been strong since late-April; his recent dominance - including Thursday night's 3-0 shutout of the Dodgers - has not been a surprise. That's big for the Phillies, who for six weeks lacked a stopper.
Myers: This is less happy news for the team. Myers led the majors in home runs allowed, but was improving before a hip injury sent him to the operating table. Antonio Bastardo pitched well in his major-league debut replacing Myers, but that spot remains a hole in the rotation, awaiting stabilization.
Blanton: His ERA after May 21 was 7.11, but the odious number was achieved in a strange way. Blanton often fell victim to one or two disastrous innings, which spoiled decent starts. As previously reported, he discovered a mechanical problem while pitching from the stretch. After moving his feet wider apart, which improved his arm angle, Blanton pitched seven innings in each of his two consecutive appearances, allowing zero and three runs, respectively.
Moyer: The line between allowing seven runs and three runs in an appearance will remain fine for the veteran lefty, but in recent starts he has shown that he can still win (including the big 250). Two consecutive appearances in which he allowed seven earned runs led to questions about Moyer's immediate future, but the veteran has stabilized of late. Moyer's effectiveness will always depend in part on strong defense and a favorable strike zone, but he now seems like the pitcher who won 16 games last year.
Park: The fifth spot in the rotation has improved, of course, because Park is in the bullpen, replaced by J.A. Happ. The Phillies have always liked Happ's approach but did not know he would be this good, capping three strong starts with seven shutout innings in San Diego on Wednesday. Extremely aggressive with his high-80s to low-90s fastball and smart about mixing in his breaking stuff, Happ is also benefiting from the opposing hitters' lack of familiarity with his stuff. He has more than stabilized that spot for now.
Of course, a team is never as good as it looks when it is hot or as bad as it looks when it is not. The Phillies want to acquire another starter and are exploring trades. Management knows that the current team probably lacks the pitching to defend its title without Myers. But as they seek an upgrade, the Phils do so with increased confidence in their current rotation and can negotiate with reduced urgency.
Inside the Phillies:
Read Andy Martino's Phillies blog, The Phillies Zone, at http://go.philly.com/sports.
Blog response of the week
RE: Escalona sent down
Posted by delaina, 11:34 a.m., 06/03/2009
Let's not overdo the hype on Bastardo yet. It was one start against a team that had obviously never seen him before. He was effectively wild, but once the league gets to know him, he won't be able to get away with that. I'm glad he pitched well, and of course he deserves another start. But let's be real, he's not going to be the second coming of Steve Carlton.EndText