The Phillies boarded their charter flight to Chicago early Thursday morning. It should have been a happy trip as the opportunity to go 2-1 or 3-0 against Texas was theirs for the taking. After exploding for 14 runs on opening day the Phils combined to score just fives runs the next two games. Still, with the starting pitching they got from A. J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick in games two and three of the series, the games were there to be had. If only the Phils had a bullpen.
The pen has been a glaring weakness going back to 2012. In 2013 they saw further decline. Ruben Amaro Jr.’s answer to the bullpen problems was to let the young arms grow into the position and add Brad Lincoln, whose number Sandberg has yet to call. In game two it was Jake Diekman, B. J. Rosenberg and Mario Hollands who coughed up the 2-1 lead Burnett handed them after six innings of good work. They lost on a walk-off single by Adrian Beltre in the 9th inning by a 3-2 margin. Game three was a tougher pill to swallow. After Kyle Kendrick gave the Phils seven innings of five-hit, one-run pitching, he gave way to Antonio Bastardo in the 8th. Bastardo set Texas down 1-2-3. Going into the 9th inning with a two-run lead the Phils felt pretty good about getting a 2-1 series win over the Rangers. As fate would have it, that was not the case. Jonathan Papelbom imploded to give up four hits, two walks and three runs in a third of an inning, walking in the winning run.
This afternoon the Phillies head into Chicago with a record of 1-2. They’ll take on the north side Cubbies, also 1-2 after three games. Papelbon’s blown save is still reverberating in Philadelphia as the Phillies need to figure out how to finish teams off. The last two games of the Rangers series were far too reminiscent of the 2013 season – to little scoring by the offense and poor pitching from the bullpen. It will be interesting to see if Sandberg makes any knee-jerk reactions to the Rangers series this weekend. He’s already shown he’s not tied to the past by taking Howard out of the 4-hole for the first time in well over 800 games in game two of the Texas series.
Will Papelbon get the call in the 9th to protect a slim lead? Conventional wisdom says he won’t yank his closer three games into the season. His first time out in game one Papelbon pitched a 1-2-3 9th inning in a non-save situation. If he shies away from Papelbon, who would get the call? It’s not as if the Phils bullpen is brimming with stud pitchers who just need an opportunity.
This afternoon the Cubs will throw 27-year old lefthander Travis Wood (9-12, 3.11 ERA in 2013) against the Phils Roberto Hernandez (6-13, 4.89 for the Rays in 2013). Wood is coming off his first All-Star game appearance in 2013 and mostly throws three pitches. His fastball is his number one pitch, but is regularly clocked at 89-90 mph. He also throws a changeup and slider that averages 80 mph. Wood’s not an over powering pitcher but gets the job done. Along with his 3.11 ERA last year he had a WHIP of 1.145.
Wood will be opposed by Roberto Hernandez, who the Phils signed as a free agent this past off-season. The past three years Hernandez has put up 5th starter numbers at best. Over that period he’s 13-31 with a 5.19 ERA and 1.376 WHIP. Why the Phils saw him as the answer to the 5th starter spot I don’t know, but he’s here and pitching in the 4th slot until the return of Cole Hamels.
Game two will be the premier pitching matchup of the series. The Cubs will go with Jeff Samardzija (8-13, 4.34 ERA in 2013) against Cliff Lee (14-8, 2.87 ERA in 2013). In the Cubs opener Samardzija pitched seven innings of five-hit shutout baseball, but didn’t figure in the decision. Samardzija has flashed star potential since being selected 5th overall by the Cubs in 2006, but most scouts feel he hasn’t lived up to his potential in his MLB career. Samardzija throws a four-seam fastball that sits at 94-95 MPH, a two – seam fastball, a slider and changeup. This is a big year for the big righty, as he’s due to hit the free agent market this offseason.
Cliff Lee is coming off one of the worst outings of his storied career. A game in which he gave up eight runs in 5 innings but still walked away with the win. As usual, Lee will work fast and count on throwing strike one to get ahead of hitters with his pinpoint fastball. Lee is in in his 4th season as a Phillie and there’s been widespread speculation if the Phils aren’t contending come July that Lee will be gone. Lee’s heard these rumors in the past and is still a Phillie. The clock is ticking on Lee who will turn 36 later this season. He’d like to pitch for a contender. He’s hoping that’s here in Philadelphia, but would likely trade his partial no-trade clause to pitch for a contender should the Phils fall out of the race early.
In the series finale the Cubs will hand the ball to Carlos Villanueva (7-8, 4.06 ERA in 2013). Villanueva will rely heavily on his fastball which he throws at 92-94 mph as his main pitch. He also throw a slider that he isn’t afraid to throw whatever the count is, a low 70’s changeup and a curveball that’s very inconsistent.
Villanueva will face off against the Phils A. J. Burnett. Burnett pitched 6 strong innings of one-run baseball against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday but walked away with a no decision for his effort. If he continues pitching like he did earlier in the week he’ll earn the $16,000,000 the Phils are paying him. If he falls off later in the year as he did the last two years in Pittsburgh it’s likely he won’t be back and the Phils won’t be contending. There’s both a team option and player option on Burnett’s contract.
This is a winnable series for the Phils who don’t want to become irrelevant in April or May of this year. Taking two of three or sweeping (always difficult on the road) has to be the goal. if the Phils can take two of three they get back to .500 and return home Monday afternoon for their home opener. The Cubs rebuilding process continues under team President Theo Epstein, as their minor league system is loaded. Unfortunately for the Cubs most of the star potential they have in the minors is still a year or more away. This could be a long, hot summer for the Cubs. If the Phils don’t figure out how to effectively use their bullpen, which in fairness to Sandberg he just may not have enough talent to work with, it could be a long, hot summer in South Philly too.