Tuesday, July 31, 2007

That's OK, we'll take him

The trading deadline came and went without too much fanfare for the Phillies, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t make a little bit of noise. Aside from adding Tadahito Iguchi last weekend to replace Chase Utley, as well as starting pitcher Kyle Lohse to bolster the starting rotation, general manager Pat Gillick traded with Seattle for reliever Julio Mateo for minor leaguer Jesus Merchan.

For the interim the Phillies have sent Mateo to Double-A Reading until he’s needed with the Phillies. So how come the Phillies just don’t send Mateo to Triple-A Ottawa to face more capable hitters before returning to the Majors?

Besides, Mateo can’t go to Canada because he is waiting to go to court on Sept. 4 for his third-degree domestic assault charge in which the story in The Associated Press describing the arrest noted that Mateo’s wife needed five stitches on her mouth. In other words, the law is keeping close tabs on the new Phillie.

Needless to say some web sites and others in the media had a little fun at the Phillies’ expense in discussing the move for Mateo. On Deadspin, the crème de la crème of sports blogs, the headline was, “The Phillies got another wife beater to hang out with Brett Myers.” Sure, it’s a little inaccurate, but the point is duly noted. The Phillies didn’t exactly go out and get a model citizen.

It’s doubtful that Mateo will have any influence at all with the current Phillies, though. After all, the strongest personalities in the clubhouse are also solid guys. Chase Utley, Aaron Rowand, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins are names one will never see in the police blotter. Meanwhile, Cole Hamels has grown up a lot since his brawl outside of a bar in Florida before the 2005 season.

Here’s the interesting part about Mateo and perhaps shows a difference between the Mariners and the Phillies. Though the reliever was 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA in nine appearances this season for Seattle, team general manager Bill Bavasi suspended Mateo for 10 days without pay following his arrest in Manhattan in May. Moreover, Bavasi said there was no way that Mateo would ever pitch for the Mariners again following that incident aggressively looked to trade him.

Even though Mateo pitched well in Triple-A, Bavasi stuck to his guns.

“Our approach with him was that it would be better for us and for him if he broke back in elsewhere. And he didn't fight that idea,” Bavasi said, while declining to detail what led the Mariners to conclude that. “It was collaborative effort to get him a new home.”

Meanwhile, Brett Myers was allowed to pitch for the Phillies only hours after being let out of the lockup following his arrest for a domestic incident in Boston in June of 2006. It was only after a loud public outcry that Myers was allowed to take a “leave of absence” from the Phillies.

Mateo, who turns 30 on Thursday, is 18-12 with two saves and a 3.68 ERA in 219 games over six seasons in Seattle. He had a 0.79 ERA in 24 games at Triple-A Tacoma, allowing just three earned runs in 34 1-3 innings. Opponents batted just .200 against him. Those numbers indicate that he is a pretty good pitcher – perhaps even just as good or better than Myers.

Nevertheless, the Mariners weren’t interested in having a player heading back to court for a domestic abuse charge on their roster… regardless of how good his numbers were.

“We treat it seriously,” Gillick said, according to AP. “We're very aware of the situation.”

But apparently it isn’t a serious enough issue to pass on the trade. After all, the Phillies don’t have to go to Canada at all this season.

***
The injuries continue to mount for the Phillies. Along with Utley’s hand and Ryan Madson’s case of Brett Myers 2 1/2 –month-shoulder-strainitis, Michael Bourn is out after injuring his ankle tripping over the bullpen mound that is on the field along the first-base side at Wrigley, while Shane Victorino had a slight tear of his calf muscle.

According to the Phillies, Victorino’s injury is less severe than Bourn’s sprained left ankle, but as someone who deals with chronic calf problems let me tell you that I don’t necessarily agree. For one thing the calf muscle is the engine that serves as the anchor of the leg muscles. It is from the calf that the hamstring and the Achilles get their power. Any athlete who runs knows that all calf injuries are serious. I’m certainly no doctor but I’ll be very surprised if Madson and Victorino make it back before the end of August.

***
Jemele Hill of ESPN.com wrote a story in which she wondered what American professional sports would look like if they had a drug testing policy like cycling. Hill writes:

Had the NFL had the same rigorous testing as cycling, the Carolina Panthers might have showed up for Super Bowl XXXVIII a little shorthanded. As it turned out, several Panthers reportedly used performance-enhancing drugs during the 2003 season, and two of them allegedly had prescriptions for steroids filled right before they appeared in the Super Bowl. And while we can make all the jokes we want about Floyd Landis, last year's Tour champion, the most glorified record in American sports is on the verge of being shattered by a man with numerous ties to performance-enhancing drugs. Tour officials already don't recognize Landis as the champion and are pushing the United States Anti-Doping Agency to strip Landis of the title. Bud Selig wishes he had such an option with Barry Bonds.

And:

What Americans would never, ever want to do is what cycling officials did. We would never want to let a band of doping experts loose on American athletes. We are far too comfortable being entertained by dirty athletes to want to see any real cleansing take place.

Just imagine if the same vigilant testers used in cycling set up shop in American pro sports leagues. How many times would we read about American athletes being busted for performance-enhancing drugs on the ESPN crawl?

That's an uncomfortable discussion. That's why despite the blustering and grandstanding with all the major sports leagues on Capitol Hill, they would be unlikely to sanction a universal system that would require random testing of pro athlete.


Amen.

Meanwhile, two more riders are implicated in doping scandals. Basque Iban Mayo failed a test for EPO (there’s a test for EPO?!) and Tour de France champ Alberto Contador as been linked to doping by a German doctor.

The best would-be cycling writer in the U.S., Bob Ford, offered this one in today’s Inquirer.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Wheeling and dealing

Despite telling everyone that they were sure if there would be any players on the trade market to deal for, the Phillies went out and added a little bit of depth to their waifishly thin rotation.

Just as a few of those rumors and rumblings and grumblings indicated, the Phillies snagged right-hander Kyle Lohse from the Cincinnati Reds for Double-A left Matt Maloney. From a quick gloss over it looks as if the Phillies didn’t really give up much to get a veteran pitcher who has been to the playoffs three times, but general manager Pat Gillick told the gang in Chicago that he wasn’t too jazzed about dealing away Maloney.

“We’re not happy about that. We liked the Double-A pitcher. But you have to give up something to get something,” Gillick said. “As I said, he’s got experience and he takes his turn and he’s been in the postseason with Minnesota. With Madson going down, we needed somebody to pick up the slack and give us a little more depth in our pitching staff.”

Incidentally, both Lohse and the newly acquired second baseman Tadahito Iguchi both can be free agents at the end of the season. However, in the long-term outlook for both players in Philadelphia, Gillick is living in the now.

“We’re concentrating on 2007 not about 2008,” he said.

That, of course, is a far cry from last year on this date when Gillick traded away Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle, David Bell and Rheal Cormier and proclaimed the team was two years away.

At any rate Gillick made the trip with the team and is working on trying to add a reliever though says it will difficult to do so. In the meantime the Phillies have to subtract a player from the roster when Lohse arrives. My bet is that Clay Condrey gets designated for assignment and J.D. Durbin is shifted to the bullpen.

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We'll burn that bridge when we cross it

It will be interesting to see what the Phillies do with their bench when Jayson Werth is ready to return. Interesting, I guess, in what it means for Chris Coste. Coste, of course, is owner of the best story going on in baseball and has contributed greatly not only to the Phillies’ playoff run last year, but also to this year’s charge as well.

Yet for whatever reason the Phillies’ brass – namely general manager Pat Gillick and his assistant Ruben Amaro – don’t seem to like Coste. Why? Good question. Maybe it’s because he sticks at it when everyone else would have quit a long time ago. Or maybe Amaro prefers players from big-time college programs that make it to the Majors on reputation and bounce around for nearly a decade and post less than mediocre numbers?

Whatever the reason, another trip back to the minors doesn’t seem fair for Coste. In his last four games last week Coste went 3-for-6 with a homer and seven RBIs. In July, Coste is hitting .343 in 13 games.

Conversely, Rod Barajas, the backup catcher who came in as a backstop to handle the bulk of the work for $3 million, hasn’t had a hit in more than two weeks and is 3-for-16 this month.

Sounds like manager Charlie Manuel has more confidence in a minor-league lifer making the league minimum as opposed to a guy making big, free-agent money. Worse, the Phillies have a .332 career hitter and they might not want him.

Either way it seems as if Coste is like ice cream and what weirdo doesn’t like ice cream?

***
With the non-waiver trading deadline set for tomorrow at 4 p.m., perhaps the Phillies will deal Coste for some pitching. At least then he would be going to a team that actually wants him. More importantly, the Phillies really, really need pitching with Ryan Madson headed for the disabled list and big holes in the starting rotation.

So far all we have are rumors – and it looks like I added to it by invoking Coste’s name – and nothing concrete. The rumor mill seems to be a cottage industry in the sports reporting business these days. Everyone loves reading about things that may or might not be happening or even true for some reason and there are a lot of people out there who have made careers about spreading disinformation.

It’s information, but it’s not really information. Like junk food… you know, what Ken Rosenthal does…

Wait, was that my out loud voice again?

Anyway, rumors bore me, especially when it’s so easy to find out facts and truth. But then again I’m a really bad sports fan so there you go.

I’ll give you this, though – call it a secret of the trade: if you read one of those rumors where it’s prefaced with the phrase, “sources say,” it’s a load of crap. The so-called “source” is probably a guy hanging around the press box or something.

Man, do those sources like to talk and boy or boy do they ever come in handy.

***
The Phillies head to Chicago for four days to face the surging Cubs at Wrigley Field tonight. The consensus around the press box is that Chicago is the favorite stop on the circuit and Wrigley, despite its not-so modern amenities, is everyone’s favorite ballpark.

Perhaps Chicago is best described as, “kind of like New York, but clean.”

I think of it like Japan where they take all of the good ideas from everyone else and make it look nicer. In Chicago they did it with pizza, too. New York pizza is far superior to the Chicago style, but they made it just a tad more interesting in The Windy City.

Either way, it will be a fun-filled four days for the scribes before heading off to Milwaukee for the weekend.

***
The Tour de France finally (and mercifully) came to a close yesterday with Alberto Contador called the winner and his Discovery Channel teammate and American Levi Leipheimer 31 seconds behind in third place.

(If anyone remembers -- and who wouldn't? -- I predicted a Leipheimer victory in the Tour over Vinokourov and Sastre.)

Certainly it appears as if the real drama in cycling will occur between now and the next Tour de France as the cycling union, anti-doping agencies and Amaury Sports Organization (the company that owns both the Tour de France and the newspaper, L’Equipe) pick at the carcass of the sport to gain total control.

It’s not going to be pretty.

Either way, the telecast of the Tour ended in a rather apropos manner yesterday when Lance Armstrong, with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen in Paris, departed the air and seemingly took the video along with him.

Yeah, that’s right, the last miles of the Tour were coming to a head and no one in the United States could see it.

Meanwhile it’s worth noting that Armstrong is in Paris celebrating with his Discovery Channel team and Floyd Landis is in Vail, Colo. preparing for the big race in the Leadville 100 on Aug. 11.

That race, friends, is going to be the highlight of cycling in 2007.

***
Needless to say, Armstrong's appearance on the telecast of yesterday's final day of the Tour was interesting. Perhaps the comment most intriguing (to me) was when Lance was asked what he missed the most about professional cycling. He told Liggett and Sherwen that he missed being "super fit" and the training lifestyle, which he compared to being monastic in that all one did was ride, eat and sleep. But he didn't miss racing, which makes sense to me... training like hell is a blast, but the pressure of competing can be a drag sometimes. I imagine the pressure for Armstrong was pretty intense.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Filling in

When Tadahito Iguchi arrived in Philadelphia in time for Saturday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies’ new second baseman brought with him a lot more than just a suitcase full of clothes and personal items and an equipment bag with his baseball gear.

Better yet, Iguchi brought with him an entire entourage.

Fresh from being traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Phillies on Friday afternoon, Iguchi pulled on his new red-and-white pinstriped uniform, exchanged greetings with Ryan Howard, a friend from last winter’s MLB All-Star tour of Japan, as well as Aaron Rowand, his teammate from the World Champion White Sox team during the 2005 season before taking in his new surroundings.

He even chatted with his manager Charlie Manuel, who like Iguchi was a star in Japan’s Pacific League. Manuel still speaks some Japanese, an ancillary benefit from his six years playing ball as a gai-jin in the Far East, which should help the Phillies’ first Japanese player make an easier transition to his new surroundings.

“He's got me,” Manuel smiled. “I'll be his interpreter. I can talk to him.”

First things first, though. Iguchi’s first order of business was to find the lineup card where he located his name in the No. 7 hole at second base, and then greeted the media horde that follows him wherever he goes. Though Iguchi isn’t a well known player to the casual American baseball fan, he was quite popular on the Southside of Chicago and remains one of dozen or so Japanese ballplayers to make the jump to the Major Leagues.

Because of that, Iguchi travels with a translator (David Yamamoto, who also wears a uniform because he sits in the dugout during the game) and does pre and post-game interviews with the Japanese media after every single game. It doesn’t matter if Iguchi goes 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, goes 4-for-4 with a pair of home runs, or simply sits on the bench without seeing a lick of action on the diamond. The 32-year old infielder discusses his day with the roughly half dozen or so media members that chronicle his every move.

“They even have the cameras rolling on him when he walks through the parking lot to his car,” a media member and witness to the Japanese media’s insatiable thirst to cover their stars in the minutest detail.

In nearly three seasons in the Major Leagues, following eight seasons with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League, Iguchi has a .273 batting average, 39 homers and 169 RBIs in 363 games for the ChiSox. This season, he is hitting .251 with 17 doubles, four triples, six home runs and 31 RBIs in 90 games, and hit .281 with 18 home runs and 67 RBI in 138 games last season. During the White Sox championship run Iguchi had a .278 average with 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases. In the 2005 ALDS, he hit a go-ahead three-run home run in Game 2 against David Wells to turn the tables against the Boston Red Sox.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said Iguchi was the team’s most valuable player during the World Series run.

“He had a lot to do with the rings that we have right now,” Guillen told Chicago’s Daily Southtown. “He was great for us every day.”

Someone who can attest to that is Rowand, who remembered bantering back and forth with Iguchi through an interpreter during the ’05 season. Rowand said Iguchi’s English improved as the year went on, but he was able to communicate and have fun with his teammates. Interestingly, Rowand pointed out that the team enjoyed talking about baseball with Iguchi.

“We've had some good times with the language barrier, but he's one heck of a player,” Rowand pointed out. “He's really smooth in the field. He'll add to the team and make it a lot easier with Chase being out.”

Ah yes, the real reason why Iguchi has landed in Philadelphia. With Chase Utley likely out for the next month with a broken hand suffered when he was hit by a pitch in Thursday afternoon’s loss to the Washington Nationals. Though he had surgery to insert a pin into the damaged area on Friday and the team revealed that they did not think the injury was as bad as it could have been, Utley will likely miss a minimum of 20 games. With 60 games remaining in the season and the Phillies doing all they can to remain in the playoff chase despite a plethora of injuries, it appears as if Utley will miss a third of the remaining games.

Enter Iguchi.

“I was able to play with Mr. Utley in the Japan series after the season and I’m very, very aware of how great a player he is,” Iguchi said. “I have tremendous respect for Mr. Utley and I just hope that I can fill in and [and contribute to the team] anywhere near Mr. Utley.”

The Phillies put the deal together with the White Sox rather quickly, announcing it just as they reported on Utley’s surgery.

“We wanted to do something and we wanted to move quickly,” assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said. “Obviously, you don't replace Chase Utley, but we wanted the guys in the clubhouse to understand that we wanted to step up and come up with a suitable replacement to help us stay competitive.”

For the short term Iguchi seems to be a good answer to a very difficult problem. The second baseman is signed for $3.25 million this season, and turned down a contract extension to stay with the White Sox during the winter despite saying he wanted to continue his career in Chicago.

“I’m very surprised by the trade,” Yamamoto said for Iguchi. “I was notified about it yesterday and I really didn’t have any notification, so yes, I was really surprised. But I’m really excited to join the Phillies and I’m starting to like my new, red uniform.”

However, Iguchi has a clause in his contract that will allow him to become a free agent at the end of the season if the ChiSox – now Phillies – don’t sign him to an extension by the end of the season.

With Utley expected to make a full recovery, it doesn’t seem as if Iguchi will figure into the Phillies’ plans beyond this season.

Unless he can play third base?

***
For a brief moment at the Tour de France, all of the events of last week were forgotten. The scandals, the doping and all of the bluster were replaced by an actual competition where there was a lot on the line.

Montanan Levi Leipheimer had the time trial of his life, squeezing to within 31 seconds of the leader and his Discovery Channel teammate, Alberto Contador. He did it with his teams' part-owner Lance Armstrong trailing in the team car, shouting instruction and encouragement as he all but assured himself a spot on the podium in Paris.

With one more stage to go into Paris tomorrow, Leipheimer is eight seconds behind second place Cadel Evans in one of the closest finishes in Tour de France history.

And yet it still hard to think about what might have been...

Certainly it doesn't seem as if ousted leader Michael Rasmussen would have been able to hang in Saturday's time trial. Nor did it seem like Alexandre Vinokourov wold have been able to chip away enough to be a threat had he not been bounced from the race. Could Andreas Klöden been right there had his team not been thrown out?

How much fun would it have been to see all of those guys competing all the way through the Tour, especially in such a dramatic time trial?

But despite the good day of competition the newspapers and magazines are littered with stories about controversy, doping and lawyers.

* Is the 24-year old wunderkind Contador doping and is he really linked to Operacion Puerto?

* Vinokourov has hooked up with Floyd Landis' legal team to fight his doping charges.

* The delusional and notorious windbag Greg LeMond is opening his big fat mouth... again. Does that guy ever shut up and why does he always come off like a bitter old fighter still hanging around the gym?

Here's something I found interesting about today's time trial: In praising Leipheimer's speedy ride, announcer Phil Liggett compared the American to LeMond, noting that his ride to capture the victory in the stage was "almost as fast as Greg LeMond..."

Hmmmm... almost as fast as LeMond, huh? [Insert sarcasm font] Gee, I wonder what he was taking?

Here's the thing that bothers me the most about Greg LeMond aside from his ego, his arrogance, his bitterness and his personality. LeMond (correct me if I'm wrong) is just like those old-time baseball players who missed out on the big paydays that today's players get so they try to ciphen all they can from the sport by selling out anything they can. LeMond, it seems, still makes his money from cycling, but what does he really give back?

That's why his bitterness toward Lance Armstrong seemed like nothing more than a small man with a big case of douchebaggery. LeMond won the Tour three times, had a horrible accident and then got old, yet seems to believe that something was taken from him. Conversely, Armstrong missed a couple of years from his career because he nearly died from cancer, yet rebounded to win the Tour de France seven years in a row.

That would be enough for most folks, but as Lance always noted, "It's not about the bike." With that he became the leading advocate for cancer research in the world. That was the primary goal and that's what LeMond and the David Walsh types in the world don't seem to understand.

So Le Mond can keep running his mouth, telling everyone how great he was and take, take taking from his sport... and he can continue to come off as a little bitch.

Again, if I'm wrong, correct me. I'm easy to find.

* Here's what I do not like about the Tour (aside from the sideshow crap, of course): the race is practically over. Even though Evans trails Contador by 23 seconds and Leipheimer is in third at 31 seconds off, the American says Evans doesn't have to worry about an attack in the final stage on Sunday. There is a gentleman's agreement regarding such things, they say.

Lame.

There's one day left and three riders are separated by 31 seconds -- GO RACE!

The true sportsman that is Greg LeMond won the 1990 Tour de France on the final stage. It was a time trial, and his closest competitor had saddle sores so bad that he could barely ride his bike, but ol' Greggy went after it. Usually the last day is largely a ceremonial ride, but 31 seconds is nothing. It should be every man for himself into the Champs-Élysées.

Anyway, sorry for coming out so strong on Le Mond, but I just don't understand why he had to put himself in the middle of everything.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

The Philadelphia MASH Unit

Aaron Rowand is out of the lineup for Friday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates because he hurt his shoulder playing tag with the kids from his neighborhood last night after the loss to the Nationals at the Bank.

There are a lot ways to go with this one, such as was the kid wearing a suit of armor? Good thing he wasn’t playing kick the can or else he could have ended up like Jon Lieber…

You see, the possibilities are endless.

Either way it's good to know that when Aaron Rowand plays tag with the kids from the neighborhood, he leaves it all out there. Frankly the Phillies are lucky he didn't run into a fence when chasing down some kid.

“I guess it’s be careful when you play with your kids,” manager Charlie Manuel said.

Nevertheless, when it rains it pours with the Phillies. Earlier today Chase Utley had surgery to repair the broken fourth metacarpal in his right hand in which a pin was inserted to the damaged area. The entire procedure took 20 minutes at Methodist Hospital by Dr. Randall Culp and the MVP candidate is expected recovery time is four weeks.

Joe Thurston’s contract has been purchased to replace Utley on the roster, though it appears as if the Phillies will have to make another move soon since the team announced that they had acquired Tadahito Iguchi from the Chicago White Sox this afternoon.

Along with a full cadre of Japanese media, Iguchi brings a .251 batting average, six homers and 31 RBIs in 90 games with him from Chicago. He also brings along a World Series ring from the 2005 season where he and Rowand helped the ChiSox to their first title in a long, long time.

Interestingly, Iguchi and Manuel are both veterans of Japan’s Pacific League. Manuel played for Kinetsu while Iguchi played for Fukuoka and Daiei.

To get Iguchi, the Phillies sent Single-A right-hander Michael Dubee – pitching coach Rich Dubee’s son – to the White Sox.

Iguchi is expected to arrive in Philadelphia tomorrow.

Anyway, with Rowand out, Michael Bourn will lead off and play center against the Pirates tonight. Abraham Nunez is at second for Utley, Pat Burrell was bumped up a spot from sixth to fifth, while Jimmy Rollins moved from leadoff to third. When Rowand returns – he’s day-to-day – Manuel says Shane Victorino will leadoff, Greg Dobbs will hit second and Rollins will remain in the No. 3 hole.

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Half empty

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people: there are the half full types who always find the silver lining, and there is the half empty gang that believes that things will end badly.

More often than not I fall into the half full category. Typically, things work out the way they are supposed to in the end. Yet at the same time I’m a realist and when it comes to the Phillies the glass isn’t just half empty, it’s filled with cigarette butts and the toxic water from the Schuylkill.

I don’t know… maybe the 1-for-124 has something to do with it.

Anyway, there were times in the past handful of seasons where I really believed that the Phillies would make the playoffs. Like the time when Jim Thome hit that home run through the teeth of an approaching hurricane to beat the Marlins at Vet in 2003.

Or when David Bell hit that home run to beat the Reds in Cincinnati on a September night, coupled with the 10-run ninth inning to beat Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins in 2005. Those were half full times.

Inevitably Jeff Conine goes on a tear to crush the Phillies during the last week of the season in 2003. Billy Wagner gives up the home run to Craig Biggio in 2005. A game starts at 11 p.m. at RFK and Chase Utley’s home run is ruled foul by the umps in 2006.

For the Phillies, bleep always happens. Always.

Like yesterday when a punk kid in his first ever big league game drills Utley on the knuckles and busted up his hand. Not just any hand, mind you, it was the right hand of the man who was well on his way to one of the greatest seasons ever by a second baseman. He’s on pace for 27 homers, 216 hits, 66 doubles, 132 RBIs and 127 runs.

Then there are the things that can’t be measured by statistics, such as Utley is the heart-and-soul of the club. That stuff matters, folks.

So what now? Obviously, the Phillies suffer without Utley on the field and in the lineup, and if he is out for longer than the month he and the Phillies initially offered, things could deteriorate quickly.

And I’m the optimist… usually.

I’m sure there are some statgeeks out there trying to crunch the numbers to quantify Utley’s affect on the team’s lineup and I’m sure the numbers can be spun to read just about anything. However, the point of the matter is that without Utley getting on base and wreaking havoc, Ryan Howard won’t see anything to hit anymore.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Just waking up and everything has still gone crazy

After getting home at 3 a.m. after being at a baseball game that lasted 14 innings and nearly five hours, it’s safe to say that I’m a bit fried today. But rest is for the week, right…

Man, do I ever need a nap.

Anyway, because I’m struggling to string together cohesive sentences this afternoon, I’ll just ramble on with a few observations about the Phillies and the latest from the sports world.

• After last night’s win over the Nationals the Phillies have a 24.5 percent chance to make the playoffs. Really? Yes, really. At least that’s math according to Ken Roberts, who created an “Odds of making the playoffs” web site.

Here’s what Ken does: after every game – and we mean every game – the odds of a teams’ chances to make the playoffs are calculated and posted on his site. Then, a glimpse into the future is proffered showing not only how the odds change if the Phillies win or lose their next game, but how the odds change pending every result on the full schedule of games.

Yes, it’s good stuff and you should check it out by clicking here.

• To start it off, I had never seen a game go from a sure end to tied up and headed for extra innings like the way last night’s ninth inning played out. For those who didn’t see it, speedy shortstop Jimmy Rollins raced around the bases when his relatively routine fly ball just short of the warning track in left-center field was jarred loose when outfielders Ryan Church and Ryan Langerhans bumped in to each other. Standing at third, Rollins raced home when Church’s relay throw skipped away from shortstop Felipe Lopez to force extra innings.

The most surprising thing about Rollins’ dash around the bases? That it wasn’t ruled an inside-the-park home run by the hometown official scorer.

• Meanwhile, when Ryan Howard hits a home run, he really wallops it. Not only do his homers sound different than other players’, there really is no doubt that they are going out – he doesn’t hit too many that scrape into the first row.

• No one with the Phillies will say it -- though Charlie Manuel’s body language was downright funereal -- but Chase Utley’s broken hand is just about the worst thing that could happen to the team right now. Forget about his statistics and the fact that Utley is an MVP candidate, and his hard-nosed style of play… it was because of Utley that the Phillies were able to stay in the playoff race despite injuries to Freddy Garcia, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and Ryan Howard.

Yes, losing Utley is very significant. And that just might be the understatement of the year.

• The Phillies gave out a Cole Hamels bobblehead figurine last night and had a sold-out crowd. Here’s my question: What is the allure of that stuff? I can understand baseball cards and other memorabilia-type collectibles (kind of), but why are bobbleheads still popular? Just chalk it up to the every growing pile of things I don’t get.

On another note, last year (or maybe the year before, I forget) the Nationals gave out a Chad Cordero bobblehead figurine at a game at RFK. Within hours of bringing it home my son ripped the head clean off the body and for the past year or so there has been the head of Chad Cordero, complete with that geeky unbent brim of his cap, staring up from the bottom of the toy box in our living room. Perhaps that’s the appeal of the bobblehead doll… ripping the heads clean off.

• Speaking of ripping the head clean off and one man’s inability to understand events occurring in the world, I’m still attempting to grasp just what the hell happened at this year’s Tour de France. Frankly, I haven’t been able to come up with anything other than some non-sequitors and random ideas.

For instance:

-- Perhaps it’s because I am an American and believe in a persons’ right to due process, but I just don’t understand how a man who never failed a drug test or violated any laws or rules of the sport could be bounced from an event he was about to win. Look, I know never failing a drugs test isn’t the best argument and I know all about Michael Rasmussen’s reputation, but if the Tour, the UCI and whatever other governing body is attempting to destroy cycling really disliked the dude and had valid reasons to boot him from the race, they should have never allowed him to start.

Now look what they have on their hands. It’s nothing more than a race that no one views as legitimate.

-- I always am amused by American sportswriters whose idea of exercise is actually getting up to manually turn the channels on the television opining about cycling. I also do not understand how one can legitimately write about sports without a basic understand of training and performance-enhancing drugs. Get these people out of the press box now, because writing intelligently about sports doesn’t really have much to do with the games any more.

-- Alexandre Vinokourov? Wow. Who would have thought the Tour could have sunk lower than that fiasco?

-- Along those lines everyone is quick to point out how “dirty” cycling is. But here is a fact: if MLB and the NFL acted like the UCI and the Tour de France, there would be more than 1,000 new players in those leagues tomorrow. It seems as if all cycling officials have to do is point at a guy and he's out. Forget facts and protocol. The players in MLB and the NFL should be thankful every day that they have a union that supports them.

-- Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Michael Rasmussen were all booted from the Tour de France this year despite never failing a drug test. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Mark McGwire have admitted to using performance-enhancing substances and got new contracts.

Which sport is “dirty” again?

-- I’ve been asked if the current scandal in France will affect Floyd Landis’ case at all. My knee-jerk reaction is, “No, because they are mutually exclusive. Floyd’s case has to do with one specific test from one stage of last year’s race. This year’s scandal, they say, is about the ‘culture of doping.’”

Since I don’t believe Floyd is a part of that culture, nor do I believe he is a doper, I didn’t think it has anything to do with him.

But upon retrospect, maybe it does in the always fickle court of public opinion. Maybe Floyd suddenly becomes guilty because he rides a bike and won the Tour de France?

Either way it makes me happy to be a runner instead of a baseball player or cyclist.

-- Meanwhile, other folks have asked me why they just don’t cancel the rest of the Tour. What’s the point anymore? It’s a valid question, but the answer comes down to the bottom line. The rest of the ride to Paris is economical, complete with all of the pomp, circumstance and corporate sponsorships.

They don’t put those corporate logos on their uniforms because they look nice.

The reason the Tour continues is the same reason why Bud Selig doesn’t go all French on Barry Bonds and pull the cheater from the field. It’s why the Giants re-signed Bonds – he makes a lot of people money...

Especially people like WADA president Dick Pound.

Integrity? Ha!

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Late night at the old ballpark...

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

THIS JUST IN...

The sport of professional cycling has just decided to kill itself.

From The Summit (Colorado) Daily News' Devon O'Neil (via TBV):

We've got an entire sport (cycling) teetering on collapse yet again, we've got a superstar NFL quarterback charged with killing animals for money, we've got an NBA referee facing a game-fixing probe, and the greatest record in sports is about to be broken by a steroids user.

Thank heavens for college softball.



Long live the UCI and LNDD!

No deal

Trade Aaron Rowand?

For who? For what?

Though he’s in the last year of his contract, has a reputation for being one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game, and is having the best year of his career at the plate, Rowand’s name still persists in all of the trade banter relating to the Phillies in their push to add an arm to the thin pitching corps.

Rowand, needless to say, has heard the talk and was asked about it after he won last night’s game with a two-out, eighth inning solo home run and, frankly, he isn’t too concerned. If the Phillies are going to remain in the playoff race all the way up to the July 31 non-waivers trading deadline, it doesn’t make sense to deal away Rowand.

Why? Well, there’s the matter of his defense. When he first joined the Phillies Rowand went gap-to-gap as well as any centerfielder I had ever seen for the team. Of course he’s being compared to Doug Glanville, Marlon Byrd and Kenny Lofton, but the fact is Rowand can go get it. Plus, he has the scars to prove it.

There’s also the matter of his hitting and is place in the Phillies’ lineup. Because he hits fifth and offers “protection” for slugger Ryan Howard, Rowand is that much more important to the team’s playoff chances. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s ninth in the National League in batting average (.330) and on-base percentage (.400) and is on pace to drive in close to 100 runs.

Those numbers make it difficult for the opposition to pitch around Howard.

Still, the trade talk persists despite the Phillies maintaining that Rowand isn’t going anywhere as long as the team is in the race. Rowand doesn’t expect to go anywhere either.

“I expect to be here this season. If they end up trading me by the deadline it will be a surprise to me because I haven't heard anything. Right now, I feel like I'm a part of this team and this team is the one I hopefully get to end the season with and play the postseason with. All of that stuff that is going to go on is going to go on in the off-season. It's not going to be something that's done during the regular season. I can tell you that right now.

“I'm concentrating on these guys right now. I'm concentrating on trying to win.”

Next year, though, is a different story.

***
Nobody asked but Antonio Alfonseca has done a pretty good job filling in for Tom Gordon/Brett Myers the last couple of months.

***
Stage 16 of the Tour de France is closing in on the final 10 kilometers of today’s final mountain stage and I just don’t feel like waiting until the end to summarize it. That’s a damn shame because this really should have been the most telling and dramatic day of the race where the champion is finally revealed in a beautiful sport in a race that is way more exciting than a football game.

The Tour de France is a lot like the Super Bowl except for instead of a bye week and a week of media hype, it’s 23 straight days of racing over unforgiving terrain. So yeah, today should have been The Day.

Instead, well, yeah…

It seems that the riders are a little peeved over what’s going on their sport as well. A bunch of riders staged a little protest this morning by standing still at the starting line when the stage began. A few riders started the race in earnest, namely Tour leader and accused doper Michael Rasmussen.

Could you imagine this happening in baseball? Suppose a pitcher refused to throw a pitch when Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi or any other admitted doper came to the plate. Better yet, why haven’t the rank and file members of the MLBPA staged a protest of some type?

Still, a full day after digesting the news regarding Vinokourov and the Astana team and the alleged positive test for injecting someone else’s blood, it’s still very difficult to wrap my head around it. The UCI – the cycling union – is clearly hell bent on destroying its sport and its riders’ reputations. The lab used by the Tour is – to be fair – really, really bad.

As for Vinokourov, if he did dope, what was he thinking? Didn’t he know that it wasn’t just his reputation and career at stake? Doesn’t he know that unlike other sports cycling doesn’t protect its dopers?

Regardless, it’s all very amazing. Imagine, as a frame of reference, that Alex Rodriguez tested positive in a doping test and the New York Yankees immediately cancelled their remaining games… that’s what happened yesterday with Vinokourov and Astana.

Anyway, Mayo, Leipheimer, Rasmussen and Contador are duking it out up the final climb of this year’s Tour. As long as Rasmussen doesn’t win, it’s OK.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Is it really so difficult?

Apparently the only sports news that occurs these days is blockbuster news. And by blockbuster news we don’t mean Wayne Gretzky has been traded to the Kings or David Beckham has signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS. No, we’re talking front-page-next-to-the-real-news news.

First Michael Vick is indicted for allegedly running a huge dog fighting operation out of his home, complete with the same kind of training equipment used to rehab Barbaro as well as an execution area for the animals that deliver in the clutch almost as well as Vick himself.

Then there was NBA ref from a local high school and Villanova University who is being investigated for allegedly fixing games he officiated for the mob. Yeah, that sounds like a really bad movie that they couldn’t get DeNiro or Joe Pesci for. More like Adrian Zmed as the gangster or something.

By the way, Adrian Zmed and Tom Hanks were great in Bachelor Party.

And now Team Astana has pulled out of the Tour de France because Alexandre Vinokourov has reportedly tested positive for a banned blood transfusion after winning last weekend's time trial. What that means is Vinokourov was caught with blood in his body that wasn’t his.

That’s fine for baseball, football, basketball and hockey and U.S. league, but not for sports governed by Olympic-styled drug testing.

Vinokourov, of course, was the favorite to win this year’s Tour, though he was in 23rd place and more than 28 minutes behind leader Michael Rasmussen, who also was involved in a bit of a doping controversy last week. Nevertheless, Vinokourov has won two of the last three stages of the Tour and has become a crowd favorite for his daring style of riding despite that he has approximately 30 stitches in his knees after a crash during the first week of the race.

Word is Vinokourov fell again on Saturday, the day after his time trial victory and when the alleged positive test was conducted, which caused him to lose 29 minutes to Rasmussen and fall out of contention in this years’ race.

But bigger than that, the news regarding Vinokourov is a knockout punch to a sport already reeling from too many doping scandals.

Upon hearing the news, David Millar, the British rider for Saunier Duval, said:

“Jesus Christ, I'm speechless. It makes me sad. I have the impression the riders will never understand.

"I really wanted to believe he was having a good day. Vino is one of my favorite riders, one of the most beautiful riders in the peloton. If a rider of his stature and class has done this in the current situation, we might as well pack up our bags and leave."


Or this one from Eric Boyer, the manager of Team Cofidis:

“I'm completely disgusted. I hope that Vinokourov will not be so cowardly as to deny it, but will explain it to us, tell us who helped him, who participated in this dirty business, because he could not have done it all alone. Vinokourov told us that he only worked with Dr. Ferrari to establish a training regimen. He told us that he was courageous, that the French liked him, that he was stronger than the pain. He told us that we French didn't know how to manage, that we were weaklings. Now we can conclude that he was a real bastard who has brought even more discredit on cycling through these practices. It's one more heavy blow, and I hope we can get back on our feet once more.

“I regret nothing of what I've said in the past few days, or the past few months. I demand that the whole Astana team leave cycling as soon as possible.”


Word is that race organizers are holding an emergency meeting about what is to happen next with their race, but at the request of the Tour, Astana has packed up and withdrawn all its riders.

Yeah, this is really bad. I don’t think I would be surprised if the rest of the race is cancelled.

Here comes the editorial/rant:

Why is it so hard to compete clean? Why can’t baseball players, football players say no to steroids and human growth hormone? Why can’t endurance athletes stay away from blood doping, EPO, etc. etc.? Why is that so hard?

Look, I am a competitive marathon runner. I don’t get paid, I don’t have big-time sponsors (though I’m waiting, Clif Bar) and I don’t have the luxury of two-a-day training sessions and mid-day naps. Instead I just work as hard as I can, and, truth be told it’s not that difficult.

Oh sure, training for the marathon can be very hard as any endurance sport can be. Every day there are aches, pains, blood and bruises. My calves always hurt and my toenails are black and withered away. Plus, sometimes it takes up a lot of time.

But you know what? I don’t need drugs other than a big cup of coffee every morning to go with that Clif Bar and maybe some ibuprofen from time to time. All it takes is the desire and ability to do the work.

How hard is it to do the work? Better yet, why would someone want to live with the guilt of knowing that not only did they cheat themselves, their teammates and their fans, but also people who go out there and do the work every day and don’t get paid. Look, I understand that there is a lot of money and competition involved with professional sports, but if you aren’t good enough, live with it.

Sports don’t exist in a vacuum. If you want to play baseball or football, you don’t need MLB or the NFL. Just go play.

There is no crime in playing clean.

And all of those laudatory things I wrote about Vinokourov during the Tour? I guess I take them back.

More: A doctor explains blood doping (VeloNews)

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Double dippers

Remember that old adage about good pitching beating good hitting every time? Remember? Of course you do. Aaron Rowand even postulated on it last week after the Phillies dropped two of three to the Dodgers last week. If I remember correctly he said something like, “Good pitching beats good hitting every time… ”

Hey Aaron, guess what? Maybe really good hitting beats good pitching from time to time.

At least that seemed to be the case when the Phillies faced the Padres in pitching-friendly PETCO (or is it Petco?) Park this past weekend. After being shutdown on two hits in a 1-0 loss to Chris Young on Thursday night, Rowand, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and the gang piled on 28 runs in the final three games to take the series.

Check out some of these numbers from the 4-3 trip against the top two clubs in the NL West:

Howard hit .500 (11-for-22) with five homers and 13 RBIs; Utley hit .379 (11-for-29) with five doubles, nine runs and seven RBIs; and Rowand hit .355 (11-for-31) with five runs and eight RBIs.

Meanwhile, some dude named J.D. Durbin allowed just one run in 15 innings including a complete-game shutout in Sunday’s 9-0 victory.

J.D. Durbin? What’s the Deal?

I’m sure we’ll get into Durbin with more depth later, but for now let’s pick on something about Chase Utley. It has been examined by pundits, scribes and the statdorks that Utley is in the mix with Prince Fielder for the NL MVP Award, which is kind of cool but there’s something much more interesting going on under the “2B” for Utley.

There, it reads 41. That’s 41 doubles in 97 games which puts him on pace for 68 for the season. In 1931 a guy named Earl Webb clubbed 67 doubles, which is the best of all time. Interestingly, Webb played two more seasons after his epic ’31 season and then was gone.

Poof! Just like that.

What’s more, no player has hit 60 doubles since 1936 when Joe Medwick and Charlie Gehringer did it. In 2000 Todd Helton hit 59 doubles, which happens to be the Phillies’ record set by Chuck Klein in 1930.

So last year it was Howard taking apart the club’s home run record and this year it could be Utley adding his name atop of the doubles chart.

***
David Beckham made his U.S. soccer debut last weekend and all of the stories and all of the hype got me to thinking… how good is that guy? I know a few people who are close followers of soccer and I asked them if Beckham is going to revolutionize something and get people going crazy the way we all did for the New York Cosmos when Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia came to the U.S. in the late ‘70s.

The answer?

Probably not.

“He might be one of the top 100 players ever, but he won’t have as much of an impact on soccer in the U.S. as Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and the women’s team did,” one friend wrote.

“It helps that he’s white, has a name that’s easy to pronounce, speaks English and is married to a celebrity,” another friend wrote. “He’s probably the best player in the league, but he wasn’t the best player in the European leagues.

However, Beckham joining L.A. in the MLS is kind of like an All-Star baseball player leaving MLB to go play in Japan.”

Meanwhile, U.S. columnists are opining that Beckham’s arrival on our shores won’t turn soccer into a major league sport – though it could push past the NHL. To those ideas I think the writers are missing the point. Soccer already IS a major sport in the U.S. Want proof? Drive past any suburban park on any weekend in any part of the country and look what sport the kids are playing… and no, it ain’t baseball.

Adults might not watch soccer on TV, but the shoe companies dump lots of cash into it and the kids play it. That’s what matters.

***
It’s been written that Game 3 of the NBA’s western conference finals from last May was one of the worst officiated games in the league’s history. Anyone have a guess which ref called that game?

Check it out:



***
Undoubtedly, it has been a very interesting two days in the Tour de France. Michael Rasmussen has hung onto the Yellow Jersey by riding strong in the Pyrenees after the best time trial of his life. It stands to reason that The Danish Cowboy could take it all the Paris if he rides strong in the final mountain stage on Wednesday, though I suspect he will face a challenge from the Disco boys, Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador, whose victory in Sunday’s mountain stage over Rasmussen was fantastic.

As far as Leipheimer’s Tour goes, he has one more day in which to engage. Either that or hope that one of the riders ahead of him makes a mistake, cracks, or crashes.

Meanwhile, the most memorable rider of the Tour has been Alexandre Vinokourov, who won Saturday’s time trial, reportedly fell on his stitched up knees after colliding with a fan in Sunday’s mountain stage (to lose 29 minutes), before riding away with today’s mountain stage.

Give me a choice between riding cautiously and steadily like Leipheimer or putting it all out there despite the consequences like Vino and I’ll take the blaze of glory.

As Phil Liggett said as Vino pumped his fist to cross the finish line today, “Everyone all over the world loves a fighter… ”

There is nothing inspiring about being careful to get fourth place.

Stage 15 Final
1.) Vinokourov, Astana @ 5:34:28
2.) Kim Kirchen, T- Mobile @ 51 seconds
3.) Haimar Zubeldia, Euskaltel-Euskadi @ same time
4.) Juan José Cobo, Saunier Duval @ 58 seconds
5.) Juan Manuel Garate, Quick Step @ 2:14
6.) David Arroyo, Caisse d'Epargne @ 3:23
7.) Bernhard Kohl, Team Gerolsteiner @ 4:25
8.) Christian Vandevelde, CSC @ same time
9.) Ludovic Turpin, AG2R Prévoyance @ 5:16
10.) Alberto Contador, The Discovery Channel @ 5:31

Overall
1.) Rasmussen
2.) Contador @ 2:23
3.) Cadel Evans @ 4:00
4.) Leipheimer @ 5:25
5.) Klöden @ 5:34
6.) Carlos Sastre @ 6:46

Here’s my prediction: the winner of the 2007 Tour de France will be evident by lunchtime on Wednesday.

Way to go out on a limb, huh…

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

I picked a bad day to stop drinking cough syrup

I’m feeling a little tired and run down from a cold, which I will blame on the lack of sleep from the late nights spent watching baseball games from the coast. Hey, I’m getting old and need my sleep.

Anywho, I’m going to rest up and relax a bit and come back scratching and clawing like I’ve been doped up with cow’s blood.

Be ready.

I would be remiss, however, not to mention Anexandre Vinokourov’s performance in today time trial in the Tour de France. Still looking like a malnourished mummy with the wrap around his stitched up knees and arms, Vino climbed to ninth place in the overall standings. With three stages in a row in the Pyrenees starting tomorrow, Vinokourov and/or Levi Leipheimer might be ready to make a move on Michael Rasmussen.

Stage 13 Time Trial Final
1.) Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana, Kazakhstan, in 1:06:34
2.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, @ 1:14
3.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, @ 1:39
4.) Andrey Kashechkin, Astana, Kazakhstan, @ 1:44
5.) Bradley Wiggins, Cofidis, Great Britain, @ 2:14
6.) Yaroslav Popovych, Discovery Channel, Ukraine, @ 2:16
7.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, @ 2:18
8.) Sylvain Chavanel, Cofidis, France, @ 2:38
9.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, USA, @ 2:39
10.) Mikel Astarloza, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Spain, @ 2:42
11.) Michael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, @ 2:55

Overall
1.) Rasmussen
2.) Evans at 1:00
3.) Contador at 2:31
4.) Kloden at 2:34
5.) Leipheimer at 3:37
6.) Andrey Kashechkin, at 4:23
7.) Carlos Sastre at 4:45
8.) Astarloza, at 5:07
9.) Vinokourov at 5:10
10.) Kirchen at 5:29
11.) Valverde at 5:48
12.) Mayo at 4:48

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Friday, July 20, 2007

What is going on out there?

Michael Vick indicted for staging dog fights on his property. PETA protesting the NFL offices in New York City.

Barry Bonds chasing Hammerin’ Hank after an admission of performance-enhancing drugs use to a grand jury.

An NBA referee allegedly from Springfield, Pa. and Villanova University betting on games that he was officiating and under FBI investigation.

The most famous soccer player in the world joining a team in the United States and he's injured -- and has two names!

Cole Hamels tossing a two-hitter and losing 1-0…

The only normal thing happening in the sports world is a (minor) doping scandal at the Tour de France.

Phew!

A big thanks goes out to the sport of cycling for keeping things normal.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Stay classy, Cole Hamels

For some reason today feels like a Friday…

Regardless of what day it is, the Phillies have four tough games this weekend against the San Diego Padres, who despite their 52-41 record (one game behind the Dodgers in second place in the NL West) could be the National League’s representative in the World Series.

Yes, the Padres are 52-41 even though they have just one regular player with a batting average over .260 and have a Major League-worst batting average (.242) and on-base percentage (.313) and are next-to-last in slugging. With Adrian Gonzalez, Mike Cameron, Marcus Giles and Khalil Greene as the Padres’ version of a Murders’ Row, it’s easy to see why they have the second-most strikeouts in the league – far more than the free-swinging Phillies.

Yet at the same time it’s easy to see why the Padres are a good pick to get through the National League.

Pitching, pitching and more pitching.

The Padres’ team ERA is 3.13 (2.63 from the bullpen), which leads the Majors by a lot. Better yet, the question isn’t who will win the Cy Young Award in the National League, it’s which Padre does one pick?

Is it Jake Peavy and his 2.30 ERA and 9.36 strikeouts per nine innings? Or is it Chris Young with his 1.97 ERA and 8.78 strikeouts per nine innings? Mix in 40somethings Greg Maddux and David Wells, both of whom are pitching pretty well, and it’s no wonder that the .242 batting average is getting it done.

But the most interesting pitcher on the Padres staff is fifth starter Justin Germano, who as most close followers of the Phillies remember was claimed off waivers by the Padres when the Phillies tried to sneak him back to Triple-A during spring training.

With a 6-3 record, 3.55 ERA and 16 walks in 12 starts have fit in nicely with San Diego. Not to mention the fact that the rookie right-hander went 4-0 with a 1.74 ERA in his first five starts.

For some reason he couldn’t make the Phillies this spring. Perhaps the Pat Gillick and the gang are having second thoughts now? What do you suppose the Phillies will be thinking on Sunday when J.D. Durbin goes to the mound against Peavy?

Better yet, do you think that Germano will be fired up for Friday night’s start? I’m going to go out on a limb and say… yeah probably.

***
As we determined the Phillies are spending the weekend in San Diego which is the hometown of tonight’s starting pitcher Cole Hamels. San Diego is also the adapted hometown of Ron Burgundy, Tony Gwynn, Tony Hawk and Floyd Landis, it has one of the lowest crime rates of all major U.S. cities, and it’s 70 degrees every stinking day of the year. Snow, ice and cold weather are concepts in San Diego, not reality, which means outdoor sports and activities rule.

So why haven’t we all packed up and moved to San Diego?

Good question. Then again, the average price of a home in San Diego is over $600,000… just think how much it would be if everyone moved there.



***
I have a theory that Philadelphia sports fans and French sports fans are uncannily similar. Mostly this is based on the idea that like the French, Philadelphia fans appreciate losers far more than the gifted or talented. To hear Philly folks tell it, the Phillies won the World Series in 1993 and they appreciate the fact that the team lost so dramatically.

The same goes for the French in that they haven’t seen a winner in the Tour de France since 1985, however, riders like Christophe Moreau, Richard Virenque, Laurent Jalabert, Luc Leblanc and Raymond Poulidor were always gallant in their many defeats.

Yes, French sports are like Philadelphia sports. That’s the theory. Since 1936 the French have had won winner of the French Open (Yannick Noah in 1983), but claim Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs and major title tennis player Mary Pierce.

Take away the French National soccer team’s World Cup title in 1998 – and defeat last year – and France faces a championship drought of Philadelphia proportions.

Hey, it’s a half-baked theory with not a lot of research put into it, but I’m sticking to it. After all, Philadelphia has more public art than any other city outside of Paris (or at least it used to… like I said, not much research has gone into this theory).

Anyway, the point is the French will go without a champion at the Tour de France again this year when Moreau was dropped from the peloton and lost considerable time – 3-minutes, 19 seconds – in the overall standings.

Meanwhile, David Zabriskie was eliminated from the race today because he finished more than 30 minutes behind Stage 11 winner Robbie Hunter. Zabriske is a time-trial specialist who held the Yellow Jersey for exactly 52 seconds during the Prologue this year, and held it through the first three stages of the 2005 Tour. This year, however, Zabriskie looked like a contender for the Lanterne Rouge, leading some (like me) to wonder, “What’s with Zabriskie?”

Apparently it was an achy knee that led to Z-Man’s rough showing.

“After the Galibier day I really struggled to try to get better,” Zabriskie said. “I was hoping these few flat days I could nurse it back to health, but the Tour is not the kind of race where you can fix yourself. Today was a really hard day and my knee couldn't handle it. I came off when Astana finally did their rotation in the wind.”

As if that news wasn’t enough, Yellow Jersey holder Michael Rasmussen was kicked off the Danish national cycling team on Thursday because of an alleged disagreement over drug testing.

According to a story in VeloNews:

The director of the Danish Cycling Union (DCU) Jesper Worre told DR1 television station that Rasmussen had received a number of warnings over failing to inform doping authorities over his training whereabouts.

"We consider this case with great seriousness and the executive of the DCU decided that Michael will no longer be part of the national team and he was informed of this on June 26," said Worre.


Rasmussen spends most of his time in Mexico where his wife his from and as the leader of the Tour de France is drug tested after every stage. But, you know, the DCU doesn’t want to have to refer to Google Earth to track down its soon to be ex-patriot.

In Stage 11… sprinters.

Stage 11 Final
1.) Robbie Hunter, Barloworld, South Africa
2.) Fabian Cancellara, CSC, Switzerland, same time
3.) Murilo Fischer, Liquigas, Brazil, s.t.
4.) Filippo Pozzato, Liquigas, Italy, s.t.
5.) Alessandro Ballan, Lampre, Italy, s.t.
6.) Paolo Bossoni, Lampre, Italy, s.t.
7.) Claudio Corioni, Lampre, Italy, s.t.
8.) Philippe Gilbert, Française des Jeux, Belgium, s.t.
9.) William Bonney, Credit Agricole, France, s.t.
10.) Kim Kirchen, T-Mobile, Luxembourg, s.t.

Overall
1.) Michael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, in 53:11:38
2.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, @ 2:35
3.) Iban Mayo, Saunier Duval, Spain, @ 2:39
4.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, @ 2:41
5.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, @ 3:08
6.) Carlos Sastre, CSC, Spain, @ 3:39
7.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, @ 3:50
8.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, USA, @ 3:53

One more day of sprinters before the time trial and Pyrenees.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Not much to say

I don’t have much insight on baseball today, especially since it’s become even clearer that the Phillies apparently need to score at least 10 runs a game in order to win. With that in mind there really isn’t much to say about a team that’s goal every game is to kick in another team’s teeth.

That’s pretty black and white.

Speaking of teeth, I spent the morning at the dentist so I missed the Tour coverage. Nevertheless, based on my reading and eyeing up the results it appears as if the sprinters are back for the next few days. The course remains relatively flat until Saturday when the first of two time trials sets the table for three straight days in the Pyrenees.

It seems that the Tour will be decided in the mountains. Can Michael Rasmussen hold on until then? I’m inclined to say no. How about Alejandro Vanverde? Iban Mayo, maybe? Cadel Evans?

I’d say Levi Leipheimer, but he hasn’t yet engaged.

Speaking of engaging one’s self, Floyd Landis was invited to Google's Mountain View, Calif. headquarters to discuss his autobiography, Positively False among other topics. Better yet, those wizards at Google even recorded the chat and put it on the Internet.

Check it out:



Here’s what I found interesting – it seems as if Floyd has become a bit of an ambassador of the sport of cycling in that he has spent the past month barnstorming the country and talking to regular folks about his sport. And I’m not just talking about him talking about his pending arbitration case or anything like that. At least in the chat at Google, Floyd was talking about his sport. There are very few people of his stature and ability doing anything remotely close to that.

Of course if Floyd had his choice he would be getting ready to ride from Marseille to Montpellier on Thursday morning, but alas…

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The numbers telling the story

I did my best to avoid watching the Phillies game last night for a couple of reasons. One was that I wanted to go to bed before midnight and if I got caught up in watching the baseball game chances are I would have ended up staying up all night. If there is one thing to be said about these Phillies it is that they are not sleep inducing.

Another reason why I chose only random glances at the ballgame from Dodger Stadium last night before heading off to bed was the fact that the “Godfather II” was on. No offense to the Phillies, their players, management and fans, but a large Italian-American family from New York has had more of an impact on American culture than the remaining baseball club from Philadelphia.

That’s just one man’s opinion, but I’m sticking with it. This type of thinking goes right along with my opinion that Jim Brown was right to retire from the Cleveland Browns so that he could make “The Dirty Dozen.” I’ve seen football games and I’ll venture to guess that I’ll see more of them before I through with my days on this spinning rock, but for my money “The Dirty Dozen” is better than the best football games.

Call me crazy.

But speaking of crazy, it didn’t take Bill James to crunch the numbers and put them all in a neat row on a spreadsheet to figure out what went wrong with the Phillies in the 10-3 loss to the Dodgers last night. Better yet, the antithesis of Bill James probably has a better grasp on what went wrong last night than the so-called master himself.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the pitching. More in depth than that it was the pitching of veteran left-hander Jamie Moyer whose final line was a full sampling of the numbers from two through 10.

Take a gander:

5 1/3 IP
10 runs
10 earned runs
10 hits
2 strikeouts
4 walks
2 home runs

Yep, all of that on just 90 pitches, including a five-pitch fourth inning.

Normally Moyer’s outing would simply be chalked up to being “one of those nights,” except for the fact that “one of those nights” has been the norm and not the exception. Though Moyer, 44, has allowed 10 runs in just three starts of his 21-year Major League career, he has a 10.06 ERA with 27 hits, eight strikeouts, seven walks and four homers.

What makes Moyer’s poor showing most troublesome is that the Phillies have no one else to pick up the slack behind the veteran lefty. In the reports from Dodger Stadium Moyer came up with the bases loaded and two outs with a five-run deficit and manager Charlie Manuel couldn’t pinch-hit for him.

Said Manuel: “I thought about hitting for him there, but then I looked up and thought, ‘Where do we go with our bullpen?’ He had about 60 pitches at that point. I definitely was thinking about it, but we talked it out. I didn't see where I could pinch-hit for him there.”

In other words, the manager still doesn’t trust the bullpen he’s been given. Frankly, who can blame him? But with Moyer struggling, Adam Eaton still searching for mediocrity, J.D. Durbin and his double-digit ERA holding down a spot in the rotation, with rookie Kyle Kendrick and the quietly struggling Cole Hamels filling out the rotation, Manuel’s troubles my go far beyond the bullpen.

***
This is about as deep as it gets for the numbers for me, because, frankly, baseball is about people not statistics…

In every game the Phillies have played since the All-Star Break the winning team has scored at least 10 runs. The Phillies have scored 28, while the opposition has 27.

***
The numbers are starting to come into clearer focus at the Tour de France following the tough Stage 9 that featured three tough climbs, including the daunting Col du Galibier. For one, Michael Rasmussen remained in the Yellow Jersey, while Tour rookie, Mauricio Soler of Colombia, won the toughest stage of this year’s race.

More telling is that it seems as if there are just a handful of riders remaining with a shot to win the race even though there are still 11 stages remaining, including two time trials, four flat stages and three days climbing in the Pyrenees.

It’s still anyone’s race. It just isn’t Alexandre Vinokourov’s race anymore.

Vinokourov, the pre-race favorite, battled to finish 20th in Stage 9 and dropped to 21st overall, more than eight minutes behind Rasmussen. After Tuesday’s stage Vinokourov (still wrapped and stitched up after the early-race wreck) tearfully recounted how he could not respond to the attacks up Telegraphe or Galibier.

But American Levi Leipheimer, in a post-race interview by CSN’s sister station Versus, said the race was still wide open and that even though he wasn’t sure where Vinokourov was in Tuesday’s climbs, knows that no one should sleep on the hard-noses Kazakh.

“Whether he's really affected by the crash for the next couple of weeks, I couldn't say for sure,” Leipheimer said. “But I wouldn't make the mistake of forgetting about him.”

Stage 9 Final
1.) Juan Mauricio Soler, Barloworld, Colombia in 4:14:24
2.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at :38
3.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, same time
4.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, @ :40
5.) Iban Mayo, Saunier Duval, Spain, @ :42
6.) Michael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, same time
7.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, USA, s.t.
8.) Kim Kirchen, T-Mobile, Luxembourg, @ :46
9.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, same time
10.) Carlos Sastre, CSC, Spain, s.t.
11.) Christophe Moreau, AG2R, France, @ :54
12.) Mikel Astarloza, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Spain, same time
13.) Yaroslav Popovych, Discovery Channel, Ukraine, @1:33
14.) Juan José Cobo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 1:36
15.) José Ivan Gutierrez, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 1:49
16.) Oscar Pereiro, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 3:24
17.) Chris Horner, Predictor-Lotto, USA, same time
18.) Andrey Kashechkin, Astana, Kazakhstan, s.t.
19.) Patrice Halgand, Credit Agricole, France s.t.
20.) Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana, Kazakhstan

Overall
1.) Michael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, in 43:52:48
2.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 2:35
3.) Iban Mayo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 2:39
4.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, at 2:41
5.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, at 3:08
6.) Christophe Moreau, AG2R, France, at 3:18
7.) Carlos Sastre, Team CSC, Spain, at 3:39
8.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, at 3:50
9.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, USA, at 3:53
10.) Kim Kirchen, T-Mobile, Luxembourg, at 5:06

There was an interesting story in today’s The New York Times about a pre-dawn raid by anti-doping inspectors on race leader Michael Rasmussen’s room. The crazy part about this wasn’t that the testing raid (I guess they really needed that blood and urine?) came just five hours before the toughest stage of the Tour de France, but that the raid was sanctioned by the UCI.

The UCI, of course, is the International Cycling Union, or the union that is supposed to represent the riders. But the UCI is hardly the MLBPA. Actually, it seems as if the UCI is more interested in selling out the bike riders it is supposed to represent.

Could anyone imagine the MLBPA staging drug-testing raids on players before a World Series game? How about the NFLPA doing the same thing the morning of the Super Bowl? What is most interesting about the testing of Rasmussen is that as the man with the Yellow Jersey, he is subject to drug tests following every stage.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the UCI won’t be happy until it destroys its sport.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

A calm before the big climbs

It’s a rest day in the Tour de France, which means the riders will go out and take a cool, relaxed two-hour ride through the foothills of the Alps before tackling the more than challenging Stage 9 tomorrow.

The reason behind the easy ride instead of a day of lounging at the pool, massage table or putting the feet up in the hotel room is basic – complete rest allows lactic acid to pool in the legs, making them stiffen up and become nothing more than rigid branches on a tree. Since Tuesday brings three climbs, including the start on the early inclines of Col du I’lseran before finishing with the infamous Col du Galibier during the 160 kilometer ride from Val-d’Isère to Briançon, today’s rest-day ride will be a little more focused and intense.

In other words there are no rest days in Tour de France.

Since Stage 9 will be the most difficult of the Tour, it’s fair to reason that it is more than quite possible that a winner or a small handful of contenders could emerge. And after a tough Stage 8 in which the riders attacked six categorized climbs, there are a select few who established themselves from the rest of the peloton.

One rider, of course, is Mickael Rasmussen, the Dane for Rabobank who rode away with the stage thanks to a long breakaway with about 50 miles to go. The other usual suspects are in the mix, too, like Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre, Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, France’s Christophe Moreau, and, of course, Alexandre Vinokourov.

But the most interesting rider in contention is the enigmatic Basque for Saunier Duval, Iban Mayo.

Yes, that Iban Mayo.

Followers of the sport might remember Mayo as the up-and-coming rider who finished sixth in the Tour de France as a 25-year old in 2003, and then seemed to be the latest of the “Next One” poised to knock off Lance Armstrong the way Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Joseba Beloki, Klöden, and everyone else could not. For one thing, Mayo had a perfect build for a cyclist at a waifish 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds with the ability to climb through the Alps and the Pyrenees like a mountain goat.

Secondly, Mayo was tough as hell. Aside from his expertise as a climber and a Basque rider for the Euskaltel-Euskadi team (think of them as the Green Bay Packers of cycling since it is a team owned by the Basque people), Mayo was in a horrific car accident in 1997 when he was 19 that left him in a wheelchair for month s with broken legs a smashed up arm. Doctors said that it would be difficult for the young cyclist to walk without a limp, let alone get back on the bike.

But telling a Basque to stay off a bike is like telling an American to stay away from the all-you-can-eat buffet, bad television, and to stop building out-of-control credit card debt. Sure, the idea works in theory, but real life is something different all together. Instead, Mayo developed a pedaling style that helped alleviate the wear-and-tear on his damaged legs and then he trained and then trained some more.

In 2000 he signed with Euskaltel-Euskadi and quickly became a young force in the sport.

It was Mayo who nearly became the catalyst for Armstrong’s demise in the ’03 Tour when the diminutive Basque pushed the seven-time champion to the edge during a climb of Col du Galibier as well as a victory on Alpe d’Huez.

In 2004 Mayo didn’t just rout the field – including Armstrong – in the Tour tune-up at the Dauphiné Libéré, but he demolished it. In the time trial up Mount Ventoux, Mayo battered Armstrong by two minutes and looked poised to dominate the Tour de France that year. Heading into the ’04 Tour, Mayo was a riddle that Armstrong was afraid he could not solve.

But then, poof!, he was gone.

Actually, Mayo crashed on a cobblestone road during the early going of the Tour, sustained injuries and abandoned the race at the 15th Stage before reaching his countrymen in the Pyrenees.

Along with the injuries came a bout with mononucleosis that cost him all of the 2005 season.

But Mayo returned to light racing in 2006 and won a stage of the Dauphiné Libéré as well as the overall titles at the Vuelta a Burgos and Subida a Urkiola. In 2007 he signed with team Caisse d'Epargne and won a stage in the prestigious Giro d’Italia and suddenly looks as if he is finally on the cusp in the Tour de France.

Could it finally be Mayo’s year?

Certainly Stage 9 is set up for Mayo to capture the Yellow Jersey. The small 2-minute, 29 second gap between Mayo and Rasmussen can easily be erased if the mighty Basque can conjure up that old battle with Armstrong from 2003 up Col du Galibier.

Stage 8 Final
1.) Mickael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, in 4:49:40
2.) Iban Mayo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 2:47
3.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 3:12
4.) Christophe Moreau, A2R, France, at 3:13
5.) Fränk Schleck, CSC, Luxembourg, at 3:13
6.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, at 3:13
7.) Andrey Kashechkin, Astana, Kazakhstan, at 3:13
8.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, at 3:31
9.) Denis Menchov, Rabobank, Russia, at 3:35
10.) Carlos Sastre, CSC, Spain, at 3:35
11.) Haimar Zubeldia, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Spain, at 3:59
12.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, USA, at 3:59
13.) Juan José Cobo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 3:59
14.) Manuel Beltran, Liquigas, Spain, at 4:13
15.) Oscar Pereiro, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 4:13
16.) Juan Manuel Garate, Quick Step, Spain, at 4:29
17.) David Arroyo, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 4:29
18.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, at 4:29
19.) Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana, Kazakhstan, at 4:29
20.) Linus Gerdemann, T-Mobile, Germany, at 5:05

Overall
1.) Mickael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, in 15:37:42
2.) Linus Gerdemann, T-Mobile, Germany, at :43
3.) Iban Mayo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 2:39
4.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 2:51
5.) Andrey Kashechkin, Astana, Kazakhstan, at 2:52
6.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, at 2:53
7.) Christophe Moreau, AG2R, France, at 3:06
8.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, at 3:10
9.) Fränk Schleck, CSC, Luxembourg, at 3:14
10.) Denis Menchov, Rabobank, Russia, at 3:19
11.) Carlos Sastre, CSC, Spain, at 3:35
12.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, at 3:46
13.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, at 3:53
14.) Oscar Pereiro, Caisse d'Epargne, Spain, at 3:54

Alexandre Vinokourov is lurking in 22nd place, 5-minutes, 23 seconds off the pace.

***
The Phillies play late-night tonight in Los Angeles, but chances are I’m not going to make it to the middle innings. The old boy needs his rest and wants to get up in time to get a big cup of coffee so he can park himself in front of the TV to watch Stage 9.

Better yet, wouldn’t it be much better to actually be there to cover the race? I’m going to have to work on that. Hey, Comcast SportsNet and Versus are owned by the same company… perhaps the home office needs a writer to roll through France for three weeks to chronicle what goes down. Better yet, if homeboy Floyd gets back in to race in 2008, who better to get it all down than another dude from Lancaster?

I’m ready. Sign me up.

***
For those looking for some baseball to read about while waiting for the 10:05 p.m. start on the coast, check out Todd Zolecki’s report from Randy Wolf and Mike Lieberthal. It sounds like those boys don’t really miss Philadelphia all that much…

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