The Phillies and Cardinals split the first two games of their division series with each team winning in dramatic fashion. The teams now travel to St. Louis for two more contests after the Cardinals accomplished their goal of splitting on the road. However, both games could have turned out much differently had Charlie Manuel and Tony La Russa more actively managed their starting pitchers.
Kyle Lohse and Cliff Lee were each removed three batters too late, and as reactionary measures after the worst had already transpired. Being proactive in the manager’s seat is very important this time of year, when every out is crucial and a significant mistake can cripple playoff hopes. While Lohse’s implosion and non-removal seems more egregious given the nature of the Phillies comeback, the decision to leave Lee in the game for the seventh inning was just as ill-advised.
The Cardinals took a 3-0 lead in the first inning on Saturday after Lance Berkman tattooed a Roy Halladay mistake into the right field seats. The ball was a no-doubter, the type that silenced a raucous crowd and shocked Phillies fans everywhere. How could that have happened? That doesn’t happen at home and with the best pitcher in the game on the mound. Lohse then threw a mere 23 pitches over three perfect innings.
Before anyone knew it, the Cardinals led 3-0 after three frames, and Lohse was on the verge of something special.
The Phillies capitalized on a fourth-inning mistake, when Shane Victorino singled in a run after David Freese dropped a foul popup. Lohse didn’t look as effective in the inning. It seemed the Phillies offense had reconfigured its game plan and started working more optimal plate appearances. Even in the fifth inning, when Lohse retired the Phillies in 1-2-3 fashion, Placido Polanco worked a solid at-bat, Carlos Ruiz smashed a liner up the middle that was all inertia’d as Lohse blocked it with his legs, and Halladay hit a fairly tough grounder to third. Lohse threw just nine pitches, but the Phillies batters, for the second straight inning, attacked the best possible offerings.
Lohse had a solid season, but he doesn’t have anywhere near enough of a reputation to remain in a playoff opener, with a lead on the road, and the potential for both Utley and Howard to bat. Plus, it would have been the third time through the lineup. All signs pointed towards a reliever, but Lohse was left in.
The rest is history. Jimmy Rollins singled, and after Utley struck out, Hunter Pence roped a single up the middle. Even if Lohse was allowed to start the frame, this was definitely the chance to remove him. Howard isn’t the same player that hit 58 home runs, but he is still dangerous against righties.
Eight pitches later, his three-run homer gave the Phillies a 4-3 lead. Lohse then allowed Victorino to single before serving up a two-run blast to lefty Raul Ibanez. To top the situation off, La Russa then went Marc Rzepczynski, the tougher southpaw in the bullpen. In other words, neither Rzepczynski or Arthur Rhodes were used knowing Utley and Howard were due up; neither was used when Howard came up with two men on in a two-run game; and neither was used for Ibanez after Howard already homered. Instead, Rzepczynski was brought in for the bottom of the order, which was fully comprised of righties, and after the lineup’s lefties already made the Cardinals pay. Three batters too late, and the Phillies were staked to a 6-3 lead.
The Phillies made a similar mistake with Lee, allowing him to continue pitching even when his ‘stuff’ fell flat and the Cardinals hitters started putting good wood on the ball. Sure, some of his 12 hits were BABIP-lucky, but let’s not turn a blind eye to the solid contact made against him throughout the game. Several line drives were hit, and if anything, the Phillies very good defense made it seem like more of those hits were fieldable, which led to the increasing perception that the Cards were merely getting lucky. The Cards were lucky in the sense that various liners or hard-hit balls weren’t directed right at fielders, but they still hit these balls well. It wasn’t as if they ducksnorted Lee to death.
The Cardinals frustrated Lee for three runs in the fourth, and nearly tied the game on a Rafael Furcal single. Ibanez threw Jon Jay out at the plate to end the inning, but the Cardinals had worked their way back into the game while the Phillies offense stagnated. A quick fifth inning for Lee, complete with strikeouts of Allen Craig and Albert Pujols, restored order but the bottom of the lineup once again utilized a solid approach to eke out another run. Ryan Theriot doubled on a hard-hit liner to left, and Jon Jay followed with a second-pitch single the other way. Ibanez came close to throwing another runner out, but his throw was too high for Carlos Ruiz to easily handle.
Lee would escape without further damage, but he came close to allowing more runs. After Jay’s single, Skip Schumaker pinch-hit and singled himself, and Furcal followed with a grounder that nearly sneaked through Rollins and Polanco. They were handling Lee, and with his spot due up in the bottom of the inning, a double-switch or a one-inning reliever made sense to start the seventh. Especially with Craig, Pujols and Berkman due up.
Craig tripled to the deepest part of the park, and Pujols singled him in on the first pitch, an 87 mph, belt-high cutter without much movement. Lee didn’t have much left, and it wasn’t until Berkman blooped a single to right field that Charlie Manuel went to the bullpen. Lee may have earned the right to continue pitching, but mantras like that go by the wayside when playoff baseball starts. He was removed three batters too late, and while a reliever may have experienced the same outcome, blindly sticking with the principle that Lee is an ace and should pitch until the eighth didn’t help the Phillies comeback cause.
Maybe these games end up being split even with the appropriate managerial moves, but neither team put itself in the best position to enhance its odds of winning by leaving the starting pitchers in too long.