I picked the Phillies to repeat as National League champions this year because of their devastating lineup, the presence of Cole Hamels, and the weakness of their competition in the NL. Despite slow starts from Hamels and Rollins, the Phillies enter this weekend’s series against the Yankees in first place in the NL East, in large part thanks to the strength of their offense and the weakness of their competition.
The Phillies have scored 5.74 runs per game this season, tops in the majors and comfortably ahead of the second-place Yankees (5.66 R/G). They’ve done that despite the fact that Rollins was hitting just .195/.231/.268 with one stolen base on May 11. Since then, Rollins has hit .341/396/.500 and stolen four bases, and the Phillies have gone 7-3 while scoring an even six runs per game.
With Rollins having returned to form, the top two-thirds of the Phillies lineup is indeed devastating. Behind Rollins lurks Chase Utley (.295/.432/.597), Raul Ibañez (free from pitcher-friendly Safeco, he’s leading the majors in homers, total bases and slugging, and the NL in RBIs and OPS), and Ryan Howard. Behind them is my preseason breakout pick Jayson Werth, who is living up to my expectations by hitting .272/.371/.500 and leading the team with eight stolen bases in nine attempts (including a recent successful steal of home). Only then do you get to switch-hitter Shane Victorino.
Yes the bottom third is weak, it is a National League lineup after all, but playing in an American League park, as the Phils will be doing this weekend in the Bronx, they can slot in ace lefty pinch-hitter Matt Stairs (.304/.515/.609) as the designated hitter behind Victorino.
No NL team can rival that firepower, which is why the league has to be thankful that the Phillies’ pitching has been so bad in the early going. Only four teams, the Yankees among them, have allowed more runs per game than the Phillies this year, and no team has a worse starters’ ERA than the Phillies 6.31. Forty-six-year-old Jamie Moyer has had just two quality starts in eight tries; last year’s deadline pickup, Joe Blanton, has just three in eight tries and has allowed ten runs in 13 innings over his last two starts; and fifth-starter Chan Ho Park just got booted from the rotation altogether.
Fortunately for the Phils, Cole Hamels is emerging from his early season struggles. After starting the season nursing an inflamed pitching elbow, which pushed back his first start, Hamels was rocked in his first two outings (12 runs in 9 2/3 innings), then took a comebacker off his pitching shoulder in his third, and rolled over his ankle trying to field a ball in his fourth. He had to leave both of those latter games following those injuries, but over his last five starts, including those two, he has posted a 2.70 ERA and struck out 33 men in 26 2/3 innings, and he’s lasted at least six full innings in each of his last three.
With Hamels and Rollins rounding into form, it’s no surprise that the Phillies are on a hot streak. They’re 6-1 on their current road trip, which has fare more to do with how they’re playing than where. It’s not outlandish to treat this weekend’s series between the Yankees and the defending World Champions as a potential World Series preview, but it’s enough for me that they’re two of the best and hottest teams in baseball.
The Yankees will send CC Sabathia to the mound to take on fellow lefty Hamels in a rematch of Game One of last year’s NDLS on Sunday. Tomorrow they’ll face another lefty in 26-year-old J.A. Happ, Park’s replacement in the rotation. Tonight, they’ll face the pitcher who has been keeping the Phils afloat through Hamels struggles, Brett Myers.
Myers hasn’t been pitching like a proper ace, he isn’t one, but he’s been consistently solid for the Phils, turning in a quality start in five of his last six outings. His last two have been his best, as he’s allowed just three runs in his last 13 innings and struck out eight Nationals in seven innings his last time out. Myers one bugaboo has been his major league leading 12 home runs allowed. That’s a bad weakness to have coming into the Bronx as the Yankees lead the majors in home runs (the Phillies lead the NL), and the new Yankee Stadium has been host to more home runs than any other park this year.
The Yankees counter with A.J. Burnett, who will look to push the Yankees’ winning streak into double digits. Burnett held the Twins to two runs in 6 2/3 innings his last time out while striking out seven, but he also walked six men. The Yankees have won just two of Burnett’s last four starts over which he’s posted a 4.61 ERA and walked 4.28 per nine innings. Those are his four starts since giving up eight runs in Fenway. Burnett is giving the Yankees length, but he’s thus far looked like little more than the league-average innings eater he was when not facing the Yankees last year, which means it will be up to the Yankee offense to take advantage of Myers’ gopheritis tonight.
In other news, Brian Bruney’s elbow is hurting. He was unavailable last night and is unavailable again today. Given the hit the bullpen took last night after Joba Chamberlain’s first inning exit, the team has decided to activate Chien-Ming Wang to reinforce the pen. Jonathan Albaladejo, who gave up four runs in 2 1/3 innings last night, has been optioned to Scranton to make room for Wang.