I'm about to type a phrase that would have been tough to imagine using five days ago, when the Phillies beat the Brewers to take a seven-game lead in the NL East with 10 to play.
As in, they must win tonight. It isn't time to push the panic button yet. But if the Phillies somehow manage to lose tonight, against a pitcher who is making his first major league start, then it might be time to start worrying. To be clear - a four-game lead with six to play is still a comfortable cushion. According to ESPN.com, the Phillies still have a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. But lose tonight, and they'll need to win three of their remaining five games against two teams who they are combined 8-12 against this season, or hope that the Braves come back to Earth and lose at least a game or two.
All this being said, I ask you this: Is there anyone you would rather have on the mound tonight than J.A. Happ? I raised a question today in the paper that the Phillies will need to ask themselves in the coming days: Although Happ might seem to be an ideal piece to bolster a struggling bulpen, can Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee afford NOT to have Happ in the posteason rotation (assuming, of course, there is a need for one)?
Nobody is arguing that Happ has reached the level of a Cole Hamels or a Cliff Lee. Happ has never started a postseason game before (although Lee hasn't either). But in a stretch in which Hamels and Lee have both turned in some clunkers, can the Phillies afford to take an arm out of their rotation that has shown the ability to pitch effectively deep into games? If Hamels pitches like the Hamels of last postseason and Lee pitches like the Lee of his first five starts here, then maybe the best combination does have Happ heading into the bullpen to stabilize the eighth or ninth innings of tight games. But can the Phillies afford to keep Happ out of the rotation, particularly if they are unsure of which Lee or Hamels will show up in their starts?
To be fair, Hamels has been pretty sharp lately. And he had some bad luck last night. With two out in the seventh he had allowed three runs, but gave up a soft single to Michael Bourn, who then stole second despite a pickoff. Hamels then gave up an RBI single to Miguel Tejada, and the bullpen couldn't limit the damage. In his last seven starts, Hamels has a 2.81 ERA and a .237 BAA.
Statistics since July 28 (Lee's first trip through rotation)
Happ: 9 starts, 2.47 ERA, .241 BAA, .311 OBPA, 7 HR
Lee: 11 starts, 3.28 ERA, .258 BAA, .282 OBPA, 6 HR
Hamels: 12 starts, 3.68 ERA, .252 BAA, .304 OBPA, 7 HR
Innings/Start since May 23 (Happ's first trip through rotation)
Happ (21 starts): 7+: 10, 6+: 16, <6: 5*, <5: 1*
Lee (24 starts): 7+: 15, 6+: 20, <6: 4, <5: 3
Hamels (24 starts): 7+: 9, 6+: 17, <6: 7, <5: 1
*Includes one injury-shortened start
Runs allowed/start since July 28
Happ: <3: 7*, <4: 8, <5: 9, 5+: 0
Hamels: <3: 6, <4: 6, <5: 10, 5+: 2
Lee: <3: 7, <4: 7, <5: 7, 5+: 4
Innings/start since July 28
Happ: 7+: 4, 6+: 7, <6: 2*, <5: 1*
Hamels: 7+: 5, 6+: 9, <6: 3, <5: 0
Lee: 7+: 7, 6+: 8, <6: 3, <5: 2
Just a quick note. There has been a lot of talk about some of the Phillies' regulars needing a day off. I know that doesn't sit well with a lot of you. After all, nobody was talking about needing a day off when the Phillies were four games out last year instead of four games ahead.
But just for your perspective:
Last year, when the Phillies clinched, they had played 23 games in 27 days.
Tonight will be their 28th game in 28 days.
Last year, from Aug. 19 through Sept. 27, they played 36 games in 41 days.
Tonight will be their 38th game in 41 days since Aug. 18.