Paul Hagen: Blanton making case as Phillies' best pitcher

Miguel Cairo, who played in place of Pedro Feliz in first game of doubleheader, reaches third safely.

MIAMI - In a world that sometimes seems dominated by an around-the-clock sports loop, with highlights and analysis and rumors and stats breakdowns and opinions and replays from every conceivable angle forming the background to our lives, it should be darn near impossible for a major league ballplayer to fly under the radar.

Apparently, though, with a lot of perseverance and a little bit of luck, it can still be done.

Consider a seemingly simple question: Who has been the Phillies' best pitcher this season?

While there is certainly room for discussion, the guess here is that Joe Blanton isn't the first name that occurs to most fans of the World F. Champions.

That's partly because he doesn't throw 100 mph, doesn't have that one trademark pitch for the broadcasters to rave about. His postgame quotes don't create headlines. And he certainly wasn't impressive early. After eight starts, he had a 7.11 earned run average. First impressions, and all that.

He wasn't the Most Valuable Player of the National League Championship Series and World Series and isn't married to a reality show celebrity; that's Cole Hamels. He didn't get a bunch of publicity as a strong Rookie of the Year candidate; that's J.A. Happ. He's not flamboyant; that's Pedro Martinez. He hasn't won a Cy Young Award; that's Cliff Lee and Martinez. He doesn't have more than 250 big-league wins; that's Jamie Moyer.

He comes across as an average Joe, a lunch-pail guy who just goes out every fifth day and does his job the best he can.

And without attracting much attention, he's done it really well lately.

Last night at Joe Robbie/Pro Player/Dolphin/Land Shark Stadium, he helped the Phillies earn a split of their doubleheader against the Marlins. He pitched seven shutout innings, holding the Fish to a pair of singles as they won the first game, 9-3.

It has somehow eluded the spotlight, but games like that have been more the rule than the exception for quite a while now.

In his last 21 starts, Blanton is 9-4 with a 2.78 ERA, allowing only 125 hits in 139 1/3 innings. And, yeah, that might make him the Phillies' best pitcher this season.

Don't let his placid exterior fool you. Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who traded Blanton to the Phillies shortly before the deadline last year, talked at length last spring at Oakland's spring-training complex about the fact that Blanton was one of the most competitive players he's ever been around.

This is more than just a subject for idle chitchat. The Phillies are rapidly approaching the day when they'll have to set up their rotation for the division series. And with the bullpen in flux because of injuries to Brett Myers, J.C. Romero, Scott Eyre and Chan Ho Park and the inconstancy of closer Brad Lidge, getting the 1-2-3 starters in the proper sequence becomes even more crucial than the rotation always is in a short series. Lingering questions about Happ (strained rib-cage muscle) and Martinez (stiff neck) complicate the process.

If the Phillies end up opening against the Rockies, it seems logical that Lee and Hamels would start the first two games at Citizens Bank Park. Colorado is only 24-24 when facing a lefthanded starter this season and has been especially vulnerable lately.

If the Dodgers are the first-round opponent, there's no real imperative to line up as many lefthanders as possible. Los Angeles has a more balanced lineup. And it's not out of the question that manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee could decide to use the righthanded Blanton to split up the lefties if he finishes up strong.

It's far too early to try to guess whether Happ or Martinez would be the fourth and final postseason starter. Both have to prove they're healthy. Happ will get his next chance tomorrow night in Milwaukee, Martinez is scheduled to start against the Brewers Saturday night at Miller Park. Both have to be effective.

They won't be the only considerations factored into the equation, though.

The Phillies say they're optimistic about both Romero and Eyre. If they're right, the bullpen should be well-armed from the left side. If not, though, there could be some pressure to use Happ out of the bullpen in October, a role he held last autumn.

The Phillies have been rudely reminded recently about how quickly everything can change with an ache here and a pain there, but, for now, the role at least one 2008 fixture might have is fuzzy.

Moyer started the second game and, while the 46-year-old held the Marlins to three runs in seven innings, it was a bit of a struggle. He allowed nine hits, including a couple of homers, in a 3-0 loss to a team that he was 13-3, 2.87 against for his career at the start of the evening.

At the same time, he does lead the team in wins despite a 5.00 ERA. Sentimentally, it would be wrenching to omit him from the postseason roster. He's well-respected for his achievements, on and off the field.

So many questions. Which makes it even more comforting that, right now, Blanton is as dependable as a starter can be. Heck, you could even say he's been their best pitcher this season.

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