A change in Phillies' approach
LAST WEEK Domonic Brown pushed a two-strike pitch down the third-base line that resulted in a double. Earlier this spring, Ryan Howard punched a ground ball to the left side of the field for a hit.
Against the Tigers on Wednesday, Cesar Hernandez bunted someone over with Howard next to bat. Once upon a time, when runs came plentifully and both Charlie Manuel and his most prolific slugger had their hands on this team's steering wheel, this was taboo, for it allowed opposing pitchers to avoid pitching to the Phillies slugger.
But the Phillies slugger has hit just 25 home runs in his last two injury-plagued seasons, about half his yearly output in his peak power years. And the Phillies scored just 610 runs last season, nearly 300 less than the most productive of their five consecutive seasons at the top of the National League East in 2007 (892).
And so Charlie is gone and with him the rules surrounding Howard's at-bats. In their place are a whole set of new rules, or more accurately, a whole new set of old rules designed to squeeze every last drop of offense from this aged and uncertain team, and to lock down defensively like the baseball equivalent of a fullcourt press.
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The club has a new minor league pitching coordinator, hitting coordinator, has sought and implemented input from anyone and everyone in the organization. Quotes from people like Pat Gillick have been posted in the clubhouses of the Phillies' minor league teams. Opinions and philosophies from personnel at those levels have been sought and sometimes implemented.
"Some teams don't care if you strike out," said Mickey Morandini, a second baseman with the Phillies in the 1990s and now their Triple A manager. "Swing hard. A lot of teams, especially American League teams, aren't big on bunting. They're playing for that big inning and if you don't have the pitcher hitting, the bunt's not as important.
"We had a stretch there where the three-run home run was big for us. And Charlie was big into that. We're playing for the big inning, we're playing for the home runs. They didn't bunt much. Didn't hit-and-run much. But now with [Ryne Sandberg] at the helm, we're getting back to more bunting, hitting-and-running, moving runners, things like that. Playing for a run here, a run there."
"The tone's been set," Sandberg said late last week, as the team prepared to come north. "We'll continue to work at it and stay fresh at it and emphasize it. It's showing up in a lot of ways, even with the pitchers doing their jobs."
The day Sandberg said this, Cliff Lee had snookered Detroit's Torii Hunter into breaking too soon for third base by pretending not to look at the runner twice in a row, then wheeling around on his fourth pitch to catch his Arkansas neighbor in a rundown. Known for being quick to the plate and working in rhythm, the 12-year veteran pitcher has embraced the request to vary his delivery with runners on base so teams can not time him.
"I just got to be conscious of making sure I don't get into too much of a rhythm to where they can time me," he said after that game. "Just holding the ball once in a while creates some uncertainty with them. And makes it where they really have to guess is what it turns into. That's really it. Holding the ball shuts them down."
Morandini, who began his postplaying career managing his son's high school team, offered what he calls a "simple" philosophical start at a huge organizational meeting last November. You are at the plate for one of three things, he said. To get on base, to advance the runner, or to knock him in. Your approach during the at-bat should reflect that, he said.
And it has at the minor league complex, where Morandini has spent much of his time this spring. That's not a surprise, since those players will try just about anything to get to the big leagues. What's a mild surprise is how much buy-in there has been with the grizzled veterans at the top, who scored five runs and won a recent game by banging out nine singles, implementing a hit-and-run, and throwing out several basestealers.
Said Lee, "I think if we just do what Ryno and the coaching staff has been preaching to us all spring and just do the little things right and make sure we work hard and don't leave anything to chance and pound the strike zone and do basic execution, it will turn out pretty good."
That's the hope, anyway. Certainly the pendulum has swung from the PED-influenced era of power bats and suspect pitching the Phillies thrived against for much of the previous decade. Runs are down. Every bullpen, noted Morandini, has guys who throw in the mid-90s.
And the Phillies, admitted their general manager, aren't the same either.
"We don't have the same offensive team from '09," Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We don't have the same level of talent. So we have to figure out ways to win games in other ways. And so it behooves Ryne to be as creative as possible to do that."