It has been said many times that baseball is a game of failure, yet for seven innings yesterday it was difficult to find any flaws with this team. Every member of the line-up, Halladay included, had a hit. New third baseman Placido Polanco not only drove in six runs, but started a 5-4-3 double play that ended the fourth inning. Raul Ibanez, who struggled in the second half of last season and throughout spring training, reached base twice and scored two runs.
But if you were looking for a reason to worry, the eighth inning blessed you with an opportunity, as young lefty Antonio Bastardo made just the fourth relief appearance of his big league career. Bastardo, as you well know, is the team's only lefty reliever, and likely will be for at least the next two-to-three weeks. If the Phillies need a big out against Adam Dunn or Brian McCann, there's a good chance manager Charlie Manuel will call on his rookie. Yesterday, however, all three lefties he faced put together good at-bats against him. Nyjer Morgan led off the frame with a well-hit double. Willie Harris then made good contact on a 2-0 fastball, but ended up flying out to right field. Bastardo then walked Adam Dunn on four pitches to put runners at the corners with two out. He then struck out right-handed hitting Adam Zimmerman before Manuel called on Danys Baez to replace him (Baez ended the frame with a groundout).
There's no doubt Bastardo is talented. In fact, he could very well wind up at the back of the Phillies' bullpen someday. But his slider is still a work-in-progress -- Morgan's double came on an 0-1 slider -- and while he posted a spectacular 19/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in spring training, he sometimes hurts himself falling behind hitters. Because he still isn't consistent with his slider, this forces him to throw his fastball. It's a damn good fastball -- Zimmerman struck out on an 1-2 inside fastball -- but when hitters know it is coming, it obviously diminishes its effectiveness. The ball Harris hit was a 2-0 fastball.
This isn't a Code Red situation. Bastardo seems to be what folks in the biz call a red light player -- when the red light on the camera clicks on, so do they -- and spring training and the eighth inning of a blowout hardly qualify as red light situations. In his final appearance of the spring, Bastardo put a couple Pirates on base before striking out three straight. And at-bats like the one against Zimmerman are why the Phillies are willing to endure some growing pains in the hopes that he finds a groove. Bastardo started the at-bat with a high fastball that induced a swing-and-miss. He then threw a 94 MPH fastball for a strike on the inside corner. This gave him a chance to throw his slider, which he buried in the dirt for a ball. But the change-of-pace was just as important as the ball/strike call -- the next pitch was an inside fastball that Zimmerman swung and missed at. If Bastardo can repeat bats like that, he can develop into a serious weapon.
Other observations from Opening Day. . .
1) Roy Halladay was a big topic of conversation in spring training, both inside the Phillies organization and outside of it. For folks in the National League, he is still something of a curiosity. Everybody knows he is good. What defies conventional wisdom, however, is his consistency. Most pitchers will throw a few clunkers in a row. Most pitchers will suffer a hiccup for a season. Halladay seems immune to both. While working on a story on Halladay for our preview issue, Yanks catcher Jorge Posada fingered this consistency as his biggest strength. Over the course of a 162-game season, Posada said, you are often going to take the mound feeling less than 100 percent. Your fastball might not be working as good as you want it to. You might be struggling with the feel for your change-up. Halladay, he said, is the rare pitcher who is able to overcome this.
Yesterday would seem to be a good example of this. Halladay didn't have his best stuff, yet he still managed to strike out nine and allow one run in seven innings. He threw 19 pitches in the first inning, but finished the day with just 88. He rarely threw his change-up, mostly because with a huge lead he didn't have to. Around the majors, you saw other pitchers endure customary early-season struggles -- C.C. Sabathia, Josh Johnson, Josh Beckett, etc. What sets Halladay apart just might be his ability to make the best out of the bad (relatively speaking) days.
2) Speaking of facing lefties. . .
This is looking well down the road, but things could get very interesting when J.C. Romero and Brad Lidge come back from the disabled list, presumably by the end of April. I say this because the David Herndon who took the mound in the ninth yesterday looked a lot like the David Herndon who cruised through spring training. He gave up a couple of hits, including a double by Ivan Rodriguez, but three of the four balls in play that he allowed were on the ground, and he struck out Cristian Guzman. For a guy making his first ever appearance above Double-A, it was a solid debut. He could prove to be a valuable arm to have, particularly in middle-inning situations, and throughout spring training he has been pretty impressive against lefties (All three of his outs yesterday came against lefties).
3) The first time the Phillies scored 10 or more runs in a game last season, they followed it by scoring three runs. The second time, they followed it by scoring one run. The Phillies scored 10 or more runs in 20 games last season - they lost the next game nine times. In 2008, they lost five of 10 games.
Cole Hamels will be on the mound tomorrow tonight as the Phillies attempt to stop the trend. He'll face RHP Jason Marquis.
4) Plenty of coverage today in the Washington Post on the overwhelming contingent of Phillies fans who invaded Nationals Park yesterday. Half of them might've been in town to boo Donovan McNabb, but in the meantime they turned Washington's home opener into anything but that.
The Nationals couldn't even catch a break from the President of the United States, who donned a White Sox hat before throwing out the first pitch.
"Philly fans doing that in our ballpark, I think that's a statement on where we need to get to," manager Jim Riggleman was quoted as saying.
Wrote Post baseball columnist Thomas Boswell: "It's a shock when rude interlopers boo a home team during its own Opening Day. Perhaps, after a century of almost uniform misery, including a celebration of their own 10,000th loss, it's too much to ask Philadelphia guests to have the class of visiting Yankees or Red Sox boosters who, accustomed to winning teams, invade but don't insult."
The Hopefully Semi-regular Yunel Escobar MVP Watch
Because of all the heat that I have taken over predicting that Braves short stop Yunel Escobar wins this year's National League MVP, we here at High Cheese are starting a new feature. It is called "The Hopefully Semi-regular Yunel Escobar MVP Watch." Last night, my good friend Jared informed me that if Escobar does in fact go on to win the NL MVP, he will never speak to me again. Because if Escobar does win the MVP, it will give me license to walk around thinking that I am even smarter than I already think I am. And Jared is well aware of how insufferable I can be.
So, throughout the season, we'll be monitoring young Yunel's progress as he mashes his way through the National League, scoring runs and stealing hearts. The thing is, we're only going to provide updates when he does something that makes me look like a genius. In my estimation, that will be every day. But on the off chance that he goes 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, you'll have to get your Yunel news elsewhere.
So, here's the first installation of The Hopefully Semi-regular Yunel Escobar MVP Watch.
Yesterday's performance: Escobar opened the season with a bang, going 2-for-5 with 5 RBI against the Cubs.
Today's projection: The Braves are off, and even Yunel Escobar can't homer when he doesn't play.