Posted on: June 30, 2011 7:12 pm
Edited on: June 30, 2011 11:08 pm

3 to Watch: The best in the game edition

The bar is set high, but then it would be anyway.

Roy Halladay returns to Toronto this weekend, to pitch at the Rogers Centre for the first time since the big trade that sent him to the Phillies 19 months ago. Cliff Lee follows Halladay on Sunday, with a chance to become the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser (1988) with four consecutive shutouts.

And they'll do it on the same field where Justin Verlander no-hit the Blue Jays eight weeks ago.

So maybe by the time this weekend is over, we'll have a better way of answering the question that has been bugging me for weeks.

Who is the best pitcher in baseball right now?

"To be honest, I think it's between me and Halladay," Verlander said when I asked him that question last week. "But if you asked anyone, they'd probably say that about themselves."

Not anyone. I know that, because I asked Lee, the guy with three straight shutouts, the guy who had a ridiculous 0.21 ERA in June (compared to 0.92 for Verlander and 2.00 for Halladay).

"In my opinion, it's not even debatable," Lee said. "Nobody else is in Halladay's ballpark. It's not even close."

I can't say I tried to argue with him, but I did point out the three straight shutouts.

"It takes longevity," Lee said.

Halladay has the longevity, and he has the great history in Toronto. So when you look at this weekend's schedule, it's hard to leave his big return to the Rogers Centre out of 3 to Watch.

But I'm going to do just that, because I always stick to one game per series and I can't pass up Lee's attempt at a fourth straight shutout.

For this weekend, though, think of this as 4 to Watch, and pretend I included them both:

1. If you check the ERA leaders, you might notice that neither Lee nor Halladay leads the National League. Instead, it's Jair Jurrjens of the Braves, at 2.07, and it's probably worth pointing out that he gets his next start in Orioles at Braves, Friday night (7:35 ET) at Turner Field. Jurrjens faces Jeremy Guthrie, who was throwing 96-97 mph in his last start.

2. If you check the ERA leaders again, you might notice that Verlander doesn't lead the American League. Instead, it's Jered Weaver of the Angels, at 1.97, and it's probably worth pointing out he makes his next start in Dodgers at Angels, Saturday night (9:05 ET) at Angel Stadium. His mound opponent, Clayton Kershaw, isn't bad, either.

3. I'll assume you already watched Halladay against the Jays on Saturday (1:07 ET). But I'm sticking with Lee, in Phillies at Blue Jays, Sunday afternoon (1:07 ET) at Rogers Centre. According to research through Baseball-reference.com, only eight pitchers in the last 90 years have thrown four straight shutouts. The last before Hershiser was Luis Tiant, in 1972.

Posted on: June 30, 2011 6:32 pm

Phils prove to us (or remind us) they can pitch

PHILADELPHIA -- Three games don't tell us whether the Phillies are the best team in baseball.

But 27 games helped remind us why the Phillies are the best team in the National League.

The Phillies didn't prove much by winning two of three from a Red Sox team that has hit what seems to be a small midseason bump in the road. But the Phillies proved plenty by the way they won as many games as any team in the league in June.

No, proved isn't the right word -- what the Phillies did in June reminded us what we already knew, which is that their starting rotation is what makes them great.

Even with Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton on the disabled list, Phillies starters finished the month with a 1.96 combined ERA. According to Stats, Inc., it's the first time any big-league rotation has gone a full month with a sub-2.00 ERA since July 1992, when both the Braves (with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery) and the Cubs (with Greg Maddux) did it.

What's more, the top three Phillies starters -- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels -- went 12-2 with a 1.13 ERA in June. Lee threw his third consecutive shutout to beat the Red Sox Tuesday night, and Hamels shut out the Sox for four innings before an Adrian Gonzalez line drive hit his right hand and ended his day early Thursday.

The Red Sox aren't hitting the way they did through May and into early June, and they lost series to the Padres and Pirates before losing two of three in Philadelphia. They'd lost six of seven before beating the Phillies 5-2 on Thursday, but this six of seven feels nothing like the 0-6 and 2-10 start to the season.

The Sox will get Carl Crawford back next week, and general manager Theo Epstein admitted this week that he may feel the need to trade for another hitter. But Epstein showed no great sense of concern when someone mentioned to him that the Yankees had moved into first place in the American League East (not that he should have).

"I thought it would be close all year," he said. "Except for when we were tripping all over ourselves early, it has been."

The NL East hasn't been as close, in part because the Braves haven't proved as formidable an opponent for the Phillies that the Yankees have for the Red Sox, but also because the Phillies' rotation has been so good that they haven't yet had a 1-6 stretch, let alone two of them.

Even so, manager Charlie Manuel keeps insisting that the hitting will be better in the second half (and also keeps suggesting that the Phillies should make a move to acquire another bat).

"People say the pitching will be there every night," Manuel said. "Well, not necessarily."

It has been there just about every night for the Phillies, even with the injuries. In the middle game of the Red Sox series, the Phillies went from Vance Worley to Michael Stutes to Antonio Bastardo -- and still beat the Sox, 2-1.

The Phils, as Manuel said after Hamels' injury scare, can't really afford to lose another starter. But as long as they can keep running Halladay, Lee and Hamels out there in three of every five games (and with Oswalt and Blanton possibly on the way back), it's easy to see this team repeating it's 51-30 first half, and thus topping 100 wins.

"It's fun to watch them go out and operate," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "They give us the opportunity."

The Phillies scored fewer runs in June than the Cubs did. They scored exactly the same number of runs in June that the Nationals did.

Their pitching carried them to a 17-10 month, and their pitching has carried them into first place.

Their pitching helped them win two of three in an interesting but ultimately not too important midseason matchup with the team that might be tops in the American League.

They're not really proving anything we didn't already know. But they sure are reminding us.

Posted on: June 30, 2011 2:17 pm
Edited on: June 30, 2011 6:03 pm

Hamels gets scare with line drive to hand

PHILADELPHIA -- Phillies starter Cole Hamels left Thursday's start against the Red Sox after just four innings, after taking an Adrian Gonzalez line drive off his right (non-pitching) hand.

X-rays were negative, and the Phillies quickly announced that Hamels should be able to make his next start. General manager Ruben Amaro later told reporters that there is some chance Hamels will miss a start, but in any case the injury doesn't seem to be serious.

"We don't need to lose any pitchers," manager Charlie Manuel said. "That, we definitely do not need to do."

The Gonzalez liner hit Hamels at the base of his right thumb, and Manuel said the hand quickly began swelling. The ball knocked Hamels' glove off his hand, but he was able to recover in time to throw Gonzalez out at first. Hamels stayed in the game and retired Dustin Pedroia to end the inning, but Manuel sent David Herndon to the mound to start the fifth.

Hamels allowed just two hits in four scoreless innings before leaving the game, lowering his ERA for the season to 2.41, third in the National League behind Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens (2.07) and Philllies teammate Roy Halladay (2.40). Since giving up six runs to the Mets in his first start of the season, Hamels has a 1.98 ERA in 113 1/3 innings.

The Phillies already have two starters (Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton) on the disabled list. Oswalt, who is headed to Texas to get a second opinion on his back injury, expressed some optimism Thursday that he'll be able to return.

"If the second opinion is the same as the first, it's a matter of deciding which of two possible shots to get," Oswalt said.

Oswalt said that when he had similar trouble in 2009, a shot enabled him to return to the mound. But he also said, "I can't pitch the way I am right now."

Blanton remains on the DL with an elbow injury.

Category: MLB
Posted on: June 29, 2011 8:06 pm
Edited on: June 29, 2011 9:33 pm

GMs say trade market slow to develop

PHILADELPHIA -- As colleague Scott Miller explains in a column on CBSSports.com Wednesday night, the Padres are the center of almost all the early summer trade-market buzz.

There are two reasons for that.

One, as Scott points out, the Padres have talent available to trade, and they're just about ready to move. Two, so few other teams are where the Padres are now.

In conversations with general managers and other executives this week, just about every one of them has made the same point. The conversations so far have been slow to develop, because there just aren't enough sellers yet.

"There's so much parity, which is good for baseball," Phillies GM Ruben Amaro said. "But it'll heat up when it's supposed to happen."

Amaro and others pointed out that a month still remains before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, and that those extra 32 days could provide some more separation in the standings.

Category: MLB
Posted on: June 29, 2011 7:51 pm

Manuel: 50-win Phils could be even better

PHILADELPHIA -- We've been through this before with the Phillies.

We spend so much time talking about how many guys are hurt, or about what trade they absolutely must make, or about how they're just not hitting. And we forget about how many games they're winning.

They won 97 last year, the most in the majors (for the first time in franchise history), and it was almost like it snuck up on us. They're the first team in the majors to 50 wins this year, and it feels like it snuck up on us again.

That's 50 wins in 80 games, after all. That's 50 games, with Wednesday night's game against the Red Sox to play before the Phillies reached the halfway point in the schedule.

Halfway to . . . 100?

"I think we can play as good, if not better [in the second half of the season]," manager Charlie Manuel said. "If you start talking about 100 [wins], at the same time, that's a lot of games."

Only two Phillies teams have won 100 games. They did it back-to-back in 1976-77, and haven't done it in 34 years since.
Category: MLB
Posted on: June 29, 2011 7:16 pm
Edited on: June 29, 2011 10:12 pm

Adrian, Papi and the big Red Sox gamble

PHILADELPHIA -- It seems simple enough.

The Red Sox had one guy hitting .357, with 16 home runs and 71 RBI. They think he's the best hitter in baseball, and they want him in the lineup.

They had another guy hitting .311, with 17 home runs and 48 RBI. He's pretty important to them, too, and they want him in the lineup. Most of all, they don't want him sitting around for the better part of two weeks, losing any kind of rhythm he had at the plate.

And that's how the Red Sox got to where they were Wednesday against the Phillies, with Adrian Gonzalez playing right field (where they'd rather not play him) and David Ortiz playing first base (where no one really wants him to play).

"I told [second baseman Dustin Pedroia], 'Anything up there [in the air] is yours . . . and anything on the ground is yours, too,'" Ortiz said, before taking the field in a game for the first time this year. "I just have to make sure I catch the balls they throw to me."

"[Pedroia] is going to have to cover first base and right field," Gonzalez said, before heading to the outfield for the first time in six years. "Hopefully [starter John Lackey] gets a lot of strikeouts."

And the Red Sox were just hoping no one got hurt.

No one did get hurt, although it's hard to call the scheme a total success, as Gonzalez and Ortiz went a combined 1-for-8 and the Red Sox lost 2-1. Neither Ortiz nor Gonzalez played any significant role in the game on defense, either.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona has talked to Gonzalez numerous times about not trying to do anything extraordinary, and risking injury while he plays in the outfield. Gonzalez has told him repeatedly not to worry, but naturally the manager and the entire Red Sox staff will spend every minute Gonzalez is in the outfield worrying.

"I keep telling them if you fear getting hurt, you might as well not play," Gonzalez said.

It's all a little nuts, but Francona decided it was a better plan than having Ortiz (his regular DH) go through an entire nine-game interleague trip without ever starting a game. And a better plan than having Gonzalez, the leading hitter in the major leagues, sit out a game entirely so that Ortiz could play first base.

"He actually offered [to sit] Sunday [in Pittsburgh]," Francona said. "I said no."

Francona made no commitments as far as playing Gonzalez in the outfield in any of the final four games of this Red Sox road trip, which continues Thursday in Philadelphia and then this weekend in Houston. Ortiz said Wednesday night that he'd been told he's not playing Thursday, but that he didn't yet know about the weekend.

In any case, when Wednesday's game was over, Ortiz could joke about it. Asked how he felt standing at first when big Ryan Howard came to the plate for the Phillies, Ortiz said, "I had a little chat with him. I told him, 'I've got a family at home.'"
Posted on: June 28, 2011 12:29 pm
Edited on: June 28, 2011 8:12 pm

Phils put Madson on DL

The Phillies weren't sure Ryan Madson could close.

They wanted Brad Lidge to pitch the ninth inning. Then Lidge got hurt, and they chose Jose Contreras over Madson.

Then Contreras got hurt, and Madson showed he could handle it.

Now Madson is hurt.

The Phillies put Madson on the disabled list Tuesday with a right hand contusion, which means their DL now includes three closers -- and their active roster includes none.

Andrew Carpenter was called up from Triple-A Lehigh Valley to take Madson's place on the roster.

Madson hasn't pitched since June 18, but the Phillies haven't had a ninth-inning save opportunity since June 12 (when Madson recorded his 15th save in 16 chances this year). Of the pitchers on the Phillies' active roster, only Antonio Bastardo has a save this year (he has two).

Manager Charlie Manuel told reporters that he would use either Bastardo or Michael Stutes to close, but that Bastardo would likely get more of the chances. Manuel also told reporters that Madson may return from the DL as soon as next Monday.
Posted on: June 26, 2011 6:30 pm

3 to Watch: The (maybe it's a) WS preview edition

This isn't a prediction. This is just a statement of fact.

The Phillies are the most impressive team in the National League. The Red Sox are the most impressive team in the American League.

And when they meet for three games this week in Philadelphia, some people are going to see it as a World Series preview.

Not a prediction. Just a statement of fact.

And yes, I've looked at the standings. I know that the Red Sox are half a game behind the Yankees in the AL East. I'm not saying that the Red Sox are guaranteed anything at this point, or even, for that matter, that the Phillies are guaranteed anything.

But from the time that the Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford, and from the time the Phillies signed Cliff Lee, there's been a sense that one team was the best in the American League, and that the other was the best in the National League.

Seven months later, there's still that sense.

Seven months later, it feels like it's worth noting that only five times in the first 14 years of interleague play, two teams that met in the regular season went on to meet in the World Series (and that four of those five times, the team that won the regular-season series ended up losing the World Series).

Just remember, that's not a prediction.

It's just a statement of fact.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. The Angels announced that they're going to bring the Nationals presidents race to Anaheim this week. The Nationals announced that they're going to bring Davey Johnson, who last managed in the big leagues when Bill Clinton was president. It figures to be quite a week, beginning with Nationals at Angels, Monday night (10:05 ET) at Angel Stadium.

2. After watching Justin Verlander pitch in person on Saturday night, I'm more convinced than ever that Verlander is the best pitcher in the majors. But if my mind is going to be changed, perhaps it happens in Red Sox at Phillies, Tuesday night (7:05 ET) at Citizens Bank Park. Josh Beckett, who starts for Boston, leads the majors with a 1.86 ERA. Cliff Lee, who starts for Philadelphia, has thrown two straight shutouts and has allowed just one run in the last 33 innings.

3. The Yankees have invited Dick Groch, the scout who signed Derek Jeter, to come to town to see Jeter get his 3,000th hit. Groch now works for the Brewers, so it sure would have been nice if Jeter had a chance to get it when Milwaukee comes to town this week. He's eligible to come off the disabled list for Brewers at Yankees, Wednesday night (7:05 ET) at Yankee Stadium, but it's basically a given now that he won't be ready that soon. Jeter told the Associated Press on Sunday in Tampa that he won't even begin a running program until Monday or Tuesday. Wednesday's game should be interesting, anyway, as Brewers starter Shaun Marcum tries to prove his hip injury really is nothing serious. Marcum has pitched just four innings in his last two starts, but the Brewers insist it was just predetermined caution when they removed him after three innings the last time.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com