August 24, 2010

How to get the Phillies hitting again.

Yes, I know the Philadelphia Phillies have won 22 of their last 31. They were two games over .500 on July 21st, and they're 15 games over .500 right now. If the playoffs started this instant, they'd be in.

But anyone who stayed up for all 16 excruciating innings last night knows that not all is right in Philadelphia. The Phillies are fourth in the NL with 583 runs, a year after leading the league with 820, and they've scored two runs or less in five of their last six games. There have been stretches this year where they've been god awful at the plate, and it's looking more and more like pitching is going to have to propel this team to the playoffs.

Roy Halladay's 16 wins will tell you this is doable. But his eight losses, and Cole Hamels' 11 losses, and the fact that the Phillies hadn't scored a run for Cole since August 1st, tell you that you can't win without a little support.

The most intricate of baseball decisions -- lineup construction, double switches and bench management -- have never been Charlie Manuel's specialty. He's a player's coach, paid for his ability to morph his gang of rich millionaires into a cohesive, victorious unit, and a damn good one at that. But he's also a hitting coach, and he needs to recognize that this current lineup, at this current moment, does not work.

And yes, I mean the Opening Day lineup, the one that's only been together maybe a dozen times this season. As we saw back in April, when everyone is healthy and hitting, it's a thing of beauty. But everyone is not healthy, and even more so, everyone is not hitting. I don't see the harm in a little radical tinkering; it certainly can't get any worse.

A recent hot streak got Raul Ibanez's OPS up to a season-high .805, but its now back down to .777. Shane Victorino's .253/.316/.435 line is his worst in the last five years, and Ryan Howard and Chase Utley look more than a little rusty from their DL stints (.250 for Utley, .105 for the furious and soon-to-be-suspended Howard).

But Carlos Ruiz has a .385 OBP, which would be top 20 in all of baseball if Chooch had enough plate appearances. Jayson Werth may be hitting .159 with runners in scoring position, but he's got a .910 OPS. And Jimmy Rollins, often referred to as the straw that stirs the drink, has raised his average 11 points in August.

I know Charlie is committed to both his boys and his lineups, but there's room for improvement here. The announcers can harp on the value in Ruiz "turning the lineup over" each and every night, but the fact remains that he has been maybe their most consistent hitter all year. He's wasted in the eight spot, where Charlie loves to bury his backstops. If you ignored his short, pudgy catcher's frame and just looked at the numbers, you'd see a prototypical two-hitter.

And Jayson Werth's 42 doubles would look pretty good out of the leadoff spot, not to mention his 4.36 pitches per plate appearance (3rd in all of baseball in 2010). I don't know if hitting with runners in scoring position is a skill, as some people say, but either way Werth certainly isn't doing it this year. I'd be just as happy seeing Placido Polanco smacking singles out of the three-hole, driving in some of these Werth doubles, with Howard and Utley behind him.

Meanwhile, it's time to cut the cord with Raul. Not release him, of course, but start treating him like the 38-year-old outfielder he is. As much as we all want to believe, and as much as he tempts us every now and then with a mighty double, his power has pretty much evaporated. Barring further injuries, he shouldn't be anywhere near the fourth or fifth spot for the rest of the year. It might be helpful to slide the aging-but-swinging Jimmy down a little in the order, at least for the time being.

I know Charlie would never do this; we'll see Rollins/Polanco/Utley/Howard/Werth/Ibanez/Victorino/Ruiz until the day we, or they, die. But until the Big Man and Chase rediscover their strokes, I don't see why not. It would keep the boys on their toes, at least, and maybe help win a few of those meltdown Kendrick/Blanton starts that happen every other week. Or, God forbid, a Hamels gem. Don't get all La Russa on us, Charlie, just try and make the dog days of summer part of hittin' season.

August 21, 2010

Mixing up a Kolb salad.

Two preseason games into the Kevin Kolb era, color me undecided.

I can't imagine any Philadelphia Eagles fan knows just what to think. I'm on the record as being very much pro-change, but I also understand that a) transition takes time and b) Kolb's not getting behind the wheel of a Super Bowl contender. There are a lot of good pieces in Philadelphia now, a lot of talent, but no telling if, or when, it'll all come together.

It doesn't help that he's replacing the most successful QB the Eagles have ever had, even if that particular QB had worn out his welcome. Whether you loved him or hated him, McNabb won 101 games in Philadelphia. Playoff berths around here are expected, not treasured. Kolb might do this, that and the other thing better than Donovan, but if the Eagles are behind on the scoreboard when the clock hits zero, no one is going to care. It's that part of McNabb's legacy that Kolb might have trouble following.

But if you Google News "Kevin Kolb," you'd never know it. When assessing his progress, it helps to ignore the media at all costs. On one side, there's an NFL.com writer pronouncing that Kolb will soon join the NFL's elite. On the other, Marty Mornhinweg is insinuating that past wasted timeouts and play-calling issues should lessen in McNabb's wake. And let's not forget the latent racism inherent in all "Kolb is a better decision-maker" and "Kolb is more accurate" statements. Mix all that together and you get a lot of speculation mixed with extremely high expectations, a Kolb salad that this current roster probably isn't equipped to digest.

So far, this is what we do know: Kevin Kolb appears to throw well on the run. He takes more chances with the ball than McNabb, but his short-passing game does appear to be a bit better. He's threaded the needle on some great passes to DeSean Jackson, but he's also kept up the Eagles tradition of red zone futility. He looks "poised," but that's like complimenting someone you just met as "nice," an unimpressive and uninspired quality. He's going to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, I would hope he's fucking poised.

His offensive line is also awful, or at least playing that way, which doesn't bode well for his health and well-being. David Carr could have been the most talented quarterback in the world, but playing in front of that sieve of an offensive line in Houston destroyed both his body and his psyche. Factor in the idiotic illegal formation penalties we saw last night and you're talking about a potential disaster.

Luckily, most of the weak interior line is currently populated with stopgaps. Unluckily, the health of true starters Jamaal Jackson and Todd Herremans remains very much in question. If the backups can't hold down the fort for at least a few weeks, the Eagles could be on the bottom looking up in the NFC East. And Kolb may find himself in need of a serious backiotomy.

But he's got weapons in Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Jason Avant and LeSean McCoy. Maybe the most weapons in the league, if Maclin and McCoy take the next step everyone is hoping for. And it is the preseason, so it's not like Reid and Mornhinweg are using every page of the playbook. It's been pretty basic so far, and if Celek holds onto that end zone touchdown last week, maybe everything is hunky dory, even after last night.

But he didn't, and so far only fleeting moments, like Stewart Bradley's crushing hit on Chad Ochocinco, have gotten me very excited. All I feel like I know for sure is that the Cincinnati Bengals are above-average and the Jacksonville Jaguars are below-average. Does that mean the Eagles are right in the middle, hovering around the dreaded 8-8 season? Perhaps, but like most teams, they'll go as far as their quarterback will take them. It looks like we'll have to wait until September 12th in Philly to get an idea as to just how far that might be.

August 19, 2010

Domonated.

"HOLY SHIT DOMONIC BROWN JUST KILLED A BASEBALL"
-@meechone

"Domonic Brown. My gosh."
-@jcrasnick

"DOMONIC BROWN IS ALL THAT IS MAN!!!!!"
-@LONG_DRIVE

-"Domonic Brown just CRUSHED a home run into the second deck in right field. Kid has potential."
-@ToddZolecki

"UPPER DECK DOMONATED"
-@zoowithroy

It doesn't matter if you're a national baseball writer, a longtime Phillies scribe or a passionate blogger/day-one Dom Brown enthusiast; the kid, in small doses, is slowly captivating the baseball world.

He took his first curtain call last night, the first of many, after a 440-foot home run in the eighth inning of what became a blowout of the San Francisco Giants.

It was a moonshot to the second deck, a majestic bomb that caused Phillies fans around the world to scream "OHHHHHHHHH" all at once.

It reinforced our belief that Domonic Brown is the future of the Philadelphia Phillies. As Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley continue to age, preferably gracefully, Dom Brown will be here to (hopefully) pick up the slack.

He's got speed, he's got power, he's got a gun for a left arm. He's got the tools to be a good defender, once he starts taking better routes to the ball.

His line since his call-up is mediocre -- .244/.244/.439, one walk to 13 strikeouts -- but the flashes have been there, enough to keep everyone excited. Charlie Manuel's probably playing this the right way, limiting his at-bats against left-handed pitching and bringing Brown along slowly. On a team that's been rolling for the last month, making a late playoff push and getting major contributions from the Ross Gloads and Wilson Valdezes of the world, there's been no reason to rush Dom along.

The fans have been smart about it, too, not getting up in arms about Brown sitting three or four times a week. We appreciate every little taste we get, and we recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, it's about winning now. This isn't the time or the place to throw Dom Brown in the deep end; let the kid get his feet wet, let him get acclimated to his surroundings. He's got the next five-to-10 years to launch more balls into the upper decks of right-center field.

Lots of people have commented on his post-homer celebrations with Jayson Werth, the man he's supposed to be replacing next year/his "rival," I guess. Well, Werth didn't look too combative last night, and Brown appeared to be fitting in just fine with his (relatively) new teammates. Hell, Mike Sweeney just about shoved Brown out of the dugout to take his curtain call. It's clear that most everyone on the team -- even the soon-to-be-departed and old, washed-up first basemen -- are as psyched about Dom Brown as we are.

Nevertheless, I feel obligated to offer the disclaimer that Brown is still an unfinished product. It remains to be seen what Brown will actually evolve into: an All-Star, 30-30 player; a serviceable outfielder with 20-homer power; or (God no) a platoon specialist that only hits righties. When major league pitchers find his holes, when they start pounding him with breaking ball after breaking ball, will he be able to adjust? Can he hit tough lefties? Can he hold up over 150 games in the outfield?

Those questions will be answered, at least in part, in 2011. But for now, whenever Domonic Brown does something incredible, I get an outrageous amount of pleasure from logging onto Twitter and watching the world shower him with endless praise. Including this tweet, of course, which would have been written in size-100 type if possible:

"OH YES HE DID. RT @meechone: HOLY SHIT DOMONIC BROWN JUST KILLED A BASEBALL"
-@SteveCimino

To quote Donald Fagen, "You've got to admit it, at this point in time, that it's clear: the future looks bright."

August 10, 2010

The raul world.

About 13 months ago, I had a lengthy verbal spat with a pompous young asshole, an argument centered around his proclamation that the Phillies' new left fielder was abusing performance-enhancing drugs. I disagreed. He, of course, followed our exchange with an excessive amount of alcohol consumption, and during one of his subsequent, violent sessions of vomiting, I strode over to the toilet and confidently remarked, "You know, Raul Ibanez is not on steroids."

I was defending an athlete that had won his way into Philadelphia's heart with a power outburst, an unexpected homer binge that was being wildly speculated about outside of the city. I found it foolish; he had a hyperbaric chamber, for God's sake! Little did I know that, steroids or not, a year would go by before I'd defend Raul again.

I know that Ibanez suffered two serious abdominal tears that bothered him for quite a while, and I know that his outrageous 2009 first half (340/.399/.716 in his first 50 games) was simply unrepeatable. But as the painful early months of 2010 dragged on, fans couldn't help reminding themselves that Raul was approaching 39 years old. Despite an excellent, steady track record, it seemed like his career might be coming to a close.

He was hovering around .240 when the summer began, and his bat speed looked dangerously nonexistent. The calls began for Domonic Brown to be called up from the minors; for Raul to be platooned, benched or outright released; for some kind of move to be made to shake up an inconsistent and sometimes stagnant Phillies team. Releasing him was a ludicrous idea, of course, but even Charlie Manuel eventually, reluctantly, started playing Ben Francisco versus most lefties. It seemed that the end was in sight.

So when Raul started hitting in July (.337 with four home runs), most Phillies fans took it as an unexpected blessing. Anything we got out of this beloved corpse, this man we fell in love with during the wild ride known as Spring '09, was gravy. And we owed the guy $11.5 million in 2011 anyway, so maybe a few hot months would help the Phillies move his contract to a DH-needing AL team.

But now it's August, and Raul's up to .274 with a .798 OPS, not far off his career .824 mark and practically unbelievable when you realize that it was 77 points lower at the end of June. He may never hit 20 homers again, but his reemergence as a legitimate hitting threat has come at the best time: while Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are all on the disabled list.

This could have been when the the 2010 season faltered, when the Braves left the Phillies in the dust once and for all. But instead, Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton have righted the back-end of the rotation, Brad Lidge has been decent rather than dreadful, the name Roy Oswalt has made everyone believe again, and yes, Raul Ibanez has rediscovered his stroke.

With all three injured All-Stars on their way back in the next few weeks, it would seem that the necessary reinforcements are on the way. If the Phillies can continue their skillful late summer play, if Jimmy Rollins can get his mojo back and Jayson Werth can hit a bit with runners in scoring position, then September should be a good month for us all. And maybe Raul Ibanez can bring his big bat into October this time and remind the city why we adored him in the first place.

August 7, 2010

Kick off your high heel sneakers, it's party time.

I've written about cover bands before. I've written about Steely Dan before. Last night, I combined the two, and the experience brought a powerful joy to my heart.

The band, of course, was No Static, New England's preeminent Steely Dan cover band. They aren't your typical backyard musical tribute. No Static has ten members, including two saxophonists, a trumpeter and two backup singers. Maybe the lead singer doesn't actually sound like Donald Fagen, but I don't think anyone on Earth could recreate his distinct tones. Either way, they're not trying to replicate their heroes like Matt Ryan and Bruce in the USA; they're just looking to play some good Steely Dan. And in that noble crusade, they succeed.

It wasn't just a night of "Reelin' In The Years" and "Do It Again." We got "I.G.Y." and "Green Flower Street," two fantastic tunes from The Nightfly, Donald Fagen's solo album. We got "Glamour Profession" from Gaucho, "Doctor Wu" from Katy Lied and "The Fez" from The Royal Scam (a personal favorite that I thought no one else in the world liked).

They also mixed in some crowd favorites: "Black Friday," "Peg," "Black Cow," and a half-dozen other songs that Dan fans love and normal people would pause during and remark, "Wow, this is Steely Dan?!" Every time a well-known tune came on, a few brave souls would wander onto the dance floor at Johnny D's and groove. It wasn't always pretty, and the Dan isn't always the best music to dance to, but we all appreciated the effort. Sights like that are why God invented cover bands.

It was also great to have the same 40 and 50-year-old people come up to me and my friends and remark, "How do you know all the words?" A Steely Dan cover band show is admittedly not where you'd expect to run into a bunch of guys in their mid-twenties, especially when those guys know every song the band is playing, but Steely Dan appeals to everyone; you just have to down a six-pack and accept them into your lives.

But maybe the most interesting part was seeing my friend Chris's eyes light up at the start of every song. His dad is a huge Steely Dan fan, so he grew up listening to them every day in the car and around the house. He doesn't actually remember the songs word for word, but he recognizes them right off the bat and he can belt out the choruses like clockwork. I imagined the songs reconnecting him with his childhood, reminding him of wonderful moments from the past. Or maybe he was just rocking out like the rest of us drunks. Either way.

And of course, No Static was happy to indulge its raucous, lubed-up crowd with a stirring encore. busting out the hit song...well, I actually can't remember what they played for an encore. That's what happens when you're at a bar for three hours. But considering that those three hours were packed with tip-top, nonstop jazz-rock, I'm not complaining. No Static, indeed.

August 3, 2010

My apologies to Jersey Shore.

I don't remember why I originally disregarded Jersey Shore.

It wasn't because I'm opposed to reality programming; I watched the Hawaii season of The Real World and enjoyed it immensely. I'm never been a Survivor/Big Brother/The Amazing Race guy, but that's because I'm not a boring, CBS-watching moron.

And it wasn't because the show propagated negative stereotypes about New Jersey. I know a few people who feel this way, including my beautiful girlfriend, but I subscribe to something Chuck Klosterman wrote (I believe) in Chuck Klosterman IV. He said that only the most simple-minded bigot would indict the Chinese people as a whole for the human-rights violations perpetuated by the Chinese government. He was using it to comment on foreigners that hated America just because George Bush was President, but I think it applies to anyone who judges New Jersey because of eight outrageous personalities.

And anyway, it's 2010. Who in their right mind watches an MTV reality show for anything but entertainment? Who even bothers to imagine those people as representative of cultures, races, creeds, anything? It's the closest thing we have to a human zoo, a group of young people dancing, drinking, and cavorting for our personal pleasure.

But numerous people I respect really seem to enjoy the show, including Michael Cera, Nathan Rabin and Rob Turbovsky. And yes, I just put my friend on a short list with a millionaire movie star and a respected pop culture journalist. Sue me. So when I stumbled upon the Season 2 premiere of Jersey Shore last Saturday night, I decided it was time to give it a shot. (Also, my brother recently got a job filming Season 3 in Seaside Heights, so I figured it was my duty to invest in his work.)

So I jumped right into Season 2. And then I watched the Season 1 premiere on the Internet. And then another...and another. And I love it.

I love The Situation and the way he breaks the fourth wall, a quick glance that's light years more entertaining than John Krasinski's on the American Office. I love Pauly D's ridiculous hair and unabashed personality. I didn't like him at first, but his conviction towards his craft willed me into loving him. I was helpless. I love that, in the last episode I saw, Jwoww wore what looked like professional wrestling trunks to a club. I love that Vinny is the de facto voice of reason, even though he's as detached from reality as the rest of the gang.

I don't love anything about Sammi or Ronnie, but they've served an important purpose so far in Season 1: the couple that stays in. Of course, in the Jersey Shore world, this means they get hammered and go home at 1 AM to have sex, rather than stay out all night trying to pick up strangers and grind to house music. God, they say "house music" like eight times an episode. It's glorious. And, of course, I love the clip of Snooki getting punched in the face. You don't see that every day.

In a way, I envy the Jersey Shore folk. I would never want to be like them; as a friend of mine recently pointed out, I went to a "guido" club last time I was in Atlantic City and I absolutely hated it. But I envy their commitment, the fact that, long before this cast was on TV, they were probably living these same lives and having just as much fun doing it. And now it's their job. Ignorance is truly bliss, and in this case, eight (or seven, when Angelina inevitably bails again) people are making a living and having a ball thanks to a boatload of sweet, sweet ignorance.

People say they're getting famous for nothing, but I disagree. The cast of Jersey Shore didn't so much win the lottery as win a national crossword puzzle championship or ESPN2 spelling bee; they're skilled at what they do. They were born for this. Born to fist pump at a shitty Seaside Heights club, born to hit on every single girl that passes by, born to inadvertently create catchphrases and throw tantrums. They're the apex of the reality TV phenomenon; we're through the looking glass here, people.

The cast members of Jersey Shore have turned what could have been another ho-hum show, a Real World set in an unexpected locale, into maybe the defining program of the last few years, a phenomenon that will dissected by pop-culture pundits as long as those people live and breathe. I've seen countless people throw Jersey Shore parties and compare themselves to the characters, but they always focus on the drinking, the outfits, the location, the quotable lines. It's the whole package that matters; the collection of personalities, the setting, the sex-is-OK age in which we live. I've been to the Jersey Shore a million times; I'm going back next weekend. Getting drunk there is the same as getting drunk anywhere else, but not when you watch this show. That's a stroke of genius; that's perfection personified.

MTV gets this; they didn't try and replace the cast members when they held out for more money. They paid them, and the show went on. The message was, "Kids, don't try this at home." It cannot be recreated. I know that, down the line, there has to be an endpoint. These people doing the same thing every week can't be entertaining forever, right? Probably not, but for now, I see no reason to look away. I'm officially ensnared.