J.A. Happ was on his way to his eleventh win, Thursday night in Pittsburgh. The rookie southpaw had a 2-1 lead, with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, and the Phils were on their way to winning two of three from the Pirates. Happ delivered a 1-1 pitch to Pittsburgh's Garrett Jones, attempting to throw a fastball away. Happ's offering was near the center of the plate, Jones drove it over the center field fence, and the Pirates went on to win, 3-2. Happ's one-hundred and fourteen pitch masterpiece resulted in the rookie's third loss of the season.
Cole Hamels was Cole Hamels on Wednesday night, in Pittsburgh. Hurling eight scoreless innings, throwing mid-90s velocity on the fastball, firing one-hundred and twenty-three masterful pitches, this was the Hamels we've been waiting to see. It's been almost a month, since Hamels last posted these kinds of results, in a victory over Arizona (July 28th). Chase Utley had provided all of the offense necessary, with a solo home run in the first inning. Ryan Madson, with closer Brad Lidge having the night off (after pitching four consecutive days), came on to close out the 1-0 Phillies' win. After striking out the Pirates' leadoff batter in the ninth, Madson got two strikes on the second batter, Brandon Moss. The Phils' reliever threw a changeup that caught too much of the plate, and Moss hit a game-tying homer. Fortunately, Ryan Howard hit a three-run homer in the top of the tenth, and Madson held Pittsburgh scoreless in the bottom of the frame. It would prove to be the only win of the series for the Phillies.
What did the glaring errors made by Madson and Happ have in common? Well, the fact that they never should have happened because the Phillies never should have been in position for them to happen. Each respective hurler's bad pitch, certainly, never should have been so glaring. On Wednesday night, the Phillies' offense was 1 for 9, with runners in scoring position. They scored only one run, on a solo home run, in the first nine innings. Madson should have been provided with a greater margin for error. Madson performed well, retiring six of the seven batters he faced. But all of the attention is focused on Madson's one bad pitch.
On Thursday night, the Phillies left another eight men on base, courtesy of an 0 for 5 performance with runners in scoring position. Two starts ago, Pittsburgh northpaw Charlie Morton allowed ten runs to the Cubs, while acquiring only three outs. Yet he survived six innings against the Phillies, permitting only a pair of runs. The Phils were then held scoreless for the final three frames, by journeyman Denny Bautista and erratic closer Matt Capps. Considering that the Phillies' bullpen was well-rested, perhaps Happ should not have even been in the game for one-hundred and fourteen pitches. After throwing so many pitches, even the physically-tough Happ must have been fatigued, at that point. The Phillies' hitters (and Manager) should have done better to support Happ.
The Phillies still lead the division by seven games. They still have a good shot at the best record in the National League. Their bats are too proficient to continue slumping with runners in scoring position, and their propensity for hitting homers without runners in scoring position may be enough to provide sufficient scoring. However, losing two of three to Pittsburgh is rather frustrating. With the bullpen getting rusty from being underworked, the starting pitchers (likely) getting fatigued from overwork, and some of the position players showing signs of needing some rest (Raul Ibanez, Pedro Feliz), Charlie Manuel needs to start making some adjustments.
The Phillies are the best team in their division, but they need their players to have something left for the postseason. Manuel needs to reduce the physical drain on his charges, as well as the mental drain caused by so many close games, and difficult defeats. The Phillies need to stop putting themselves in the position where a single poorly-located pitch can cost them a victory. They are much too talented to be losing two of three to the Pittsburghs of MLB.