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Baseball Notes

The way Oswalt is pitching in, Phillies should be favorites

By Nick Cafardo
September 26, 2010

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It wasn’t that Roy Oswalt was a bad guy or bad for the Astros, but it was clearly time to go, and once he did, it was in the proverbial deal that helped both teams.

“I’m truly happy for Roy,’’ said Astros manager Brad Mills. “He’s a tremendous professional and pitcher.’’

The Phillies are really happy for Roy, as well.

Oswalt had asked out, and while the Astros sought a suitor for him, it created a tough atmosphere — for Mills and for everyone on the team. Once Oswalt and Lance Berkman were dealt in late July, it seemed to signal a new era for the Astros.

Meanwhile, the Phillies, who were widely criticized for trading Cliff Lee, recovered splendidly by acquiring one of the best second-half pitchers you’ll ever see (77-25, .755). Oswalt has taken that reputation to a new level, going 7-1 with a 1.76 ERA in 11 starts since joining the Phillies, who are 10-1 in those games.

Since Oswalt was traded, the Phillies have gone 38-15, while the Astros, who were 43-59 at the time of the deal, have gone 31-21. Suffice to say the Oswalt acquisition was the trade deadline deal of the year.

The Phillies now have a formidable troika of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Oswalt heading into the playoffs, which makes them the prohibitive favorites to win their second World Series in three years.

Barring a repeat of their 1964 ancestors’ collapse, the Phillies will win the division for the fourth straight time, which would be a franchise first. Halladay has already become the first 20-game winner for the Phillies since Steve Carlton in 1982 and their first righthander to win 20 since Robin Roberts in 1955.

All of this is pretty impressive for a team that was only two games over .500 on July 22, seven games out of first place. They looked like a team that was going to fizzle, beset with injuries to a few key players, but they put together a 45-15 run, complete with a 10-game winning streak and a run of 23 out of 27.

Since Aug. 1, the Phillies own the best road record in the majors, 17-3, thanks in large part to a pitching staff that has a 2.41 ERA in those games. Overall, the Phillies are 37-13 (.740) since the start of August.

It has been about pitching, pitching, and pitching. The Phillies have 19 shutouts, six of which were 1-0. One of those was a combined one-hitter by Oswalt, Ryan Madson, and Brad Lidge this past week, the first one-hitter in the history of Citizens Bank Park but the third time this season the Phillies have held an opponent to one or no hits.

The offense also has been effective, even without shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the former NL MVP who is still out with a hamstring injury, and despite the fact that they don’t have one .300 hitter in the lineup.

“This is the kind of ball we’ve been accustomed to playing [down the stretch] the last few years,’’ said right fielder Jayson Werth. “I think that’s us. I think that’s how we should play. That’s how we’re supposed to play. We’ve got a bunch of guys who rise to the occasion.

“Make no mistake about it: We feel like we’re the best team in baseball and now we’re going to go out and try to prove it.’’

The other gift from the baseball gods was the rejuvenation of Lidge. After blowing a save against Washington July 31, Lidge had converted just 10 of 14 opportunities and had a 5.54 ERA. Since that day — when the Phillies were in a panic about their closer situation — Lidge has found himself. In the last 24 games, he has rattled off 17 saves in 18 opportunities.

Rollins is the one ding in an otherwise shiny finish. He may get back for the playoffs, though it may not be for the Division Series. He needs to get back into baseball shape, get his timing at the plate. There are no rehab games available, though he could get at-bats in the instructional league.

Through it all, the Phillies have been guided by the steady hand of the folksy Charlie Manuel, who continues to use the common sense approach to managing that has served him well and may lead to another championship.

Give credit to Manuel, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., and scouting director Gordon Lakey: They realize this is their time. Their core players are in their prime right now.

They’ve probably thinned out the farm system, but they’ve made the decision to go for it and ride it as long as they can.

JUDGMENT CALL

Ellsbury vs. Gardner: Reflection on selection

It will be interesting to watch the careers of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. Ellsbury was the top draft choice of the Red Sox in 2005, taken with the 23d overall pick, but Gardner was their fallback. He didn’t go to the Yankees until the third round, with the 109th pick.

“The Yankees did such a great job developing him,’’ said Josh Byrnes, who along with Bill Lajoie scouted Ellsbury and Gardner for the Sox.

“It’s hard to believe that it took this long for someone with that skill set to get noticed, but he’s a very good player.’’

Byrnes and Lajoie agreed that Ellsbury was the superior player at the time.

“I definitely had Ellsbury over Gardner, but I said if somebody takes Ellsbury, Gardner’s a pretty good choice,’’ recalled Lajoie. “[The Sox] wanted a center fielder who could motor. When I brought two other scouts in to watch them, they didn’t care for Gardner.’’

Lajoie, now a senior adviser with the Pirates, said Ellsbury, who played for College World Series participant Oregon State, had more power and at the time was the better hitter.

Speed?

“At that time, Gardner was faster on the watch,’’ Lajoie said. “He was also a better center fielder with a better arm.’’

Byrnes was impressed with Ellsbury’s makeup, physique, and athleticism.

Gardner, who attended the College of Charleston and didn’t get the hype Ellsbury did, just got his chance to play full time this season, in left field. He has a had a good year, with a .277 average, 5 homers, and 46 RBIs, plus 42 steals in 50 attempts.

Ellsbury stole 50 and 70 bases in his first two full years, and has more power than Gardner, who is more of a slap hitter.

There is a huge issue of durability. Gardner has stayed healthy so far, while Ellsbury played only 18 games this season because of fractured ribs.

The Sox will have to assess Ellsbury in the offseason, but they have established Ryan Kalish as a fallback if Ellsbury continues to get hurt.

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

Diamondbacks turn to Towers to build

New general manager Kevin Towers no doubt will make a difference in Arizona, where he’ll likely build a superb bullpen — his forte in San Diego for many years. Towers, the primary architect of the Padres you see on the field today, will get a chance to compete against his old team and the owner who fired him in San Diego after declining to hire him in Arizona in 2005.

Same guy: Jeff Moorad, who went with Josh Byrnes in Arizona, then fired Towers in San Diego in favor of another ex-Red Sox executive, Jed Hoyer, last season.

The first big call for Towers may be a decision on manager Kirk Gibson. A lot of people are rooting for the Tigers and Dodgers great to retain the job. They like his fire, determination, and no-nonsense approach.

Gibson immediately gained the respect of his players after taking over for A.J. Hinch July 1.

“An intense guy,’’ said Towers. “I like the look in his eye. You can tell he’s a winner. He’s a grinder. He’s learned from some great people — Jim Leyland, Sparky Anderson.

“I am looking forward to spending the next week with him and the entire coaching staff and getting to know him a little more. He probably deserves a little bit more time to set a foundation in spring training and an environment.

“I think he’s done a great job in the short period he has been here.’’

One thing that won’t go over well with Towers is having so many big strikeout guys in the lineup. The Diamondbacks broke the major league mark of 1,399 strikeouts Tuesday, fanning six times to get to 1,403. The main whiff artists are Mark Reynolds (206), Adam LaRoche (163), Justin Upton (152), Chris Young (137), and Kelly Johnson (136).

“There are some nice hitters on the ball club right now, but the strikeouts are somewhat alarming,’’ said Towers. “You certainly need to cut that back.

“Personally, I like contact hitters. I like guys with good pitch recognition. Strikeouts are part of the game, but if you have four, five, or six guys in your lineup, it’s hard to sustain any sort of rally.’’

Etc.

Apropos of nothing
1. Fifty homers for Jose Bautista: couldn’t happen to a nicer guy; 2. The Red Sox should try to acquire superb young Twins outfielder Ben Revere; after all, they’re about to lose another player named after a Massachusetts city in Mike Lowell; 3. Carl Pavano is tied with Roy Halladay for fewest pitches per inning (14.1); 4. Attention, Red Sox: The Minnesota pitching staff has issued the fewest walks and committed the fewest errors, a nice recipe for success; 5. As Bill Parcells says, “You are what your record says you are.’’ And the Pirates were this season’s absolute worst.

Updates on nine
1. Carlos Lee, 1B, Astros — The former left fielder is now a first basemen, and the move may help the Astros in two ways: By increasing Lee’s trade value and making their outfield more athletic. It’s going to be tough to deal Lee, who has a no-trade clause, loves Houston, and has $37 million over two years left on his contract. He will likely start at first base next season over youngster Brett Wallace. If Lee can play first base for a National League team, David Ortiz could as well.

2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers — MVPs usually come from playoff teams, but Cabrera may be an exception this season. Josh Hamilton and Robinson Cano are also great candidates in the American League, but Cabrera has knocked in 122 runs and has been walked intentionally a major league-high 31 times. As John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press points out, that’s 31 times when he was taken out of RBI opportunities. He has not had a good September, however.

3. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies — Having gone 4-6 with a 4.29 ERA in 13 post-All-Star break starts, he is now looking up at Roy Halladay in the race for the NL Cy Young Award. According to scouting reports, hitters are being much more patient with him and not offering at his off-speed stuff out of the strike zone. Jimenez is still having an outstanding season — 19-7, 3.00 — but has come down to Earth at a bad time.

4. Stuart Sternberg, owner, Rays — It’s going to be sad to watch the Rays get decimated by finances this offseason. They stand to lose outfielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena, and closer Rafael Soriano, and there’s not much they can do about it. Sternberg said his $70 million payroll is going down. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can happen between now and April that can change,’’ said Sternberg, “unless Joe Maddon hits the lottery and wants to donate it or I hit the lottery.’’

5. Joakim Soria, closer, Royals — Another phenomenal season. He has blown only two of 43 save situations. According to Stats Inc., the Royals are the only team that hasn’t lost a game when leading after the eighth this season (49-0). One of Soria’s blown opportunities came in the eighth inning and the other was in an 11-inning win. It’s no secret why GM Dayton Moore fields so many calls around the trade deadline on Soria.

6. Josh Byrnes, former GM, Diamondbacks — He said he has spoken to six teams, including the Red Sox, about a position in their organization. While he could be a candidate for the Mets GM job if the Wilpon family reassigns Omar Minaya, Byrnes said, “My background is in pro and amateur scouting, which is the foundation of any organization, and that’s where I would have interest.’’ Byrnes’s advice was sought by a few teams at the trade deadline, and he was able to provide input. He recently met with Indians GM Mark Shapiro.

7. Stan Kasten, president, Nationals — We speculated for so long that Kasten would depart Washington, but when he actually announced it, it was a surprise. There are very few people who have been as effective as Kasten in that position, dating to his days with the Braves. Kasten says he doesn’t yet know what his next challenge will be, but it sure seems he would be a great fit with the Cubs.

8. Takashi Saito, RHP, Braves — Saito, who pitched for the Red Sox last season, has had a very good season. The 40-year-old reliever was hanging by a thread physically in Boston, but this season he managed to make 55 appearances with a 2.52 ERA, holding opponents to a .196 average and averaging 11.57 strikeouts per nine innings. In his last 16 appearances, he has allowed no earned runs with 20 strikeouts and one walk. The Billy Wagner-Saito combo worked wonderfully in Atlanta. But then shoulder pain hit Saito and an MRI revealed tendinitis. He might try to pitch this weekend.

9. Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Seattle — Ten straight years of 200 hits is truly remarkable. For all the teammates and ex-teammates who feel he’s a selfish player, I’ll take that selfishness on my team any day.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: “Since the All-Star break, Curtis Granderson is hitting .256 with 14 homers and 36 RBIs. Tigers rookie Austin Jackson has hit .294 with 3 homers and 11 RBIs.’’ Also, “Caveat emptor: The only two seasons that Adrian Beltre has ever hit over .300 and ever driven in over 100 runs are in his contract year of 2004 with the Dodgers when he finished at .334 with 121 RBIs and his contract year this season.’’ . . . Twins righty Carl Pavano (New England Player of the Year) and former Herald reporter Mike Shalin (Dave O’Hara Award winner for excellence in journalism) will be among the guests at the 72d Boston Baseball Writers Dinner Jan. 20 at the Westin Copley Place in Boston. Tickets are $150 apiece and can be purchased with a check payable to The Sports Museum, 100 Legends Way, Boston 02114. Credit card purchases can be made by calling 617-624-1237 . . . Happy birthday to Matt Murray (40), Brian Looney (41), Brian Shouse (42), Rich Gedman (51), and Bill Moran (60).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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