Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

If you haven't noticed, or if you'd given up following weeks or months ago, the Phillies have won seven of their last nine games. For a good or even average team, this would only be slightly notable, but before this stretch, the Phils had won just seven of their last 28 games--and even that began with a three-game winning streak--so a patch of games this good feels almost like an entire season turning around.

A reversal of fortunes like this requires some kind of over-arcing explanation, and the obvious one in this case would be the big change the Phillies made up top, replacing longtime manager Charlie Manuel with third-base coach Ryne Sandberg. Asked about whether it's Sanbderg making the difference, last night's winning pitcher Cliff Lee says sorta, not really. Jim Salisbury of CSN got the quote:

We’re grinding it out a little more, just playing hard from the start to the finish, basic execution...I’ve said that from the very beginning -- if we just execute and play fundamental baseball we can beat anyone. We’ve started doing that in the last week and a half or so and the results are showing.

I’m not a guy who thinks the manager wins or loses games for us. I don’t think it was Charlie’s fault that we lost, and I don’t think it’s Sandberg that’s winning it for us, to be honest with you. But I think he has instilled more of let’s-get-after-it frame of mind and that’s what we’re doing.

But it’s the guys that are going out there and getting the outs and making the plays and swinging the bats that’s getting it done. I feel like his frame of mind and what he expects has influenced that and it’s up to us to buy into it and lay it out and we’ve definitely done a better job with that, just getting after it and playing hard and never giving up and trying to execute and play fundamental baseball. That’s how we’ve won the last 10 days.

So is it really Sandberg making the difference? An improvement in fundamentals? Let's look at some other explanations for how the Phillies have actually managed to win some games recently.

  • They've been facing some crappier competition. Let's remember that as many games as the Phillies lost recently, they lost most of 'em to some pretty damn good teams. Three to the Cardinals, three to the Tigers, three to the Braves, three to the Nats, two to the Dodgers--and all of 'em (except probably the underperforming Nats) are headed to the postseason. Now, the Phillies have had the benefit of playing three against the reeling Rockies, three against the mostly mediocre Diamondbacks, and now a series against the injury-decimated Mets. Opponents matter, and you can expect the hot streak to likely continue through three against the rebuilding Cubs after our last two at Citi.
  • They've been getting pretty lucky. They may be on a 7-2 run, but over those nine games, they've only managed to cumulatively outscore opponents 42-39. Remarkably, all but one of those seven victories were by just one run, including those three straight walk-off victories that almost managed to make people excited about Phillies baseball again. You could say that winning in those games comes down to execution and fundamentals, like Cliff posits, but luck also plays a big part with margins of victory so small--a beneficial call here or there, a grounder that finds its way up the middle, a throw that sails a foot or two wide. Play enough games in a season and eventually you'll lose three or four straight by one run, too, and it won't just be because the other team executed better, either.
  • They've been getting some starting pitching. The Phils have gotten quality starts in six of their last nine games--outings that last at least six innings without allowing more than three runs--and they've won all six. After some minor post-All-Star struggles, Cliff Lee appears to have rounded back into form, going seven innings or more in his last three starts and getting his first win since early July with his eight-inning, five-hit, one-walk and seven-strikeout performance last night against the Mets. Cole Hamels has been similarly solid, also going at least seven in each of his last three, and pitching his first CG victory of the season against the Braves a couple weeks ago. If Roy Halladay can continue on the comeback trail after his rocky return (albeit in a win) against the Diamondbacks, we might actually have a pretty decent top three for our pitching rotation again.
  • They've been getting some relief pitching, too. The unspoken hero of the recent Phils' hot streak has been closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has regained his early-season consistency over his last six appearances, giving up zero runs, zero walks and only four hits over the span, picking up two saves and two wins in the process. Far more surprising, however, has been the contribution of lefty reliever Jake Diekman, who as Salisbury points out in that same CSN article, has gone scoreless over his last seven appearances, also with zero walks and four hits, but with an impressive 12 strikeouts over that period. We'd been waiting all year for someone from our crappy bullpen to step up into dependability, and at long last--and far too late--it looks like Diekman actually has a shot of being that guy.
  • Their catcher is hitting again. Darin Ruf has been getting most of the attention recently for his hot August, and rightly so--The Babe has hit nine homers in the month, second-most in the majors to some random guy in Detroit, and now has as many homers on the season as Ryan Howard in about half the games. But have you been paying attention to what Carlos Ruiz has been doing at the same time? After a disconcertingly slow start to the season after his return from suspension and then injury, Chooch has hit at a sparkling clip .347/.373/.556 this month--numbers which spike to .455/.471/.758 (!!) if you only include the team's last nine games. It was easy to forget how huge a part of this offense Ruiz used to be when he was hitting like Humberto Quintero, but now that he's back in the saddle, it's once again impossible to imagine the lineup without him somewhere near the middle.

As always in baseball, it's impossible to quantify just how much the manager helps--are the Phillies winning more because they're focused and excited and playing together again, or are they focused and excited and playing together again because they're winning more? But regardless of how much Ryne Sandberg's installment as manager has helped the team lately, there are some more easily isolated factors that have been just as important, if not more, to their recent winning ways. Hopefully they stick around to next year, regardless of whether or not Sandberg does.

NFL Preseason Wrap: Both offenses sluggish in Giants win over Jets

NFL Preseason Wrap: Both offenses sluggish in Giants win over Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a touchdown pass to Eric Decker and the New York Jets' defense stifled Eli Manning and the New York Giants' starters in a 21-20 preseason loss Saturday night.

Both teams' first-string offenses did very little in the last regular-season tuneup for most starters, but Fitzpatrick connected with Decker for a 22-yard score three plays after Darrelle Revis intercepted Manning on a pass intended for Odell Beckham Jr. in Giants territory in the second quarter.

Fitzpatrick finished 9 of 16 for 76 yards with the score and lost a fumble in the red zone before being replaced by Geno Smith just before halftime.

Manning was 10 of 15 for 65 yards and an interception while playing one series into the third quarter. The Giants' starters managed just 61 total yards against Todd Bowles' defense.

The Giants (1-2) didn't get past the 50-yard line until a facemask penalty on Brandon Bostick on a punt return put them at the Jets 47 with 2:36 left in the third quarter (see full recap).

Siemian solidifies QB job in Denver's 17-9 win over Rams
DENVER -- Trevor Siemian threw his first touchdown pass of the preseason and tightened his grip on the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback job in a 17-9 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night.

After showing off his strong right arm over a first half that included a 1-yard pass to Virgil Green, Siemian accepted hugs from his teammates and gave way to rookie Paxton Lynch, who was also impressive in his half of play.

That left Mark Sanchez as the odd man out on this night and, plausibly, come cut-down day. If he's not on the 53-man roster, the Broncos will save $3.5 million and the seventh-round draft pick they would have owed the Eagles.

It was Sanchez's job to lose when training camp began and he's apparently done just that with a slew of turnovers in the preseason, although coach Gary Kubiak had steadfastly declined to name a starter up to this point.

An afterthought while taking just one snap - a kneel-down - as a rookie last season, Siemian has emerged as the best option to lead Denver's defense of its Super Bowl title with Peyton Manning on the links and Brock Osweiler in Houston (see full recap).

Smith, Chiefs look sharp in 23-7 victory over Bears
CHICAGO -- Alex Smith looked sharp in leading three scoring drives in the first half and the Kansas City Chiefs got a 23-7 preseason victory over the Chicago Bears on Saturday.

Smith completed 20 of 30 passes for 181 yards before Nick Foles came in to start the third quarter. The defense strangled Chicago's offense, and the Chiefs (1-2) came away with the win after dropping their first two exhibitions.

Kansas City has one more tuneup against Green Bay before opening against San Diego on Sept. 11. But in what is generally the final dress rehearsal for the starters, the Chiefs dominated.

"I certainly feel like we're ready as far as game speed, as far as getting the trials, getting enough plays," Smith said. "I felt like we got in a lot of different situations - the goal line, short yardage, red zone, got a little two-minute today. That's kind of what you want, I feel like, in the preseason."

Kansas City got two second-quarter field goals from Cairo Santos and a 1-yard touchdown run by Spencer Ware in the closing seconds of the half to take a 13-0 lead. But the score didn't reflect just how lopsided the game was (see full recap).

Mariota, Carr both sharp in Titans' 27-14 win over Raiders
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr look ready for the season to start after a successful preseason dress rehearsal.

Mariota led Tennessee to scores on all four drives he played and Carr threw two touchdown passes for Oakland and the Titans beat the Raiders 27-14 on Saturday night.

"All in all, guys have put in the work," Mariota said. "We've built a pretty solid offseason in the preseason. Now it's just putting it all together once the season starts."

With the starters getting their most playing time in the third week of the preseason, the offenses looked in midseason form while both first-team defenses struggled mightily.

That left Raiders coach Jack Del Rio frustrated, especially about a first-team run defense that couldn't slow down DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry on the ground (see full recap).

Sam Bradford, first-team offense roll in preseason win over Colts

Sam Bradford, first-team offense roll in preseason win over Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – After the Eagles’ 33-23 preseason win over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, Sam Bradford was asked one question he didn’t quite know how to answer.

What didn’t go right for the offense?
 
“It’d be tough (answer),” Bradford said. “I think I could probably give you a better answer after we watch the film.”
 
It wasn’t a tough question to answer just because he hadn’t yet watched the film. It was a tough question to answer because it didn’t seem like much went wrong for Bradford or the first-team offense on Saturday night (see Instant Replay).
 
Bradford was incredibly efficient, completing 17 of 20 passes for 167 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that clearly wasn’t his fault. Aside from the end of the half, the first-team offense scored on its last four possessions.
 
Thanks to the offensive line, Bradford stayed clean. The running backs – Ryan Matthews and Kenjon Barner – averaged 10.3 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively. And the wide receivers actually made some big-time plays (see 10 observations).
 
“Obviously, tonight, to come out, to execute the way we did, it was nice,” Bradford said. “I was really happy with the communication up front, with the line of scrimmage. I thought our tempo in and out of the huddle was really good again tonight, getting to the line quickly. Overall, I thought the execution tonight was great. It’s obviously something that we can build on moving forward.”
 
Bradford finished the game with a passer rating of 114 and he was probably even better than that. He didn’t have a bad throw on the night. The interception was a bobbled drop from Nelson Agholor, one pass soared over Dorial Green-Beckham’s head after the wideout stopped running the route and the third was a pass broken up by a nice play in the third quarter.
 
Bradford averaged just 9.8 yards per completion, but was clearly on his game in Indy, even outplaying Andrew Luck.
 
“I thought tonight obviously culminated everything, his hard work that he's put in all through the offseason and through training camp,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Again, I made the decision way back in OTAs to split all the reps three ways all the way through training camp. This was the first week that Sam's had 100 percent of the reps and it showed tonight.”
 
Of course, playing well in the third preseason game isn’t anything new for Bradford. No one can forget his magical 10-for-10 performance last year against the Packers, when the Eagles were very prematurely crowned Super Bowl champs.
 
So Bradford and the offense looked good on Saturday night … but it’s just the preseason.
 
Now, they turn their attention to the Browns and the opener on Sept. 11.
 
“I think everyone in that locker room realizes that before Week 1 gets here, we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” he said. “Obviously, this is a big week coming up for us to get a jump on Cleveland, try to get some extra work in. I think it was nice to execute the way we did tonight. We can build on that, but I think we all realize the regular season is a different animal and we’re going to have to take it to another level.”

Best of MLB: Rookie Gary Sanchez hits another HR, Yankees rout Orioles, 13-5

Best of MLB: Rookie Gary Sanchez hits another HR, Yankees rout Orioles, 13-5

Best of MLB: Gary Sanchez hits another HR, Yankees rout O's, 13-5

NEW YORK -- Rookie Gary Sanchez kept up a most remarkable run, homering for the third straight game as the New York Yankees routed the Baltimore Orioles 13-5 Saturday.

Sanchez hit a drive that bounced off the top of the right-center field wall and over in the fourth inning. He reached 11 career home runs faster than anyone in major league history -- 23 games, including two hitless games last year.

After the switch-hitting catcher connected, the crowd of 38,843 emphatically chanted his name. Mark Teixeira stepped out of the batter's box, pausing the game, allowing the 23-year-old to tip his batting helmet to the fans from the top of the dugout steps.

Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks also homered as the Yankees won their fourth in a row. A day after trouncing the Orioles 14-4, New York moved within 2 1/2 games of them for the second AL wild-card spot.

Chris Davis homered twice and Mark Trumbo hit his big league-leading 39th home run for Baltimore, which has dropped three straight (see full recap).

Pedroia falls short of record, Red Sox beat Royals 8-3
BOSTON -- Dustin Pedroia had four hits to extend his streak to 11 straight at-bats before bouncing into a double play with a chance to tie the major-league record and the Boston Red Sox beat the Kansas City Royals 8-3 on Saturday night.

Pedroia's streak, which stretched over three games, ended in the eighth inning. The big league mark of hits in 12 straight official at-bats is shared by Walt Dropo for Detroit in 1952, Pinky Higgins of the Red Sox in 1938 and Johnny Kling of the Cubs in 1902.

Xander Bogaerts homered and drove in three runs, and Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez hit consecutive homers for Boston, which snapped a three-game losing streak.

David Price (13-8) won his fourth straight start, giving up two runs in six innings.

Danny Duffy (11-2) gave up three homers and seven runs in five innings, halting a personal 10-game winning streak.

Salvador Perez hit two solo homers for the Royals, who lost for just the fourth time 20 games (see full recap).

Harper ejected as Nats lose 9-4 to Rockies in 11 innings
WASHINGTON -- Charlie Blackmon hit two home runs, including the go-ahead shot in the 11th inning, as the Colorado Rockies beat the Washington Nationals 9-4 Saturday to snap a four-game losing streak.

Blackmon connected in the third off starter A.J. Cole, then hit a two-run drive off Yusmeiro Petit (3-4). Blackmon has 23 home runs this season and five multihomer games.

Carlos Gonzalez also hit a two-run homer off Petit, his 24th of the season and 200th of his career.

Jake McGee (1-3) got the win by pitching a perfect 10th, which included a strikeout of Bryce Harper that led to the reigning NL MVP being ejected.

Called out on strikes, Harper immediately began yelling at plate umpire Mike Winters and threw his helmet to the ground before getting tossed.

Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu went 3 for 5 to pass the Nationals' Daniel Murphy for the NL batting lead (see full recap).

Julio Urias' strong start guides Dodgers past Cubs, 3-2
LOS ANGELES -- Julio Urias allowed one run over six innings, Corey Seager set a Dodgers franchise record for a shortstop with his 23rd home run and Los Angeles defeated the Chicago Cubs 3-2 on Saturday to even the series between NL division leaders.

Urias (5-2) pitched better at home than the last time he faced the Cubs. The rookie left-hander made his second career start in Chicago on June 2 and gave up six runs -- five earned -- and eight hits in five innings while serving up three homers.

This time, he allowed six hits and tied a career high with eight strikeouts and two walks. He is 4-0 in six games (four starts) since the All-Star break.

Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his 38th save a day after allowing a run on a wild pitch in the ninth in a 6-4, 10-inning loss.

The Cubs' four-game winning streak ended behind the shortest outing of the season from Jason Hammel (13-7) (see full recap).