Oswalt Caps Off Sweep of Astros, Fantastic First Weekend at Citizens Bank Park

Oswalt Caps Off Sweep of Astros, Fantastic First Weekend at Citizens Bank Park

All winter long we dream about baseball
returning to Citizens Bank Park. The past three days in South Philly
were a perfect example as to why we miss it so damn much. Not only did
season ticket holders get a chance to reacquaint themselves with the
friendly faces in their sections they hadn't seen since last year, but
they were also treated to three days of baseball featuring Roy Halladay,
Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt on the mound -- and, most importantly, three
Phillies victories.

Friday thrilled us with a walkoff, Saturday provided a handful of opportunities to tell Cliff Lee in person
what we've been thinking for the past three months, and Sunday
afternoon featured Ryan Howard ringing the bell in Ashburn Alley for the
first of hopefully many times this season. Oh, and the sun even popped
out for a few innings on Sunday to warm part of the record-setting
132,254 fans who came out to the ballpark this weekend.

The three-game sweep at the hands of the Astros featured the guys
we've seen get it done in the past -- Roy, Ryan, Jimmy -- doing what we
know they're very capable of, but also some of the fresher faces --
Mayberry, Francisco, Martinez (No, not Pedro) -- contributing in some
fashion straight from the get-go.

Phillies fans couldn't have really hoped for more from their club in
their opening weekend, and Charlie Manuel believes the veterans playing
to their potential, mixed with a number of new guys stepping up, is the
formula for success for this team going forward.

"If Jimmy Rollins just has the kind of season that he's definitely
capable of having, just his good average season, Victorino has his
average season, Howard does what he can do, we're gonna have some
offense there," Charlie said after Sunday's 7-3 win over Houston.

One of the key contributors in the final win of the series was Ben
Francisco, who was 3-5 on the day with two runs scored to go along with
his first home run of the season. Francisco has stepped into the large
shoes left behind by Jayson Werth and performed fantastically in his
first three starts as the Phillies everyday right fielder.

"Francisco can swing the bat," Manuel said. "I used to say that last
year. He has a chance to be a real good hitter. He can get on the
fastball and he'll make adjustments at the plate. I feel like he can
hit."

"I like our bench," Manuel continued. "We can do some things with our
bench. Mayberry is an improved player. Gload gives you a solid,
professional at-bat just about every time he goes up there. We got some
guys sitting there that can certainly hit and play in situations."

Manuel is impressed with Benny's bat, but Francisco also made a wild
catch against the wall on Sunday that Ryan Howard called "exciting to
watch."

"I don't think he heard me, I was trying to say 'wall!'," Howard told us after the game.

Francisco apparently did not hear Howard yell at him, nor did he
really notice the warning track dirt under his feat, because he ran into
the wall so hard it knocked the "SD" for the Padres out of the
scoreboard.

"The wall is kind of in the sun, you're not worried about the wall.
You're just trying to catch the ball," Francisco said of his catch.

Tell that to Bobby Abreu.

Francisco putting his body on the line to try and get the win and the sweep is the kind of play Phillies fans appreciate. Benny knows it.

"Winning is the name of the game and we won all three. Can't ask for
anything more," Francisco said of the opening weekend in Philly.

Three straight wins at home to start the season is pretty damn
exciting -- and rare. It hasn't been done in Philly since 1970. And it
hasn't been done as a three-game sweep of the same team in Philly since
1899. That's a long ass time ago, if you didn't have your calendar
handy.

"Hopefully we can ride this through this month and get off to a head start," Sunday's winning pitcher Roy Oswalt said.

"First two guys come out and throw unbelievable. You don't want to be
the odd man out," Oswalt said of having to follow Halladay and Lee this
weekend.

With Cole Hamels pitching on Tuesday against the New York Mets, he now has to follow three great starts.

I'm sure Cole doesn't want to be the odd man out either.

So who's ready for the Mets? The Phillies certainly are.

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

• Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

• Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

usa-tranquillo-barnetta.jpg
USA Today Images

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”