Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

I was watching at halftime of ESPN's broadcast of the Knicks-Celtics
game from Friday on my DV-R, and they were reviewing highlights of the
Heat's close-for-three-quarters-turned-blowout win of the Sixers. One of
the commentators—maybe Jon Barry, I can't remember which one, they all
kind of suck—scoffed to one of the others (maybe Michael Wilbon) about
the Sixers: "I thought you said they were contenders?" Maybe-Wilbon had
no real recourse, except to sigh "Bad matchup."

This is sort of
how I feel right now with the Sixers. Last night, the Liberty Ballers
went to Atlanta to play the 16-7 Hawks, and they won handily, leading by
double digits for almost the entirety of the second half and leaving
with a 98-87 victory. (Sorry Sixers fans chilling at the WFC for some
reason, no Big Macs.) And it wasn't the win that impressed me so much,
but how unsurprising it was—I legitimately expected Philly to fly to
Atlanta on the second night of a back to back and show that they were
the better team. Which they did. Which they are. And then it occurs to
me—how many teams are out there now that I wouldn't feel confident with
the Sixers playing? Sure, I'd be a little nervous against the Thunder or
Clippers (the latter of whom we'll be seeing soon enough), but I'd
still think their chances are decent. Really, there are no teams left at
this point at which a Sixers win could legitimately be seen as
unexpected.

Except for the Heat.

The one test that the Sixers
have yet to pass, one which they don't appear particularly close to
passing anytime soon, is to Beat the friggin' Heat—Philly has now twice
played them about even for 30-36 minutes, yet completely lost their
handle in the final twelve minutes, finishing with final scores that
indicate a pretty wide gap between the two teams. And that gap, while
perhaps exaggerated by the final scores, is certainly no mirage—the Heat
are a better basketball team than we are, and will win the great
majority of the games the two teams play.

And yet—is that really
it? If the Heat are so much better than we are, how come they're just a
half-game higher than us in the standings? How did they lose to the
Bucks twice? How did they blow three straight road games on the West
Coast? Could it really be that, as maybe-Wilbon says, the Heat are just
an unfavorable matchup? It's true that with Wade and LeBron, they
nullify our biggest competitive advantage (our wing defense) somewhat,
and that our biggest weakness (post play, interior defense/rebounding)
is exposed somewhat with Chris Bosh and the team's endless reserve of
tall, high-energy rebounders. (Not to mention that we still haven't even
played them with Spencer Hawes and Nik Vucevic, our team's top two big
men, for a full game, and you saw their value last night, as we have all
season.)

So maybe the Sixers aren't that much worse a
team than the Heat, but just might not ever have much success against
them team-to-team. Does that alone mean that they're not considerable as
contenders in the NBA this year? Well...unfortunately, yeah, sorta.
It's hard to imagine a road to the finals that doesn't in some way lead
through Miami—unless Indiana knocked them off in the second round (or if
Milwaukee can repeat their shocking success in an eight-seed upset),
Philly will undoubtedly have to play them in the second or third round
of the Conference playoffs, assuming they get that far. In the '90s, how
many title contenders might there have been in the East if not for the
Jordan/Pippen/Jackson Bulls? But you can't hide from those guys forever,
and it's hard to consider the Sixers a legit title contender until they
have some legitimate level of success against them.

But anyway,
back to the Atlanta game, which turned out pretty cool. We finally got
both our young centers back, though we had to trade Elton Brand for 'em,
since EB was out with a sore thumb, giving rookie Lavoy Allen his
first-ever NBA start, though he only actually played 12 minutes. Hawes,
Vucevic and Allen between them scored 33 points on stunning 16 of 23
shooting, showing what an impressive roster of skilled big men this team
has assembled. There's still some work to go with these guys—the trio
grabbed just 12 rebounds between them and didn't even attempt a free
throw, which is pretty bad for three frontcourt players in 64 combined
minutes of game action—but man, am I glad to finally have all of them at
our disposal at once.

The bench was the big story last night,
as all four subs (including Vucevic with a team-high 15) scored in
double-digits. Evan Turner had a very nice game after some uninspiring
outings against Miami, Chicago and Orlando, scoring 11 points on 5-7
shooting—including a chuckle-worthy three that started out as an
alley-oop pass—with six rebounds and five assists. Perhaps more
importantly, he seemed to learn his lessons on defense from the team's
last game against Atlanta, where Tracy McGrady abused him one-on-one,
getting cheap fouls on The Extraterrestrial and out-maneuvering him for
easy buckets. This time, he played back on T-Mac and turned him
primarily into a distributor, holding him to seven points on 2-6
shooting, and not letting him impose his will on the game. Encouraging
moments from our second-year project.

Elswehere on the Night
Shift, Thaddeus Young continued his run of tremendous offensive play
with 14 points, five boards and even three assists, and Lou Williams
also contributed 14 and five dimes, hitting the game-clinching shot with
just over a minute to go. And also due some cred to two members of our
starting lineup—first, Jodie Meeks, who connected on a pair of threes
and now has hit multiple treys in seven of his last eight games, on pace
for a better year shooting from deep than any Sixer has had since Kyle
Korver. And then, of course, Andre Iguodala, whose All-Star push
continues with another near triple-double—nine points, eight rebounds
and ten assists, with just a single turnover. 'Dre is probably happier
than anyone to have Vuc and Hawes back, since both bigs play the
pick-and-pop so beautifully with our point forward, and his feeds were
damn on the money last night. (We'll let the 3-15 shooting slide for
now, since it wasn't really needed last night anyway).

So yeah, a nice road win for the Sixers, who 24 games into the season,
have still yet to lose consecutive games—a real testament to the team's
character and toughness, and one that the
increasingly-difficult-to-please Coach Collins had to salute after the
game. ("This was our fourth game in six nights and with the emotional
game with
Miami last night, I can't tell you how proud I am of the guys.") But as
good as the win is, it doesn't shake the pall cast from Friday's
discouraging home loss to the Heat, and no matter how they do on the
remainder of this tough stretch (even though by starting 3-1, they've
already done better than many might have predicted beforehand), the only
thing that's going to completely erase that bitterness is a win—or at
the very least, four good quarters of play—when they meet the Heat for a
third time on March 16th. Until then, it's still a great season, but
it's not one that anyone will mistake for being championship-bound.

Next up for the Ballers: Monday night at home against the Los Angeles
Lakers. A win over Kobe and co. will exorcise a couple demons, even if
it might not mean as much as it would have a couple years back when the
Lake Show was at the peak of its powers. All we can do now is play the
games on our schedule, keeping posting good results against good times,
and hope that the sting of the two tough Miami losses fuels the team to
an even more determined level of play. We'll see 'em again soon enough.

Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

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Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

Phillies (25-20) at Tigers (22-22)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies actually lost a one-run game. 

Their six-game road trip started off with a 5-4 loss Monday night — which makes them 14-4 in one-run games — against a Tigers lineup that showed just how much power it has. Miguel Cabrera homered twice, and J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos added solo shots of their own. It was an all-around rough night for Phillies pitchers, but they have a chance to even the series tonight at Comerica Park.

Let's take a look at the matchup:

1. Keep 'em in the park
Comerica Park favors pitchers more than hitters, but the Tigers and Phillies made it look small on Monday, hitting a combined six home runs. Oddly enough, all were solo shots.

Jeremy Hellickson hopes tonight for more success than Vince Velasquez had Monday. Hellickson struggled with the home run ball earlier in the year, allowing nine in his first seven starts. He didn't allow one in either of his last two starts, but the Marlins and Reds aren't as loaded offensively as the Tigers.

Detroit has clicked at the plate over the last week, belting 17 home runs over its last six games. J.D. Martinez has three of them and Cabrera has five. With those two batting second and third, Hellickson needs to be sharp in the first inning. 

The opening frame has been a problem for Hellickson all season — his opponents have hit .289 with an .883 OPS, six doubles and a homer. His first-inning ERA is 7.00 this season and 5.75 over the last two.

2. Changes from Hellickson
He enters 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA. Over his last two starts, Hellickson's given up just two earned runs in 13 innings, putting 11 men on base and striking out 13. He's faced 57 batters since last allowing a home run for his longest homerless streak of the season.

What's been the biggest difference for Hellickson in his last two starts? He's turned to his changeup, his best pitch, more often with two strikes. In his first seven outings, Hellickson threw the changeup 18 percent of the time with two strikes. His last two starts, he's thrown it 48 percent of the time with two strikes. It's completely fooled the opposition, which is 0 for 17 with 11 strikeouts against Hellickson's changeup over that span.

Hellickson has by far the highest swing-and-miss rate of changeups in all of baseball with 57 in 184 pitches (31 percent).

Look for Hellickson to continue utilizing that pitch tonight. Here are some of the Tigers' numbers this season against right-handed changeups:

Cabrera: 1 for 11
Castellanos: 1 for 10
Justin Upton: 1 for 7
J.D. Martinez: 0 for 7

Current Tigers are 30 for 95 (.316) lifetime against Hellickson. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has done the most damage, going 8 for 25 with three doubles, three homers and five walks. Cabrera is 4 for 11 with a homer. Upton is 5 for 13 with two doubles and two homers.

3. Not the same Verlander
Now 33, Justin Verlander is not the same fireballer he was in his prime. In 2011, the year he won AL Cy Young and MVP, his fastball averaged 95 mph. This season, the pitch has averaged a career-low 92.1. 

Here's a look at the difference for Verlander's pitches the last three seasons compared to his peak of 2009 to 2012:

2009-12
Fastball: .254 opponents' batting average
Curveball: .152
Changeup: .196
Slider: .209

2014-present
Fastball: .263
Curveball: .248
Changeup: .275
Slider: .227

His pitches just haven't had the same life and bite as they once did. We've seen this happen to a number of former aces over the last few seasons: Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay. When the decline happens, it happens fast, especially for guys who pitch so many innings every year. It's not as drastic for some as it is for others. King Felix has been able to remain effective despite diminished velocity by mastering his offspeed pitches. That's something Lincecum, Cain and Sabathia have been unable to do.

Verlander is sort of in between. Since the start of 2014, he's 23-24 with a 4.16 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 61 starts. He hasn't been horrible but hasn't been great either.

This season, Verlander is 3-4 with a 4.58 ERA. He's struck out 60 and walked 20 in 57 innings. He's on a roll entering tonight's game, having allowed just four runs over his last 22⅓ innings with 27 strikeouts.

Current Phillies have only 34 career at-bats against Verlander and 18 belong to David Lough. Ryan Howard and Andres Blanco are 0 for 3, Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 2 and Peter Bourjos is 1 for 8.

4. Franco breaking out?
Maikel Franco has had back-to-back multi-hit games for the first time since April 22-23, when he hit three home runs and drove in seven in the first two games of a series in Milwaukee.

Is he finally breaking out of his lengthy slump? Every time over the last few weeks that it's looked like it, he's followed with a few hitless games. 

Franco does appear to be seeing the ball better, though. He's walked just 11 times all season but four have come in his last seven games. In his last five, he's reached base nine times in 19 plate appearances with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• Odubel Herrera, who was pulled from Monday's game for not hustling out a groundball, has followed an 0-for-11 skid by going 5 for 7 in his last two games. He's batting .335, and his .901 OPS is 10th among all NL outfielders, ahead of guys like Starling Marte, Hunter Pence, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Carlos Gonzalez.

• Herrera's five errors lead all MLB centerfielders. Nobody else has more than two.

• Colton Murray's soaking up three innings last night allowed David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez to rest despite Velasquez's recording just 12 outs. Hernandez has had two full days off. Getting these guys some rest will be crucial moving forward. Neris is on pace for 86 appearances, Gomez 83 and Hernandez 72. Last season, only one reliever in the majors (St. Louis' Kevin Siegrist) had 80-plus appearances.

• Tommy Joseph entered Monday 0 for 7 with four strikeouts against right-handed pitching, but he had a double and a homer off Mike Pelfrey. 

• Ryan Howard is 4 for 52 (.077) with 22 strikeouts over his last 18 games. His .156 batting average ranks last among 180 qualifying major-leaguers and his .226 OBP is 177th.

Flyers Stay or Go Part 3: Brandon Manning to Michael Raffl

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Flyers Stay or Go Part 3: Brandon Manning to Michael Raffl

In the third of our five-part offseason series examining the future of the Flyers, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster. We go alphabetically. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found by clicking the links. Today, we begin with Brandon Manning.

Brandon Manning
2015-16 stats: 56 GP, 1 G, 6 A; Contract: Restricted free agent

Dougherty: I don’t see Manning as a long-term fit here — he’s a restricted free agent — but he showed enough this past season to stick around another year. If a prospect beats him out in training camp, so be it. If not, he’s a good placemat until one of them is ready to take the reins.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Manning, an inexpensive pending restricted free agent, will be back next season. Is he a long-term answer on the Flyers’ blue line? I can’t say he is, but Ron Hextall liked his growth and the soon-to-be 26-year-old is capable enough to keep a defensive spot warm before the prospects arrive.
 
Verdict: STAY

Paone: Manning isn’t in the category of one of those guys to build around. In fact, he’ll already be 26 in just over a week. But Manning was very good in his third-pair role alongside Radko Gudas late last season and proved he can stick. He’s a RFA, but proved he should be back, at least in the short term. He’ll be fine again in the same role or valuable NHL-ready depth if someone ahead of him is hurt or fails to play well enough to stay in the lineup. Odds are he’s with the big club in some capacity when the season begins.

Verdict: STAY

Steve Mason
2015-16 stats: 23-19-10, 2.51, .918 SV%; Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $4.1 mm cap hit

Dougherty: We touched on this two weeks ago. Mason is the starting goalie, though Michal Neuvirth will push him even more than he did this season come September. But that’s OK. Mason led the Flyers to the playoffs with terrific goaltending down the stretch before running out of gas. There’s no reason to move him this summer. Some teams envy the Flyers’ goalie situation. I’m sure if you call the Dallas Stars, they’ll tell you the same thing.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: I’ve said I believe the Flyers would benefit greatly from trading one of their two No. 1 goalies before they can become unrestricted free agents following the 2016-17 season. I feel Mason has a better chance than Michal Neuvirth at sticking in Philadelphia down the road. The man who carried the Flyers’ torch into the playoffs is more proven and less injury-prone.
 
Verdict
: STAY

Paone: As Tom and Jordan mentioned, we tackled the goalie question in an End to End last week. I mentioned there I am of the belief that the Flyers don’t have a No. 1 goalie, nor do they have a No. 2 goalie. They have two very good goaltenders whom they have the utmost confidence in when either is between the pipes on a given night.  And they’ll need both again next season as both have had injury issues. Some will only remember how Mason’s season ended with a thud in the playoffs against Washington and not how he put the Flyers on his back down the stretch and led them to the playoffs. And that’s just not fair. But Mason will be back. Now’s not the time to move either goalie, especially when Mason and Michal Neuvirth’s contracts are both up after next season. Let the goalie prospects, specifically Anthony Stolarz in Lehigh Valley, get some more seasoning and reassess the situation at the end of next season.

Verdict: STAY

Colin McDonald
2015-16 stats: 5 GP, 1 G, 0 A; Contract: Signed through 2017-18, $637,500 cap hit

Dougherty: McDonald proved himself to be a very valuable AHL player last season. He played a few games during the regular season with the Flyers, and a couple in the playoffs. I really liked the energy he brought and wouldn’t hate to see him on the NHL roster. But they need scoring, and he’s really just another role player. He signed an extension mid-season, so he’ll head back to Lehigh Valley.

Verdict: GO

Hall: McDonald had a leadership impact at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley and served the Flyers as a reliable insurance policy. His experience is valuable within the organization, but much more so with the Phantoms full-time, being available for the Flyers when needed.
 
Verdict
: GO

Paone: Depth is so valuable, not just at the NHL level, but throughout the entire organization. And depth player is the category McDonald, a veteran forward, falls into. He’s a guy with a physical edge who can be called up at a moment’s notice and fill almost any role that’s asked of him. Don’t expect him to make the big club out of camp, barring injuries or anything else unforeseen. So that’s why I’ll say go. But don’t be surprised if he’s among the first names on the call-up list during season.

Verdict: GO

Evgeny Medvedev
2015-16 stats: 45 GP, 4 G, 9 A; Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Dougherty: I like Medvedev’s game, but he didn’t work out. Hextall brought him over from Russia on a one-year deal and while I’ve seen some say it’s Hextall’s worst move as GM, it was not a bad move.  Overall, Medvedev wasn’t a killer on the ice. In fact, he didn’t make a ton of mistakes, but when he did, it would be a big one and lead to Hakstol benching him. He’s a puck-moving defenseman and NHL teams need them. His legal troubles could be a deterrent for teams, though. If he wants to continue playing in North America, he'll have to look elsewhere.

Verdict: GO

Hall: Medvedev brought an intriguing offensive game but struggled in his own zone. To be frank, though, there’s no way he returns. Medvedev turns 34 in August, will be an unrestricted free agent and faces legal trouble following an arrest shortly after the Flyers’ playoff exit.
 
Verdict: GO

Paone: Ron Hextall took a no-risk flier (no pun intended, I promise – I just couldn’t think of a better word) on the 33-year-old Russian defenseman last summer. And while Medvedev showed flashes at certain points, his lack of playing time at the end of the season was telling that the marriage just wasn’t going to work out. Getting his cap hit off the books puts a nice chunk of change in the Flyers’ pocket. Plus, his recent legal issues certainly don’t help his cause of returning to Philadelphia. He just seems ticketed for a return home to Russia and the KHL.

Verdict: GO

Michal Neuvirth
2015-16 stats: 18-8-4, 2.27, .924 SV%; Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $1.625 mm cap hit

Dougherty: See above. Neither goaltender is leaving. A Mason-Neuvirth tandem puts the Flyers in good hands. Both have injury history, too, so keeping both makes a ton of sense. Neuvirth was signed here last summer to push Mason and give the Flyers a solid backup. He proved to be far more than that. As noted above, he’ll push Mason even harder this season.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Neuvirth carries solid trade stock and will be a nice card for the Flyers to play up until the deadline. I could see Hextall pulling off a surprising move this offseason but, more than likely, the Flyers will have both their goalies entering the 2016-17 season.
 
Verdict
: STAY

Paone: Neuvirth played extremely well last season when healthy. He was sterling in his three playoff starts. But healthy is the key word there as his troubling career arc of not being able to stay healthy at key moments continued. But he’ll be back. Why? See that Mason part above. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Verdict: STAY

Michael Raffl
2015-16 stats: 82 GP, 13 G, 18 A; Contract: Signed through 2019-20, $2.35 mm cap hit

Dougherty: Raffl isn’t going anywhere. He signed an extension before the trade deadline last season, as Hextall decided extending Raffl made more sense than moving him. He’s well-liked in the room and has enough skill to move up-and-down the lineup. He’s a keeper.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Raffl is coming off a quietly good season in which he was the only Flyer to play all 82 regular-season games while compiling a plus-9 rating, best among the team’s regulars. And, of course, he signed an extension, so he’s here to stay.
 
Verdict: STAY

Paone: This is an easy one as Raffl, recently a pending unrestricted free agent, signed a three-year extension just prior to the trade deadline. The question isn’t whether he stays. It’s where he plays. If  history is any indication, there might not be a rock-solid answer to that as Raffl has moved from wing to center and line to line numerous times. He’s like the Flyers’ version of a Swiss Army Knife.

Verdict: STAY

Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

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Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

DETROIT — Back when they were racking up National League East titles and filling Citizens Bank Park night after night, the Phillies could slug with anyone.
 
Those days are gone.
 
So even on a night when they got some power from two young up-and-comers in their lineup, the Phillies still couldn’t get enough to match up with the Detroit Tigers on Monday night.
 
“We don’t have enough pop to go blow for blow with them,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
The Tigers belted four home runs, three against starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, in beating the Phillies, 5-4, at Comerica Park (see Instant Replay).
 
Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph both homered for the Phillies, but Ryan Howard, no longer even close to the player he was during those aforementioned title years, slipped deeper into the May quicksand. He went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to fall to .156 on the season. He is 4 for 48 (.083) in the month of May.
 
“Man, it’s been brutal,” Howard said after the game. “I’m not going to lie. I need some breaks, man. It’s been tough. I’ve hit some balls hard, but they’re not finding any real estate out there.
 
“I have to keep grinding and swinging. Luckily, it’s still early to get it turned around.”
 
Yes, it’s early for some guys.
 
But it might not be that early for Howard. He’s 36 and in the final year of his contract. His slump has coincided with Joseph’s ascension from the minors. Joseph played first base Monday night and looked good at the position. In addition to hitting a game-tying homer in the sixth, he had a double. Half of his six hits in his first seven games in the majors have been for extra bases.
 
Joseph will continue to play first base while Howard serves as the designated hitter in the final two games of the interleague series in Detroit. After that, Joseph is expected to start against lefty Jon Lester in Chicago on Friday. If he keeps hitting — and Howard keeps struggling — the situation could be ripe for Mackanin to continue to play Joseph, even against the right-handers Howard usually sees.
 
“I'm going to look at it a week at a time,” Mackanin said. “We'll see. At some point it might come to that, but I can't say it's imminent.”
 
If Howard starts spending more time on the bench, it will be part of a downhill progression that started in the second half of last season when he became a platoon player. Will a progression to the bench ultimately lead to his being released in the coming weeks? Well, if Joseph keeps hitting and continues to earn playing time, management may have to seriously ponder the move.
 
Even with Franco and Joseph hitting home runs, the Phillies didn’t have enough to match the Tigers’ thunder.
 
Miguel Cabrera belted two home runs and in the seventh inning clubbed his 500th career double. He then came around to score the go-ahead run on a single by Victor Martinez.
 
Entering the game, the Tigers were among the top teams in the American League in batting average (.265), runs per game (4.60), homers (56) and OPS (.758).
 
Meanwhile, the Phillies couldn’t get much lower in offense. They ranked near the bottom in the National League in batting average (.233), runs per game (3.23), homers (32) and OPS (.651).
 
“You look up and down their lineup on the scoreboard and it looks like everybody is hitting .300 with eight or 10 home runs,” Mackanin said. “It can be daunting.
 
“The middle of their lineup hurt us with the long ball. We knew they were swinging the bats well lately. They weren’t earlier. Now they’re swinging well and we couldn’t contain them.
 
“We got 12 hits of our own. But they’ve got a lot of power on that team.”
 
The Phillies are at the start of a challenging trip — three in Detroit followed by three against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have the majors’ best record. The Phillies, a surprising four games over .500, will be tested on this trip.
 
They did not pass the first test. Velasquez had trouble commanding his pitches and for the second straight start ran a high pitch count. He took a 3-1 lead to the mound in the fifth, but it evaporated quickly under the weight of homers by J.D. Martinez and Cabrera. Reliever Colton Murray also gave up a homer in the inning. He also allowed the go-ahead run in the seventh as Mackanin held David Hernandez back in case the Phils got a lead.
 
“Velasquez didn’t have any command of his secondary pitches, pretty basic stuff, and he left some fastballs over the plate,” Mackanin said. “You have to throw quality pitches to a lineup like this. If you make mistakes against them, they don’t miss. If you don’t command your secondary pitches against good hitters, they become like sharks and smell blood and hit the fastball.”
 
Velasquez said he should have gotten the loss, not Murray.
 
“You can’t shy away from hitters and I did that,” he said. “You’ve got to pitch inside. I pitched around them.
 
“I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to challenge hitters.”