Cliff Lee ponders future after tough-luck loss

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Cliff Lee ponders future after tough-luck loss

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ATLANTA -- The way Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitched in the second half of the season, it’s a shame the Phillies aren’t going to the playoffs. The two lefties could have formed a dangerous tandem in the month of October.

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing the Phillies’ season will end on Sunday. This team’s offense would probably just have broken your heart in October anyway.

Two months before Thanksgiving, Lee had the carving knife out Friday night. He pitched eight spectacular innings against the Atlanta Braves, walked none, struck out 13 -- and still lost!

Braves third baseman Chris Johnson gave his team a 1-0 win when he stroked a down-and-in, 0-2 slider into the left-field seats to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).

“It basically came down to one pitch,” Lee said. “I felt like I made a good pitch. I was trying to bury it down and in and it was down and in. I think it was a ball. He put a good swing on it and hit a home run and that’s the game.

“It’s frustrating, but you’ve got to give credit to (Atlanta starter) Kris Medlen. He shut us down for eight innings and (closer) Craig Kimbrel came in at the end. It was a well-pitched game on both sides. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Medlen held the Phillies to two hits over eight innings.

“When a guy pitches like that, you want to back him with a little offense,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said of Lee. “The conversations in the dugout every inning were, ‘Let’s go. The guy is pitching his tail off.’”

Lee finished his season 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA. His September was spectacular: In five starts, he allowed eight earned runs in 39 innings (1.85 ERA). He walked one -- one -- and struck out 54. That makes him the first pitcher in the history of the game to have a month with 50 strikeouts and one or few walks.

Not too shabby.

In 12 starts after the All-Star break, Lee had a 2.89 ERA. Hamels had a 2.97 in 13 starts after the break.

“I gave the team a chance to win just about every time I took the mound,” Lee said. “As a starting pitcher, I feel pretty good about that.”

Giving the team a chance to win doesn’t always equal a win, especially with this Phillies’ offense.

The Phils have lost eight of their last nine games. They have scored just 19 runs in those nine games. They have not homered in nine straight games, their longest home-run drought since 1989.

Lee, a frequent victim of poor run support, hopes the Phillies add some offense in the offseason.

“No doubt,” he said. “I think we all would. It’s been a big part of our struggles, lack of scoring runs. But we’ve also had games where we scored a bunch of runs and screwed it up on the mound. It takes a total package. You have to hit, pitch, play defense and have a good bullpen.”

Three seasons into his five-year contract with the Phillies, Lee has made the playoffs only once, in 2011. He finished in the top 10 in ERA in the league last year and will do so again this year. That’s a lot of personal success and no postseason to show for it. Lee turned 35 in August. Does he feel like he’s using up a lot of good bullets as his clock ticks?

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m getting up there in age. I’m 35 years old now and when this contract’s over I plan on going home, so I’m running out of opportunities. All I can control is what I can control, and I’m going to do everything I can to help us win. That’s all I know how to do.”

Don’t fret, Lee fans. The lefty still has two guaranteed years left on his contract (at $25 million per season) and a vesting option for 2016. So he could be around for three more years -- and maybe more because he did leave himself wiggle room in his comments.

But he left no doubt that he wants to get back to the postseason while he’s still a difference-maker.

“Right now, I don’t [see myself pitching beyond this contract],” Lee said. “There are a lot of things that can happen between now and then, but I just know that my kids are 12 and 10 and I’ve basically missed the first half of their lives.

“I’m financially able to shut it down, so … that’s how I feel right now. But when the time comes I might look at it differently.

“I also want to finish being good, not struggling and fumbling through at the end. I want to finish strong and take it to the house. Next year, I want to win a World Series, then another one, then another one and take it to the house. That’s what I’m wanting to do.”

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro returns as Phillies go for sweep of Dodgers

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Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro returns as Phillies go for sweep of Dodgers

After getting hit by a pitch on the hand on Tuesday night, catcher Jorge Alfaro is back in the lineup for the Phillies, who are aiming for a four-game sweep of the Dodgers.

On Wednesday, Alfaro was replaced by Andrew Knapp, who had one hit in three at-bats in a rare start.

Freddy Galvis, hitless in his last two games, is 4 for 7 with a homer and three RBIs against Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda.

For the first time in the last several weeks, cleanup hitter Rhys Hoskins is not in the spotlight for the Phillies. Instead, the attention has been on Aaron Altherr, who will try to finish an impressive series in style. Altherr, who hits fifth again on Thursday, is 5 for 11 with three homers and nine RBIs in the first three games against Los Angeles.

Odubel Herrera, who batted third last night and went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, hits sixth. His season batting average from that spot in the order is .340. 

Here is today's lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, RF
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, LF
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Jorge Alfaro, C
8. JP Crawford, 3B
9. Mark Leiter, P

Here is the Dodgers lineup: 

1. Chris Taylor, CF
2. Justin Turner, 3B
3. Cody Bellinger, 1B
4. Yasiel Puig, RF
5. Curtis Granderson, LF
6. Chase Utley, 2B
7. Yasmani Grandal, C
8. Logan Forsythe, SS
9. Kenta Maeda, P

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

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Somewhere in the basement of Citizens Bank Park sits a stash of champagne, chilled and ready to go for a celebration in the visiting clubhouse. It's only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Dodgers clinch their fifth straight National League West crown, but the Phillies would prefer it did not happen in their house.

The Phillies aren't saying that verbally.

They're saying it with their actions.

They've played some of their best and most exciting baseball of the season the last three nights in taking the first three games of a four-game series against the Dodgers. All three of the wins have been come-from-behind efforts. The Phillies set themselves up for a series sweep with a 7-5 win Wednesday night (see observations). The victory included two more big hits from Aaron Altherr and a game-ending catch by centerfielder Odubel Herrera that left you wondering how to say 'Wow!' in Spanish (see video).

Herrera burst into laughter when he was asked that question after the game.

His answer: "Wow!"

Altherr has delivered several Wow! moments in this series. There was his decisive grand slam against Clayton Kershaw in the opener, another home run in Tuesday night's win and four more RBIs on Wednesday night.

Altherr hit a game-tying, two-run home run in the seventh inning on a hanging breaking ball from Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling. Two batters later, Tommy Joseph went deep on another hanger from Stripling as the Phillies took a 5-4 lead.

The Phillies' bullpen has been excellent lately, but it struggled in this game and let leads of 2-1 and 5-4 get away.

But these Phillies aren't just playing out the string. They have young players trying to show they belong and that's creating problems for the 96-win Dodgers. After giving up the lead in the top of the eighth, the Phillies rallied for two runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead for good. The rally featured a leadoff walk by Cesar Hernandez, a sacrifice bunt by Freddy Galvis, a Dodgers' error, an intentional walk to Rhys Hoskins to load the bases and a two-run line drive hit to right by Altherr to put the Phils ahead.

Altherr, activated less than two weeks ago after a month-long stay on the disabled list, has nine RBIs in the first three games of the series. For the season, he is hitting .281 with 19 homers and 60 RBIs in 97 games. His OPS is .890.

"I'm just seeing the ball really well now. I got my timing back," Altherr said. "It's good when those two things come together. I'm just a lot more relaxed at the plate. I'm driving the ball better.

"I think when I first came back I was probably trying to do too much. You know, just trying to make up for lost time. It wasn't working. I went back to relaxing at the plate and letting the ball come to me and putting a good swing on it."

Altherr's decisive two-run single with one out in the eighth came against right-hander Brandon Morrow. Lefty Luis Avilan started the inning and loaded the bases on an intentional walk to Hoskins one batter before Altherr came up.

"That's part of the game," Altherr said of the intentional walk. "But, obviously, you still want to prove them wrong in thinking I'm an easier out. I just wanted to do the best I could to hit the ball hard somewhere."

Jake Thompson pitched five innings, ran a high pitch count, but exited the game with a lead.

He enjoyed watching from the dugout as his teammates rallied for five runs in their final two at-bats to make it three straight against the Dodgers.

"I think it gives us a huge boost knowing who we're doing it against," Thompson said. "They didn't get that record by a fluke. That team is really, really good. I think it shows how far this team has come this year."

The Phillies are moving in the right direction. At least their record is. They were 29 games under .500 before the All-Star break. Wednesday night's win left them at 32-33 after the break and that means something to a rebuilding team that has put a premium on improvement.

"To win these three games is huge for our confidence," Altherr said. "We know we're a good team. We have a lot of talent on this team. Wins like these help us believe in ourselves even more and help us to believe we can do this in the years to come. We're definitely excited about the future."

The Phillies' three wins in this series have come with Kershaw, Yu Darvish and All-Star lefty Alex Wood on the mound for the Dodgers. Those are three pretty good pitchers. The Phils will face righty Kenta Maeda in the series finale Thursday afternoon. A sweep would be a nice accomplishment. It would ensure that the Dodgers would not pop champagne corks in Philadelphia. And it would also give the Phillies a .500 record after the All-Star break, a little sign of progress as the team's fifth straight losing season winds down.