Manuel's great run shouldn't have ended this way

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Manuel's great run shouldn't have ended this way

It did not have to end this way.

It should not have ended this way.

The most successful manager in Phillies history, the man that brought tears to fans’ eyes when he shouted, “Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans!” back on that magical night in October 2008, was fired Friday (see story).

Charlie Manuel is out.

Ryne Sandberg is in.

And it didn’t have to happen this way.

Let’s make something clear here: This day had been brewing since March 2011 when Manuel signed a two-year contract extension with a year to go on his existing deal. On that day, all parties -- from the front office to Manuel -- acknowledged that there would be no talk of another contract until this one was finished. Manuel even made a point to say he’d be close to 70 when the deal was up and he’d take stock of himself and his life at that time before deciding how he’d proceed in his career.

From this seat, that always seemed to be tacit acknowledgment by Manuel that he’d move on after the 2013 season and hand off, head high, to a younger man as the organization changed course.

This spring, Manuel made some noise about wanting to manage beyond this season, but that was probably just the proud, tough guy in him talking. Manuel never took kindly to suggestions that he was weak, so whenever questions about his lame-duck status came up, he handled them by digging in and defending his record instead of shrugging and saying, “We’ll see what happens.”

That’s just Charlie.

But deep down inside, Manuel knew he was not going to manage beyond this season. He’s a smart baseball man and knows organizations have to occasionally churn the mix and it was going to be his turn in October -- unless this aging team somehow pulled off another World Series title. He knew his expiration date had been stamped the day he signed his extension. And he knew it more than ever in recent weeks when the losses piled up and the writing on the wall was in big, bold letters.

Manuel meant it, meant it from the bottom of his surgically-repaired heart, that night when he said, “Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans!” On the best night of his professional life, he dedicated it all to the fans, the real lifeblood of an organization because it is from them that all revenues spring in this business called baseball.

Manuel handled his firing with class Wednesday. He said he was mad not because the front office had given him a leaky bullpen and failed to upgrade it at mid-season, but because he lost his nine-year hold on the best seat in the house. Manuel didn’t just watch the rebirth of a dormant franchise from that seat, he, along with others, many others, helped lead it. Five division titles. Two National League championships. A World Series title. Immeasurable red-pinstriped good will spread while shopping at Wegman’s or eating breakfast at Ponzio’s -- hey, this guy said it himself, he’s a "peoples person." For all these reasons, Charlie Manuel deserves better than this.

He deserved to finish this road-to-nowhere season, tip his cap and head off to wherever he chooses, another team, a front-office adviser’s position, retirement. He didn’t deserve having the word “fired” attached to his name. (Though he has been offered a position with the franchise, he was fired as manager and he made that quite clear Friday.)

Manuel deserved better than this, but he didn’t get it because, in the irony of ironies, his players let him down. A number of them, not all of them, but enough to make a difference, have mailed it in for the past month. And why is that ironic? Because Manuel was just about the best players’ manager there is.

Why now?

Why not let his contract run out?

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said that once he decided Manuel wouldn’t be back in 2014 he didn’t think it would be fair on Manuel to wait. He mentioned that he wanted some time to evaluate Sandberg, the interim skipper.

Here’s the real reason they did it now:

“Because we sucked,” one player said.

Yeah, the Phillies have been beset by injuries, and, yeah, they have a bullpen made up mostly of guys that have been at Triple A this season.

But is this really a 5-19 club?

That’s what the record was since the All-Star break entering Friday night’s game.

This team is not good. But it’s not that bad either.

Some of the players on this team never came back from the All-Star break. Some of them stayed on vacation. Sandberg indicated that when he said his first order of business would be to “remind” the players that they are “major leaguers” and every game is “meaningful.” Pressed on that point, Sandberg admitted he’d seen “lackadaisical” play recently. Cole Hamels, who has pitched brilliantly since the All-Star break, concurred with Sandberg.

“It’s true,” he said. “I’m as guilty as anybody else. We really have to focus a lot more on what we have to do out on the field because we have to do it the right way. Charlie preached it, but we weren’t doing it.”

Does that comment suggest that the players were tuning out Manuel? Sure it does. But a pro doesn’t need to be reminded to show some pride in how he plays. A pro should be embarrassed by a run like the Phillies have had. A pro, or group of pros, should have found it within himself/themselves to turn things around so that at the very least the manager who always had their backs could have exited gracefully at the end of the season and without the word “fired” next to his name.

Sandberg has work to do in the clubhouse. It is not a happy place. Aside from a pocket of young guys with eager eyes and hopeful futures, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of togetherness. There is finger pointing. The fun is gone. That’s understandable because losing is not fun. The lack of togetherness is also somewhat understandable considering that Jonathan Papelbon recently indicated that he did not come here for this. Those comments did not sit well with a number of players who wondered, whatever happened to We’re all in this together? In this summer when we pray for Darren Daulton, a man who led a great Phillies team with those words, that concept seems to have escaped the team’s closer. The clubhouse has been a dour place ever since Papelbon’s self-serving comments and the clubhouse, as they say, leads to the playing field.

On the day he spoke out, Papelbon suggested changes were needed from top to bottom.

The Phillies made one at the top Friday.

It did not have to end this way.

It should not have ended this way.

Hey, Charlie Manuel, this thumbs-up is for you!

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies (59-69) at Mets (65-63)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

Both the Mets and Phillies go into the second game of the series with their best (healthy) starter on the mound. Noah Syndergaard, known by many as "Thor," takes the hill while trying to keep the Mets' playoff hopes alive, while Jeremy Hellickson makes the 26th start of his rebound season. 

Here are five things to know before Saturday night's matchup.

1. Playing spoilers
If the Mets want to make the playoffs in 2016 and reprise 2015's run to the World Series, they're gonna have to go through the Phillies. 

Not in the playoffs of course. But in the regular season.

After losing Friday night, the Phillies are six games back of the Mets and 10 games back of a playoff spot. They're not going to the postseason, barring a miracle.

But the Mets still have every intent to compete for a wild-card spot despite injuries all over the place (see point No. 2). They have the second-easiest schedule the rest of the way (Nationals have the easiest) and that is in large part thanks to games remaining against the Braves … and the Phillies.

Including Saturday night's game, the Mets and Phillies have nine games left against each other this season. That's more than enough to affect the Mets' postseason chances. The Mets are just 6-4 against the Phillies so far this year and will need to be much better in the final nine games to make a legitimate run.

But the Phillies can also spoil other teams' postseason chances. They have six games left against the Marlins and four games vs. the Pirates. This doesn't even mention the seven games with the Nationals, who are fighting for homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs while holding a comfy lead in the NL East. 

2. Laying down the hammer
Matt Harvey is out for the year. Steven Matz is having shoulder issues and is on the disabled list. Jonathon Niese, newly reaquired, was injured four batters into his Tuesday start. Zack Wheeler seems far away from returning from Tommy John surgery. And to top all of it, Jacob deGrom's next start will be skipped to work on mechanical issues.

So that leaves Friday's starter, Bartolo Colon, and Syndergaard as the Mets' only experienced starters still on turn in the rotation at the moment. Certainly not how the Mets drew it up.

While this shows the perils of building around pitching, there is still the one shining ray of hope: Syndergaard. The righty flamethrower had his bumps in the road, his non-ace like starts, but for the most part, he's been just as advertised. 

Here's a telling stat: Syndergaard has made 24 starts and only in three has he given up more than three runs. As electric as he was as a 22-year-old rookie last year (3.24 ERA with 166 strikeouts in 24 starts), he's been even more so this year. He's given up more hits in almost the same number of innings, but he's limited home runs and struck out more batters. 

Overall, he has an 11-7 record and a 2.61 ERA. His 5.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio is one of the best marks in baseball and so is his 0.5 home runs per nine innings this year. With a hit-or-miss offense and a struggling middle relief corps, Syndergaard continues to carry the Mets to some modicum of playoff contention.

3. Hellickson re-established
It's been said and written plenty of times, but Hellickson was a clear reclamation project when the Phillies acquired him in the offseason. 

He hadn't pitched to an ERA below 4.52 since 2012, his second full season in baseball. His velocity had fallen after a shoulder injury and the righty based mostly on command was beginning to give up way too many hits. The Tampa Bay Rays, the team that drafted him, dealt him and after one year, the Diamondbacks gave up on him, too.

But in five months with the Phillies, Hellickson has re-established himself as the pitcher he was before. His hits per nine innings have improved back to their 2012 numbers and he has lowered his walk rate while keeping his strikeouts at a career high rate. 

So for the first time in four years, Hellickson is an above-average MLB pitcher. Besides pushing back his last start, he's been consistently pitching every fifth game, one of the few constants for the Phillies' rotation. He's thrown 150 innings, his most since 2013 and he has a month left.

And he's now won four straight decisions. The Phils have won his last six starts and he's given up three or fewer runs in each one. While he is putting himself in line for a big payday in the offseason, the Phillies are certainly happy with the production they've gotten from the 29-year-old righty.

4. Battle of the bullpens
Based on ERA, the Phillies and Mets have had two of the five worst bullpens in baseball since the All-Star break. Yet it's been for very different reasons.

For the Phillies, it's simple: The rotation has been in disarray. Even the guys who've been healthy have simply failed to get far into games. Hellickson is the only starter to complete at least seven innings since the break and even he hasn't done it more than the one time. 

If the starters weren't giving length but were giving the bullpen leads on a consistent basis, Pete Mackanin could go to his top relievers like Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, who have been pretty steady despite a recent hiccup by Gomez against the Cardinals. But they haven't been given many leads and that has meant mop-up relievers. 

So with the long reliever getting more of the innings, it's easy to see why the Phils' pen has the fifth-worst ERA (4.52) of any MLB bullpen since the break. 

But what's been the Mets' problem to cause a 4.74 ERA, second worst in the second half? It's a little more complicated. First, they've had some of the same issues as the Phillies. Starters either getting hurt (Niese) or struggling and having to exit early leads to same results as the Phillies. 

Yet it's also the back-end relievers struggling. Although he's had a good August, Jeurys Familia has blown three saves since the break after none before the break. Jerry Blevins has been slightly worse since the break. And Hansel Robles, a key cog in middle relief, has a 6.41 ERA in the second half. 

The mop-up relievers have done a lot of the damage, but the Mets' back end isn't as steady as it needs to be. 

5. This and that
• Syndergaard beat the Phillies in April at Citziens Bank Park. He held the Phils to just one run over seven innings and struck out eight batters. He gave up just five hits and two walks.

• Hellickson has made three starts against the Mets this year and is 1-1. He got a win at Citi Field on April 10 by allowing just two runs in 5⅔ innings. He got a no-decision after allowing 10 hits and four runs in 4⅓ 10 days later. Hellickson was beat up in his first start after the break, losing to the Mets in a six-inning start on July 15. He gave up four runs on seven hits and two home runs in that game.

• Ryan Howard is 2 for 7 against Syndergaard with a home run and two walks in nine plate appearances. Odubel Herrera is 1 for 9 with an RBI single. 

• Curtis Granderson has faced Hellickson more than any other Mets batter thanks to their time with the Yankees and Rays, respectively. In 29 plate appearances, he is 5 for 25 with a home run, two walks, seven strikeouts and two hit-by-pitches.

• Yoenis Cespedes is 5 for 12 against Hellickson with two home runs and a walk. 

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

LOS ANGELES -- Kris Bryant hit a tiebreaking two-run homer in the 10th inning to go with an earlier solo shot, lifting the Chicago Cubs over the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-4 on Friday night in the series opener between NL division leaders.

Bryant's 35th homer capped a comeback from an earlier two-run deficit and extended the Cubs' winning streak to four games. Chicago fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" as Bryant scored behind Dexter Fowler, who singled leading off.

Chicago improved to 19-4 in August while earning its major league-leading 82nd victory.

Travis Wood (4-0) got the victory with one inning of relief. Aroldis Chapman struck out two in the 10th to earn his 10th save.

Adam Liberatore (2-1) took the loss, allowing two runs and four hits in one inning (see full recap).

Mariners overcome Sale's 14 K's to beat White Sox
CHICAGO -- Chris Sale struck out 14 but got outpitched by Felix Hernandez and the Seattle bullpen, and the Mariners ended a three-game skid Friday night by beating the Chicago White Sox 3-1.

Hernandez (9-4) improved to 5-0 in eight starts since returning from the disabled list, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball.

Sale (15-7) gave up five hits and walked none in his fifth complete game of the season. He retired the final 16 batters, striking out 10 of them.

Sale struck out six straight in the sixth and seventh innings, one shy of Joe Cowley's team record.

Franklin Gutierrez hit a solo home run and Adam Lind added an RBI double off Sale.

Todd Frazier's 32nd home run in the seventh was one of eight hits off Hernandez until he left with the bases loaded (see full recap).

Gonzalez earns 100th win as Nationals top Rockies
WASHINGTON -- Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy hit solo homers and drove in two runs each, and Gio Gonzalez earned his 100th career victory as the Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies 8-5 on Friday night.

Gonzalez (9-9) threw six innings and allowed two runs and four hits with one walk and five strikeouts.

Mark Melancon retired Christhian Adames for the final out. Melancon entered the game shortly after Nick Hundley hit a three-run homer off Shawn Kelley to pull the Rockies within three.

While Gonzalez hit the century mark, Rockies rookie Jeff Hoffman (0-2), remains in search of his first major league win (see full recap).

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — The New York Mets set the tone for this game early on Friday night. Their first two batters stroked Adam Morgan fastballs over the wall and they were off and slugging to a 9-4 win over the Phillies at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).
 
“There’s not much to say,” manager Pete Mackanin said afterward, “other than we have to pitch better.”
 
The Mets, very much in the thick of the NL wild-card race, played inspired ball in powering their way to their fifth win in the last six games. They hit four home runs on the night, including three against Morgan, and got a typically strong start from Bartolo Colon.
 
“It’s never good when you start a game by giving up two home runs,” Morgan said. “If I make better pitches, it’s a different outcome.”
 
The third home run that Morgan gave up was the killer. It was a grand slam by Wilmer Flores with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. That turned a 2-1 Mets’ lead into a 6-1 Mets’ lead.
 
Flores’ grand slam came on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was a foul pop down the right-field line that Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make the tough play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Then again, the pitcher could have gotten out of the inning unscathed if he did not give up the two-out walk to Walker.
 
Or make a mistake with the first-pitch slider to Flores.
 
“It was a bad pitch,” Mackanin said. “He tried to backdoor a slider and it ended up in his wheelhouse.”
 
As for the pop-up down the right-field line …
 
“I was hoping somebody could run that down,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, you’ve got to pitch around those things and make good pitches. That mistake to Flores put it away for them. Morgan had command issues. Too many pitches out over the plate.”
 
In all, Morgan allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
Reliever Frank Herrmann gave up the Mets’ fourth homer, a two-run shot to Asdrubal Cabrera in the sixth. Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate.
 
Meanwhile, Colon, the Mets’ 43-year-old control artist, did what he often does to the Phillies. He gave up just three hits and a run through seven innings before hitting the wall and giving up three runs without getting an out in the eighth. Colon had to settle for seven-plus innings of four-run ball. He is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
“He seems to own us,” Mackanin said. “We can’t seem to square up the ball against him. He does a tremendous job with control and command.”
 
Peter Bourjos concurred.
 
“He’s different than any pitcher you see these days,” Bourjos said. “You don’t see many guys throwing mostly fastballs at 88 mph and sinking it. You see some guys throwing a majority of sinkers, but it’s 95. This guy changes speeds on his fastball and locates it so well.”
 
The game marked the Phillies’ first without Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday. Jorge Alfaro came up from Double A and served as the backup catcher. He is expected to return to the Reading club on Saturday when A.J. Ellis arrives. The Phillies picked up the veteran backup catcher in the trade.
 
Alfaro did not play, but called the experience of coming to the majors “a dream.”
 
That was the only thing that resembled a dream for the Phillies on Friday night.
 
They have lost 20 of 29 games to the Mets over the last two seasons and 12 of their last 16 in Citi Field, hardly encouraging with two more games to play in the series.