Baseball: The Phillies' Secret Weapon, the Bullpen

by Suzie Raven

Fans of sports in Philadelphia always swear their team will win a championship, even when it’s as likely as Mike Huckabee becoming president. For instance, they KNEW that the Flyers would win the 2008 Stanley Cup even after the hockey team fell behind 0-3 in the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference Finals. (The Flyers are still down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, heading into Sunday's clash.)

When it comes to baseball and the 2008 Phillies, they might actually have a point.

Their strong offense includes unstoppable second baseman Chase Utley, who leads the league in homeruns with 14 and bats .323. Analysts already expect him be voted 2008 Most Valuable Player. Left-fielder Pat Burrell’s hot streak from the last half of 2007 continues. With Jimmy Rollins back from an injury, the Phillies can count on his speed and base running skills again. Once powerhouse Ryan Howard breaks his slump, their offense will be formidable. That’ll happen soon — Howard's springtime slumps are becoming routine.

These hitters have been with the Phillies for years. Howard won MVP in 2006 and Rollins in 2007. Still, the team consistently falls short. In 2007, they made the playoffs thanks to the New York Mets falling apart in the final week of the season.

In 2008, the difference is in the pitching. Traditionally the Phillies' bullpen has struggled even worse than their defense. Right now, their bullpen has the best ERA (2.73) in the majors. At first, I assumed I was dreaming, but ESPN’s Eric Karabell echoed my shock: “Geez, where was I when the Phillies — yes, the Phillies — were compiling the best bullpen ERA in the major leagues?”

Granted, the Phillies' starting pitching is 22nd in the league and nowhere near the level of the Oakland Athletics, who currently have the best record in Major League Baseball (MLB).

To strike a stronger pace, the Phillies' defense certainly needs work. The 35 team errors this season puts them ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, and Texas Rangers. Fielding errors have plagued them in their best years, even during the 1993 World Series run. It was impossible not to laugh at outfielder Pete Incaviglia’s somersaults into the dugout while he attempted to catch fly balls.

However, watch out for the Fightin’ Phils. They have the offense and the bullpen. A little starting pitching and a little defense will work magic. They’ve scraped their way into the playoffs with far less.

(Photo of pitcher Clay Condrey, a member of the Phillies' bullpen, from 2007 by dbking of Washington, D.C. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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