Problems persist for Lee, offense in loss
When we look back at Cliff Lee’s 2012 season, two themes will stand out: a glaring lack of run support and quick, violent shifts from dominance to distress.
Lee again looked brilliant for an extended period of time Saturday night – he retired 12 batters in a row from the second inning through the fifth – but he was greeted in the sixth inning with an infield single by Jon Jay, an Allen Craig double off the top of the right field wall and a three-run homer by Matt Holliday.
Just like that, a Phillies lead turned into a multi-run deficit, and the end result was a 4-1 loss that dropped Lee to 2-7 and the Phils to 51-62 (see Instant Replay)
“I had the game in hand,” Lee said. “I just left a couple pitches up. I felt like things were working up until the last couple innings. I made two key mistakes that pretty much cost us the game.”
Giving up a homer to Holliday is hardly something to agonize over – the righthanded slugger has gone deep 224 times since 2004 and is hitting .388 in his last 49 games. But the way Lee so swiftly unraveled was reminiscent of what happened in his starts against the Mets, Dodgers, Orioles, Blue Jays and Rockies. In each of those games, he was successful deep into the game with the score either tied or the Phillies ahead, and all five ended up as Phillies losses.
“That’s the life of a starting pitcher,” Lee said. “You’ve got to continue to make pitches. Opposing hitters are paid to hit and if you make too many mistakes, they’re going to hit it. Tonight it came down to two mistakes: the pitch to Craig and the pitch to Holliday.”
But those weren’t the only two mistakes. Lee allowed singles to Craig, Holliday and Carlos Beltran to begin the eighth and was yanked after the Cardinals added insurance to their two-run lead. B.J. Rosenberg and Raul Valdes put out the fire, or else Lee’s final line would have looked worse.
What is at the root of these late-game collapses? Is Lee throwing too many strikes? Of his 110 pitches Saturday night, 81 were strikes. And in his last 51 innings he has 41 strikeouts to just five walks, but has allowed 10 home runs.
“If he wins the game, nobody says anything about that,” Charlie Manuel said about the perception that Lee is being too aggressive in the strike zone. “If he gets hit, that’s when you talk about it, that he throws too many strikes. But that’s also the kind of pitcher he is when he’s real good. He’s a tempo-rhythm pitcher and he gets the ball and he doesn’t take a lot of time. He gets it, throws it, he knows exactly how many pitches he has and how he wants to use them and he stays right on hitters.”
On this particular night, Lee stayed right on the St. Louis hitters but they didn’t stay right on him. They took what Lee gave them. They went the other way.
“He was throwing hard stuff up and they went with it, or they didn’t get around on it,” Manuel said. “They stayed on that part of the field, it looked like. All of them hit the ball [to the right side.]
“Home runs come a lot of times when you’re aggressive, when you’re throwing a lot of fastballs. I thought the first five innings tonight he was real good. If anything, he could’ve kept some balls down, the umpire was definitely calling some balls down and Lee left some pitches up. The sixth inning is what did him in, but we didn’t score any runs.”
Yeah, there’s the run support issue, too. Lee hasn’t pitched like a Cy Young award-winner in 2012, but he certainly hasn’t pitched as poorly as his record would indicate. The Phillies have scored just 52 runs in the 140-plus innings Lee has pitched this season. That’s the fifth-worst rate of run support in all of baseball.
“It’s very important for us to win the games when they hold the opposition to three or four runs,” Manuel said of not just Lee, but the offense when Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels pitch, too.
“Our offense was really weak tonight,” Manuel continued. “I think he pitched good enough to win the game if we gave him some runs.”
The offense went stagnant after the first inning against Cardinals’ righthanded sinkerballer Jake Westbrook, who the Phillies lit up earlier this season in St. Louis. Westbrook allowed just one run on four hits over 7 2/3 innings Saturday, and induced a whopping 16 groundouts to just four flyouts. Phillies lefthanders pulled the ball on the ground to second base nine times in the first six innings.
“The umpire had a low strike zone, but, at the same time, Westbrook kept the ball down real good,” said Manuel, who managed Westbrook in Cleveland from 2001-02. “He had a good sinker. He had a low pitch count all night. He was throwing strikes, but we were chasing his sinker.”
The Phillies are at a point in the season where they’ll take any positives they can get. They’re 12 games out of the second wild card spot, and unless seven of the eight teams ahead of them collapse and the Phils play exceptional baseball over the next 49 games, they’ll be at home in October for the first time since 2006.
Michael Schwimer was one positive. He struck out the side in the ninth inning and has 12 Ks in his last six innings pitched. His ERA is down to 3.41, and he is building confidence for what could be a long run in the Phillies’ bullpen.
But for the 2012 Phillies, and especially Lee, much more has gone wrong than right.
“We’ve had a lot of things not go our way this year,” Lee said, “but I expect over time for our talent to play out. I expect us to finish out this year strong and come into next spring expecting to win just like we always do.”
On this date last year, the 77-40 Phillies were idle with the cushion of a major league-best 8½-game division lead. On Aug. 11, 2012, they’re talking about next spring.E-mail Corey Seidman at firstname.lastname@example.org