Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Sunday, May 22, 2011
Utley's return makes Phillies East favorites

By David Schoenfield


In a year that has been so improbable, the most predictable result has been that of the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies have allowed the fewest runs in the major leagues behind a rotation that leads the majors in complete games, strikeouts and fewest walks allowed. The staff has combined for seven shutouts, a pace of 25 -- that would be the most since the 1969 Mets recorded 28.

As a result, the Phillies are 28-18, owners of the second-best record in the majors.

On the other hand, the Phillies have struggled to score runs in the absence of Chase Utley and Domonic Brown (and now Shane Victorino). Despite playing in one of the better hitter's parks in the league, the Phillies are 12th in the NL in runs per game and on pace for 620 runs, which would be the lowest total for a Phillies team in a full season since the 1988 club scored 597. Juan Samuel led that team with 67 RBIs and Steve Jeltz hit .187 in 148 games. After averaging 4.6 runs per game in April, the Phillies are averaging 2.8 in May after getting shut out on Sunday by the Rangers. They haven't scored more than three runs in their past nine games, a stretch in which they're hitting .172.

As a result, the Phillies have won just one game in which they've allowed more than four runs.

Utley is set to return Monday and Brown returned on Saturday, going 0-for-4 in his season debut. Their replacements did not fare well: Phillies second basemen (mostly Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr) are hitting a punchless .226 (no homers, 10 RBIs) and their right fielders (mostly Ben Francisco) are hitting .224/.323/.370.

How much of an impact will Utley have on the lineup? Valdez and Orr combined for about 13 runs created in 177 combined plate appearances. Last season, Chase Utley played 115 games -- coincidentally, almost exactly how many games the Phillies have remaining (116) -- and created about 82 runs in 511 PAs while hitting .275/.387/.445. At their current rate of production, Valdez and Orr would be expected to create about 37 runs over 511 PAs -- meaning Utley, if he plays every day the rest of the season -- would add about 45 runs to the Phillies' team total if he hits like he did in 2010.

Based on that current pace of 620 runs, that changes the expected total to 665 runs -- still well below 2010's 772, which ranked second in the NL.

It may not seem like a huge difference, but 45 runs would make a dramatic impact on the NL East race. Considering none of the Phillies' other regulars are necessarily sure bets to improve much on their current numbers, the Phillies are desperately counting on Utley to produce and remain healthy. If he does, I think that solidifies the Phillies as the NL East favorite right now.

Well, assuming Roy Halladay and company keep spinning all those zeroes.

(For more on Utley and the Phillies, check out Bill Baer's take at Crashburn Alley.)

SERIES OF THE WEEK

Boston at Cleveland, Monday-Wednesday

Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET): Clay Buchholz (4-3, 3.42) vs. Justin Masterson (5-2, 2.52)
Tuesday: Josh Beckett (3-1, 1.73) vs. Fausto Carmona (3-4, 4.76)
Wednesday: Jon Lester (6-1, 3.68) vs. Undecided

These teams met in the first week of the season in Cleveland for three cold, dreary days, but it was a series that set up Cleveland's magical run so far: the Indians swept the Red Sox, sparking an eight-game winning streak.

After a shaky April, Buchholz has looked like the pitcher from last season, with a 1.40 ERA, .202 average and one home run allowed in four starts. Beckett continues to roll, leading AL starters in ERA while ranking second to Justin Verlander in opponents' average and second to Dan Haren in OPS allowed.

For Cleveland, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is having a terrific season, raising his average to .302 after a 5-for-5 day with two home runs on Sunday. Shin-Soo Choo is also heating up, hitting .381 the past week. The Indians will be without DH Travis Hafner, placed on the DL on Friday with a strained oblique.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

Friday: Tim Lincecum (4-4, 2.06) vs. Shaun Marcum (6-1, 2.37), Giants at Brewers

Marcum has allowed zero runs or one run in six of his 10 starts, including four of his past five. As predicted, his numbers have improved across the board since moving from Toronto to Milwaukee: More strikeouts, fewer hits and a lower home run rate. Lincecum is quietly having another terrific season, ranking fourth in the NL in ERA, second in innings and third in strikeouts. He's throwing more ground balls than ever this season, but maintaining one of the best strikeout rates in the majors. Not to state the obvious, but what an amazing pitcher.

THREE SWINGS

1. The first round of interleague play is completed and the National League held its own, earning a split of the 42 games. After winning the head-to-head tally in four of the first seven seasons of interleague play, the NL hasn't earned a season victory since 2003. The nadir was 2006, when the AL crushed the NL with a 154-98 record. The NL has fared better the past two seasons, going 114-137 in 2009 and 118-134 in 2010. Despite the split, there were still signs of the AL's superiority. It outscored the NL 187-158 and held the NL to zero runs or one run in 12 of the 42 games, compared to the NL's six games allowing one or fewer runs.

2. Several weeks ago, I wrote about Josh Collmenter picking up a victory in relief in his major league debut for the Diamondbacks. Collmenter wasn't really much of a prospect, but after pitching well in relief, the Diamondbacks moved him into the rotation and he's responded with 12 scoreless inning over two starts. Collmenter has a funky, over-the-top delivery that maybe hitters will figure out once they get better scouting reports. But right now he's throwing strikes (one walk in 26 innings, counting his relief outings) and he's provided a lift for an Arizona rotation dying for a homegrown prospect to make good. The Diamondbacks have won six straight to claw back to .500. Collmenter starts Tuesday at Colorado.

3. With so much negative injury news going on, good to hear that Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz should be activated on Monday for the Rangers. A month ago, the Rangers were 14-7, but they've gone just 10-16 since -- although they lost just two games off their lead in the mediocre AL West. The offense has been the culprit for the slide (boy does that refrain sound familiar in 2011) as the Rangers were scuffling along at a .233/.305/.325 mark in May before Sunday's 2-0 victory. After hitting 36 home runs April, they have 11 in May. There's an argument to made that the Rangers are actually a bad offensive team, as they have an .811 OPS at home and .650 on the road. That road OPS is 11th in the AL, barely higher than Seattle's. Hamilton and Cruz will help, but this could be a team that needs a hitter at the trade deadline, not a pitcher. Check out their individual road splits.

RANT OF THE WEEK

The All-Star ballot is out already?!?!? Isn't the game in July?!?!?! And they want us to vote already?!?!?! The season isn't even 50 games old!!!! It's crazy and just shows MLB is a bunch of money-grubbing business men who don't even care about the sanctity of the voting process!!!!

Of course I voted! Here's my May 22 ballot:

1B: Adrian Gonzalez (AL); Joey Votto (NL). With Albert Pujols' slow start, easy choices in both leagues.

2B: Ben Zobrist (AL); Rickie Weeks (NL). Whatever happened to Brad Emaus anyway? (I think Karabell will still vote for him, however.)

SS: Asdrubal Cabrera (AL); Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (NL). I don't go straight "best season," so I'll give Tulo the slight edge over Starlin Castro and Jose Reyes.

3B: Kevin Youkilis (AL); Chipper Jones (NL). Watered-down NL field with injuries to Ryan Zimmerman and now David Wright.

C: Russell Martin (AL); Brian McCann (NL). Yadier Molina off to a hot start, and McCann to slow one (for him), but I'll take McCann.

DH: David Ortiz (AL). Why is this slot even on the ballot?

OF: Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson and Matt Joyce (AL); Ryan Braun, Lance Berkman and Matt Kemp (NL). Only three AL outfielders have an OPS higher than .900 and eight above .800. Kemp gets the third nod over Matt Holliday since he plays center field.

P: Michael Pineda (AL); Roy Halladay (NL). What's an All-Star ballot if not allowing for at least one hometown vote? And don't tell me you wouldn't want to see this matchup! OK, OK ... pitchers aren't even on the ballot. (By the way, Mariners starters have gone nine straights starts of pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer.)

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Albert Pujols
Relax, Albert, it's a long day. The Cardinals and Royals did have to go extra innings, after all.