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News » Paul Hagen: Time for other starters to step up for Phillies

Paul Hagen: Time for other starters to step up for Phillies

Paul Hagen: Time for other starters to step up for Phillies
FIRST IT WAS elbow inflammation in spring training. Then a line drive off the business shoulder last week. Finally, the left ankle twisting grotesquely as Cole Hamels bounced off the mound to field a bunt in the top of the fifth inning.

The last thing needed following this unfortunate sequence of events is a kneejerk reaction. And not because that could present another health hazard for the golden lefthander.

Look, it's almost a wasting of words to point out that the Phillies' chances of getting another one of those big trophies like the one they've been showing off at Citizens Bank Park the last couple nights increase spectacularly if Hamels can produce a reasonable facsimile of his 2008 season.

(The Charlie Manuel giveaway bobblehead that was given to all fans in attendance nods in emphatic agreement.)

At the same time, the reality is that Hamels could be at the very top of his game every fifth day from now until the end of September and it probably won't matter unless the other guys in the rotation join in the party. Yes, it's so very early, but . . .

Brett Myers, who starts tonight: 4.91 earned run average.

Jamie Moyer: 5.09.

Chan Ho Park: 7.16.

Joe Blanton: 8.41.

(The Manuel figurine shakes its head worriedly.)

The real Big Chuck isn't kidding himself, either. Break it down and the Phillies won last year because the pitching, rotation and bullpen, were better than most observers expected.

The Phils have been knocking the whey out of the ball recently, scoring a total of 46 runs during a winning streak that was extended to five games last night. Which is great. Ultimately, though, most games are still won from 60 feet, 6 inches.

So after the almost obligatory observation that nothing really matters as long as you're the ones high-fiving when the game's over, Manuel conceded during his pregame chat that the pitching must improve if the Phils hope to have any chance of repeating.

"We've got to get more consistent. We've got to pitch better," he said earnestly. "And I think our guys know that. Are you concerned? Yeah. But at the same time, we've got to pitch better. Our command has to improve and our starters have to take us deeper into games."

Despite all this Doom & Gloom - deepened by the fact that closer Brad Lidge also has been unavailable because of an inflamed right knee - the Phillies find themselves just a half-game out of first place after a 7-1 win over the Nationals.

This was a game that laid out a blueprint for the preferred method of winning, at least until Hamels went down in a heap. Jump on the other team early. The Phillies scored five in the bottom of the third. Hold the other team down. Hamels was, to use the manager's word, "cruising" until he was hurt.

Manuel's been around this game long enough to understand that scrambling to play catch-up all the time may be exciting for the fans, but it's a painful way to make a living over the 162-game grind that makes up a Baseball season.

All this come-from-behind stuff is great theater. That seven-run ninth against the Marlins last Friday night, with the offense arriving in the nick of time, like the pardon from the governor just before midnight in one of those potboiler movies? Priceless. Another last-gasp rally and extra-inning win the very next night? A thrill-and-a-half.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any more spine-tingly than that, two comebacks for the price of one on Monday night against the Nationals, one to tie the score on a grand slam in the fifth, another salami by Raul Ibanez to win it in the eighth.

The only problem with all this drama, of course, is that the one required ingredient is to fall behind in the first place. The Phillies have done that in every game but two this year. And, most often, that's a reflection on the starting pitching.

The good news is that there have been signs recently that Myers, Moyer and Park are starting to settle in. Each is coming off what might have been his best start of the season.

Blanton hasn't really done much to inspire optimism so far, but it's worth noting that he had a 6.66 ERA in June and July last year before turning himself around and playing a key role in the Phillies' surge to the world championship.

And let's be honest here. The Marlins and Nationals are having big-time bullpen problems in the early going. Washington's relievers have converted just two of eight save opportunities, for crying out loud.

Being down by a handful of runs going into the eighth against the Mets this weekend might not turn out so well, for example. Not with J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez waiting to come in.

Time will tell how quickly Hamels will be able to return. The early prognosis was encouraging, but ankle injuries can be stubborn. As crucial as all that will be, though, it's even more important for the other four guys to start pitching closer to their potential.

Because coming from behind night after night is a risky lifestyle for a defending world champion. *

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Author:Fox Sports
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Added: April 29, 2009

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