Once More, with Pheeling: Phils at Cards

The St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies lock horns for the third and final time this season. Columnist Will Horton tees up his series preview.

These days, when the St. Louis Cardinals face the Philadelphia Phillies, I find myself circling the dates on my calendar. So far this season, the two teams have provided nothing but great baseball drama.

The teams first met in June with identical records of 40-28, both firmly established as early contenders for their division. The first game of that series started on a Friday the 13th, and appeared as though it might last all weekend, for the Cardinals' pitching staff exhausted itself in futile effort to find 27 outs.  Supersub Aaron Miles had to take the mound as the sixth reliever, and thankfully capped the onslaught at 20-2. However, the Cards shrugged off the beating and took the final two games of the series, earning both victories by a single run.

This series sketched out a mythic conflict – pitting a powerful but mercurial force against an undersized but opportunistic and relentless unit. To date, that 20-2 demolition stands as the Phillies' high point of the season, in terms of runs scored, division lead, and games over .500.

The second series started, as does this one, with Phils' ace lefty Colbert Hamels on the mound, one of baseball's most unhittable starting pitchers. This day in July belonged to the oft-overlooked Joel Pineiro, though, as he kept the Phillies' offense guessing while the Cardinals found two solo home runs – just enough to win on a day that saw only three hits total for the Birds.

The strategy of not scoring a lot of runs and hoping for pitching brilliance did not work well the rest of the series, though, as Philadelphia took the last two, to retain a slim division lead over the surging Mets.

They would end up coughing up that lead, but not for very long as a recent five-game winning streak piloted them from two games back to a game up on the New Yorkers.

Ironically, this particular winning streak was ignited by abysmal outings from Hamels and their newest starter, former A's pitcher Joe Blanton. Hamels suffered his shortest outing of the year, allowing nine runs to the Braves in a calamitous fourth inning. Blanton fared little better, getting yanked before registering an at-bat in his start the next day. However, the Phillies' lineup erupted on both occasions, overcoming a combined 11-run deficit to win both games and drive a stake through the heart of the Braves' season.

The acquisition of Blanton was the latest deadline-deal folly perpetrated by the Phillies' front office, who has made some infamously bad deals in years past – most notably, dealing Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees in July 2006 for C-level prospects. Even though they were on the other side of the fence this time, dealing prospects for "proven major league talent," the pitcher they received is perhaps no better than the man he replaces in the rotation – Adam Eaton. And the talent they lost, prospects Adrian Cardenas and Josh Outman, were ranked #2 and #5 in our Scout.com Top 20 prospect list for Philadelphia in 2008.

Among his pitching comparables entering his age-27 year, baseball-reference.com lists our old friends Kip Wells and Jason Marquis. And Blanton rang up numbers this year in the very pitcher-friendly confines in Oakland that would have made either man blush: a 5-12 record with a rather pedestrian 4.96 ERA. Perhaps the only promising number on his statistical ledger was a low rate of home runs allowed, a not-surprising figure in the cavernous concrete tank known as the Network Associates Coliseum.

Granted, he was expected to be a reliable pack-horse, not a powerful white Arabian. For a team desperate for innings from its rotation – only Hamels and Moyer are averaging even six innings per start – acquiring a reliable "innings-eater" seemed sound strategy. And eat he can. From 2004-06, the Oakland right-hander fattened up on 203, 192, and 230 frames, pitching with general effectiveness and occasional brilliance the whole way.

He has yet to live up to his waistband, however. Since arriving in Philly, Blanton has consumed a total of eight innings in two starts, coughing up seven runs and two homers. Both times his team bailed him out for wins, wins that could just as easily been enabled by the likes of J.A. Happ, their version of Mitchell Boggs.

In a trade deadline that featured an unusual number of high-profile players sent back and forth – perhaps the most exciting deadline since Carlos Beltran – the Cardinals might have hoped to sneak in a low-profile acquisition or two, most notably to boost their tired bullpen and revolving rotation.

However, as this deal might prove once again, often it is better not to make a move, especially when viable alternatives might exist already in your system.

 

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