Wednesday October 20th, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- Much of Charlie Manuel's charm stems from his meandering soliloquies, folksy and good-natured, often with his insight buried amidst his rambling replies to seemingly straight-forward questions.

So it is noteworthy when the Phillies manager speaks directly and discernibly, as he did when the first question of his press conference following Tuesday's 3-0 loss to the Giants -- "Will Joe Blanton still be starting Game 4 for you tomorrow?" -- was answered tersely and succinctly.

"Yeah," Manuel said, after first staring at the questioner and nodding his head. After another pause, he continued, "He's starting. Yeah, he'll be pitching tomorrow, yes."

Such is the uncomfortable position in which the Phillies find themselves after falling behind San Francisco 2-1 in the National League Championship Series, their triumvirate of aces having abdicated home-field advantage. The vaunted H20 of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt has so far been upstaged by the Giants' Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez -- a trio that at this juncture of the postseason could aptly be nicknamed LCS.

The alternative that continues to be suggested to and shot down by Manuel is to skip Blanton altogether and return in Games 4, 5 and 6 with Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels all on short rest. Halladay could potentially pitch Game 7 in a second straight start on only three days' rest. But neither Manuel nor Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee indicated that such a scenario was ever genuinely discussed internally.

"We just think Joe's good enough to pitch," Dubee said. "Why all of a sudden would we move three guys up on short rest? One, Roy [Halladay]'s coming up on a career high in innings pitched, and two, Cole's never done it. There's your downside."

Halladay has actually already exceeded his career high of 266 innings in 2003, having thrown a combined 266 2/3 regular and post-season innings in 2010. Hamels has indeed never started with fewer than four days of rest.

That's why the unexciting yet recently effective Blanton -- who went 6-1 with a 3.48 ERA in the season's second half -- gets the ball in Game 4, to be opposed by Giants star rookie Madison Bumgarner. Blanton beat the Giants in Philadelphia on Aug. 18, allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings in an 8-2 win. But he hasn't pitched in a game since a one-inning relief stint on Oct. 3 and hasn't started since Sept. 29. In the meantime he has thrown a few bullpens and a simulated game.

"To really keep yourself ready you just have to get a lot of mound work in between," Blanton said before Game 3. "Just make sure you're getting those reps off the hill and working on all your pitches and keeping your mechanics real sound and solid. . . . My arm feels good. I always feel good this time of year."

Blanton has made five career postseason starts -- all in Game 4 of a series -- and the Phillies are 4-1 in those outings. One of those wins came in the 2008 World Series, during which he also homered.

"I think he's going to go out there and just show it tomorrow," Phillies closer Brad Lidge said. "It doesn't matter if people doubt him or not. He's ready. The biggest thing is that he's done exactly what he's doing tomorrow before."

If Blanton fails to deliver in Game 4, the Phillies will have Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels lined up for the series' final three games, all on regular rest, but each would then be pitching in an elimination game.

Philadelphia must be wondering how it fell behind in this series with those starters and an opponent in the Giants that hasn't scored five runs in a game since Sept. 25 -- a span of 14 games. The Phillies were 29-10 in starts made by H20 after July 31, and the combination of those starters made them the prohibitive NL favorites and the best of the past three Phillies teams -- exceeding, on paper, the 2008 World Series champions and '09 Series runners-up.

But there is a recent cautionary tale of a seemingly dominant starting pitching trio that never won a title: the mid-decade Houston Astros, who lost in Game 7 of the '04 NLCS and were swept in the '05 World Series. Those Astros teams cast Roger Clemens as the Cy Young-winning ace, a la Halladay; Andy Pettitte as the crafty lefty with a postseason series MVP trophy, much like Hamels; and Roy Oswalt as, well, Roy Oswalt.

"These guys are just like those guys." Oswalt said during Friday's NLCS media day.

The updated Philadelphia version of the trio's lone commonality is that they are great pitchers. After that, each has his own style. Halladay, who rarely talks to anyone other than his catcher on game days, pounds the strike zone with great command of four pitches. Oswalt is apt to be joking around some 30 minutes before he takes the mound and is more reliant on his fastball than the other Roy, though Oswalt has used his changeup more this year than ever before.

Hamels, whose pregame affability is somewhere in between the two extremes of the Roys', has in 2010 used a pitching repertoire -- fastball, changeup, cutter, curve -- that is very similar to Halladay's, except their approaches and interpretations of scouting reports are drastically different because one is right-handed and the other left-handed.

"Halladay throws a bit different than I do, and Cole's left-handed," Oswalt said, "so really the only thing we feed off each other is momentum."

As the longtime Orioles manager Earl Weaver used to say, however, "Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." That typically works well when the Phillies are can call on one of their three aces. Now, for the first time this postseason, they are handing the ball -- and perhaps their fate -- to someone who isn't.

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