Monday, August 31, 2009

The One Decision Between the Phillies and Another World Series

Another week, another blown save by Brad Lidge.

Granted, Lidge's latest abomination was now four or five days ago at this point, but I've been stewing over it ever since. This one was particularly bad, in that we came back and took the lead 4-3 in the top of the ninth against the league-worst Pittsburgh Pirates, only to see Lidge blow it in the bottom of the 9th in spectacular fashion. This article pretty much sums it up better than I could, but suffice it to say, the rest of Philadelphia is finally starting to accept what I've been saying for months and months now:

Brad Lidge has got to go.

I know, I know, Brad Lidge was our savior in 2008. Over the entirety of the 2008 World Championship Philadelphia Phillies season, Lidge probably had as much to do with the city nabbing its first professional sports title in 25 years as anybody, period. His perfect 47 saves in 47 appearances will live on in stories told by grandfathers to grandsons for generations in Philly, believe me when I say that, and nobody was a bigger Lidge guy last year than me. You'll never hear me take anything away from what Lidge did in bouncing back from blowing huge playoff games on longballs for the Houston Astros to come in and basically be perfect for an entire season in 2008, and if I hear someone else minimize his contributions to the 2008 championship I won't even let it go for a second without educating the speaker on this game we call professional baseball.

But the thing is, this isn't 2008, and the 2009 flavor of Brad Lidge isn't anywhere near as good as the 2008 version. In fact, Brad Lidge absolutely sucks balls this year.

There, I said it.

As the above article references, Lidge's record is now up to 0-6 with an ERA of 7.33, easily the highest of any reliever in the majors. His nine blown saves so far in 2009 also leads both leagues by two saves over his closest competition for this ignominious stat. And it's not like blowing big games is exactly a new thing for Lidge. Astros fans would still like to have Lidge drawn and quartered after he single-handedly ruined their playoff run in 2005 by giving up a monstrous home run to Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and with the Astros just the one win away from advancing in the league championship series. No, sadly, Lidge has pretty much been a step-down-in-the-clutch kind of guy for years, somehow only digging deep again and again during the magical Phillies run of 2008, but in 2009 Lidge has reverted back to his old suck-job form, and Phillies fans are being forced to repeatedly bear the brunt of the decision to keep Lidge pitching.

The saddest part of the entire article to the Phillies fans is not the details of Lidge's latest failure, but rather Phils' manager Charlie Manuel's quote at the end of the piece:

"He's got to stay with it," Manuel said. "He's got to keep going. ... That's all we can do. ... That's where we're at. That's our closer. I've said that all along. That's the guy we give the ball to in the ninth inning."

I mean, Manuel makes it sound like he actually doesn't have an actual choice to actually sit Lidge's ass on the bench, on the DL, wherever. When in reality, if Manuel were not simply being too loyal to his hero from 2008, nothing could be further from the truth. As I've written about recently, Pedro Martinez was recently brought in by the Phillies, and here is a perfect example of a guy who has never won a championship but who could play a pivotal role for us by coming out of the bullpen to close our games. P-Mart is perfect for the role in many ways because he has the power, he has the finesse, and the one thing he doesn't have at this point in his career anymore is length. But for a 1- or even 2-inning guy, nobody who knows baseball can tell me that Pedro is a worse option than Brad Lidge right now. It's not even close. And let's not forget the man who Pedro replaced in the Phillies' starting rotation, old man Jamie Moyer, who still leads the team in wins with 12, now coming off the bench in a bullpen role already as it is. And there is also the imminent return of Brett Myers from injury, who not only has the stuff relievers are made of, but who has also pitched out of the 'pen in late relief already recently in his career in Philadelphia. So even if Manuel doesn't necessarily want to go with hard-throwing righthander Ryan Madson (who frankly hasn't been much better in this role than Lidge this year) to close games, in reality he's got plenty of options just sitting on the bench for him to go to instead of Lidge in any situation, any time he wants. Truthfully, Manuel probably has more realistic options at closer than anybody in the entire major leagues at this point in time. And yet somehow, he has no choice but to keep going again and again to the clearly dried-up well that is Brad Lidge? "He's our guy in the ninth inning, that's just the team we are?" WTF!

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Whoa. A week sure flew by in a hurry. I meant to say something about this in advance, but I have been pretty much out of pocket and not even online much for the past couple of weeks. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the biggest one pretty much includes Hammer Wife and I having another baby a couple of days ago. So I haven't really been working, and I really haven't even been on the grid at all for the most part.

But I've still been keeping in touch with what's going on in the world, and frankly I would've probably had a ton to write about if this had been a normal past week for me. So with that I will leave you today with some random thoughts on the things that have happened in the world of sports since last we spoke. As always, in no particular order.

For starters, Plaxico Burress has got to have the worst big-time lawyer in the world. This guy somehow managed to get two years in real-life prison, out in 20 months for good behavior (fat chance), simply for carrying a weapon into a New York nightclub without it having been registered in New York. Now, the gun was registered in the state Plax purchased it in, mind you, and he had been through the interview process and answered all the questions associated with registration of such a gun, but the law in New York says that all concealed handguns must be registered in the State of New York in order to be possessed in the state.

Now don't get me wrong -- what Plaxico did was bad, and more importantly, it was clearly a crime under the laws of the State of New York. All that law requires is possession of a gun, and that gun not to be registered in New York, and you are guilty of violating the law. Period. And Plax clearly satisfied both elements of this relatively clear crime. Yet Plax's "lawyer to the stars", Ben Brathman, first decided to take the unusual step of Plax testifying as part of the grand jury hearing to determine whether or not Plaxico would be indicted for illegal possession of a handgun. Normally a defendant is not at all involved in the grand jury process, but I guess Ben Brathman thought he might be able to win some leniency from the grand jury in some form by presenting the mitigating circumstances of Plaxico's situation. Unfortunately, all the mitigation in the world doesn't change the fact that Plax carried a gun not registered in New York into a nightclub in New York, and the grand jury quickly voted to indict as seemed obvious to everyone but Plax's big-money lawyer. Brathman's follow-up strategy of talking tough on beating the charges and in plea negotiations with the Manhattan DA also totally failed, as Brathman again tried to deny the fact that violation of New York's unregistered gun law carries a mandatory statutory prison term of 3 1/2 years. So why is the DA going to agree to Plax doing no jail time when it is clear as a bell that Plax violated a state law, and that law clearly stipulates a 3 1/2 year minimum jail term for any violation?

In the end, Plax will serve two years in NY state prison. All because he bought a gun, registered it in the state of purchase, and then carried it with him into a nightclub in New York City one night. He never intended to use the gun and certainly had not intent to harm or injure anyone in any way, and again he had registered the gun he was charged for. And yet he's getting two years in jail.

I certainly hope he didn't pay Benjamin Brathman too much up front for his "expertise". If I'm rich and famous and I'm charged with a crime in the future, I wouldn't even consider talking to Brathman about my case.

Staying in the NFL for a minute, there's always Brett Favre. What can you even say at this point? I mean, clearly he is a selfish, self-centered individual who cannot see what others can see about him. Favre hasn't been a good quarterback for years, literally, and the havoc he has caused for three or four different NFL teams over the past several seasons with his complete unwillingness to decide on his future by any deadlines he or potential suitor teams have set is nearing legendary levels at this point. But you know what? At this point I am through being pissed about Favre and his magical ego tour. I'm actually interested and excited to watch how he plays this year, especially on a team that I consider to be pretty mediocre overall in Minnesota. They're not bad by any means, but Favre has really made his bed at this point, and now the whole country is going to be watching him weekly, with most of them probably rooting for him to fall flat on his pretty face.

And speaking of people who fans will love to hate this year, my Eagles' acquisition of Mike Vick is still in the forefront of my mind. In the end, I think I have a similar feeling to the Vick situation as I do about the whole Favre debacle -- as I have discussed previously, what Vick did is reprehensible to be sure. And I'm still embarrassed as all getout that it's going to be my team -- my Eagles -- who Vick will be suiting up for all through this season. But as I wrote about previously, I don't really have any problem with Vick getting signed by somebody, and in my heart I know Vick deserves the second chance after 23 months in prison and 32+ games suspended if an NFL team is willing to put up with all the shit that will surely go along with employing him. And, as with the Favre situation, at this point I am more excited than anything else about seeing just what the crazy mind of Andy Reid comes up with as far as where and how to play someone of Mike Vick's athletic caliber. Will McNabb and Vick both line up behind the line and make defenders guess who will get the snap from center? Will Vick line up as a wide receiver or tight end as has been rumored of late? Will Vick even have set plays run for him to come out of the backfield with the potential to bust through some holes? There are just a whole lot of ways Vick can be integrated into this offense, and I can foresee people tuning in just to see what the Eagles do next with him on the roster.

Before I go today, I would be remiss if I did not mention Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, who have continued trucking along and at this moment sit at a season-high 22 games over .500, thanks in no small part to what has become at this point an indisputably strong starting pitching rotation. The first nice surprise has been Pedro Martinez, although if you've followed P-Mart's career along then I suppose his performance thus far for the Champs hasn't been that out of character. Basically, just as I've been saying here for over a month now, P-Mart has become a decently solid 5- or 6-inning starter. He will probably never sniff the 7th inning again in his major league pitching career, but he's usually good for 5 or 6 innings, getting himself into trouble maybe twice and giving up 2-4 earned runs. But he seems to have sufficient stuff to avoid the big meltdown innings and getting rocked early most of the time, which has been helpful for the Phillies at the bottom of the rotation and hopefully will continue to do so.

But the real story with the Phillies success this year, and in particular in the second half, lies in two other pitchers, both of whom were tangentially involved in the possible trade talks for Roy Halladay just before the trading deadline. First, you've got J.A. Happ, the 26-year-old phenom making his first attempt at being a starter in this, the third season where he made at least one appearance for the major league club. Happ is you recall was required by the Blue Jays as part of any trade for their ace Roy Halladay, and Phillies' GM Ruben Amaro had even offered up Happ as part of a 4-player proposal, which Blue Jays' GM J.P. Ricciardi rejected because it did not also include #1 Phillies pitching prospect Kyle Drabek. Well, the rest is GM legend history as Amaro then opted to keep both Drabek and Happ, and to trade a few other lesser prospects for Indians' starter Cliff Lee instead. More on Lee in a minute, but Happ has continued on being just tremendous since narrowly missing being traded thanks to the Jays' GM being outmaneuvered by Amaro. Since the Phillies kept Happ and acquired Cliff Lee on July 29, J. Happ is 4-0 for the Phils, three of those wins on the road including wins at wildcard-fighting Atlanta and Chicago plus a 7-0 shutout win at home against the wildcard-leading Rockies. In those four starts, Happ has pitched 29.2 innings, or well into the 8th inning on average per start. And in those 29.2 innings? Just one home run and four total runs allowed, for an awesome 1.26 ERA this month. Simply put, the guy has been a total pimp for us and this is why myself and so many other Phillies fans were thrilled with Amaro's move keeping Happ and not giving in to the Blue Jays' ludicrous demands for Halladay instead.

Meanwhile, Cliff Lee's performance since he came to Philly instead of Roy Halladay on July 29 makes J. Happ seem like Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams in the 1993 World Series. If there was any doubt about Ruben Amaro's genius in this, just his first year as a General Manager of a major league baseball team, after letting Pat Burrell and his 12 home runs so far in 2009 go to the Rays and picking up Raul Ibanez in the offseason, picking up an effective Pedro Martinez for peanuts a couple of months back, and then managing to keep both J. Happ and Kyle Drabek in making a big trade before the trading deadline, then what Cliff Lee has done in Philly has got to ice it. Now in five starts for the World Champions, Cliff Lee is 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA. No that's not a typo. Lee has pitched 7, 7, 8, 9 and 9 innings in his five starts so far for the Phils, giving up a total of 26 hits in those 40 innings -- none of them home runs -- and a grand total of three earned runs. In 40 innings. He's also pitched 39 strikeouts compared to just six walks during that time period, so this is a guy with the total package of impeccable control and awesome power across the board. And you know what the best part is? During this same time period (since July 29), Roy Hallday has gone 2-4 with an ERA of 4.40, giving up 8 home runs and allowing opposing batters to hit .324 against him. I knew this whole thing was going to blow up in Ricciardi's face, toying with his ace's emotions like he did by publicly broadcasting his desire to trade the starter to a contender, and then turning down some very powerful offers including top prospects plus guys like J. Happ and leaving Halladay high and dry with a losing team for the second half of the season, but it's good to see someone's ineptitude come home to roost once in a while. But hey I'm not complaining -- Ricciardi's big gaffe was Ruben Amaro's gain, and I have to admit as a Philly sports fan it feels good for once in a long while to be the team that took advantage of someone else's ineptitude instead of the team getting taken advantage of.

OK that's all for now. I may have some more this week but next week on Monday I should be back and better than ever on my regular posting schedule as things begin to return a little bit back to normal in my home and in my life.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

High Time

Thats it. Brad Lidge, you are officially dead to me.

Last season's Mr. Perfect is now 0-5 with 8 blown saves on the season, leading all pitchers in the National League in that stat. Every Phillies fan knows, whenever this guy enters a game this entire season, it's like shades of back in the "Wild Thing" days. Even when he saves a game this year (and much of last year, for that matter), getting that save entails giving up a double, walking a guy or two and always always always putting the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position. After one year of glory at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, Brad Lidge has returned to what he always was before the miracle of 2008, which is basically a suckjob pitcher that you wouldn't want out on a major league mound unless your team is either up 15-2 or down 15-2.

What I want to know is, when are Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies finally gonna get smart and just make Pedro Martinez our new closer?

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Vick Returns

Michael Vick, back in the NFL.

With the Eagles.

I'm still trying to figure this one out and I imagine it will be a good long while before I finally have all of my thoughts in order on this one. All I have on this today is a couple of quick hits:

1. I've already made my feelings known here about the Vick situation generally. Everyone deserves a second chance, certainly Vick in my view given what he did, and I believe that two years and a 32-game suspension (and counting) is more that sufficient punishment for his disgusting behavior. That said, I am still having a hard time accepting that he will be playing for my lifelong team, the Eagles. But hey, at least he won't have to deal with those rabid Philly fans as hostiles on the road at the Linc!

2. Although Vick's salary is $1.6 million for the 2009 season, the Eagles have an option for 2010 as well. At a much loftier $5.2 million. That is a lot of money, especially for a guy who hasn't stepped foot on a football field or even in an NFL workout or practice facility in over two years. There's just no way you pay that kind of money to someone who you aren't even thinking about being your quarterback.

3. There are probably lots of ways to use a guy of Vick's athleticism other than as purely an every-down starting quarterback. He could be the QB on 3rd-and-long and other special situations. He could play in the increasingly popular wildcat formation, should the Eagles elect to start running plays from that setup. More intriguing to me, I could see Vick playing a more "slash" type of role, where he can line up at times as a runningback, or even a wide receiver. If Vick shows even half the raw athleticism that he did years ago as the Falcons' quarterback, he should be able to contribute very meaningfully in that role.

4. According to Andy Reid, Tony Dungy, Mike Vick and even Eagles QB Donovan McNabb himself, McNabb played a significant role in helping this decision to happen. I still cannot get my head around that. I mean, of all the quarterbacks in the entire NFL, D-Mac might very possibly be the most insecure, most emotionally fragile, of all of them. The guy barfs during the superbowl, he cries weekly about TO, and he gets really pissy every time the fans clamor for him to go to the bench after he sucks it up royally for a few weeks. And now this guy is affirmatively approaching his coach and arguing to bring in one of the few guys in the league who plays McNabb's same position and who is arguably even more athletic than McNabb himself? For almost $7 million over two years?

I swear, something does not quite add up here.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

P-Mart's Got Game

Yep, that's my new nickname for Pedro Martinez, book it. P-Mart.

Anyways, I know I have not posted much this week, but suffice it to say it has been a very, very busy time for me. Judging by how many blog updates I'm seeing (and not seeing) these days, most of you can relate. It's August, the summer is coming to an end, people are vacationing, spending time with family, going to the beach, and just generally decompressing after the WSOP came to a close with a bang last month with Phil Ivey final tabling the Main Event. So you can count me in on that boat, except in my case I haven't been away so much as just super busy between work and home life.

In any event, Pedro Martinez made his debut for Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field. And you know what? He wasn't half bad.

Now don't get me wrong, Pedro ultimately did exactly what I was telling you guys he would do a month ago when I first posted about him -- he made it through just five full innings on the night, requiring us to go to the bullpen for four separate innings, just like he did with regularity over the past couple of seasons in New York. Pedro is just not more than a 5 or 6 inning guy anymore, period. Ever. And that in and of itself is not a great turn of events for the Phillies, and there's no doubt in my mind that it won't be changing here as Pedro celebrates his 75th birthday in the City of Brotherly Shove.

But all that said, Pedro's five innings were actually pretty solid. All month all I've heard -- in particular coming out of the New York sports media -- was how Pedro is a shell of his former self, Pedro can't get anybody out, and Pedro's fastball is down to 80, 85 miles per hour. Well, I'm happy to say, all three of those statements are not exactly true. I mean, 75-year-old Pedro is surely nowhere near the form we saw from him back when he was truly baseball-aged, back when he was going 17-8 with 305 strikeouts and a 1.90 ERA for Montreal in 1997, or 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 K's for the Sox in 1999. But he's not exactly a shell of his former self either, at least not from his recent former self of the past few years in New York. Pedro on Wednesday night was more or less exactly like he was the past season or two with the Mets -- able to pitch a fairly solid 5 or 6 innings, giving up 2-4 runs but able to come up with just enough to wriggle his way out of any more trouble than that.

P-Mart was certainly able to get batters out on the night, including five strikeouts in five innings, and he managed to pitch his way out of trouble without major damage on two occasions including in his final inning where the bases were quickly juiced with nobody out. P-Mart had decent control on the night too, only walking one batter in his 5.0 innings pitched, throwing 54 strikes out of a total 99 pitches thrown. The seven hits and three earned runs he gave up in five innings wasn't spectacular, but anyone expecting spectacular out of Old Man P-Mart needs to get off the crack. But Pedro definitely had some game in Chicago last night, as the Cubs' batters would be the first to tell you. As would the radar gun btw, which regularly registered above 90 mph on P-Mart's fastball, which looked to me at least as good as I saw it all of last season at with the Mets.

In all, Pedro Martinez definitely justified his presence on the field last night, and in so doing effectively won over thousands of Phillies fans like me who doubted that he even had what it takes to get back on a major league roster and do the job. Even though he is and will never again be near his steroid-era form, P-Mart showed the world that he in fact still has some game left in him. I don't see myself agreeing anytime soon with Phils' GM Ruben Amaro's decision to stick Jamie Moyer -- the team's winningest pitcher for two years running now -- in the bullpen in favor of the aged Martinez, at least we saw this week that P-Mart isn't completely running on empty. I still have a sneaking suspicion that Martinez would have a chance of being an excellent late-game reliever or even closer for one or two innings at a time, probably of more value to the team overall due to the strain using him as a starter puts on our bullpen. But at least he's not the stiff I was afraid we might see when he stepped onto the mound for the first time again in the majors.

At least now the hometown fans might give the guy a lil love when he makes his first start at Citizen's Bank Field as a Phillie, as opposed to the absolute trashing he was fixing to receive if he went out there and dogged it at Wrigley on Wednesday night.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Damn Yankees

Although I live in a part of the country where one might expect to hear this kind of talk more frequently than anywhere else, I'm still just about the only person out there saying this right now, and it's a refrain I've been repeating for a solid few weeks at this point:

It's time we start thinking of this year's Yankees team in the same light as those great World Championship teams of the 1990s.

The 2009 New York Yankees are not only the best team in baseball, but they're the best team in baseball in years, quite possibly since the 1998 versions of themselves won a then-record 114 games in one of the most dominating start-to-finish regular seasons in living memory on their way to the world championship.

Sure, the team went out and spent upwards of $260 million last offseason to improve their team, including the two biggest free agent pitching signings in CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, and the biggest offensive signing in Mark Teixeira. But this time, unlike the past several years of futility, it is really paying off in the Bronx. And this isn't just about the Yanks having swept the Red Sox this past weekend and opening up a season-high 6.5 game lead on their arch nemesis in the AL East -- the Yankees have pretty much been utterly dominant, all through the regular season after maybe the first month or so, starting right around the time when A-Rod returned to the lineup from his hip surgery on May 9. For the full season, the Yankees are 2nd in the American League in team batting average, and first in runs scored, on base percentage, slugging, and of course in OPS as well as a result. The team's 619 runs scored is slightly ahead of the Angels, but otherwise they are the only two teams with more than 600 at this point in the season, a full 50 runs more than the NL-leading Phillies, and the Yanks' run differential of +94 also is second in the majors, behind only the Dodgers at +109.

But it's not just the hitting that is crushing this year in the Bronx. Anchored by all-time great Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' bullpen leads the AL in saves with 36, and with the midseason addition of Phil Hughes, it is increasingly impossible to come back on this team if you're not leading after 7 innings. And, again unlike in previous years, the starting rotation has also been holding its own -- no difficult task with the team scoring so many runs early and often that the urgency to hold opponents down is not nearly as high as in previous years -- with the staff currently 2nd in the AL in batting average against at a paltry .253, 5th in OPS against (.745) and 5th in team WHIP at a very respectable 1.36.

And most of all, the team is winning. At 69-42, they boast the Majors' best record and are on pace to break 100 wins for the first time since 2002, and if they can add just a couple of games to that pace which includes a very slow start in April, they will eclipse their highest win totals since that historic 1998 team. Those of you who know me know that I am no kind of a Yankees fan whatsoever, but even I have to admit that Brian Cashman and the sport's greatest team might finally have spent enough money that nothing could prevent this Yankees squad from making serious noise in September and October this fall. I have a very hard time picturing this lineup, backed up by this pitching staff, not enjoying their hard-fought home field advantage come World Series time in a few months.

Anybody know Cliff Lee's lifetime stats pitching against the Yankees?

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Friday, August 07, 2009

The Proof

Cliff Lee's line from Thursday afternoon in Philadelphia as Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies took on the Colorado Rockies:

7.0 innings, 6 hits 1 ER, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts. 112 total pitches, 78 strikes, 34 balls.

That is now one run given up by Cliff Lee in 16 innings with Philadelphia, beating currently the top two teams for the wildcard to start his career in the city with the best farm team in the nation off with a bang at 2-0.

And you see, this is exactly what I was talking about last week when I described what a huge, huge win this trade was for us, even compared to the deal proposed by the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay. I said it before and I'll say it again now: Roy Halladay is a better pitcher than Cliff Lee. If he had come to Philly, he'd probably have pitched two complete game shutouts or something, and had 19 strikeouts instead of the mere 15 that Lee has come up with so far. But you know what the Phillies' record would have been in those two blowout performances by Halladay?


And that's exactly my point. What ultimately matters is winning games for the Philadelphia Phillies, and we ended up with a guy who has the same record that Halladay would likely have had here in Philly through two games. So for no change whatsoever in our overall wins, we got to keep J.A. Happ -- yesterday's complete-game shutout guy for the Champs -- by trading for Cliff Lee instead.

Oh yeah. And top pitching prospect Doug Drabek, both of whom were being required by the Blue Jays in exchange for Mr. Halladay.

Ruben Amaro, once again I salute you. I thought Raul Ibanez was grand larceny, but damn if you didn't go and top yourself in acquiring Cliff Lee.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Four Hitters

No, I'm not going to write about four different baseball players with great prowess at the plate today. I'm talking about four-hitters, with a hyphen in there, as in four-hit complete games thrown by pitchers. Because the Phillies have had perhaps their biggest week in starting pitching of all season just now, even coming off of losing 4 out of 6 games.

First was Cliff Lee, who came out in his first start as a World Champion Philadelphia Phillies player last week and pitched an absolute gem, a four-hit complete game shelling of the wildcard-leading San Francisco Giants on the road in Cali. As I wrote about last week, this was Lee's first appearance as a Phil, first appearance in the National League in fact, and he absolutely shined, helping making Phillies' GM Ruben Amaro look like a genius for landing this guy while somehow managing to keep both upstart 25-year-old J.A. Happ and his 7-2, sub-3 ERA, as well as the #1 pitching prospect in our easily league-best farm system, Doug Drabek.

Well, Wednesday night was a special night for many Phillies fans, as the team has returned home after its West Coast mini-roadtrip, and Wednesday was the first chance for the Phillies fans to see J.A. Happ pitch since Amaro offered up Happ in exchange for the Blue Jay's Roy Halladay but then nixed a counteroffer from Toronto that included both Happ and Drabek. So, despite Happ's 7-2, 2.93 ERA, 1.15 WHIP start to the season, we almost lost him there, but then our GM opted to keep him, trading instead for the reigning AL Cy Young winner and keeping Drabek and Happ in the process. For us Phillies fans, this is like a second chance at life with Happ. Happ has been a stalwart for us since joining the start rotation about halfway through the first half of the season, and as fans who appreciate our team in a way that no other city could understand, we are thrilled to have Happ still on our bench after flirting with trading him away in a deal for a megastar.

So Wednesday night was Happ's first start since almost being dealt to the Blue Jays, and unlike Cliff Lee, that start happens to be at Citizens Bank Park and in front of the highly appreciative hometown fans. The guy got a massive ovation the minute they called his name during the introductions in Philly, and another when he took the field and starting warming up for the top of the first inning. And what did Happ do with all that adrenaline and good feeling going his way to start this game? He did nothing short of completely obliterating the half-a-game-back-in-the-wildcard Colorado Rockies, serving up another 4-hit gem, this one a complete game shutout. Not only was this Happ's first complete game of the season -- and I believe of his short career as a major league pitcher -- but it was also easily his best overall performance ever as a starter, with a final line of 9 innings, 4 hits, 0 runs, 10 strikeouts, and just 2 walks.

And boy did the crazed Philadelphia fans take notice. In the 8th inning, the World Champions' coach Charlie Manuel got Ryan Madsen up in the bullpen as Happ crossed the 100-pitch mark. With Happ scheduled to bat in the bottom of the 8th already, the observant fans in Citizens Bank Park immediately knew what this meant, and they stood up to show Happ what they thought of his effort on the night, and of having him still in the rotation after what he showed us in the first half of the season. This turned into about a 5-minute standing ovation for Happ all through the last couple batters of the 8th and then a riotous cheering as Happ walked off the mound. But then suddenly, in the bottom of the 8th, there was Happ striding out of the dugout and into the on-deck circle, and the fans went wild knowing Happ would be coming out to go for the complete game shutout in the 9th. When Happ slammed a double in the bottom of the 8th, it was all gravy for the fans who were already priming for another three outs from their 25-year-old phenom.

With 110 pitches already thrown on the day, Happ trotted out happily to the mound for the 9th, to once again a standing ovation from the crowd that this time would last for the entire inning. 17 pitches later, the fans roared their approval as Happ fired a 94-mph fastball for a called third strike to end the game. As a Phillies fan, this was about as much fun as I've had watching a regular-season game as I can recall in the recent past.

Now for Thursday afternoon's game, bring on the Rockies for the rubber match. Bring on Aaron Cook and his 10-3 record for the 59-48 Rockies. And most importantly, bring on some more of that Cliff Lee!

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009


What am I reading these days?

A few months ago, I came to a very difficult realization: I have read basically all of the poker strategy books out there that I'm interested in reading. I've read Doyle, Sklansky, even modern guys like Lindgren and Negreanu on no-limit holdem. I've read all the Sklansky, Ed Miller, Jen Harman and others on limit holdem. I've read Ciaffone, Cloutier, Farha and others on Omaha. Todd Brunson and others on Stud. I've read the mtt-focused works, ranging from my boy Arnold Snyder to Michael Craig's Full Tilt tournament strategy guide, Gus Hansen, Rizen, PearlJammer et al and many, many others. I've read the sitngo-focused books -- mostly Colin Moshman but a few others as well. And I've pored through the cash game offerings from the old-time greats as well as Antonio Esfandiari, Barry Greenstein and countless others. When it comes to reading about poker methods, at this point in time I have basically read all that I care to read. For many years this was not the case, and I could always just hit up Amazon or Barnes & Noble and head to the poker books section, knowing there was always something more for me to read in this area. Now, the well has pretty much run dry at this point, I'm sure due to a combination of my having read so much as well as the dearth of new poker strategy books being published these days, and this leaves me scrambling to find something new and exciting to read about these days.

I went through a baseball book period for a while there earlier this year, and I read some really good stuff, much of it recommended by former baseball player and slumpbuster king Miami Don. And I enjoyed it. But then quickly I read all the baseball books I was interested in reading, and soon it was time to find something else. Then a few months ago, CK recommended a book called The Time Traveler's Wife for those of us big Lost fans out there who were looking at another 22 years until the next (and final) season of the best show of the millennium, and I picked it up from Amazon pretty quick. CK had indicated that it was a pretty decent book with a well-developed story and some interesting ideas for those interested in time travel. And I have to say, I agree with that assessment overall, having finished the book some time ago now.

Author Audrey Niffenegger does an interesting job of weaving what could be a very complex story together in a way that presents itself somewhat lightly to the reader, clueing us in right from the beginning to the fact that protagonist Henry (Eric Bana) randomly travels through time, without any control over the situation, and has been for much of his life. Unlike where Lost went astray in Season 5, Niffenegger takes great pains not to focus too much on the minutiae and possible paradoxes involved, instead taking as I mentioned what I view as a more light-handed approach to the whole time travel paradox situation. Like we saw near the end of Lost Season 5 with Miles, in Niffenegger's theory of time travel it is perfectly acceptable for the same person to travel back in time, run into himself, and even interact with himself in ways that could profoundly affect the past self's life going forward. Although time travel can always be a complicated subject, I thought Niffenegger did a great job of simply presenting things the way she wishes, and then just moving on rather than continuing to dwell on the paradoxes, the inconsistencies and the potential brain benders that can always result from any complex story that involves time travel.

The time travel aspect is the best part about The Time Traveler's Wife, and I think it makes for what is ultimately an interesting enough plot for someone who is in to Sci Fi (or Sy Fy as the case may be), time travel, or even just in to Lost and looking for some light reading to carry you over until next season begins. I will admit, however, that I didn't find much else in the book particularly moving. Ultimately, this is a book about a timeless love story, and I have to admit that most aspects of that angle were a bit wasted on my typical man, asshat frat crew self. I am sure there are loads of women out there who would long endlessly for the mystery and beauty of a love so pure and wonderful that it can span generations, multiple timelines, and a near-eternity of time spent together and apart. But I could have taken or left most of those aspects of the book. The reason I found it enjoyable really was Niffenegger's somewhat unique take on handling the whole time travel thing, and if you're interested in that stuff then you might enjoy this book despite the persistent love story themes that were hard to avoid throughout.

I had almost forgotten to finish this book review after starting it a couple of months ago, but then out of nowhere the other day I see this commercial on tv and, although the sound was down so I could not hear anything that was said on the commercial, from the pictures it looked to be describing the story of a guy who continually disappears randomly while running into the love of his life over the course of his and her lifetime. My interest perks up, and wouldn't you know it, it turns out they are coming out with a movie of this book sometime in August I believe. And while the female lead -- Rachel McAdams, who played Owen Wilson's love interest in Wedding Crashers among other roles -- is someone I like well enough, who has to turn up as the male lead in this film? None other than Eric Bana, who not only starred the worst Hulk movie humanly possible, but also managed to play the lead in Lucky You, easily the worst poker movie every filmable. So, even though I enjoyed this book and got to read it before the movie so as not to spoil my own enjoyment of the story, I will really be torn about going to see any flick starring the guy who is probably the worst actor of our time other than perhaps Nicholas Cage.

If you're really looking for something that hits on many of the same time travel themes as you saw this past season in Lost, and if you are a female type or a man in touch with his feminine side, then The Time Traveler's Wife is a pretty decent read. I give it a 6.5 or 7 out of 10 overall. But I can't recommend the movie with that clown in the lead role. And, I would also mention here again one of my all-time favorite books, Replay by Ken Grimwood, as probably the single best place I would recommend starting for someone who is more interested in more of a man's story about time travel, inspired by many of the same ideas raised in Lost Season 5.

So what else should I be reading out there? Anybody have any good suggestions?

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Monday, August 03, 2009

What's Up With the Market?

I probably get about three or four emails or girly chats a week from people asking me what I think about the stock market these days. Everywhere I go there is somebody who has talked the market with me before, and I'm constantly getting asked for my thoughts. Last year as things crumbled to the ground, of course, this was an extremely hot topic, and frankly I made most of my thoughts known here as far as wanting to buy in when stocks got as low as they did. Well, now as the market has just rallied stronger than anybody could have ever believed over the past few months -- up around 45% from the March lows on the S&P 500 -- the interest level seems to be rising once again, as more and more people become dismayed with the degree of this latest surge after last year's tumultuous tumble.

The most common thing I hear, to be perfectly honest, is "When do you think the rally will crumble?" In fact, probably at least half of the people I talk to regularly about the stock market seem to believe that this latest rally is way overdone, and that people are just being silly to be pushing up stock prices this much, this fast, they're creating another bubble, yadda yadda yadda. The general consensus seems to be that those who are buying into this particular rally are surely destined to get their comeuppance soon enough in the form of a vicious bear market to eradicate most or all of their gains all based on bubble valuations and blind-eye gains.

Well, I'm here to tell you that I don't agree. At least not yet. There are a lot of reasons why.

First and foremost, Dow 9,200 is not ridiculously high. It's just not. Although ultimately one can always classify this statement as just an opinion, it's really not something that people who truly understand the market and historical valuations would ever disagree with. I don't care how low the market went late last year, again in January, and finally again in March earlier this year, but with where stock prices had been trading as recently as a couple, few years ago, when I look at Dow 9,200 -- and especially when I look at the individual stock prices that go into creating a level of 9200 for the 30 DJIA stocks -- I don't see a bunch of overinflated, fluffy stocks with plenty of room to sell them down hard. At Dow 14,000 two years ago, maybe. But at Dow 9,200, stocks are still probably closer to looking cheap than to looking expensive.

Now don't take that last statement too far -- I don't really mean to be saying that I'm some kind of huge bull on the short-term of the U.S. stock markets here at Dow 9,200. But I'm definitely not in the camp of those who scoff every day when the market is up again these days -- and I know there are literally millions of you out there -- thinking how speculatively-valued all the big stocks in the market are becoming again. To put it another way -- and anybody who knows me and chatted with me regularly over the past several months heard it from me live when it was happening -- but it was Dow 6,547 back on March 9, 2009 that I thought looked truly silly. I mean, that's the shit that was stupid, not Dow 9,200. And I'm someone who's followed the market like a hawk for almost 25 years at this point, since back when the Dow was in the 1000's, so there's more than a little perspective behind that statement. That's why I was right here, for example, on March 13, extolling the virtues of buying the Proshares 2x-leveraged Long Financials ETF which trades under the stock symbol UYG, which had touched $1.37 a share a couple of days earlier (as I type this, UYG is up around 330% since that price) -- because everywhere I looked back at Dow 6,500, all I saw were obvious buys. Absolute, raging, screaming buys. GE was at friggin $6.60 for crying out loud (Warren Buffet bought $5 billion of preferred stock earlier with the GE common trading at around $21 a share), Amazon was below $40, Apple was below $80, oil stocks were cheap, gold was cheap, everything was effing cheap as hell.

Despite where we were just five short months ago now, try as I might I just cannot see stock prices today as looking particularly expensive. With the Dow already having rallied back from 6,500 to 9,200, I therefore do not agree with the growing consensus that things have moved too far and we cannot go much higher. In fact, for many reasons I would guess at this point that it's a pretty good bet that we will rally a bit more from here. For starters, the economy clearly has bottomed. A couple of months ago at this point. Sure, the employment situation is still downright frightening right now in the U.S., but employment is always a lagging indicator, and all the other figures show that things fell off a cliff late in 2008, stayed that way in the first quarter of 2009, but in the second quarter -- which ended on June 30 -- the rate of decline in the national GDP slowed to just over 1%. And things don't seem any worse right now here in early August than they did over the past few months -- if anything, the beginning of Q2 (April) was probably still feeling some residual slowness after the March stock market lows, while Q3 is likely to begin at around the same pace as the improved growth from the final months of Q2 and stronger than the previous quarter started, so Q3 GDP can hopefully be another positive sign to look forward to.

Moreover, those jobs figures are likely to begin improving any month now, if you assume for example that the "bottom" for the economy was the same as with the stock market and just call it March of this year. That leaves April, May, June, July and now into August that employers have had to figure out that the economy is currently in bounceback mode and start adjusting up hiring or at least adjusting down the firing. That means that this week, when the July jobs number comes out, we will get our first look at how employers acted with now four full months of data on the economic rebound in order to plan their hiring strategies. If the July numbers are not better than expected -- and sadly I am talking about a month with under 300,000 jobs lost or so -- then the August and September numbers are very likely to be positive surprises. And the fact that we probably have another couple of months of positive reports in some significant economic figures coming right down the pike is only going to help bolster the whole recovery theme further. And keep in mind all that "stimulus" spending that Barack Obama and the Congress pushed through earlier this year, which represents hundreds of millions of dollars a year of "synthetic", mint-financed spending which will no doubt also have a measurable effect on the economy as a whole, both directly and indirectly, for a long time to come.

On top of the economic influence on the markets, psychology probably plays at least an equally important factor, and again I think the psychology of the market right now is such that we are still -- at the moment of writing this at least -- in rally mode. For starters, it has been a common technical indicator over time that in a bounceback from a sharp rally or a sharp selloff, it is common for a major index to retrace close to 50% of its overall previous change as it adjusts to the new changed level. For example, in this case the Dow fell from 14,100 in October 2007 to 6,600 in March 2009. An exact 50% retracement of that often dizzying 7,500-point drop would bring the Dow back up to 10,300. That leaves around another 12-13% to go still from current prices. Similarly, the S&P 500 closed at 676 and change on March 9 of this year, after having closed as high as 1,565 on October 9, 2007. A 50% retracement there would bring the S&P 500 back up to 1120, while the index currently sits only at 987. That leaves another 13% there as well to rise, if the markets are to follow the common practice of recovering half of the losses before the next leg staying in the bottom half of the recent trading range.

One other factor I just can't keep coming back to is Dow 10,000. I know it's only psychology, but I'm telling you, things like the Dow crossing back over the 10k mark have a very meaningful effect on a huge swath of investors' mindsets, both in this country, and among foreign investors in U.S. markets, where things like superstition, lucky numbers, etc. are at least as popular as they are in America. And in this case, I simply cannot envision Dow 10,000 again without an accompanying selloff in stock prices. I just can't picture it any other way in my mind, much as I would like to. I think we could easily rally up to or near 10,000 on the Dow -- which would be roughly consistent with that 50% retracement rule that often applies after big inflection points in the market's history -- and then experience quite a bit of pushback from individuals and institutions following the "won't get burned again" mentality once the Dow claws its way back up to five figures. But part of believing that a retest of the 10,000 will likely fail, at least at first, is believing that the Dow could find its way back up to that point to begin with. The psychology of the market is such that it may want to see a re-test, and may subtly make it happen by rallying things up to that point. It has often been a quick and easy push for the last several percent on the way to a significant re-test at a major high- or low-water mark in the major indices, something that's been happening in the stock market since time immemorial. I've seen it happen a thousand times before, and I'll see it a thousand times again. This is just how the market works sometimes, as any market pro knows.

Healthcare has been sufficiently whittled down from the ridiculous overspending that is becoming this president's main theme so far. The bank bailouts -- unpalatable on every level as they are -- appear to have worked, in that the mainstays of the industry have been kept afloat, crisis averted. The economy bottomed months ago, and all signs point to unemployment moderating in coming months as employers realize that the sky, indeed, is not falling as many had predicted. So far the long-term fallout from the financial meltdown has been, while quite significant, not the catastrophic event for all of America that many had feared just a few months ago. And Dow 9,200 is just not that expensive, not on any scale used by normal human beings. There is room to grow a bit more from here, and a 10-15% rally is never anything to sneeze at. I'm still looking to buy whenever a particular sector or stock I like gets cheap, having rotated into some oil stocks a couple of months ago when crude prices fell to $40 a barrel, and I will continue to do so at it seems appropriate given the current market action. But as we get above the 9,500 level or so on the Dow, I will be starting to look for some stocks that are approaching long-term technical tops on their charts, and/or shares in companies that appear to be running into growth problems or funding issues for whatever reason. Those are the places I will want to be buying some put options to hopefully profit from everyone else selling off when the Dow gets close to the key 10,000 mark.

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