Phillies' defense, bullpen disappear in lost weekend vs. Braves Ugly baseball returns to the Vet BASEBALL

September 28, 1993|By Bill Conlin | Bill Conlin,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- As dumb questions go, baseball variety, this one qualified for a Golden Dunce Cap.

Yo, Jim, somebody asked the manager after the Philadelphia Phillies completed their sweep of the Florida Marlins last Wednesday night, will you try to send the Atlanta Braves a message this weekend?

Message?

"Message? Cheese Whiz," Jim Fregosi grumped. "I hope we would win three games, that's the only message I have for anybody. Crepes suzette. The Braves need the wins. We need the wins."

The Phillies sent the Atlanta Braves a powerful message, anyway, a swinging telegram as it were:

Dear Braves,

We can handle your power. We can score runs off your left-handers, Tommy Glavine and Steve Avery -- OK, not a ton of them, but you're not gonna shut us out. Take one thing back to Chop City . . . We broke on top in each game. And if it hadn't been for a little, uh, substandard fielding, Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders wouldn't have been able to undress us on the bases like that . . . Just one favor, hit the ball like men. Don't make us handle all those squibbing litt . . .

The words end at a ragged burn that has consumed the bottom of the page, but I think we get the idea. Just give us the routine plays, OK? Play fair, chardonnay breath.

Let us review the weekend. . . .

Tommy Greene said he couldn't find his fastball Friday night. But he brought everything else to the mound and dominated Bobby Cox's lineup with an awesome assortment of breaking balls that were hard, soft and in between.

How good was his stuff? Well, any time a right-hander walks eight Braves in 8 1/3 innings and shuts them out, saliva tests are in order. "He's got as good stuff as any pitcher in the league," said Orioles scout Eddie Liberatore.

The rest of the series, however, the Phillies' defense ranged from substandard to "shoot the thing before it stops rolling." And I think even the dimmest bulbs in town have figured out why Fregosi extracts every possible pitch from his starter. David West was brought in -- dragged in? -- to get left-handers Fred McGriff and David Justice in the pivotal seventh inning of Sunday's 7-2 loss. That exercise in futility went walk, walk, hello Donn Pall.

To paraphrase Dick Vermeil, that great connoisseur of Joe Paterno's Penn State passing offense, right now the Phillies' defense and bullpen stink.

Physical errors you can understand. Every big-league infielder has mishandled the first ball hit to him the way rookie shortstop Kevin Stocker did Sunday after Wes Chamberlain failed to run down a catchable fly to the fence in right-center and David Justice slammed a majestic two-run homer.

You can live with them. In fact, you better.

But the bad defense that mattered has reached epidemic proportion. It afflicted the Phillies in a Braves seventh that was like a flashback hallucination to the ugly baseball played here in the summer of '92.

A big inning ignited by the intimidating speed of Sanders and Nixon killed the Phils in Saturday's rain-pelted, 9-7 hairpull. Sunday, their lightning legs struck again in the seventh.

Unless Terry Mulholland is pitching with his death-ray pickoff move, a walk to Nixon is an automatic double. Sunday, the center fielder walked leading off the fifth and stole second easily, despite a pitchout. But Curt Schilling, who pitched well for the most part, could only dodge so many bullets.

The first commandment of playing the Atlanta Braves is this: Thou shalt not walk Otis Nixon or Deion Sanders. You have to make them hit their way on base. Nixon is not a home-run threat and he currently is a .265 hitter. He's not Ty Cobb. Sanders has some power, but the erratic Falcons cornerback is recovering from a disabling respiratory infection and strikes out a lot.

Sanders triggered the horrific, three-run eighth Saturday, legging out a bouncer to second as a pinch hitter. Roger Mason, an endangered species from the underbelly of Fregosi's overexposed pen, made a good pitch on Nixon, but the fleet veteran slapped a soft, semi-liner to left. Pete Incaviglia, who has the lateral agility of a 747 jumbo jet, was caught in no-man's land. What should have been a single and no more skidded off his glove for a two-base error. Sanders scored despite almost falling down. Otis eased into third.

Physical error, right? We can handle it.

But when Jeff Blauser lofted a pop-up to the right side, Mickey Morandini blew a few transistors in his situations computer. The second baseman made the catch behind his head while backpedaling toward right. Nixon alertly tagged and scored with ridiculous ease on a ball that barely reached the outfield.

Ron Gant followed with a rocket over the left-field fence. Roger Mason does not throw many cheapies.

Defense, bullpen . . . Bullpen, defense. They love us . . . They love us not.

The Sanders-Nixon combination struck in the seventh Sunday with devastating effect. Prime Time was batting for left-hander Steve Avery in a 2-2 game.

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