By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 15 -- It turns out the gap separating the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals is even wider than the gap between first and last place; those are common designations, too conventional for the sort of relationship where one team role-plays as fire, the other as the burning log.
Pity the poor log. It's no fun crackling away in front of 44,521 -- a playoff atmosphere, despite Washington's inclusion -- and tripping over batted balls, getting into foolhardy rundowns, showing all the puncher's chance of an inanimate object. The final score from Citizens Bank Park misleads a bit, if only because the Phillies didn't need to apply the heat for all nine innings. They won, 5-0. They were ahead by five after 45 minutes. The final six or seven innings had the feel of custodial work; Cliff Lee was just cleaning up the ashes.
The Phillies used Tuesday's proceedings to again prove their superiority to a team now 33 1/2 games behind them in the National League East. Without the good fortune of head-to-head play -- Washington is 3-13 against the Philadelphia this year -- the Phillies might still be jockeying for a playoff spot. Instead, they're rolling and ruthless, armed with front-line starting pitching and unequalled power, susceptible only when trying to hold close leads, which wasn't a problem here.
"They're what the rest of us aspire to be," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.
Measured by any category, the Nationals and Phillies showed their differences almost immediately. How about, for instance, the difference between Cliff Lee and Garrett Mock? One, the Cy Young winner, starts the game by striking out the side, animating the home crowd into a series of two-strike anticipatory roars, and announcing, more or less, that he'd be dealing his best stuff all night. The other gives up lead-off doubles in each of the first two innings, allows five of the first six to reach base in the second, and has already given up five runs and six hits 11 batters into the game.
The Nationals and Phillies effectively obscured the fact that baseball is a game of equal opportunity. When the Nationals stood in the field, they did so for long periods, and when they came to bat against Lee, they looked as if they wanted very badly to return to the field. After two, Mock had already thrown 48 pitches; Lee, retiring all six, had thrown 22.
"He's pretty special," Riggleman said of Lee. "He's got the great breaking ball. He sneaks the fastball by you crisply. He's a real challenge, and we just couldn't quite get him tonight." Even when the Nationals managed base runners, they struggled to run the bases. Josh Bard led off the third with a double, but was soon erased in a rundown after a groundball to second. Later that inning, Alberto González was moving from second to third on a Justin Maxwell grounder to shortstop, but he made no attempt to avoid the actual groundball. It plunked him in the foot, ending the inning.
Had the Nationals continued in such a bewildered state, they would have finished with their most lopsided loss of the season. On several fronts, however, they recovered. Mock threw four scoreless innings, surviving for a six-inning, five-run night. Relief pitchers Saúl Rivera, Ron Villone and Logan Kensing held Philadelphia to no runs and three hits over the final two innings.
Mock described his start as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Said Bard of Mock: "We believe in him so much that we're trying to get him to believe in himself that much, that his stuff is that good. But that's part of the process as a young player. Sometimes it's hard to trust it. You've got Ryan Howard, you've got [Chase] Utley and you're playing in this crackerjack box of a stadium. We're telling him, 'Hey, just throw the ball down,' and he's going, 'I don't know if I can get away with that.' "
The way Lee was pitching, of course, he required no additional run support. Making his ninth NL start since that July 29 trade with Cleveland, Lee improved to 7-2 with the Phillies, throwing his sixth complete game of the year. He batted in the bottom of the eighth, already 110 pitches into his night, and finished the game with two final strikeouts -- and a career-high 124 pitches.