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Philadelphia Phillies: Whom to Fear In The National League?

Almost a week ago, the Phillies wrapped up yet another playoff berth. For the fourth straight year, Philadelphia will get to witness October baseball.

However, this season, it feels a bit different. For the first time, the Phillies appear to be entering the postseason with unquestionably the strongest roster in the National League.

They have the best record in all of Major League Baseball, and have the highest run differential in the NL as well.

Anticipation has turned into entitlement. This year, fans aren’t just hoping for a World Series berth; they are expecting it.

It is a dangerous attitude. While the Phillies have the best team on paper, a short series can result in upsets. A bad pitching performance, a few errors, or an offensive cold streak could cause the heavily-favored Phils to make an early exit.

But it will be the opposition that will be most likely to derail the Phillies chances at another World Series.

Each of the current NL playoff contenders could give the Phillies trouble in the postseason. While Philadelphia will be favored in each matchup, their opponents made the playoffs for a reason.

So which teams have the best chance to defeat the Phillies in the National League playoffs?

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Minnesota Twins: How They Rank in the American League

Last night the Minnesota Twins became the first team in 2010 to clinch a playoff berth.

The Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers were competitive in the AL Central through the first half of the season, but the Twins used a fantastic August and September to pull away from the pack.

Despite the loss of Justin Morneau for the last two months and Joe Nathan’s Tommy John surgery at the start of the year, Minnesota has won yet another AL Central title.

The Twins have won six out of the last nine division titles and have earned a reputation as one of the most consistent teams in the American League.

However, they have also gained a reputation as playoff disappointments. They have not won a playoff series since 2002, with a 2-12 postseason record in their last four appearances.

So is this year any different? Do the Twins have a legitimate shot at not only winning a playoff series, but representing the AL in the World Series?

Let’s see how they match up with the other likely AL playoff squads.

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Philadelphia Phillies 2010: Better Than the 2009 and 2008 Versions?

For the Philadelphia Phillies, the 2008 and 2009 seasons brought a level of on-the-field success unmatched in franchise history.

Never before had the Phillies won two straight National League pennants. And the 2008 World Series championship was only the second in the team’s 117-year history.

The 2008 and 2009 Philadelphia Phillies were undoubtedly two of the best teams in franchise history.

The 2010 Phillies are even better.

Is it premature to make this statement, considering that two weeks still remain in the regular season? An epic choke is possible, of course. Just ask the Mets.

Not necessarily. The statistics convincingly show that this version of the Phillies is a legitimate upgrade over the past two incarnations.

The Raw Numbers

In 2008, the Phillies finished the season with a winning percentage of .568. 2009 brought a slight improvement, as the Fightin’ Phils bumped the ratio up to .574.

This year? With only twelve games remaining in the season, the Phillies have a winning percentage of .593, tops in the National League.

The Phillies have only had eight seasons in their long history with a higher winning percentage.

Philadelphia has scored less runs in 2010 than in 2008 and 2009, but the team has also done a far better job of run prevention.

In 2010, the team has averaged 4.76 runs per game, in comparison to 5.06 in 2009 and 4.93 in 2008. The team can still score, but there has been a bit of a dropoff. But the Phillies have made up for it with their improved pitching.

The Phillies have allowed only 4.04 runs per game in 2010. In 2009, the Phils allowed 4.37 runs, and in 2008, they allowed 4.19 runs.

The runs scored/runs allowed numbers are fairly comparable. But barring a late collapse, the Phillies will win more games in 2010 than they did in either 2009 or 2008.

The Starting Pitching

The 2008 Phillies are viewed fondly by fans all over the city. That’s what a world championship will do.

But it has been quickly forgotten that the Phillies rode a fairly mediocre rotation to that World Series title.

Cole Hamels was the ace of the staff in 2008, posting a 3.09 ERA and a 3.72 FIP. Those numbers would be good for 4th best on the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies.

Roy Halladay is the Cy Young favorite in 2010, with a 2.49 ERA and 3.01 FIP. Midseason acquisition Roy Oswalt has a 1.94 ERA and 3.32 FIP as a Phillie. And the 2010 Hamels is superior to the 2008 Hamels. His 3.01 ERA and 3.62 FIP are both an eyelash better than his numbers in 2008.

Jamie Moyer was the second best starting pitcher in the 2008 rotation. And while his 3.71 ERA proved essential to the team’s regular season success, it was a bit luck-aided. His FIP was a more mediocre 4.32.

Joe Blanton’s FIP in 2010 is an almost-identical 4.33. Essentially, after removing luck on batted balls in play, the Phillies’ No. 2 starting pitcher in 2008 is basically as good the Phillies’ No. 4 starting pitcher in 2010.

Brett Myers circa 2008 was average-at-best, with a 4.55 ERA and 4.52 FIP. And he was the team’s third-best starter.

The 2010 rotation is also far better than the 2009 rotation. While Cliff Lee was stellar in a Phillies’ uniform, his 3.39 ERA and 2.83 FIP is essentially matched by Oswalt’s numbers. Halladay is a significant upgrade over J.A. Happ, and Hamels is a far superior pitcher in 2010 than he was in 2009.

Position Players

The 2010 Phillies have been ravaged by injuries, and the position players have been hit particularly hard. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins have all missed significant amounts of time. Each of these three players were key contributors in 2008 and 2009.

In addition, players such as Utley, Howard, and Raul Ibanez are hitting worse in 2010 than they did in 2008 and 2009.

Despite this, however, the overall healthy lineup of the Phillies has never been deeper, mainly because of two major upgrades at key positions.

In 2008, Pedro Feliz was a poor hitter (.705 OPS) but made up for it with solid fielding, resulting in a decent WAR of 1.6. He repeated the pattern in 2009, posting a WAR of 1.7.

However, the Phillies allowed Feliz to leave in the 2009 offseason, picking up Placido Polanco to replace him.

Polanco has been stellar. His OPS is an improvement over Feliz (.727), and he has proven to be just as strong of a fielder, if not stronger. His 2010 WAR of 3.3 is good for fourth on the team amongst position players.

But the biggest improvement has been at the catcher’s spot.

In 2008, the combo of Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste combined for 1.3 WAR. It was a consistent hole in the lineup. 2009 was better, as the two combined for 2.5 WAR.

But Carlos Ruiz’s 2010 breakout has resulted in a gigantic boost in catcher WAR on the Phillies. Ruiz and backup Brian Schneider together have posted 4.1 wins over replacement, with 3.7 coming from Ruiz himself.

Some of the Phillies’ heavy hitters may be having disappointing or age-induced poor seasons this year. But the balance of the 2010 lineup likely helps to limit the damage.

The Bullpen

The bullpen of the 2010 Phillies has been maligned at times this season.

Closer Brad Lidge had a poor start to the season. Ryan Madson broke his toe kicking a chair.

But the 2010 bullpen is actually at basically the same level as the 2009 bullpen, and it has fewer question marks entering the postseason.

In 2009, the bullpen posted a 3.91 ERA. Currently, the 2010 incarnation has a 4.00 ERA.

The 2010 team also does not have a closer with an ERA above 7.00. This season’s Lidge had a fantastic August and has returned to relative reliability.

The 2008 version was far superior to both, with a 3.22 ERA. That was a significant advantage for the future world champs.

But they also had bigger holes in the lineup and an inferior rotation.

The dominant bullpen is not enough to make up the difference.


The Phillies teams of 2008 and 2009 were fantastic. Two National League pennants and one World Series title.

It should make fans very excited that the 2010 team, at least on paper, is superior to both.

Obviously, the Phillies must hold onto their playoff spot in order to justify this article. But considering the fact that the Phils hold a 5.5 game edge over the second place team in the Wild Card race (San Diego) with only 12 games remaining, it seems likely that Philadelphia will yet again compete for a World Series title.

If they make it, they will have the best overall roster in recent Phillies history to try to help them win another championship.

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Carlos Ruiz: Why Do the Philadelphia Phillies Waste Him in the No. 8 Hole?

What if you were told that the Philadelphia Phillie with the best on base percentage on the team was hitting eighth in the regular lineup?

Well, it would be a lie. Carlos Ruiz doesn’t have the best OBP amongst Phillies’ regular starters.

Just the second best.

“Chooch,” as he has been affectionately dubbed by his teammates and the fans, has gained a reputation this season as a stellar clutch-hitter and key cog in the Phillies’ nucleus.

However, manager Charlie Manuel still is not using Ruiz to his full potential.


Ruiz’s Improvement

In 2007 and 2008, Ruiz posted OBPs of .320 and .340. Decent numbers out of the catcher’s spot, but nothing about which to write home.

The 2009 campaign appeared to be more of the same from Ruiz. At the end of July, Carlos had an on base percentage of .325, in line with with career numbers.

But then August hit, and Ruiz apparently figured something out. In August and September, Ruiz posted .391 and .410 OBPs, respectively.

This improvement has carried over into 2010. Ruiz’s .383 OBP is a career high, and the third-best amongst starting NL catchers.

Ruiz has been performing at this new level for the past 145 games. The “small sample size” argument no longer applies. 


The Problem with the Phillies Lineup

Despite Ruiz’s new found ability to get on base, Charlie Manuel has apparently failed to notice.

Ruiz has played 53 games as the eight-hole hitter. He has played 41 games hitting seventh in the order.

In fact, in 2010, Ruiz has never batted higher than sixth in the order.

By batting Ruiz so low, the Phillies are wasting numerous run-scoring opportunities. With the pitcher often following Ruiz in the order, his .383 OBP is usually immediately followed by an out.

Of course, it is possible that Ruiz’s numbers are slightly elevated due to the fact that teams may pitch around him in order to get to the pitcher. However, Ruiz’s OBP is much higher than the average for eight-hole hitters, so it could be reasonably assumed that most of his skill would carry over to a different spot in the order.


A Shift in the Batting Order

So who should be moved down to allow Ruiz’s OBP to flourish higher in the order?

Rollins is locked in as the leadoff hitter. Manuel is rightly concerned with team chemistry, and Rollins relishes his role as the table-setter of the offense.

Utley is the ideal three-hole hitter. Howard is an RBI machine, and Werth has an even better OBP than Ruiz.

Ibanez has hit well since the All-Star break. And Polanco’s combination of high batting average and contact-hitting tendencies make him a solid No. 2 hitter.

But why is Shane Victorino consistently hitting so high in the batting order?

Previously a hitter with a solid OBP, Victorino’s plate-discipline skills have dropped off a cliff in 2010. While his 16 home runs are a career high, his on base percentage has dropped from decent to horrific.

His .313 OBP is the lowest of any Phillies’ regular, and the lowest mark of his career.

Despite his awful on-base skills in 2010, Victorino continues to hit higher in the order than Ruiz. In 101 games this season, “The Flying Hawaiian” has hit sixth or higher in the batting order.

Ruiz has hit sixth in the order in one game this season.

There is a 70-point gap between the on-base percentages of Ruiz and Victorino. Yet Victorino continues to get repeated opportunities at the top of the order, while Ruiz languishes at the bottom.

Victorino does bring more speed to the top of the order. But his OBP failings have made him a liability. Batters at the top of the Phillies’ order should be getting on base and allowing mashers like Utley, Howard, and Werth to knock them home.

The Phillies would be a more efficient offense if Ruiz was slotted above Victorino in the batting order. In a fully healthy order, Ruiz could be placed in the seven-hole, in front of Victorino. And when Polanco needs to miss the occasional game due to his elbow, Ruiz should be placed in the two-hole.

There may be only a month left. But in a tight division race, every run helps. Ruiz has earned a higher spot in the order. He deserves it.

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Aroldis Chapman and Reds Need To Learn From Stephen Strasburg’s Mistakes

One phenom leaves, another appears.

Just days after Stephen Strasburg learned that he would be facing Tommy John surgery, Cincinnati Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman hit the major leagues.

Just like Strasburg, Chapman made his debut with style.

In one inning of relief, the lefty worked a clean eighth inning in only eight pitches, striking out one.

Most impressively, he also hit 102.7 mph on the radar gun. While it fell short of Chapman’s 105 mph that he supposedly threw in the minor leagues, it still was the fastest pitch thrown in the major leagues this season.

However, after watching Strasburg’s meteoric rise and dramatic fall this season, many baseball observers worry that Chapman will fall victim to the same fate.

After all, both pitchers are fireballers, and the human body is simply not built to throw a baseball at 95 mph, let alone 100 mph.

So what can Chapman and the Reds do to ensure that the Cuban does not experience the same kind of injury trouble?



Strasburg was criticized long before his injury for his flawed delivery mechanics.

His “inverted W” style of pitching supposedly made him prone to shoulder and elbow injuries.

Chapman, on the other hand, seems to have cleaner overall mechanics. He keeps his elbow lower and appears to have less of an issue with timing.

This does not mean he has perfect mechanics. He has some issues repeating his delivery, which results in struggles with command. Randy Johnson had similar issues early in his career.

Pitching coaches should work with Chapman to clean up his delivery, but not attempt to drastically alter it.

Just because Chapman throws over 100 mph does not necessarily ensure that he will struggle with injuries. For example, David Price has been recorded at over 100 mph on occasion, particularly in late 2008, when he was pitching out of the bullpen.

Now that he is a starter, Price’s fastball sits in the mid 90s, and he has yet to experience a major injury. It is easier and more sustainable to throw over 100 mph in short bullpen stints than in long, 100-plus pitch outings.

Chapman’s high radar gun numbers do not make injury inevitable.

In addition, he has a plus slider that will be his out pitch in the majors.

Even if Chapman must drop his velocity down to the mid 90s as a starting pitcher, he still has the repertoire to dominate.



Still, the Reds must be careful.

The Cincinnati Reds are managed by Dusty Baker. The very same Dusty Baker that is largely blamed for overworking Chicago Cubs phenoms Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

If and when he is transitioned into the role of a starter, Baker must be careful with his pitcher. High pitch counts could be the death of Chapman and must be avoided.

Hopefully, Baker has learned his lesson.

In addition, the Reds must realize that, despite their desire to make the postseason, the long-term future of Chapman is more important than short-term benefit.

While it cannot be proven that Strasburg was injured because he rushed back from a previous injury, it seems possible. After Strasburg was diagnosed with an inflamed right shoulder, the Nationals should have shut him down.

Instead, enamored with their cash cow and convinced by doctors and Strasburg himself of his health, they threw him back out on the mound after missing only 20 days.

The Reds must not make the same mistake.

If Chapman shows any signs of fatigue or soreness, he needs to be parked for the rest of the season.

While having a fireball throwing lefty in the bullpen could be a blessing in September and the postseason, the benefits do not outweigh the costs.

At the first sign of trouble, the Reds should not hesitate. The future is more important.

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Stephen Strasburg Injury Not Total Disaster for Washington Nationals

On August 21st, Stephen Strasburg trudged off the mound in Philadelphia in obvious pain.

That will be the last we see of the young phenom until at least the end of 2011.

Today, the Washington Nationals announced that Strasburg has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm, and will need Tommy John surgery.

With a 12 to 18 month recovery timetable, this appears devastating for the franchise. Although Tommy John surgery has become commonplace in recent years for pitchers, there is always a risk involved with such a major procedure. Plus, many will fret over the possibility that Stephen Strasburg will never be the same dominant pitcher following the surgery.

All are legitimate concerns, and the Nationals have to be even more crushed from an attendance perspective. The National were a poor draw in Washington from the start, but Strasburg was making the team exciting for the first time in the franchise’s short history. The D.C. area was taking notice, and for the first time, it looked like the Nationals might actually be able to build a fanbase.

However, in some ways, this could prove beneficial to the Nationals from a long-term perspective.


The Nationals Now

Despite the hype surrounding Strasburg, he could not change the fact that the Nationals are simply a bad team.

Washington has only one other starting pitcher, Livan Hernandez, with an ERA below 4.00. Not exactly a long-term piece of the franchise’s core.

Ryan Zimmerman is one of the best players in baseball, and Adam Dunn is a stellar hitter, but beyond those two the Nationals have almost nothing. Aside from Strasburg, Hernandez, Zimmerman, and Dunn, only the currently-injured Josh Willingham put up a WAR over 2.0 this season according to Fangraphs.

And while a few overly enthusiastic prognosticators may have called the 2011 Nationals with Strasburg a sleeper playoff team, the chances of such a flawed squad making a run next season would have been unlikely at best.

Things will look far different in 2012.


Talent on the Way

Former top prospect Jordan Zimmerman recently returned from his own Tommy John surgery. He had a very promising rookie season and he could be a borderline ace by 2012.

Wilson Ramos and Derek Norris are both highly regarded catching prospects. While neither is having a strong 2011, the chances are good that at least one of them will pan out.

Drew Storen is the future closer. Shortstop prospect Danny Espinosa has hit 22 home runs this season, and is currently in AAA. By 2012, he could be a fixture at middle infield for Washington.

Ryan Zimmerman, already one of the best position players in the National League, will be 28 and in his prime.

And of course, there’s Bryce Harper, essentially the position player version of Strasburg. Only 17 years old now, he won’t hit the majors until mid-2011 at the absolute earliest. But he appears destined to be a power-hitting corner outfielder for years to come.

Strasburg will return to a team likely filled with blue chip talent. Plus, Washington management has shown a willingness to spend money, proven by their offers to high-profile free agents such as Mark Teixeira.

After seeing what Strasburg can do, free agents will be more likely to sign in the nation’s capital, even with his injury.


Missing a Year

But what does this have anything to do with Strasburg missing a season? He could pitch next year, deal with a poor team, and then lead the rotation of a playoff contender in 2012. How could this injury have any benefit at all for the Nationals?

Poor mechanics and wasted bullets.

Ever since Strasburg broke onto the scene, he has been criticized by some for his “Inverted W” pitching motion and poor timing. After the news today, it appears those critics had a point.

Also, pitchers that throw in the high 90s have a tendency to break down. The arm was just not built for that kind of velocity, unless your name is Nolan Ryan.

Unless Strasburg gets lucky or changes his throwing motion, he seems destined for a short but dominant career.

So why waste 200 of those innings pitching for a team with no chance of making a playoff run?

Strasburg now can sit out a season, wait for the youth in Washington to develop, and return to an actual contender.

Sure, the fans miss out on watching a great pitcher for a season. But for Washington, what does it really mean? The difference between winning 72 and 78 games?

A true disaster would have been Tommy John surgery in 2012 or 2013, when the Nationals were on the verge of making their first legitimate run at the postseason.

Of course, this situation is not positive for the Nationals, and the risk following surgery remains. But if Strasburg was going to need Tommy John, this was the best time for him to have it.

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Brad Lidge: Is Lights Out Back For The Philadelphia Phillies?

On July 31st, Brad Lidge blew yet another save for the Philadelphia Phillies.

The three-run bomb by Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was Lidge’s fourth blown save of the season, and for many fans, it was the last straw.

Yet again, talk radio and the blogosphere was flooded with fans screaming that Lidge should be moved out of the closer’s role, possibly in favor of set-up man Ryan Madson.

Manager Charlie Manuel refused to consider such a move. And over the last three weeks, something interesting happened.

Lidge started looking good. Really good.

In fact, Lidge has went seven-for-seven in save opportunities in the month of August, and has yet to give up a run.

So is this rebound a small sample size-induced mirage, or has Lidge finally figured it out? Is he back to being the same “lights out” closer of 2008?

The hard truth is that Lidge will never fully return to the heights of 2008. But yes, it does appear Lidge has worked past his issues, and is back to being a solid closer.

The “Perfect” Season Revisited

In 2008, Brad Lidge was perfect.  In 48 chances, he did not blow one save, and was about as valuable as a closer not named Mariano Rivera can be. Lidge was undeniably fantastic.

He was also a bit lucky.

During the 2008 season, only 3.8 percent of Lidge’s fly balls left the yard. The league average is around 10 percent, but due to small sample size and matchups, elite relievers do often beat that average.

However, Lidge’s career HR/FB ratio is 11.0 percent.

As a result, it seems likely that his 2008 percentage was an anomaly. He should not be expected to ever reach that level of home run prevention ever again in his career.

Therefore, fans waiting for a return of the perfect closer will continue to be frustrated.

Back to 2008 Levels?

By all statistical measures, Lidge had an awful 2009 season. His strikeout rate dropped to its lowest of level of his career, as he racked up a 9.36 K/9 rate.  That was down from his 2008 rate of 11.94.

In addition, Lidge walked more batters. His 5.22 BB/9 was also a career high.

And his home run rate, while abnormally low in 2008, went through the roof in 2009. His 1.69 HR/9 rate was yet another career high.

After a poor start to the 2010 season, many observers dealt with “deja vu.” Lidge’s struggles seemed to be a carbon copy of 2009.

Therefore, it may be a surprise to learn that Lidge’s strikeout and walk rates in 2010 are almost identical to his 2008 numbers.

2008 Lidge: 11.94 K/9, 4.54 BB/9

2010 Lidge: 11.12 K/9, 4.45 BB/9

His elevated 2010 ERA in comparison to 2008 is purely a result of his home run rate. While in 2008, his 3.8 percent HR/FB rate was lucky, this year, Lidge has been a bit unlucky. His 15.2 percent HR/FB rate is even higher than last year, and considering his improvements in strikeouts and control, is probably just bad luck.

But Lidge appears to have his stuff back. His control has never been stellar, but he has returned to his career averages, which is a fantastic sign.

August Success

But has Lidge actually turned the corner? Will he sustain his improvements in strikeout rate and walk rate, or should fans still be concerned of a regression back to 2009 Lidge?

The most promising sign that the new reliable Lidge is here to stay comes in his newfound August aversion to the free pass.

In eight August appearances, Lidge has not walked one batter. He is pounding the strike zone and getting batters to chase when he throws outside the zone.

This run is his longest streak of consecutive appearances without a walk since 2008, when Lidge went 10 appearances between April 21 and May 9 without issuing a free pass.

August has not been a fluke. It’s much easier to finish a game in the ninth when the closer is not giving anyone a free trot to first base.


Phillies fans have seen the best of Lidge (2008), and the worst of Lidge (2009).

This has sadly resulted in a tendency to be reactionary when it comes to Lidge. When he strings together a few strong appearances, “Lights Out” is back. 

But when he blows a save, the “Madson for closer” brigade comes out in full force.

The fact is, all closers blow saves sometimes. Lidge is no different.

But his improvements in his peripheral statistics should help Lidge limit those occurrences going forward.

The 2008 Lidge will never come back. But the embattled closer has returned to reliability.

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The 10 Biggest Surprise Players in MLB in 2010

Surprise players can carry both a fantasy baseball squad and a major league baseball team to a championship.

Owners and managers may have hunches regarding certain players, but they remain pipe dreams until the production actually comes to fruition.

The true value of these players comes in their unexpected contributions, usually at very low salaries. A cheap all-star, in many ways, can be considered more valuable than a high-priced superstar.

Just as fantasy leagues are often won in the late rounds, division titles and championships are often decided not by the $20 million a year slugger, but by the bargain bin pitcher who turns into a solid #3 pitcher.

Or the early-season injury replacement that earns an everyday job.

The 2010 MLB season has produced numerous surprise players, and it is no coincidence that many of these players are on teams that have outperformed their preseason prognostications.

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Five Most Memorable Starts by J.A. Happ as a Philadelphia Phillie

It has been less than a week since J.A. Happ was dealt to the Houston Astros with Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar for Roy Oswalt. Unlike minor league prospects Gose and Villar, however, Happ was once a key piece of the Phillies’ starting roster, particularly in 2009, when he finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting to Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Happ’s odd career as a Phillie saw him go from organizational spare part in 2008, to rookie sensation in 2009, and then back to spare part in 2010.

His forearm injury and subsequent extended DL stint led Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to feel that Happ was expendable in a deal for a top veteran pitcher such as Oswalt.

However, in his short career as a Philadelphia Phillie, Happ became a fan favorite for his composure on the mound, and for his unexpected run of dominance in the summer of 2009. While Phillies fans have been generally ecstatic about acquiring of pitcher of Roy Oswalt’s caliber, many fans also have expressed sadness that Happ had to be included for the deal to be completed.

Let’s take a look back at some of the games that made Happ such a popular player, in both the clubhouse and the stands.

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