Q&A: MLB Network’s Mitch Williams and Larry Bowa

The guys covering the playoffs speculate about Charlie's strategy, the bullpen and the Phils' chances

It’s been 10 days since the Phillies wrapped up their fifth consecutive National League East championship. Last night, they became the third squad in franchise history to earn 100 wins and the first team to accomplish that feat since Jimmy Carter’s first year in the Oval Office. More than that, they control the playoff fate of the division rival Atlanta Braves and have turned an eight-game losing streak around just in time to draw the curtain on the 2011 regular season.

With the postseason slated to start on Saturday, I spoke with Larry Bowa and Mitch Williams—both former members of the Phillies organization who will host pregame and post-game coverage on the MLB Network before and after every Phils playoff game. They talked about Philly’s recent skid, their high hopes and what might be problematic for a team that, on paper, has looked like a World Series favorite since before the snow thawed last spring.

From left to right: Matt Yallof, Mitch Williams and Larry Bowa inside MLB Network's Studio 3. (Courtesy: MLB Network)

Are the recent woes and the losing streak a concern heading into the playoffs?
Mitch: I think the last six days of the year are when I’m going to make my judgment on that. You can’t make a judgment when Ryan Howard’s been out of that lineup. When he’s in the middle of that lineup it changes the whole way the lineup is pitched—everything.

Larry: When you’ve got a guy like Ryan Howard in the middle of your lineup out, it makes everybody pitch differently. I don’t care if he’s hitting or he’s not hitting, when you’ve got a run producer like that who’s not playing, it does not lengthen your lineup. They’re going to be fine, as long as he’s healthy, which is the most important thing.

The team’s been pretty banged up this year. Do any of the injuries worry you?
Mitch: Everyone seems to be pretty healthy right now. Talking with the guys, they’re excited about it, so I don’t see injuries being a factor in the first series. It’s not going to be about injuries—it’s going to come down to pitching and if they can get timely hits.

Larry: The only guys I would be concerned about—and not injury wise, just that they get their timing down—are Jimmy and Utley. I’d like to see them start swinging the bat the way they’re capable of. They’ve both been out and missed a lot of games. Hopefully in the last seven or eight games they can get their timing down. I think that’s going to be important for that lineup.

How do you think the bullpen shakes up with Madson handling closing duties, Bastardo’s recent struggles, Lidge’s inconsistency, and the relative inexperience out there?
Larry: I definitely think Charlie’s not going to shy away from using the pen because he’s got some good arms out there. People don’t want to talk about the Phillies bullpen because it hasn’t been exposed. You don’t see the Phils go to the bullpen like the Atlanta Braves—the Braves go to those three guys every night. The Phillies haven’t had to do that, so they haven’t been exposed. But, I still think they’ve got quality arms out there where Madson, Bastardo, Stutes … and Lidge is throwing the ball good. They’ve got a very reputable bullpen and you’re not asking them to get nine outs every night—you might ask ‘em to get three or four so they won’t be dragging.

Mitch: Antonio [Bastardo]’s problem has been falling behind guys the past few weeks. You can’t get hitters to chase it if the hitter’s ahead in the count. That’s the only thing that’s been his problem in the last few weeks. I think Charlie is going to use Lidge or Stutes in the 8th and Bastardo can get right-handers or left-handers out—it doesn’t matter. The Phillies bullpen hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves this year because of all the attention going to the starters.

Larry: I like what [Bastardo]’s got, and I think he’s got a shot at being a quality setup man and closer down the road, but right now the scouting report on him is out and it says to make him throw strikes. So now, when they go up there to swing off him, I don’t think they’re going to be real anxious.

Mitch: Ryan [Madson] is a guy who’s an absolute sponge when it comes to wanting to learn, and I don’t see him changing at all. He’s got the best right-handed changeup in baseball. And, like I’ve told him for the past two years, when he took over the closing role I called and talked to him and told him he’d been doing the tougher job for years because the 8th inning, for me, is a way harder job than the 9th. In the 9th, the pressure isn’t on the pitcher, it’s on the hitters. In the 9th inning you don’t get outs with strikes. You get ahead with strikes; you get outs with balls. With the change-up he has and his ability to elevate his fastball, he’s the least of my worries down there.

With John Mayberry Jr.’s great second half, how do you see the outfield duties being split up in the playoffs?
Mitch: You gotta dance with what brung ya, and he’s been playing Raul against right-handed pitching and Mayberry against left-handed pitching and that’s what’s worked. I don’t see Charlie changing.

Larry: I don’t know, so, obviously I’m just assuming. But, I think Charlie’s going to stay with his veteran lineup—the guys that got him there. If there’s a real tough lefty, I could see him giving [Mayberry] a start. It’s also going to depend on how Raul is swinging at the end.

The Phils look great on paper, but what should they be worried about heading into the playoffs?
Larry: Barring any injuries, I don’t see anyone in the National League beating this team. Even if you don’t score runs, you can win 1-0 with those [starters] on the mound. There won’t be many teams that say, “Hey, if you can go out there and get us one run we can win.” They can literally get one run, and it’ll be tough sledding for the other team.

Mitch: The lineup. That’s it. If they’re in there doing their thing I don’t see how the Phillies don’t win a World Series. It’s all going to come down to the lineup and timely hitting. I think the lineup’s got to go out there and hang some runs up on the board.

Larry: I wouldn’t call it a worry, but, hypothetically, if their starters only go six innings, maybe seven. If you have to go to the bullpen two or three days in a row. I’m not concerned about it, but that’s something that if I were the other team playing the Phillies I’m going to say get to the bullpen after six innings and let’s see what happens. I want to get there two or three days in a row before the 8th inning. Every team has a flaw. Whether it’s a small flaw or a big flaw, they all have them and that might be a small flaw for the Phillies. But, we don’t know because they haven’t had to do it all year. If I’m the opposing team that’s the scenario I want because if you’re letting Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels pitch into the 8th inning every night, you’re out.