August 29, 2007
Another Bid for October Glory
You can almost feel the pride emanating from manager Charlie Manuel as he speaks about his Phillies. "This team is really resilient," Manuel said. "We've taken a lot of shots this season, a lot of blows. A lot of teams might have folded with what we've faced. But the great thing about this team is that we'll take your best shot but we won't go down. You might beat us 13-0 tonight but we'll come back and beat you tomorrow night. Nothing ever gets our guys down. There is great character on team. These guys don't know how to quit."
OK, it sounds like something more from a high school football coach than a major league manager. However, there really is nothing hokey about it. The Phillies have had their bad breaks and were on the precipice of being knocked out of the pennant race just last weekend. However, the Phillies are still very much in contention for their first postseason appearance since 1993 after beating San Diego on Sunday and then taking two straight from the first-place Mets on Monday and Tuesday nights, the last victory coming in dramatic fashion as the Philadelphia scored twice in the eighth inning to tie the score at 2-2, then won it in the bottom of the 10th on Ryan Howard's two-run homer. As a result, the Phillies (69-62) have shaved three games in both of their playoff chases in three days, drawing within four of the Mets in the NL East race, and three of the Padres in the Wild Card standings. As a result, catcher Chris Coste notes "I think we're going to be one of the more interesting teams to watch in September. It's going to be fun."
The Phillies went into spring training as a rare club, one that had too much starting pitching, with six proven guys for only five slots in the rotation. However, that pitching depth has taken a big hit this season, as left-hander Cole Hamels and right-handers Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber are on the Disabled List, big-ticket free agent Adam Eaton just came off the DL to start Tuesday night, and Brett Myers has been needed to fill in as the closer after initially struggling in the rotation. That leaves ageless lefty Jamie Moyer as the only one of the six who has stayed in the rotation all season.
Hamels is clearly the ace of a staff that ranks 14th in the NL in runs allowed with an average of 5.1 a game, as he has a 4.4 SNLVAR. Hamels hopes to return to the rotation on September 4th. Moyer is next on the SNLVAR list with a more pedestrian 2.3, while rookie right-hander Kyle Kendrick has been a pleasant surprise, quickly posting a 2.1 mark in 14 starts since being called up from Double-A Reading. However, the combined SNLVAR of Lieber, Garcia, Eaton, and Myers has been 2.1; obviously much more was expected of the quartet.
The Phillies also made a controversial move early in the season-when closer Tom Gordon came down with shoulder trouble, Manuel moved Myers, their Opening Day starter, to the pen. Myers has also battled shoulder problems, and the move to relief work hasn't yielded great results, as his WXRL is just 0.777. In fact, the only relievers with reason to brag are Ryan Madson (1.636), waiver wire pickup J.C. Romero (1.103), and Clay Condrey (1.058). Madson is yet another reliever nursing a sore shoulder, and he may not pitch again this season. Condrey is the ultimate journeyman, as he has shuttled between Philadelphia and Triple-A Ottawa five times this season.
The Phillies have compensated for the shaky pitching with a lot of offense as their 5.45 runs per game average is tops in the NL by nearly a half-run over Colorado (5.06). The most amazing part, though, is that reigning NL MVP Ryan Howard was slowed by a strained quadriceps early in the season and has never totally regained his form, while second baseman Chase Utley's monster season was interrupted for a month by a broken right hand suffered when he was hit by a pitch from Washington's John Lannan, who was making his major-league debut; Utley just returned from the disabled list Monday.
Howard's 39.2 VORP ranks 18th in the NL, but doesn't come close to his 81.5 mark of a year ago. Utley is fifth in the league at 57.9 despite missing so much time. Two others are also in the league's top 15-shortstop Jimmy Rollins, being touted as an MVP candidate by the Phillies, is 12th at 44.1, while center fielder Aaron Rowand is 15th at 42.3; you can expect Rowand to cash in big on the free agent market this winter. Left fielder Pat Burrell, the man Phillies' fans love to boo, has also had a good year with a 29.8 VORP.
While you can't help but wonder how good the Phillies' offensive numbers would be if Howard was the masher of last season or if Utley hadn't gotten hurt, Rollins says he spends no time thinking about it. He says the Phillies have learned how to just keep pushing on through all the bad times. "What it comes down to is that every time has injuries over the course of the season," Rollins said. "Every team has to overcome a certain amount of adversity. You can't let it get you down. You just have to go out and keep playing every day. You have no control over the bad breaks that occur over the course of the season. Nobody in our clubhouse has felt sorry. We just get out the tape and the Motrin and keep moving on. All we worry about is playing winning baseball. We don't let anything get us down."
There was a point in April, though, when it looked like the Phillies' season might be over before it had barely started. They got off to a 4-11 start when Manuel called a team meeting before a game in Cincinnati. Manuel is heavily criticized in Philadelphia for his sometimes bizarre game strategies. That he speaks with a thick West Virginia drawl and has occasional wrestling matches with syntax makes him an even tougher sell to the famously tough Philadelphia fans. After all, if they booed Santa Claus, a perceived country bumpkin doesn't stand a chance.
However, Manuel showed his strength when the Phillies were at their lowest. While he may never win any chess matches, he does have a good feel for setting a comfortable clubhouse atmosphere. So he called a team meeting, made some brief remarks then let the players hash things out amongst themselves. "I felt we needed to clear the air but I also knew that there was only so much I could say," Manuel said. "I'm a big believer that you have to let the players take care of things. A manager can only do so much and I think there are times when it's best that you just stay out of the way. That was one of those times. I know the type of guys we have in our clubhouse. They were playing uptight, which isn't like them. Ever since that night, the atmosphere has been different, and our guys have played loose and they've played well."
And now they are trying to wipe out some bitter memories of the past two seasons. The Phillies finished one game behind Houston in the NL Wild Card chase and two games behind Atlanta in the NL East race in 2005, then were three games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for Wild Card last year. "I wouldn't say just missing the playoffs has made us hungrier, but it has made us appreciate how important every game is," Rollins said. "If a call goes against us and we end up losing, you can't help but think if that might be the game that cost us the playoffs. That's why we play hard every day, because every game really does make a difference."