ST. PETERSBURG-The Phillies are National League champions for the first time since 1993, and general manager Pat Gillick has found another adjective to describe his club. He lovingly refers to them as procrastinators. “We have a really good group of guys on this team,” Gillick said. “They get along well together. They play hard. They don’t cause any trouble. They are likable guys.” But … “They need a little push in the right direction sometimes,” Gillick added. “They aren’t exactly what you call self-starters. It seems like they just don’t really get going until they absolutely have to.”
The Phillies have been slow starters and fast finishers the last two seasons, winning consecutive NL East titles and ending a 14-year post-season drought with back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1980-81. The Phillies won 16 of their last 22 games last season, overcoming a 6½-game deficit to the Mets, and this year they ran off 13 wins in their last 16 games as they again overtook the Mets to win the division, wiping out a 3½-game deficit. They’ve gone 7-2 in the postseason, beating the Brewers in four games in the National League Division Series, and then the Dodgers in five games in the National League Championship Series.
As a result, the Phillies now find themselves in the World Series beginning tomorrow night when they face the Rays at Tropicana Field. While they’ve have finished the last two seasons with a flourish, the national media attention has centered more on the Mets’ collapse. That’s part and parcel of the Mets playing in New York, the nation’s largest media market, but it ignores the Phillies’ accomplishments.
Philadelphia has been made the underdog in the World Series by the Las Vegas sports books, though BP’s Playoff Odds have them as slight favorites. Regardless, the Phillies have refreshingly decided not to play the well-worn underdog card. “Hey, we’re in the World Series and the Rays are in the World Series, and we both have to be good to make it this far,” Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth said Monday night after his team’s workout at Tropicana Field. “Who knows who the favorite should be? I don’t know how they figure out that stuff. All we care about is that we’re here, and we have a chance to win the World Series.”
Manager Charlie Manuel also isn’t paying attention to the odds; he just has a good feeling that his team can win the series. “I haven’t seen any team this year that I thought was just definitely better than us,” Manuel said. “I respected the Brewers and Dodgers and knew they had good teams, but I also felt we were capable of beating them. The Rays have a good team, too. They’ve done a great job here, and I respect that, but I also feel that we are capable of beating them. I feel really good about our club, the way we’ve been playing, and what we’ve accomplished.”
Procrastinating might even be working to the Philadelphia’s advantage. Almost to a man, they feel that they are now playing their best baseball of the year. “You saw flashes of it at various points of the season, there would be bits and pieces where we would play very well for a while,” Phillies closer Brad Lidge said. “There is no doubt, though, that this is the best we’ve played over a sustained period. We’ve really been playing well in all phases of the game. We’re really very balanced right now. It’s been fun to watch, and fun to be a part of it.”
The key to the Phillies’ success has been the strong performance of their pitching staff this season, and the offense finished eighth in the major leagues with an average of 4.94 runs per game. With three superstars in their lineup in second baseman Chase Utley (.308 EqA), first baseman Ryan Howard (.291), and shortstop Jimmy Rollins (.282), this came as no surprise. Werth (.297) and left fielder Pat Burrell (.296) have also had good years, while center fielder Shane Victorino (.277) has been a solid contributor as well.
The pitching staff was a surprising fifth in the majors in runs allowed at 4.20 a game, with left-hander Cole Hamels emerging as the staff ace with 7.1 SNLVAR, and ageless lefty Jamie Moyer posting a 5.0 mark. Right-hander Brett Myers finished with 3.5 despite taking a month-long detour to the minor leagues at midseason in order to get back on track after an awful start to a season in which he had moved back into the rotation after spending most of last season as the closer. Right-hander Joe Blanton was a bit of a disappointment after being acquired in a trade from the Athletics in mid-July, but he came on strong at the end of the year to add 1.2 SNLVAR.
Meanwhile, Lidge solidified the bullpen by posting a major league-best 7.59 WXRL after being acquired in an off-season trade from the Astros. He also converted all 44 save opportunities in the regular season, and is 5-for-5 in the postseason-a living testament to the power of adrenaline as his fastball has jumped from 92 to 97 mph in the playoffs-while being ably set up by left-hander J.C. Romero (2.23) and right-hander Ryan Madson (2.00). “We’ve pitched really well,” Manuel said. “Hamels has been as good as anybody in the league. Moyer was as good as anybody in the league for a long stretch. Myers has been great since he came back from the minor leagues. Blanton has helped and is really starting to settle in. The set-up and middle relief really solidified late in the season. Then Lidge, wow! What can you say about him? He’s been perfect. We felt we had the makings of a good pitching staff, but to make it this far you’re going to need a certain number of guys to pop up and really perform better than you expected. We’ve had that in a lot of cases, and that’s why we have a good chance to win every game we play.”
The Phillies are also playing with a lot of energy, backed by a city that has not had a major professional sports franchise win a championship in the last quarter-century, since Julius Erving and Moses Malone led the 76ers over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals. While Philadelphia sports fans are notorious for being cynical and tough on the home teams, they have been solidly behind the Phillies. “Philadelphia is a pretty magical place to play right now,” Werth said. “It’s just amazing the way the entire city and area are going crazy over what’s happening. I haven’t had to pick up a dinner check for a long time when we’re at home. It’s pretty cool.”
What would be even cooler in the City of Brotherly Love is if the Phillies beat the Rays and gave cause for a parade down Broad Street. The focus on long-suffering fans in baseball always seems to be on Cubs‘ followers, as that franchise has gone 100 years without a World Series, but the Phillies are the undisputed kings of losing in their sport. They became the first franchise to lose 10,000 games, reaching that milestone last season, and they long held the record for most consecutive losing seasons with 16 straight from 1933-48, a mark tied by the Pirates this year. The Phillies have won only one World Series in 126 seasons, beating the Royals in 1980. “I would imagine it would be pretty wild in Philadelphia if we did it,” Werth said. “We feel like we’ve got a good chance. We definitely have some momentum going, more than we’ve had all year.”