This year's Phillies have some other historical matters on their minds, and are not about to be defined in the franchise almanac as the squad that lost ten large. With lumber in hand and coming off a sweep of their long-time nemesis, the division-leading New York Mets, they may just write a spectacular epilogue to that innocuous little story.
Jimmy Rollins, three times an All Star as a Shortstop for the Phillies but snubbed this season, is doing his part to make good on his widely-quoted preseason prediction. Back in January, even as ice storms pelted the east coast, Rollins proclaimed: "I think we are the team to beat in the NL East – finally."
This quote was widely reprinted and lampooned by baseball writers eager for a story – any story – to lead with, and the likely response for the team might have been to back away deferentially, kowtow to the New York Mets in print (and maybe the Atlanta Braves too, to be on the safe side), and "encourage" the stillyoung player upside the back of the head the next time he even thought about uttering anything but company line to the eager microphones of the press pool.
But a funny thing happened when the Phils arrived in Clearwater for Spring Training. Jimmy Rollins said it again. And he sounded as though he meant it.
Even more astoundingly, the team backed him up. His manager, Charlie Manuel, was quoted in USA Today as saying: "I love it. I actually think he means it. Why shouldn't it be us? I feel the same way."
Early on, though, Manuel would be confronted with the most compelling argument against the Phils' chances – their pitching.
An Arms Crisis
After the electric lefty Cole Hamels (scheduled to return from the DL and make his Tuesday start against the Cardinals), the Phillies had another budding ace starting pitcher in Brett Myers, an old reliable warhorse in the ageless Jamie Moyer (the epitome of the "soft-tossing lefty"), and a big-name trade acquisition from the White Sox in the playoff-tested Freddy Garcia. Throw in Adam Eaton to pick up the scraps, and close the door with the rejuvenated Tom Gordon, and you might have the makings of a pretty good pitching staff.
On the field, Myers imploded in his first two weeks of starts and was yanked into the bullpen by an infuriated Manuel, where the media anointed him as perhaps a "closer in waiting." This speculation might have been in response to Gordon blowing three of his first seven save chances, helping the Phils to a 4-11 start (and an early 6½ game gap in the division standings behind the streaking Mets).
However, if the manager was to demote each of his struggling starters to mop-up work, he would have had Hamels, Moyer, and three rainouts in his rotation. And the mess in his bullpen was even worse.
Here's how the Phillies' pitching lined up on April 20th, when the team reached this low point and Myers was yanked:
Brett Myers: 0-2, 8.31 ERA
Freddy Garcia: 0-1, 5.79 ERA
Adam Eaton: 1-1, 6.62 ERA
Ryan Madson (setup man): 0-2, 5.06 ERA
J.C. Romero (pricy lefty specialist): 0-0, 6.35 ERA
Tom Gordon (closer): 0-1, 5.68 ERA
Not only was the rotation hurting, but the young infielders who man the 3 and 4 spots in the lineup – Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard – were struggling to find their stride. Both bats were ice cold, each hitting .213 with 3 homers combined.
While Manuel's eruption and abrupt removal of Myers the rotation came as a shock to the clubhouse and its followers, the move appeared to cauterize the wound and staunch the team's bleeding. Since moving to the bullpen, Myers has put up a 2.95 ERA and closed seventeen games. Not to say that they have been able to effectively replace Myers' expected contribution to the rotation – his replacements, Jon Lieber and J.D. Durbin, have combined for a 9 -11 record and an ERA over 5, and the team is leading the NL in runs allowed, with 786 – but if the intended psychological effect of the shakeup was to wake up the team, it worked.
Since that early low point, the Phils have doggedly kept pace with the Mets and mashed their way past the Braves into second place, firmly establishing themselves in the wildcard playoff race once again.
In fact, "the team to beat in the NL East" have become the biggest thorn in New York's side, having just completed their second consecutive sweep of the Mets, and having won 12 games out of their 18-game series. They have the second-best record (35-27 in the East) of any NL team against its own division. (The San Diego Padres are 38-28 against the West). They've pelted the outfield seats with 191 home runs, and scored 830 runs overall, most in the National League. If they make the playoffs, no lineup will be more feared.
And Jimmy Rollins, the boastful 28- year-old, is having the best season of his life to back up his bold words. With 194 hits, 18 triples, 27 home runs and 126 runs scored, Rollins is only two hits away from setting personal bests in each category. He also has more hits, more runs scored and driven in, and more extra base hits than a certain high -profile shortstop who acts as the catalyst for the Mets. Not bad for "walking the walk."
Playing for Spite
This Phillies team brings its desperate mission into St. Louis to face a team that has just been forcibly ejected from all consideration in its own sorry division, and is faced with the hoary prospect of playing out the string.
With fourteen games left to play, the Cubs' magic number at 13 and the Brewers sandwiched in between, the Cardinals are faced with the unlikely mission of winning out, while working overtime over the voodoo dolls to prevent Chicago or Milwaukee from winning another game.
The Cardinals' one bankable starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, has run afoul of some bad luck and poor run support, losing his last two starts despite giving up only two earned runs apiece. And if not for five perfect innings by a clearly possessed Joel Piñeiro last Saturday night, this team would be bringing an eleven-game losing streak into this series.
Our star players are all hurt, but some – namely Pujols and Edmonds – are playing anyway, presumably in the name of hauling this team back toward some form of contention. But now, with these last fourteen games to play, there are only two things capable of motivating this team to those extra heights required to outlast and outmash a trueblue playoff contender like these here Phillies.
The first motivator is individual achievement. The lineup already has been largely turned over to its youngsters, and players like Brendan Ryan, Ryan Ludwick, and Rick Ankiel are hoping to show enough to earn serious starting consideration for the team next year. And it isn't just the youngsters playing for pride of achievement: with only 91 runs scored and 92 driven in, Pujols needs a nice little run in these last several games to continue his record-breaking streak of seasons with 30 HR, 100 R, and 100 RBI to open his career. To achieve that run, he might need a nice little rest first. Having played in every game but one of this forced September march, and played many of them with power-sapping hamstring strains, Albert has hit a number of warning track fly balls in the last week that might have left the park, had he been closer to 100%.
The second motivator is spite. Spite for these Phillies who were our division rivals of long ago. Spite for the Brewers in our upcoming series in Milwaukee. Spite for the Astros and Pirates, just for the sake of salvaging some pride as former rulers of the division.
We've seen that this team, at times, has the youthful energy to play aggressive. What remains to be seen as this season winds down, is whether this team has the vinegar to play mean, and win these games that they by all rights shouldn't.