Waking A Sleeping Giant

As the suddenly hot Phillies travel to Atlanta for a three-game series, there are points in the season that can be thought of as the turning point for the Phils. Among them all, a Friday night in Cincinnati may be the biggest and that night, while nobody knew it at the time, may have been the night that woke the Phillies up from their early season slumber.

By now every baseball fan is familiar with the expectations were coming into the season for the Philadelphia Phillies. They signed premier first baseman, Jim Thome. Kevin Millwood was acquired for minor league catcher Johnny Estrada in what could come down to be the most lopsided trade since the Red Sox dealt Jeff Bagwell to Houston in 1990 for pitcher Larry Andersen. David Bell was acquired via the free agent market from San Francisco where he was a solid contributor in their World Series push last season. Those three moves combined with several other subtle changes and the existing players on the Phillies struck fear into the National League. Pat Burrell was coming off of an excellent 2002 campaign where he hit 37 home runs and drove in 116 runs while batting a respectable .282. Burrell was supposed to be a part of a modern day Murder's Row by having Jim Thome and the steady Bobby Abreu teaming up with him for the middle portion of the line-up.

Let's fast forward to May 29th at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies were shut out for the fourth time in the young season by the last place New York Mets. That loss dropped the Phils to 28-25 and the team was staring perhaps the toughest stretch of the season right in the face. The Braves were sitting high atop the division at 36-17 and it looked as if catching them was next to impossible. The Phightin's were facing a daunting 24 game stretch for most of the month of June. Included in that stretch were the second place Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland A's and six games with the Atlanta Braves. The Mariners came to town boasting the best record in the major leagues and the A's have the defending AL Cy Young award winner in Barry Zito, the defending AL MVP in Miguel Tejada and a plethora of other talented pitchers. With the season long struggles of the Phillies offense, it was hard to be optimistic facing those powerhouse teams. As if playing the Expos, Mariners, A's and Braves wasn't tough enough, the Phils had to fly out to Anaheim and face the defending World Series Champions. Things were beginning to look bleak for the fans of the pinstripes from Philadelphia. Or so it seemed. The Phillies quickly disposed of the Montreal Expos in a three game sweep and the optimism meter crept up a few notches. Unfortunately the Seattle series sent us all crashing back to earth with a thud that probably could've been registered on a Richter scale. If the sweep by Seattle wasn't enough, you had to think about the liquored up fan at the Vet that possibly stole a victory away from the Phils. Instead of allowing Jason Michaels' double to jettison along the stands and down the right field line, this fan reached out and attempted to spear the ball. Pinch runner Nick Punto was forced to go back to third base instead of scoring the tying run and the Phillies eventually lost and the Mariners left town with a sweep in their books.

After rebounding nicely to take two out of three from the A's and only being able to salvage one game from the three in Anaheim, the team marched on to Cincinnati. It appeared as if The Great American Ballpark's home run jet stream was just what this struggling offense needed. Earlier in the season the Phillies scored a franchise record thirteen runs in one inning against the Reds in their new digs. What happened in the first game was the turning point that I believe every Phillie fan is going to look back on after this season is complete. The Reds completely embarrassed the Phils, 15-1. Kevin Millwood was roughed up in 3 1/3 innings. He allowed 11 hits and 8 earned runs. The story of the game wasn't the poor outing of Kevin Millwood though. The focus was on the bench clearing brawl that was started by Reds outfielder Adam Dunn. Dunn took exception to Carlos Silva throwing behind him twice in the sixth inning and all 6'6" 240 lbs. of him took off after Silva. Dunn never reached his target though. He was tackled by Mike Lieberthal before he could get a hold of the Phillies pitcher. Silva was incensed that Dunn tried to score a meaningless run earlier in the game with the score 9-0 in favor of Cincy. Dunn was beaten by Jimmy Rollins' relay throw by about 5 feet and instead of slowing up or sliding into home, he lowered his shoulder and blasted Mike Lieberthal. I'm sure many of you are familiar with the "unwritten rules of baseball" and Dunn clearly over stepped his boundaries by knocking over the catcher with a nine run lead. The next evening the Phillies returned the favor and beat the Reds by a score of 12-2.

That incident in Cincinnati took place on June 13th, ten days ago. In that ten day span the Phils are 7-1. With three out of four wins having been of the walk-off variety and one was against the most dominant closer in the game, John Smoltz. They took two out of three from the Braves and swept a rain-shortened series with the Boston Red Sox, two games to zero. In this ten- day stretch the Phillies offense has started to go back to the basics. They are stealing bases, moving runners over by hitting the ball to the opposite field and driving in runs via sacrifice flies. Jim Thome hit two home runs on Saturday that tied the game up each time. His previous fifteen home runs were not very meaningful because they either came with a big lead or while the Phillies were trailing too much for his homer's to make a difference. Saturday's game was magical not only because of Thome tying the game in the bottom of the eighth or because he tied it once again in the eleventh when he was down to his final strike, but because the Phillies refused to accept defeat. They battled Pedro Martinez and kept the game within reach until they could get to Boston's horrendous bullpen. Randy Wolf pitched brilliantly and held the potent Sox offense to two solo home runs by second baseman Todd Walker. In the bottom of the thirteenth inning and after the Red Sox had taken a 5-3 lead in the top half, Bobby Abreu started off with an innocent walk. He was quickly driven in by David Bell's double to the wall in right centerfield to make the score 5-4. After an out, the last player available to acting manager Gary Varsho was back-up catcher Todd Pratt. Pratt dug into the box against well-traveled reliever Rudy Seanez and took a ball. The next pitch was a fastball and Pratt reached out and smoked it over the centerfield wall!! What an amazing, relentless victory by the Phillies!! Sunday's game wasn't close in terms of dramatics, but it was a well-played game by any standard. Brett Myers stifled the Red Sox batters in route to a three hit shutout. The Phillies won by a score of 5-0 on homeruns by Bobby Abreu, Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins.

This week up coming will end that brutal stretch of games for the Phillies. They are now 8.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves and they're heading down to Turner Field to try to chip away at the Braves stranglehold on the National League East division. Thanks to the benches clearing brawl in Cincinnati, the Reds have awakened a sleeping giant. That giant I'm referring to is the Phillies offense, of course. Should the Phils sweep the series in Atlanta and continue to play great baseball, every fan can flip their calendar back to June 13th and know that was the day this team turned their season around for good.

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