As Larry Bowa's crew take their second of three annual marches through Georgia to play the braves in a three-game series that began on Tuesday, it will give the Phils a first hand look at how far they have come.... and how far they have yet to go. The truth is, they cannot just beat the Braves, but BECOME the Braves. It matters a lot in the short term how this series unfold. Why? Because the Phils feel they are very much in contention for a Wild Card birth while nurturing glimmering hopes of catching the Braves. In the long term view, however, this three-game series is merely a proverbial blip on the radar screen of where the Phils are now, and where they hope to be in the not so distant future.
Truth be told, this Phils team is very much a work in progress, built for the marathon, not the sprint. Teams do not normally hand out six year contracts to players even as good as Jim Thome, or four year deals to players like David Bell if they are trying to make one last push to the top. No, this team was built to dominate the rest of the decade, much like the Braves have dominated the past decade. To get a better understanding of how long the Braves have been at the top of the heap, you must realize that when winning started to become fun and regular in Atlanta, George Bush Sr. was our president. That, my friends, tells you all you need to know about why the Phils have picked the Braves as their reigning role model.
Lets take a closer look at that model and see how near our Phils are to replacing the past and present with the future. The Braves have one system in place that supercedes all others - pitching, pitching and more pitching. No team in baseball has a better pipeline of pitchers starting at the high school level as draftees than the Braves. They have always believed that it all begins at that lonely circle, 60' 6" from home plate. And though it started with Tom Glavine, continued with John Smoltz, got a boost from Greg Maddux, and then culminated with Kevin Millwood and Damion Moss, the Braves have always dominated with starting pitching. The one constant in Atlanta has been solid starting pitching. Their philosophy on relievers has always been an interesting one - they get relievers where they can find them - at bargain basement prices, and generally for only a year or two. It matters not whether it's a Holmes, a King, a Hammond, a Bong or a Lightenberg. They all get excellent tutelage, are given very specific roles, and are all generally so effective that they fly away rich and famous as free agents, always to be rich but never again to be famous.
This is the Braves Way, except where the closer is concerned.... ah, here is where the men are separated from the boys. The Braves always try and have a full-fledged flame throwing closer, the kind that makes it an eight-inning game. Give the Braves a lead in the ninth and turn out the lights. Whether it was Mark Wohlers, John Rocker or now Smoltz, the Braves came at you with heat, heat and more heat. And very successfully. The Braves have always been blessed with solid athletes, from Ron Gant and David Justice of past Brave powerhouses to the Jones boys, Chipper and Andrew today. They hit, ran and fielded very well.... and all with power, skill and grace. The Braves have never been afraid to take a chance on a potential problem child, the latest example is Gary Sheffield, he of the mid-life MVP aspirations. And they always understood that deep and versatile benches of veterans like Julio Franco, Matt Franco, Kevin Lockhart or Darren Bragg kept the youngsters on their toes, and opposing managers outfoxed by Manager Bobby Cox. Top this off with a deep farm system that produces a Rafael Furcal, a Marcus Giles or their latest phenom, Wilson Behemit, with alarming regularity and you have a mixture that has produced 11 straight 1st place finishes, 4 World Series births and 1 World Championship. Hail the King! Yet our Phightins have taken upon themselves to say enough is enough, "if you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em".
Let's get real curious and check how they are doing? A careful study of the above Brave names offers an interesting, and perhaps very revealing glimpse into where the Phils are...and where they may be headed. Kevin Millwood was born and bred a Brave, yet at the present calls Philly home, the result of budget restraints and just plain ‘ole good luck. In fact, as Millwood prepared to face the Braves on Tuesday night as a Phillie, the urge to head to the other dugout at game time must have been overwhelming. His stint with the Braves lasted five years; his current stay with the Phils is a bit over five months. But the question is not where Millwood is employed now, but where he will call home five months from now. The Phils hope it's Philadelphia, many suspect he will head back south to Atlanta. How this question gets resolved will have much to do with the way the mantra plays itself out.... will Millwood find "Philadelphia Freedom" by Elton John, his song of the month, or will the sweet chords of Ray Charles in "Georgia On My Mind" pull at the heart...and his purse strings…stay tuned.
One thing is certain...with Millwood the Phils starting pitching matches up with any in baseball. A rotation of Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Bret Myers and Brandon Duckworth is young, powerful and talented. To make matters even sweeter for Phillie faithful, there is a veritable assembly line of minor league pitching prospects just waiting to take their turn at the front of the line. What am I bidding for a Ryan Madson? Who will make the next offer for Taylor Buchholtz? How much do I hear for Gavin Floyd? Next call for Cole Hamels? This is a list that must frighten Phils opponents, and light up the eyes of every frustrated Phillie faithful. The beauty of this list is its depth.....the mortality rate of starting pitching is about one starter a year. If one of the Phils finest is injured another easily steps into his place.... this lends itself very nicely to not just beating the Braves, but being the Braves!
In the homegrown department, the Phils efforts, not surprisingly, started when the Phils whisked amateur talent guru Mike Arbuckle away from the Braves. And his talent production has not been just simple talent but All-Star talent. Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Marlon Byrd, and several of the pitchers are all homegrown products of the Arbuckle machinery.... and there are more to come. Chase Utley may not be more than a month away from taking his place among Phillie regulars at second base, a player with a bat that promises average and power. A third baseman, Travis Chapman, underrated but talented, appears as a blip on the radar screen at this moment but could surface as a viable candidate for the club next year. Further down the line, the list includes shortstop Anderson Machado, outfielder Jorge Padilla, first baseman Ryan Howard, third baseman Terry Jones and outfielder Jake Blalock.
If its sock you want the trio of Abreu-Burrell-Thome matches up very well with the Jones-Sheffield-Jones troika in Atlanta. The Phils has begun to learn the advantage of a bench that is deep and versatile, adding Tyler Houston, Tomas Perez, Ricky Ledee and Todd Pratt over the past few years. Glance at wily veterans like Franco and Vinny Castilla in Atlanta and look no further than David Bell and Placido Polanco with the Phils. Bullpen depth appears in great shape with Turk Wendell, Dan Plesac, Terry Adams, Rheal Cormier and Carlos Silva...a bit overpriced all, butstill solidly effective.
So, let's magnify the grocery list. Starting pitching, bullpen depth, power, bench and defense.... check, check, check, check and check! Is there anything missing, anything at all, that is keeping us from making Philadelphia the baseball capital of the NL East? Excuse me, what's that popping noise coming from the bullpen? Oh, my, its Master John Smoltz preparing to enter the ninth inning with a one run lead for Atlanta...and here, my friends, lies the rub. Whereas the Braves fandom generally drink champagne in the ninth inning of a one run game, secure in the knowledge that Smoltz will send them home happy, Phils fans are more likely to bring out the antacids. As game and warrior like as Jose Mesa is, he hardly is considered a sure thing when he enters a ball game and this, more than any other spot, is what still separates the men from the boys. Nothing cures what ails you quicker than a great closer. In the same breath, nothing will make you sicker, faster, than a closer who can't close. This is not to say that Mesa has not been effective, he has. But his high wire acts have become more routine by the day. This very act carried out many times over for nearly 2 1/2 years, may be ready to change performers. The day is coming, and probably sooner rather than later, when to be the Braves will call for a closer like the Braves have.
Again, here is the rub...no amount of rubbing Aladdin's Magic Lamp will allow us to find a genie in a bottle that will instantly produce a closer like Smoltz. What to do?
Trade for one, like Billy Wagner of Houston? Too costly and it says here that Houston is not likely to want to hand a Wild Card birth to one of their competitors while they are solidly in the race.
Grow one? Perhaps. Not long ago, Wayne Gomes, a former number one pick ahead of Scott Rolen, was our Smoltz-like closer-in-waiting...but too many base on balls, and too many blown saves later... Gomes is once again attempting to climb the victory ladder to a place of prominence in the Phils pen. Keep your ears on the ground on that one.
Or a bulldog like Ryan Madson may have the temperament to turn the trick…. he with the three quality pitches and the mental makeup of a bank robber. Again, stay tuned.
Whomever it turns out to be will be important, almost imperative, because to be the Braves, we must beat the Braves.... at their own game, a game they have been playing superlatively for the past twelve years.
And as our fourth grade student finishes up writing his 100th sentence on the board, he begins a melodic muse.... and it appears that the tune is not just whistlin' dixie.. but rather a freedom march, a march that may take the Phils to the very top of the Eastern Division standings....a Philadelphia Freedom march, if ever there was one!
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