CD's Connect the Dots...Mid-Stream

Anyone who has ever taken a trip on a boat knows that there is a point, the midstream point, which is the point of no return. You are as close to your destination as you are to your departure so you must press ahead. It does very little good to look back, except to evaluate where you have been, but it is much easier to look forward.... to where you hope to go.

By the time many of you read this column, the Philadelphia Phillies will have reached mid-stream, 81 games played and 81 left to play Although the current pace indicates a final record of over 90 wins, fairness dictates that we understand that the trip to midstream could actually be split into 3 sections, the early euphoria, the long drought, and the final rush. Careful analysis of each section may teach us much about how the Phils may navigate the final stages of the stream.

The early euphoria, sparked by a new spirit, new players, and a relatively light schedule saw the Phils bolt out to a 9-5 start. This start may have fooled the Phillie faithful into a false sense of security, for even then there were boulders in the stream. Who can forget that early weekend series against the Pirates when on consecutive games we scored 1, 16 and 0 runs? This would prove more a portent of things to come than an aberration along the way. This portent of things to come would lead to...the long drought.

The irony of the Phils mid-stream record is that for most of the first three months the Phils were involved in a long drought, a period when they played under .500 ball (25-27). To their credit, the team did not implode, nor begin pointing fingers. This was due, in no small part, to the leadership of solid veterans like Kevin Millwood, Jim Thome, Placido Polanco and David Bell. This leadership, combined with the solid efforts of pitchers Millwood, Randy Wolf, Brett Myers and the bullpen, along with the bats of Thome and catcher Mike Lieberthal and the bench, helped the Phils to tread water until...the late rush.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, the late rush coincided with a fight in Cincinnati that occurred in a particularly one-sided loss. The Phils of the next day were as different as salt and pepper and it began to show in the standings. A push that would see the Phils win 4-of-6 from the Braves, sweep the Red Sox and Orioles, and involve themselves in two epic extra inning games gave hope that the tides would shift for the second half and allow for smoother sailing. Though the waves have been choppy and the current uneven, the Phils seem to have righted their ship and hope for calm seas to shore. Will the captain announce "full speed ahead" or might we expect a call from Captain Bowa to drop all anchors?

Lets climb the crows' nest and look through the binoculars. The one constant throughout the first half has been the consistent strong pitching of both the starting staff and the bullpen. Millwood and Company has kept the team in almost all the games with their solid efforts. It can be expected to continue in the second half because no one was overworked, the arm of Vicente Padilla seems fine, and Myers and Brandon Duckworth are becoming more comfortable by the start.

If there is at all a concern, it may fall on the broad shoulders of Duckworth, he of the brilliant spring and inconsistent summer. There may not be a pitcher on the staff with better "stuff" than Duckworth, but stuff without smarts does not spell wins. His maddening inconsistency in getting the first pitch strike has led to his downfalls, but no one doubts his ability. It would surprise no one if Duckworth has a strong second half. Millwood, Wolf and Myers have given no indication that they will fail in navigating the remaining waters, and Padilla has been very effective since the trek through Anaheim.

One caveat …. it would not surprise anyone if GM Ed Wade attempts to beef up his starting crew with another starter for the final push. Pitching is at a premium and it is better and smarter to have one too many than one too few.

Ah, and this is a favorite topic these days…. the bullpen...can you spell REVELATION? The efforts of Turk Wendell, Terry Adams, Rheal Cormier, Dan Plesac and Carlos Silva have been superb and, though the water has been murkier when Jose Mesa was steering the ship, his final numbers for the first half have been acceptable. Again, do not be surprised if Wade brings in another reliever, he has acquired relief help at the deadline in three of the past four seasons.

And not to forget, the hitting. If Thome and Lieberthal have been the Sea of Tranquility, Pat Burrell and David Bell have been the Perfect Storm. It is simply inconceivable that Burrell and Bell will continue their man overboard act in the second half.... totally inconceivable.

In fairness, Pat Burrell has been, throughout his adult life, a human hitting machine. He is still spoken of in hushed tones around the batting cages of the University of Miami, so talented a hitting artist was he. The slump he has endured throughout the first-half must end soon, unless there is an injury (eye problems, back problems) that is unbeknownst to everyone connected with the Phils. My instinct tells me that Burrell is about to rock the boat with his power exploits, and the Phils will be a more streamlined model for it.

David Bell presents a more interesting dilemma, as he is the type of hitter who may slowly come around without any one really noticing that the sails are pointed easterly. The fact remains… David Bell has consistently maintained a .260 average through his career, and I suspect when all come ashore that are going ashore, Bell will be snuggly in that .260 niche, and with many clutch hits along the way.

If Burrell and Bell hit (as I think they will) the Phils may present difficult problems for pitchers on a daily basis. Thome, Lieberthal, Polanco and Rollins have done nothing to indicate that they won't have solid second halves, and the expectation that a .300 hitter will hit .300 makes the trip with Bobby Abreu particularly appealing. As for rookie Marlon Byrd, the Phils almost had to toss him a life raft to keep him from sinking early on but, as has always been his case, he slowly turned the rudder around, and now has the wind at his back.

All in all, a pleasant voyage may be in store for the crew of the Good Ship Philadelphia during the final 81 games. This then is the expected best-case scenario.... clear skies, calm waters, gentle wind, and a team on fire! Oh, what a sight! But, is there a possibility that the barometer could rise causing ocean swells along the way? Absolutely. Although solidly built to last, this Phils ship could begin taking on water if any of their regulars suffers a long-term injury.

This Phils team has been remarkably healthy up to midstream.... maybe it will continue, then again, maybe not. An injury to Thome or Lieberthal would leave the Phils very short of lifeboats and the course could become difficult. A Millwood shoulder, a Padilla elbow, a Mesa meltdown and the Love Boat might lose its charm quickly.

Yes, we have reached mid stream, ladies and gentlemen, and by the growing list of "phanengers", it appears that the ship is once again a popular summer vacation spot for local Phillie enthusiasts. How this trip makes it to shore will tell us very quickly how many passengers will re-up for a return cruise in 2004.

Ahoy, mate! All aboard that are coming aboard!!!

Columnist's Note: Your comments or questions are welcome. Send it to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD


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