Am I implying that the famed Chicago White Sox's hitless wonders of several years ago have taken roost in Philadelphia? Certainly not! With a line up that has a Jim Thome, Mike Lieberthal, Bob Abreu and Placido Polanco playing on a daily basis, the team is capable of scoring enough runs to win...but not to bludgeon. And here is where my lovable chameleon comes into the story.
You see, much like the chameleon, I believe our Phillie team doesn't realize what it truly is, so it seeks to make changes to mask its problems. Need a new lead off hitter? No problem, lets see.... alphabetically in order, Abreu, Polanco, Rollins.... and certainly careful consideration will soon be given to Marlon Byrd. Clean up hitter...hey lets have a roll call of Abreu, Thome, Burrell, and Lieberthal. Batting 5th? What day of the week is it...if its Tuesday, it must be David Bell? Of course, if it's Thursday, well that's Lieberthal's day in the sun. Weekends are made for Abreu, and Mondays seem to have the stars in alignment for Burrell to shine.
Speaking of alignments.... how about the righty, righty, lefty, lefty, righty, righty, lefty...oh, you catch my drift! Much like our friend, the chameleon, we just can't decide what to be today. And with every change, the chameleon gets more frustrated and less successful at what he is supposed to do.... catch flies!
Sounds familiar? This litany of offensive excuses has just about exhausted me... bad weather, too much travel, strong pitching, illness, injury, bad karma... hey, how about this one.... maybe, just maybe, friends, what we see is what we are going to get offensively. Maybe, we are just having one of those years when everyone mysteriously slumps at the same time? It has happened before...you could look it up!
Remember the 1978 Phillies?... same thing happened to them. It was crazy, irrational, inconceivable...all those words fit that team. Especially after the record setting offensive explosion from the ‘77 marauders. Same guys, different year.... different results. It happens!
Please, please.... read on because it does get better. I am not advocating making preparations to attend the first Eagles intra-squad game in July. On the contrary, I am advocating taking a message from the mixed up chameleon. Once he found out who he was, he lived happily ever after.... and this is what I advocate the Phils do, and do it quickly. You see, it is my contention that with all the sports experts acknowledging confusion about the Phils inability to hit, the Phils have failed to recognize what they do best...and that, my friends, is pitch!
Philadelphia's most honored citizen, Benjamin Franklin, once wrote a monthly newsletter called the Farmer's Almanac. In this almanac he would offer words of wisdom.... and although he wasn't necessarily thinking of his city's favorite baseball team, his particularly wise advice that "a stitch in time saves nine" could be used by the Phils, even today.
A pitch in time may save the Phillies nine. It is quite clear to me that pitching is what the Phils do best! Night after night, they send out a solid craftsman, from Kevin Millwood to Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla to Brett Myers, Terry Adams to Turk Wendell, Brandon Duckworth to Dan Plesac, Carlos Silva to Rheal Cormier...come one, come all...you are all invited! This IS the Phillies strength and it is THIS group that will have to carry the Phils to the playoffs.
It is a wonderfully liberating feeling when you finally discover what you are and what you do best. It not only allows you to move forward but also allows you to realize what really is most important...and how to maximize that strength. When the Phillies organization realizes that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan has assembled a staff as good as any east of Los Angeles, then, and only then, will this team begin to really take on its true personality for 2003. Until then, we will continue to see a steady diet of what we saw in April, May and June.... scores of 2-1, 15-2 and 3-1 games, with us too often having the 1's immediately following a particularly exhilarating 15 run outburst. The reasons do not need to be repeated here, I have commented on several occasions that it is my belief that this edition of the 2003 Phillies is not built to manufacture runs...so on days the boppers aren't bopping, they will struggle to score.
However, the truth always sets free, and if the Phils begin to understand the truth of their outstanding pitching, then perhaps they will do two things that I feel are necessary to accentuate their positive...which is pitching! First, they will decide on a lineup BEST qualified to score 3-4 runs a game on a nightly basis, no matter how many hurt feelings they cause. It is amazing to me how much we worry about the feelings of the modern day athlete...as if his feelings are more important than the teams' win-loss record. With rank comes responsibility and this Phils team has several players whose paycheck gives them sufficient rank... now they must be accountable.
It is painfully clear that this team scores best when Abreu bats first, put him there and leave him there! I know little but I know this - winning cures most of what ails a team - and this team will win more with Abreu at the top. The constant juggling of hitters like Burrell, Rollins, Polanco and Bell must stop...put them in a spot in the order and leave them there.
Hitting location DOES matter.... it is amazing to me how well Marlon Byrd has hit from the eighth spot, he is lucky if he ever sees a good pitch. I suspect if he is moved up in the order and allowed to run more, both he and this team would benefit. He is a talented player with a good on base percentage, reward him for that!
And finally, let's head back to the strength of our team, our pitching. If you carefully examine the list I compiled, you will notice a prominent name not mentioned. No, not Hector Mercado, he of the strange 12th man in the rotation, a number I find at least one too many in pitchers. Rather, it is Jose Mesa, our resident closer.
Please understand there is no player on this team I respect more for his work ethic, coaching of young pitchers and past performances, than Mesa. All those make him a favorite of mine. But I know this much - there is nothing more demoralizing for a team built on pitching than to have a closer that doesn't close well - and Mesa has not closed well this year. At some point in the not too distant future, and July 31 has a good ring to it because it is the trading deadline, the Phils will have to make a difficult and perhaps painful decision on Mesa. One thing is certain, he cannot continue to perform as he has done up to this point.
A team built to win 2-1 and 3-2 games MUST have a closer that will insure those wins on a consistent basis. Mesa, for all his wonderful attributes, has been living on a high wire all season, and the wire is getting more precipitous. This decision, as well as the decision on Abreu, Byrd and others, will take courage, and a crystal clear realization that the most important thing here is, the TEAM.
This team has talent and strength, but this strength must be recognized, cultivated and nurtured. This strength must be given every opportunity to flourish and help carry this TEAM as far as it is capable.... at least to a playoff spot. The strength of this Team, which starts with T, is a word that starts with P, and rhymes with T... and that stands for pitching!
Many people always insisted that Benjamin Franklin was a man who lived before his time. Who would have ever known that his wise words, with just a touch of a change, could apply to our team, to this very day? Indeed, "a pitch in time may save our Phillie nine".
Columnist's Note: Your comments or questions are welcome. Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD