CD's Connect the Dots... Heaven Can Wait

When Scott Rolen was traded from the Phillies to the Cardinals, he said it felt like he'd been traded to "baseball heaven." After a dismal three days in Milwaukee for our Phils, the next stop on the roadmap is St. Louis and it appears that heaven can wait. If these are, indeed, the times that try men's souls, then it is imperative for our Phils to do some soul-searching before plunging into battle with the likes of revenge-minded Cardinals, or this trip could get awfully ugly, awfully fast.

Make no mistake about it, Phillie faithful, the Brew Crew was the proverbial bye on this trip, the place where the Phightens could get fat and sassy before reaching the meat of the road trip. Problem was someone forgot to tell the Brewers what hospitality means, thus proving them terribly unwelcoming hosts as they led from stem to stern in a most miserably uncomfortable 27 innings. In an almost surreal three days, the Phillies never led once, not even for a single inning. And this was a Brewer team playing out the string to the tune of a 48-75 record coming into Tuesday night's action.

The numbers are mind numbing, are you ready to relive it? The Phillies were outscored 21-7 though they outhit the Brewers by ten. As mentioned, the Brewers led in all but three of the 27 innings, and never trailed the entire series. To make matters worse, the Phils displayed a worrisome inability to hit in the clutch, played loose and fancy on defense, and ran the bases with a carelessness that created too many easy outs for Brewer defenders. Add it all up and what once was a five game winning streak is now a three game losing streak... heading into a revenge minded Redbird team.

Perhaps of greater concern is that what was once the Goodship Philadelphia might be taking on a mutiny of ill tempered and unhappy ballplayers. The signs are everywhere, and actually began during the winning streak. Throw in the Dog Days of August, a long road trip, and a manager who seems to be rubbing some ballplayers the wrong way, and the ship may be taking on water. Whether the players begin abandoning ship will be a fascinating study in leadership, courage and the ability to regain a sense of direction and purpose.

The initial red flag occurred immediately before the All-Star break, ironically during a period when the Phils were playing some of their best ball. Free agent pitcher-in-waiting Kevin Millwood announced that he would forestall negotiations on a new contract until after the season. Although GM Ed Wade put his best face on, this had to be a blow to a man who hoped to hammer out a long-term deal during the All-Star break. Since then, this writer has noticed small yet tell tale signs that the Phillies are preparing for Millwood's departure at the end of the season. Things from six days between starts for a pitcher who loved pitching "every fifth day," to his dissatisfaction at being pulled from a one run game in the seventh inning. These subtle signs, when added up, give the appearance of a hurler who is not totally happy with his treatment, and a team preparing for life without him.

The next tiny hole in the dike points to the continued slump of young slugger, Pat Burrell. The slump has been a continual source of confusion and consternation from all involved. To make matters worse, Manager Larry Bowa began pinch-hitting for Burrell in key situations. Undoubtedly, this had to be a blow to Burrell's confidence, sense of purpose and direction. The situation reached its apex this Tuesday night when he was pinch-hit for in a tie game with the bases full. That the pinch hitter struck out not only added insult to injury, but also to everyone's frustration. It cannot be emphasized enough that Burrell is a vital piece to this playoff puzzle. It simply is inconceivable to picture this Phillie team in a wild card game without Burrell as a key component. How Burrell responds to this latest in game decision could prove decisive.

Add to these the ongoing difficulties of a tired bullpen, and a closer, Jose Mesa, who has at least temporarily lost his closer role. The current mix is not quite tasty. In actuality, these holes in the dike have been there all year, but a pitching staff at peak performance kept the holes plugged. Now that the pitching staff is showing signs of fatigue, the dam could burst.

Any psychologist will confirm that the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. It is hoped that from Manager Bowa on down, our Phils are capable of doing this. Perhaps they have been fooled by the occasional power outburst that looks so impressive in the boxscore, and tend to inflate the numbers and infatuate the statheads. Scores like 16-1, 13-1 and 11-4 are impressive, but less so when followed by a weeks worth of run totals that number less than the fingers on two hands. Truth be told, this Phils team has always been ill equipped to score consistently, they lack the fundamental skills necessary for this task.

As talented individually as many of these players are, they don't bunt well, rarely hit and run, strike out with alarming proficiency and don't steal many bases. These are skills that allow for runs when the thunder is muted and the power is turned off. Equate this together and what you see is what you get.... a team just as capable of electric evenings as they are with power outages.

Nevertheless, a team with leaders and talent like Jim Thome, Placido Polanco, Kevin Millwood, Mike Lieberthal...and, yes, Pat Burrell, is equally capable of fixing the dike and remaining dry. Whether or not they do this may well turn on how Bowa decides to manage for the final five weeks of this marathon race.

This writer saw Larry Bowa play and never has seen a more fierce competitor. Larry Bowa burned to win, but had an outlet for this burning desire...and that was the ballfield. It is still my opinion that Bowa turned the entire 1980 World Series around when he disdainfully stole second base with the Phils four runs down in Game One. His bold statement at that moment told the Royals that they would not be facing a team ready to roll over at the first sign of adversity. That the Phils of 1980 emerged victorious may well have been due to Bowa's bold theft.

This blazing desire to win, to have a hand in everything, may well have been Bowa's greatest strength as a player...but may prove to be his biggest weakness as a manager. Please understand this is not meant to critique him or his managerial abilities. Love him or hate him, fact remains that under his guidance, what once was a forlorn and lost team now has direction and purpose, and consistently wins more than it loses. What it does not have is focus and confidence, and this is where LB must pout to use his best managerial skills in the next several weeks.

It is this writer's opinion that for better or worse, the reins on the Phils must be freed to play, as they will. Millwood, Thome and Burrell will be the horses to ride with, and they must be given room to ride freely. While it is fact that a pennant is won with 25 players, the truth dictates that when it matters most - when the game will either be won or lost - a team must allow the top players to decide the outcome. It is time to stop pinch hitting for Burrell, or playing Russian Roulette with a bullpen that is tired and possibly overworked, and let the players direct how the wind blows, away or towards the pennant.

As difficult as this will be for a competitive and tempestuous character like Bowa, it may prove to be his greatest managerial triumph...he, who micro-manages least, manages best. Time is short and stakes are high. Heaven awaits…then the road leads to less than heavenly stops in Montreal and New York.

The question is what awaits the Phillies upon their return to Philadelphia in September. For the fact remains, that though this weekend is a three game series in Rolen's "heaven", real heaven would be a pennant race in September and a winning send off to the Vet in true heavenly fashion.

Erratum: "Steve from Oregon" in the previous article "Circle of Game" should read "Scott Lusby from Oregon" as confirmed by Scott's very kind wife. My apologies. CD

Columnist's Note:
I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD


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