Was it merely 12 days ago when the Phils left the friendly confines of Veteran's Stadium armed with a five game winning streak? The proud bearers of a season high 15 games over .500 record, they approached a particularly long and daunting road trip with an air of confidence that belied its potential dangers.
Be that as it may, no one could have foreseen the total collapse of a team that appeared bent on extending the wild card lead and now seems equally bent on surrendering it. Ten games into a 13 game trip, the Phils find themselves ensnarled with a 1-9 record and the suddenly revitalized New York Mets already smelling blood.
As previously mentioned, the rage of a road trip that has been anything but scenic has finally boiled over into anger, frustration, and short fuses. In retrospect it was not a question of "if" but more of "when" Manager Larry Bowa would erupt. Boy! did it come Thursday. Coupled with Pitching Coach, Joe Kerrigan, suddenly feeling as if he was talking to deaf ears and players who are tired of losing, tired of the road, and probably more than a little tired of each other, the combustion was but predictable.
If ever a "perfect storm" engulfed a baseball team, it certainly happened to our appropriately called Phightens. The perfect storm was a sudden convergence of the Dog Days of August, a long and difficult road trip, and a losing streak that sees no end. This writer had attempted to prepare the readers for this potential storm, warning in earlier articles about the Dog Days and Road Trips. However, no amount of preparation could have forewarned anyone of what has transpired.
In retrospect, the road rage actually began on the first game of the road trip when staff ace, Kevin Millwood, felt he had been replaced too soon from a game. One could also surmise that slumping slugger, Pat Burrell, was not exactly singing Philadelphia Freedom after being pulled for a pinch hitter with the bases loaded. That the Phils went on to lose all three games to the upstart Milwaukee Brewers only exacerbated the situation.
Things went from bad to worse in St. Louis when Bobby Abreu stole second base with two outs in the final inning of a game the Phils trailed by two. That this effectively took the bat out of Jim Thome's hands was mere window dressing to the fact that not only did the Phillies lose the game, but Bowa insisted he instructed Abreu not to run. That Abreu was equally insistent that he had heard no such thing, only added to the intrigue...and the anger.
Nevertheless, St. Louis seemed like a weekend in Paris compared to what awaited our heroes when they flew North of the Border, into Montreal. Had this been a boxing match, the Expos would have been declared winners long before the final bell, such was the four round TKO that they delivered. The Phillies were beaten in every way imaginable, from a swift knockout at 12-1 to the slow painful slugs of an Expo team capable of overcoming an 8-0 deficit to win 14-10.
By series end, the Phils appeared more sparring partners than true combatants. The masterful 4-0 win by Expos ace, Javier Vasquez merely changed the name of this series from French Dip to French Fried. Never did a trip to New York sound so invigorating.
Disturbingly, the three-game weekend series with the Mets may promise more of the "same old, same old" if the Phils aren't prepared because this is definitely not the "same old, same old" Mets. Rejuvenated by youngsters like shortstop Jose Reyes and Ty Wiggington and veterans Mike Piazza and Tom Glavine, the Mets may prove rude hosts to a Phils team in tremendous need of a Welcome Home Party.
As the Phils face the possibilities of a 2-11 or 1-12 trip, it behooves us to search the archives for a trip of similar nature, a trip of such unimaginable horror and intrigue. Historically speaking, this trip may rank as one of the Phillies worst of all time, especially considering the team and the circumstances.
Certainly, the Phillies in their long and often losing history have had some difficult road trips. The 1961 Phillies lost 17 straight road games during their 23 game losing streak, but this was broken up by two home losses to start the streak and four home losses in the middle of the streak. And, afterall, this was a team that won only 47 games all year.
The 1992 last place Phillies had a particularly gruesome 2-11 West Coast trip in July but they began the trip in last place and ended the trip the same way. The last place 1997 team spent a winless week in Baltimore and Atlanta to the tune of 0-7, but again, this was a bad team continuing to play bad baseball.
Perhaps one of the most mind numbing stretches in Phillies history was a 20 game stretch in 1999 when the Phillies came home after a 0-7 week in Colorado and San Francisco. The home cooking wasn't so tasty as the Phils lost seven of eight, including a 22-3 pasting at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. The Phils then embarked on a 13 game trip and proceeded to lose the first five games, to make it 19 losses in 20 games. They then righted the ship somewhat with three wins in the final 8 games of the trip.
Yet, prudence demands a different set of comparisons between our 2003 version and these previously mentioned teams because they were all poor teams playing out the string and not battling for a playoff birth. Is there a playoff bound team that meets similar criteria.
At first thought, the 1964 Phils and their ten game losing streak might offer valid comparisons but no such comparisons are in order. In fact, the Phils lost the first seven of their games at Connie Mack Stadium and actually finished the season with a 2-3 road trip...too little, too late.
No, if we are to find a similar team, having similar problems we must look to the 1976 Phils, a team that finished with 101 wins and an Eastern Division title. Their road trip that almost spelled doom occurred in late August, almost the same time as our current heroes. The Phils embarked on a 16 game road trip with a 15 and 1/2 game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, after winning three of their first four games on the trip, the Phils went on a free fall of nearly 1964 proportions and lost 11 of their final 12 games on the trip. The lead dwindled to three games before the Phils found their life vests and recaptured their momentum.
There is a common adage in sports that "only when rock bottom has been hit that a team can began the long climb back up the hill." The concern is that no one is quite sure if the Phils have hit rock bottom or if the free fall will continue at Shea Stadium. Though painful to watch, this weekend may yet prove fascinating. Our Phightens must decide if the road rage will allow the driver to clear his mind and grasp the steering wheel with greater clarity, or if this road trip will end withthe proverbial asterisk attached to it.
Should clarity provide some much needed wins, the Phils may still change that road rage into roadway...as in a roadway to the playoffs. If not, the asterisk at the end of the trip will be a reminder that the Phils just completed one of their most inopportune failings in the history of the franchise.
Whither the 2003 Phillies?
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