CD's Connect the Dots... The Last Lap

In any long distance race, all a runner can hope for, and can reasonably expect, is to round the bend and head into the last lap with a chance to win the race. Once the runners reach the last lap, every ounce of strength, courage and sinew will be exerted in an effort to cross the finish line ahead of the competition. In a topsy-turvy, roller coaster ride of a season, this is precisely where the Philadelphia Phillies find themselves as they prepare for the final six games…the last lap.

So this is where it has all come to for our sometimes fantastic, sometimes phightin', sometimes futile Phils. After nearly six months of a marathon race, that has had more potholes than a city street in dire need of repairs, the race for the wild card spot in the National League playoffs will be decided on the ball field this week.

Fittingly, the Phils must overcome the upstart Florida Marlins and the perennial NL East Champion Atlanta Braves to accomplish this goal. Quite a formidable task for the Phils and one that now seems fraught with danger. That the Phils have placed themselves in this circumstance is beyond dispute, how they will wiggle themselves out of it will be fascinating and interesting to watch.

The Phighten's made their task a tad more difficult this past weekend by losing two of three games to the woebegone Cincinnati Reds, a team with nothing to play for but the joy of derailing a car or two in the Phils seeming playoff express. Now the question becomes…can the Phils get the train that is nearing derailment, back on track, or will this seemingly bright season end in bitter disappointment and finger pointing?

There is little doubt that the 2003 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies has shown an incredible resiliency and ability to overcome a maddening predilection for playing down to the level of their competition. If "resilient" has been their middle name, then "inconsistency" is creepily becoming their last name and in the end, this may prove a barrier too difficult to overcome.

In the space of one month the Phils have been swept by the Milwaukee Brewers in a three game series, lost two of three to the Pittsburgh Pirates and have just been beaten two of three against the equally weak Cincinnati Reds. While it is a baseball truth that any team can arise and win on any particular day, it is also a given that genuinely solid teams "take care of business" when its business that must be taken care of. Losing seven of nine games against the Brewers, Pirates and Reds is not a formula for playoff producing success and now the Phils find themselves neck and neck with the Marlins and Chicago Cubs as they all approach the last lap.

Common sense dictates that at some point during the offseason a careful analysis of why the Phils struggled so often must be done. Nevertheless, now is not that time, there are games to be played and a playoff birth to be won. How the Phils go about this task will tell us much about how that off-season evaluation is likely to go?

Since it is starting pitching that has carried this Phils team for most of the season, it behooves Kevin Millwood and company to take a deep breath and be at their best this week. Millwood, as well he should, receives the nod in the opener of the three game series in Florida on Tuesday night and a Millwood masterpiece would be a welcome way to start the last lap.

The Marlins are an extremely talented bunch and seemingly have the advantage of playing in front of a home crowd. Yet, pressure is an interesting animal, and the pressure of performing at home can often be a suffocating experience for a young team. If Millwood can win the opener, the Phils chances of gaining a step in that last lap will be increased two-fold.

Though the rotation is subject to change, it is assumed that Brett Myers and Randy Wolf will follow Millwood to the hill on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Myers has had a solid rookie year, but has recently begun to "hit the wall", a common occurrence for young players experiencing their first full season in the major leagues. However, Myers is a bulldog of a hurler, and if he can manage to master his emotions in such a big game, the Phils could be the beneficiaries of a standout performance.

Randy Wolf is likely to hurl in the finale on Thursday and without a doubt he has been the Phils top hurler this year. With a team high 16 wins under his belt, Wolf will look to overcome a Marlin team heavy in powerful right-handed hitters. There are few things more fascinating to watch in sport than the way that athletes handle pressure situations and in this regard, Wolf has come up very big. Indeed, Wolf, Jim Thome and Mike Lieberthal seem to be enjoying the playoff pressure more than any other Phils so it would not be a surprise if they all came up big in Florida.

Should the Phils somehow find that the race has yet to be won or lost as they return home from Florida, next weekend against the Braves promises a drama and nostalgia not seen in Philadelphia in many years.

On tap are the final three games on the 2003 calendar and are also the final three regularly scheduled games to be played at Veterans Stadium before the Phils make their move into the new Citizens Bank Park in 2004. Would anything make for a greater sendoff than a final series with playoff implications on the line?

Of special interest would be exactly how the Braves would approach this series. Certainly Manager Bobby Cox would love to send the Phils home for the winter, but at what risk? Will the Phils see Chipper Jones, Gary Sheffield and Andruw Jones on a daily basis? Will Cox risk injuring pitcher Greg Maddux before the playoffs begin the following week? Chances are, Cox will walk a tightrope next weekend and attempt to win the games while giving some rest to his players.

Certainly, the games will mean more to the Phillies and as they culminate 34 years at the Vet in front of 60,000 fans a game, and the atmosphere will be electrically charged. Of added interest will be the appearances of past Phillie Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. They will help to count down the games left at the Vet until the Phils great announcer Harry Kalas takes down the number one and the Vet is retired forever. It should be a dramatic walk down memory lane for Phillie fans and past players alike and the 2003 Phils would enjoy nothing better than to increase the festivities with a playoff clinching victory at home.

Is this possible? Can the Phils overcome a season of turmoil, injury and frustration and put a season ending exclamation point to a so far season producing question mark?

Take out your binoculars and keep an eye on the runner who takes the lead around the far turn heading into the last lap. Though the race could prove to be a photo finish, the chances are that the team that takes the lead early in the last lap will be the team crossing the finish line first.

In a season where the Phils seemed to be forever chasing both their expectations and other contenders in the National League East, it would be a welcome sight to see them chasing nothing but the next plane to San Francisco and a playoff date with the Giants!

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

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