CD's Connect the Dots... Backs To The Wall

It was Yogi Berra who coined the phrase, "it ain't over ‘til it's over," and of course, he is correct. Stories abound of teams that were near mathematical elimination and yet fought back to win the day. So Philadelphia Phillies fans, grasping at the thinnest of straws, can still gain strength from past stories of the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1985 Kansas City Royals and the 1986 New York Mets. At this point, grasping at straws may be the only thing left to grasp.

Perhaps there is no phrase in sport more misused and abused than "must win" game. In the course of a 162 game schedule, games tend to become blurred, as if one game against the Cincinnati Reds tends to blend right into the next day's game against the Houston Astros. Over the course of a six-month season, most games become equally important, yet unimportant. Unlike football, which plays a 16 game dash, baseball is a long distance run, and to the distance runner eventually goes the prize.

Yet few people associated with the 2003 Phillies would dispute the utter importance of winning game one of the three game series with the Florida Marlins. Already trailing by one game in the standings to the Marlins, the Phils could ill afford to fall two back with only two left to play in Florida. And for six innings things looked particularly rosy for everyone in Phillie-land.

Already possessing a 3-0 lead behind the masterful twirling of Kevin Millwood, the Phils appeared poised to deliver the deathblow to the Marlins chances of winning Game One. With two outs and the bases full, the Phils latest Paul Bunyan, Jim Thome was set to end the suspense and break the game open. His screaming drive couldn't have been hit harder, yet it did not land safely with Phil's runners scampering merrily around the bases.

Instead Thome's "shot" landed snugly in the glove of a relieved Marlin, and as if given a second life, the Marlins responded like champs. Before the dust had settled in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Marlins had scored 5 runs off a handful of Phillie pitchers and made meaningless a single Phillie tally in the eighth. Final score… Marlins 5, Phillies 4 and one could almost hear the line judge exclaim, " Point, Game, Match… Florida Marlins."

No doubt the Phils will bravely say all the right things, about winning the next two games in Miami and leaving the Sunshine State tied with the Marlins for the Wild Card lead. And, in actuality, they still could. It is possible that in this wackiest of dipsy doodle rides the Phils could pick themselves off the proverbial floor and ride the efforts of Brett Myers and Randy Wolf to a double dose of victories.

Yet sport has a particular feel to it, and it just has the feel of a team that gave it their best shot… and still came up one run short. Perhaps it was fitting that in a season where games were lost due to the lack of a bunt, this game was lost due to a successful bunt, a bunt that many will question over the long, cold winter months.

Baseball is a game of percentages and adages and one particular adage goes like this, "go for the tie at home, and the win on the road." Basically, this adage is a sound one, because the home team has the advantage of always hitting last. Thus, a bunt to move the tying run into scoring position makes more sense to a home team, than a road team.

Nevertheless, the Phils manager Larry Bowa threw percentages to the wind in this game and though he won the battle, he lost the war. Trailing by two runs in the top of the eighth inning and with the first two batters aboard the bases, Bowa chose to have Tomas Perez bunt the runners in to scoring position. While the bunt was successful, the Phils gave up a very valuable out, and though one run eventually scored, the second and most important run was left at third base.

Indeed, this game had more twists and turns than a Magic Mountain roller coaster ride. Sadly for the Phils, it appeared that every time a Phillie twisted, a Marlin was there ready to turn, and the final Phil twist gave the Marlins the winning turn. Wasted in the rubble were six stellar innings of pitching by Millwood and a clutch two run double by shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

Millwood, pitching in 90-degree heat and 98% humidity, probably just ran out of gas in the seventh inning. Of this, second guessers will have a heyday. Should Millwood have been allowed to start the seventh inning, even though he had a four hit shutout in the works? Did Millwood's two walks to start the seventh inning indicate he was done? If so, then how was he able to gather the strength to strike out the next hitter?

Questions, questions, and more questions. Unfortunately, questions always abound on the losing side, and while the Marlins celebrate with exclamation marks, the Phils continue to ponder the question marks. Of greatest immediate concern for our forlorn Phils comes the question, "what next?" What can we look for in what may well be the final mid week games of a season that seemed to promise so much more. In grasping for the proverbial last straw, what can we hope to hold on to?

If there is an ounce of hope left it lies in this… some old fashioned good luck. For as talented as the Marlins have been this year, they have also been very lucky. Not lucky as in… lucky to be winning, oh no, the Marlins are plenty good enough. Yet this has seemed like a team falling out of trees since July, and always landing on their feet.

This writer can state in good conscience that luck has NOT been the Phils best friend this year. Almost without exception, luck has not been a Phil's ally while seemingly following the Marlins around as if on their roster. Perhaps, in the dimmest of moments, Lady Luck will smile on the Fighten's, and out of seeming hopelessness will arise renewed and revived hope.

Nevertheless, it is also true that good teams make their own luck and the Marlins have the look of the better team. Yet, in this the darkest of moments for the 2003 Phillie season, a grasp at a straw, no matter how thin, is just about all they can hope for.

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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