Certainly this weekend would be
different, it just had to! No
amount of bad luck or horrible karma could cause the Phillies to once again be
swept but the World Champion Florida Marlins, rings or no rings. After a nightmarish string of defeats in
2003, which stretched to 12 in 14 games, this Phils nine would teach the Fish a
thing or two about humility.
Last year was just a blip on the radar screen, a minor inconvenience. This year, the fishing poles were stronger, the hooks and lines more sturdy, and the sinker a heavier weight in talent. Yes, this Phillie team would meet…and defeat the Florida Marlins even if the games were in South Florida, a place that had not seen a Phillie triumph in over a year.
Yet, when the dust had settled, when the scores were all added it, once again the Marlins had not only squashed the fishing party, but also capsized the boat. Again, the Phils are forced to look in the mirror and question their inability to reel in a Marlin, despite having him by the jaws for over half the weekend.
Friday and Saturday night were like reruns of the movie Groundhog Day. On both occasions, the Phils started off smartly, behind the solid slants of Eric Milton and Brett Myers, and entered the middle innings with seemingly safe 3-0 leads.
Milton seemed firmly in command, and with a rejuvenated Pat Burrell swinging a solid bat; the Phils at last seemed ready to hook the big one. However, with visions of last year still fresh in their minds, the Marlins began to do what they do best… peck away.
A single here, stolen base there, double here, hit and run there, and by the seventh inning it was 3-3. For many teams, this would seem but merely a minor inconvenience, but not so our Phillies, especially against the Marlins. Call it a lack of confidence, say it's pressing at the plate, imply the manager has made our guys a mental mess in tight spots, whatever theory fits, use it.
The simple fact is this…whenever
the Phils and Marlins enter a late game situation close to even, the Marlins
prevail. Friday night, a Luis Castillo single plated the go ahead run, Armando Benitez made like Greg Gagne
and slammed the door shut, and the Fish had a 4-3 win. There goes the Hook.
Saturday night was eerily similar to Friday evening, as the Fish got the rings, and the Phils took the early lead. Perhaps overcome with emotion at the size of their World Series rewards, the Marlins looked like a fish out of water until the Phils took a 3-0 lead. Even though Myers was throwing steady and impressive 95 MPH heat, he tired in the fifth, and was gone with the bags loaded, clinging to a 3-2 lead.
Needless to say, the lead evaporated quicker than you can say Hee Seop Choi and when former teen idol Miguel Cabrera planted a Roberto Hernandez into the left field seats, the Marlins had a 5-3 lead. Benitez, this time making like Mariano Rivera, said good night to the Phils again. Out went the Line.
With the Phils down to their sinker on Sunday, and facing World Series wunderkind Josh Beckett, no one expected an easy game. It wasn't. To the tune of a crackling fastball, and a knee bending curveball, Beckett made the Phils look like a seasick fisherman. Eleven strikeouts later, he turned a 3-1 lead over to Benitez, who made like Billy Wagner, and sent the Phils ship again crashing to shore. Down went the Sinker.
Speaking of Wagner, it has come to this in South Florida. In order to give him some work, he was forced to enter a game in the 8th inning, and two runs behind. It was small consolation to our not so happy fishermen that Wagner showed what all the fuss is about by quickly disposing of the Fish…with fastballs that regularly clocked near 100 MPH.
And so, we are left to ponder the
fates of our road weary warriors as they prepare to inaugurate their brand new
Citizens Bank Park. As they fly
back home from another lost fishing expedition, they are forced to consider
several scenarios, whether they care to or not.
To wit… what manner of reception can they expect from a fan base far too accustomed to seeing another fishing trip come up empty? Will the fans cheer their defeated heroes, in hopes that this will inspire them on to greater heights? Will they boo them, as they are known to do, in hopes that they can shame if not tame the wild beast that becomes so timid in the face of a darting marlin?
Worse yet, the Phils must soon come to grips with these somewhat startling, if disquieting numbers. As a writer loathe to overexpose the numbers game when making a point, I admit a certain reluctance to bring these to the forefront. Nevertheless, the chances are great that if I don't, General Manager Ed Wade soon might, and perhaps the sooner the better.
Manager Larry Bowa, as feisty and combative as any player to wear a Phillie uniform, and still loved by many fans, is constantly reminding his critics that he has brought winning back to Philadelphia after nearly 20 years of failure. And on first glance, this may be true.
Since Bowa became captain of what appeared a water logged ship, he has shown records of 86-76, 80-81 and 86-76 from 2001-03. So, in his three full years of service, Bowa has a somewhat impressive 252-233 record. Yet, a closer examination of his record reveals a very disconcerting trend if you are a die-hard Phillie fan.
For those fans who were caught
unawares by Bowa's start in 2001, let us revisit his initial year. Many may recall how his "take no
prisoners" attitude resulted in a quick 35-18 start, a breakout that resulted in
an 8 game division lead on the morning of June 1, 2001. However, soon after
that, Bowa made his ill-conceived complaints to the press about how the middle
of the order was "killing us!"
Not only did this comment seem
poorly timed, given the outstanding start by a team picked to finish fourth in
the division, but it caused a complete break in relations between Bowa and star
third sacker, Scott Rolen. Not only
did he lose Rolen, but also he lost 58 of the final 109 games that year, to
The 2002 season saw a poor start, a
mid seen exodus of Rolen, and a sudden leadership burst by slugger Pat Burrell,
and culminated in a finish of 80-81.
To be fair, this team never quit, and only an extra inning loss in…dare I
say, Florida, on the last day of the season kept this team from a plus .500
In 2003, the team was equipped to stay the course, with stars Jim Thome and Kevin Millwood added to an already strong nucleus. And, again to be fair, for a great portion of the season, the team seemed playoff bound. When they left Philadelphia for a 13 game "Dog Days" trip in mid-August, the Phils were 69-54, and on pace to win 92 games.
From that point until the rest of the season, the Phils struggled mightily, and with a closing 17-22 record, finished the year at 86-76. Clearly the team underachieved, but here is the point of all this. Since Bowa's initial 35-18 burst from the gate in 2001, his record as manager of an extremely talented Phillie team is 217-215 for his three complete years. Worse yet, add in his 1-5 record to begin '04 and Bowa sinks to under .500 at 218-220.
This, my friends, is bad enough,
but lets examine an even more recent and disturbing trend. For all this talent, all these words of
bravado, all the millions spent on the players, the Phils have been an
absolutely abysmal team since the night of September 19, 2003 when a 7-3 win by
our Phils catapulted them into the wild card lead with but 8 games to
From that night to this…here are the gory details. With a 1-7 finish to the '03 season, and an unenthusiastic 10-22 record this spring, our 1-5 start to the '04 season adds up to 34 losses in our past 46 games. Friends, this charts out to a .261 winning percentage. Even the worst of teams can be counted on to win at a .333 pace.
My point is this…a trend is developing, and it is not a healthy one. This team is not only losing regularly, but seems either unequipped or uninterested in changing this. Talk of turning it around or "its still early" may well fall on deaf ears soon. The reality is this…as constituted right now, on the opening of our brand new ballpark, the Philadelphia Phillies seem rudderless, and a ship without an effective captain.
While there is still six months to right the ship, the odds that Bowa can maintain the same course and finish the trip are slim. It is well nigh time that this team began playing not with their reputations, but with their talents. If not, it will be not only the Marlins, but also the Braves, Mets, and Expos who will garnish the Phil's fishing tools…hook, line and sinker.
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. CD from the Left Coast