CD's Connect the Dots... Time to Take [Home] Stand

Baseball pundits may have you believe that every game is important. That a loss in April is as important as a loss in September. Baseball pundits may also have you believe every home stand is equally important. Baseball pundits are wrong. Sometimes, the pulse of a team, the situation they are in dictates that a game or a homestand is of particular importance. Our Philadelphia Phillies face just such a situation over the next two weeks. For them, it is time to take a [home] stand!

Admittedly, floundering is too strong a word. After all, for all their travails the Phils are only one game out of first place, and the race has a fluidity about it that indicates that things may stay that way for quite some time. No one, not the Marlins, not the Mets, certainly not the Braves, seems capable of winning a stretch of games and taking a sizeable lead in the NL East.

To be honest, the Phillies do not seem capable of it either, but if they are to put together a successful stretch of games, if they are to attain any momentum as the All-Star break approaches, these next two weeks provide the perfect opportunity to do it.

A glance at the schedule tells you why. Fourteen straight games. Fourteen straight home games. Fourteen straight winnable home games. If the 2004 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies is ever going to spread their wings and fly, now seems the perfect chance. They may not get another equally advantageous one for the rest of the season.

Over the next fourteen days, the Phils play host to the woebegone Montreal Expos for four, the faltering Baltimore Orioles for three, the upstart and potentially dangerous New York Mets for four and finish with the inconsistent Atlanta Braves for three.

If ever the Phils were given a golden opportunity to open up some ground between themselves and the Marlins and Mets, now is the time to do it. Now is the time for the high priced talent to step up and show why they were everyone's favorite team to finally end the division reign of the Atlanta Braves. Now is the time to show the Mets and Marlins that they will not be denied this season.

Now is the time for Citizens Bank Park to become the home field advantage that Veterans Stadium was during the Phils heyday in the mid 70s. Now is the time for Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu to join Jim Thome and show why they were considered one of the most dangerous 3-4-5 hitting trios in the National League. Now is the time for Kevin Millwood to become the ace that most Phillie fans have been waiting patiently for over the past season and a half.

Millwood is important because he must be the bell weather of a starting staff that is throwing far too few innings and allowing far too many runs. He will pitch three times in this homestand, against Montreal, Baltimore and New York. It would not be the worst news in the world if he gave the Phils a chance to win all three games. That's what high priced ace pitchers do. Now is the time to take a [home] stand and Millwood is one of the key ingredients.

Now is the time for Eric Milton, Brett Myers and Randy Wolf to step up and show why the Phils were expected to have one of the best starting rotations in baseball. Even without Vicente Padilla, this group should be good enough to help the Phils play well over the next two weeks. They need to help the Phils bridge the gap from starter to Tim Worrell and Rheal Cormier, and finally to closer Billy Wagner. Wagner has been a lonely figure lately, with far too few chances to accumulate saves. He was not brought in to mop up 12-3 routs in Boston; he was brought in to retire Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa in October. Now is the time to make sure that happens.

This writer will not dwell on the myriad of problems that ail our team. Certainly more than enough has already been said about the injuries, uneven performances and questionable managerial moves that have made the Phils one of baseballs biggest under achievers entering July.

Rather, it is important to focus on these next two weeks and the possibilities they bring. The game of baseball brings with it many enjoyable moments, some of them private rituals that every baseball fan finds consuming. One of them is the annual study of the 162 game schedule when it comes out in January.

Every baseball fan studies certain things… who do we play on opening day, who do we finish the season with, who and where do we play during the dog days of August? All wonderful and meaningful questions. Yet another constant among fans is to make note of a particularly long home stand, the point in time when a good team is most likely to put together an extended winning streak.

Any Phillie fan studying this seasons schedule no doubt made note of these next two weeks, and now the time is at hand. Although it is always dangerous to predict a certain amount of wins on any home stand, it is not unreasonable to hope, nay, to expect at least a 9-5 record.

Certainly no game seems unwinnable, no team unbeatable. The Florida Marlins, the one team that seemingly owns the Phils are not due in until after the break, and talk of those upcoming thirteen games are best kept for another day. Rather, let us focus on the Expos, Orioles, Mets and Braves, and let us put forth our best foot. Let us endeavor to take a [home] stand.

Let's take a closer look at these four teams and what we may expect to see. Montreal's Expos are first on the docket, and they come in for four games. Fresh off a two of three series victory last week over the Phils, they certainly will not roll over at the sight of the Phils.

Still, winning three of four seems reasonable as the Expos best pitcher, Livan Hernandez, will not pitch against the Phils. The Expos have also been particularly vulnerable on the road, though a cynical sort might say that the whole Expo season has been one long road trip.

Again, keep a particularly keen eye on lead off hitter, Brad Wilkerson. Although I received several angry e-mails from rabid Expo fans after insisting that the Phils might be interested in bringing Wilkerson stateside, I still maintain that this is being discussed. Of particular note was that Wilkerson once again patrolled center field on Sunday against the Blue Jays.

Wilkerson has long been a thorn in the side of the Phils, a point the team is most keenly aware of. GM Ed wade insists that nothing is imminent on the trade front, but I remain convinced that the Phils and Expos are talking, and may make a move soon. Stay tuned.

The short Route 95 trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia awaits the Orioles as they make a rare visit to play the Phils next weekend. Again, this is a beatable team, one that is struggling with three rookie starters and a brand new pitching coach. Although they possess a dangerous lineup that features such hitting stars as Rafael Palmeiro, Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez, the team is currently playing poorly, and seems ripe for two losses in three games.

Following the Orioles into Citizens Bank Park are the New York Mets for four games, and here is where it could get tricky. The Phillies overlook the Mets at their own peril, as this is a very improved and dangerous club, probably the best team the Phils will play on this homestand.

With a top of the order punch of Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui, followed by sluggers Mike Piazza, Cliff Floyd and Richard Hidalgo, the Mets offer a lineup that is versatile and troublesome. They also will no doubt use starters Tom Glavine, Al Leiter and Steve Trachsel in three of these games, and all have a history of giving the Phillie hitters fits.

A split of the four game series seems likely, especially given the way the Mets came into Philadelphia last month and swept the three game series. If our forecasting talents prove accurate, this will place the homestand record at 7-4 entering the final three game series with the weakened but still troublesome and proud Atlanta Braves.

If any talk of a Brave collapse was whispered it was quickly doused by the Brave's sterling rally from seven runs behind to a scintillating 8-7 victory over the Orioles recently. Any team with hitters like Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, ex-Phillie Johnny Estrada and never was a Phillie, JD Drew cannot be taken lightly.

Still the fact remains that they are not what they once were before defections of such stars as Greg Maddox, Glavine, Lopez and Millwood have made them a shadow of their formerly kingly selves. Add to this fact the good fortune that Millwood will not pitch in this series for the Phils, and it is not unreasonable to expect two wins in three games.

As any self respecting Phillie fan is well aware, Millwood and Atlanta have spelled disaster for Philadelphia since the December 2002 trade took place. In fact, Millwood sports an 0-6 record against Atlanta and has twice blown four run leads in games he eventually lost. As much as the Phils are counting on a resurgent Millwood during this stand, it seems best that he avoid his ex-teammates whenever possible!

So, Phillie phanatics add them all up and what we have is a 9-5 homestand and a probable first place birth in the NL East at the All-Star break. Certainly, the time is right, the situation calls for it, and the opponents seem willing and able to do their part to comply. No New York Yankees on the horizon, not a San Francisco Giant within three thousand miles, and no Marlin fishing trip until late July.

Yes, my friends, it behooves the Phils to dispense with the drama. It is imperative that they do not allow the Mets or Braves to do what the Marlins did last year. Few may recall, but a downtrodden and bedraggled Florida Marlin club made their way into Philadelphia last July talking of dismantling the franchise and starting all over.

And well they might have if not for a strange and wonderful occurrence, a three game sweep of the Phils. Even today, the Marlins speak of that series as their turnaround moment, the magical point in time when impossible became improbable, and improbable became possible. Of course, when all things are possible, anything can happen and we now see the crown atop the heads of those very same Marlins.

Let us not allow the Mets or Braves to repeat history, rather let the Phils look back on these fourteen days as their moment in time, when their possibilities became infinitely more attainable. It is time Phillie fans, yes, it is time. Time to take a [home] stand!

Columnist's Note: Please send any comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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