CD's Connect the Dots… Southern Inhospitalities

This writer has nothing but fond memories of visits to the South. It was in there that I was taught the right way to pour ice tea, so correct amounts of ice and tea fill the glass. When I think of the South I think of lots of green trees, cool breezes and friendly smiles. Yet for our Phillies, their Southern memories are not so pleasant. They think of bitter defeats, and lost titles. Their thoughts of Atlanta and Florida are of "southern inhospitalities." Their thoughts must change this week.

The calendar says it's only late July. There are more than 70 games to be played, many trades to be made, equal parts frustration and exhilaration still to be felt. Yet the calendar also says that for the next four nights the Phils will be encountering their "friends" from the South, the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins and although nothing will be determined in this period, much will be learned.

Will the Phils finally rise up and show these inhospitable gents from the South that the current power in the East resides North, in Philadelphia? Will they be able to establish once and for all that they are not merely paper tigers, but truly kings ready to mount the throne? Or will they once again wilt, like the guests of the past, who have not only been treated to a decade of Brave first place dominance, but an almost equally maddening disdain, almost contempt from the Marlins in Florida?

Truly, no two teams have done more to harm the gentle soul of the Fightin's than the Southern giants, the Braves and Marlins. The Braves, because their dominance of the NL Eastern Division seems almost to run without an end in sight, and the Marlins, because for the past 20 games, the Phils have found them almost impossible to defeat.

These next four nights will be a litmus test to see if the Phils are prepared to exorcise these ghosts, as they spend two nights with Georgia on their minds, and then come home to welcome the Fish that hasn't been fried in over a year by the Phillie nine.

Since 1992, the National League has basically been an Atlanta Brave show, with 12 straight titles and more than a few World Series births. Since 1994, when they became Eastern classmates with the Phils they have almost always been the chased and not the chaser. For the Phils, they have become a team to emulate.

Late in the decade, the Phils developed an organizational mantra, almost an unwritten rule of thumb to gauge their progress. Their stated goal was not to "beat the Braves, but to be the Braves." Of course, this meant that they would attain regal status, reserved only for select few. This was a worthy goal, and one well worth reaching.

Unfortunately, there has been one slight problem. No matter how hard they try, no matter what universal star they have obtained, be it Jim Thome or Billy Wagner, they have always lost to the Braves when it mattered the most. Oh, the Phils would occasionally strike up and defeat the Bravos, once even winning three straight contests in a late September showdown in 2001.

Yet these three victories only brought our heroes to within one half game of the Braves, and in an irony of ironies, Kevin Millwood, yes THAT Kevin Millwood, won a crucial Thursday evening game for Atlanta and basically finished off the Phils for the year. They made sure of it the following week with two straight wins over the Fightin's in Atlanta to clinch the East once again.

The Marlin inhospitalities are much more recent but perhaps equally unpleasant. Last spring the Phils were an optimistic sort, having acquired Millwood from the Braves, and signed free agent stars Thome and David Bell. This early enthusiasm seemed well founded as they began the '03 campaign with two wins in Florida, and won the first two games against the marlins the following week.

Certainly, this Phillie team was a club to be reckoned with and the four wins in five early starts against the Fish merely shouted at their superiority over the Flounders. Few words have ever proven so false. Since that Tuesday night in Philadelphia in mid April, when no one could have ever fathomed what the coming storm would bring in, the two teams have met 20 times.

Yes, friends, 20 agonizing, gut wrenching, teeth clinching games, and all but two ending with the same result… a Florida Marlin win. Five series have ended in Marlin sweeps. Six times already this year the two teams have met and the Phils have yet to taste victory. Nightmarish finishes have been the norm, from unlikely rallies to homeruns hit in gale force winds.

Worse still is not that the Marlins always win, but do it in a way that tells the Phils that they know they will win. Truth be told, the Marlins are convinced that when push comes to shove, Manager Jack McKeon will find a way to win, while Phillie skipper Larry Bowa will come up with an idea that leads to defeat.

How do we know that the Marlins feel this way? Because they have the audacity to tell us so. They make it quite clear, from McKeon on down to the twenty fifth player on the roster that they believe they have the mental strength to overcome anything the Phils throw at them. And the past twenty games indicate they just may know of what they speak.

Making this even more frustrating for the Phils is the fact that the Marlins took what the Phils wanted last year, the wild card birth, and turned it into a World Series title. More than one Phillie felt that when Josh Beckett recorded the final out of the '03 campaign and danced with joy at the mound in New York, a Phillie should have done the dancing instead.

This is what the Phillies say they believe. Twenty games say they may believe it, but they would be wrong. The Marlins have proven to offer as much Southern inhospitalities as the Braves have. It has proven tiresome. It is time for this to stop. This week would be a good place to start.

Two games with the Braves. Two games with the Marlins. First place at stake. The dog days of August a mere heartbeat away. Gentleman, it is time to take these Southern inhospitalities and show them the door. It is time to win some games, establish some momentum, and prove once and for all who the true Kings of the East really are.

Yet, this task will be easier said than done. For one thing, the Phils are at least a starting pitcher short, and that spot in the rotation comes up Monday in Atlanta. Oh, the Phils will have someone on the hill, Paul Abbott by name, and he will give it his best, as he always does.

The problem is that his best has rarely been good enough and it is not mere coincidence that the Phils almost always lose on the nights he starts. It reminds one of the mostly futile attempts by Amaury Telemaco last August and September to establish some sort of momentum on the night's that a fifth starter was due to throw.

Telemaco made it his stated goal to "keep his team in the game, and give it a chance to win." Ironically, these are the same words emanating from the lips of Abbott this time around. Unfortunately, they are the words of a pitcher with the mentality "not to win, but to keep from losing." This is not the thought process of the hurlers from Atlanta and Florida. Their stated aim to win, not to keep their team in the game.

More than one Phillie fan has had his fill of "staying in the game" with the braves and Marlins. Indeed, how many sleepless nights have we fans shared with visions of close Marlin encounters turning into late night defeats? How many Brave games have been decided when the two teams battled into the late innings of a taut, tight game, only to have one of the Jones boys, either Chipper or Andruw, grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.

No, just pitching to "keep my team in the game" will not suffice for Abbott this week in Atlanta. He must find a way to recapture the magic of yesteryear, the season in Seattle when he didn't just "keep his team in the game" but proved skilled enough to win the game himself.

Clearly, Abbott must do what he seems to have been unable to do up to this point… be the focal point of a Phillie win, and not just the sideshow in a Phillie loss. This will not be easy, but pennants are never easy, and a very wise man once said that if it were easy, it probably wouldn't be worth the effort. Pitch well, Paul Abbott, and begin to exorcise those Southern ghosts.

If Abbott is up to the task, then the job of Eric Milton becomes that much easier. Leaving Atlanta no worse than when you entered is never a bad way to leave town, and truth be told, Milton stands a decent chance of doing even better than that, provided Abbott gives the Phils the early impetus.

Milton is a southpaw, and who better than a southpaw to show those southern gents a thing or three about stout pitching. And if it can be done against the Braves, a southpaw can do it. For all their skills, the Braves Achilles Heel is facing lefty hurlers for the very heart of their order is decidedly left-handed swinging.

JD Drew and Johnny Estrada, one a Phillie in truth, and one a Phillie only in memory, both hit from the left side and struggle a bit against hurlers like Milton. Even switch hitter deluxe, Chipper Jones, hits better from the left side than he does when forced to bat from the right batter's box.

So Milton has a chance, and if Abbott leads with the right, Milton may well follow with a left, and the Braves, though certainly not down for the count, will have been struck with a powerful one-two punch that may send them reeling into August. Yet this truly is a best-case scenario, and even if the Phils show their Southern friends that guests can be as inhospitable as their hosts, the Marlins must be dealt with next, no walk on a friendly Florida beach, indeed.

A word of preparation, Phillie fan. During the pre game rituals leading up to these two encounters, we will hear the typical talk of a team playing at home. Oh, the Phils will say for public consumption that the hosts will show the Fish who is boss, and the Citizens Bank Park will certainly prove invaluable. Brave words spoken. Unfortunately, until proven otherwise, the words are braver than they are true.

The simple fact is that in these past twenty games, frankly, it just has not really mattered where the two teams did battle. The Marlins won in Florida. The Marlins won at Veteran's Stadium. And, the Marlins in April won three straight in the friendly confines of CBP. Had they played on the moon, the Marlins most assuredly would have won there also.

Yet baseball is a game of cycles, and it is time that the Phils broke the cycle of defeat that has dominated these past twenty games with the Marlins. As in Atlanta, the Phils will hit the Fish with a lefty-righty punch, this time with arguably their two best hurlers, Randy Wolf and Kevin Millwood. Both are good enough to win. Both have been bad enough to taste defeat during the twenty game nightmares. Which scenario will hold up this Wednesday and Thursday?

Although each game with the Fish has had its own turn and twist, a common thread has certainly developed. No matter the score, no matter the inning, it has been the Marlins who have been the aggressor; it has been the Florida nine that has kept the pressure on. This technique generally led either to a Phillie meltdown, or a Marlin miracle.

It has been a winning formula. It is time for the Phils to find an antidote to this formula. It would help if the Phils find a way to keep speedsters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo off the base paths as these two have wreaked havoc on the Phils over the past year and a half.

It would also help if the Phils found a way to pitch to third baseman, Mike Lowell, who has hit far too many clutch homeruns during this twenty game span. It would also help if the Phils found a way not only to get an early lead, something they have done with stunning regularity, but also to build on that lead, something they have done only once.

For all their failures, who can forget that overpowering 14-0 whitewashing of the Fish last September? The Phils started fast with a four run first inning, and continued to pound at the Marlins until the result was no longer in doubt. This is the formula for beating the inhospitable ones from down Florida way. It is tried, it is true, it is time!

For all the twists and turns that this season has had, the simple truth is that after four months and over ninety games we really know little of what we have in Philadelphia. Oh, we know that Bobby Abreu seems to have turned his game up a magical notch, and is no longer just a solid player, but an elite one.

We also know that signing Jim Thome for 85 million dollars was a bargain at twice the price, not only for his skills and leadership, but also for his professionalism and pride. We think we know that having Wagner in the bullpen makes the ninth inning almost guaranteed, and we think we know that Tim Worrell is likely to turn an eighth inning lead over to Wagner at the end.

Yet, for all the things we either know, or think we know, this Phillie team is a tremendous enigma. Are they to rise up and become the Beasts of the East, as many have proclaimed they are? Or are they rather to become another passing fancy, a team that seemingly had individual parts that were better than the sum total of those parts?

Is Mike Lieberthal ready to start his normal late summer burst and help take the pressure off Abreu, Thome and Pat Burrell? Or rather are we seeing the slow sunset of a player that has meant so much to the team and the city for over a decade?

Are players like Millwood, Burrell, Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco ready to take their place among the best of the baseball establishment, or rather will they be content with their current roles as secondary talents?

On an organizational level, is GM Ed Wade prepared to do what it will take to help his club over that mental and emotional hump that has helped the Southern gents attain such utter inhospitality? Be it a pitcher like Kris Benson or Livan Hernandez, or a bat like Carlos Beltran or Brad Wilkerson, whither Ed Wade?

Nothing will be decided during the next four days, but much will be revealed. For Phillie fans, long accustomed to late summer meltdowns and crushing defeats, all eyes will be pointed southward. For Phillie players, long used to the boos and taunts of an unhappy populace, all skills will be on display.

For Phillie players and fans everywhere, it is time to face the foe head on. It is time to give back what has been given with seemingly utter impunity. It is time to end once and for all the nightmares of the constancy known as the Southern inhospitalities.

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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