Now a Cincinnati Red, Eric Milton recently said of last year's Phillies: "That's one of the best teams I've played on…we underachieved. That goes to show it doesn't matter what you have on paper." No kidding. If the 2005 Phillies are going to win, they have to mesh as a team in a way the 2004 version never could. They need to do the little things well and play the game the right way. They have to come through in the clutch and get on a roll. And, as the late, great Tug McGraw said, they gotta believe.
Here is a "to do list" for the 2005 Phillies if they hope to compete for a title:
Set the Table with Small Ball
Jimmy Rollins, Kenny Lofton, Placido Polanco and Marlon Byrd must jell as the table setters. They must run deep counts to make the pitcher sweat and show all his pitches. Take ball four. Make contact with two-strikes. Beat out the bang-bang plays, the bunts, bleeders, bloopers, choppers, dinkers, dunkers, squibbers, rollers, hundred-hoppers, and seeing-eye pokes. Move runners. Steal bases. Pressure the defense to make a play.
This applies especially to Rollins, who still has room to improve as leadoff man. He has been very good, but not yet great. Some great leadoff hitters have played in Philly; Pete "Charlie Hustle" Rose, "The Dude" Lenny Dykstra, and the greatest Phillie of them all, Rich Ashburn. Rollins has the potential for greatness. But if he abandons the small ball approach and swings for the fences, the entire offense will suffer. He knows this by now. Every cab driver in South Philly knows it. J-Roll has to be the spark, not the fire. The good news is that Rollins made huge strides last year, cutting his strikeouts down dramatically from 113 to 73. Always a great defender, Rollins seems poised for a career year. In addition to getting on base, he must apply more pressure with his running game, stealing bases, breaking up the double-play, taking the extra base, scoring from first on a gapper. If he happens to hit one over the fence, he should speed around the bases. We'd rather see him brushing dirt off his letters than doing a home run trot anyway. Lofton's example will serve Rollins well.
For the Phillies to have a fighting chance, the table setters must raise the small ball game to the next level. The competition in the NL East is fierce. Marlins table setters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo are the undisputed Kings of small ball and the Braves Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles are right behind them. The top of the Phillies lineup will have to work extra hard just to keep up.
Beat the Marlins
The Phillies are 13 – 25 against the Marlins over the past two seasons. Only a 6-1 mark against them in garbage time late last season saved it from being much worse. It seemed for a while that the Marlins owned the Phillies. Every break, every fluke went the Marlins way. Whenever the Phillies seemed to have a chance to make a surge in the standings, the Marlins beat them down, humbling fans and players alike. This year, no matter what else happens, the Phillies must show a little more heart against the Fish.
Beat the Braves
The Braves have won an amazing 13 straight division titles. An entire generation of Phillies fans has been raised on eating Atlanta's dust. Think of how sweet that 1993 NLCS was. A little more of that would go a long way. Games against the Braves and Marlins should have a playoff atmosphere, no matter when they fall on the schedule. How the Phillies play against the their divisional rivals will go a long way in determining their ultimate fate and show just where they are as team.
Follow the Leader
The 2005 Phillies must rally behind Jim Thome, who has dedicated the season to his recently deceased mother. Without a doubt, Thome is the franchise. He's John Wayne in pinstripes, the unchallenged captain, a great clubhouse leader. Like E.F. Hutton, when he speaks, people listen. The good news is, the big guy has great character. He's unselfish in an era of selfishness. His only abuse of power will be against the pitchers he takes deep. He will carry the team on his back for weeks at a time. When he slumps, he won't slink to the end of the dugout, he'll stand tall and swing hard and fight the good fight. He's a gritty gamer, a throwback player. More, he's a stand up guy who keeps the accent on the positive. The team and the city are fortunate to have him. If these Phillies reach the promised land, it will be because Big Jim Thome takes them there. Charlie Manuel was brought here in support of Thome. Lofton, a natural fit, completes the reunion of the trio which led the Indians to first place in the AL Central in 2001.
Make the Right Moves
If any one of the regulars falters, Manuel has a number of appealing options. Placido Polanco does everything but pitch and catch and should get at least 300 at bats, possibly as many as 400. Marlon Byrd is not that far removed from an awesome second-half in 2003, when he batted .325 after June 1. This spring he has been scalding hot and should be given a chance to shine in the early going. Ryan Howard can contribute right away if the Phillies give him the opportunity. Jason Michaels filled in adequately last year with occasional flashes of brilliance. Manuel cannot afford to let anyone become an easy out, as Pat Burrell and Byrd were last year. He must eliminate unproductive outs and favor the hot hands. And when the pitching staff springs a leak - which it usually does - Phillies brass must plug holes with quality arms. If the Phillies can't find help on the bench or in the minors, GM Ed Wade will have to make a bold move for the stretch run. This has been a weak point for Wade over the years, who seems content patching holes during the season with toothpicks and bubblegum. He saves his best work for the off-season, building a roster like a fiscal year stock portfolio. Unfortunately, his buy and hold strategy doesn't work in baseball as well as on Wall Street.
Close Out Games
The bullpen must get the ball to closer Billy Wagner with a lead. Wagner, in turn, must stay healthy and return to dominating form. Forty saves is well within his reach. Rheal Cormier and Tim Worrell, both 37, are reaching the twilight of their careers. Terry Adams must rebound from a lackluster 2004 in the American League. Any lapse on their part will be sorely felt. Over the last few years, the Phillies save percentage has hovered in the low sixties. A healthy Wagner should help the Phillies achieve closer to seventy percent, a benchmark of recent World Series winners.
The NL East is the deepest division in baseball. If the Phillies hope to win it, they will have to run like a well-oiled Ferrari. Last year, it seemed there was salt in the gas tank If you believe the players, Bowa and Kerrigan were the source of the saltiness. For the sake of good chemistry in 2005, let's hope they were right.