CD's Connect the Dots... Poster Boys

The year was 2002 and it was one a hot August night. For the Phillies, it was a rather meaningless game at Dodger Stadium in a season that had gone up in smoke many months before. The team was floundering and was learning to play without recently traded Scott Rolen. Still, what I witnessed that night gave hope that two young players, Pat Burrell and Brett Myers would soon become the new poster boys for a team suddenly without one. The road has been long and bumpy but that hope is renewed.

On that otherwise forgotten night at Dodger Stadium, Burrell slammed two home runs, including a late grand slam that seemed to promise a victory for Myers. Myers had battled the Dodgers and his control through seven gritty innings and left with a 6-4 lead, thanks to Burrell's clutch home run. Unfortunately, this was a particulary dismal period in the season when reliever Mike Timlin seemed to relinquish a lead every time he took the mound, and he did so on this occasion once again.

Still, I left the game that night convinced that Burrell and Myers were players destined to lead the Phils out of the wilderness and into the promised land of pennant runs and playoff births. Truth be told, this feeling had more than a semblance of fact to back it up as both Burrell and Myers had come to the Phils as can't miss number one draft picks, Burrell in 1998 and Myers in '99.

Yet a strange thing happened to these two players on the way to stardom and fame. They both took wayward turns to mediocrity in the seasons 2003-04 and both were viewed with suspicion and doubt as the '05 season commenced. For Burrell, it was a case of too many strikeouts and too few home runs to justify his large contract after his breakout campaign in '02 saw him hit 37 home runs and drive in 116 runs.

The Brett Myers story is a bit more complicated. He was as much a victim of his own publicity as anything else and so his 14 and 11 win seasons seemed more dissapointing than they actually were. In fact, Myers won several key games in the Phil's late season push for what was an ultimately unsuccessful run at a wild card birth in 2003. Last year his plus 5.00 ERA looked worse than it actually was. He was a victim of a few absolutely horrendous outings that bloated his final ERA numbers.

Nevertheless, both Burrell and Myers were widely viewed as players who seemed much longer on potential than production and because of this widely held view, the Phils were considered nothing more than an afterthought when it came to NL East contenders in 2005. The Braves were proven pros, the Marlins more skilled and the Mets more glamourous. Those few fans who felt the Phils could contend in '05 were thought to have a lot of hope in their hearts and a lot of rocks in their heads.

Well, phellow Phillie phanatics, consider this writer as one with a rock-philled head and it was because of Burrell and Myers that I felt that way. You see, it is my opinion that no players were more adversely affected by the confrontational styles of deposed manager Larry Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan than Mssrs. Burrell and Myers. Those two, along with currently injured outfielder Marlon Byrd, seemed forever to be guessing what the next move would be and how he would affect them.

With Bowa and Kerrigan now gone, it was expected here that Burrell and Myers, along with Byrd, would now flourish under the more benevelent leadership of current skipper Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. In fact, it would surprise me not at all if Burrell posted numbers on the north side of 40 home runs and 120 RBI while Myers became the ace of the pitching staff. Both have that kind of ability.

If both Burrell and Myers perform as they were once expected to, it is not such an idle thought to believe this Phillie team is capable of great heights and the early returns are quite promising. After but one week of play, Burrell, just voted the NL Player of the Week, has crushed 4 home runs and knocked in 17 runs while hitting a cool .448.

For Myers, his first two starts have seen him pitch well in both while coming away with one win. Even more impressive is his demeanor, the bulldog like mentality that reminded so many Phillie fans of a young Curt Schilling. Brett Myers has been attacking hitters with a fastball inside instead of relying on his curveball for his out pitch. Admittedly, Myers has an outstanding curveball, but it becomes much more effective when used as a second pitch instead of as his out pitch.

This new improved Brett Myers is the model that most Phillie scouts expected when they made him the number one draft pick out of high school in 1999. A former boxer, Myers had an attitude that bordered on cocky, with the talent to back it up. And, oh did Myers have the talent. He made his way quickly through the system, as an anxious and expectant Phillie fan base awaited his arrival. Sure enough, it came in early summer of 2002 at Wrigley Field, and his debut could not have been more spectacular.

His first start came on July 24 against fellow phenom Mark Prior, and when Myers left after 8 innings that day, he had a two hit, 4-1 lead to his credit. This final 4-2 triumph promised so much more, and though Myers did struggle on occasion for the rest of the year, he showed enough to give hope that a Curt Schilling replica was not far off.

That exciting day at Wrigley has seemed such a distant memory during these past two seasons as the stubborn and headstrong Myers battled with Bowa, Kerrigan and even catcher Mike Lieberthal. Though his 25 wins over the past two years led the staff, there were rumors of trades, demotions and trips to the bullpen for the hurler. When Myers defiantly mentioned at a player banquet this winter that he felt he had pitched well in '03-04 it was met with ridicule, derision and much more.

To his credit, Myers came to camp in great shape, and set about to prove that he not only deserved to be a starting pitcher but could actually lead a staff. His spring numbers were not outstanding, but he showed enough to be given the ball as starter number two to begin the season. Now, after two outstanding starts against Washington and Florida, the bar has been raised once again where Myers is concerned.

No longer is the talk of trades and demotion. No more discussion of untapped potential and unwanted baggage. Brett Myers is ready to take his place at the top of the Phil's pitching rotation, and it says here that when the '05 season has taken its course, he will be the number one hurler on the staff. In fact, if Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf can remain healthy through the rest of the season, this team's starting pitching may not only be better than advertised, but a genuine stregnth of the club.

As for Burrell, the numbers speak for themselves. The ghosts of '03-04 will hopefully be put to rest for good as he embarks on a year that might make the middle of the Phillie order a truly freightening place for opposing pitchers to enter. No longer will he cast a disbelieving glance at the dugout everytime he is scheduled to bat with an 0-3 night in hand.

No more will he be pinch-hit for with the bases loaded and no outs in a tie game, as he was in the infamous Milwaukee game in 2003. There are many who still believe that Bowa destroyed whatever confidence Burrell still had with that move, in that game. That the move proved fruitless, and the team went on a 1-9 losing spiral that began that night and only added to the indignity. Yet, that was then...and this is now. With Burrell hitting like the All-American he was at the University of Miami, opposing managers will no longer take such liberties with lefties Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome.

Not only did Abreu and Thome see an inordinate amount of lefty relievers in late game situations but they rarely saw fastballs. With the right-handed Burrell placed snuggly between Abreu and Thome, opposing skippers will think twice before bringing a lefty into a late game situation. This can only be good news for Abreu and Thome, both of whom hit righties better than they do southpaws. In the case of Burrell, it matters little. When he is hitting well, the arm of the pitcher is irrelevent, Burrell will crush them either way.

With fellow playmates Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Mike Liebetrthal seemingly primed for solid hitting seasons, these are heady times for offensively minded Phil's fans. Visions of Phillie players eagerly racing around the bases is not just an idle thought, they are based on real and solid evidence. Pat Burrell is the key. With him hitting, everything else falls into place. Speedsters like Rollins and Kenny Lofton can take chances on the bases, and slap hitters like Placido Polanco and David Bell will be called on to hit and run more often.

As mentioned, Burrell takes the pressure off sluggers like Abreu, Thome, Utley and Lieberthal and further assists the delicate balance of lefty-righty hitters. In fact, with a revitalized Burrell hitting cleanup, Bobby Abreu could finally challenge for that elusive batting title that he has always aspired to. Yes, Burrell is that important to this lineup.

Of course, for a Phillie fan, the glass is always half-full and half-empty. The current 4-4 record could easily be seen as disappointing when it's considered that with a better bullpen the record could be a perfect 7-0. True Phillie pessimists [and they are legion!] will point to the managerial gaffes of Manuel as proof that the 2005 campaign will be no different that seasons past. The Braves still look formidable and the Mets and Marlins are coming on.

Still, for this insider, thoughts drift back to that warm evening in'02 when an otherwise forlorn Phillie nine was buoyed at least for one game by the efforts of two aspiring youngsters. One put on a thunderous display of power while the other showed just enough moxie and grit to promise better things in the future. They have traveled a long and painful path since then and are ready for a smoother and more productive road to stardom.

Pat Burrell and Brett Myers. Former amateur stars. Past Phillie bonus babies and number one draft picks. And current standouts on a team that may yet reach the heights predicted for it in years past. Pat Burrell and Brett Myers...Phillie poster boys once again.

Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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