Certainly the trade for reliever Ugueth Urbina was not universally applauded, and this writer still believes the jury is out. Given the balky back of third baseman David Bell and the questionable elbow of starter Randy Wolf, the swap of versatile Placido Polanco for Urbina and utility man Ramon Martinez may still evoke questions at times.
Yet Urbina was more than up for the test this weekend, both as a closer on Saturday night, and as the setup man for Billy Wagner in Sunday's home win finale. Phillie fans can rightfully contemplate a solid bullpen crew of Urbina, Wagner, young Ryan Madson and veteran Rheal Cormier. If Urbina proves to be as effective as he has been recently, the Phillie nine is unlikely to lose many late inning leads.
The news about Wolf was unsettling, especially given the uneven performance of Vicente Padilla this year. It still says here that the Phightin's are at least one starting pitcher short, and without the southpaw they are vulnerable to team's with strong left-handed hitting. History is repleat with teams that won titles with several lefties in the rotation, but not so plentiful when it comes to successful all righty rotations. Still, this is fodder for another day, the talk now is about Phillie Winning, and with this team playing so well at Citizens Bank Park, Phillie winning at home has become money in the bank! ,p> Merely one month ago, after another bullpen meltdown on Saturday night May 14th, the Phils awoke with a record of 16-22, and talk of wholesale changes were in the air. Not only were the moves of Manager Charlie Manuel being openly questioned, but General Manager Ed wade was thought to be out by Memorial Day if Phillie fortunes didn't soon change. With this as a backdrop, Padilla, he of the 0-4 record and astronomical ERA of over 7.00, trudged to the mound.
Three hours later, the Phils had withstood another late bullpen struggle and come away with a 4-3 win. The date was Sunday, May 15th and from that day to now, the Philadelphia Phillies have been as different a ballclub as night is to day. Since May 15, the Phils have performed at breakneck speed, with 20 wins in 26 games, and have made up more than a half dozen games in the standings.
Not only are they winning, but they have displayed a swagger and confidence about them not seen since the days of Dykstra and Daulton. Plainly speaking, they have been doing it with their bats, their arms, their gloves and their smarts. This quartet of reasons has proven a nearly unbeatable combination for Charlie's Company. Certainly it is unreasonabale to expect the team to continue at this breakneck pace but it would be equally surprising if we saw a return to the early season foibles that so dominated the nightly peformances.
The bats have been lead by the hefty hitting of Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Chase Utley. Abreu has played like a potential MVP candidate, and from the sounds and sights I witnessed this weekend, has finally won over an often skeptical Phillie phan base. Clearly, the phaithful have come to fully appreciate the talents that Abreu brings to the table on a nightly basis. Oh, he will still occasionally appear to let a catchable fly ball fall to the ground as he did this weekend, but these mistakes are far outweighed by the sheer thunder of his bat and the lightning in his step.
Burrell has been a revelation, and there may be more to his sore wrist than meets the eye. In protecting a sore wrist, he has been forced to cut down on his swing, not unlike the philosophy that led to former Dodger Adrian Beltre's monster season in 2004. Beltre has long attributed much of his success in '04 to a season long sore wrist that caused him to alter his swing to avoid the pain.
This appears to be the case with Burrell. How he injured his wrist is still an open question, but it's affect on his performance is not. The Burrell of 2005 reminds long time Burrell watchers of the youngster who came out of the University of Miami billed as one of the finest collegiate hitters of all time. Given the uneven nature of his seasonal efforts, few people remember that he was a certifiable .300 hitter throughout his early career in college and the minors, and many scouts expected him to continue this pace in Philadelphia.
Through no fault of his own, he had developed a reputation early in his major league career as a high yield, high risk power hitter, a feast or famine type player. In fact, Burrell was nothing of the sort. His smooth swing and power stroke promised a high average as well as enviable power numbers. However, just when he should have been coming into his own in this realm, he came face to face with Manager Larry Bowa and his often strange methods of inspiring Burrell.
The often tempestious relationship between Burrell and Bowa need not be rehashed here, but suffice it to say that the night that Bowa pulled Burrell for a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded in a 3-3 game probably did as much to ruin Burrell's confidence as any slider he ever saw on the outside black of the plate. It was on that hot August night in Milwaukee in 2003 that Bowa not only lost Burrell, but pitcher Kevin Millwood.
In fact, it was shortly thereafter that the team had it's near mutiny in Montreal, and although they eventually righted themselves somewhat, Burrell was forever forced to look over his shoulder everytime he struck out more than once a game. To his credit, Burrell never blamed Bowa for his troubles, but to watch Burrell and ace righty Brett Myers in action this season after their struggles under Bowa is strong testament to the freedom they now feel under Manuel.
Chase Utley is probably now the best second baseman in the National League not named Jeff Kent. His progress made the swap of Polanco a forgone conclusion, and it would surprise no one if he begins his annual visits to the All-Star game beginning in 2006. If Utley stays healthy, he will regularly post numbers of .300, 25 home runs and 100 RBI.
Although Abreu, Burrell and Utley have been at the top of the charts they are not the only Phillie players on the Hit List. First baseman Jim Thome, third baseman David Bell and centerfielder Kenny Lofton have also been contributing nightly and even catcher Mike Lieberthal has recently joined the hit parade.
Defensively, the team has remained solid, led by Gold Glove candidate, shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Although his on base percentage remains problematical, his defense certainly does not and he remains the glue to what continues to be a tight inner circle.
As mentioned, the bullpen has become a team wide strength and Madson in particular has been a towering presence. In fact, he has allowed merely one earned run in his past 18 innings of work, as close to perfection as a late inning reliever can hope to attain. Cormier has rebounded after early season struggles, and Urbina has added another power arm to the tandem of Wagner and Madson. The bullpen could soon evoke memories of past Phillie glory during the days of Gene Garber, Ron Reed, Warren Brusstar and Tug McGraw.
The starting pitching has been steady, if not spectacular, led by Jon Leiber, Brett Myers and Cory Lidle. Padilla, though still a riddle wrapped up in an enigma, has won three games during the streak and the Phils remain hopeful that he will soon regain the form that made him an All-Star hurler in 2003. The team received a welcome pickup when rookie Robinson Tejeda threw five shutout innings against the offensive Texas Rangers in an emergency start recently.
This start may prove a regular occurance given the unsettling news about Wolf this weekend. After laboring for six innings against the Brewers, Wolf announced that his recurring elbow problems were once again a thing of the present. The Phils initial plan is to have Wolf rest his elbow for one week in hopes that this will do the trick. History indicates this will not be the case, as Wolf was shut down completely late last season with elbow problems that now appear chronic.
How the Phils handle this potential delema remains to be seen. Wunderkind minor leaguer Gavin Floyd has been less wunder and more unkind lately and it is doubtful that the team will go in that direction. Tejeda will most surely be given the oppurtunity to prove that his initial success was not a mirage, and if desparate measures are deemed necessary, Madson could even be asked to change his bullpen spot for one in the rotation.
Still, Floyd, Tejeda and Madson are all right-handed hurlers, and replacing Wolf permanently seems most beneficial if it is filled from the southpaw side of the mound. In a previous column I mentioned the names Barry Zito, Mark Redman and Eric Milton as three pitchers who might fit the Phil's needs. While many readers felt that Zito or Redman were quality arms, they wanted nothing to do with Milton. Yet, I remain convinced that Milton would regain the form that saw him win 14 games as a Phil if he were reacquired.
To offer a snapshot of this wonderous homestand of 12 wins in 13 games would be a disservice to the team, but to emphasize the swagger in their step would not. Truth be told, this team has the look of a club that EXPECTS to win every day, regardless of the score. They displayed resourcefulness in sweeping the San Francisco Giants, reckless abandon in winning 3 of 4 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, resolve in sweeping the Texas Rangers and repetition in their three game sweep of the Brewers.
Heroes came from many directions, and almost the entire 25 man roster had a hand in this homestand howitzer. From Todd Pratt's big game against the Rangers to Jason Michaels and his excellenance against the D'backs, the team made good use of it's entire roster. This will be necessary in future months given the age and health issues that still follow this club.
I would be remiss if I did not give some personal reflections of my first visit to Citizens Bank Park, especially given the timing of the trip. The park is everything it has been advertised to be, from Ashburn Alley to Bull's Barbeque. It did not seem the bandbox that it's current reputation has advertised, but high flyballs seem prone to travel further given the wind currents to punctuate the stadium. In the two games that I witnessed, no less than eight balls traveled out of the park, yet hurlers Lidle, Urbina and Madson had little trouble with the supposed nearness of the left field seats, and Burrell's blasts would have cleared any park this side of Yellowstone.
As for the crowd, I can only describe them as passionate. In particular, one of my regular readers went to the games with me and if ever a person epitomized the tastes of Philadelphia phandom, it is he. Although he spent as much time debating the efforts of Terrell Owens to obtain a salary raise from the Eagles as he did arguing the merits of the latest Phillie trade, he was a forever reminder to me of just what makes Philadelphia phans so special.
It is precisely because of this passion that a Philadelphia phan is so unique. They are proud of their knowledge and loyalty to their own and even cheered loudly as Afleet Alex entered the victory circle in the Belmont Stakes this weekend. Owned by a Philadelphia consortium, Afleet is as much a part of the city landscape as the Philadelphia Phantoms, the minor league hockey team that recently won an AHL championship.
A hot team in a hot city. William Penn ready to once again proudly don his Phillie cap. The Liberty Bell with a crack expected to exhibit even further cracks as the summer turns to fall. Add it all up and it spells Philadelphia Phillie baseball Citizen Bank Park style. If they can continue this pace in the remote locales of Seattle, Oakland and Colorado, it may prove to one and all that this club will be a team to be reckoned with this October.
For now, we must celebrate the success of the latest homestand, one fit for the ages. With a winning pace of .923 over the past two weeks, playing the Phils at CBP has becoming a recurring nightmare for visiting nines. If this should continue throughout the rest of this season, then clearly Phillie games at home will be like the proverbial "money in the bank."
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast