The last few seasons there have been moments when things seemed possible for the Phillies, and they had a chance to contend. In 2001 under the new management of Larry Bowa, the Phillies frustratingly finished two games behind the Atlanta Braves. In 2003 they were this close to clinching the Wild Card, but the Florida Marlins stepped up and destroyed us; the Phillies wound up finishing third.
In 2004 the Phillies were expected to run away with the division, and that was the tune every seemingly knowledgeable baseball person sang. Does anyone remember when Jethro Tull won the Best Heavy Metal Performance Grammy in the early nineties over Metallica? The sure thing does not always walk away the winner. By the way the song that lost out was "Enter Sandman."
Now here we are again. It is 2005 and wild things have happened. The Phillies made a beautiful comeback from the April/May basement, going 12-1 at home in early June; it was the Phillies most successful home stand since 1955. Larry Andersen said it best during one of the games, "Boy, is this team fun to watch right now." Everyone began talking pennant win, division champs, playoff berths...or maybe just the wild card. The Phillies were suddenly the hottest team in baseball and in the race again, when only weeks ago they looked finished.
At the beginning of this season, the Phillies were a miserable mess. They could not put a string of wins together and nothing seemed to be coming together. The bullpen had blown several games, including one against the Florida Marlins that the Phillies should have won easily. Then the sky opened and suddenly the offense went on a tear through teams some said would be hard to beat. Suddenly people believed.
"There's a calm before the storm...I know it's been coming for sometime," so the CCR song goes. Well, that best describes what has happened post-fantastic-home stand.
This same week last year there were some tell tale signs of how this song might end. Randy Wolf was quoted as saying, "The fat lady hasn't sung yet."
Last June 9th closer Billy Wagner was activated from the disabled list. He'd been placed on the DL on May 14th with a strained left groin and it was a cosmic blow to the bullpen. Without Wagner, the bullpen struggled to stay afloat, as roles were shuffled to only some success. Just as Wagner was activated, starting pitcher Randy Wolf was placed on the DL for elbow tendonitis. Don't worry. You did not step in a time machine. This is 2005, and yes this week it was announced Randy Wolf has been placed on the DL. But the even worse news is, he will likely need Tommy John surgery; Wolf might have performed on the Phillies stage for the last time. Panic has set in. People are dumbstruck after watching the Phillies lose two games in a row to the Seattle Mariners; coming into the series the Mariners were ten games back form first in their division.
It is true that this is not make or break; it is mid-June and the National League East is the tightest division in all of baseball. People should not make playoff plans anymore than they should write this team off. But last year seemed like a sure thing; even baseball's best minds had the Phillies winning the division, which is strange considering baseball is so unpredictable. You have 162 regular games in a season...it is a long, very drawn out race. The race last year at this very time was looking a lot like now.
On June 10th 2004, the Phillies were three games out of first place, trailing the hot Florida Marlins.
On the 12th, Wagner and Polanco combined to give the Phillies a fantastic win over the Minnesota Twins. Wagner had his best stuff, and the adrenaline was going. Polanco came to the plate in the 8th inning with the scored tied 1-1 and hit a double. Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu walked to load the bases, and backup second baseman Chase Utley cowboyed-up; he got the hit that allowed Polanco to score. It was three excellent athletes, at their best. Philadelphia had reason to be proud and hopeful.
On the 13th starting pitcher Paul Abbott was given a minor league contract; the journeyman 37 year old was sent to the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Red Barons after struggling with the Phillies and putting up an ERA over six. His downfall was preceded by injuries to starting pitcher Vicente Padilla and second baseman Placido Polanco. Paul Abbott was not the answer to the Phillies pitching problems, but that was only part of the Phillies worries. The Phillies continuously left men on base, and homeruns were usually of the solo kind. Leaving RISP was the Phils song and dance for the entire season, despite the heroics of Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, David Bell, and (when not injured) Pat Burrell.
But what Jim Thome would do next, would be a moment everyone would truly rejoice in.
Jim Thome came to Philadelphia with high expectations put upon him, and high expectations of himself. He made no secret of the fact that he believed Philadelphia was going to have their championship; 1993 would be redeemed, and 1980 would not stand alone. Thome was power at the plate, and his personality made him an instant Philly favorite.
On June 13th the Phillies were playing the Cincinnati Reds. Thome began a long eight pitch, at bat in the first inning against pitcher Jose Acevedo and hit his 400th career homerun. It was a great moment, sentimental, and special. It was also a great accomplishment and couldn't have happened to a more hard working, nice guy. He was the first Phillie to reach 400 career homeruns since Mike Schmidt.
Thome's 2005 season has been painful to watch so far. Due to a recurring back injury, he struggled to hit his first homerun of the year and is currently hitting a dismal .193. It is upsetting to watch him get up to the plate, and know he is not quick enough or strong enough right now to do the damage he's known for. For a baseball-loving competitor like him, it must be very difficult. But Thome seems to know his leadership and presence are still needed, and regardless of these problems he will be there to do whatever he can.
On the 16th the Phillies were 33-29, now two games behind the Marlins.
Then manager Larry Bowa was quoted as saying, "Not too bad considering how many people were out. We're still hanging in there." The word "consistency" and lack of it was being spoken of almost daily. The Phillies were still giving people a reason to believe. No fat lady was singing just yet.
The next game would be a glittery success. In game one of a day-night double-header against the Tigers, Jason Michaels would come off the bench and drive in four runs. Brett Myers, who experienced shaky times early in the season, would give up only two runs in seven innings of work. Focus and maturity were questions at that time, and that was an example of what he could do if those elements were present; he has been the staff ace this year and Philadelphia should be mighty proud.
There were the pieces being put in place...Chase Utley's performances making a strong argument for trading Polanco, so he could be the full-time second baseman; Myers learning to mix up his pitches; Abreu giving fair warning to pitchers that he would continue to grow as a force to be reckoned with. So much promise was there and a nice melody was emerging from the noise, but the rhythm was missing.
On June 17th hope was still floating.
In the home-opener of a three game series against the Kansas City Royals, the Phillies dropped it 10-4. It was a midseason game and the heat of the battle was not yet fired up, it was no big deal really; unless of course you considered the Phillies opponent and when last they visited Philadelphia.
The Royals had not been to Philadelphia since October 21st, 1980 when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson and the Phillies won their only World Series in team history. So then this was fitting timing wasn't it? These two teams were meeting again, the year that the Phillies would win the World Series again...right?
All things still seemed possible that week in June, and all things still should seem possible now. Just ignore that annoying little ditty that you keep hearing over and over. Don't you hate it when you can't get a song you hate out of your head?