As regular readers of this column are more than aware, my usual optimistic tone has been certainly put to the test this season. It actually began last fall when I became convinced that the Phils had selected incorrectly when they chose to hand the managerial reigns to that noted clubhouse orchestrator, one Charlie Manuel. Manuel was certainly not the worst choice to be made and he did have his advocates, none larger than slugging first baseman, Jim Thome.
Still, it was the widely held, and still held position here, that Manuel was not the best choice for the position. I still believe Jim Leyland better understood the mess that was Philadelphia Phillie baseball and had a wonderful master plan to clean it up. Unfortunately, this master plan, which Leyland no doubt outlined in his interview, flew directly in the face of General Manager Ed Wade and this is no way to win friends and influence people. Dale Carnegie taught me that!
Once Manuel was chosen as the skipper of The Good Ship Chollypop, I came on board and decided to enjoy the ride. As any Phillie fan knows, the seas have thus far been choppy and there has been no sign of land for most of the season. Injuries, personal problems, and a general sense of a team on a rudderless ship have convinced all but the most devoted to call for a complete makeover of the ship. In fact, the suggestion that Mssrs. Wade, Amaro and Manuel should be forced to walk the plank has become almost the daily cry of the Philadelphia midshipmen.
Yet, through all the turmoil, something very strange and possibly magical may be about to unfold. Oh, wisdom dictates to me that it is still a long shot. History has shown me that to jump on the Philadelphia Phillie bandwagon is almost guaranteed to leave you with nothing but floor burns. Nevertheless, I continue to harken Shakespeare's words, the standings in the newspaper and the song Amazing Grace and I am left with the conclusion that this could be 1980 all over again. If so, then Play it Again, Sam!
Harken back with me if you will to early August of 1980. The Phillies of that year were a veteran bunch with too many seasons of lost opportunities and too few windows of opportunity left. In fact, the only thing they were left for was dead after they straggled out of Pittsburgh the victims of a four game sweep at the hands of the World Champion Pirates. No one thought the team was going anywhere but home as they boarded a plane for Chicago. What transpired them was the synchronicity of a team that suddenly came together, players that suddenly got healthy and rookie hurlers that came suddenly came up and made an impact.
This troika of events conspired to lead a memorable charge that resulted in Philadelphia's first and only World Championship season and if optimism is born in the mind of fools, then it says here that this could happen again this year. Against, all odds, despite sometimes horrid play and managerial decisions, and with a GM hanging by his thumbnails in job security, there is much to like about the Phil's chances of making history repeat on this the twenty fifth anniversary of our last championship season.
Without further delay, allow me to state my case for said possibility. As this column is being penned, the Phils find themselves but one and one half games out of the wild card lead, with the Houston Astros the leaders and clear favorites. If we take a not so giant leap of faith and concede the three division titles to the San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, that makes a race of five teams vying for that last playoff spot, the wild card birth.
Those teams, in order of the probability of taking that last coveted spot are the Astros, Phillies, Florida Marlins, New York Mets and Washington Nationals. Logic quickly tells me that the Nationals are going nowhere but to the bottom of the East and soon. Admittedly, they parlayed a favorable new home and a wondrous ability to win close games into an early season run, but marathons are not won by the swift but by the dogged. The Nationals are done.
It is always dangerous to discount the Marlins or Mets, for varying and different reasons. The Marlins are playoff tested and experienced, and have a pitching staff capable of putting together a month of outstanding performances. Still, they seem a bit beat up for the chase, with Carlos Delgado, Paul LoDuca and Juan Encarnacion injured or not quite healthy. They could win, but probably won't.
Then we come to the lovable, laughable Mets, the team that is always dangerous because money talks and they have plenty of it. Keep a close eye on the waiver wire list this month, the Mets certainly will be. If they can somehow obtain another pitcher or two, preferably a standout closer, then they may be primed for the final playoff spot. May be, but probably not. The simple fact is that they are still the Mets, a madcap collection of overpriced and under skilled talent that just does not quite fit the puzzle. It is well and good that they were not able to pry Manny Ramirez form the Red Sox because had they done that, this column would not have been written.
So, with the Nationals, Marlins and Mets probably out of the way, this leaves the pitching rich Astros and underachieving Phillies to battle for the last playoff birth. Again, logic dictates that pitching wins out in the end, and with Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte primed for a September song, this team may well lap the field and win the race going away.
Maybe, but not likely. The Astros have been on an incredible run this past 50 games and have shown no signs of faltering. Still, this tiny voice inside my head keeps saying that without two of the most famous Killer B's, Carlos Beltran and Jeff Bagwell, they may run amok soon, not with a total collapse but with a return to earth from the stratospheric heights that they have been attaining for the past two months.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that this will happen. With the Nats nailed, the Mets muted and the Fish floundering, an Astro return to earth leaves the Philadelphia Phillies, yes our very own Phils, with an excellent chance to grab that final precious birth. Yet, even with the birth available for the taking, does this team have what it takes to grab it and hold it. Here is my case for the affirmative.
Good health is always foremost in any playoff chase and don't look now but this team is as close to being healthy as it has at any time this year. A glance at the Clearwater Phils lineup shows the usual suspects save for one...the name Thome is now appearing. Yes, the same Jim Thome who was counted on for a minimum of 40 home runs this year and has yet to even attain double digits for various and sundry reasons.
Suffice it to say that Thome is not only getting healthy but has had what may be considered a fairly leisurely season. The dog days of August will not bother Thome at all, he has been on vacation since June and is now chomping at the bit to return to respectability. Phans, there are a lot of home runs left in his still powerful bat and it says here that he will begin to catch up on those numbers soon.
In contemplating the potential for a Thome power burst, one must revisit a famous quote from the noted former Phillie manager, Gene Mauch. Upon being questioned about the struggles of his star right fielder, Johnny Callison, Mauch opinioned that ".300 hitters hit .300. Callison is a .300 hitter. Think how much fun it will be to watch him hit .300." Now, truth in advertising demands that it be said that Callison did not quite get to the .300 mark but his late season charge in 1963 was the main reason that those Phils finished the year on a 56-35 run, the second best in baseball.
This very same scenario may fit Thome. Oh, he will not approach the 40 home run numbers of yesteryear, there is too little time and too many miles logged. Still, would it surprise anyone if Thome finished with a flourish and neared the 20 home run plateau? It would not surprise me and this man is capable of carrying the club for a month...perhaps the month of September?
Add to this the bats of Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Ryan Howard and one can envision a team in full throttle down the stretch. In fact, the cries for Howard [none louder than in this column] have somewhat dulled the reality that with Thome in dry-dock, the team has remained afloat, a most remarkable occurrence. It would not be outlandish at all to suggest that a healthy, happy Thome would only make the Phils lineup stronger, and with Howard now fully established as a Phil with a Phuture, the bench would just be that much stronger with him on it.
Add to this the steadying influence of playoff tested veterans like David Bell, Mike Lieberthal, Kenny Lofton and Todd Pratt and the lineup goes from problematical to lethal. Age is a burden for the long haul, but for the short drive it is invaluable and the race is to the finish is about to become a short drive. The finish line is not yet in sight but it will be in about three weeks.
Three weeks. This is the period the team must withstand. Dog Days of August, with hot road games can be disastrous for a veteran team. This is why it behooves the team to stay steady on the course for just a little while longer. Any course setting is dictated by the pitching staff and again, the Phils seem primed for a phantastic photo phinish.
For all the cries for another starting pitcher, and another ace lefty, the team appears remarkably ready for the closing rush to the race. Vicente Padilla finally appears to be healthy both mentally and physically and this not only gives the bullpen some needed rest, but further solidifies what is now a fairly stable group. Both Cory Lidle and Jon Lieber had wonderful September rushes last season and are now pitching well and deep into games. Brett Myers, free from the overbearing verbal abuse of Bowa and Kerrigan, is pitching like the star-in-waiting that has been long predicted for him.
The fifth starter, Robinson Tejeda, has been an absolute revelation, and his true value to this club may not fully be appreciated until season's end. Much like rookie Bob Walk in 1980, Tejeda has not only made the fifth starter a viable option in any game, but has allowed the team to win on the days that a fifth starter is needed. This may not matter in the playoffs, but it does in August.
With all five starters seemingly in tow, this has allowed the bullpen crew to acclimate to its roles with great success. This crew of Billy Wagner, Ugueth Urbina, Ryan Madson, Rheal Cormier, Aaron Fultz and Geoff Geary compares very favorably with the standout bullpen group of Tug McGraw, Ron Reed, Warren Brusstar, Kevin Saucier and Dicky Noles in 1980. Plainly put, the pitching staff right now is as deep and skilled as it has been all year.
Still, the news could get better soon. Oh, the Phils are reluctant to talk about it for fear it will jinx everyone. And it is far from a certainty that we will see it happen. However, with the need for a lefty starter still there, don't be surprised if mega prospect, lefty Cole Hamels, makes his major league debut sometime in September. Oh, he is currently on the mend with back spasms and his continuing health issues are a major long term concern.
However, we are not discussing long term here, we are talking a September sprint to the finish and if the likes of Hamels and righty Gavin Floyd can somehow come up and make a difference of a game or three, the name Marty Bystrom will once again gravitate to the lips of Phillie fans everywhere. Bystrom was the mega prospect of 1980, who had long term physical issues that eventually proved his downfall. This may happen to Hamels also. Yet, for one magical month in September of 1980 Bystrom was unbeatable and his 5-0 record that month was the big reason the team hung a World Championship banner over Veteran's Stadium.
As good as Bystrom was, Hamels and Floyd are potentially better, and if either of them comes up to bolster a September staff that already looks deep enough, then the Phils and not the Astros will be preparing to play the Cards in October. These are not pipedreams, phaithful Phillie phans, this is a very real possibility. Should the Phils make it to the October madness, it says here that their chances are as good as anyone's and better than some.
Does anyone truly believe the Padres have the stuff to win a NL pennant? I certainly don't. They are the best of a bad bunch of NL West clubs and should be dismantled quickly by the likes of Tim Hudson, John Smoltz and the Atlanta Braves. Now, the St. Louis Cardinals are a different breed of beast all together and they certainly would be favored. Favored but not necessarily a lead pipe cinch to win.
Whimsical and inconsistent these past few years, the Phils have still showed an amazing ability to beat the Cards, both in Philly and in the Missouri state. Call it karma, luck, timing, call it what you will, but from J.D. Drew to Scott Rolen, the Phils haven taken a particular liking to beating up on the Cards and I think it would happen again. Remember, as experienced as the Cards are, the Phils are n playoff neophytes, not with Lofton, Bell, Thome, Wagner, Lieber and Pratt around. These are playoff tested pros, unlikely to shudder at facing the Redbirds from St. Looie.
With the Cards and Padres safely out of the way, this would leave the division rival Braves and Phillies to participate in a 1993 remake of a NL Championship winner take all. The Braves are resilient, talented and well managed. They have the Jones boys, two ace starters and a half dozen contributing rookies. They also have a questionable bullpen, several health problems and a history of playoff failure that they are reminded of daily.
Call me a wide eyed optimist, call me crazy, call me foolish. Call me anything, but call me confident that if the Phils meet the Braves in a best of seven battle for the World Series, it is Philadelphia that will prevail. Now the World Series is a whole different matter, and as an admirer of Curt Schilling and his series magic, I would not be prepared to say the 2005 club would greater resemble the '80 crew than the '93 bunch.
No, that is a story better left unsaid until a future column. For now, the eye is on the prize, the wild card birth that seems there for the taking. Shakespeare spoke of doubters as traitors and newspapers bring daily reminders of wild card standings and a song so powerfully sung can easily be transferred to another realm.
The synchronicity of the three was too strong to ignore in this the season of discontent. Through all the trials, tribulations and downright bad baseball often being played by our not always lovable Phils, the reality of the story is that as summer breezes slowly make way for the autumn falling of the leaves, the team is involved...nay, may even triumph in the most...amazing race.
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast