CD's Connect the Dots...Cheaper By The Dozen

Excited yet? The Phillies certainly are. After a successful homestand they embark upon the most important August road trip in 25 years. The trip entails a dozen contests that may well decide whether or not a meaningful September games will occur this year. True enough, a Frisco fallout, a D'back drawback, a National nuisance or a Met menace may make September all but irrelevant again, but the suspicion is that this year is different. It has the smell of 1980 all over again. Let's see why...

The word resilient is an often overworked sports term and it is often meaningless when describing the daily happenings of a local sports team. Still, if any one word seems appropriate in casting aspersions about this Phillie nine, it would be that very word...resilient. This, after all, is a team that lost it's best power hitter, Jim Thome and it's only lefty starter, Randy Wolf, to season ending injury.

Add to those plights the news that starter Vicente Padilla was ineffective until mid-July, popular Placido Polanco was traded in June, veteran relievers Tim Worrell and Terry Adams were jettisoned out of town and David Bell and Mike Lieberthal have struggled mightily all season. Add to this a division where Washington is better, New York and Florida are solid and the Braves are the Braves and this adds up to a recipe for disaster, not a potential World Series birth in October.

World Series birth? Yes, Phillie phans, as unlikely as that seemed even one month ago, it is far from a pipedream today. If the Phils, who currently hold the wildcard lead, should continue on and make the playoffs they would meet the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round. Even in the worst of times, the Phils have always held their own against the Redbirds, and the season ending loss of third baseman Scott Rolen certainly won't help the Cardinals' cause.

The other two contestants are likely to be the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego Padres, and although season records can often be thrown out the window come playoff time, the simple fact of the matter is that the Padres have dominated the Braves and the Phillies have dominated the Padres. Simply put, if the Phils get past the Cards in the first round and do battle with San Diego for the NL championship, our very own Phillies would be the favorites, and rightfully so!

With this in mind, it becomes imperative that the Phillies somehow find a way to continue playing into October, and that is why this little matter of the 12 game road trip looms large. The four cities the team will visit, San Francisco, Arizona, Washington and New York couldn't be more different culturally, historically or weather wise, yet combined, they may hold the key to a hoped for September to Remember for pennant starved Phillie phaithful.

The first stop on this Cheaper by the Dozen road trip is San Francisco, home of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and the Barry Bond-less Giants. Not so giant anymore, they still present a unique problem to a Phillie team that has had more than their share early on this season. For one thing, the Phils have historically struggled in The City by the Bay and for another, the Giants are playing well lately.

The good news is that Giant's ace hurler, Jason Schmidt will miss the Phightins' as he pitched on Sunday against St. Louis. This can only mean good news for the Phillie bats as Schmidt has recently returned to form after arm woes for much of the season. The bad news is that the Giants still have veterans like Omar Vizquel, Moises Alou and newly acquired Randy Winn to play havoc with the playoff hungry Phils.

The Phillies will counter with Jon Lieber, Vicente Padilla and Cory Lidle as they hope to reverse recent trends and come out of San Francisco with the same lead they came in with. Again, no easy task considering they are leaving the East Coast and flying West with no days off to get used to the time change. This is an often overlooked reason for teams to struggle early on a West Coast swing.

If San Francisco represents stop number one of the trip, then the deserts of Arizona and it's Diamondbacks are stop number two. Despite a record well under .500, the D'backs fancy themselves National League West contenders and currently reside but a few games behind the equally sporadic San Diego Padres. Even more menacing for the D'backs is the fact that both Javier Vasquez and Brad Halsey will hurl this weekend against the Phils. Both have had recent success and Vasquez has long been a thorn in the side of Philly bats.

Add to this the power bats of Luis Gonzalez, Troy Glaus and Shawn Green and a trip through a desert full of rattlesnakes is likely to be less scary than a weekend at Bank One Ballpark, The Phils hope to silence these bats with Robinson Tejeda, Brett Myers and Lieber.

With six games down and six to go, the team heads back east and a true preview of September playoff pressure against division rivals, Washington and New York. The Capitol Hill Boys and Metropolitans from New York both consider themselves as seekers of the crown and it behooves the Phillies not to take either club lightly. Both of the eastern clubs play well at home and if the Phils hope to fly a pennant flag in Philadelphia this year, these are two teams they will have to outdistance.

San Francisco, Arizona, Washington and New York. Four cities, three contests in each, certainly cheaper by the dozen. Yet this Phillie team seems surprisingly well prepared for task and no less than former manager, Larry Bowa, recently picked the Phils to win the wild card and move on into the NL playoffs. Now a valid point could be made that Bowa would like nothing better than to ratchet up the pressure on the manager who replaced him, Charlie Manuel.

Still, Bowa is an astute baseball man who is now paid to be informative and not vindictive. With this in mind, just what might he be seeing in these Phils that led him to choose them to participate in baseball's version of October Madness? How has this team seemingly transformed itself from an underachieving, under performing group in April and May to a team that is now being recognized in cities from Boston to Los Angeles.

No players have meant more to the Phillie resurgence than slugger Pat Burrell and ace-in-waiting hurler, Brett Myers. Ironically, the odds are slim that either would have been performing as well as they have if not for the firing of Bowa as none chafed more under his regime than did the two young stars. Burrell, an MVP candidate this year, probably never forgave Bowa for pinch-hitting for him with the bases loaded in a 3-3 game against the Brewers two summers ago.

This game seemed to forever cement the permanent break in the relationship and it has been theorized in this column on many occasions that both Burrell and Myers would benefit from Bowa's dismissal. If Burrell has been a revelation, then Myers has been a reclamation, a young, stubborn hurler with great skills and an equally maddening inability to harness these skills.

It was always my opinion that Myers suffered most from Bowa's refusal to trust Myers when he struggled early. No hurler can ever truly become a dominant pitcher until he is allowed to pitch himself out of the very messes that he created. Myers is now allowed to do this. No better example of this is seen that in his last start against Pittsburgh.

Clearly, Myers did not have his best stuff and his command was weak early. Under Bowa, this might have been a game where Myers departed by the fifth or sixth innings. Instead, Manuel trusted him to locate his fastball, not so much to get strikeouts but to induce groundballs. Nine innings later, Myers had succeeded in moving one step closer to ace status. If he has a strong September he not only will win 15 games, but quite possibly will open the NL playoffs in St. Louis come October.

Bowa's prediction came in August, which in of itself was synchronistic in it's timing. No month brought more strife than the Dog Days of August under Bowa, when his annual summer meltdown would cause disharmony, acrimony and dissension. It seems fitting that this August he is heaping the praises on the very team that he spent so much time criticizing during his August years. If he had been as positive about the club's chances when he was manager, he might still be the skipper of the Good Ship Chollypop.

Certainly, Burrell and Myers have been kingpins in the Phillie Revival but are far from the only reasons for the ascent to the rarified air of playoff madness. In Chase Utley, Burrell and Bobby Abreu the Phils now possess the best 3-4-5 trio in baseball, with apologies to the New York Yankees. All are having All-Star type seasons and may well combine for 75 home runs and over 300 RBI before the dust settles.

Add to this trio the steady play of center fielder platooners Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels and the solid bullpen of Ryan Madson, Ugueth Urbina and Billy Wagner and this has been more than enough to offset the struggles of David Bell and Mike Lieberthal.

Strong contributions from rookies Ryan Howard, Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito as well as unexpected help from formerly obscure players like Aaron Fultz and Ramon Martinez have only added to the depth of the club from top to bottom. With the expected arrival of September callups like catcher Carlos Ruiz, outfielder Shane Victorino and possibly pitcher Gavin Floyd, the team appears deep enough to withstand the heat of a September pennant chase.

Yet September callups and pennant chases are better left for another day, a grueling, telling twelve game trip awaits. San Francisco, Arizona, Washington and New York. In all four cities may await the fate of an expectant group of players and an even more expectant phan base. A phan base for far too long prone to Septembers without hope and fervor. But this year well could be different. Not only does Philadelphia await a race that seemed unlikely a few months ago but is prepared to embrace a team thought unlovable even into early July.

All that proceeds this love fest is twelve games, an eternity for some and but a mere heartbeat in the course of a marathon season. Still, the fate of these twelve games will tell us much about our Phillies and their chances to make this a September to Remember. Twelve games, individually difficult all, but in combination, certainly...cheaper by the dozen.

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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