Stretch Run Mired by Road Blocks

For the first time in twelve years, the Phillies appear to be knocking on the door to post-season play with enough firepower to finally cross October's threshold. With an infusion of youth at two crucial spots, the Phillies appear to be a playoff caliber team in the very weak National League. Looks however, can be deceiving.

For more than a decade Phillies fans have watched hopelessly as their emotions are pulled and their psyche is teased by their heroes on the diamond. Yet the losingest franchise in the history of professional sports has shown no merits for optimism this season, and somehow is right in the thick of playoff contention. Leading the wild card and a stones throw away from the National League East division lead, this group of players has once again piqued the fancy of the Philadelphia baseball fan. Many baseball observers feel that this season just may be different for the Phillies. After all, just days from the beginning of September, Philadelphia is leading the wild card race, but there are definite signs of concern for this club's playoff aspirations.

Specifically there are four bumps in the road for the Phillies that might as well be barricades for their playoff hopes.

Runners Left On Base:

During the 2005 campaign the Philadelphia Phillies have left more runners stranded then any team currently in playoff contention. We're talking 16 more runs than the next division leader, the NL West's San Diego Padres, who are poised to win that division by default. Of teams currently fighting the Phillies for the NL Wild Card lead, only the Marlins are within shouting distance in clutch hitting futility. Philadelphia has left 981 runners on base this season, which breaks down to 7.5 runners per game. Down the stretch the Phillies cannot afford to leave that many runs off the scoreboard.

Mike Lieberthal:

Earlier this season Mike Lieberthal, the Phillies underachieving, overpaid catcher reached an at-bats incentive point in his contract and guaranteed himself $7.5 million for next season. Having Lieberthal on the roster not only hinders the offense thanks to his .247 batting average and 35 RBI ranking him 24th and 13th in the National League respectively among catchers, but the defense and overall team chemistry are hindered as well. It's rumored that some pitchers on the staff despise working with Lieberthal behind the plate. His league leading five passed balls and catchers ERA of 4.42 seem to back up their preference for having Todd Pratt behind the plate. The fact that the Phillies brass allowed this vesting option to be triggered is mind boggling considering the consequences having Lieberthal on the roster will generate to this team's post-season hopes next season.

Schedule:

During the past two weeks the Phillies have fed off of west coast teams and clubs that are already planning for next season. Yes the Phillies are 15-10 during the month of August but the combined winning percentage of their August opponents is a meager .466 and only the Nationals were over .500 when they rolled into Citizens Bank Park. All of that is about to change when Philadelphia plays all but three games during the month of September against teams currently fighting for the division and wild card leads respectively. Each of these teams has given the Phillies fits not only this season, but for the past three years as well. It is completely conceivable that the Phillies, barring any substantial waiver wire claims, could finish the month of September closer to last place in both races than first place.

Starting Pitching:

The biggest hindrance for the Phillies as this club looks to begin the most grueling part of its schedule is the pitching match-ups against clubs that have bona fide playoff caliber starting rotations. Not only will opponent's pitching staffs be extra difficult for the Phillies to match up against, but their own staff has yet to show that it has what it takes to win when it matters most. Jon Lieber has yet to put together a solid win streak like a legitimate number one pitcher is supposed to. Brett Myers has imploded down the stretch for the past two seasons, and there is little reason to believe that against tough, hard hitting lineups, that this year will be any different. They're followed by Cory Lidle and Vicente Padilla who have never been in a playoff race. This staff pales in comparison to what it is going to take to defeat the teams this club will be matching up with down the final stretch of the season.

The next month of the season will be quite telling for the present and future of this franchise. For the first time in recent memory the Phillies look to be in complete control of their own destiny. For the young players like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard this month will certainly give them a taste of playoff atmosphere night in and night out and that is a great thing for the landscape of this ball club. However, when all of the factors are considered this season simply looks to end much like every season for the past 11 years.

Any and all feedback is appreciated and can be addressed to Matt Lombardo at Mdlombardo@yahoo.com.


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