If despair has not yet set in, then disappointment has certainly replaced it. Faced with a golden chance to open up some space in the tightly wound wild card race these past few days, the Phils have instead reverted to the ways of years past. Instead of rising to the occasion, as champions do, they allowed the Washington Nationals to breathe another day and presented the Houston Astros with the wild card lead in two gut wrenching home losses.
Instead of moving forward and possibly chasing the Atlanta Braves for the National East division title that has been a stranglehold for the Bravos since 1993, the Phils seemed to wallow in self pity, missed chances and a general lack of the instinct that causes pretenders to become contenders almost overnight.
And so it has come to this...that dangerous Y in the road that separates those very pretenders and contenders. The Phils, staggering, slithering, sliding and often spurting to the finish line no longer have the luxury of talking about the road ahead being paved with gold. The road is now narrowing fast and the path offers two distinct directions...one leading to another failed finish or the other one leading to the possibility of another World Series birth. A decision awaits...choose wisely, Phillie Nine!
No two paths could be more divergent. The one, well worn and paved with too many losses and too much despair, is covered with the tracks of such Phillie luminaries as Gene Mauch, Richie Allen, Jim Bunning, Dave Cash and Scott Rolen. All were great Phillies from years past who failed to seize the moment and left their tracks among the footprints of Phillie Opportunities Lost.
This path does not even take into account the many prints of Phillie players with too much losing to even finish the walk. Counted among these players were such names as Deron Johnson, Rico Brogna, John Buzhardt and Marlon Anderson. Truth be told, this path is littered with far too many prints, as befits a franchise that is the losingest in major league baseball history.
But what of the other path, the one walked by only a select few, and one with the potential to find the ultimate prize at the finish...a championship team! Yes, this is the path chosen by lesser lights like John Denny, Gary Mathews and Ivan DeJesus as well as greater lights like Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and John Kruk. These were the heroes who chose the road less taken and almost won the finish line prize. Well done, brave and able warriors.
Yet, for one group, and for one brief and shining moment in time, specifically that magical closing rush in 1980, Philadelphia phans and players had their Camelot, the place where only the true champions go to rest. Yes, champions all, from Mike Schmidt to Steve Carlton, from Dick Ruthven to Garry Maddox, from Larry Bowa to Pete Rose. Champions all! They had walked the path less traveled and chose that moment to reach for the glory, and to seize the moment.
Twenty five years later, and far too many phrustrations to count, the latest version of Philadelphia's Phinest Nine has the same opportunity that the 1980 club had. Will they make the same dash to the finish line and place their names forever among the greats of Philly lore? Or will they succumb to the pressure of a pennant race too close to call, but guaranteed to produce only one team standing come October? That team might as well be the Phillies!
Clearly, the race is there to be won. No team has a bullpen as deep and skilled as the Phightins'. In Billy Wagner, Ugueth Urbina and Ryan Madson, there are potentially three closers on one team. The rest of the pen, although not as scintillating as this threesome, is serviceable and effective. No team has a greater middle of the order power punch than the Phils with Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu. No team has better defense, or a more demanding crowd.
Oh, the Phils have their weaknesses to be sure. A leadoff hitter with little plate discipline seems their biggest problem as we enter the final home stretch. It has become clear to all who can see that Jimmy Rollins is ill-suited for this role. Frankly speaking, he seems incapable of laying off the high fastball, the pitch that makes a .300 hitter struggle to reach .270. Rollins has been coached, cajoled and criticized. Now it may be time for him to be cast out, not out of the lineup, but out of the coveted leadoff role where rallies go to die when overanxious hitters swing at bad pitches.
Moving Rollins down to the six or seven slot seems much too rational to be ignored. It is precisely because of this that the Phil brain trust will certainly ignore it. The team has almost become a contender despite itself, as rationality in baseball deed and thought has not been an organizational strength. Expect Rollins to continue in the top spot, and count on him to swing at the high fastball with alarming regularity.
True too, is the fact that the Phils still seem a starter short for the stretch drive. In Jon Leiber, Brett Myers and Vicente Padilla, any three game series is capable of being won, but with Cory Lidle ailing and the news that Robinson Tejeda may be gone for the season, the picture looks uncertain. Yet, in Gavin Floyd and Eude Brito, two unproven youngsters, the same battle cry must be lifted...seize the moment! If they pitch well, and they are talented enough to do so, the path may yet be paved with winning and ultimate success.
The final weakness may be in the way Manager Charlie Manuel has failed to grasp the difference between the standard operating procedure that is the American League and the more complicated motions of a National League game. The most distasteful aspect of this weakness is that it has not improved over the past five months. While Manuel should be applauded for his ability to get his players to perform with skill and passion as well as get along famously, but he still seems lost when faced with the prospect of a double switch or a tired relief pitcher.
Yet, a true champion must overcome all obstacles, as the 1980 club did with three games in the deafening noise at the Houston Astrodome. With an almost surgeon like precision, the Phils won games four and five with heart, fire and more than a few amounts of courage and clutch play. This is the recipe the latest group must follow if they are to capture the flag as the 1980 bunch did.
And just what exactly should that recipe consist of? It is a simple one but difficult to master. This group has been confounding the experts all summer with their sporadic moments of grace and skill mixed in with too many moments of frustration and futility. Yet, they still stand, and if they can find it in their sinews to defeat the Astros, Marlins and Braves with some regularity on this home stand they will have continued on the path of greatest resistance...and greatest reward.
Then they must dig deep and find a way to repeat the task in Florida, Atlanta and Cincinnati, before closing at home with the Mets and on the road in Washington. This road is not easy, and the potholes are found at every turn. Certainly the Marlins look formidable and the Astros lean and confident. The Mets and Nationals, almost given up for dead a few days ago, have been revived by the latest Phillie stumbles and can not be expected to collapse again any time soon.
So, the task is ominous, and the situation perilous. With the damaging loss to the ‘stros on Labor Day, their are few more chances to stumble without falling down for good. It behooves the Phils to begin to win again, and it might be nice to start with the final game of the season series with the Astros. This would give the team some momentum going into the seven game stretch guaranteed to create sweaty palms against the Marlins and Braves.
Then a three team road trip to southern stations in Florida and Atlanta followed by three with the always troublesome Reds before the final week's interdivision showdown sets with the Mets and Nationals. This, then, is the recipe formula for success and the question remains...will the Phils drink of it?
Can Pat Burrell somewhat imitate his former kindred spirit, Mike Schmidt, and turn fame into famous with a closing rush of home runs and clutch RBI? Will Bobby Abreu once and for all change the image that he is always good enough to produce wondrous numbers but never good enough to carry a team to wuthering heights, much as his right field counterpart, Bake McBride, did in 1980?
Can an aging Mike Lieberthal throw out the frustrations of a slumping season and make one final run at the prize as Bob Boone did? Will a switch-hitting Rollins play like the switch-hitting Bowa and can Utley prove as dependable and clutch as did Manny Trillo? Will rookie Ryan Howard play as sweet as a Rose, and can David Bell toll once again before his bell finally rings no more.
Are rookies Brito and Floyd capable of performing the high wire acts displayed by fellow rookie hurlers Bob Walk and Marty Bystrom? Is it possible for Lieber, Myers and Padilla to throw as courageously as did Carlton, Ruthven and Christensen? Is Ugueth Urbina the reincarnated setup version of Ron Reed and will Ryan Madson and Rheal Cormier come through like Warren Brusstar and Sparky Lyle?
And who but lefty Billy Wagner is capable of making Phillie phans recall the exploits of fellow zany lefty, Tug McGraw, in that most majestic closing rush? It is almost surreal in the similarities between the two clubs, and now only the finishing chapter need yet to be written. The question on every skeptical Phillie phan's mind is this...what will the closing chapter read like?
Will we once again read of lost opportunities, lost chances and lost games? This chapter would be filled with far too many seasons to recall. Or will it a make for a rare Philadelphia best selling novel, a team that chose the path less traveled, the path of greatest resistance, the path filled with other-worldly Astros, menacing Mets, flying Marlins and bothersome Nats?
The Y in the road now beckons, and the choice is upon us. Which path will the 2005 Phillie team choose? A city awaits the result with a heart half-filled with expectation and half-filled with expectant failure. In a city made famous by it's Declaration of Independence, a simple declarative cry of independence from losing may just apply to this team...Philadelphia Phillies, may you seize the moment!
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast