CD's Connect the Dots...Over The Hump

Alexander Pope once wrote that "Hope springs eternal in the human breast, Man never is, but always to be blest." With two weeks to go, it is this hope that Phils phans cling to. Certainly, the Houston Astros have the superior record and easier schedule and it appears that it will take a comeback of the first order for the Phightins to make it to post-season play. Still, count me as one who refuses to wilt. This team is resilient and strong and they may finally have gotten...over the hump.

It has always been my belief that any champion is born the day that they finally conquer their demons, be it tough playoff losses, difficult injury problems or just a general lack of faith in their ability to win the day. Whenever I was asked what the Phils needed to do to move from the pretender list that so dominates the sports world today and truly elevate themselves to the contender status their talent suggests they belong, I would mention that they must at some point win a game that appears truly lost. Loosely translated, this team has seemed incapable of getting over that hump of winning a contest when all seems gone.

This edition of the Philadelphia Phillies had so far failed on at least a half-dozen occasions this season to win that seemingly season changing game. They would scale the mountain far enough to almost be able to gaze into the rich valleys below, only to stumble and fall at the last possible moment, negating the glorious climb they had made. The recent three-game sweep by the Astros was the latest example, and no game was more telling than the final one when an exciting late Phillie rally was wiped out in the most stunning fashion, a two out, two strike home run by Craig Biggio against long time buddy, Phillie bullpen ace, Billy Wagner.

Phillie phans, long accustomed to disappointment and despair, chalked this up as just the latest in another round of futile, frustrating finishes, and began making preparations for another season that seemed gone too soon. Yes, this seemed but another in a round of September and October letdowns that would fill a litany of baseball books, stories too difficult to believe if not for the fact that they were too true to forget.

Long time Phillie phanatics have never forgotten the ten-game slide that kept the darlings of 1964 from their appointed mission in the World Series against the Yankees. Ironically, that slide started on September 21, the night that Chico Ruiz stole home...and literally stole the hearts and minds of Phillie players and phans everywhere. In many respects the city has never gotten over this heartache and with each and every failure, the pain has deepened.

Black Friday is another day that will live in Phillie infamy, the day that Greg Luzinski was in left field when he should have been in the clubhouse, and possibly the greatest Phil team in history dissolved in a ten minute disaster that is still recounted from parent to child all over the City of Brotherly Love. A Garry Maddox dropped fly ball in the '78 playoffs, Mike Schmidt's 1-for-20 performance in the '83 World Series and a Mitch Williams meltdown against Joe Carter in 1993 have just been icing on the cake for a distasteful set of circumstances that seem to forever haunt this franchise.

Plainly put, this team has been unable to get "over the hump" and when the Astros left Philadelphia in tatters with that sweep, another year seemed lost. Until a funny and strange thing happened. The Phils began to win, and win handsomely. They proceeded to win seven of nine games from the dreaded Marlins and Braves and in the pocess put up some offensive numbers that bordered on the ridiculous.

During that nine-game stretch, the team scored 78 runs and scored ten runs or more in five of them. They also recieved outstanding pitching from the likes of Eude Brito, Jon Lieber, Vicente Padilla and a crack bullpen...that refused to crack. Still, it was not until the final game of this streak that the team truly may have cast out the demons of self doubt that has long haunted this group of athletes.

Facing Cy Young candidate Dontrelle Willis in a game the Marlins needed badly, the Phils seemed resigned to defeat...trailing 2-0 entering the final inning. Certainly this was a game that belonged to the Fish, as Willis was at his most bewildering best, and the Phils lefty-hitters were flailing wildly at the deceptively effective slants of Mr. Willis.

It seemed all over but the shouting until the Phils mounted a rally, partly fact and partly fiction, and might just have won that "over the hump" game that seemed so impossible to win. In an inning that had to be seen to be believed, the Phils benefitted from every possible good fortune, be it bad bounce singles, to errors of commission and omission to the sun playing tricks with the Marlin outfielders. When the carnage was counted, the Phils had scored ten runs and a game that seemed lost had been won.

Perhaps here was that shining moment that might finally put to rest the demons that seem to forever haunt this group, from Bobby Abreu to Jimmy Rollins, from Pat Burrell to Mike Lieberthal. Truth be told, this group has now been together through the entire 21st century and they have been through many important battles, most of them lost. Few may recall that there was a division to be won in 2001 when this group lost a few games during the final week of September that seemed imminently winnable.

The same can be said for the Jim Thome - Kevin Millwood led group of 2003 and 2004. Too often the team would excite the masses, only to lose when all seemed won. This was maddening in its consistency and seemed to create an atmosphere in the minds of the players that they might never get over this hump. Even with the addition of such playoff tested warriors like Billy Wagner, Jon Lieber and Kenny Lofton, the core group of Abreu, Burrell and Rollins seemed unable to pass that imaginery line that crowns challengers as champions.

Perhaps the win on Saturday will erase that line. It was certainly impressive enough as well as unexpected. Although it was followed by a crushing defeat the following day, the fact remains that this win allowed the Phils to continue to fight another day, and make the final two weeks meaningful ones. Better yet, it might have stamped this team as one to be reckoned with in future seasons. The truth of the matter is that this is not only a talented club but with a very young nucleus.

Almost despite themselves, General Manager Ed Wade and Company have assembled a team built largely from within the organization. Players like Liebethal, Burrell, Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jason Michaels and the young core of hurlers like Eude Brito, Robinson Tejeda and Gavin Floyd are all home grown, and there are more on the way.

It will surprise no one if youngsters like pitcher Cole Hamels, catcher Carlos Ruiz and outfielders Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn make their big league debuts in 2006, and once they do, they will be expected to be major contributors and not just roster fillers. Add to this the 3-4-5-6 middle of the order power and punch of Utley, Abreu, Burrell and Howard and the team seems primed for a run of possible playoff births in the near future.

One should keep this in mind when assessing the '05 Phillies. This team has come as far as it has without much help from slugger Jim Thome or the southpaw slants of Randy Wolf and Hamels, probably the two best lefties in the entire system. While it can be argued that the Phils may indeed be a better team now with the muti-talented Howard at first base instead of Thome, no one can argue with much conviction that the rotation hasn't missed Wolf or the potential that Hamels provides.

The veteran Randy Wolf was just rounding into form when he suffered a season ending arm injury in June and only the heroic efforts of youngsters like Tejeda and Brito have kept the ship on course. Still, one must always keep this in mind when assessing the Phillie rotation down the stretch. For all the skills demonstrated by Brito, Tejeda and Floyd, it was Cole Hamels who was being counted on to pitch many of the meaningful games this month, and not the aforementioned trio.

The loss of Hamels can not be minimized. This is a once in a decade hurler, the kind the Phils have not had in quite some time. Born with a feel for pitching it has only been injury and bad luck that has kept him from attaining his place in the rotation alongside Padilla, Lieber, Cory Lidle and Brett Myers. With Hamels in tow, this current Phillie staff might have been the deepest and most skilled since the 1993 group acheived a rotation where all five starters won a minimum of 12 games.

Despite the losses of these bellweather players, there is much to like about this current group. For one thing, it appears as if leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins may finally be understanding the intriquicies of the leadoff spot. Long criticized, and justfiably so, for his impatiece at the plate and low on-base percentage, Rollins seems to have turned it around and is the current holder of a 24 game hitting streak...and counting.

With Rollins finally showing the skills of a true leadoff hitter, and with Kenny Lofton providing a wonderful presence from the number two spot, it is no wonder that the Phils have three hitters on the thresehold of 100 RBI and Howard certainly on a 100 RBI pace if projected over a full season. Pat Burrell may well lead the National League in the RBI department this year and Bobby Abreu seems a lock for 100 RBI. Chase Utley is more problematical but has been a run scoring machine since the rejuvination of Rollins.

As for Howard, he still seems a lock for a 40 home run campaign soon, possibly within two seasons. In fact, this idle talk about possibly trading him borders on the ridiculous. Plainly put, you do not trade 25 year old sluggers with the potential of Ryan Howard. There is little chance that the return would be worth it, and certainly trading Thome to an AL team thirsting for a designated hitter seems much more palatable.

Phillie chat lines were filled with discussion about a recent on air comment by Atlanta Braves announcers to the effect that long time Phillie great, announcer Harry Kalas, had made an off hand remark that the Phils may still be inclined to trade Howard in the off-season. This will not happen, and the reasons are too obvious to recount. Suffice it to say that the Phillie pharm system has taken more than its share of hits this season, and the success of Ryan Howard is a strong buffer to rebuke these accusations. For all his good will and pleasing personality, Jim Thome was a home grown Cleveland Indian for most of his career...expect Howard to call Philadelphia home for the same reasons.

With this in mind, as well as many other fascinating subplots, the Phils now enter the final two weeks of a season that has had more ups and downs than a brand new roller coaster. Ahead of them lie difficult road games in Atlanta and Washington, as well as possible troublesome games in Cincinnati. But for a brief three game home stand with the Mets, the 2005 race will largely be won or lost on the road, and this is as it should be.

The outcome of the race remains in doubt, though this writer still believes that when the dust settles, the Phils will be left standing, as improbable as that now appears. The Astros will have to start losing, and the Phils must win at least two of every three games they play to have a chance, not impossible but no mean feat either. This will give them 88 wins and Manager Charlie Manuel thinks that will be enough. Time will tell.

However, when the campaign finally ends, be it in victory or defeat, the year may still be looked upon as a success story...that will be counted in future playoff runs. For a team and its players, a victory in the most difficult of conditions under a sunny September Florida sky may have finally allowed this nucleus to make it...over the hump.

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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