CD's Connect the Dots... This Is It!

Resiliency, thy name is Philadelphia Phillies! Say what you will about Philadelphia's Baseball Nine but this much must be acknowledged; they have withstood the slings and arrows that might have floored other teams. And as we enter the season's final week, I found inspiration in an old Kenny Loggins song; "This is It!" If any three words made for the proper opening salvo to the final week of the campaign...this is it! Not since the climactic week of 1980 has so much been at stake.

Certainly, the team won division titles in 1983 and 1993 but by the final week of the season, managers Paul Owens and Jim Fregosi were busy mapping out playoff rosters and pitching rotations, while attempting to give rest to the weary and wounded. Not so this group, where every pull is patched up and evey pain is pushed aside because two resident truths are self evident. One is that for many of the veteran players like Mike Lieberthal and David Bell, this might just be their Alamo, the last stand for glory and honor before they depart into the sunset. The other truth is that there is a pennant to be won, and this team will be as dangerous as any team in the National League if they can somehow find their way into the playoff derby.

In the Loggins song, he begs the question, "are you gonna wait for your sign, your miracle, this is it?" Philadelphia phans might just feel that they have witnessed not one, but two miracles on the recent gut wrenching road trip. The first was an astonishing ten-run ninth inning rally against Cy Young candidate Dontrelle Willis, that finally stamped this club as a team that could win when all seemed lost. For eight excruciating innings, Willis held serve with a 2-0 lead and seemed ready to once again all but wipe out any semblance of a Phillie playoff push with an artistic and dominating three-hit shutout.

Yet, in perhaps the most improbable ninth inning of the season, at least to that point, the Phils became the hosts to a series of events that made even the disbelievers begin to wonder if this might be 1980 all over again. In an inning that had to be seen to be believed the Phils parlayed bad bounces, errors of omission and commission and just plain good luck into a double digit inning that left the Marlins all but hooked, lined and sunk. This was the type of game that all great teams need to win, and had been the kind the Phils had been unable to finish off until now.

With this one out of the way, the team made winning late a centerpiece of their march through Atlanta, and then culminated an amazing road trip with an even more unlikely miracle... a five-run ninth inning rally in Cincinnati that turned an ugly 10-6 deficit into a stunning 11-10 triumph. This win probably saved the Phillie season, and with it the Phil's had received, in Loggin's own words, "their sign, their miracle...this is it!"

Truth be told, this month of September has been one of the most exciting months seen in PhillieLand since the swan song days of 1980 but for phrustrated Phillie phans, the recognition has been slow to acknowledge. Yet, they have finally taken the cue from this club and as Loggins sings, "the moment is now, make no mistake where you are." Where they are is one week long winning streak from a probable birth in the NL playoffs, and with it the distinct possibility of a World Series birth.

If they can make the playoffs, who can stop them? The San Diego Padres? Unlikely, it seems that a team with a .500 record could advance to the hallowed grounds of World Series glory. The Atlanta Braves? Perhaps a dangerous team to be sure, but the Phils have recently beaten the Braves five of the last seven and know that they are the better team right now. The St. Louis Cardinals? Now we are entering interesting waters, and the Tony La Russa Factor may well come into play here...and soon.

La Russa is the very articulate and deep thinking manager of the Cardinals, and he is faced with a dilema of sorts this week. To wit, his Cards play host to the Houston Astros for two games on Tuesday and Wednesday and La Russa must decide how much he prefers to have the Astros or Phillies as a potential playoff opponent. If La Russa should decide that he must keep the pitching rich Astros from entering the playoffs, he might just attempt to sweep the ‘stros, which would add aid and comfort to the Phillie cause.

If, however, he has noticed that in September there has been no more powerful offensive juggernaut than the Phightins' he might just decide that it may well be in the Cards' best interest to do everything possible to keep the Phils from entering the fray. Certainly, La Russa, a true sportsman, will want to win his games against the Astros, but if he thinks it might be in the Redbird's best long-term interest to keep the Phils at bay, he might choose to rest a few of his tired regulars in games that are essentially meaningless to his team but very important to the ‘stros.

Should the Phils advance to the playoffs for a first round battle with the Cards, the Redbirds would be favored, but not overwhelmingly. The Cards strength is their right-handed pitching, and with lefty hitters like Kenny Lofton, Bobby Abreu, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard ready to feast on anything not portside, the Cards' supposed strength might well play right into the Phil's hands.

Yes, Phillie phanatics, "this is it, the moment is now, make no mistake where you are, who makes the choice of how it goes?" Beautiful words from a beautiful song, and quite appropriate for this final, frenetic week of the season. In this song, Loggins questions who makes the choice of how it goes? Certainly, he had not the Phils in mind when he wrote the lyrics, but since we do, let's go crystal ball gazing and see if we can decipher just which players might play pivotal roles in these last six games of the regular season.

Baseball truism dictates that pitching is 90 percent of the game, and if this be true, then the Phils' arms will play a key role in how this final week turns out. Perhaps no pitcher is more important to the cause than young Brett Myers, the ace-in-waiting who has never quite turned his outstanding talent into dominating performance on the hill. While Myers has had on whole a solid '05 campaign, he has frankly left much to be desired this month, and must have a solid closing week to insure his status ad a future star hurler.

Myers, along with fellow veteran righty Jon Lieber, will be entrusted with not one, but two starts this week, and must keep the opponents at bay in both. It would help immensely if he could pitch deep into both games also as the Phillie bullpen, stout and strong this year, has been showing signs of fatigue and could well use some much needed rest. Seven strong innings Monday night was exactly what the Phils needed.

The other two righties, Vicente Padilla and Cory Lidle will each start one game, and while Lidle had basically been a model of consisitency this season, one never knows what the quixotic Padilla will bring to the table. He has been maddeningly inconsistent, and it behooves both he and the Phillies for his 95 MPH fastball to once again be on display this Wednesday night against the Mets.

Speaking of bullpens, the Phils have one of the deepest and most talented groups around, but young Ryan Madson has shown distinct signs of wear and tear lately, and it is hoped that he might have at least one or two more dominant seventh inning performances left in him this week. The Phillie relief mantra is there for all to chant it...get the lead into the seventh inning, then turn the game over to Madson, Ugueth Urbina and Billy Wagner for the final three frames. It has been a tried and true formula for success until recently, when both Madson and Urbina have coughed up damaging late inning home runs to cost the team leads...and ball games.

This must not happen this week, as pressure does mysterious things to players and a pitcher who might normally go seven or eight innings might just be pressure sapped of strength after six or so innings. Watch for Madson, Urbina and Wagner to play a crucial role in the success or failure of this final week. As Loggin's lyrics implore, "the waiting is over, no time for wondering why." Truly, this is it!

While Phillie arms must be at their best this week, Phillie bats must continue to ring out like the Liberty Bell on Independence Day. Plainly put, this group is capable of heavy doses of hardwood with a 3-4-5-6 middle of the order as skilled as any in baseball. All four, Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard are on pace for 100 RBI seasons, with Howard's numbers pro rated due to the fact he did not become a regular until July. Still, Burrell has passed the century mark, and Utley and Abreu might well make it with big final pushes this week.

As for Howard, his numbers are almost staggering considering how lightly he was regarded in some corners of the Philadelphia organization and how he was almost traded for pitchers who could never have helped the team as much as young Ryan has. In a season of many clutch performances, none has been more pronounced than the late game heroics of Howard, including not one but two game winning grand slam home runs. With 20 home runs and counting, he is certainly on a pace that suggests his ascent into the world of the 40 home run stratosphere might only have to wait until next year.

Still, there is much baseball left to be played, and if the Phils are to play well, these four hitters must carry the lumber. Speaking of lumber, no Phil hitter has been more improved over the past month than has been much criticized leadoff man, shortstop Jimmy Rollins. In fact, the criticism was well justified and his recent surge, which has not coincidentally coincided with the Phillie offensive splash, serves to prove the point well.

With Rollins struggling to get on base, the Phillie middle of the order was too often left to fend for itself, often with phrustrating results. Added to this frustration was the fact that second hitters, Kenny Lofton or Jason Michaels were both getting on base with increased regularity, making the Rollins struggles all the more pronounced and obvious. Calls for the removal of Rollins from the cherished top of the order spot were heard long and loud, and this columnist was no exception. It was not that any one felt Rollins was a poor hitter, merely not a very selective one, and his impatience often cost the team pitches, and outs, and occasionally wins.

Suddenly, Rollins decided to change his batting stance and the results have been stunning. No longer subject to the high pitch, he has become a surgeon at the plate and his current 31 game hitting streak has helped jump start an offense that recently saw double digit scoring in 7 of 14 games. This is mind boggling to consider, but when Rollins and Lofton are regularly on base, the foursome of Utley, Abreu, Burrell and Howard are likely to bring them in.

It is imperative that Rollins continue this transformation, and if he does, expect wonderous things to occure this week and on into the playoffs. If not, then the team is likely to once again revert to its inconsistent run production, albeit not necessarily in defeat. Oh no, losing is not to be whispered on anyone's lips this week...afterall, "still somehow I believed, we'd always survive." Once again, thanks to Kenny Loggins for his timely lyrics!

If, as they say, the journey and not the destination is the thing to be treasured, then this team has given the phans treasures aplenty this final month of the season. Counted out at least a half dozen times, most recently after the staggering home run struck by second baseman Craig Biggio of the Astros in a emotionally draining three game sweep of the Phightins', the Phils have bounced back repeatedly. After the Biggio blow, the team fell 2.5 games behind the ‘stros and another season seemed all but lost.

Not so, with this resilent bunch, and 11 wins in the last 16 games has made this final week one of anxiety and anticipation. Three home games with the Mets and one final three game jaunt to Washington and it will either be on to Houston for a one game playoff battle, on to St. Louis for the start of the 2005 Playoff Derby or merely home for another round of questions and what ifs.

Perhaps it is merely my unbridled enthusiam that clouds my better judgement but there is a distinctive quality to this group that I have not witnessed since 1980. Perhaps it manifolds itself in the energy of Utley or the power of Howard. Maybe it unfolds in the dash of Wagner or the daring of Rollins. Perhaps it is best exemplified in the prowess of Pat Burrell, for years a work in progress, and now finally an almost finished product. Or maybe it is just the words of a song too long ago written but still in tune with the time...this Phillie time.

Perhaps, just maybe, Kenny Loggins was thinking of this Phillie team, this Phillie time, when these final words came forth from his song..."the waiting is over, this is it!" For long suffering Philadelphia Phillie phaithful, no words could be more appropriate than those, for indeed,...this is it!

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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