Yet, after a wonderful Clearwater spring, and just fresh off a spirited and positive march through Atlanta and climb through the Colorado Rockies the team once again returns home. Home to the scene of the opening week crime of a 1-5 start with questions abounding about just whether the team is capable of playing well in front of a growingly restive Philadelphia fan base that many feel could be at the root of the problem to begin with.
There has never been any question of the passion of a Philadelphia phan. Nor has there ever been any doubt of their support for Philadelphia teams, win or lose. Still, the team that left Clearwater bore little resemblance to the club that lost five of six games the opening week and could have gone winless if not for a dramatic game winning home run by Bobby Abreu. Beginners bad luck, or a portend of things to come?
Truth be told, the team looked tense, uncomfortable and tentative during the opening homestand and this did not change until the address did...from Philadelphia to Atlanta and then on to Colorado. It was only then that the relaxed and talented Phillies of spring training returned, and with it came the winning. The bats came alive, the starting pitching gave promise of better days and the defense played tight instead of loose with ground balls and fly balls alike.
Now the team returns home for what appears an inviting opportunity to make amends for the floundering start that has at least temporarily given the New York Mets ample breathing room in the National League Eastern Division. With 18 home games in the next 23 starts, and mostly against seemingly inferior teams, the Phils seem poised to make their run towards the top during these next three weeks.
The question thus becomes...just which Phillie team will show up, the one that looked lost and bewildered during the opening homestand or the team that looked defiant and confident during the just concluded six game road trip? And were these merely happenstance occurrences or trends likely to continue. This next three weeks should provide some answers.
With ten home games against the weakened Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins and a Colorado Rockies teams that is improved but still not yet ready for prime time, the Phightins could get well quickly. Then after a brief five game road trip to Pittsburgh and Florida, the team returns home in May to face the Braves for two, the San Francisco Giants for three and a marquee finish against the first place Mets for three.
All in all, this would seem to be a place in the schedule where home cooking should produce gourmet style winning streaks and a likely leap up in the standings for the Phils. Thus, it would seem so, but the grim reality is that this is a team that has played better on the road than at home since the opening of Citizens Bank Park in 2004 and no one is really quite sure why.
Certainly, the team seems built to play well at CBP. It is a hitters park if it is anything at all, and the Phils have all the hitting they need. It has always been theorized that large crowds benefit the home team and the Phils have continued to draw well, if not always the sell outs that made the '04 season so memorable. And make no mistake, the crowds are alive and loud when they come, seemingly another advantage for the team.
Yet the results do not bear this out and it could become a worrisome thing if the trend continues much longer. Despite sellouts on an almost nightly basis in 2004 the team finished a very pedestrian 42-39 at home while winning 44 games on the road. The results were much the same last year except for that memorable 12-1 homestand in June that helped the club climb back into the wild card race.
And in the final and most important home games of the season last year, the Phils lost not one but two crucial games to the Mets at CBP during the last week of the season, games that ultimately cost the team a wild card berth. As if to magnify this situation, the team finished the campaign with three road games in Washington, and promptly swept all three in very impressive fashion.
So, if nothing else, this upcoming 23 game stint may well provide some answers to the continuing questions about the team's seeming inability to win consistently at home. Based on what has transpired during the first two weeks of the season just which Phillie team is likely to show up during this stretch, the one that appeared so inept at home or the one that looked so poised on the road? Let's see if we can provide some likely answers.
Traditionally, the weather in the East Coast begins to warm up in May and warm weather usually means hot bats. This should be excellent news for the Phils, who have already shown that they are likely to continue to feast on all but the best pitchers this season. No less than five of the regular starting eight are hitting over .300 and cleanup slugger, Pat Burrell, is not far behind.
Jimmy Rollins is showing that his September rush may not have been a mirage but a genuine step up in class from very solid to outstanding. Although his walk total could be better, he has been an extraordinary leadoff hitter during the opening two weeks and will find himself with another All-Star spot if his production continues. Aaron Rowand has been hitting well from the number two spot while Bobby Abreu has been spectacular after a winter of trade rumors proved as yet unfounded.
If Abreu continues to play as he has during the opening weeks of April, GM Pat Gillick will likely forget his desires to move Abreu for pitching and merely enjoy the production he is getting from his right fielder. No doubt, Abreu has been helped by the power bat of Pat Burrell, who already has five home runs in a mere 12 games of action. Burrell seems poised for a breakout campaign if he remains healthy.
Young Ryan Howard has hit well, if not yet for power, but that will come and probably soon. When the weather warms up, expect Howard's home run totals to swell like the temperature. The final .300 hitter in the Phil's early season lineup has come from catcher Mike Lieberthal. Indeed, he has seemed a different hitter in 2006 and many have attributed this to the fact that this is not only a contract year for him, but possibly his final year in Philadelphia.
Lieberthal seems resigned to the fact that he may be playing elsewhere next year, and if this is to occur, he would like his final year as a Phillie to be a memorable one. Of course, the Phils can only benefit from these circumstances as a healthy, hitting Lieberthal makes the offensive attack even more potent and should the team lose him to free agency, they would likely receive two top amateur draft picks in the June 2007 draft if Lieberthal has a banner year. All in all, a win-win situation for the Phils.
Second baseman Chase Utley has started slowly at the plate this year but as his back-to-back two home run games against the Braves and Rockies showed, this is likely to be a temporary condition. Much like Howard, as the weather warms us, so will the bat of the Phillies standout second sacker. Still, Utley's presence in the lineup in the fifth spot in the order has contributed mightily to Burrell's fast start.
Only at third base is there cause for concern in the team's everyday lineup. David Bell has been the regular but the speculation continues that this is merely a temporary move to determine once and for all just what he is likely to contribute to the Phils' 2006 cause. There is also speculation that the team would like to move Bell to another team but must first show that he is healthy. This can only be done by playing him on a regular basis. I still believe that ultimately, Abraham Nunez will end up as the team's starting third baseman, at least for this season.
Clearly, the team should score and score plenty during this three week home excursion. If they struggle to score as they did during the opening week, then we may be forced to look beyond the numbers and examine just if this team plays too "tight" when at home due to heightened expectations. It will certainly be worth watching during the next 23 games.
The young hurlers, Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson all appear ready to step up and make solid contributions to the cause during this home stretch. Myer's brilliant shutout at Coors Field, the first 1-0 win by an opposing hurler in the history of the stadium, should do wonders to elevate Myers status as a potential "number one" starting pitcher for the team. Myers has the talent, now he must combine mind with body to take the next step up the ladder.
Floyd and Madson both showed on this road-trip that they are capable of hurling winning baseball and both answered their critics with commendable performances. Floyd showed that he could overcome nervousness and pitch to the level that his skill suggests he should. It is time for the Phils to show some confidence in this talented righty, and if they do, their confidence will be rewarded.
As for young Ryan Madson, in making only his third major league start, he seemed to answer the critics who feared that his seeming inability to keep pitch counts low would render his ability to pitch deep into games impossible. Not so, as in his recent seven inning stint in Colorado, he threw a mere 95 pitches in the victory. Much like Floyd, a heavy dose of confidence and patience is all that is needed to insure that Madson will continue on the road to major league starting success.
If the team has pitching worries, and it does, it lies in the ineffectiveness of starter Jon Lieber and the front end of the bullpen. Both are areas of concern, though Lieber insists the problems are not physical or mechanical and that he will be winning again soon. This 23 game stretch will tell us much about Lieber's future in the rotation as it must not be forgotten that he struggled mightily in the spring and has yet to show the form that allowed him to win 17 games in 2005.
As for the bullpen, both set up man Arthur Rhodes and closer Tom Gordon have been solid, as has lefty Rheal Cormier and for the most part, righty Ryan Franklin. Not so, front end hurlers, Julio Santana, Geoff Geary or Aaron Fultz and if this trend continues watch for the Phils to make a few moves. Rookies Yoel Hernandez and Chris Booker are throwing well in the minor leagues and both may be called up before this long stretch of home games is finished.
Based on his solid '05 campaign and strong spring, the Phils are likely to be patient with Geary, but less so with Fultz or Santana, both of whom have struggled since spring training. With the Phillies offense it is important that the middle men in relief keep games "winnable" instead of turning close games into blowouts. Watch for Hernandez and Booker if things don't change for Santana and Fultz soon.
Also, catcher Carlos Ruiz is playing brilliantly at Scranton, and it would not be a surprise if he were recalled before too long. Although catcher Sal Fasano remains popular with the phans, the reality is that he has shown little at the plate and has not proven to be Lieber's successful "personal catcher." To be fair, he did nurse Floyd through more than a few tough spots in Atlanta and this could keep him in good graces for the time being.
If it be "good graces" the Phillies desire, then now is the time, Citizens Bank Park is the place. With a schedule unlikely to ever be as favorable during the course of the 2006 season, the team should be poised for a solid run towards the upper reaches of the National League East standings. Yet, history has offered a cautionary tale of struggles and defeat at home in the past with no recent hint that things are about to change.
Home cooking. Comfortable surroundings. Familiar territory. All recipes that should guarantee some winning baseball on the horizon in Philadelphia. Yet, will The City of Brotherly Love cooperate or will this 23 game stretch prove to be yet another example of fool's gold instead of instant riches? The Philadelphia Phillies can only hope that a question mark becomes an exclamation mark to the time honored statement that there is...no place like home?