The Future Is Now For The Phillies

The Phillies are red-hot. Even if you're not a baseball fan, you had to appreciate the courage and significance of "The Catch" by Aaron Rowand. And then came the birth of a new southpaw star with the debut of Cole Hamels. Ryan Howard capped it off with some big time clutch hitting. The Phillies are giving fans a reason to believe.

With his brave game-winning catch, Aaron Rowand takes his place among the anointed Knights of the Round Table as one of the most hustling, most gritty, most plucky athletes Philadelphia has ever seen. People who saw it will talk about it for the rest of their lives. Aaron Rowand take your place next to Lenny Dykstra and Pete Rose. You're a legend in Philly, and Pat Gillick deserves kudos for acquiring you along with two left-handed pitching prospects on track for 2007.

But forget about 2007.

Rowand's catch came against the run-away rival Mets and sent shockwaves through both teams and every fan. It did more than save the game and shatter his nose and face.

It sent a message: The future is now for the Phillies.

The Post-Catch Phillies seemed to get the message as they came together and hung on to win a rain-shortened "W", winning the opening series with the Mets and inspiring a widespread feeling of awe for Rowand. Gavin Floyd did a great job holding on for five shutout innings. Shane Victorino played up to the moment and has continued to shine in Rowand's stead.

In fact, the entire team buzzed in the aftershock of Rowand's heroics. In the series of roster moves that followed, the Phillies got a major shot in the arm with top young talent.

On Friday, while Rowand recovered from surgery, Cole Hamels made a spectacular debut. Even though Cole isn't used to pitching in rain and isn't used to being rookie-squeezed by the umps, Hamels handled both like a man on a mission. Nothing was going to touch him. For almost five innings, nothing did.

Hamels has electric stuff. Forget about the early walks; Cole has control. He also has a great feel for disrupting the rhythm of hitters with clever pitch sequences. Cole already shows command on the outside edges despite suffering through first night jitters. It will be interesting to see how he makes adjustments as the hitters adapt to him. In time, Hamels will be on the good side of umps and get the same calls that Tom Glavine gets.

On first impression it sure looks like "The Southpaw Slaw" is going to be one of the best pitchers in the game. People talk about players with an aura as having "it". Well, whatever "it" is, Cole Hamels has it.

Reigning rookie of the year Ryan Howard has "it", too. Ryan carried the team with his bat despite not starting on Sunday because of stomach discomfort. His two home runs while batting out of the ninth hole off the bench led the Phillies to a series sweep in Cincinnati and left me wondering if the Phillies should feed whatever upset Howard's stomach to the rest of the team.

Besides Howard and Hamels, speedy Shane Victorino is starting games at a high level and may make a case over the next two weeks that he's starter-ready. Barring a trade or another injury, Shane will return to the bench once Rowand returns, but it will be helpful come playoff time to have a super-sub like the hustling Victorino.

Carlos Ruiz is a fine looking backstop who moves well, blocks balls in the dirt, makes plays and works well with pitchers. His place on the roster depends on the pace of Mike Lieberthal's banged-up knee. Ruiz was one of the top hitters in AAA and will eventually adjust to hitting at this level if given the chance. Ruiz is playing well enough that Phillies will have a difficult decision to make if Sal Fasano struggles when Lieberthal returns. Ruiz may be sent back down to make room for Liebey, but he will likely be back before the year is done. He sure looks like a major league catcher.

Gavin Floyd may finally be turning the corner. If he can find a groove he will be one of the stronger fifth starters in the league.

Chris Roberson made his major league debut this week. He can flat out fly, an asset on both sides of the ball. In a footrace with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, Roberson might not win but he wouldn't come in last. He, too, has the tools to help the Phillies win this year and David Dellucci might be looking good to the Yankees. If switch-hitting Roberson proves ready, why not swap out Dellucci, who might help pry out a prospect or two to replenish the recently tapped minor league system.

The Phillies suddenly look both young and deep. And the winning continues. They finally have what looks like a "Big Three" in the starting rotation.

When Brett Myers dominated the Mets in the first game of that pivotal series, Myers became the real ace of the team. His performance in Cincinnati to close out the series only confirmed that he is the team's best starter.

Jon Lieber is back on track. He pitched a gem against front-running Cincy, perfect into the seventh, goose eggs into the ninth. The win lifted Philly spirits and preserved the Phillies spot in the standings. Lieber is a key figure on the team but he's really an ace in name only. In fact, he's a strong number two who pushes Myers to the top of his game.

And now Hamels, a phenom future ace, is ready to contribute as the final piece of the Phillies new Big Three.

With so much young talent in the spotlight - Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Myers, Howard, Hamels, Floyd, Victorino, Ruiz and Roberson - the future is now for the Phillies.

As long as the veterans continue their solid play, it's going to be awfully hard to hold the Phillies off in the Wild Card race. And if the Mets can't sustain their early pace, the Phillies have a chance to shift into higher gear and take the division.

Take it from Aaron Rowand, who sent a message that there is reason to believe in the Phillies again.

Note: Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary were hit hard with their demotions, which may or may not develop into bad play. These two guys have been playing with something to prove their whole lives; they seem to thrive on the doubts of others. "Mad Dog" and Geary definitely have the stuff to help this team as long as they use the demotions as motivation and not digress into bitterness. In a strange coincidence, Julio Santana's elbow injury came just hours after Geary's demotion. Santana was weak in his lone appearance before Geary was recalled to the Phillies. You know Geary is still feeling the sting of the cut. Somehow shaking it off, Geary continued his scoreless innings string to earn the "W" on Sunday while Gordon earned another strong save.


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