CD's Connect the Dots...Fish or Cut Bait

As September arrives with meaningful games that few thought possible, the Phillies must renew their licenses, get out their pole and tackle and embark on a fishing trip. During their final thirty games the upstart Phils meet the pesky Florida Marlins ten times in games that could decide the winner of the NL wild card. For the Phils, it is time to...fish or cut bait.

The beauty of baseball often lies in its sublime ability to capture the imagination of an audience far too often exposed to instant gratification and predictable endings. Seldom does this hold true for the nation's Grand Old Game, where marathon races and surprise endings still captivate a fan base as loyal as it is large. Yes, this is baseball in its most wonderful form, and there are few things in the game that are more dearly cherished than meaningful games in September.

September evokes many images...of the end of summer, of the return to school, of the beginning of football season and fall. It also evokes memories of past pennant races when games were heightened by tension and each victory or defeat was magnified in a way that no game in May ever could be. For long suffering Phillie phanatics, September offers its own share of triumphant efforts and terrible disappointments.

September was the month when a largely over the hill group of Phillie veterans put together an unlikely 11 game winning streak in 1983 to lead to an eventual berth in the World Series. September was the month when Phillie teams in 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1993 cemented eventual title berths with strong closing rushes and powerful individual performances by such past greats as Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Tug McGraw, Steve Carlton, Bake McBride, Curt Schilling and Lenny Dykstra.

Yet for every memory of past successes come the crushing realities of past failures, tremendous disappointment and bitterness. September was the month when a very talented 1976 squad nearly threw away a 13.5 game lead in less than three weeks by losing almost every game on the schedule for the better part of the month. It was in the September of 1950 when a young group of Phightin Phils lead by Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts nearly blew a huge lead before winning the pennant on the final day of the season against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Of course, the pennant clinching game occurred not in September, but on October 1, 1950.

And of course, September provides for tortured Phillie phans the most complete collapse in baseball history, the ten-game losing streak of the ill-fated 1964 Mauchmen of Johnny Callison, Richie Allen, Jim Bunning and Chris Short. Perhaps no team, or no period, so clearly defined the ever present September frustrations that often occur when following a baseball team from the City of Brotherly Love.

Not so, this year, and not so, this team.

Win or lose, this 2006 squad has begun to capture the imagination of a largely skeptical Philadelphia sporting scene. It has done so at the very moment when defeat seemed inevitable...after the trading frenzy of July 31 had left the roster in disarray and created a leadership vacuum void, a hole that was quickly filled by two youngsters bent on disproving that September and Philadelphia are synonymous with losing.

Suddenly a month that was widely regarded as a period when Carlos Ruiz would do most of the catching and Gavin Floyd and Eude Brito would battle for starting spots in the 2007 rotation has been replaced by games that matter and contests that count. Still, few matter more or count greater than the ten upcoming battles with the enemy from South Miami, the Florida Marlins. It is ironic that once again the Marlins would seemingly be the club to offer a roadblock to Phillie aspirations as they have made an almost annual habit of this throughout the past few seasons.

After all, it was the Marlins who knocked the Jim Thome-led 2003 club from the playoffs with a final week sweep of the Phils in Florida. Not so coincidentally, that Marlin team used this jumpstart to eventually prevail in the '03 World Series against the New York Yankees. It was also the Marlins who frustrated the Phils playoff hopes in 2004 and kept the team from a winning record with a final game 4-3 triumph in 2002.

So, it does seem appropriate that a quick study of the September schedule reveals that if the Phils are to surprise the world and make an unlikely appearance in the National League Octoberfest known as the major league playoffs, almost all roads will eventually lead through Florida and the Marlins. It would behoove the Phils to make sure that they have on hand their best fishing gear, strongest reel and tastiest bait. In fact, reel and bait strong enough to capture a very big fish. A very strong fish. A surprisingly resilient fish. Yes, a fish known as a Marlin. For the Phils it will soon be time to...fish or cut bait.

How the Phils have arrived at this anointed and momentous moment in their not so storied history is certainly well documented by now. Left for dead after the trades of such Phillie stalwarts as Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle, David Bell, Rheal Cormier and lesser lights like Ryan Franklin and Sal Fasano, the team has instead reinvented themselves before our very eyes. With youngsters like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard leading the offense, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino leading the defense and Cole Hamels and Brett Myers leading the pitching staff, the club has been playing at a sizzling .667 winning pace for over a month.

This has not only allowed the team to regroup after a nearly fatal opening week start left the team on life support for the better part of three months but given phans hope that perhaps this September will be different than most. A winning month. A successful month. A month that might just lead to the unlikeliest story of all...the woebegone Philadelphia Phillies in the 2006 World Series. Still, it probably begins and ends with those ten games against the Marlins.

Oh, it is true enough that the Phils must still battle the dreaded Houston Astros in a home and away six game series and the Atlanta Braves still count themselves among the playoff hopefuls. Certainly the Washington Nationals would love to spoil the Phillies September Song by recording a new tune with a different twist, one that ends on a losing note. Yet, truth be told, it is the Florida Marlins who might eventually hold the key to the Phils October fate for if the team does not successfully fish in September it will lead to plenty of time to leisurely fish in October.

If the Phils have proven a major surprise, then certainly the Marlin's recent nine game winning streak that has catapulted them squarely into the wild care chase serves as a stunning development. After all, this is a team that was completely dismantled during the off season for financial reasons. This was a team that allowed such solid veterans as Paul LoDuca, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre, A.J. Burnett, Luis Castillo and Carlos Delgado to walk the plank rather than pay them their normal days wages in baseball gold.

In fact, once the dust had settled the Marlins had decided to keep only two talented players, third baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-handed pitching ace, Dontrelle Willis. It is probably no coincidence that both were young and relatively inexpensive star players and would not place a financial burden on the seemingly money starved Florida team. Instead of a veteran laden team the Marlins began the '06 campaign as the youngest and least experienced team in baseball, one that was expected to lose over 100 games.

In place of the high priced and skilled veterans the Fish brought in inexperienced but talented youngsters like Mike Jacobs, Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Willingham, Cody Ross, Jeremy Hermida and pitchers Josh Johnson, Scott Olson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibel Sanchez. Savvy baseball scouts in the know predicted that one day this group would rise to stardom but certainly not before 2008 at the earliest. In a division with such heavyweights as the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves as well as the Phillies and Nationals, the Fish were expected to finish a distant last in the standings.

For the first three months of the season the Marlins played according to form, though Uggla and Ramirez performed admirably and Cabrera became the best third baseman not named Rolen or Wright in the entire league. Willis struggled somewhat and was even rumored to be on the trading block at the deadline but he was bailed out by the extraordinary efforts of rookies Johnson [12-6], Olson [11-7] and Nolasco [11-9] and lately with the help of Sanchez [5-2]. Veterans like infielder Wes Helms and closer Joe Borowski have added stability to a very young team.

A recent nine-game winning streak brought the Marlins to the edge of .500, good for a solid run at the playoffs in September. A September the Phils hope to win. It seems inevitable that the ten clashes between these two division rivals may well decide the race. Let's take a closer look at just what might happen this wild, wacky September to be remember.

Certainly the Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros feel equally confident of their eventual standing in the race and the Braves feel that with a strong final month they can emerge victorious. All possibilities indeed and none would be totally surprising. But the Reds look spent, as their current five-game losing streak attests, and their weekend in San Diego could well doom them quickly. The Padres look armed and dangerous but a ten-game road trip later this month might well quell their September burst.

Houston is always armed and dangerous, and with a rotation of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt in tow, could easily move to the front of the pack with a long winning streak. It should not be taken lightly by the Phils that they do meet the ‘Stros six times in September and most Phillie phans remember all too well the utter disasters of playing Houston last season. The Astros merely won all six games, some in excruciating fashion, and eventually won the wild card berth by one game over the Phils. From there, two hot streaks landed them in the World Series, a series they lost in four games.

Still, it seems all too fitting that September will feature a Phillie-Marlin month of theatrics and the team that emerges victorious will win the day. Who is likely to carry the day? Will it be the young, upstart Marlins led by Cabrera and his cast of unknowns? Or will it be the underrated and underappreciated Phillies, a team that still finds an often derisive public calling for the heads of General Manager Pat Gillick and Manager Charlie Manuel?

While the Marlins do appear to be peaking at a most fortuitous time, there is much to like about this current Phillie team and much to indicate that just once, this September might well be different than recent ones. For all the supposed warts and weaknesses of the club, they might just have what it takes to be the last team standing when September leaves turn October brown.

In Ryan Howard, the Phils have a slugger not just for the year but for the ages. At 49 homers and counting, young Howard is likely to set a Phillie single season home run record that is likely to last for decades...or at least until Howard breaks his own record. With a strong September finish, Howard could well achieve 60 home runs and 145 RBI, simply staggering numbers in the post steroids era. Unless he completely fades during the final month, Howard is an almost certain National League Most Valuable Player recipient come season's end.

Not to be outdone by Howard's heroics, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins are putting up bookend numbers offensively, both in runs scored, home runs and offensive fireworks. It should not be forgotten that Rollins had an absolutely spectacular September in 2005 and similar numbers during the heat of this year's race could elevate him to the current legendary likes of Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Michael Young.

Gillick has also bolstered the team for the late season push with veteran role players like Jeff Conine, Jose Hernandez and pitcher Jamie Moyer. He also brought up future starting catcher Carlos Ruiz for the final playoff run and hinted that he has at least one more move to make in the next few days to bolster the bench for September. Speculation centered on such unemployed but skilled veterans like Jose Cruz Jr. or Lenny Harris. Whoever eventually emerges, this much is clear. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Gillick has long believed that this team was a potential playoff contender and is now determined to do whatever is necessary to help achieve that goal.

He should have ace closer Tom Gordon at his disposal this week after a brief period of injury-forced inactivity, and the veteran trio of Jon Lieber, Randy Wolf and Moyer should prove playoff pressure resistant this month. In fact, with the three veteran amigos and youngsters like Myers, Hamels and possibly Gavin Floyd and Scott Mathieson, the staff seems completely prepared for whatever giant Fish Story emerges, regardless of the length of the tale.

As for the often beleaguered manager, Charlie Manuel, it can safely be said now that despite his often questionable in-game moves, he probably is the perfect foil for whatever ails the team this month. He has taken the pressure off of the youngsters and placed it firmly on his own shoulders. It is surely no coincidence that he has been tossed out of several games recently. He knows that the more he places focus on himself, the less will be placed on youngsters Howard, Utley, Hamels and Rollins.

Also often overlooked is the comfortable and friendly clubhouse atmosphere he has not only created but maintained throughout the trials and tribulations that often accompanied the club during the rumor filled days of July. His teams always play hard, usually play smart, and rarely beat themselves late in games. And it is certainly true that a team reflects its leadership. In Utley and Howard the team has the fire, in Manuel and Gillick the club has the ice. This combination has so far served the team will and should continue to do so while swimming through the Marlin infested waters of September.

Yes, the Phils had best be prepared. Make sure the fishing licenses are up to date and current. Check to see that the fishing poles are strong, steady and firm. Have at their disposal the best brand of tackle and fishing gear. And most important of all, the bait must be alluring and tasty. Fish caught and frozen in September make a tasty morsel in October. The cool winds are blowing and the boat is set to sail. For the Phils the time has come to...fish or cut bait.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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