Instead this flawed but feisty bunch merely picked themselves off the floor and lived to play another day, and usually ended up victorious for the effort. Still, when the epitaph is written on this season, it might well include more than a passing note about the games lost during the September search for a Red October. It began in Washington, after two resolute and convincing wins against the Washington Nationals.
With victory assured and merely one strike left to throw, veteran lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes threw a fastball in when it should have been out, and a 4-2 victory eventually became a 6-5 loss. Fast forward a few days to a rainy night fit for Georgia, which saw the Phils again but one inning from a 3-2 win. Not so fast, as a fastball out and over the plate, thrown once again by the beleaguered Mr. Rhodes, turn victory into a gut-wrenching 4-3 loss. That the team is more resilient than Mr. Bill was displayed in the second game, a resounding 16-4 Phillie triumph.
The next day saw brilliance two fold Phillie style, one leading to victory, one wasted in defeat. Ryan Howard, quickly becoming a legend in his own time, hit 3 homeruns in a scintillating and inspiring 8-7 win. So inspired was the team that they wasted a dominating 11 strikeout game from starting hurler Brett Myers and squandered enough offensive chances to eventually lose in eleven innings, 3-1.
Undaunted as usual by the bone crushing nature of the past few days, the Phils battled future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens to a draw and set upon his relief for a thrilling 3-2 win on Chase Utley's walk off homerun. Again, Murphy's Law would rear its ugly head the next night when the team was once again merely one strike from victory. Unfortunately that strike was instead deposited into to left field corner for a Lance Berkman three-run double and a 3-2 win instead became a 5-3 loss.
Lesser teams would have quickly abandoned ship amidst the backdrop of a soaring white flag. Not this crew, not this year. Instead they merely headed south to Florida for a make or break series with the playoff hungry Marlins. Entering this four game series, the Florida nine was merely the hottest team in baseball and appeared fully capable of ending all dreams of a Philadelphia Freedom Walk into October with a resounding thud. Instead, it was the Phils who almost ended the Marlins dream with wins in the first two games, 14-8 and 3-2.
Saturday night could well have been a statement game for both clubs. A Phillie win might well have ended the Marlins season and catapulted the Phightins into playoff heaven. And for most of the night, a Phillie victory seemed assured. Oh, those pesky Marlins were staying even with the Phils but with no less than 15 runners in scoring position and the bases loaded no less than three times, the game was there for the Phillie taking.
Ah, but these are still those lovable but sometimes maddening Phillies, and true to form, they would neither win the day or the series. When too many runners are left stranded bad things happen to good teams and this was another case, and another heart stopping defeat, 4-3 in 11 innings. As if to prove that bad things do happen in threes, once again the star crossed Arthur Rhodes threw the decisive and possibly last pitch of his Phillie career, a wild pitch that sent the eventual winning run to third base.
Rhodes left with a seriously injured elbow and minutes later left the stadium with an 0-5 record when the Marlins turned opportunity into advancement with a 4-3 win. It appears that the upcoming free agent Rhodes will not be back with the Phils, even if his injured elbow responds to a winter of rest. His one year legacy in the City of Brotherly Love may well be captured during this two week period when he lost three games that well should have been wins.
It must be duly noted that Arthur Rhodes, for all his struggles, has been a stand up guy and a leader in the clubhouse during the period immediately following the July 31 trading frenzy that left most Phillie phans searching for a Philadelphia Eagles schedule in anticipation of football season. Rhodes spoke almost defiantly of the team's ability to withstand these deals, and in the end, he was correct. It would be somewhat sadly ironic that his personal belief in the team might well be compromised by his final difficult days as an active member of the team.
Amazingly, the team rebounded from all this misery and another rainy night in Georgia to sweep a double-header from the Atlanta Braves. Two weeks of more roller coaster rides than any team should be expected to survive in a month's time. A 9-5 record that easily could have been 13-1, a stretch that might have had Phillie officials preparing playoff tickets instead of contemplating final week playoff scenarios. As the stretch entered its final stages, no less than seven teams were battling for two spots, with the San Diego Padres sitting in the current catbird's seat.
Yet, it would be foolish to count out this doughty band of current Phillies. Frankly, they have already been counted out far too many times and have always, to paraphrase Pickford's own words, "fallen down, but not stayed down." This not only bodes well for the final two weeks of September but for the 2007 season as well. Regardless of the finish, and it would be foolish to bet against this team, we are witnessing the birth of several stars before our very eyes, stars that should light up the Philadelphia sky for years to come.
No star has shown brighter than first baseman Ryan Howard, the player who nearly was dealt away last June in a mistaken belief that he could not hit major league pitching consistently. In a town almost always prepared for the worst, it was certainly a stroke of good fortune that Howard was not traded, and now has an opportunity to pass the 60 homerun mark in merely his first full season in the big leagues.
One can only contemplate the future of this unassuming gentle giant if it is true that major league players don't usually reach their potential until the ages of 28-31. Howard will complete this season as a 26 year old and the numbers he might put up at Citizens Bank Park before his career winds down are truly staggering. If he can avoid injury he will present an awesome sight in the middle of the Phillie order for years to come.
Joining him in that middle of the order onslaught will be second baseman Chase Utley, who despite a late season slump, will still finish his campaign with tremendous offensive numbers. Equally impressive is the leadership qualities he has displayed since right fielder Bobby Abreu was dealt at the July trading deadline. Utley and Howard merely form the greatest offensive twosome in Philadelphia since the hey day of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski in the mid-to-late seventies.
As if this were not enough, Phillie phanatics can look forward to having their first lefty ace hurler since Lefty, aka Steve Carlton, graced the Philadelphia scene back in the 70's and 80's. In stylish lefty Cole Hamels, it is not hard to picture true greatness if he stays healthy, an always questionable assessment. Composed beyond his years, he not only has welcomed the madness that comes with September playoff pressure, but appears to have welcomed it.
He went toe-to-toe with the legendary Clemens on Labor Day and was not one bit overwhelmed by the experience. He shows the true skill of an ace, a pitcher who wants the ball when it matters the most. It is not hard to imagine he and Brett Myers heading a very talented stable of young hurlers in the coming years. As outlined in a recent Phuture Phillies Phenom column, the Phils are awash in young pitching talent and the names Scott Mathieson, Gavin Floyd, Carlos Carrasco, Zack Segovia, Matt Maloney, Giovanni Gonzalez and Josh Outman well could dominate the National League East in the not so distant future.
With the unfortunate injury to catcher Mike Lieberthal, youngster Carlos Ruiz has been allowed to show his considerable talents and waylay fears that the team must go out and sign a free agent catcher in the off-season. Truth be told, Ruiz is more than ready to handle the job and with Chris Coste as a backup and Jason Jaramillo a phone call away in Triple-A, the Phils are well covered in the backstop area for 2007.
Other youngsters who have shown their skills in the numbing pressure of a September playoff race have been lefty relievers Matt Smith and Fabio Castro as well as outfielder Shane Victorino. These players, as well as young standouts like Howard, Utley, Hamels and Myers well could form the nucleus of what appears a very strong and deep club next season. In fact, far from the bleak warnings of the woebegone naysayers, it appears that General Manager Pat Gillick is slowing rebuilding the team while competing for a playoff berth, the best of both possible worlds.
Still, those are words for another day, today there is still a race to be run, a race to be won. We know the Phils will run the race, they have shown through their sheer will of character that this will happen. But are they capable if winning the race? Will they overcome the playoff tested slants of the Padres, Dodgers, Giants and Astros? Can they stay ahead of the even younger and more eager Marlins while maintaining their lead over the suddenly slumbering Cincinnati Reds?
Time will tell.
This much we know. This Phillie team has been knocked down far too many times and rebounded to expect anything less during the final two weeks of the campaign. They have so far survived late season injuries to key players like outfielder Aaron Rowand, catcher Mike Lieberthal, relievers Tom Gordon and Arthur Rhodes and young starting pitcher Scott Mathieson. They have also withstood late season slumps from corner outfielders Pat Burrell and David Dellucci while applauding the success of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, newcomers Jeff Conine and Jamie Moyer and veteran hurlers Jon Lieber and Randy Wolf.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, this team has given the phans something they thought impossible; a September push for the playoffs. Far from being counted out this month, they are instead being counted on to provide victory starved Phillie phans with a reason to attend late season games with a purpose. The odds may still look long, the road paved with potholes.
Yet, the team continues to give us a reason to care, a reason to hope. They have bounced back from controversy, injuries, trade rumors, player movement, and Murphy's Law through the sheer will of their desire. They have continued to believe while asking for nothing more than one simple thing, something they always seem to find despite the difficulties...another chance.
Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast