CD's Connect The Dots...Stars In Alignment

In 1964, catcher Gus Triandos called it "the Year of the Blue Snow." A Phillies team picked to finish fifth in the NL looked as if it would confound the expects and represent the NL in the World Series. Not since then has such a lightly regarded Phillie team been in a similar position. While the playoffs are not a sure thing, this team has the feel of a club with all their...stars in alignment.

To suggest that this oft-criticized and lightly regarded group could make it to the 2007 World Series, much less the first round of the Octoberfest National League playoffs seems altogether a pipe dream. After all, they seemed for all but wave the white flag in surrender on July 31 when they traded away nearly 25% of their roster, including such everyday players as star right fielder Bobby Abreu, starting third baseman David Bell and pitchers Cory Lidle, Rheal Cormier and Ryan Franklin, along with backup catcher Sal Fasano.

Not only did the team gut itself of such front line talent but the return on the dollar seemed no more than pennies. In fact, a case could be made that the Phils received nothing of immediate value for those six players, though lefty reliever Matt Smith has proven to be a useful and dependable hurler out of the bullpen in September. Still, friend and foe alike widely called the deals "salary dumps" and threatened to not cancel their season tickets but their loyalties. Some Phillie phans even suggested that since Abreu had been their favorite player, they would somehow switch their allegiance to the New York Yankees, the new home for the long time Phillie slugger.

On the evening of July 28, the Phils lost to the Florida Marlins 4-1 in yet another lackluster defeat, one that left the Phils with a 46-54 record, and seemingly in disarray. The rumored Abreu deals were heating up, the clubhouse was tense and uneasy, and the team looked for all the world as if they had packed in the season. Although it certainly may have been coincidence, the next night came word that Abreu might be headed to the Yankees by Sunday and was kept out of the lineup.

Surprisingly, almost shockingly, the team responded with an overwhelming 12-3 victory and the next day, the Sunday that the Abreu deal was announced the Phils swept a double-bill from the Marlins, 11-5 and 9-2. Most thought these games an aberration and felt that the reality of their desperate plight would soon return to the club. No one was quite prepared for what has taken place since those dark, dismal days when all seemed lost and General Manager Pat Gillick stood before an angry press corps and tried to justify the moves.

Since July 29, the team has won 31 of 49 games, a heady .633 pace, the best in baseball since that day. Not only have the Phils played winning baseball, but have demonstrated many of the strange wonderful characteristics that only teams who have the "stars in alignment" normally display. They have shown the resilience to withstand several emotion draining defeats. They have led the National League in runs scored since that date by a wide margin and have scored 10 or more runs in a game 10 times, including games of 16, 14 and several games with 12.

The team now has the most feared home run hitter in baseball in Ryan Howard, a second year slugger with 57 home runs to his credit, over 30 of them since Abreu was moved. A solid one-two at the top of the batting order is essential to team success and in shortstop Jimmy Rollins and centerfielder Shane Victorino, the Phils now have one of the best combinations of speed and power in the entire National League.

Veterans like Jeff Conine, Jamie Moyer and Jose Hernandez have joined the team and added class and verve both on the field and in the clubhouse. Chase Utley has continued to lead the club with his desire and heart though his average has slipped after a superior first three months of the season. Yet, everyone has acknowledged his importance to the lineup, slump and all.

Abraham Nunez has stepped up and played consistent if not spectacular ball at third base and catchers Mike Lieberthal, Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz have been very solid behind the plate. Outfielders David Dellucci and Conine have helped off set the continuing downward spiral of erstwhile slugger, left fielder Pat Burrell while Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn have offered speed and defense in the late innings.

Best of all, with the return of Jon Lieber and Randy Wolf from the injured list, plus the addition of Moyer via a late August deal, the team now has a solid five man starting rotation, with the veterans Lieber, Wolf and Moyer joined by young veteran Brett Myers and rookie phenom Cole Hamels. This has allowed the bullpen some much needed rest as well as allowing Ryan Madson to return to the pen, a place he is most comfortable if not most happy.

Ryan Madson has joined Geoff Geary, Matt Smith, Aaron Fultz, Brian Sanches, Fabio Castro and closer Tom Gordon to provide a deep, versatile and talented bullpen, even without the presence of Arthur Rhodes, finished for the season with an elbow strain. This 12 man staff might well be the deepest group the team has had since the World Series team of 1993.

Did I say World Series? Yes, as incredible as it may sound, this club appears quite capable of making it to the Fall Classic should they win the wild card berth, as unlikely as that still may sound. Truth be told, this is a very good Phillie team now, one that has come together as a squad at precisely the right time, and in precisely the right place. For if there is anything sure about the National League this season, it is that outside of the New York Mets and perhaps the St. Louis Cardinals, there is not a special team in the hunt. What better time than now for the Phils to sneak up and surprise everyone with a completely unforeseen Hunt for a Red October?

Logic dictates that weighty claims demand weighty evidence so I will attempt to provide said evidence. Keep in mind that the current club has little resemblance to the team that stumbled its way through the first 90 games and must be judged only oh how it has played during the past seven weeks for it is precisely this club that will take the field from now until October amid continued skepticism, doubt and concern that all will soon be lost.

Not so! Listen to the talk in the clubhouse. There is a quiet confidence that only comes from a team that knows and understands just how good it is. This is team not only reflected in the day to day enthusiasm of Rollins and Victorino but in the veteran confidence of long time Phillies Lieberthal and Wolf. This is a team not only buoyed by the recent acquisition of playoff savvy veterans like Conine and Moyer but in the continued presence of playoff tested veterans like Lieber, Gordon, Dellucci and Nunez.

Even more important is that these veterans are led by the youthful exuberance and skills of precocious young stars Howard, Utley and Hamels. Their combination of skill, desire and quiet confidence has instilled in this club a determination missing in past seasons, with more talented rosters. It is a team that now believes that it can take the field and look eye to eye with every team in the National League and it has the recent resume to defend these beliefs.

This is a club who shortly after the July 31 trading frenzy went into St. Louis and roundly swept the Cardinals in three games. This is a team that has gone toe-to-toe with the New York Mets during the past two months and come away with 5 wins in 10 games, with a few more that barely got away. During the past seven weeks the team has dispelled the myth that it couldn't beat the Astros or Marlins and more than held it's own with long time nemesis, the Atlanta Braves.

Even more impressive, this is a team that has held together through all the controversy and firestorm that has marked the 2006 Philadelphia Phillies. The fact is that despite the late success, almost no one has been immune to loud and constant criticism, from GM Pat Gillick to Manager Charlie Manuel, from big stars like Pat Burrell and Brett Myers to mini- participants like Gavin Floyd and Abraham Nunez. Yet, through it all the team has persevered and it is this perseverance that will serve them well should they make it into the playoffs come October.

A quick glance indicates that the Mets and Cards are in, with the Phils, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres vying for the remaining two spots. Oh, theoretically, the Marlins, Reds and Giants are still in it, but with each passing day it becomes clearer that when the dust settles those three teams will be joined by either the Padres, Dodgers or Phillies at the golf course. Simply put, there is too many teams to catch and too little time to do the catching.

So, if you are still a Phillie phanatic, after all the bumps and grinds that have highlighted this wacky year, take a closer look at the competition should the team make it to the October playoff fest. Is there a phan who doesn't think the Phils could handle either the Padres or Dodgers in a seven game series? Remember, the team will not play either of these two teams until the second round so if they meet, it will be a best-of-seven go round.

For all there talent, the Dodgers are old, battered and unreliable. Take away their 17 of 18 burst about a month ago and this is a team that has played well under .500 ball for the season. They do have solid starters in Brad Penny and Derek Lowe but their bullpen looks beatable and their lineup inconsistent and lacking in power. Of even more concern for the Blue Crew is the continued injury problems to Nomar Garciaparra, the kind that could easily limit his availability come playoff time.

It says here that in a seven game series, the Phils would be favored and probably would win. The Padres are a team of a completely different species, lacking a bit in bats but having some very solid starting pitchers and a deep and versatile bullpen. In Jake Peavy, Woody Williams and Chris Young the team has three solid starting pitchers and a bullpen led by Scott Linebrink and Trevor Hoffman is a tough duo to beat. They would offer the Phils some unique challenges but in the end, they are a team that this Phillie team could and probably would beat.

Any discussion of the National League title begins and ends with the Cardinals and the Mets as they are the two teams with the rolodex file of thundering stars, proven track records and winning resumes to carry them through. It is probably these two teams that the Phils would have to handle in order to meet the American League champion in the World Series, and neither would be an easy mark. Yet, again, careful study indicates that both teams have seemingly fatal flaws that could easily be exposed in a short series, weaknesses that are easier to camouflage over a 162 game marathon season.

For the Cards, it is the lack of a closer now that Jason Isringhausen is finished for the year, and a lineup that outside of probably National League MVP Albert Pujols and former Phillie, Scott Rolen, can be pitched to. With injuries to regulars Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein, the Cards have the look of a team that could be had in the playoffs. They certainly won't roll over and with proven veteran starters like Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis, they are capable of beating anyone on a given day.

Yet, it was these same Cardinals who were unable to handle the Phillie onslaught back in early August, and since then this Phillie team has gotten better while that Cardinal team has performed worse. This would be a tough, tense and difficult series, but it would be no surprise if the Phils win, especially in a five game series. The Phils starting pitching was still suspect back them with both Lieber and Wolf questionable and Moyer still in Seattle. Amazingly, all three are now performing well and have seemingly "youthened" instead of "aged". All things being equal, the Phils would probably win in five.

This would set up a seemingly improbably mismatch between the as yet uncrowned champion New York Mets and the supposedly downtrodden Philadelphia Phillies. Oddsmakers would have a field day with this match-up and most "experts" would predict a New York-New York finale between the Mets and Yankees. Fair enough, as the Yanks are certainly more than prohibitive favorites to win the American League against such lightly regarded competitors like the Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics, Minnesota Twins or Chicago White Sox.

Equally prohibitive will be the Mets, the mega star Mets of Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, Paul LoDuca and Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and David Wright, Cliff Floyd and Billy Wagner. Seemingly a cast of thousands and more than a match for the team from the City of Brotherly Love, the team that no one believed in, and still probably don't.

Still, there is a tiny flaw in this Mets team, a small, almost miniscule problem that could very well rear it's ugly head at the most inopportune time for them...against the Phillies. For all their talent, for all their power, for all their speed, this is a team that has shown a very troubling inability to beat left handed pitching over the past few months, and this flaw is becoming more pronounced with each passing day.

At latest count, the Mets have lost 18 of their last 31 games to lefties, which leaves them with an alarming .419 winning percentage against southpaw slants, a number that is becoming more dissected by the day. Especially teams like the playoff hungry Phillies, who can count three left handed starters and three left handed relievers among their stable of trusted arms. Whether by design, blind luck, or the "stars in alignment", the Phils seem presently primed to offer the Mets a distinctly left handed look should they meet for the NL pennant in October.

Chances are that Manager Charlie Manuel would use southpaws Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer as starters one and three, guaranteeing that the Mets would see them a minimum of four games in a 7 game series. He would no doubt move lefty Randy Wolf to the bullpen, where he would join forces with the newest Phillie gem, Matt Smith and Aaron Fultz in attempting to thwart the Mets lefty power with continued southpaw slants. It is a method that well could work, as the Mets have begun to get cranky and edgy when discussing their lack of success against left-handed pitching and in a short series, any psychological edge is a sound edge indeed!

Not only this, but the Mets are more than a bit worried about the continued health problems of ace starter, Pedro Martinez. He was roughed up badly in his return to action in Pittsburgh and was seen to be visibly concerned in the dugout after his removal. He still has two weeks to get healthy, but without a top notch Martinez in tow, the Mets starting pitching looks shaky at best. Tom Glavine suddenly becomes the ace by default, with Steve Trachsel, Orlando Hernandez and John Maine as starters two, three and four.

The Mets strength is still the bullpen of Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner, but their advantage becomes negligible if the team falls behind early. Wagner is never used except to save a game, and Heilman's main value is in getting the lead to Wagner in the late innings. This becomes impossible if the team is behind.

Certainly the Mets would be heavy favorites and well-deserved ones at that.

Surely, the Cardinals present a fearsome force with their experience and top of the line if not deep talent base. Undoubtedly, the Dodgers have their supporters and the Padres are versatile and well-managed. These are facts beyond dispute and healthy reasons to discount the Phils again as the race goes to the wire.

Equally certain is that the Phillies, just because they ARE the Phillies, will suffer at least one pratfall before years end, one guaranteed to challenge even the most patient of frenzied hearted Phillie phanatics. Expect it. Count on it. Prepare for it. Yet, much like that popular catcher and weather forecaster from 1964, Gus Triandos, there is a special feel to this team and to this season. It may well be that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are the best one two batting punch in Philadelphia since Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski or it may just be that Jupiter has a cast a special shadow on Mars.

Whichever the case, whatever the cause, this Phillie team well could be World Series bound, regardless the precarious, present position and notwithstanding the daunting, dwindling days on the calendar. It has the feel of something big, of something special, all created by the...stars in alignment.

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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