CD's Connect The Dots... Buckle Up

Admittedly, as with any roller coaster, the ride must eventually end. For your Philadelphia Phillies, if the 2007 season has been anything at all, it has been a topsy-turvy coaster excursion. And while the ride could end at any moment, logic dictates a heart stopping finish. It would best behoove all phans to hold on and...buckle up!

The mere mention of a roller coaster ride emits a mad rush of emotion inside the very sinews of anyone who has ever traveled on one. From the opening push, occasionally slow and steady, but oft times rapid and unyielding in their ability to focus complete attention to the fact that the next turn is guaranteed to leave the rider hoping for nothing more than safe landing at some point.

Such is the current state of affairs as stands, the Phightins from Philadelphia as they round the far turn and head, not always smoothly, for home. Just what the definition of home means is subject to ones own appetite for punishment or excitement. Sometimes both in one night.

Yet none dare deny the fact that this years squad has taken their phandom on a ride that might well be remembered for years, even as one acknowledges that the thrill of the going up has not always been worth the despair of the coming down. Still, as a few of the thrill seekers seem to have decided the ride's line is no longer worth the wait, it is important to understand that at this time, the Phils appear poised front and center to hop on board for yet another jaunt aboard the tracks.

A quick gander at the line forming to the ride indicates that the Atlanta Braves no longer consider the ride worthy of the wait. Perhaps ditto the St. Louis Cardinals, unless they can undo all the damage caused by the recent controversy involving late season wunderkind, Rick Ankiel.

Oh, the Los Angeles Dodgers are still near the front of the line, and the Colorado Rockies refuse to surrender easily their place in line. Of course, the San Diego Padres are currently first in line for that all important wild card seat on the ride, but poised to pass them in line should they as much as stop for a drink of water, are the oft times "left for dead" Phillies.

Ironically enough, in a season where the bumps and bruises of the ride have more often than not left the team with nothing more than a seat belt to allow them to hold on, they are slowly, almost inexorably returning to good health at the most appropriate time possible...as the ride comes careening down the tracks and scheduled for its final stop on Sept. 30.

Second baseman Chase Utley is back, and hitting as if he never was away. Outfielders Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn have now reported that their ailments will no long keep them from jumping onboard the coaster and should lefty ace Cole Hamels decide his elbow is sound enough to take at least two or three trips around the tracks the team will enter the final stretch of the ride as healthy as they have been all season.

With all this in mind, lets take a look at what dark and potentially treacherous pitfalls yet await the Phillieland Express as it awaits the finish to its '07 jaunt through the ups and downs of this most memorable joyride.

If home is indeed where the heart is, then the Phils can justifiably feel their hearts bursting with pride over the recent surge at home. After appearing for all the world as if they had created a team that was better suited for the road, the club has turned things around to the tune of the third best home record in the National League.

Of course, since the team is still struggling to gain a wild card berth despite its home success, the road trevails have been both frustrating and perplexing. With this in mind, the finishing kick to the Phillie ride is not necessarily a promising one, if one that they must find a way to overcome.

Following the final two crucial games at home against the equally wild card aspiring Colorado Rockies, the team departs for a crucial and potentially telling 10 game road trip which takes them through New York, St. Louis and back eastward to Washington. If ever the term "where the tires meet the tracks" applied, this trip could aptly be described as such.

The first leg of the journey takes them through wild and bumpy New York, where a revenge minded group of New York Mets await their chance to give back a little pain to the Phillies after what the Phils did to them only a few weeks ago at Citizens Bank Park. Not only did Philadelphia sweep the four game series, but did in a fashion that suggests the Mets road to the World Series may not be as easy as once suspected.

The Mets certainly do not fear the Phils and will be primed to do all they can to sweep the 3 game series and give a little payback to Philadelphia. Not only does this portend uncharted curves straight ahead for the PhillieLand Express but star hurler Pedro Martinez will pitch one of the games for the Mets and has already won his first two starts since his comeback a few weeks ago.

It is always dangerous to project win totals for any series but suffice it to say that any Phillie win this weekend in the "City that Never Sleeps" will be much appreciated and well earned. The Phils will toss veterans Jamie Moyer, Kyle Lohse and Adam Eaton into the Mets fray and hope that they can keep the club on track before the coaster makes a quick left and heads west for St. Louis.

The St. Louis Cardinals will present a unique challenge for the Phils as it appears they will still be on the periphery of first place in the National League Central race, though currently trailing both the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs.

Still, the Phils may benefit from the fact that they will play the Redbirds immediately after the Cubs leave St. Louis after a four-game series. This could not only give the Cards a letdown when Philadelphia arrives but might even have finished off the club should they do anything less than win three of four against Chicago.

This three game series may mark the return to the hill for Cole Hamels, a pitcher the team needs badly for the stretch race to the finish. Hamels has been out for over a month with a tender elbow but has been throwing on the sidelines pain-free for almost a week and hopes to return to duty in time for the Cardinal series. Should he pitch early in the series, he could still start two more games before the end of the season.

The final trek of the road trip leads to Washington, home of the woebegone but still troublesome Nationals. This is the kind of series that might just be the surprise turn in the road that often leads to headaches if not buckled in properly. It behooves the Phils to not only play well but dominate this series before returning home for the final six game homestand against the Atlanta Braves and these same Washington Nationals.

In fact, those seven games against Washington may well determine just whether or not this roller coaster remains on track or coming to a screeching halt once again just short of the finish line. Good teams make sure to have all safety features securely in place for rides that include games with the Nationals and anything less than a dominant charge against the last place team is likely to bring the car quickly to a stall.

Yet, not all the talk in Phillieland is focused completely on the playoff run, unpredictable and wacky as it has been. Reports have begun to surface on next season and while whispers are often difficult to decipher these have the sound of something more than idle talk.

These whispers speak of players like Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell and Curt Schilling and of management types like Charlie Manuel, Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro Jr. Admittedly, all the whispers could turn out to be nothing but idle talk, but one senses that where there is smoke there is fire, and a few of these whispers have the appearances of something more than just wispy billows of smoke.

A report circulated in a Washington newspaper that the Phils were near a deal with Rowand on a contract extension, though nothing of the sort has been reported in Philadelphia. A Washington writer was speculating on the Nationals need for a trusty centerfielder and mentioned how appealing Rowand would look in a new uniform. It was then that he mentioned the reports of a possible contract extension for Rowand.

When Eric Byrnes signed a 3 year extension in Arizona for 30 million dollars, he immediately set the market for Rowand and it seems unlikely that the Phils would offer the talented centerfielder that much money when they already have Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn and Greg Golson as likely centerfield candidates, and for a lot less money.

More likely, the Phils will offer Rowand salary arbitration and when he declines, the team will happily accept the amateur draft picks in the June 2008 draft. Make no mistake, Aaron Rowand is a talented and valuable member of the club, but it seems very risky business to offer 30 million to a player who would rank no better than seventh or eighth in importance should a list ever be compiled.

Not so Burrell, whose second half comeback has the team speculating not only on a productive 2008 but perhaps beyond for the oft criticized left fielder.
A case can be made that Burrell has been not only the Phillies, but the National League Most Valuable Player during the second half of the season and if he continues his pace through the final two and a half weeks of the campaign, will finish with over 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

Equally impressive is his ability to walk, which has led to an absolutely outstanding on base percentage for the Phillie star. While many have speculated on Burrell's turnaround, it is probably attributable to nothing more that finally returning to good health after more than two seasons of pain and discomfort, both to his foot and his wrist.

A healthy Burrell will always be a productive Burrell because he is an outstanding hitter, who works hard and has always benefited from being the sole right handed power hitter on a club with a preponderance of left-handed power hitters like Jim Thome, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

The Phils are now talking about Burrell returning not only for the '08 season but even beyond that. This would seem a solid thought as he remains a dangerous and productive hitter and has slowly become a very popular player in Philadelphia, not only for the solid way he performs but for his continued insistence that he loves the city and wants no part of leaving.

Speaking of leaving, Curt Schilling once did just that, and might just be poised to return next year on a 1 year contract for something in the range of 12-13 million. Schilling will not return to Boston, despite his success there, and has indicated that he would like to pitch one more season, preferably with a team in contention for the World Series.

There are many reasons to trumpet the return of Schilling, regardless of how one views his politics. A Schilling near the top of the rotation would allow youngsters like Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and perhaps J.D. Durbin to more easily develop their skills under less stressful circumstances. Again, love him or hate him, no one can deny Schilling's amazing ability to focus attention directly on him and away from less seasoned veterans like Hamels or even Brett Myers.

Speaking of Myers, he has professed a desire to remain in the bullpen in 2008 as the closer, and a return of Schilling to Philadelphia would probably cement this decision. With Myers in the closer role, the Phils could more carefully monitor the health of Tom Gordon and Ryan Madson, allowing them to become more effective late inning bullpen bridges from the starters to closer Myers.

If any other incentive remained for Schilling to make a triumphant return to Philadelphia it would be with the goal of leading the Phightins' to a World Series triumph, possibly sealing Schilling's eventual berth in the baseball Hall of Fame.

Should this happen, Curt Schilling would have the rare feat of helping lead 4 different teams [Phillies twice, Diamondbacks, Red Sox] to World Series berths while helping lead 3 of them to series championships. This would be an impressive addendum to an already impressive resume for the irrepressible Schilling. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile reports surfaced that the Phils were prepared to bring back Manager Charlie Manuel on a 1 year extension through the season of 2008. Manuel was supposedly balking at this, instead requesting a 2 year deal, one that GM Pat Gillick was loathe to offer.

Gillick in on the final season of his 3 year contract in 2008 and probably will retire following the '08 campaign. He does not necessarily want to burden the potential incoming GM with a manager not of his choosing, much like he was when he inherited Manuel in 2006.

All of this could be a smokescreen to force the hand of Manuel, a man with deep pride and dignity. It is quite possible that Gillick real does not want Manuel back at all for 2008 but is reluctant to fire him after such a credible job this year in holding a patchwork club together despite repeated distractions.

Should Manuel refuse a 1 year extension, Gillick will probably shake hands, thank him for his service, and begin the task of hiring a new skipper for 2008. If this does occur, watch for the name of Joe Girardi to surface quickly. Girardi was the NL Manager of the Year with the Florida Marlins in 2006 and might possess many of the qualities Gillick desires in a manager.

Even more so, it might ge easier to sell a new GM on Girardi as manager than it would Manuel, who despite his popularity with the players, is admittedly something less than a game day wizard when it comes to relief pitchers and double switch moves. Those moves are best left to a former catcher like Joe Girardi.

That Gillick is even considering the managerial moves for 2008 may come as a surprise to those who expect him to retire following this season and return to a potential ownership position with the Seattle Mariners. While this may still happen, the recent interview of Assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. with the Houston Astros suggests that Gillick is planning on returning next season.

Amaro Jr. not only interviewed for the Astros GM position but could soon interview for the vacant general manager position with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Apparently all this awaits the hiring in Pittsburgh next week of Frank Coonelly as the Pirate's new CEO. Coonelly and Amaro Jr. have worked together before through in the baseball executive offices and both live in Bucks County. Coonelly is also a Phillies season ticket holder and knows and respects Amaro, Jr. very much.

Of course, the Phillies being the Phillies, this could also lead to a push to get Gillick to retire a season early rather than risk losing Amaro Jr. to another club. It has been widely speculated that Gillick was brought in to the Phillies to give Amaro some on the job training and it would be ironic if the skills learned on the job were put into practice with another organization.

This is certainly a story worth watching in the days and months ahead. Both the Astros and Pirates have indicated that they want to put a GM in place before the end of the '07 season so whatever happens with Amaro, Jr. and Gillick is likely to happen fairly quickly, perhaps as quickly as the final day of the season.

In any case, the Philadelphia Phillies have not lacked for news this season, be it good, bad or indifferent. Phans have marveled at the daily wonders of shortstop Jimmy Rollins and moaned at the injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Phans have delighted in the pitching mastery of lefty Cole Hamels and disdained of the inconsistencies in Adam Eaton.

Throughout the season, the club has alternately amused, amazed and astounded the baseball world while all the while baffling and bewildering the very people who watch them play on a nightly basis. This then defines their charm. The late great Eleanor Roosevelt once described charm as "the ability to forget oneself and be engrossed in other people."

If the Philadelphia Phillies have displayed anything at all it has been their ability to captivate people to the extent that their daily trials and travels of life could be forgotten for but a few hours each night. This has been both their blessing and their curse, with the most exquisite charm of all laying in the fact that the roller coaster ride remains as yet unfinished.

If function over form continues to remain the face of the '07 Phillies, then it seems reasonable to assume that the test runs are over, the engines are fully tuned and the coaster is primed for its final race to the finish line.

With this firmly in mind, all passengers should now sit tight, breathe deeply, prepare for unexpected free falls and most of all, make sure to...buckle up!

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


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