CD's Connect The Dots... Time To Exhale

In many respects, Philadelphia Phillies phans have been collectively holding their breath since Joe Carter stepped to the plate in the sixth game of the 1993 World Series. For almost 14 years they held their breath through Craig Biggio and Miguel Cabrera and Chipper Jones. Now, with the crowning of the 2007 club as National League East Champs, it is finally...time to exhale.

Few baseball fans can know or even understand the anguish that accompanies being a phan of Phillie hardball over the past many years. Oh, the Chicago Cubs could identify as could the Cleveland Indians. Certainly, the Boston Red Sox had their own curses to overcome before exorcising those ghosts back in 2004.

But for most of the rest of the baseball world, playoffs or even championships have often come with such rapidity as to become almost monotonous. The New York Mets won a World Series in only their eighth season of existence. The Florida Marlins won not just one but two World Championships in their early existence. Same with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But for the Philadelphia Phillies, the road to redemption has been one filled with pot holes, road blocks and generally Do Not Enter signs for over 120 years with but one single World Series title in 1980 for all their efforts. Indeed, they are still the only team is sports history to suffer over 10,000 defeats, an inglorious event that ironically occurred in one of their most glorious of seasons.

The 2007 season was not supposed to end with the Phillies perched on top of the National League East nest. From the moment that the Atlanta Braves swept the Phils in a three-game opening week series while the New York Mets were dismantling the Cardinals in St. Louis three straight, the Phils found themselves chasing the Mets.

And certainly this was not a race meant for the swift of foot because every time the Phils would seemingly gain a step, another key injury would slow them done. Indeed, on the final day before the All-Star break the Phils record stood at 43-44 and they looked for all the world like a team suffering from oxygen deprivation.

Then a magical, mystical moment, the kind that often defines a season occurred in Colorado in the most unlikely of circumstances. The Phils, after having been beaten by the Rockies in the first two games of the series actually found themselves winning 5-4 entering the top of the seventh inning when a sudden and violent rainstorm threatened to not only call the game but endanger the lives of the groundscrew hired to get the tarp on the field as quickly as possible.

The sudden and violent winds pushed the heavy tarp over the bodies of several of the crewmen and for a brief moment chaos appeared the order of the day. Suddenly out raced the Phillies from the safety and comfort of their dugout to not only rescue the crew but actually help place the tarp snuggly on the field.

This was an extraordinary occurrence, one that received justifiable national coverage and well wished for the brave and selfless band of beleaguered Phillies. One can surmise that it was precisely at this moment that a team torn apart by injury and frustration came together to form a cohesive and coordinated unit that began to turn its collective season around.

Sport is an odd mixture of superstition, legend and history. There are still those who believe that on that day, at that particular moment in time when the Phils had everything to lose and almost nothing to gain by rushing onto the field to rescue men they didn't even know, that all the misfortune, bad luck and just plain bad baseball that had seemingly cursed the club all these years suddenly vanished in a moment of selfless heroism. Perhaps.

What we do know is that Phils from the beginning the second half of the season till the final day of the season when they clinched the NL East title became the best team in the National League with a record of 46-29 [including that Rockies game which was very much in doubt at the time of the rescue.]

In doing so, they overcame key second-half injuries to Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Tom Gordon, Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn and Ryan Madson. Not only that, they overcame a New York Mets team that lost when it was almost a mathematical impossibility to lose. Again, the irony of this whole episode cannot be minimized when discussing the "giving up the ghosts" of seasons past.

In the entire annals of baseball history, there has never been a greater collapse than the 1964 Phillies, a team which also lost when it seem a mathematical impossibility. That brave but battered club blew a 6.5 game lead with but 12 to play by losing 10 straight games. Until this year, until this New York Mets team decided to take history into their own collective hands, the '64 Phils had continued to live in baseball infamy for the greatest collapse ever.

Not so now, not so ever again. In the strangest of fates imaginable, the beneficiaries of the Mets inglorious dive into the history books were not only the '64 Phillies, but our very own 2007 edition. Poised to strike when the Mets began to teeter, the resilient and plucky band of '07 Phils won 13 of their final 17 games to grab victory from the jaws of defeat while leaving the Mets to ponder what might have been.

Make no mistake, both events were done purely on merit. In fact, baseball historians may well take a second look at the doomed '64 group of Gene Mauch, Jim Bunning, Richie Allen and Johnny Callison and perhaps hail them for their grace under fire when compared to the way the Mets folded up their tents during those final 17 games in September.

Mauch's Men faced three difficult and talented teams [St. Louis, Cincinnati and Milwaukee] during their final 12 games and did it with a pitching staff decimated by injury and illness. In fact, Mauch has forever been vilified for using Bunning and Chris Short so often during those final two weeks when just a few victories would have saved the sinking ship.

Fast forward to 2007 when Manager Willie Randolph was criticized continuously during those final 17 games for using not too few starting pitchers [like Mauch did in 1964] but for using too many. Randolph was so sure of ultimate victory, so positive that the Phils could not catch his Mets, that he used no less than six starting pitchers on a regular basis in order to protect recovering ace hurler Pedro Martinez for the playoffs. A playoff that would never come despite the fact that most of the final games were played against less than powerful clubs like Washington, Florida and St. Louis.

So redemption has come to Philadelphia and suddenly their is once again a love fest gone crazy over the often time woebegone Phillies. In reality, this team has been easy to like from the beginning, but far too many discouraging returns had left the baseball phan in PhillieLand slow to recognize the beauty of this team.

The best part is that not only is the core of this team very, very good but it is very, very young and should be a force to be reckoned with for years to come in the tough and balanced National League. A reasonable case could be made that that the eight most valuable players on the squad are Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick, Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand and only Burrell and Rowand are 30 and only Rowand might leave soon.

It is safe to say that Phillie baseball is on the rise after far too many years on the decline and this years playoff test against the dangerous Colorado Rockies promises to be perhaps just the first of several in the offing for seasons to come.

Playoffs? Did someone mention playoffs? Indeed, the Phightins' are participating in this seasons Octoberfest and four more unlikely dance partners could not have been selected if chosen blindly from a hat. The Phils and Rockies are joined by the youthful but talented Arizona Diamondbacks and the upstart Chicago Cubs in a strange but wonderful foursome guaranteed to place an unlikely candidate in this Fall's World Series Championship.

Suffice it to say that a case can be made for the World Series merits of any of the four teams, the Phillies included. The D'Backs boast the best regular season record [90-62] and thus will enjoy the home field advantage for as long as they stay alive in the playoffs. The Cubs can be proud of the power of Alfonso Soriano, Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez as well as the pitching exploits if Carlos Zambrano and lefty Ted Lilly.

The Phils first round opponent, the Colorado Rockies are in many ways a mirror image of the Phillies. Young, confident and talented but with more power to the punch than they have pitching to perfection, the Rockies made it to the playoffs the old fashioned way, they earned it. To the tune of 14 wins in their final 15 games.

In fact, as hot as the Phillies have been recently [13-4 over the final 17 games] a case can be made that the Rockies come into the playoffs even hotter. And as previously mentioned, very dangerous offensively and defensively. Pitching wise, they are probably stronger in the starting rotation but a shade less consistent in the bullpen. It should be an exciting five game series.

A quick study of the Rockies reveals a team that is almost as lethal offensively as are the Phillies. In Matt Holliday [.340,36,137] the Rocks have the only player not named Jimmy Rollins who might succeed Ryan Howard as the National League Most Valuable Player. He is the glue of the offense batting from the third slot in the order.

Almost equally potent are first baseman Todd Helton [.320,17,91], third baseman Garrett Atkins [.301,25,111], right fielder Brad Hawpe [.291,29,116] and shortstop Troy Tulowitski [.291,24,99]. This fearsome fivesome matches up well with anything the Phils might muster with their lineup offensively while also playing the best defense in the National League.

Pitching wise, the Rockies feature three southpaw starting pitchers to try and neutralize the lefty stances of Phillie sluggers Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Greg Dobbs. The ace and opening night starter in lefty Jeff Francis, who won 17 games this season in Colorado. Following him will likely be lefties Franklin Morales and Mark Redman and right Ubaldo Jimenez or Josh Fogg.

The bullpen is led by righty Manny Corpas and lefty Brian Fuentes with veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Matt Herges in reserve. All in all, not a dominating pitching staff but one that came on strong in September and has the unenviable task of hurling in hitter haven Coors Field in Denver.

Much like the Phillies who play in beautiful but less than spacious Citizens Bank Park, the Rockies are attempting to debunk a widely held theory that no team playing is such hitter friendly confines as Coors Field or Citizens Bank Park could ever make it to the World Series. In a strange twist of fate, not only did both the Rocks and Phils survive the 162 game marathon race to garner half of the playoff berths, but will meet in the first round of the playoffs.

Thus, regardless of the outcome either the Rockies or Phillies will advance to the NLCS and be but one step from the World Series. In fact, many baseball scouts expect the World Series participant to come from the Phillies-Rockies series as they not only think they are now the two best teams in the National League but will only benefit from the knock down, drag out battle that might ensue over these next five games.

For the Phils to advance, lefty ace Cole Hamels will likely need to win two games and certainly winning game one will be important. The Rocks are home for games three and four and have won 39 of their past 54 games at Coors Field. It seems imperative for the Phils to do well at home this week to guarantee a return trip to Philadelphia for Game Five next Tuesday.

The Phils will certainly take no backseat to the Rockies when it comes to offensive prowess and one baseball scout recently commented that he "doesn't know how a pitcher ever gets the Phillies out." Certainly Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell will match up well with the Rock's best five hitters and the Phightins' strength from hitters like Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Greg Dobbs and Chris Coste might just win the day for the Phillies.

In fact, Coste could well play a pivotal role in this series, as unlikely as that may have seemed a few days ago. Starting catcher Carlos Ruiz was hit on the left elbow by a pitch in Sunday's seasonal finale and should his elbow be too sore to hit, watch for Coste to do the yeoman's work behind the plate in the series.

This could be crucial as Coste and Ruiz have varying talents defensively and both have pitchers who prefer to throw to them on game day. Still, Coste seems perfectly fitted for this Phillie season and this Phillie series as both have suffered more than their share of despair and defeat on their way to this defining moment.

On the hill, the Phils are expected to use Hamels twice should the series go five games and will start rookie Kyle Kendrick in Game Two and then use Jamie Moyer and Kyle Lohse in Colorado. The bullpen slants should remain the same with lefty J.C. Romero and Tom Gordon keeping the game in hand and turning it over to closer Brett Myers in the ninth inning. One surprise was the addition of Jose Mesa over Geoff Geary on the playoff roster because Geary's had a slight shoulder problem.

It seems well and fitting that the final word on the Phillies upcoming chances end with discussions of yet more injuries to overcome should Ruiz and Geary be lost for the playoffs. For in this most unlikely of finishes, a team with so many perceived weaknesses overcame them all through the sheer volume of their will to prevail. The playoffs should offer no less a test of the Phillies strengths and their weaknesses. It is but their latest challenge.

Robert Louis Stevenson was discussing challenges when he once remarked that "You cannot run away from a weakness; you must sometime fight it out or perish. And if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?" For the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies they stand on the doorstep of something few Phillie teams have ever entered and only one has ever stayed inside to admire the interior.

And why not now? This team seems as poised, as ready, as willing and as able as any since the Mike Schmidt-Steve Carlton led group of the late 70's and early 80's to accomplish the task now at hand. Yes, fellow Phillie phan, the deep breaths and slow inhaling of far too many seasons of frustration and defeat are a thing of the past, regardless of what transpires over the next several days.

The air is now fresh and clean, the skies are now clear and blue and the atmosphere reminds one and all that baseball in PhillieLand once again smells of victory and hope. It is, at long last a...time to exhale.

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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