CD's Connect The Dots... Hit or Miss

In medical terms it has gone from flu-like symptoms to low grade fever and threatens to erupt into full blown illness if the NL Champion Philadelphia Phillies don't relocate their missing offense in the next week. Though Tampa Bay is formidable, the World Series is clearly there for the taking should the team find their MIA bats. For the Phils, the series has been reduced to...hit or miss.

Words do not do justice to the offensive futility of the Phillies during the first two games of the 2008 World Series [and that is a phrase that has not been used often in discussing the Phightins!] but reality suggests an honest attempt to do so. Bizarre? Not necessarily. Improbable? Not based on the recent past. Historic? Ah, now we are getting into proper territory here.

During the first two games of this years series the Phils had no less than 28 base runners in scoring position and produced only 1 hit with those runners ready and eager to scamper home. Yes, a paltry 1-28 with runners in scoring position and as if to add insult to injury, the one hit was a single by Shane Victorino that failed to score a run. Not since the Los Angeles Dodgers went 0-22 in the 1966 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles has a team shown such utter disdain for what in baseball lexicon is termed a "clutch hit."

Unfortunately, this malady is not a recent sickness but instead can be traced all the way back to last seasons three and out losing playoff performance against the eventual World Series bound Colorado Rockies. Yes, even during the Phillies winning efforts against the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers, there was an unsettling air about this team when it came to the lack of offense, the discomforting feeling that if this trend continued in the World Series then the Phils historic futility of having garnered but one series championship in 125 years would have yet another season tacked on to the frustration.

Oh make no mistake, win or lose, this seasons edition of the Philadelphia Phillies has turned into an absolute joy to follow. It is nearly impossible not to take a liking to the players on this team, they are so clearly defined by not only their personalities but in the respect they have for playing the game the right way. Of course, this didn't happen by accident, but instead was constructed as a blueprint production drawn up by the Master Artist, retiring General Manager Pat Gillick, way back in the summer of 2006.

Gillick decided to make his youngsters, hard nosed athletes like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino and Aaron Rowand the centerpiece of this artistry and with the exception of the recently departed Rowand, the central cast of characters has made the canvassed painting an overwhelming work of art.

Still, the painting needs the finishing touches of a World Championship to truly be deemed an everlasting classic piece of work. Unfortunately, if Mssrs. Howard, Burrell, Rollins, Utley and Werth don't begin to display the offensive hardware that they regularly showed during the season, Gillick's final masterpiece will have been left unfinished. Yes, this has what it has come down to in PhillieLand today.

Up to now, the lack of consistent offense has been largely unnoticed due to the outstanding pitching efforts of hurlers like Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Joe Blanton, J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson and Bead Lidge. Their performances have masked the deficiencies that have resulted in a grand total of only 45 runs scored in 11 games against the likes of the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays. Alarmingly, this reminds long time Phillie watchers of those hitting demons from 1976-78 who continued to slip up in the playoffs by mysteriously misplacing their bats immediately upon entering the precipice of baseball fame and fortune.

Interestingly enough, those teams played a total of 11 games over a 3 year period [losing 9 of them] and scored but 41 runs during that stretch, numbers remarkably similar to those put up so far by the Class of 2008. Oh, and make no mistake, the teams of the mid 70's were every bit the Broad Street Brawlers that are on full display with this seasons squad.

Players like the slugging duo of Greg Luzinski and Mike Schmidt at their best, Richie Allen, Richie Hebner, Garry Maddox, Bake Mcbride, Jay Johnstone, Dave Cash, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone and Davy Johnson composed the offensive nucleus for those teams and yet they too seemed to fall into an offensive state of sleep walking once the regular season turned its attention to the pressure packed Octoberfest known as the National League playoffs.

Not until 1980 were the Ghosts of Failed Playoffs Past put to rest by Schmidt and Co. with an offensive performance that was at least passable and certainly clutch at almost every occasion necessary. Unsung performers like Del Unser, Greg Gross, Manny Trillo and Keith Moreland forever earned their way into the hearts and minds of Phillie faithful forever with their strong offensive "performance under fire" capabilities in support of leading actors like Schmidt, Mcbride, Luzinski and the ever present Pete Rose.

This years squad has also talked of ghosts, and about exorcising them forever. Not only the Ghost of the World Champion 1980 team but also of perhaps the most popular Phillie team in the past 30 years, the 1993 team that ultimately and yet heroically lost that seasons World Series. For a franchise and city that has rarely enjoyed the opportunity to toast its baseball heroes, those two teams have stood in stark contrast to many of the abject failed teams of the past 125 seasons.

Until now. Until this team captured the hearts and minds of an adoring populace by displaying a mental toughness not often seen on the stages of Philadelphia baseball lore. Certain the 1950 team had it, and the eventually cursed squad of 1964 showed it in spades until the final 12 games of the ill-crossed campaign. A strong case can be made for both the 1980 and 1993 teams, though both were as much about pure athletic talent as it was any hint of mental toughness.

Not so this team. Oh, they are certainly good enough, as their berth in the World Series surely must attest. Yet there are those in New York with the Mets who undoubtedly feel the better team lost the NL East and it would be hard to convince any die hard Chicago Cub fan that their team didn't deserve a series berth more than the upstart Phillies. Los Angeles dreams of a rematch with the Phils and Milwaukee can only wish that CC Sabathia and Game 5 could have been a reality.

No, there is more to the story of this seasons team than pure talent, though talented they are. More aptly, it is a team so mentally tough that they never once succumbed to the frustration that often marked their frustrated phans during that mediocre three month stretch during the middle of the season that was checkered by inconsistency and bad luck. That they remained focused on the prize is a tribute to the leadership of players like Rollins and Utley as well as the wise stewardship of Manager Charlie Manuel.

Charlie Manuel, or Cholly as he is affectionately called, captained the Goodship Chollypop with precision and a plan, and both are now nearing fruition. Only three more wins and Manuel and team's season long goal of a World Championship will become reality. Of course, this begs the question of just how carefully will Manuel need to guide his ship through the murky and often choppy seas filled with dangerous Rays named Upton and Longoria and Price.

Clearly, this Tampa Bay Rays club is no "fish out of water" opponent for the Phillies, a fact that was more than borne out by their performance in the first two games of the series. In fact, both teams could rightfully lay claim to a justification that both games belonged to them. The Phils won the opening game, 3-2, because of a first inning home run by Chase Utley and the herculean pitching efforts of Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson and still perfect closer Brad Lidge. The Rays came back in the second game, 4-2, by showing the same determination, talent and good luck that has marked their season up to this point.

The results thus far suggest a series likely to decided by just which team more closely plays to the strengths put on daily display during the regular season. For the Rays, there year was defined by the solid pitching efforts of their young foursome of Jamie Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and Andy Sommanstine as well as the timely hitting of Now Ready for Prime Time players like B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford. Tampa's finest also has shown an ability to manufacture runs with their outstanding base running and have a deep a versatile bullpen led by the like of Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and recent wunderkind David Price.

The Phillies '08 season has been marked by the unparalleled success of their bullpen [arguably the best in baseball] and a starting pitching staff that has been solid and occasionally outstanding. The bullpen crew of J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin, Scott Eyre, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge has been consistently strong all year and at the end of the season and on into the playoffs the duo of Madson and Lidge have evoked comparisons to the kingly heights of the perhaps the best back to back relievers in baseball history, Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland of the 1996 New York Yankees.

The starting rotation of Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick was dependable and sturdy for the most part and even better down the stretch. As always, the Phillies defense has been superior and the team has, as previously mentioned, been not only focused but amazingly resilient.

Yet,for better or worse, the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies are most clearly defined by their hitting. The numbers are almost staggering in their sheer raw impressive form. As a team the Phils hit 214 regular season home runs and had no less than three players, Howard, Burrell and Utley with 30 or more home runs. Jayson Werth hit over 20 while lesser sluggers like Jimmy Rollins, Pedro Feliz, Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs all hit homers in double figure numbers.

In fact, Chris Coste, Greg Dobbs and Geoff Jenkins, three less wheels in the overall juggernaut cog, all hit 9 home runs during the year. Had they each hit 1 more home run the team as a whole would have had no less than 11 players on a squad of 14 position players with 10 or more home runs. Impressive indeed but no less telling that the 799 runs scored during the entire season by the team. This led to an average of 5 runs scored per game during the 162 game schedule.

Perhaps this is why the playoff average of 4 runs a game is so alarming, and perhaps fatal. This team was built to score and score often, with the starting rotation dutifully turning over a lead to the dominant bullpen on a nightly basis. This was the lesson plan textbook results for 2008 and need to be rediscovered quickly if the series is not to be lost.

Certainly there is no more fascinating theme to the entire World Series production than the subtle but no less important inner battle taking place between Ray's Manager Joe Maddon and Phillie slugger Ryan Howard. Maddon, who has always danced to the beat of his own drummer, is as unconventional as they come and his seeming disrespect for Howard's game changing power is the latest example of this.

Throughout the past three seasons of Ryan Howard's reign as the top home run slugger in baseball, the conventional wisdom was to walk him as much as possible and never to allow him the opportunity to win a game with his bat. The National League routinely took the bat out of Howard's hands whenever possible and left it to the likes of Pat Burrell and Chase Utley to deliver the key offensive blows.

Not so Maddon or his confident crew of hurlers. Rather, they have chosen to fight rather than switch and they have challenged Howard at every turn. Instead, it has been Utley who has been deemed the hitter least likely to see a good pitch in a key situation. This goes against every common baseball axiom for several reasons. Reason number one is that Utley bats immediately in front of the menacing Howard and every time Utley is put on base this presents the Phils with the golden opportunity of picking up at least two runs with one swell swoop of Ryan Howard's powerful swing.

Somewhere between Ryan Howard's magical September success and the first game of the World Series, the Rays advance scouting staff decided that the Rays could successfully tempt fate when it came to facing the Phillie first baseman head up. To his credit, the Phil slugger welcomes the challenge. How he ultimately meets the challenge might well determine the winner of this series.

Should he continue to struggle as he has throughout the playoffs the Phils will continue to watch Chase Utley walk to first base and have their two top offensive weapons successfully neutralized. If, however, Howard begins to hit like the 40 plus home run hitting threat that he is, the entire face of the Phillie lineup becomes revitalized.

With Howard performing as advertised, the pressure becomes less cumbersome for the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino and Greg Dobbs. Chase Utley, perhaps the Phils most dangerous hitter, will then begin to see the fastballs that he is now only imagining and the entire Phillie engine is likely to begin to purr as it did so often during the course of the 2008 campaign.

If, however, Maddon wins this chess game, it likely means that the Rays in only their first ever appearance on stage in a World Series will match the Phils 126 year old record of one Series title. Of this are Fall Classic memories woven. Yes, Joe Maddon vs Ryan Howard might someday rank with the likes of Ralph Terry vs Bill Mazeroski, Joe Carter vs Mitch Williams and Kirk Gibson vs Dennis Eckersley in World Series lore. Stay tuned.

Not that the Maddon vs Howard dual is the sole definition of this series, not by a long shot. In fact, there are many story lines and sub plots within a plot that could make for storybook endings when the games are finally played to conclusion. How poetically just would it be for 45 year old Jamie Moyer to win a World Series with the Phillies after rooting for them during their last championship run in 1980 as a teenager? Can B.J. Upton make post season history with but one more home run, eclipsing the likes of past playoff giants like Barry Bonds and Carlos Beltran? Is Phillie lefty Cole Hamels about to place his name next to Curt Schilling, Whitey Ford, John Smoltz and Jack Morris as among the greatest playoff hurlers of all time with a fifth victory in five starts? Will Evan Longoria culminate a dream campaign with a championship season in his rookie year?

Of this are legends grown and cultivated. Of this are heroes born and nurtured. Yet it is in the unknown quality of said legend or hero that baseball fans everywhere remain enraptured with our National Pastimes greatest and most enduring stage. For Philadelphia Phillie phans, long suffering at the core and passionate to the extreme, the wait for another legend or hero has long been past due payment. They wish to celebrate again with a Broad Street victory parade and their favorite baseball team talking knowingly about wishing to accommodate this desire.

Thus far, the Phillies have succeeded because they have persevered. A writer named Walter Elliot once wrote that "perseverance is not a long race, it is many short races one after another." The Phils persevered to overcome the Mets, outlast the Brewers and overpower the Dodgers. This perseverance will likely play a large role in the eventual outcome against the Rays.

Still, in the end, it will take equal parts perseverance, equal parts talent and more than a fair share of hitting to hoist the second championship flag in Philadelphia's long and sometimes difficult history. The bats have been silent for far too long, it is time for them to awaken as Citizens Bank Park and its friendly home confines beckons. The task is simple, the result as yet unanswered. For the Phillies, a world championship awaits in their ability to answer the question of will they ultimately...hit or miss?

Spring training announcement!! With a World Series yet to be completed it is probably too soon to contemplate a trip to Clearwater with Allen Ariza [aka CD from the Left Coast] at this time. However, I will be leading a trip to see the Phillies play in Clearwater, Florida next March 20-23. We will leave from Philadelphia and have a great time. If you are interested, please request more information by sending an e-mail to SpringTrainingTrip@PhillyBaseballNews.com and more information will be provided.

Thanks in advance.

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



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