The names read like a veritable Who's Who of key Phillie players. All-Star second baseman Chase Utley. Middle inning relief specialist Ryan Madson. Speedy offensive catalyst outfielders Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn. Backup catcher Rod Barajas. Recently acquired starting pitcher Kyle Lohse. Six key players, no less than 24 percent of the entire major league roster. And all injured within an eight day period beginning on July 26.
As if this were not enough, these names must be added to the list that has at one time or another included pitchers Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, Brett Myers, Tom Gordon and Scott Mathieson as well as slugging first baseman Ryan Howard. Yet, through it all this team has somehow persevered, though they appear to be entering what could be their toughest stretch of the season due to the schedule and the nature of the injuries.
The latest road victory against the Milwaukee Brewers was still another example of the amazing perseverance of this team. Down 6-0 at the tail end of a weeklong road trip, and still trailing by five runs in the ninth inning, the Phightins not only came off the deck to make the game interesting but grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat with an improbable, nearly impossible rally against the stunned Brew Crew.
Yet during the next several weeks the team will enter what is less than charitably known as the Dog Days of August, a period when the beginning of the season seems forever faded in the past yet the end of the season still appears light years away. Add to that the hottest month of the year and a schedule that can only be called brutal and it would surprise few phans if the Phils soon folded up their tents, packed their seemingly insufficient bags, and bravely call it a season and leave the safety of the fort.
However, before anyone should suggest the raising of a white flag, it might best be served to take another peek through those binoculars, admittedly still a bit dusty and out of focus after all of the mayhem. Take a closer look off into the distance. Oh, the view is hardly clear, and the sunshine has yet to completely rise above the mountain shadows, but if one squints and focuses just a bit...
Yes, there it is! Reinforcements are on the way, and have actually been providing steady relief for quite some time. When the regular squad returns from sick leave, this battered and bruised Phillie club might still become a force to fear before the season ends.
Admittedly, this view takes some getting used to, what with all the rubble still lying around after the almost daily rash of injured players but it is true nonetheless. Incredibly, the team has dug deep within their bag of cavalry reinforcements and found enough ready supplies within their on sight wagons to hold the fort, at least for the time being.
Kyle Kendrick and J.D. Durbin have provided the club with nine wins since June and arguably have been more effective than was Garcia or Lieber when they were starting. Chris Roberson and Jayson Werth have at least provided a decent interpretation of Victorino and Bourn, albeit on a less dazzling basis. And perhaps even the most damaging of injuries has somehow taken on a silver lining, if linings can ever be silver when tinged with the tears of a once again frustrated PhillieLand phandom.
The loss of Chase Utley seem incalculable but into the breach has stepped infielder Tadahito Iguchi, acquired from the Chicago White Sox, and he has been nothing short of a revelation since taking over for the injured All-Star. In fact, his skills have become so apparent that the talk is now of moving him to third base once Utley returns later this month.
Should Utley continue his form upon his return, and if Iguchi makes the transfer across the diamond in reasonable fashion, the team will find itself with an ever deeper bench not to mention an even stronger starting lineup than the one that proceeded the acquisition of Gooch. In fact, there are already whispers within the ranks that Iguchi is a keeper and might just be offered a contract once the season ends instead of letting him leave as a free agent when the campaign ends.
Happily, the news on all three players, Utley, Victorino and Bourn was relatively positive and the trio should all return to action sometime in mid-August. When this happens, the team's depth will only be that much stronger. The key is holding on until then, and circling the wagons.
As for Madson, the news is somewhat less clear. His arm injury strangely resembles that of his friend and teammate, Brett Myers, and that injury eventually kept the mercurial Myers out of action for two months. Madson's injury is expected to keep him out until early September, at which time he will hopefully contribute to continues to be a very inconsistent and temperamental bullpen.
Of course, the road to Octoberland still seems a long shot at best, given the recent acquisitions of division rivals, New York and Atlanta, but nevertheless there continue to be signs of a team that will be capable of matching wits with both of these talented clubs on a yearly basis. In other words, far from hearing a discouraging word, let me recount the factors that scream out Encouraged!
No player in Phillie red has been more impressive since July 1 than has been Pat Burrell. Ironically enough, the cries from the Philadelphia rafters all month were to move him for a song...even an off tune one! Yet, through all the wails and frustration, something strange and almost surreal began to take place. Plainly put, Pat the Bat began to hit like he hadn't since his first few seasons in pro ball, when he was widely considered to be a superstar bat in the making.
Long time Phillie phans are keenly aware of Burrell's resume. Truth be told, he was merely considered by many to be the greatest collegiate hitter of all time. Yes, better than Dave Winfield. Yes, better than J.D. Drew. And, yes, even better than Robin Ventura, a storied college batsman who once had a long consecutive games hitting streak that seemed without end.
Pat Burrell, signed in 1998 as the top draft pick in the nation, is a skilled hitter who combined the power of Mark McGwire with the keen and trusted eye of Tony Gwynn. Most scouts viewed him as a player who would routinely hit .300 with over 30 home runs and 110-120 RBI. Almost no one expected him to struggle as a hitter, especially at the depths that he eventually sunk.
His troubles began in 2003, and that trouble was spelled Larry Bowa. For whatever reason, Bowa chose that season to slowly tear away at the very fabric of Burrell's confidence, and the fact that he suddenly was being compared to new teammate Jim Thome did nothing to help matters.
When he was pulled for a pinch-hitter in August of '03 with the bases loaded in a tie game by Bowa, he was not only humiliated, but finished emotionally that year. It was quite telling that when he finally did hit another home run in New York he refused to shake hands with the tempestuous Bowa.
The following seasons saw injuries to his wrist and foot, ailments that many suspect lasted much longer than was publicly announced. In fact, the suspicion is that current Manager Charlie Manuel knew of these injuries and tried to aid the healing process with almost nightly use of pinch runners and defensive replacements, sometimes as early as the seventh inning.
The feeling is that Manuel's savvy finally, almost inexorably, helped Burrell to heal and the team and phans are now seeing the "real" Pat Burrell. Since his low of .201 on July 1, Burrell has been hitting over .450 for over a month with 9 home runs and 28 RBI in his last 29 games.
Equally impressive is his base on balls to strikeout ratio, with the slugging left fielder continuing to walk at a faster clip than his strikeout totals. This demonstrates that A] he is seeing the ball well, and B] that he is no longer being fooled by those nasty down and away sliders that he consistently flailed away at during the past three years. Not coincidentally, a bad wrist or painful foot makes a check swing quite difficult to navigate, and perhaps those now healed injuries have allowed him to hold up on his swing more easily.
Phillie phans can delight in the thoughts of a 3-4-5 trio of triumphant sluggers soon when Utley returns to the lineup and forms with Howard and Burrell to probably compose a deadly middle of the order threesome. No doubt, skeptical Phil phans are preparing for the next Burrell slump but it says here that if he stays healthy, that slump will be merely be a speed bump and not a roadblock to his future career.
Another reason for optimism is the play of Iguchi and the hurling of Kendrick and Durbin. Tadahito Iguchi has been nothing short of spectacular since taking over for the injured Utley, and his whirling dervish style of play fits in well with the likes of players like Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Rowand, Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino and Chris Coste.
General Manager Pat Gillick deserves special kudos for acquiring such a talented player so quickly, and whether or not it was he or the White Sox who made the first phone call seems irrelevant at this point. The only thing that would seem to matter is that Iguchi is Gillick's type of player and should help keep the team afloat until the injured players return.
Watch for the Phils to consider playing Gooch at third base in September and should this prove successful, the Phils might just be inclined to keep him as the starting third sacker in 2008 while allowing Abraham Nunez to leave and possibly finding a new residence for Wes Helms.
Admittedly, the Phillie pitching staff has been more than just an eyesore nearly the entire season and continues to struggle as summer reaches its peak. Yet, rookies Kyle Kendrick and J.D. Durbin have provided some solace and hope with their performances to date. Durbin has been less consistent than has been Kendrick but still has four straight victories to his credit, including a sterling 9-0 shutout in San Diego a few weeks ago.
As for Kendrick, he continues to improve and has kept the team in every game he has started. Although possibly a new name to some, Kendrick had a wonderful pedigree coming into professional baseball and many Phillie scouts thought it was merely a matter of time before he put all of his considerable skills together. It would seem that that time is now.
Kendrick has won five games to this point and easily could have two or three more. In fact, a strong case can be made that next to lefty Cole Hamels, he is the best starting pitcher on the staff. Jamie Moyer has been wildly inconsistent and Adam Eaton a miserable disappointment.
As previously mentioned, Garcia and Lieber have been hurt and even newcomer Kyle Lohse was injured in the very first inning of his first start with the club and must be graded with a large question mark for the time being. If Lohse misses a start, Durbin will step into the breach, at least in the short term.
Again though, if the club can somehow maintain their direction, reinforcements will soon be on the way. Madson should return and help in the bullpen and another hurler, not even expected to pitch this season could enter the fort just in time to help with the wagon train.
Scott Mathieson, a very talented right-hander, suffered a major arm injury last September and is only recently throwing again. The news has been completely positive and he might soon pitch in a minor league rehab assignment with the goal of returning to action in Philadelphia when the rosters expand on September 1.
Make no mistake, Mathieson is a major talent, and one who could help fortify the bullpen during those hair raising and treacherous twists and turns of September inter division games against the Mets and Braves. Those head to head match-ups may well dictate which of the three clubs survives the September and plays on in October.
Another hurler who could eventually be heard from when the cavalry eventually comes is lefty J.A. Happ, a very talented if still unproven hurler now toiling in Triple-A. The Phils might well need the services of this tall and lanky lefty to get out an occasional southpaw swinger in September and his is another name to remember. The same might be said about fellow lefty Fabio Castro, an impressive young lefty who might even earn a start or two if he continues to pitch well at Ottawa.
There is a term called "critical mass" which loosely translated means that moment when all which has occurred to that point suddenly causes a profound altering of that which has been happening up to then. It seemed for all the world that for the Philadelphia Phillies, "critical mass" might well have occurred on that night in Chicago when both Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn went down with severe injuries in the same game.
Up to that point, the Phils seemed to withstand major blows to Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers, Ryan Howard and even Chase Utley with a resilience and fortitude that is both admirable and rare. Yet, even the most optimistic might well have felt that the injuries to both Phillie right fielders spelled the end of the team's season as contenders in the National League East...their "critical mass."
Yet, instead, of folding up their tents and waving the white flags, the team instead chose the moment of most resistance to shock the Milwaukee Brewers with a rally that not only won a game but possibly saved a season. The wagons, with the leathers torn and frayed and the wheels bent and broken, seemed incapable of protecting the team from the injury enemy much longer.
More so, the few healthy and able bodied of the troops seemed finally to have accepted their fates, albeit reluctantly. Instead, they seem to have found renewed strength and vigor for the still long and difficult path ahead, a path guaranteed to have dangerous terrain in Florida, Washington, New York and Atlanta.
Author Harry Kemp once observed that "The poor man is not he who is without a cent, but he who is without a dream." Indeed, for a gutty, if undermanned Phillie team, that dream continues for yet another day with reinforcements soon on the way. Should the likes of Werth, Roberson, Iguchi, Kendrick and Durbin continue to play as if they understand the dreams of veterans like Rollins, Rowand, Burrell and Howard, Philadelphia may yet see its first playoff games in October since 1993.
Until then, though, it will behoove those players, along with the rest of the PhillieLand crew of healthy teammates to bundle up their supplies of bats and balls, protect their gear and gloves from hostile elements, and make sure to work in harmony as they strive to keep pace and...circle the wagons.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast