It would be difficult to assess the Phillie 2008 season and declare it as exciting and unpredictable as the 2007 edition. For one thing, expectations were higher this year after the photo finish National League East title clinched on the final day of the '07 campaign. For another thing, it rarely seems quite as dramatic the second time around. But make no mistake. As they sit on September 1, 2008, this year's Phillie club seems much more poised to capture what they were able to steal last year, and capture it in a way that could well leave phans with a greater sense of satisfaction than was felt last year.
Or then again, maybe not.
So much depends on just how they handle the twists and turns that make September unlike any other month on the baseball calendar. In many ways, it is an even exciting and unpredictable month than is October, the month of playoffs and world series classics. What is done in September dictates all that can or can't be done in October.
For the Phillies, the choice is clear. Win often enough in September to capture the Eastern crown or go home for the winter and watch teams like the Cubs, Brewers, Mets and Diamondbacks compete for the opportunity to take on the American League champion in this years Octoberfest. Sounds simple enough, and to be honest, it really is. Just win or go home. But in baseball, the simplest of games, it is never as easy as it first appears. So, let's take a look at the Phillie task and examine just how likely they are to accomplish said assignment.
The Phils enter September one game behind the rejuvenated New York Mets and both have but 25 games to play in the next 28 days. The Phightins' are finished with the tough Chicago Cubs while the Mets still have 3 games left with the Cubbies in New York on the final week of the season. This could be important depending on whether or not Chicago has clinched the NL Central or not by then. If current form holds, they will probably still need a few wins to stave off the tough Milwaukee Brewers so those games could be significant.
Speaking of the Brewers, both the Mets and Phils play the Brew Crew in September, the Mets currently meeting them in Milwaukee while Philadelphia has a crucial 4 game series with the Brewers next week in the City of Brotherly Love. Since the acquisition of star lefty CC Sabathia from the Indians, Milwaukee has been as tough as any team in the National League but as fate would have it, Sabathia will not face the Mets and is unlikely to pitch against the Phils either. This is certainly good news for both Eastern rivals as Sabathia is 9-0 right now and looking more and more like a possible candidate for MVP of the entire league.
The Phillies and Mets both have several games with division foes Washington and Atlanta, and it can never be assumed that those won't be difficult games, regardless of their current place in the standings. The Nationals are riding a 6 game winning streak into their meeting with the Phils and the Braves still have a cast of characters like Chipper Jones and Brian McCann which can make any team uncomfortable on any given day.
If there is an edge for the Mets in the schedule it is that they face the Phillies 3 more times this week, at home in New York. The Mets have had a clear advantage over Philadelphia this year, winning 10 of the first 15 games and the Phils must find a way to reverse this trend or the final weeks could be a very difficult uphill climb. How ready is the team for the challenge ahead?
Truth be told, a very unlikely source will likely have to carry the team if they are to repeat as Eastern champions this year. That source is pitching, and specifically starting pitching. The hitting, thought to be the club's strength this season has been sporadic and very inconsistent. The fault has been well chronicled, but worth repeating. The reigning MVP's, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and first baseman Ryan Howard, have not performed offensively as they have the previous two seasons and this has been placed a major burden on lesser lights like Chris Coste, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino.
Both second baseman Chase Utley and left fielder Pat Burrell started strong and helped carry the team through May but have slumped significantly since then for various reasons. Utley has played through a painful hip injury while Burrell has seemingly suffered from yet another slump that seems to bedevil him at various points in nearly every season. Without their consistently powerful bats in the middle of the order producing effectively, the nosedives of both Rollins and Howard have taken on greater significance.
Of course, a sudden resurgence by the team's most prominent four offensive hitters is possible, but the time is now short and it seems more reasonable to assume that a September without a red hot Rollins, Howard or Burrell is more likely than the other way around. Pressure alone makes hitting in September more problematical, not to mention the strain, wear and tear of a long and tiring season. No, if the Phils are to prevail in '08 it is likely that starting pitching will need to carry the day.
Should pitching be needed to carry the day, the Phils certainly seem primed at the top of the rotation with lefty Cole Hamels and righty Brett Myers. Both are healthy, physically and mentally, and look ready, willing and able to take on the roles of Aces 1 and 1A. Hamels leads the league in innings pitched while Myers has been a revelation since his return from the minor leagues in July. With a few days off this month, it is hoped that both Hamels and Myers are used as often as possible within the framework of the five man rotation.
In particular, keep an eye on this Sunday's crucial contest against the Mets. The scheduled starting pitcher is Kyle Kendrick but the sophomore righty has been struggling mightily for about a month now and with Hamels pitching on Tuesday night in Washington, he could and should be called upon to start in such an important game, especially against New York ace, Johan Santana.
It has bothered more than a few Phillie phanatics that Hamels has only started one game thus far against the Mets, while Santana will be starting his sixth game against the Phils. Historically, rotations were set up so the best could face the best, and it behooves manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee to insure that Hamels hurl in that game. Stay tuned.
Speaking of Kendrick, his continued struggles have become a huge concern for the team and if this continues might lead to the resurfacing of lefty J.A. Happ into the rotation. Happ was recalled on Sept. 1 along with fellow hurler Adam Eaton, catcher Lou Marson and speedy outfielder Greg Golson and might just find himself right in the middle of a pennant race soon.
Kyle Kendrick was always a problematical choice to be a mainstay in the rotation because he lacks a strikeout pitch. However, as long as he spotted his pitches well and threw strikes he usually could be counted on to keep the Phils in a ballgame, a game the offense generally found a way to win. No more. With the offense now struggling for the past three months, Kendrick has found it more and more imperative that he hurl deeper into games and with less margin for error.
As with most young pitchers, the less room for error, the greater chance there will be one. Kendrick seems to have lost faith in exactly what made his successful in the first place, a solid command of the strike zone and a sinker that he could almost always throw for strikes. Again, no more. His wildness has caused enemy hitters to wait on a fastball that has never lit up a speed gun with predictable results.
On July 1, Kendrick beat the Atlanta Braves for his eighth win in eleven decisions. Since that day he has seen his record go to 11-8 and watch his ERA balloon to over 5.00. This is not acceptable pitching for a starter involved in a tight pennant race. Should Manuel choose to bypass Hamels for Kendrick on Sunday against Santana and the Mets, he will be opening himself up to the worst kind of second guessing, the kind that often gets a manager fired.
With Hamels and Myers at the top of their game and Kendrick near the bottom of his, the other two starting pitchers, ageless Jamie Moyer and recently acquired Joe Blanton will be counted on to carry their end of the load for the entire month. Again, this is a problematical hope as Moyer has begun to show his age a bit down the stretch while Blanton has yet to show the "innings eater" form that he was reputed to have when brought over from the Athletics five weeks ago.
It is imperative that both Moyer and Blanton find a way to consistently pitch into the seventh inning to save a weary and suddenly struggling bullpen. The recent three game tailspin, which saw the team lose one game to the Mets and two in Chicago was caused almost entirely by a relief core that has had little rest this season.
Righties Chad Durbin and Ryan Madson and lefty J.C. Romero have been called upon far too often thus far and unless they can somehow recharge their September batteries, there will be far too few opportunities to turn over a ninth inning lead to star closer Brad Lidge, he of the 33-33 saves ratio thus far. Unfortunately, the eighth inning has been the teams downfall far too often in August, and it should be noted that this was an inning that injured Tom Gordon excelled at pitching last year. His loss, although hardly lamented by his large contingent of critics, cannot be minimized.
With a manager like Manuel, who uses his bullpen far from judiciously, every healthy arm is important and Gordon's has been sorely missing this season. It will be up to Durbin and Madson to somehow find a way to provide the right handed help that Gordon provided last year. Lefties Romero and newly acquired Scott Eyre look more than ready to offer their solid southpaw slants whenever called upon and this may be an area that the talented lefty Happ can also offer assistance when needed.
Undoubtedly the most valuable member of this years squad has been Brad Lidge, the reliever acquired from Houston in a winter deal and a complete revelation this year out of the bullpen. As previously mentioned, he has been a perfect 33-for-33 in save attempts this year with his devastating slider and a fastball that still touches 93-94 MPH on a good day. September might just be the time to think about using Lidge on an occasional basis in the eighth inning, if only to retire a single batter.
It is a strategy that former Yankee manager Joe Torre employed for years with his ace closer, Mariano Rivera. It is a strategy that might well have served Manuel well recently against the Mets in the game that well could define the season for both clubs. In fact, should the Phils fail to catch the Mets in September, the off season "what ifs" may well focus on the eighth inning last week when Philadelphia led New York 3-2 and had the Mets down to their final four outs.
At the time, the Phillies led the division by half a game after their tremendous comeback from a 7 run deficit the night before and looked fully prepared to take a 1.5 game lead over the emotionally fragile New York team. Manuel had decided before the game to rest Durbin, Madson and Romero after their taxing outings the night before in the 13 inning marathon and instead decided to cast his lot with rested but less effective righty Rudy Seanez.
Seanez in fact did retire the first two hitters in the fateful eighth inning while Lidge warmed up in the bullpen. The dangerous Carlos Delgado beckoned for the Mets, a hitter who has not only been red hot recently but who has "owned" Seanez during the course of their careers. This seemed a perfect time to bring in Lidge, who after all was warming up anyhow. Instead, Manuel allowed Seanez to face Delgado, with predictable results. Delgado tied the game with a home run, and then after Carlos Beltran singled Lidge was brought in.
This seemed a monumental failure on Manuel's part. If Lidge was going to be used in the eighth inning at all, it certainly seemed more appropriate to bring him in to face Delgado while the Phils still lead instead of waiting until the game was tied. The Mets eventually scored 3 more runs and came away with a crucial and morale building 6-3 triumph. September is a month where anything can and will happen but that loss makes the September hill a bit tougher to climb. It appeared the Mets were ready to give up the ghost when they rediscovered life at, for the Phillies, was the most inopportune time.
Yet, if the Phightins' have demonstrated anything at all, it is that they are an amazingly resilient bunch, a trait that served them well in 2007 and has continued to service them this campaign. For as difficult a defeat as the 6-3 loss to the Mets was to digest it in no way detracted from the incredible comeback just the night before when the Phils fought back from a 7-0 deficit to eventually tie the game in the ninth inning and win it in the thirteenth.
Part of that resilience can be attributed to their continued belief that they are still the best team in the National League and that if they play up to expectations, they will eventually prevail. This confidence belies the fact that not once this season has the team climbed more than 14 games above .500 and has usually hovered at about 10 games over the magic mark. This has allowed critics in baseball, and there are plenty of them, to justify their judgment that what the Phils have been for several seasons and continue to be is a team capable of winning between 85-87 games but not more than that.
In fact, it was this exact thought process that General Manager Pat Gillick vowed to change when he took over reigns of the club nearly three seasons ago. He vowed to get the team "five more wins" to the 92 victory plateau, a total that will generally insure a playoff berth. Unless the team somehow finds a way to win 20 games in September, Gillick will leave at the end of the year with his vow unattained, more fodder for the critics who maintain that he did nothing more than "care take" for ownership during the past three years.
While probably an unfair statement, Gillick has left himself open for long term scrutiny simply because he has seemed unable to pull off that one "big" trade that might just elevate his team from pretenders to contenders for a championship. It was duly noted that his latest quest was for a powerful left handed hitter who might help alleviate the pressure put on Utley and Howard to carry the load from the middle of the order. What he found instead was Matt Stairs, a 40 year who was finishing out his campaign as the designated hitter in Toronto.
Admittedly, Stairs can still hit the long ball but his acquisition is a far cry from their attempts to bring in Mark Kotsay from Atlanta. By all accounts, the Phils nearly traded for Kotsay, who would have been a solid outfielder for the team, but lost out to the Boston Red Sox. Not surprisingly, Kotsay is now a starting outfielder in Boston while the best the Phils can hope for is that Stairs will occasionally provide some left-handed pop off the bench.
Along with Stairs, the Phillies brought in two of their best young prospects, catcher Lou Marson and outfielder Greg Golson from Reading and it is players like these two that may well be the greatest legacy that Gillick leaves behind when he relinquishes his position next month. Marson and Golson are only two of many crown jewels that now bedazzle the pharm system, and if Gillick has done anything long lasting it is in his rebuilding of the minor leagues.
Lou Marson is a 22 year old catcher who has leap frogged past another catching prospect, Jason Jaramillo, to the top of the teams list of backstop prospects. Marson recently returned from a successful stint with the US Olympic team and is being rewarded with a recall after a strong .306 season at Reading. Watch for Marson to get occasional work behind the plate in September and to possibly vie for a starting berth with the parent club next year.
The speedy Greg Golson, a former top draft pick in 2004, has slowly but steadily climbed through the Phillie system to finally make it to the big club in his fifth year as a professional. Golson, long considered a "5 tool" player, is an outstanding outfielder who runs and throws very well and is expected to take on the role vacated when Michael Bourn was traded to Houston. Unlike Marson, Golson is not expected to battle for a major league berth at the beginning of 2009 but instead open the campaign at Lehigh Valley in Triple-A. However, a strong start at Lehigh next year could make Golson a candidate for recall by next summer.
Marson and Golson are but two of a plethora of top prospects who had strong seasons in the minor leagues this year, something that bodes well for the future of the club. Other stalwarts who had strong campaigns include pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Joe Savery, Edgar Garcia, Julian Sampson and the aforementioned Happ, infielder Jason Donald, catchers Jaramillo and Travis D'Arnaud and outfielders Michael Taylor, Dominic Brown and Quentin Berry. it is also worth noting that the team had an exceptional draft this June and many of those players contributed mightily to the Rookie League Gulf Coast Phillie championship recently.
Still, most of these are names for a future not yet more than a mist in the distance. For players with uncertain futures like Pat Burrell and Jamie Moyer it is better that they be reminded of the words of former President Abraham Lincoln who recalled that "the best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time." One day at a time, one precious day.
True enough, but the days are now dwindling to a precious few and for a confident but precarious band of Philadelphia Phillies, each day becomes that much more important. Each victory is to be appreciated and each loss more amplified for a team now about to enter...into the stretch.
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