A week ago this final trip into southern waters looked as if it might mean little more than one last chance to swim a final lap against the Marlins before finishing their roller coaster season at home against Atlanta and Washington. Ironically enough, it was these very same Marlins who had seemingly plugged the Phillies playoff air tanks by taking 2 of 3 games at Citizens Bank Park on September 8-10. Those three losses pushed the Philadelphia Nine a daunting 3.5 games behind the seemingly streaking New York Mets.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to the off-season. The Phils seemingly found their mojo just when it seemed it was lost forever and swept the Milwaukee Brewers in four straight games. This unlikely quartet of victories caused a domino effect of actions. It not only placed the Brewers playoffs hopes in perilous danger, but also cost Brew Crew manager Ned Yost his job, an unheard of event considering that Yost had guided his team into playoff contention for the past five months.
The sweep also caused considerable consternation in New York, where the Mets suddenly found winning to once again become more difficult once they saw the Phillies closing the gap quickly in the rear view mirror. A once comfortable lead and a countdown to the playoffs suddenly became an agonizing race to the end with the Phils and Mets neck and neck to the finish line. For the Phillies, an unlikely opportunity to finally have destiny in their own hands, something the Mets have been unable to handle to this point.
Yet no Phillie historian would dare call the race as good as won for a Philadelphia team that has long suffered more than just stomach cramps when entering Marlin infested waters this late in the campaign. It behooves the team to have more than just life jackets on hand for this weekend series as they will be facing a team that A] has been white hot lately with both the bats and the arms and still has long shot but real aims at a playoff berth themselves and B] a quiet confidence that they have shown a consistent ability to beat the Phillies in head to head battle, having won 9 of the previous 15 contests.
Still, Philadelphia is more than equipped to handle the pressure, and indeed have been nearly as hot as the Marlins over the past week. No hitter on earth has put up better numbers for the past month than has former MVP Ryan Howard as he makes a belated but very real bid to capture his second Most Valuable Player award in the past three seasons. His power numbers are beginning to dwarf the efforts of other competitors as both phans and opponents alike begin to realize that they may be witnessing a "once every generation" player of astounding grace and power.
In fact, Howard, with his plus 45 home runs and 130 RBI, has entered the rarefied atmosphere of former baseball giants like Babe Ruth [eight times] and Lou Gehrig [four times] in the number of seasons with those offensive numbers. Keep in mind that Howard has done this in 2008 for the third straight time, and has only played three full seasons in the major leagues. Should he keep this up for a few more years his name will have to be placed with some of the greatest power hitting legends the game has ever known, names that have never been associated with baseball's steroid era, when numbers will forever be scrutinized with a somewhat skeptical eye.
No, Ryan Howard is the real deal and has almost single handedly carried the team on his collective back for much of August and the entire month of September. Of course his efforts, however gargantuan they have been, have not been done in a vacuum. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins has finally begun to play like the whirling dervish catalyst who won the 2007 National League MVP award. Pitchers Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and reliever Brad Lidge have delivered consistently outstanding performances to bulwark the club's pitching staff while outfielder Jayson Werth and catcher Carlos Ruiz have delivered key hits on an almost nightly basis.
Should the Phils find a way to make it into the Octoberfest Playoff Hunt they seem particularly well poised to make some noise after exiting with merely a whimper last fall in three straight defeats against the eventual NL Champion Colorado Rockies. With outfielder Geoff Jenkins available to hit if not play the field, the team is nearly at full strength, despite nagging injuries that have bothered second baseman Chase Utley and third sacker Pedro Feliz. Add to that the experience factor of the playoff pressure of 2007 and this seasons team seems well equipped to face potential adversaries like the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and either the Brewers or Mets.
Ironically enough the Phightins' have faced all four potential playoff opponents in the past month and have fared well against all of them. They recently swept both the Dodgers and Brewers in four game series at home and split a very difficult four game series in Chicago a few weeks ago. The Mets have proven to be a difficult foe throughout the campaign but in their most recent series, a must win three-game set in New York the Phils won two of the three. So, none of these foes would enter any playoff series against Philadelphia with a decided personnel or mental advantage.
Not so the Florida Marlins and this is precisely why this weekends three-game confrontation takes on such significance for both teams. For the Phillies, it is a chance to put an exclamation point on their final road trip of the season and end whatever hopes the Fish have of somehow entering the playoffs as the Rockies did last year. For Florida, it is an opportunity to not only continue their season long mastery of Philadelphia but also deal a potential death knell blow to the Phillies playoff hopes while possibly prolonging their own.
Ever since 2002 the Florida Marlins have proven to be more than a mere nuisance to whatever goals the Phils hoped to achieve, whether or not either one of the teams was in a playoff race. In 2002, it was the Marlins last game victory in extra innings that prevented Larry Bowa's crew from achieving a .500 season, a goal that Bowa and Company publicly admitted was very much on their minds.
In 2003 the two teams met in a crucial three-game series late in the season in Florida with both teams in playoff contention. The Marlins swept the Phils and knocked them out of the playoffs completely. In 2005 and 2006 Florida won key late season games against the Phils at most inopportune times to derail Phillie playoff aspirations and even last season, when the Phillies finally ended years of frustration by winning the NL East it was the Marlins who not only made things more difficult for the Phils early in September but finally vanquished the Mets two of three on the final weekend of the season to put the Phillies in the winners seat.
All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla admitted as much last week in Philadelphia when he acknowledged that his team would like nothing better than to take down any potential playoff club that they faced during the rest of the season. So far they have effectively knocked the formerly red hot Houston Astros out of the playoff picture and hope to do the same with not only the Phillies this weekend but the Mets next weekend in New York. Talent wise they are quite capable of just such dreams.
Obscurity is a doubled edged sword when it comes to proud professionals. On the one hand, it keeps an other-wise pressure packed situation on the fringes of significance and often times allows players to more easily perform at a more comfortable pace. On the other hand, every player or team occasionally wishes to be in the proverbial "Fish Bowl" and receive recognition for both their talents and their accomplishments. If these descriptions fit any team in major league baseball today, then obscurity thy name is Florida Marlins.
Few fans outside of the Sunshine State fully recognize what a solid core of players the Marlins have at their disposal. In fact, they are so offensively powerful that they have been leading the National League in home runs for almost the entire campaign, a fact little known to many otherwise baseball insiders. Their strong combination of youth and talent should bode well for the future of the franchise, but in fact it is this rare combination that is likely to lead to their dismantling.
Players like Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Cody Ross, Jorje Cantu, Mike Jacobs, Jeremy Hermida and Josh Willingham form one of the most outstanding young combinations of player talent in the major leagues, but herein lies not only their blessing but their curse. The Marlins are player rich and cash flow poor and are forever having to trade off top notch talent at 50 cents on the dollar merely to stay afloat financially.
As recently as about a month ago, ownership once again warned a weary Florida fan base that if the team did not soon receive funds for a new stadium they would once again be forced to mortgage off much of the young talent, including players like Uggla, Hermida and Willingham. In fact, all three were already mentioned in trade rumors up to the trading deadline on July 31 of this year before the Fish decided to see if they could make one more playoff push during the campaign.
It remains to be seen when the season ends what happens to the players but they are keenly aware that their days together could well be numbered and they seem determined to end the year not with a whimper but a bang. The individual power numbers for these players is quite impressive, even by Philadelphia like standards. Mega star shortstop Hanley Ramirez has 32 home runs and has scored well over 100 runs while Mike Jacobs has also hit 32 homers. Jorge Cantu, a regular Phillie nemesis, has hit 28 home runs and knocked in 90 RBI while Uggla has 30 home runs, Cody Ross has 21 and Jeremy Heredia has 16. Even Josh Willingham, in much less action due to injuries, has hit 11.
Clearly this is a team that need be reckoned with offensively for Phillie starting hurlers, Brett Myers, Joe Blanton and Marlin-killer Jamie Moyer. These are the pitchers counted on to keep the Good ship Chollypop afloat this weekend, and allow the team to enter the final home stand in first place, or at least within easy distance of it.
Myers has been a revelation since his return from the minor leagues back in July and has been one of the five most dominant starting pitchers in the National League for the past month. Even so, the Marlins dealt him one of his few defeats since his return from minor league exile last week, 7-3, though the score was padded by a three-run outburst against the Phillie bullpen in the ninth inning. Still, the Marlins hit Myers with enough regularity to insure that he will need to be at the very top of his game when he goes fishing on Friday night.
His opponent will be the same hurler who defeated him in Philadelphia, right-hander Josh Johnson [5-1].
Johnson has been nearly as dominant as has Myers during the past two months after recovering from serious off-season arm surgery. In fact, the return of both he and Saturday's starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez in late July were two of the reasons that many baseball scouts picked the Fish to overtake both the Phillies and Mets in the top heavy NL Eastern Division race this year. Bullpen woes have kept that from happening but both Johnson and Sanchez normally are at the top of their games in Florida and will likely give the Phils all they can handle during the first two games of the series.
It would seem to behoove the Phils to win one of the first two at least in order to turn the final game pitching chores over to ageless lefty Jamie Moyer, a pitcher with a storied history of success against Florida. Moyer's lifetime record against Florida is 10-1 although admittedly that defeat came in his last stint against them, 8-2. It was interesting that before that game the Marlin players were insistent that they would finally end the Moyer Curse that day and in fact, they did. Now it will be up to the Phillie southpaw to insure that his losing streak to Florida ends at one and allows the Phillies to head north for home on a winning note.
Rookie Chris Volstad, a former first round draft pick in 2005, will oppose Moyer on Sunday. He carries a 5-3 record into the contest and has been hurling quite effectively of late, including a 3-0 shutout of Cole Hamels and the Phillies last month in the City of Brotherly Love. Speaking of Hamels, while it may be advantageous to the Marlins to miss the Phillie ace lefty in this series, the same can be said for the Phils fortuitous missing of righty Ricky Nolasco who pitched on Wednesday against the Astros.
Certainly any naysayer would remind any and all Phillie phanatic that these three games against the Marlins are unlikely to be the end all, be all in PhillieLand this season. Ahead lie six potential pitfall games at home against the veteran Atlanta Braves and the pesky Washington Nationals. Any and all of these games will prove crucial during a race that is likely to go down to the final day of the season, with the Phillies, Mets and Brewers vying to join the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers for the remaining two playoff positions.
The Mets have four potentially difficult games at home against the Cubs and three grand Shea Stadium finales against these very same Florida Marlins. That is a seven game stand fraught with land mines. The Brewers have three more games against the Cubs at home to finish the season as well as a three games this weekend in Cincinnati. So it is not just the Phillies who must play at the top of their game or find themselves soon playing no more.
All three teams have reason to justify their hope that 2008 is their year, with stars like CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana, Ryan Howard and Brett Myers leading the way. Indeed, John Marshall once remarked that "if there is hope in the future, there is power in the present." And it is that very "present" that the Philadelphia Phillies must focus on if there is to "hope in the future."
Currently, that present lies in the schedule which indicates a weekend journey to Florida's South Shores and a three game toe-to-toe with the Florida Marlins. Safely on shore, the Phillies enter the fray with all the preparations necessary to insure that they pass with flying colors this most difficult and possibly final test in the seasons...swimming lessons.
Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast