October 28, 2009

Glory days.

"Yeah, they'll pass you by...in the wink of a young girl's eye."
-Bruce Springsteen
The Philadelphia Phillies versus the New York Yankees.

It's the kind of matchup Phillies fans have dreamed of all year. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte and Pedro Martinez, AJ Burnett and Cole Hamels.

Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Derek Jeter.

Mariano Rivera. Brad Lidge.

Will the Phillies pull it out? As someone who's seen their perseverance, their professionalism, their undying patience and their skill day-in and day-out in 2009, yes.

As someone who knows the sport of baseball, understands the unpredictability of a postseason series and has a working knowledge of how good the Yankees can be, honestly, who knows.

Everyone is picking the Yankees, sure, but Yankees in six, Yankees in seven. That's a long series, and if it truly comes down to one game, and that game turns out to be a rematch of Lee and Sabathia, who could possibly predict the outcome with even the slightest bit of certainty?

These are two very good teams. They smack a lot of homers, they have top-heavy starting rotations and there are still a few question marks in their bullpens.

I hope this series stretches until next week, and I hope it's won because one team outlasts the other. The Angels flubbed countless chances (and pop flies) against the Yankees in the ALCS, and the Dodgers (again) looked overmatched by a team way out of their league. I want to see torturous games, games survived by only the truly best team.

In all honesty, making the World Series two years in a row is an accomplishment in and of itself. This Phillies team is one we'll never forget, that's for sure.

But now that we're back, and now that we're up against the most storied franchise in American sporting history, well, why not win again?

Jimmy Rollins says the Phillies will win in five. I find that overly optimistic. But six sounds just right. And even though I just questioned how this series could be predicted with any certainty, well, I'm in no way certain. But I know the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies sure look like world champions to me.

Philadelphia Phillies in six. Now let's do it to it, let's get this party started.

October 22, 2009

So young and in love.

They've said this is the best Philadelphia Phillies team of all time. I can't vouch for that.

Some have even said it's the best Philadelphia sports team ever. I certainly can't vouch for that, either.

But I will say this -- I've never loved a sports team like I love these Philadelphia Phillies.

"These Philadelphia Phillies" are, of course, the Howard/Utley/Rollins/Werth/Victorino/Ruiz/Hamels/Madson core that has won three straight division titles, two straight National League Championships and one (and counting) World Series.

Other faces, such as Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee, Brett Myers, J.C. Romero, Chan Ho Park, Aaron Rowand, Brad Lidge and Pat Burrell have provided invaluable contributions. Davey Lopes has commanded the running game, Rich Dubee has handled the arms, Milt Thompson the bats, and Charlie Manuel has done the unthinkable: become the best manager in Phillies history.

There are a few faces I don't miss. Tom Gordon was money...until his arm fell off halfway through 2006, one-sixth of the way through his contract. Adam Eaton and Freddy Garcia would be wise never to show their faces in Philadelphia again. And despite my friend "Coach" Foran's constant chanting, Abraham Nunez was never quite the "M-V-P!"

But I love Ryan Howard's monster homeruns. I love Jayson Werth's good eye, Jimmy Rollins's defense and Chase Utley's everything. I love how no ball is out of Shane Victorino's reach, how no pitch escapes the glove, the chest, the something of Carlos Ruiz. I still love Cole Hamels's changeup, even though it's taking 2009 off. I love that Ryan Madson has embraced the bullpen.

Right now, in 2009, I love every member of this team. After seeing Miguel Cairo look beyond awkward in left field during the NLDS, I even re-love Eric Bruntlett. There's a place in my heart for Scott Eyre, for Ben Francisco, especially for the rejuvenated Chad Durbin.

Even when they were winning, sometimes by six or seven runs, 2008 was a nailbiter of a season. Until they finally did it, won it all, we didn't think it could be done. Hell, when asked for my prediction in every series until the 2009 NLCS (minus the NLDS's, of course), I picked the opposing team. Yes, I even picked the Rays. I was waiting for the fun to stop, the magic to run out. I thought it was inevitable.

But this last series, I said, "Phillies in six." And it turned out that even my newfound optimism ended up shortchanging the Phils, although this time in a much more acceptable way.

If you don't believe in the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies, you haven't been watching how this has all played out. Their development from "division winners" to "surprise World Champions" to "unbeatable, never-say-die defending champs" is something out of a movie, or a book. It's perfect; it's what all sports fans want their teams to be. To come together as a unit, to put aside personal goals (as much as baseball players, participants in the most individual of sports, can do so) and unite for a common goal; it doesn't happen anymore.

This team wasn't bought, except for Ibanez, Park and maybe, kinda, Cliff Lee. They were castoffs from other organization, homegrown minor leaguers, reclamation projects and role players. But they all found a home here, and while some have matured in line with expectations, others have blown even the loftiest projections out of the water.

But no matter where they came from or how they got here, they've become ours. In a city starved for winners, they've more than satisfied our hunger. They turned a diehard Eagles town into a passionate baseball haven, where standing room World Series tickets are $500 or more, and they've spread their seed throughout the land. Phillies hats have even been popping up on the streets of Brookline, Red Sox Central, where I now make my home.

But perhaps the most endearing moment took place last night. "Lackluster celebration," a friend said to me, in regards to the televised portion of the Phillies' NLCS victory party. But that's just what I wanted to see -- there's more work to be done. Getting back to the Series further ensures that we'll be treated like an elite team, but beating the Yankees, well, that would make us the unquestioned best. The best right now, possibly the best of the entire decade. That's the only level the Phillies haven't reached yet, and it's not far out of reach.

I could watch, write about, think about this Philadelphia Phillies team for hours. And I often do. They've already won our hearts, put themselves in the record books, become household names, achieved things most fans will never forget. But over the next two weeks, they can make all of America take notice; they can shove themselves down the country's throat. The Phillies are the best team in baseball, and in two weeks, I hope everyone knows it.

October 19, 2009

Local hero.

I said the Philadelphia Phillies would need terrific starting pitching to win the 2009 National League Championship Series.

Well, Pedro Martinez came through. And Cole Hamels didn't.

But somehow I forgot, or neglected to mention, or just plain failed to give the necessary credit to one Cliff Lee. And that's just plain wrong.

Cliff Lee struck out 10 batters in Game 3 of the NLCS. Cliff Lee is 2-0 in the 2009 postseason with a 0.74 ERA. Cliff Lee even stole a base last week.

Simply put, when discussing the heroes of the playoffs thus far, it's necessary to mention Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz. It's downright criminal to disregard the record-breaking Ryan Howard.

But, more than anyone else, make sure you pay homage to Cliff Lee.

Cole Hamels was the love child of the 2008 postseason, and his numbers were worse than what The General has been dealing. Not worse meaning "bad", but worse because, frankly, its almost inconceivable to pitch better.

With luck, we won't see him again until the World Series. Randy Wolf seems like a poor matchup for the Phillies tonight, but then again, so did Hiroki Kuroda. And we DEFINITELY won't see Kuroda-san again this year.

The series should be 3-0. Instead, it's 2-1. A sweep in the Championship Series is almost too much to ask for, anyway. But it's becoming apparent to everyone (hopefully, even the Dodgers themselves) that a divide exists between these two teams. One looks like they're championship-caliber. The other one, not so much.

And that divide exists in part, was created, was forged out of sixty feet, six inches and five pitches by Clifton Phifer Lee.

October 15, 2009

Prove it all night.

To win the 2009 National League Championship Series, the Philadelphia Phillies are going to have to come up big in Games 1 and 2.

Clichéd? You bet.

But it's true.

Our Game 1 starter is Cole Hamels, 2008's golden boy but the definition of mediocrity in 2009. His five-inning, four-run start in Game 2 of the NLDS was either the continuation of a subpar season or the result of his mind being elsewhere: His wife went into labor with their first child during the game. Take your pick; either way, he was not the Octoberized version of Hamels we were expecting.

And our Game 2 starter is Pedro Martinez. Pedro threw a 130-pitch gem on September 13th, dazzling the New York Mets on Sunday Night Baseball and winning over the hearts of Phillies fans everywhere. And then, of course, his body fell apart. He only pitched seven innings the rest of the year; we haven't seen him on a mound since September 30th. Just the man you want starting a crucial NLCS road game, huh?

They'll be opposed by lefty Clayton Kershaw and drunk Vicente Padilla, respectively. The book on Kershaw says his electric stuff might be diluted by patience and the pressure of starting a playoff-series opener at 21 years old. And the knock on Padilla has always been "million dollar arm, ten cent head", a phrase that sums him up beautifully. Oh yeah, and he was most likely caught drinking in the clubhouse during the 2002 All-Star Game.

But Kershaw has been dynamite since his second regular-season loss to the Phillies on June 4th, and Padilla threw seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in the Game 3 NLDS clincher. On paper, it might seem the Phillies have the advantage, but the reality is that these two very different pitchers have been extremely successful for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

So it's up to Cole and Pedro to make a statement. What we need to see is the Cole Hamels who loves the spotlight, the Hollywood kid with the squeaky voice and moderately famous wife. The Pedro Martinez who can appear ageless, who evokes annoying Favre-esque commentary like "he's having fun, he's a kid out there." In the past, in their own way, both have reached the pinnacle of the starting pitching mountain. Hamels is trying to keep his spot on Mount Pitchmore, and Martinez will be enjoying what is probably his last shot at adding to his Hall of Fame resume.

But in the next two days, both will have everything to prove. The only impact they've had on the Phillies 2009 postseason thus far is negligible at best, negative at worst. Players like Cliff Lee, Scott Eyre, Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard, and even Brad Lidge are why the Phillies are still in the hunt. If Hamels and Martinez want to exist as fellow heroes in the present, not just as distant memories of championships and successes past, well, they've got two days to prove it.

October 12, 2009

Living on a thin line.

After missing out on several run-scoring opportunities, including leaving the bases loaded in the third, the Philadelphia Phillies' margin for error was thin.

And then Raul Ibanez bobbled a routine line drive to left, adding at least 10 unnecessary pitches to Cliff Lee's escalating pitch count. And the game got even tighter.

And then they left the bases loaded AGAIN in the eighth. And now it was back to the tightrope, one the Phillies walked for the bulk of Game 3 of the NLDS on Sunday night/Monday morning. They navigated it then, but it was terrifying, and it was wobbly. And it's a dangerous place for a playoff baseball team to be.

Finally, they fell. They had to. A beautiful diving catch from Ben Francisco saved some runs, but a Jason Giambi single and Yorvit Torrealba double gave the Colorado Rockies a 4-2 lead going into the ninth.

The game felt over. The offense felt stagnant. Their remaining opportunities were limited. And Huston Street, while shaky in his two previous NLDS appearances, had been a top-tier closer in 2009. It was going to take a miracle.

And we got one.

While my roommate and I sat back on the couch, seething, absolutely furious about having to return to Philadelphia for a very up-in-the-air Game 5, Greg Dobbs struck out swinging. But then Jimmy Rollins, after a great at-bat, reached on an infield single. Shane Victorino grounded into a fielder's choice and took Jimmy's place on first. Victorino took second on fielder's indifference. Chase Utley walked, on another great at-bat. And all of a sudden, through sheer perseverance, the Big Man, Ryan Howard, was staring down Street, and the tying run was on first base.

And Ryan Howard provided the biggest hit of his career. As far as I'm concerned, the most clutch hit of his career, and maybe the second biggest hit I've ever seen, behind Matt Stairs' home run in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS.

His two-run double tied the game. Jayson Werth got him home. And Scott Eyre and Brad Lidge finished off the bottom of the ninth in the only way the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies know how -- painfully, drawn-out, with several baserunners and a constant aura of dread surrounding it all.

But it's over now. The Phillies have vanquished Rocktober, and in doing so, at least to me, they've validated last year's world championship.

It was no fluke. We're no one-year wonder, a team that got lucky. We just won an NLDS that, I have to imagine, will be thought of as one of the most grueling NLDS's ever played.

2008 didn't need validation. But for someone like me, who lives and dies with this team, it couldn't have hurt. And now, a team hurt by injuries, a team that hadn't really faced true adversity all season, stared down a worthy adversary and destroyed them bit by bit.

They're ready for Los Angeles. We're ready for the Dodgers. For another day, awaiting yet another walk on that tightrope they might as well call home, the World Fucking Champions live.

October 6, 2009

The heat is on.

The Internet was abuzz today with talk about the Philadelphia Phillies' NLDS roster.

Should they have kept Eric Bruntlett or Miguel Cairo? Kyle Kendrick or Tyler Walker? Antonio Bastardo or Clay Condrey?

It's fun stuff to debate -- I engaged in a bit of it myself.

But it doesn't matter.

I'm not arguing for the unimportance of the 25th man -- I'm a firm believer that Cairo's bat will prove more important than Bruntlett's meager pinch-running ability. And I think giving the Inglorious Bastard and Double K a shot all but ensures J.A. Happ's starting Game 4 of the series, which, given Colorado's poor showing versus left-handed pitching, could prove decisive.

But it still doesn't matter. All that matters are Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.

Lee was 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in his first five starts as a Phillie. Hamels was MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series in 2008.

At their best, they are two of the dozen-best pitchers in baseball. They are a one-two punch that may be bested only by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals. They can win you a series single-handedly, and they're the key to the playoff run of the 2009 Phillies.

For all the debate about the bottom of the roster, the back-end of the bullpen and the struggles of closer Brad Lidge, these Phillies will go nowhere without their dual aces. Injuries have depleted this team, and Charlie Manuel seems like he's relying on gut instinct and luck to get by. If it comes down to the guys being arguing about, chances are the arguments won't matter in the first place.

To make it back to the World Series, let alone win it, they're going to need some gems. Lee needs to prove his late-season struggles weren't evidence of his tank running dry, and Hamels needs to show that his regular season mediocrity is in the past.

Will they come through? No one questions their talent, but what we've seen this year tells us nothing is certain. All we can know for sure is that, if they don't, all the Bastardos and Kendricks in the world won't bring about a repeat.