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Phillies would erase 2011 nightmare with a finish for the ages

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Admit it. You thought this Phillies team was dead in the water.

It’s ok. You’re not a front runner if you did.


Come on. You thought Chase Utley and Ryan Howard wouldn’t play this year due to their injuries, Roy Halladay was finished, and this bullpen stinks. Jimmy Rollins didn’t care anymore, Cliff Lee will be winless, John Mayberry Jr and Domonic Brown are massive busts. We have no third baseman, and Kyle Kendrick is in the rotation again?!  Should I go on?

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the season. Our beloved Phightins, who once occupied fifth place in the NL East for almost three whole months and appeared dead in the water as recently as a few weeks back, have reeled off seven consecutive wins, won 15 out of their last 19 games, and have pulled to within just three games of the second NL Wild Card.  

So how exactly has this happened? There are several reasons.Jimmy Rollins photo: Getty Images

The Phightins’ rotation finally seems to have straightened itself out. Cole Hamels has truly become the ace of this staff, and while Halladay has struggled with consistency since his return,  he’s more than a viable option- even if he’s on his B game. Lee, who probably wondered if he would ever win a game this season, has clearly found his groove as of late. With Vance Worley shut down for the season and Joe Blanton traded to the Dodgers, Kyle Kendrick was given yet another chance to stay in the rotation. All he’s done is turn into a modern day Greg Maddux. Since the middle of August, Kendrick is 5-1 with a 1.49 ERA.

Minor league phenom Tyler Cloyd has also joined the Phillies’ rotation. Like Kendrick however, Cloyd’s consistency could come into question anytime. Unlike Kendrick, who played a big role (yes, he really did) in the Phillies’ first NL East crown in 2007, Cloyd is unproven, so time will tell how he fares when the pressure is really on.

The ability of the starters to go deeper into the games combined with the emergence of Phillippe Aumont during this stretch has made the bullpen stronger. From what I’ve seen in limited action, Aumont seems to have better control than originally advertised,  goes right after the hitters, and throws some serious gas. You can’t bank your entire seventh and eighth inning on Aumont, but so far so good.  Don’t get me wrong, from B.J. Rosenberg to Josh Lindblom and Jake Diekman, inconsistencies loom everywhere in the latter stages of the game. However, I’ll take my chances with Aumont, Jeremy Horst, a resurgent (for the time being) Antonio Bastardo, and Jonathan Papelbon over Chad Qualls, Michael Schwimer, and Joe Savery any day of the week. As we know, playoff games are can be won or lost in the middle innings, but we’re not talking playoffs....yet.

As for the offense, well, they’re actually scoring less than they did in the first half. While Utley and Howard have had their moments, neither player resembles anything close to what they once were at this juncture. While Rollins has struggled at times this season offensively, he’s delivered several clutch hits recently. Most noticeably in the final two games against the Marlins, where his pair of two-run homers in consecutive games proved to be the difference in both victories. As Rollins goes, so goes the Phillies, and he needs to keep this up if the team wants to do more than just “sniff” the postseason.

Not unlike the championship season of 1980, where players like Lonnie Smith, Keith Moreland, Marty Bystrom and Bob Walk were key contributors, this current Phillies team has seen production from unlikely role players- some who weren’t even on a major league roster Opening Day. One of those is 32-year old rookie catcher, Erik Kratz (it seems the Phillies have cornered the market on those) who has been more than adequate since the Phillies lost their best player, Carlos Ruiz, to a foot injury in early August. Defensively, Kratz makes throwing runners out from his knees look like a work of art. Although Kratz has struggled lately at the plate, he’s delivered several key hits for the team down the stretch, and has all but solidified a spot for himself as Chooch’s backup next season.

Kevin Frandsen has also more admirably filled in at third base for the always-injured Placido Polanco. Prior to going down with a leg injury, Frandsen was hitting .342. His defense did appear to cost the Phillies some games at times, but when your alternative is Michael Martinez.......

Then there’s Mayberry and Brown. Overall, Mayberry was considered one of the biggest disappointments of this season after a promising 2011. While Mayberry failed to deliver for most of the year in a starting role, his clutch hitting in games against the Reds, Rockies, and Marlins has more than helped the Phillies stay right in the thick of the Wild Card race. As for Brown, he seemed to be getting into a groove before yet another injury sidelined him. Brown has delivered some key hits as well, including his two-run blast Monday against Miami that proved to be the difference in the Phils 3-1 win.

Don’t get me wrong, the Phillies’ strong showing so far in September is great for the fans as well as baseball in general. In the first year of the second Wild Card, you have six legitimate teams (Phillies, Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers, Brewers, Diamondbacks) vying for that spot. All six are worthy candidates, and regardless of the eventual outcome, this is going down to the wire.

Personally, I think the nine remaining games St. Louis has against the lowly Astros and Cubs will help push them in over the Phightins. After all, baseball heaven usually trumps all potential cinderella teams. Unless of course, they’re a cinderella team themselves (are you nauseous yet?). But then again, I thought Roy Oswalt closing out the Cardinals in last year’s NLDS was a sure bet, and we all know how that ended. Crazier things have happened.

And speaking of the 2011 Phils, didn’t they show us firsthand that sometimes winning 102 games is not at that it’s cracked up to be?  Look at the last two World Series Champions (Giants, Cardinals), who both coincidentally snuck into the playoffs on the season’s last day and also happened to take down the Phightins in the playoffs on their way to the promised land. When the Phils won it all in 2008, they were contenders, but certainly not favorites. Maybe the best way these days to take the whole thing is to get hot at the right time and catch some lightning in a bottle. There seems to be something special about this Phillies team. I’m not saying I’m getting the same vibe as I did with the Cards and New York Giants last year just yet, but stranger things have happened, although they usually happen to other teams.  

If anything, the Phillies are making the end of 2012 very interesting and they’re closing the season on a positive note. How they will recapture this magic going into 2013 is anybody’s guess. These things do change from year to year. But after all, we’re Phillies fans. We’ve seen everything, right?

Let me take that back. Hopefully, there’s a few more things we haven’t seen yet..........

 

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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Rollins photo: Getty Images