Suddenly, the Phillies have everyone worried, and for a change that’s a good thing. In fact, the Phillies have some teams running scared so much that those clubs are starting to look at plans B, C and maybe even D.
Just look what happened with the Milwaukee Brewers after the Phillies swept them out of Citizens Bank Park last weekend. Even though the Brewers remain tied for first place in the wild-card race with 12 games to go, the team axed manager Ned Yost. Oh sure, it’s not uncommon for a team to fire its manager and then go on a run to the playoffs. Actually, it happened with a member of the Phillies coaching staff when Jimy Williams was fired by the Astros more than halfway through the 2004 season.
The Astros were not in first place when Williams was let go four seasons ago, but Pat Corrales had the Phillies in first place 87 games into the 1983 season when general manager Paul Owens famously sent Corrales packing and replaced the manger with himself.
Guess what? It worked. The Phillies went all the way to the World Series before the Orioles shut them down in five games.
Whether or not the Brewers’ act of desperation works or not remains to be seen. Certainly their schedule will do them no favors. This week they play six on the road against the Cubs and Reds before they finish with six at home against the Pirates and Cubs. Combined, the Brewers are 11-14 against the Cubs and Reds, but 11-1 against the Pirates.
Nevertheless, the Phillies’ latest surge just might have forced the move on Yost.
But if it were just the wild card the Phillies had their eyes on, the Brewers might have been able to weather the storm with Yost. That’s not the case, though. Instead, the Brewers have to worry about the Mets, too, since the Phillies could overtake them for first place in the NL East as early as tonight.
Oh boy… it’s happening again.
Needless to say, the shorts are bunching up at Shea Stadium because once again the Mets just can’t seem to beat the Washington Nationals. Last season the Nats swept the Mets during the last week of the season to add to the historical collapse. Had the Mets been able to beat the Nationals just once that last week things might not have worked out for the Phillies. The Nats have lost 182 games over the past two seasons, but the Mets just couldn’t figure out how to beat them once down the stretch.
That problem reappeared last night when the Nationals beat up on the rapidly aging Pedro Martinez to send the big city folks looking at the wild-card standings. At the same time, Ben Shpigel wrote for The New York Times’ “Bats” blog a story with the headline, “How Worried Should They Be in Queens?”
In comparison to last season, Shpigel writes, the Mets’ starting pitching is much improved. With Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez, the Mets would be tough to beat in a short playoff series.
But there is the matter of that bullpen. As a result the Mets are counting on a flame out from the Brewers so they can sneak into the playoffs as the wild-card team if the Phillies take the East again.
If the Brewers continue to fade (they have six games left against the Cubs), the Mets are in even better shape. Even if the Phillies overtake the Mets in the division, the Mets have to really mess up (stop smirking) to fall out. It can happen, I know. But the odds of them making the postseason at this point are better than they were at this time last year.
Meanwhile, the Phillies’ remaining schedule is another reason why the Mets and Brewers are running scared. With six more to go against the Braves and three each against the Marlins and Nats, the Phillies’ opponents have a combined .447 winning percentage (201-248).
That sounds pretty good.
With the fear come good feelings from the Phillies. Finally, they control their own destiny.
“I believe in attitude, charisma, whatever they want to call it,” Manuel said. “When we come to the ballpark, everything’s OK and fine, and everybody’s in a good mood, upbeat. Everybody’s happy.”
Let’s go out on a limb here and say Charlie Manuel is on notice. His task for 2007 is to get the Phillies into the playoffs or he can forget about that contract extension for his pact that ends at the end of next year.
At least that’s the way it seemed when the Phillies announced that Davey Lopes, Art Howe and Jimy Williams will be the three new coaches on Manuel’s staff. You see, Lopes, Howe and Williams all have managed in the big leagues, and though only one manager in Phillies history has won more games after his first two seasons as skipper than Manuel, some might argue that a couple of those ex-managers have better credentials than their new boss.
Williams guided Toronto to the AL East title in 1989 and took the Red Sox to the wild card in 1998, 1999 and had six consecutive second-place finishes with the Red Sox and Astros from 1998 to 2003, earning AL manager of the year in ‘99.
Howe went to the playoffs in three straight seasons with the Moneyball Oakland A’s from 2000 to 2002, including back-to-back 100-win seasons in 2001 and 2002.
Lopes, the artful base stealer and Phillies nemesis from his playing days with the Dodgers, was the sacrificial lamb for three years with the Milwaukee Brewers. Nevertheless, the Phillies added 2,283 Major League victories to the coaching staff to go with Manuel’s 393.
Suddenly, the so-called overmatched Manuel has quite a bit of experience to draw upon in the dugout.
“We're going to have a hell of a staff,” he said.
That’s good, because there were a lot of whispers around the league that Manuel’s staff – specifically bench coach Gary Varsho – wasn’t doing him any favors. Varsho, after all, was Manuel’s right-hand man for in-game tactical decisions. But when Varsho was working in the same capacity on Larry Bowa’s staff, he mostly just had to position the outfield, write out the lineup card and his other administrative duties while Bowa called all the shots. But with Manuel, that lack of a heavy hand ultimately worked against him. In fact, one National League manager once told me to “tell Varsho to keep giving Charlie that good advice.”
Yes, it was a joke, but it wasn’t complimentary either.
On the new staff, Williams will be the bench coach and coordinate spring training the way John Vukovich used to. Howe, an infielder with those good Astros teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s, will be the third-base coach and infield instructor. Lopes will be the first-base coach and base running and outfield instructor.
Lopes could have a big influence on Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino on the base paths.
Conversely, if the Phillies struggle out of the gate in 2007, or Manuel, inexplicably, loses the clubhouse, GM Pat Gillick doesn’t have to look far for a replacement manager. In that regard will Charlie be sleeping with one open? Is he going to cast sidelong glances over his shoulder to see what his lieutenants are doing?
Nope. At least that’s what he says.
“Not at all,” Manuel said. “I feel good about it. These guys are going to be helpful to me and our club.
Gillick says – at least publically – that Manuel shouldn’t worry about anything but doing his job.
“More ideas, more imagination,” Gillick said. “These are the type of resources you need on a staff for your manager to draw on.”
Apparently, as stated previously, Manuel didn’t have that during his first two seasons.
He has it now.
“Charlie is the man, and we're going to do everything we can to help him be successful,” said Howe, who has a reputation for being one of the friendliest men in baseball despite the fact that he managed the Mets for two years. For normal folks, that experience is enough to make one turn his back on all of humanity.
Not Howe. Now he’s working for Charlie and the Phillies – the loosest and happiest team in the National League.
Et cetera Though it’s not exactly a scoop or a well-kept secret, Gillick says he wants to try to deal Pat Burrell again. Apparently, the club had a deal with Baltimore last July but Burrell invoked his no-trade clause to remain in Philadelphia.
Said Gillick: “We're going to have to continue to look for a little more offense. We know that at this point, Pat has had a difficult time protecting [Ryan] Howard. We're going to have to continue to have to make an adjustment in that area. And naturally, we're going to have to continue to improve our pitching.
Gillick says the American League champion Tigers have advanced so quickly because of their pitching.
“I think one thing that's been proven is how well Detroit has pitched. If you look at the seven games they've won, it all goes back to pitching.”
But in order to be a legit player in the free-agent market for the highly coveted Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, the Phillies will have to figure out what to do with Burrell and the $27 million they owe him for the next two seasons.
Coming up… Musings from the NLCS and a look ahead to this weekend’s Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii and the Chicago Marathon, which unofficially kicks off the Fall marathoning season.
Plus, the opening game of the World Series is this Saturday in Detroit.