The silly, old adage with Major League Baseball is, “it’s a marathon,” and as a veteran of 14 competitive marathons (not bragging or anything), I would call the 162-game baseball season with its spring training and month long playoffs, the much more grueling sport to play and cover. For a good marathon a person is investing three to four months of focused training and then two-and-a-half to three hours of running on race day.
Plus, when broken down, running is just moving forward… one foot after the other. It's kind of simple when looked at that way.
Baseball is like that, too, only the training period never really ends. Sure, a lot of ballplayers will try to rest up during the month of November, but typically start working out for spring training and the season around Thanksgiving. Not including all the games, the travel, the sitting around and waiting and all of the late nights and early mornings, the self-respecting ballplayer and ballscribe look as if they have been put through a meat grinder when the playoffs roll around. Considering all the bad flights, bad food, lousy sleep patterns and no true semblance of a “real” life while friends and family are off enjoying the summer and vacations, the baseball lifers earn all those Marriott points they rack up during the season.
Respect? Well, someday… someday.
Nevertheless, over a 162-game season it often gets tough digging up a story idea. Sure, the news of the day always prevails, but with so much competition and so many different people disseminating it, a fresh angle is always the goal. So the search for an obtuse or acute angle brought us to the second game of Monday’s day-night doubleheader led a lot of us to the same spot…
The race for the NL East is going to come down to that last weekend of the season in Atlanta.
Hey, it was a long day. Besides, sometimes the best story is the most obvious one. Other times it’s best to give credit to the schedule makers. After all, the past few years the Phillies had a way of wrapping up the season at home against Washington or Florida with a few days to rest the team’s big guns. In fact, last year, the Phillies had things sewn up with four games remaining in the season to reinforce the accepted fact that there is nothing worse than meaningless September baseball.
Obviously, the converse of that is also fact. There is nothing in sports more exciting than meaningful September and October baseball and it appears as if the Phillies and Braves are headed for a collision course.
“If I had my way we’d get a lead and be four up with three to play before we went in there,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “I don’t know, but it’s kind of traveling that way. It’s like a hurricane they’re predicting to go up the coast with the track it’s going to take.”
Yes, two hurricanes headed for the same spot at the same time. Meteorologists say this can’t happen in nature, but it seems as if the Phillies are resigned to let it happen. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. Publically, however, the ballplayers are still in the play-them-one-game-at-a-time mode. That makes sense considering the Phillies are at the most crucial stage of the marathon, well past the point where glycogen stores are depleted and the dreaded “wall” is staring them right in the face.
With a clubhouse full of seasoned, playoff veterans, the Phillies aren’t sizing up the Braves and calculating how it will go down during the final weekend of the season.
“Let’s not look too far ahead,” Shane Victorino said. “We’ll just keep playing. We worry about ourselves. We’re not worried about what [the Braves] are doing. We control our own destiny. We’ve got to go out there and play our baseball.”
Logically, Victorino is correct. If the Phillies keep winning ballgames a trip to the playoffs for a fourth season in a row is a virtual lock. The numbers crunchers at Baseball Prospectus put the odds for the Phillies to win the east at 29 percent, the wild card at 40 percent and a berth at the playoffs at 68 percent. Interestingly, the BP formula has the Phillies going 11-12 the rest of the way and a match up against the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS with the Braves pared with the winner of the NL West.
Still, like in any marathon a mile in the beginning of the race logically carries the same importance as the last miles. But we know better. So too do they Phillies and every other ballclub in Major League Baseball. The example I like to cite is the end of the 1982 season where the Milwaukee Brewers went to Baltimore for four games in the final three days of the season. The Brewers needed one win to clinch the division, while the Orioles had to sweep all four to complete the improbable comeback to win the AL East.
The Orioles cruised in Friday night’s opener, 8-3, highlighted by a three-hit game from Rich Dauer and 2 2/3 of one-hit relief from closer Tippy Martinez. Storm Davis tossed a gem in Saturday’s first game as the Orioles rolled 7-1 and swept the doubleheader with 18 hits in an 11-3 laugher.
So with the season coming down to one final game on the last Sunday of the regular season, and aces Jim Palmer and Don Sutton on the mound, the Brewers regrouped to clinch the East with a 10-3 victory. Not only did the Brewers save themselves from the indignity of blowing a three-game lead with four to play, but the last game served as a signature game for 1982 AL MVP, Robin Yount, who led his team with two homers, a triple and scored four runs.
Not a bad afternoon, for Yount or the Brewers. For the Orioles, the one game proved to be the lasting image of the 1982 season.
And that’s what the Phillies (and every other team) is up against.
“I think our team will be remembered by how we finish,” Manuel said, astutely. “We’ve hung in there. Our starting pitching has kept us in there. We’re sitting in a good place, and now is a good time for us to pick it up and start putting some runs on the board consistently.”
As it shapes up now, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt (in that order) will pitch in the final series. The Braves will have Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrgens and Tim Hudson ready to go, too.
How can it not come down to that last weekend?
 The doubleheader, especially the day-night doubleheader, is a phenomenon foreign to every pro sport aside from baseball. Yes, the physical tolls of the games on its participants aren’t as foreboding in baseball, but think about the scribes. Most folks got to the ballpark for Monday’s day-nighter before 10 a.m. and did not leave the park until after 11 p.m. That’s a long day no matter what the task.