Thursday, October 1, 2009

Phillies Wrap Up 3rd Consecutive NL East Crown

The Phillies long, arduous journey of defending its National League Eastern Division crown ended last night in spontaneous joy and celebration. The team accomplished what only one other team in franchise history had done, winning a third consecutive division championship. And, fittingly, they got contributions from a broad array of players, and some brilliance from their manager, to finish triumphantly to the thunderous roar of the best fans in baseball.

Make no mistake about it, major league baseball's regular season is a marathon, particularly for a team that is in every opponent's collective sights by virtue of its World Series Champion moniker and is expected to win. Phillies players could take the field every day knowing they have the best talent in baseball, but as veterans remind, the proving ground is between the white lines. And, even though the team clinched earlier this year than the previous two campaigns, it required 158 games to reach their goal.

Phillies players took the field last night knowing they did not even need to glance at the scoreboard as the previous night's events dropped their magic number to 1. Another NL East title was in front of them, totally within their grasp with a win. And, surely, that is how they wanted it to go. That, along with a stadium filled with energized fans anticipating victory, created an electric atmosphere that helped to give the players the added shot of adrenaline to shake off any fatigue and instill a heightened intensity.

The team did not disappoint. Although Pedro Martinez, who was returning from a neck injury, worked in and out of trouble in his abbreviated outing, he used his veteran guile and full arsenal of pitches to contain the Astros over four innings. He yielded 3 runs on 6 hits, including a pair of home runs by rookie J.R. Towles. But, despite struggling to find the same command that he demonstrated a few weeks ago, the Phillies rallied to score 4 runs in the 4th inning to take a 5-3 lead they would never surrender.

Manuel called on another pitcher who has been on a come back tour to take over for Martinez to start the fifth. Kyle Kendrick showed his gratitude to his manager, and his new found appreciation to be making a meaningful contribution to the team, after being sent to the minors to improve his game by tossing three scoreless innings. The opportunity to play a key role in such a meaningful game probably exceeded his most optimistic imaginings, but when given the chance, he calmly called on the expanded skills and repertoire he had developed in those difficult months in the minors.

The Phillies offensive surge that vaulted them into the lead, once again featured the other Pedro (Feliz, that is) delivering a big blow to cap the rally. Shane Victorino singled and stole second to open the frame. Chase Utley worked a walk, and Ryan Howard scorched a line drive down the right field line to plate Victorino. Utley scored when Raul Ibanez reached on an error, and then Jayson Werth drove in Howard with a ground out. Feliz followed with a booming double to left center to extend the Phillies lead to 5-3.

They continued their assault in the next inning, when back-to-back triples by Jimmy Rollins and Victorino, along with Ibanez's sacrifice fly added two more runs. A Feliz single and Carlos Ruiz double made it 8-3 in the 6th, before Ibanez launched a 2-run homer to cap the scoring in the 8th.

Chad Durbin held the Astros scoreless in the 8th, setting up some strategic managerial maneuverings in the 9th. First, Manuel called on Scott Eyre, who had not pitched in weeks due to a painful bone chip in his elbow. Prior to the injury, Eyre had been the most reliable pitcher on the team all season, so it seemed to be Charlie's way of showing his appreciation by putting him back on the hill in such a big moment. After Eyre quickly recorded two outs, Manuel saved his best maneuver for last.

With the crowd waving towels and roaring in anticipation of their hometown team clinching, Manuel summoned Brad Lidge from the bullpen. He warmed up to thunderous noise throughout the stadium with a little extra zip on his fastball, and then rewarded his manager and the fans by inducing a ground out on his first pitch to Lance Berkman. Lidge and Howard embraced, knowing the moment was even more special considering the difficult season the reliever has had, before players ran to the infield to celebrate.

It was a master stroke by Manuel that was recognized by Lidge and his teammates alike. Orchestrating the situation to have every fan in the park rally around him, and for Lidge to feel the magic again, could do wonders for his wavering psyche. Who knows, if Lidge rediscovers himself and returns to last year's form in the playoffs, everyone will know what was the turning point. And, if not, Manuel showed his appreciation to Lidge for the phenomenal contributions that he made to their championship run a year ago.

Last night was one big step forward for the team in red pinstripes. But, the entire organization from the front office to the managers to the players, as well as the entire fan base, thirsts for more. The team allowed themselves a taste of champagne last evening, but the real goal is another fabulous trip down Broad Street. Let the fun begin...or continue!

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