Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When Superior Talent Combines with the Hearts of Champions

Monday night's hero was Jimmy Rollins, who magically turned defeat into victory with one swing of the bat in the Phillies final chance. It was a game, and particularly a moment, for the ages. As the winning run scored, he raced around the bases into the waiting arms of his teammates to celebrate one of the biggest clutch hits and victories in team history.

That 20 second slice of time personifies this Phillies ball club, highlighting the key ingredients that make the team so special. Down to their last out, facing an overpowering pitcher, one swing and a flurry of runners speeding around the bases provided a deep glimpse into why the team is successfully competing to defend its World Championship.

It first starts with talent. Monday night it was Rollins. The night before it was Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino. In Game 1, the stars were Carlos Ruiz, Raul Ibanez and Howard. Brad Lidge has re-emerged as the 2008 "Lights Out" version, gaining 3 saves along with last night's win in the post season. Pedro Martinez was sensational in Game 2 despite the Phillies eventually losing.

The bottom line is that the team is a truly remarkable collection of talented players, second to none. That wasn't just anybody rocketing the ball into the gap with two outs in the ninth. It was Jimmy Rollins- former MVP, Silver Slugger, 3-time All-Star, 2-time Gold Glover and current reigning World Series champion. Any night, every day, it could be someone different. Perhaps tonight's hero will be 4-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger and current reigning World Series Champion Chase Utley?

The next ingredient is the mindset of the club. They possess an incredible tenacity, a drive to succeed and the mental toughness to persevere through adversity and show up in the game's biggest moments. It is Jimmy Rollins' walk-off thunder bolt when the team was down to its last out in the ninth. It is Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth and Brad Lidge coming up big when they were down to their last out in the clinching win of the NLDS. It is Chase Utley shaking off his throwing difficulties early in the series, ripping a first inning single and wheeling to gun a difficult throw in the 5th inning of Game 3. It is no coincidence that the Phillies led the league in come from behind wins. In other words, it is apparent that the Phillies possess the "hearts of champions."

First it was Matt Stairs in the ninth, admirably foregoing his chance to be the hero by swinging for the fences, and instead showing great discipline to work a walk. That is what a true team player and a winner does in that situation. Besides the obvious enormous clutch hitting by Rollins, this quality also showed with the determination and intensity demonstrated by pinch runner Eric Bruntlet and Ruiz in their quest to score. Both raced around the bases with precision and likely their fastest pace ever, neither relaxing until they safely crossed home plate. No show boating along the way, no celebrating until the task was done.

When things do not go as planned or hoped, the players support each other, shrug off the disappointment and quickly turn their attention to what they can control- their next at bat, their next pitch, their next game. Critics sometimes want them to ruminate on their failure, but this team knows that resilience starts with leaving it behind. There is no sense letting events of the past derail your plans for the future.

Lastly, the personalities and leadership within make for a superb team chemistry. The players, manager and coaches rally around each other, and have a lot of fun in the process. It is Ruiz bouncing across the plate into a mob of happy teammates. It is J Roll circling third and landing in a pile of jubilant Phillies players.

When things go right, like Monday night's thrilling finish, all the players are front and center to lavish kudos and celebrate the moment together. First the players raced to home to greet Ruiz as he bounced across the dish, then quickly threw a party on the third baseline for the night's hero. When Rollins stepped to the plate, you can be assured that none of the Phillies were in the clubhouse taking a shower, but rather perched on the top of the dugout steps, on the edge of their seats or anxiously milling to get a better view.

This team continues to grow through overcoming adversity as well as through its accumulated success and accomplishments. At this point, nothing that they do should be surprising to anyone, except one thing. Considering the ingredients that make up this team. what would be surprising is if this superb Phillies team does not repeat as World Champions.

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