Friday, July 16, 2010
The Philadelphia Phillies first half struggles are well documented. A disappointing road trip and three game match-up against the division leading Atlanta Braves left them with a 43-40 record and six games out of first heading into the final weekend before the All-Star break.
To make matters worse, the Phillies were staring at a four game series against the surging Central Division leading Cincinnati Reds. The potential existed to be deeply buried at the figurative mid-season breaking point.
But, then something unlikely and uncharacteristic for the challenging 2010 season occurred— the Phillies found a way to pull off a series sweep and restore their hope for the second half.
And, as big as it was to string together four victories, it was even more amazing considering the manner in which it was done.
All four games could have gone either way. The first three were won on walk-off hits in extra innings— two of which landed in the outfield seats.
On Thursday night, the game seemed headed for the same recurring nightmare of the past two seasons when Brad Lidge blew a save opportunity in the ninth, allowing the Reds to knot the score at 3-3 with two outs. But, rather than allow the game to turn into another frustrating defeat, they hung in until back-up catcher Brian Schneider ended the game in the 12th with a home plate victory dance after depositing a ball well into the right field stands.
The next night, the Reds jumped out to an early lead and appeared headed to an easy victory sporting a 7-1 lead after adding an insurance run in the top of the ninth. What followed was something even the most optimistic Phillies fans could not conjure in their minds with late game heroics a fading memory.
A small rally blossomed into an eruption when "below-the-Mendoza" Gregg Dobbs jacked a 434-foot, three-run bomb to cut the lead to 7-5. An out and a walk later, minor league fill-in Cody Ransom smacked another home run to stave off defeat.
This time, after holding the Reds scoreless in the 10th, a Raul ibanez double was followed by Ryan Howard's big fly into the left field seats. For the second consecutive night, the hometown heroes finished the evening with a team-wide celebratory scrum at home plate.
Fast forward to game three on Saturday night. Ace Roy Halladay demonstrated his considerable pitching skills once again, shutting out the league leading offense through nine innings.
Unfortunately, as has often been the case this year, the Phillies could muster very little offense themselves. In fact, rookie Travis Wood was shockingly heading towards baseball immortality by firing a perfect game before Carlos Ruiz led off the ninth with a double.
Wood escaped trouble, and the teams traded bagels until the bottom half of the 11th. Ruiz smacked another double and scored on Jimmy Rollins clutch two-out single to kick off the now familiar nightly celebration.
The series finale on Sunday was not a walk-off, but was definitely another nail biter. This time, the Phillies used the same Ruiz double, Rollins single combination to plate a run in the third inning and rode a brilliant Cole Hamels pitching performance to a 1-0 lead heading into the ninth.
Of course, some drama ensued when Lidge was called upon to nail down the save. This day, he was up to the task, demonstrating better command and his signature slider.
For the weekend's work, the Phillies crept a little closer to the Braves and are now breathing down the necks of the second place New York Mets. Just 1/2 game out of second, the Phillies start the second half 4 1/2 games in back of the Braves.
Besides the psychological lift of feeling that they are within striking distance, the manner in which the Phillies were able to sweep the Reds could provide the necessary boost they need to make another divisional run.
As skipper Charlie Manuel noted, the team seemed to be missing a spark. Neither fans or players seemed to possess the confidence that this year's team had its customary late inning heroics in its figurative DNA.
Perhaps this past weekend's events will restore that former feeling of invincibility and swagger that has permeated the team over the previous three seasons.
And, make no mistake about it, that missing mojo will be instrumental to realizing the lofty goals set forth before this injury riddled season.
The Phillies find themselves in the uncustomary position of playing catch-up, but a little mojo— and the return of the walking wounded— will go a long way towards recapturing the NL East. The Braves are good and will keep the pressure on, but perhaps players and fans will look back at "Walk-off Weekend" as this year's turning point.