Friday, August 6, 2010

Despite Injuries, The 2010 Philadelphia Phillies Team Is Potentially The Best Yet

Philadelphia Phillies Ryan Howard kneels after he sprained his left ankle scrambling back to second base during the 1st inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington on August 1, 2010. UPI/Alexis C. Glenn Photo via Newscom

Thus far, the 2010 season has been a ride of misfortune for the Philadelphia Phillies. It has been the baseball equivalent of getting out of the wrong side of bed in the morning.  

With a seemingly unending stream of injuries that have depleted the team from opening day, this season surely has not played out as the team's brain trust intended or baseball pundits projected. 

Only two of the Phillies' five starting pitchers at season's outset have taken their turn all season long— Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. Joe Blanton, JA Happ, and now Jamie Moyer all have resided  on the Disabled List for extended periods of time. 

Every member of the National League's most formidable infield have done the same, with All-Stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard currently nursing injuries. Earlier in the year, of course, Gold Glove shortstop and offensive catalyst Jimmy Rollins made dual tours of duty on the DL. 

And, that's not all. Regular catcher Carlos Ruiz and center fielder Shane Victorino, along with relievers Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, and Chad Durbin have all been shut down. Also, based on performance trends, it seems probable that Raul Ibanez played his way back to full health after offseason surgery. 

It has all transpired like a heart pounding anxiety attack that might awaken Ruben Amaro or Charlie Manuel in the middle of the night, except it's not a nightmare— it's real.  

What's a Manager to do? What's a General Manager to do? 

Perhaps exactly what they have done through this challenging, Rubik's Cube of a season. 

Both Amaro and Manuel have kept a sense of calm that spills over to the players in the clubhouse. 

Although many questioned whether the team possessed a false sense of security or even a general malaise induced by previous success, players and their leaders refrained from tossing out lifeboats. All maintained an outward sense of confidence and optimism that things would turn, especially as key players returned to the field.  

To his credit, Manuel acknowledged the injury situation, but never bemoaned it. Instead, he used the full roster and whatever reinforcements could be pulled from the farm system below. 

The skipper's patience and belief in his entire roster is now paying dividends. 

Supporting role players such as Kyle Kendrick, Wilson Valdez, Ben Francisco, Ross Gload, Brian Schneider and Jose Contreras have performed admirably in the absence of their higher profile teammates. 

And let's not forget Ibanez, who just may not be over the hill after all. The 38-year old left fielder has seemed to find his stroke— better late than never— and is currently playing a starring role in the middle of the lineup. The rejuvenated player even seems a couple steps faster. 

Most importantly, it's all now translating into wins. Suddenly the Atlanta Braves feel the figurative hot breath of the Phillies on the back of their necks— a two game lead with two months to go is not the same comfort zone they experienced just a couple weeks prior. 

As for Amaro, and the rest of the Phillies brass, they have stepped up as well rather than bale on the season. They have also responded admirably to the adversity that has been dealt (and perhaps somewhat induced with the now infamous winter trade) through a series of moves that seem to put the team in position for another World Series run. 

First, the team's resolve to hang onto prized prospect Dominic Brown is paying rewards. The five tool right fielder has helped provide a much needed boost to the lineup— and frozen ropes to nail runners at the plate never hurt either. 

Then, against odds, Amaro landed baseball's other ace righty hurler named Roy to give the Phillies book ends around locked-in lefty Cole Hamels. With Kendrick and Blanton trending well, the rotation looks poised to lead the way, especially with a patchwork lineup for the foreseeable future.

Although his rocky debut dropped his record to 6-13, "I Gotta Feeling" that Oswalt isn't going to end the season with a losing record. He has a made a career out of being a strong closer, and the adrenaline of a pennant race will provide a wondrous boost.  

And, it is no small thing that Oswalt joins a club with Werth still wearing the same red pinstripes. 

Wednesday, Amaro may have pulled off another much quieter, but substantial coup when he acquired first baseman Mike Sweeney from the Seattle Mariners. If he can remain healthy, the veteran slugger will definitely add juice to the lineup while Howard mends. 

When the "Big Piece" returns, Sweeney will cast the type of strategy altering shadow out of the dugout like that provided by Matt Stairs in 2008. And, all reports suggest that he is the type of upbeat personality to perfectly mesh with the team's already great clubhouse chemistry.  

The fact that he swings from the right side of the plate provides some additional leeway to play Brown. Sweeney's presence should also serve to diffuse some the pressure that Jayson Werth could be feeling to make up for the brown-out associated with the loss of Howard, Utley, and Victorino. 

Amaro and key advisor Pat Gillick are aptly proving that it pays to maintain friends around the league. 

The main area of concern revolves around the bullpen— and specifically closer Brad Lidge. Almost two years of adventure  tends to do that to even the most optimistic managers and fans. 

Surely, the concerns are valid with Lidge's diminished fastball, sporadic command, and high wire finishes. On the plus side, the former "Lights Out" hurler has put together three solid outings after his well publicized meltdown in Washington. 

Should Lidge fail to find his mojo, Contreras is still flashing closer stuff with his heavy fastball. And, who knows, maybe Madson can finally get over the hump to become a viable closer option? Or, there's always Scott Mathieson down on the farm dealing high heat. 

Where this all leads is to a potentially very rosy picture for this troubled season to date. Oddly enough, this club has the potential of being the best yet when the games increase in urgency and importance. 

The return of Howard, Utley, and Victorino along with the addition of new cast mates such as Oswalt, Brown, and Sweeney creates the very real potential to provide more high drama when the leaves turn colors in the "City of Brotherly Love." 

The challenges that come with a rash of injuries can often turn into advantages. Players such as Greg Dobbs, Francisco, Gload, Schneider, and Valdez have gained the opportunity to hone their skills while the regulars sit on the sidelines— which translates into a stronger, more productive bench down the road. 

The team needs to keep grinding out wins while not at full force to stay within striking distance, but this team has all the makings of being a beast down the stretch and in the postseason. 

And, considering the tremendous struggle this season has been, it could possibly be the most satisfying as well. 

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