Sunday, August 22, 2004

Maybe They Only Look Dead

Last summer, the Phillies started a long road trip in Milwaukee against the then-last place Milwaukee Brewers. They got swept in Beer City, won just once over the rest of the trip, and nearly cost Larry Bowa not just his job--oh, if only--but whatever slim margin he has left, blood pressure-wise. Helped out in part by the fact that Marlins couldn't buy a win during the same period, they survived the skid, put together a modest winning streak and stayed in contention till they collapsed in the last week of the season. But in retrospect, it was the Milwaukee trip that started the long downward spiral.

A year later, the Phils reached Milwaukee after a 1-9 homestand that was arguably the worst in the team's incredibly grim history, three games under .500 and evidently dead where they stood. They had concluded the homestand with an improbable 12-10 loss in which they hit into a triple play and blew a 7-2 lead late in the game--the fifth time over the homestand that Ed Wade's Army of creaky old relievers were put to rout after the team led in the late innings.

So I guess it makes perfect sense that they swept the Brewers in Milwaukee this weekend, keeping at least a shred of hope alive and regaining the .500 mark. It's amazing what a little timely hitting can do: in Saturday's 8-6 win, the Phils came up with six runs in the eighth inning, getting four hits with men on base during the frame. Chase Utley's bases-loaded triple was the big blow. Today saw more of the same, and even better, they did it with two outs: a run-scoring hit (and another on which Abreu was nailed at the plate, ending the inning) following a two-run Doug Glanville homer (I shit you not, dear friends) in the third; two more two-out hits in the seventh, including a ground-rule double by David Bell that scored Abreu. In the 10th with the game tied 4-4, they didn't wait to do the damage: two singles sandwiched between two walks started the inning and scored the go-ahead run. Then after Glanville, idiotically swinging at the first pitch after Lou Collier had walked the bases loaded, grounded into a fielder's choice, young Mr. Utley delivered again with a two-run single. A Jimmy Rollins double and a sac fly from Placido Polanco finished the five-run frame, which was needed as Bowa decided to play Roberto Roulette. But Hernandez could only give back two of the runs, and the Phils finished the sweep.

For the two games, they scored 17 runs, which probably justifies the 21 guys they stranded over the same time. For a team that hasn't hit with guys on base all year, the well-timed knocks were proverbial manna in the desert.

As for Utley... well, my girlfriend has developed a crush on the guy, and if he keeps hitting like this, I might encourage her to share her Phils Pheelings more broadly. 51 RBI in just 209 at-bats is absurd. And while it still makes me a little nervous that so much of his value is in his slugging percentage--Utley is batting .278, but his on-base percentage is just .309, a Glanville-ishly small difference--it surely seems like he's running more deep counts and battling pitchers much better than he did even earlier this season. Now if Bowa would just play him at least against all right-handers... his .889 OPS against righties, and Polanco's .820 mark against lefties, gives the Phils a sort of two-headed Marcus Giles, if the manager were only smart enough to realize it.

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