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Phillies gaining momentumposted: Tuesday, May 9, 2006

 

PHILADELPHIA -- What might be spawning is a Mets-Phillies rivalry that lights up the northeast corridor. There is the specter of Billy Wagner's return to Citizens Bank Park with words that make him a targeted villain cut from the J.D. Drew/Scott Rolen cloth, the color of what might be the two best lineups in the National League, Pedro Martinez kicking off the season series and the realization that the Mets now matter in New York, the Phillies now matter in Philadelphia and these two teams have had such so little history of rivalry that the only time they ever finished 1-2 in a race was 1986, when the Phils finished 21? games behind the eventual world champions.

What happens between these two teams has a long night's journey into day after the current three-game series. It could be decided by the Pat Gillick-Omar Minaya race to acquire pitching, or by which phenom (Cole Hamels or Mike Pelfrey) is least damaged by being rushed to the major leagues.

 

But as they begin their prelude to a rivalry, the weekend helped the Phillies begin to alter some preconceived notions. Look, the Phillies did sweep the Giants and run their winning streak to eight games. The weather was beautiful, accentuating the fact that not only is Citizens Bank Park one of the best fans' sites in the industry, but, thankfully, it is not The Vet and all the anger management it necessitated. (Giants reliever Steve Kline remembers going there as a teenager, and when a kid dropped a popup in the sixth-inning Pizza Hut Popup Challenge -- everyone got a pizza coupon if he caught three -- Kline says, "They booed him so badly he ran off the field in tears.")

 

Sure, Barry Bonds got booed, and there were a few signs. But the booing was nothing compared to what he got at Dodger Stadium, nothing compared to what Drew and Rolen experienced. It was not obscene, simply a combination of an acknowledgement that many fans outside San Fransisco do not recognize what he is doing as a run for anything but a hollow number, and it was an expression of their contempt for what they perceive as his contempt for them. Fair enough.

 

In fact, Bonds had nothing to complain about in terms of Philadelphia. A dozen Phillies players approached him behind the batting cage before Sunday night's game, and either hugged him or shook his hand -- offering their good lucks. When he hit the mammoth home run off Jon Lieber, the crowd gave him a rousing standing ovation, and when he came up in the eighth, flash bulbs went off all over the stadium on every pitch. The Phillies players in the dugout stared up at where the ball landed for nearly 10 minutes, and when Pat Burrell came in from left field, he said, "I thought it was going out of the stadium. I'm glad nothing got hit to me because I couldn't concentrate the rest of the inning. I was in such awe."

 

Bonds feels there is no joy surrounding his chase of Number Two, but, in reality, Philadelphia gave him some. He feels he is unfairly targeted when the players' fraternity knows the percentage of players using illegal performance-enhancing drugs was astoundingly higher than outsiders dreamed imaginable. He also feels that the media is draining him, and while teamates complained about the media all weekend, all Bonds had to do was go to the PR staff, say he'd go to a room for two minutes, smile and there wouldn't be 60 media members standing around the clubhouse watching him watch television because he declined to be interviewed, interfering with teamates. "When this is over at the end of the year," he said, "I'm just going to go away and disappear." For a man whose OPS in 1992 and 1993 were each higher than any season posted by Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Joe DiMaggio or Reggie Jackson, this is a pitiful statement of "be careful what you wish for."

 

While the national focus last weekend was on Bonds, the Phillies stole the spotlight before three packed houses. They also seem to be piercing another preconceived notion that this is a robotic team. Anyone seen all the model racing car teams led by Arthur Rhodes, Shane Victorino, Aaron Rowand, et al?

 

"The knock that this team had no heart was really unfair," says one veteran player. "Heart was not the issue, not with Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins and Bret Myers and Ryan Howard. But what is true is that a lot of the really good players here are not very outspoken. That's not heart, it's personality. But in comes Rowand and Tom Gordon and it's as if the personality has dramatically changed."

 

Rowand is one of those baseball characters -- dirt dog -- who was a vital part of the world champion White Sox and has transformed the Phillies, all while playing center field as well as anyone in the game. In spring training, he made it a point to go to lunch or dinner with everyone on the team. He goes up and down the dugout offering what seems to be the right charm at the right times. "He was the perfect guy to bring to this team," says Burrell. And when Charlie Manuel decided to take Rowand out of the two hole, move Utley there and get Howard into the fifth spot, Rowand said, "I don't care where I hit. Fit everyone else where the lineup works best, then give me my place. It's all about winning."

 

Gillick hasn't bombed this team, but he has subtly altered the personality. Look back to his time in Toronto and Seattle, and Gillick's history was finding the right people. He couldn't keep both Howard and Jim Thome, so he freed up money with the Thome deal, got a center fielder who could track everything between Bobby Abreu and Burrell and brought in a personality. The people he brought in for much-needed depth include David Dellucci, Alex Gonzalez and Sal Fasano, while Gordon has been the best closer in the league in the far-easier role of knowing that he will get up once and pitch one inning, safe from the exhausting up-and-down role in New York.

 

Gordon is throwing 94-96 mph heat with his wicked curveball, and his cutter has been extremely effective against lefties. "I talked to Mariano Rivera at least once a week," says Gordon. "We talked a lot about the cutter. I learned I couldn't use his grip, but in terms of the philosophy of using the pitch, he has helped me a great deal."

 

There are issues here, beginning with the starting pitching. Other than Myers and Cory Lidle, the starters have been spotty. Jon Lieber made improvement Sunday. Gavin Floyd has had consecutive starts that were termed "better" by Manuel, with a few frozen headline moments. Ryan Madson has yet to find it; he escaped with his stuff Saturday despite the fact that 10 of the first 15 Giants reached base -- and none scored.

 

The fans want Hamels, who has allowed one run and fanned 26 in 23 innings in Triple-A. He has a great change and what Manuel says "is an unusual feel for pitching." He's also allowed only two home runs in his minor league career. Unfortunately, that career includes less than 200 innings, and the sample doesn't include bouncing back from adversity.

 

Until Mariners owner Howard Lincoln refused to add payroll in Gillick's last seasons in Seattle, his history in Toronto and Baltimore was to go get what he needed, like David Cone and Rickey Henderson. So what the pitching staff looks like in August could be different than what it looks like now.

 

But there will be no lack of effort to make 2006 the first legitimate Phillies-Mets race. We might come to regret the last time they are scheduled to meet is August 14-17 at CBP, but what baseball might still embrace is that that could be one of the best weeks in New Jersey Turnpike history.

 

There ya go

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