Monday, October 04, 2004

Wrap Rap

When all is said in done, the clearest indication the Phillies were likely to fail this season was apparent early on: more was being spoken and written about the manager than the players. And as befits this sad state of affairs, Larry Bowa’s firing two games before the end of the season was a classic case of “You can’t fire me; I quit!” Media accounts of the sequence of events leading up to Bowa’s dismissal just hours prior to the penultimate game of the season made it clear the manager forced the issue, claiming, incredibly, that all the speculation about his status in the newspapers was unacceptable. What planet was Larry living on April through September?

While it also may be popular in Philadelphia and the Bowa household to look back on this lost season and blame injuries, this approach, too, would lead to the wrong conclusion about what went wrong. By September the Phillies had all of their injured players back with the exception of Randy Wolfe and proceeded to put on a fantastic September-October stretch run during which they played nearly .700 ball. Still, the Phils finished a distant second in their division and out of the wildcard altogether. Why? They played so poorly during June, July and August, especially the home stand during which they set a franchise record for futility going 1 – 9.

Overall, injuries and poor pitching didn’t help the Phils, to be sure, but a lack of clutch hitting hurt much worse. The Phillies simply didn’t hit with runners in scoring position until it was too late.

So, let the rebuilding begin, as always seems to be the case with this team. But first, let us now praise a few famous efforts.

Hats off to Ichiro Suzuki, who broke George Sisler’s single-season record of 257 hits by five. Ichiro simply works his magic with a wand named Louisville slugger. Congratulations to Barry Bonds for any number of things: over 700 home runs; 231 walks; and, most significantly, over 40 years of age. Kudos to Roger Clemens. Not everyone can retire, switch leagues and then be the leading candidate for a Cy Young Award. And an equally hearty solute to his team, the Houston Astros, who staged one of the better recoveries in a long time to make the playoffs. Finally, let us bid a fond farewell to Edgar Martinez, who leaves the Mariners after 18 seasons with 2242 hits and a .312 career batting average. Martinez might follow Paul Molitor, another Designated Hitter, into the Hall of Fame.

Locally, Bobby Abreu may frustrate some with his lack of hustle in the outfield at times, but he is an offensive machine, hitting over .300 for the sixth time in seven seasons with the Phils while claiming membership in the exclusive 30/30 club (home runs/steals) for the second time. Jimmy Rollins capped off a brilliant season by hitting his first grand-slam home run in his final at bat. Rollins, a great fielder all along, reached career highs in virtually every offensive category and now is among the elite players at his position.

I will have much more to say about the future direction of the club, but for now I offer a few comments.

I have been enthusiastic about re-signing Eric Milton, but in his last six decisions he went 3-3 with an ERA of 4.77. During this stretch he gave up six home runs on his way to a league-leading 43 for the season. Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Florida epitomized his season: he only gave up three hits, but two of them were two-run homers. Milton simply may not be able to make the necessary adjustments to pitching in Citizens Bank Park.

Placido Polanco is likely to move on. He wants to play every day and the Phils aren’t going to accommodate him. I’d still take him over David Bell. Polanco knocked in 22 less runs in 17 fewer games while out-hitting Bell .298 to .291. Polanco also scored 17 more runs than Bell. But in the field there is little comparison. Bell made 23 errors; Polanco made 3.

Jason Michaels handled himself very well playing more games (114) than ever before and alternating principally between center and left field. Michaels may not have the classic makeup of a center fielder, but the Phils could do worse if forced to use him out there next season alone or in a platoon setup while filling bigger holes on their pitching staff.

The playoffs, World Series and Hot Stove League lie straight ahead. There’s still a lot of baseball to watch and write about.

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