Bill Lyon: For thrills, Phillies need no assistance

Last Sunday's unassisted triple play at second base by utility player Eric Bruntlett, tagging out Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets, was just one highlight in another promising Phillies season.
Last Sunday's unassisted triple play at second base by utility player Eric Bruntlett, tagging out Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets, was just one highlight in another promising Phillies season.

Familiar stars and newcomers have kept the wins - and fans - coming.

Posted: August 30, 2009

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist

Ah, but the livin' has been large in Phillies Nation this intoxicating summer.

Each flip of the calendar has revealed the Fightin's to be atop their division. They seized the lead in the National League East on May 30 and ever since have followed the tactical advice given race-car drivers: Go to the front and improve your position.

At times, the Phillies have stretched their record to more than 20 games over .500. And the turnstiles click happily like courting crickets, counting sellout after sellout after sellout: 52 . . . 53 . . . 54 . . .

What they have at Citizens Bank Park is a license to print money. And unlike past ruinously timid and frugal regimes, these Phillies do not hold on to that money in clenched fists. They have been bold and assertive, and have not hesitated to write a check for big-ticket items.

What they have done is sneak up on us. We are unaccustomed to such sustained, and sudden, prosperity. It was not so long ago, remember, that the Phillies suffered their 10,000th defeat, most ever by a team in any sport. Now they are the world champions and headed for the postseason for the third year in a row. Heady stuff.

Their core is young, presumably with vintage years still to come. So is it heresy to suggest that they are on the verge of - ssshhh - a mini-dynasty?

They bring to mind the Fightin's of another generation, those of the late 1970s: Schmitty and Bow, Boonie and Bull, Lefty and Garry Lee.

These Fightin's have endured and have shown resiliency - even in the throes of a rare losing streak, they do not panic. So September beckons now, and unlike the two preceding years, they are the pursued. It is their balance, it says here, that should see them safely through, and then on into October.

What impresses you is how they take turns. Four of them should end up with more than 30 home runs. Four have a chance at 100 RBIs, five at 100 runs.

Early on, it was every dog's favorite player - Ra-a-a-u-u-u-l-l-l - who carried them. Ever since an injury, Raul Ibanez has labored with his stroke and timing. So into the breach now steps the Big Bopper. One moment Ryan Howard is still hopelessly flailing at sliders tantalizingly out of his reach, and the next he is launching home runs that ricochet off satellites.

Jayson Werth insisted he could be a productive player if given something more than half a dozen at-bats a month. Show me, Charlie Manuel said, and so Werth did.

For sheer entertainment, there is Shane Victorino, a puzzlement to be sure, but with legs to make up for his head. For all his oddly endearing adventures, he has made himself a .300 hitter, and to watch him chase the ball is like watching Air Bud outrun Frisbees.

The Fightin's other fire starter, the effervescent Jimmy Rollins, has struggled at the bat, having begun the season locked in an epic slump. But his glove remains slick, and his average crawls determinedly upward.

And always, always, there is Chase Utley. In the category of if-you-were-assembling-a-team-who-would-you-pick-first, he gets frequent, and deserved, mention.

Which brings us to that raised patch of manicured dirt in the middle of the diamond, where all games are eventually won or lost.

Fightin's pitchin'? Let us count the ways. Cliff Lee rates the most complimentary label baseball lifers can bestow: "Stud." J.A. Happ is remarkably composed for one so young. So, most games, is Joe Blanton. So is Pedro Martinez, for one so old.

And now the two most disquieting enigmas.

Cole Hamels is as puzzled as the rest of us by his inconsistency and tendency to be easily distracted and put off his game; his problem doesn't seem to be in his arm, but rather between his ears.

And, finally, the most crucial occurrence of the season is that the aura of invincibility has been stripped from Brad Lidge. He's still our closer, Manuel says repeatedly, mostly out of loyalty and partly because he has no other options. For now.

These Fightin's are good, and they are young. But in baseball, as in life, you are given only so many openings.


E-mail Bill Lyon at lyon1964@comcast.net.

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