Sam Donnellon: Phillies finding ways to win

Ryan Howard, safe at second, watches Chase Utley steal home.
Ryan Howard, safe at second, watches Chase Utley steal home.
Posted: September 17, 2009

SO THIS IS how it's going to be this autumn. The slugger swipes a bag and a run scores in its wake. A fast guy, the one who stole second, third and home back in May, hits a late grand slam after the middle of the lineup takes a few walks, and one for the team.

The Phillies scored the first of their runs in last night's 6-1 victory over Washington on a two-out double steal, the last four on another moonshot by Jayson Werth. It was the 34th of his five-tool season, and the 10th grand slam hit by the Phillies this year, a team record.

And yet it was Ryan Howard who stunned everybody but himself when he took off with two outs and Chase Utley at third in the first inning, drawing a throw that sent Utley home with the Phillies' first run.

"Just running for my life," said Howard, but please note that he is now a perfect 7-for-7 in steals this season, fifth on the team and only six behind Werth.

Howard has trimmed from a 275-pound playing weight last year to a svelter 240 this year. Not to be faster, he said.

"Just to feel better," he said.

Still, amid a bumpy season where roles have dissipated and been turned upside down, Howard's wheels have come in mighty handy. He's got four triples and 33 doubles to go with his "bags." He made a diving tag to double up a runner last night, scrambled and recovered another time when he booted a ball with a runner on third and two outs.

"I always knew what kind of athlete I was," he said. "I'm just trying to maximize it.''

For a first-place team with a healthy September lead, the Phillies have created an extraordinary amount of anxiety this season. Injuries to key players, slumps by key players, a closer who can't close and an ace who, at least until recently, couldn't deal.

These are just the high-anxiety-lights. Matt Stairs couldn't buy a hit for 2 months. A month later than expected, Greg Dobbs finally pinch-hit again last night. Expected back long before now, J.C. Romero passed a crucial bullpen test yesterday that kept his season alive, at least for the time being.

And yet here they are, after last night's victory, holding a seven-game lead over the Marlins with 18 to play, more in control of their destiny than in the past two Septembers.

The Phillies were all about roles last year. The seventh inning was Romero. The eighth was Ryan Madson, the ninth Brad Lidge. Dobbs was the lefthanded bat late in games, and so on. The game was paint-by-numbers.

It's an abstract now, although Charlie Manuel said he planned to use Lidge in the ninth until Werth's slam.

"Lidge's the closer,'' he said, as if repeating it enough times will turn back the clock.

It won't. Last year's road will not be this year's road, and that's where the worry starts. On Sunday, 37-year-old Pedro Martinez threw 130 pitches in a 1-0 victory over the Mets. Tuesday night, Cliff Lee threw 124 in a complete-game shutout of the Nationals. It was his third complete game since joining the Phillies and sixth this season, and it put him at 216 innings for the season.

Joe Blanton, who pitched six shutout innings last night, is the closest to that. With 20 quality starts this year, he has pitched 176 2/3 innings.

Some of this is good, of course. Deciding between five starters who have been strong down the stretch is a delightful dilemma. And since at least one of those five will join the bullpen for the postseason, anxiety over the arms of the starting staff may be unnecessary.

"One hundred twenty pitches, I don't see that as a lot," Manuel said before the game of Lee's last start, a sentiment most certainly shared by all you back-in-the-day guys out there.

The manager was more concerned about Martinez.

"You're always concerned about Pedro," he said. It was only a few months ago that the entire league passed on Martinez, so suspect was his arm strength and stamina. But when Martinez arrived at the ballpark after his start, Manuel said, "He couldn't believe how good he felt. The soreness that's natural, he said he couldn't believe how little he felt of that."

Can he hold up? Can Lee? Can the Phillies piece together the back of games with an ever-changing cast of characters, in ever-changing roles. Last night Chan Ho Park, one of the few role guys on this team, pulled a hamstring dodging a broken bat in the seventh inning.

"Looked pretty bad," Manuel said.

Great. But again, the Phillies lead the division by seven games with 18 to play. Jayson Werth has 34 home runs. Ryan Howard has swiped seven bags.

"Living in the moment, playing for that moment, that's what the game's all about,'' Manuel said. "That's why you see guys get tight, buckle under, whatever you want to call it. When we play close games every night, it's got to help us. But at the same time, I like to see us jump out and beat people.

"I like to see us beat them to where we scare them."

Send e-mail to

donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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