Bill Conlin: Resilient Phillies will be playing November baseball

Ryan Howard works out with teammates at Citizens Bank Park.
Ryan Howard works out with teammates at Citizens Bank Park.
Posted: October 07, 2009

ON THE EVE of the wild roller-coaster ride of another major league baseball season, it seemed like a conservative pick: Phillies threepeat as National League East champions. Ninety-seven victories seemed about right.

I didn't believe the Mets' hype with or without Francisco Rodriguez, the feared K-Rod. Or J.J. Putz. And who knew before the place opened that the Metropolitans' new Citi Field was going to be to $1 billion Yankee Stadium Lite what Yellowstone is to Central Park? Certainly not a former home-run hitter named David Wright, who would plummet from 33 jacks in 2008 to 10 in 2009 - despite a .307 average. OK, he missed 16 games, but really . . .

Sitting at a laptop keyboard around April Fools' Day to predict what the baseball standings will look like 6 months down a long and winding road is a fool's errand. It's not even an educated guess. It's shooting darts blindfolded.

So you never assume everything will go right, as in "Assuming the Phillies suffer no major injuries and the nucleus of the 2008 World Series team produces similar numbers, it is not unreasonable to project another parade down Brad Street." Sorry, I meant Broad Street.

Nor do you envision a roster meltdown like the one that turned the Mets into a pillar of sulk and pitched them into a 92-loss firepit.

So, knowing now what we had no way of knowing back when Brad Lidge was still on a 48-0 roll, when Brett Myers was the No. 2 starter, when Harry The K was singing "High Hopes'' in person, this question must be asked:

How the hell did this Phillies team - the team that Charlie Manuel salvaged from a rubble of fallen dominoes - manage to win 93 games? How did a movie that could have been titled, "The Lidge on the River Cry" result in a bigger lead at the head of the stretch - 8 1/2 games on Sept. 3 - than any but the 9 1/2-game lead enjoyed by 1993's magnificent mongrels. The biggest lead by the 1980 world champions was two games after Game 161.

Ask yourself:

* How many more W's in the bank had Lidge blown just a six-pack of saves instead of 11?

* How many more W's had Brett Myers not joined the growing frayed hip-labrum club?

* How many more W's had Raul Ibanez come close to replicating his MVP-candidate first half?

* How many more W's if Jimmy Rollins, who had half an MVP-level season, had not been among the game's least productive shortstops at bat before the All-Star break?

* How many more W's if the MLB Network's ambitious reality series, "The Pen," had not turned into a physical meltdown chronicle that could have been titled, "Journal of the Plague Year"? The bullpen that was baseball's best in 2008 went down like shooting-gallery ducks.

* How many more W's if Cole Hamels had pitched more like a double postseason MVP and less like the No. 3 starter on an also-ran?

* How many more W's if the bats belonging to extra men Eric Bruntlett, Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs had shown up? The Terrible Trio batted .210 with 10 homers and 44 RBI.

* How many more W's if they had won at home in the first half at the same rate they lost? Or had even won at home at the same rate they won on the road?

It was a Himalayan barrier of negatives for a ballclub to overcome, compounded by the soul-shattering loss of Harry Kalas, the voice of the franchise and of a city still basking in a World Series glow that passed behind a cloud when he died April 13 in the Washington Nationals' press box.

Elation and sorrow . . . From the World Series ring ceremony to the passing of an icon who touched the lives of every person connected to the Phillies. Those undercurrents became the overriding emotions of a Jekyll-Hyde season.

Dr. Martin Luther King preached that grace earned without suffering is unredemptive. If true, these Phillies will be in a high state of grace entering the three-tier crusade.

Once again, how the hell did this team win 93 games?

There is no easy answer to a question that involves how far each player had to reach while plumbing the depths of his soul. The numeric reply is that the nucleus of the Phillies, a superb starting eight, is the strongest in franchise history. Jimmy Rollins is the best shortstop, Chase Utley the best second baseman, Ryan Howard - far and away - the best first baseman, and Jayson Werth the best rightfielder since Johnny Callison. Third baseman Pedro Feliz, a superb glove and arm, led a lineup loaded with offensive heavyweights in batting average with runners in scoring position. Shane Victorino played another semester of Gold Glove center. Carlos Ruiz handled a pitching staff in flux with the calloused hands of a mule skinner and was that rarest of NL species - a tough eight-hole out. There was nothing half-baked about Paul Bako, once the personal catcher for Greg Maddux.

Those are the obvious answers, along with the brilliant deal by rookie general manager Ruben Amaro that added 2008 AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and gifted outfielder Ben Francisco for an expendable sack of prospects. Along with the emergence of J.A. Happ. Along with a quirky, brilliantly effective manager, who, while showing the patience of Job, at the same time saw most of his bullpen become patients of (Dr.) Jobe.

The real answer, however, can only come from players who have run the consuming 11-victory gantlet and emerged on the other side of the towel-waving hysteria to part the red sea on flatbeds and ride into history together.

They know to a man nothing they have ever done required more work, intensity, sacrifice and focus than what they did last October during 14 electric games.

To a man they will tell you they had no idea how hard it was, or how rewarding the fruition of it would be until they experienced it. There is no on-the-job-training for winning a World Series.

Spring training lasts 6 weeks because that is how long it takes to tune and set up a pitching staff. For many ballclubs, Opening Day comes too soon for arms calibrated by pitch counts.

Charlie Manuel and his coaches have been forced to compress 6 weeks' worth of spring-training decisions into about 6 days of jury-rigging to cobble together the postseason staff. The only guarantee? There are 12 pitchers . . .

Final answer? The shortest one.

This Phillies team will be waiting for the American League pennant winner because it has been there, done that, and has the skill and will to be there and do that again.

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