Phil Sheridan: A long season no more as pennant race heats up

Posted: September 08, 2010

It isn't a long season. Not anymore.

For months, baseball people dismiss all mishap and misfortune by invoking the grueling marathon of the schedule. Slumps, injuries, bad plays and questionable managerial moves – they're all swept away with those four words: "It's a long season."

In April and May, June and July, it's true. There's time, always time. But now, a week into September, the long season is down to 22 games. The Phillies, facing the twin challenges of reaching the playoffs and setting themselves up to make a strong run, played Tuesday night with September urgency.

No matter what went wrong – and plenty did in the eighth inning alone – the Phillies were not going to lose. And now they have overtaken the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East.

"We've climbed the ladder," said Shane Victorino, who created the winning run in the eighth inning. "We've come a long way. Let's not start praising too much. There's a lot of games left, but now we're in the position where we control our destiny."

Thanks to San Diego's recent slide, the Phillies have a chance to earn home field throughout the postseason. That's a pretty sweet setup, provided they can get there. It is a delicate balance that begins with the starting rotation.

Ideally, the Phillies would set things up so Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels would start the first three games of the division series. Realistically, though, those three might have to start the Phillies' final three games in Atlanta just to clinch a spot in that series.

"We've got to get to the postseason," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "I don't think there's an X next to our names that says we're in the postseason yet."

Dubee was responding to questions about the rotation. With off days the next three Thursdays, the Phillies could opt to give Halladay, especially, a little extra rest between starts or, conversely, skip Kyle Kendrick's turn and squeeze an extra start or two from the aces.

It is a little more complicated a dilemma than it appears. After he pitched Saturday night, Halladay was asked whether those off days were coming at a good time. He is 33 years old and already has pitched 221 innings this season. He is on pace to exceed his career high of 266, which he threw at age 26. He has never pitched in the postseason.

"I feel good," Halladay said. "I think I have to get an extra day [off] this time. If I can get a little extra rest at this point, I'll take it. It's a matter of building momentum for the end of the year."

That's pretty straightforward. Halladay thinks he'd be more effective down the stretch and in October with extra rest, if possible. Dubee was just as straightforward when asked whether he had any concerns about Halladay.

"Only if he was stuck in a traffic jam and wasn't able to get to the game," Dubee said.

Dubee acknowledged that Halladay's delivery wasn't quite as sharp as it has been for most of the year. Whether that is a result of fatigue or simply one of those things that happens over The Long Season, who knows?

"When Oswalt got here [from Houston], he had a dead arm," Dubee said. "Everybody goes through that."

The key, then, is to get to Oct. 5 or 6 with the big three feeling as fresh as possible after the stretch run and the long, long months that preceded it. The decisions Dubee and manager Charlie Manuel make now are going to have ripple effects the rest of the way.

You could feel the difference as Manuel talked about his lineup for this pivotal game against the Marlins. He dropped Jimmy Rollins to the No. 5 spot for the second game in a row. For most of the long season, Manuel stuck with Rollins in the shortstop's preferred spot, the leadoff hole.

"I'll do whatever I want to do," Manuel said before the game. "Jimmy's good with men in scoring position. I think any time you can rev Jimmy's engines - that's who he is. You give him a different feel, he's going to play better. I know Jimmy pretty good."

Evidently. Rollins drove in two runs and scored another. The Phillies needed them all.

There is time over the long season to show faith in players even through grievous slumps. There is time to stand by and hope Kendrick puts it together, time to let Brad Lidge regain his form.

Now? It's time to set feelings and preferences aside and nail down that playoff spot. The season isn't long anymore.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|