'Wanting to' explains Phillies' torrid second half

The Phillies are four games up in the National League East with 11 left to play. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
The Phillies are four games up in the National League East with 11 left to play. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer) (Jonathan Tannenwald)
Posted: September 21, 2010

THIS USED TO BE such a peaceful time of year. The Eagles would still be finishing up that season's backstory, with all of the important chapters yet to come. The Flyers and Sixers would be training and exhibitioning in blessed obscurity. The Phillies would be busy mostly coming up with a new marketing scheme, attempting to find a different way to sell sorrow. There was comfort in the routine.

Rally towels were something they did in Minnesota. Pitching rotations juggled for a pivotal September series generally involved the Yankees and Red Sox and other teams you saw on television. "Pivotal" was not in the local lexicon, truth be told. "Spoiler" was the annual aspiration.

They seem so long ago now, those years before the Phillies assembled these natural-born killers.

They are four games up now in the National League East with 11 left to play. They stretched their lead over the Atlanta Braves with a 3-1 victory last night that was all about what happens to this nucleus in the second half of the season, and particularly as the weather begins to turn.

They get the starting pitching when they need it - and Cole Hamels, one-third of this season's triumver-ace, was eight-innings/ one-run good yet again. They get that and they get a nightly manifestation of their aggressive nature, whether it is Shane Victorino scoring from third base on a grounder to shortstop, or Chase Utley stealing second, drawing an errant throw from catcher Brian McCann and moving to third, and scoring on a groundout.

They play a style that constantly pressures the opponent. And as the nights cool down and the rally towels are handed out yet again, it is this clubhouse-wide determination that shows most of all.

" 'Wanting to' can take you a long ways," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "When I look at some organization or team, and for so many years they're under .500, I think somewhere along the line they would have to get enough players who love to play and have a little talent - and at least they should compete.

"Playing .500, that's not easy to do. But over a period of time, you should be able to compete just by guys having enough talent and desire and the passion to play the game. The 'wanting to' play."

People look at Hamels this year and see a transformation. That's fair enough when you talk about the two pitches he added and the obvious conditioning work that he has maintained since the winter. Mentally, it is also fair to talk about focus and an improvement there.

But the desire? That was always there. The guy wanted to be the best - not just in here-and-now terms but in historic terms - and that was true from the moment he arrived. To misread that is to misread the man.

"I think everybody is born with a certain mental approach," Hamels was saying after the game. "I think the Phillies notice that."

It is very clear that, for a while now, that in their five-tool world, the Phillies have valued a sixth tool - call it fortitude if you want; Manuel calls it "loving to play" - almost as highly as the rest. You do not go 16-3 in September without it. You do not win division after division after division if you are deficient in the ability to read the baseball calendar. You simply don't.

Hamels has the feeling that the Phillies look for it back to when somebody is playing in high school and on travel teams. Asked about this particular clubhouse, and the unrelenting nature of its inhabitants, he said, "The Phillies are the ones that put it together. They saw it."

He said, "We all had it before we got here. Put when you put it together . . . "

When you put it together, this happens:

If they keep going at their current pace, they will end up playing .671 baseball in the second half of this season - which would be the hottest second half in the history of the franchise. If they nudge it up just a little bit, they will have a chance to join the six other major league teams (in the 162-game era) who are in the .700 Club, teams that played the entire second half on a turbocharged pace.

Here's the list: 2001 A's (.778), 1993 Braves and 1977 Royals (.716), 1970 Orioles, 2002 A's and '83 White Sox (.704). That's it. This is the company the Phillies have a chance to keep.

If the Phillies can win two out of three here against the Braves, that would leave them four games up with nine to play. But over? Don't go there, not with this manager, not with this clubhouse which has been the perpetrator of enough late comebacks to do a dissertation on the dynamic of September pressure.

"It's getting there, but it ain't over," Manuel said. "It ain't never over until it's over. Believe me."

Then Manuel talked about some of the bigger collapses he could remember, from the 2009 Tigers - who blew a three-game lead with four to play - to the 1995 California Angels, who kicked away an 11 1/2-game lead in the last 7 weeks.

"You've got to play it out," Manuel said. "You've got to keep your head up and you've got to keep going."

That is the least of his worries.

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com,

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