Phils' core five driven to prove people wrong

Phillies' Jimmy Rollins (left) and Ryan Howard have plenty of lasting power and plenty to smile about.
Phillies' Jimmy Rollins (left) and Ryan Howard have plenty of lasting power and plenty to smile about.
Posted: October 15, 2010

CHARLIE MANUEL knew Chase Utley's defensive skills were limited. Manuel didn't like it.

As a top lieutenant in the Phillies system, Manuel had seen Utley play for 2 years. Now, as manager, Manuel told Utley that Utley needed to improve his defense if he wanted to remain a starter.

"Fine," Utley said. "I'll earn it."

That was 2005, Manuel's first year in charge. Back then, Utley was the top prospect among a slew of flawed young talents.

Six years later, Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz hold the record for most consecutive playoff games started as a five-man unit, at 33. Jayson Werth has started 32 of those 33.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Big Five has eclipsed the 1999-2001 Yankees quintet of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius, who logged 28 in a row.

How did this happen? How did a team that didn't sniff the playoffs for 13 seasons suddenly construct the winningest five-man core in postseason history?

They got there because they were told they couldn't.

"Each guy has his own story of, 'You Can't,' " Howard said.

That might seem incredible, since four of the Big Five have played in an All-Star Game, as has Werth; since Rollins and Howard won MVP awards; since Rollins and Victorino own Gold Gloves; since Utley and Howard are on their way to Cooperstown careers.

And, of course, each has a World Series ring, two pennants, three NLCS appearances and four NL East titles to his credit. They are perceived as a constellation of stars.

Public perception does not matter. What matters is how they perceive themselves, and that self-perception keeps them from tumbling from baseball's brightest stage back into the mosh pit of anonymity.

"You're a mosh-keteer. You're on the verge of falling back in there and never getting a chance," Victorino said. "I think that's still what continues to drive me to be the best I can be."

It's a common theme.

It's what endears them to a fan base that has filled Citizens Bank Park for the past 123 consecutive games.

"It's a group of baseball rats. They can't get on the field enough," said Mike Arbuckle, the former assistant general manager who oversaw the acquisition of them all. "They've all found a way to prove people wrong. That makes them a group of guys the Philly fan can appreciate."

Because they never were fully appreciated.

As a minor leaguer, Howard twice asked to be traded after a glass ceiling named Jim Thome was signed before the 2003 season. To this day Howard routinely bristles at the mention of his weaknesses (fielding, strikeouts and hitting lefthanded pitching) where a less sensitive type might shrug off the criticism.

Rollins had endured complaints suffered by few star athletes of his profile. Mainly, they centered on his lack of typical leadoff hitter credentials, complaints heard even in 2007, when he won the league's MVP award.

Rollins admits that he once lacked the focus he now shows. He points to Utley as a reason why he plays with such abandon now - in particular, Utley's unorthodox, sling-armed, git-er-done defense.

"Yeah, I heard when he was coming up that Chase was rough defensively, pretty much from Day 1. Then, he's making diving plays. I'm like, 'This is all the stuff they said he couldn't do!' " Rollins said. "I got to thinking: Maybe when he got up here, he was like, 'It's all-out. I'm leaving it on the field every day.' "

Rollins arrived in the red-carpet era of Scott Rolen and Pat Burrell, repressed by the franchise's greatest shortstop, Larry Bowa, then the manager. Rollins admits he felt a little entitled, and a bit cautious:

"I had that for about a month the first couple of years. Then, I was, like, 'What's the point?' If you're timid and you fail, you feel worse than if you go out there and say, 'If I fail, I fail.' "

Manuel loves that.

"They're not afraid to fail," the manager said. "When it's a tight spot, they want to be in that spot and show you, 'Yes, I can.' "

Victorino might be the best tight-spot player, and he might have come closest to never getting a chance.

The Dodgers twice left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, and twice he was selected and tossed back to the Dodgers. The second time, at the start of the 2005 season, the Dodgers didn't want him back, so he stayed with the Phillies, where in 2005 he was the best player in Triple A.

He made the team in 2006, replaced Bobby Abreu in rightfield at the trade deadline that year, replaced heroic Aaron Rowand in center in 2008. Last week he passed Mike Schmidt as the Phillies' all-time postseason hits leader.

If Victorino wasn't least likely to succeed, then Ruiz was.

The night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, Ruiz and Chris Coste, co-catchers by default in 2008, stood alone in leftfield. Soaked in alcohol, they sought each other's company and consolation.

"We've been through a lot, and we might not be in the majors next year," Ruiz said that night. "Nobody thought we'd ever be here."

Coste had played himself into the minors, but Ruiz, originally a plodding infielder, nearly never got signed. During a poor tryout, a chance mention that he might be able to play catcher and raw athletic talent got his foot in the door. He hit .219 in 2008, but in 2010 he commanded the pitching staff and hit .302, tops on the team and second among the league's catchers.

None of the Big Five has fallen as far then risen as high as Werth.

A first-round pick in 1997 by Pat Gillick, then the GM in Baltimore, Werth was traded twice but was a top Dodgers prospect before he broke a bone in his left wrist in 2005.

In the winter of 2006, his career apparently over, Werth made a last-ditch attempt to fix the lingering wrist injury. In the spring of 2007, Werth, his wrist healed, had to earn a spot on the Phillies' roster. In 2008, he had to prove he could hit righthanded pitching. In 2009, he had to prove he could play every day.

This season Werth hit .296 with 27 homers and a league-high 46 doubles. Facing free agency, all Werth has left to prove is whether switching to mega-agent Scott Boras was a wise move.

In 2007, Werth, then 28, was part of the contingent that Gillick, then the Phillies' GM, said needed at least 2 years to contend for the playoffs. That was just after a deadline fire sale that shipped off Abreu, Cory Lidle, David Bell and Ryan Franklin.

Three months later, after an historic collapse by the Mets, the Phillies streaked through September and won the first of four straight NL East titles. Yes, Gillick was surprised, on several fronts.

"I mean, in 2007, it was a fluke, with the Mets going into that swoon," said Gillick, who was shocked that his reconfigured squad made a meaningful charge. "With younger guys, usually, it takes a period of time to just get their feet on the ground. You can't expect all of those people to click at the same time."

They might have been green, but, like Werth, they were not young. Howard, a college player and a later bloomer, was 27, as was Utley, a 3-year collegian. Ruiz, a long-track minor leaguer, was 28, as was Rollins, then in his seventh season. Victorino, a teaser talent, was 26, but he had been a professional for 8 years.

They heard the clock ticking in their careers, and, as ever, they heard the chorus of doubters.

Arbuckle, who left the team for Kansas City after 2008, was less surprised, considering he mandated a makeup profile for the organization's prospects. He told scouting director Marti Wolever to pound into the scouting staff: Arbuckle wanted talent, but he also wanted bulldogs.

The result: a kennel of pugnacious winners.

"That's part of the intangibles we looked for," Arbuckle said. "With them, it's not about the dollars. They epitomize the blue-collar ethic. And they are honest with themselves."

They're also comfortable with themselves. The shadow cast by Abreu, a star, and Bell, a hardnose, kept youth from serving itself. With a permissive Manuel at the helm, when the trade went down the reins were loosed.

"Shane's loud. Chase is stern and crazy. J-Dub's a wild man," Rollins said, referring to Werth. "I'm laid-back. Ryan's the workhorse. We all understand that."

They understand who they are - and what they are not.

"Maybe we're just realists. We know what we're good at. We know what needs work. Whatever we're good at, we make sure that stays good. It's hard not to work on things that you're not as efficient at," Rollins said.

"We have to prove to ourselves how good we can be. As ourselves," Victorino said. "That's what helps a lot of guys in here."

Victorino speaks with more than the Big Five and Werth in mind.

The makeup of lefty stud Cole Hamels constantly has been an issue - until this season, when a more serious Hamels surfaced and shined. Ryan Madson grew with the Big Five and found his niche as a setup man but, to his dissatisfaction, he has failed as a starter and as a closer. Only injury kept young fifth starter Kyle Kendrick from a long minor league vacation this season. Kendrick went 11-10.

Even the mercenaries have a reason for resentment. Workhorse relievers Chad Durbin and Jose Contreras recently were starters. Lefty specialist J.C. Romero was plucked off the trash heap in 2008. Starter Jamie Moyer wears his 47 years like a scarlet letter.

Smallish co-ace Roy Oswalt was Houston's ace until they traded him in July, but Oswalt pitched most successfully in the long, wide shadows of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Few players carry a bigger chip than enigmatic third baseman Placido Polanco, who basically is a utility infielder who first felt underappreciated in St. Louis, then Philadelphia, then Detroit, before coming back to the Phillies.

"They fit in good with us here," Manuel said, chuckling.

The joke is, of course, that Manuel isn't supposed to be where he is, either. A gifted hitting coach, yes; but the hillbilly face of a big-market franchise? The joke's on who?

The Big Five, Werth, the supporting cast, the manager: They all have met their challenges, real or imagined. All have been beaten.

None has stayed beaten.

"You're going to run up against the wall, and that wall is going to win. Why not go all-out?" Rollins asked. "The wall gets a little chip in it, and the world opens up. Maybe that's the attitude for all of us."

It's a winning attitude. A recordsetting attitude.

"There are so many stars in here. But nobody comes into this clubhouse and says, 'I'm better than you. I've got this over you,' " Victorino said. "Ultimately, we're humble. I mean, I'm not 'established.' "

Do any of them feel established?

"No," Victorino replied. "But that's what makes us who we are."

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