Amaro's moves paying off so far

The Phillies' Marlon Byrd makes a sliding catch in the seventh inning. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
The Phillies' Marlon Byrd makes a sliding catch in the seventh inning. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 06, 2014

Ryne Sandberg had not entered the Broad Street Run. In fact, his plan was to stay as far away from it as possible. Instead, the Phillies manager became an involuntary participant for an instant because it was the only way he could get to work Sunday morning.

The sad story with a happy ending started at his rented home in Rittenhouse Square.

"I jumped in an Uber car and said, 'By the way, Broad Street is closed.' " Sandberg said he told the driver of the city's upscale taxi service.

After his driver missed the I-95 exit that would have taken Sandberg to Citizens Bank Park and avoided the bulk of the race traffic, the manager said he ended up at the airport.

"Now I'm hoping that he makes a U-turn, gets back on [95] and goes all the way around to the east again," Sandberg said. "But he punched in something else that gave him directions. So before you know it, I was a mile west of the stadium and it was a parking lot."

Plan B?

"So I jumped out, not too happy about it," Sandberg said. "So I walked a mile. To get across Broad, it was a full crowd, full-strength runners at that point. No gaps. I talked to the policeman. 'I've got to get to the stadium.' Got my briefcase and everything. He goes, 'Well, you want to risk it, kind of get with the runners and get across.' So I actually ran about 50 feet with the runners."

That wasn't the only race Sandberg found himself in by the end of the day. After everything went exactly as planned at the ballpark, the manager and the Phillies found themselves in the middle of a muddled National League East race, thanks to a 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.

You could point to a lot of reasons the 15-14 Phillies are only 11/2 games behind first-place Atlanta, but it would take most people around here a long time to come up with a rather obvious one. Some people, in fact, would not be willing to admit it even after being smacked in the face with the facts.

Sure, it helped that the Braves had a terrible week, losing six consecutive games to the surprising Miami Marlins and the resurgent San Francisco Giants. And sure, it has helped that the Nationals, who just lost two out of three to the Phillies, are without third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and leftfielder Bryce Harper, two of the best hitters in their lineup.

Equally important from the Phillies' perspective is that many of the decisions and moves made by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. late last season and during the offseason have paid off through the first 29 games.

The two weekend wins over the Nationals are the most recent example. The pitching duo of A.J. Burnett and Roberto Hernandez combined to allow just one run on seven hits in 131/3 innings. Burnett, signed for $16 million, has been one of the best free-agent starting pitchers in baseball to this point of the season. Hernandez, signed for $4.5 million, has been a solid fifth starter, with Sunday's outing against the Nationals his best by far. Most impressive was the fact that he was not told until Saturday that he'd be filling in for Cole Hamels, who was scratched because of a stomach virus.

"He's gotten better as we've gone along as far as his command and using his pitches," Sandberg said. "His pitch count is better than it was early in the season. He has shown better control in the zone."

The Phillies are a combined 8-5 in the starts made by Burnett and Hernandez.

But those are not the only moves that have worked for the general manager. Amaro has received a lot of criticism for keeping the aging core together and for the signings of closer Jonathan Papelbon and rightfielder Marlon Byrd.

It's hard to imagine where the Phillies would be right now without their senior citizens. Carlos Ruiz was the main reason the Phillies went 6-4 on their most recent West Coast trip. Chase Utley, who knocked in the Phillies' only run Sunday with a first-inning single, is playing his best baseball since 2009. Jimmy Rollins, who tripled and scored Sunday's run, is playing his best baseball since 2008. Ryan Howard, whose three-run homer was the trigger for Saturday's victory, has found some semblance of his power stroke.

Byrd and Papelbon also have been valuable contributors to the modest success the Phillies have had so far this season. Byrd, batting .286 with a team-high 22 RBIs, didn't have a hit Sunday, but his seventh-inning sliding catch of a sinking liner off catcher Sandy Leon's bat was critical.

Papelbon, meanwhile, has a streak of 11 consecutive scoreless innings and nine straight saves during which he has allowed six hits and two walks, and struck out eight.

Yes, the overall bullpen still needs fixing and Amaro has much to prove before he reverses the opinions of Phillies fans across the region. Many have shown their displeasure by staying away because they believe the Phillies are as lost as Sandberg's driver was Sunday as he tried to get the manager to Citizens Bank Park.

But 29 games into the season the Phillies are in the race, and that's where you want them to be.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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