Phillies look ready for final test

BY Bob Klapisch • September 20, 2010

This is the time of year when baseball becomes art again -- a victory for old-fashioned storylines over new age sabermetrics. So get ready for a throwback series at Citizens Bank Park this week, when the Phillies and Braves decide who’s who and what’s what in the East.

Beautiful, indeed.

While the Braves are hoping to send Bobby Cox to the playoffs one last time before his retirement, the Phillies have a chance to nail down the reputation as the National League's biggest, baddest and, certainly, toughest team. And really, who’s going to argue that?

Despite a blizzard of injuries this season -- during which they lost Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino and Brad Lidge, among others -- the Phillies are once again in first place, riding a seven-game winning streak. All they have to do is take 2-of-3 from the Braves to effectively end the race and begin working on a long-standing goal of toppling the Yankees in the World Series.

That was Rollins’ prediction this spring: brash as it was, the shortstop believed the Phillies would take care of unfinished business in the Bronx, and that was before Roy Oswalt was added to the rotation and Cole Hamels re-discovered his change-up.

Together, they combine with Roy Halladay for the NL’s best front-line starters. Rollins is right, this just might be the best Phillies team of the decade, good enough to beat anyone, including the Yankees.

If momentum counts for anything in September -- and let's face it, it’s the pennant race’s most precious currency -- the Phillies are indeed dangerous right now. Jayson Werth’s two-run, walk-off HR propelled them to a 7-6 win over the Nationals on Sunday, prompting the slugger to say, “We hold our own destiny. Here we are getting into late September again, and we're right where we want to be, clicking on all cylinders, and we're going to be a force to reckon with."

The Braves, for one, have no illusions about the monolith they’re about to encounter, as the Phillies have their rotation perfectly aligned for this showdown series.

“You always had to deal with Halladay and Hamels, but you could kind of navigate through the other three,” Chipper Jones told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Now, they have three number ones . . . and even if you don't get their 'A' game, they're still good enough to give that team a chance to win."

Jones agreed that Oswalt’s presence has changed the chemistry in the East. “When it's all said and done, that pickup (of Oswalt) is probably going to be the biggest difference,” he said.

Since Oswalt arrived, the Phillies’ staff has lowered its ERA by almost half a run and boasts the best strikeout/walk ratio in the NL. That’s shorthand for the Phillies’ lead the NL in strikeouts and fewest walks in the last 2-1/2 months.

Here are two other reasons the Braves should take a deep breath before tonight’s opener: the Phillies lead the NL in runs (304) and on defense have had more total chances than any division leader in the majors (the Yankees, by the way, are dead last among all 30 teams).

But rival executives say the Phillies’ intimidation factor goes far beyond the spreadsheets. “They have a presence that you don’t see very often,” is how one senior official from another team put it. “You walk on the field with them, especially in their ballpark, and you can tell they’re convinced they’re going to win.”

That core belief is what sustained the Phillies through a stunning rash of injuries. At different points in the season, manager Charlie Manuel had to do without three different starting pitchers, his starting catcher, starting first baseman, starting second baseman, starting shortstop, starting third basemen, starting center fielder, setup man and closer.

The fractured roster, along with the Braves mid-summer surge, toppled the Phillies on June 1. They spent the better part of three months chasing Atlanta, but never let them get too far ahead. Finally, the Braves wilted under the relentless pressure. Similarly hobbled by the season-ending injury to Jones, Atlanta lost 9 of 14 at one point this month and saw the Phillies catch and pass them.

That’s what makes this week’s tell-all series impossible to ignore. The Braves are playing for Cox’s 29-year legacy. The Phillies are looking at this as a warm-up to October and another shot at the Yankees. It’s perfect theater.

News Item: Joe Torre, Don Mattingly to attend ceremony at Yankee Stadium.

The cold war between Torre and the Bombers will officially end the moment he steps on the field during a ceremony to unveil a monument of George Steinbrenner.

The decision to invite Torre to Monday night’s event was no small gesture; he’s been at odds with the ownership group ever since leaving the Yankees after the 2007 season. Torre’s memoirs, “The Yankee Years” didn’t help matters, either, especially with general manager Brian Cashman, who believed he was demonized in the narrative.

Torre had become such a non-person in Yankee circles that his name was never mentioned during the closing ceremonies for the old Stadium in 2008. Torre’s image never even appeared on any of the video presentations.

But the hard feelings seem to have passed, now that Torre has stepped down as the Dodgers’ manager. He’s told friends his days in the dugout are probably over; his next gig, preferably, is to be part of an ownership group of his own. Gaining closure with the Yankees is the proper way for Torre to move on to the next phase of his life.

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