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Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Games People Play 5.17.2006

By Rick Racela

Are we being set up again?
 Through Sunday the Philadelphia Phillies had won 13 of their last 14 games and were starting to excite a winning-starved fan base.
 Their timing was superb.  Just after the NFL draft and just before the Eagles’ first mini camp, the Phils exploded to nine wins in a row.  The pitching was decent and the hitting productive.
 What’s going on here?  The town is talkin’ baseball.  That’s unusual, at least over the past several years.
 Fans are still cautious because they’ve been down the aisle before.  Strong stretches of quality baseball have culminated in disappointing key losses down the stretch or failed acquisitions at the trade deadline.
 We’ve been here before.
 Why should we put our hearts and shrinking discretionary incomes on the line and support this heart-breaking organization?  Don’t we know they’ll eventually fail?
 Well, last Friday night we picked up one good reason to stay on board when prize lefthander Cole Hamels emerged from the minors to throw five beautiful innings of shut out baseball.  He represents the hope for fans who haven’t seen a dominant lefty since Steve Carlton left town.
 Big Ryan Howard and bat speed quick Chase Utley look like legitimate stars in the making.  This right side of the infield combo was expected to be productive in the batter’s box but you can never be sure based on the history of this ball club.  Howard and Utley both play good defense and appear to be improving each game.
 With the traded Jim Thome making a big splash in Chicago, it was feared that Howard might wilt from his superb rookie season, but it hasn’t happened.  He carried the team with two bombs in a 2-1 extra inning affair on Mother’s Day. 
 Newcomer Aaron Rowand excited the fans with a rough kiss into the centerfield fence after squeezing a dead center laser in Willie Mays over-the-shoulder fashion.
 Despite some serious injuries to his nose and facial bones, Rowand earned the respect of fans who only want the players to lay their hearts on the line.  In Philadelphia, it’s not so much talent as desire that wins over the crowd.  Rowand’s place is secure forever.
 The suspect pitching staff has performed admirably.  Jon Lieber’s near perfect game and the consistency of Brett Myers has bolstered the starting staff. 
 Closer Tom Gordon is using an explosive curve ball to get hitters out.  Through the weekend, he’d garnered 13 saves.  Billy who?
 Set-up man Arthur Rhodes is throwing eighth inning gas and provides the team with a closer back-up should Gordon go down.
 Charlie Manuel is not going to make anyone forget Sparky Anderson, but the players appear eager to go all out for their manager.  The fact that players want to go hard for you is more important for a team leader than X’s and O’s. 
 Manuel’s easy-going style is playing well in a clubhouse torn up by former manager Larry Bowa’s demonstrative temper.  Winning cures everything and as long as the team is playing this well, Manuel’s strategic missteps will be small print material.
 But can Good Time Charlie prevent the Fightin’ Phils from breaking hearts once again?
 The reason we can truly hope not is Pat Gillick.  If this team is close enough, Gillick has the expertise to guide it home.   He’s a seasoned baseball man and commands respect from ownership and the fans.
 When the trade deadline comes around and if the Phillies are still contending, Gillick will do, or not do, whatever it takes to keep the ship floating.  That’s the difference this year.
 The talent seems adequate, just as in past years.  Hamels brings a big shot in the arm to the pitching staff and there’s hope that Randy Wolf will return from Tommy John surgery sometime in mid-summer.
 It’s time for optimism.  The Eagles are still two months from training camp.  The Sixers and Flyers are long gone.  The stars are lined up for an impact season from the Phillies.
 It’s early and we’re not too far removed from last season’s heartbreak.  But maybe that’s what being a fan is all about.  Letting your emotions get the best of you is what you do when you’re a fan.
 For Philadelphia sports fans, that loyalty often gets you a smack in the face, but maybe this summer will be different.

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