Commentary

Commentary: The Phillies Are Developing A Personality

philsI remember the dust, the boxes, the sparse toys and machines I placed on the floor because there wasn’t a better option. A trash bag rested on the bed, another hung from my wooden desk chair, the one that had been twisting my spine for years. I was happy to leave this place, this small box of a dorm room in the middle of Boston.

The next morning my family would arrive for the weekend. We’d hustle through the pounding rain as we shopped, ate meals and toured the North End one final time. I’d open my gifts, dress in a robe and walk to the stage to collect a diploma.

But before all that I cleaned the dorm, scrubbed it of barbecue sauce stains and swept it of lost potato chips. My eye kept watching the laptop, though, as it showed the early innings of the Phillies game against the Mets. Gavin Floyd was struggling in the first inning, walking three consecutive batters before working Xavier Nady to a full count. I stood to watch as Floyd readied his pitch.

I remember yelling and jumping as Aaron Rowand thwacked into the fence at the deepest part of the Citizens Bank Park outfield. Harry Kalas and Larry Andersen raved. The fans cheered. Rowand was down.

We didn’t expect the Phillies to contend with the Mets, who had Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado to go along with David Wright and Jose Reyes. They had Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez, plus a great bullpen and a solid collection of role players. The Phillies weren’t quite at that level; sure Ryan Howard was the best power hitter on the planet, and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins were young and hungry talents capable of carrying the team for weeks. But the Phillies had noticeable holes that season. They weren’t there yet.

But that was a fun summer. I came home for a three-week breather after graduation. I watched the Phillies lose to the Brewers, then came back and saw them blitz the Nationals on Memorial Day. Then the Phillies went west and I went north, leaving Philadelphia for good to make a home in Connecticut. I followed the team from a distance as they hit a wall, going 6-20 in June and July against teams like the Mets, Yankees, Rays and Red Sox.

The Phillies languished in the warm months. We saw plenty of Jose Hernandez, Chris Roberson and Fabio Castro. David Dellucci was the best pinch hitter on the planet. Chris Coste made his debut. And the Phillies sold off Bobby Abreu, Rheal Cormier and Sal Fasano.

Then something amazing happened – the Phils played hard down the stretch, even threatening to reach the playoffs. In fact with one week to play the Phils were a half-game in front of the Dodgers for the National League wild card. But they wouldn’t hold on.

That year, however, was more about personality than performance. The Phillies developed into an offensive juggernaut, leading the National League in runs (865) and finishing third in home runs (216). They walked more than any other team (626) and finished a percentage point behind Los Angeles for the league’s top on-base percentage. Rowand’s catch in May symbolized a new era of toughness and grit for the Phillies, a forceful all-or-nothing punch to the face visible in Howard’s mammoth bombs, Utley’s constant violence and Rollins’ motormouth style of play.

***

Saturday I sat on my couch, the wife and I beginning a new cleaning assignment, this time to clear room for the third member of our family coming in November. We had boxes throughout the house, dirt and dust that needed sweeping, and furniture that needed dire scrubbing. But we were taking a break for the night, and the Phillies once again sucked me in – another exceptional pitching performance, another tight game.

I began to come off the high as the ninth inning unfolded. I had learned once again to expect losses while hoping for the best, just as it was way back in 2006. So as David Hernandez walked a batter, surrendered a single, then a double, and eased the Phillies into a possible loss, I felt disappointed but relatively calm. This was fine. It had to be fine.

Then, with one out, Jordan Pacheco flew a pitch out to left field. And Tyler Goeddel, the 23-year-old kid who last year was shagging flies for double-A Montgomery, caught the ball and rifled it home.

And once again, just like I did 10 years before, I yelled and jumped.

This time my wife shushed me. We have landlords downstairs. Right.

But I couldn’t help but recall Rowand’s catch, and I couldn’t help but realize that like 2006, these Phillies are developing a personality. Only now it’s not with the bat but the arm positioned sixty feet and six inches from home plate. The Phillies are fifth in the league in runs allowed per game (4.11). They’re fourth in WHIP (1.204). And they’re leading the league in strikeouts per nine innings (9.1).

Individually you see it happening. Jerad Eickhoff flashes a nasty curveball. Vincent Velasquez spots an unhittable fastball. Hector Neris hammers hitters with his splitter. And Aaron Nola paints the plate like he’s Picasso, shifting and switching and dizzying his opposition by engineering his artistry.

The artistry rubs off. Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis turn double plays like ballet dancers, fancily flinging ball to glove and fixing their feet around the bag with simple elegance. When he connects, Maikel Franco’s bat is thunderous like a symphonic crescendo. And Odubel Herrera is a madman’s concerto in progress. He barks at himself as he misses the sweet spot on a cookie pitch. He claps his hands together like a cymbal crash after earning a walk. And he stumbles and strides on the basepaths like a Tchaikovsky flourish.

This group is an energetic and young orchestra a few obvious first chairs away from certain glory. Until then there are hiccups. There are loose strings and harsh notes; they’ll get out of tune and, sometimes, flail spectacularly. But then, when it all comes together, it’s a rush of noise that’s discordant yet joyful.

And when Eugenio Suarez steamrolled into Cameron Rupp, and Rupp rolled to his belly but still clutched that baseball, holding it up for the world to see, it was as if Beethoven had come back alive, filling the air of Citizens Bank Park with a sound so perfect that it could move the mountains.

We will endure more losses this season. Like 2006, we haven’t yet reached the climax to this story. But something real and wonderful is already building here in Philadelphia. It’s not the brute force of the glory days we had just years before, but it’s something new and exciting – it curves and drips, slides and strides. And it’s fun. My goodness is it fun.

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