Phillies not interested in rebuilding
Despite Saturday's loss, team in thick of Wild Card chase
NEW YORK -- So the Philadelphia Phillies traded two regulars, a member of the starting rotation and a core left-handed reliever. Obviously, they were looking to the future; the remainder of the 2006 season would be nothing more than the beginning of a transitional phase.
Maybe not. It is sometimes exceedingly strange how these things work out. The Phillies were strongly criticized in some quarters for bailing out on the current season. But since they moved such staples as Bobby Abreu, David Bell, Cory Lidle and Rheal Cormier, they are playing better.
After making these moves, the Phillies won four straight over two division leaders, the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets. This little streak ended Saturday in a gut-wrenching 4-3 loss to the Mets, in which starter Jon Lieber's own throwing error opened the way to three unearned runs in the sixth inning.
But the Phillies had been picking up the pace a bit even before the trades, largely because their starting pitching had shown some much-needed improvement. Even with Saturday's loss, the Phils have won nine of their last 12.
They opened Saturday merely 2 1/2 games out of the National League Wild Card lead. It is true that in the NL, where only five teams are above .500, if you have a pulse you are in the Wild Card chase. But after even a mild bout of improvement, the numbers clearly indicate that the Phillies' 2006 cause is no longer hopeless. It is not exactly a thing of beauty, either, at 53-56, but it is not bereft of hope.
And it is clear that the Phils intend to be rebuilding -- or as general manager Pat Gillick has put it, "retooling" -- around position players such as second baseman Chase Utley, who just came off a 35-game hitting streak, and first baseman Ryan Howard, who Saturday hit his [National] [L]eague-leading 38th home run. And they will build around a core of young pitchers.
The pitching remains the issue for this club. The return of Randy Wolf from Tommy John surgery has to be encouraging. Lieber, though he took the loss Saturday, held the powerful Mets lineup to one earned run in a complete game, thus showing signs of shaking off his recent struggles. There is still clearly enough of an offense remaining here for the Phillies to be competitive, at least in the Wild Card sense of competitive, if they get competent starting pitching. Recently, at least, they have had that sort of pitching.
"The only thing I can tell you is, if you stop and look, it gets right back to our starting pitching," manager Charlie Manuel said. "In the last 10 days or two weeks, our starting pitching has definitely improved. Even if teams score runs on us early, they don't score as many and we're always in the games. So therefore, it seems like we play better.
"We get pitching out of our starting rotation and our bullpen does its job and we get a chance to get to [closer] Flash Gordon, we got a chance to win the game.
"And we've been catching the ball. And I think one reason why we've been catching the ball is because of the pitching. Defense, it definitely helps to have good pitching, but at the same time, when we were getting behind by three, four, five runs real early, I think we treid to catch up too quick, and also I think we tried to hurry up and makes plays. It all goes back to back to playing consistently. I've said that since Day 1."
Saturday's game was particularly painful because it broke the trend of solid defense. Lieber was back in form, keeping the ball down, pitching efficiently, and the Phils had a 3-1 lead with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the sixth.
But then Lieber spiked a throw to first on what should have been a relatively routine grounder from Carlos Beltran. The throw to first was nearly as wide as it was long.
"It's just ridiculous," Lieber said. "I've got to make that play. That cost us the game."
Actually, it took a little more than that. A fly ball to short left that fell between shortstop Jimmy Rollins and left fielder Pat Burrell, which Manuel said was Burrell's ball, also figured in the defeat, as three straight Mets reached after the error.
It was a difficult defeat in more ways than one, because it reminded the Phillies of exactly the kind of pitfalls they had been avoiding during the recent successful stretch.
"We talk about the reason we've been playing good baseball, playing better, catching the ball, and then today we kind of beat ourselves," Manuel said.
The Phillies have not disappeared from the face of the Earth with the trades of some veterans. They still have a young core of extremely talented players in Utley, Howard and Rollins. And they have some pitching promise. Reports of their total demise may have been somewhat exaggerated.
But for them to continue a second-half revival, even in a year in which parity has swept through most of the National League, they will need very solid starting pitching. They will need the kind of performance that Jon Lieber produced Saturday, without, of course, the error.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.