A team that never quits
Phitin' Phils perfecting the art of the comeback victory
PHILADELPHIA -- If baseball were a golf match, the Phillies would give their opponent a ton of strokes, then birdie the last five holes to win going away.
This team reminds me of Carry Back, the great race horse of the 1960s. Carry Back would spot the field umpteen lengths, then storm from far back to win many of his races.
Sooner or later this style of play is going to take its toll on the defending World Series champs, but for now, the Phillies play their best baseball when they're staring a deficit in the face.
No opponent lead seems insurmountable.
Or, as Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over till its over!"
Take Monday night at balmy Citizens Bank Park.
The Washington Nationals were playing unlike the team with the worst record in the Major Leagues and kept building lead after lead against reeling Philadelphia. Sizzling Ryan Zimmerman blasted two homers, and it appeared the Phillies were buried.
First, it was 6-2. Ryan Howard's fifth inning grand slam erased that.
Then, it was 11-7 after the Nationals scored four times on two homers in their eighth. Many in the crowd of 41,620 headed for the exits.
The Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the inning and quickly scored two runs against Washington's struggling bullpen. Then, as the drama built, newcomer Raul Ibanez sent a rocket orbiting to right field that rattled dishes in Camden. It was his eighth career grand slam, capping a six-run rally and vaulting the Phillies to a 13-11 victory.
Ibanez says he's never seen a team that can come back so consistently, so frequently.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "I can't ever remember being a part of a team that can do this. I don't even know that I've ever played against teams that can come back late like this. I guess these guys were doing that long before I got here."
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, a smile on his face, took a deep breath and said he'd never seen so many balls hit so hard -- by both teams.
"I've never seen balls go that far," said Manuel, who blasted a few tape-measure shots himself as a player. "At least that many home runs [seven] in one night.
"The last two years, we've been getting a lot better at coming back late in games. When you don't quit and keep playing the whole game out, you can come back. Sometimes you might come up short, but you have the mindset to keep going.
"If you want to know the truth, I love the way we play -- the way we stay in there and keep battling."
The Phillies have come from behind in nine of their 10 victories, which leads the Majors in that category.
They also lead the Majors in most runs scored after the seventh inning (38).
That this was going to be a way of life for the Phillies became evident on April 8, when they wiped out a 10-3 Atlanta advantage after 7 1/2 innings. They scored eight times in their half of the inning and won, 12-11.
En route to a sweep of first-place Florida last weekend, the Phillies were limited to just three hits by the Marlins through eight innings on Friday night, but scored seven times in the ninth and wobbled off the Dolphin Stadium turf with a 7-3 conquest.
They make it look easy as comebacks go.
The only time they've won this spring without one of these comebacks was a 13-2 laugher on Sunday.
"A lot of teams would have shut it down early," said Howard, who has hit six career grand slams. "We had the opportunities and kept ourselves in it. We had come back so much, but that's why you play until the last out. You have to keep going because you never know what's going to happen."
Nationals manager Manny Acta was dejected by the Phillies dramatic comeback, almost in shock.
"A lead is never safe here, especially with the offense that the Phillies have," he said. "But still, when you are winning by four runs, most of the time you should win the ballgame.
"I hope I don't wear out this word, but, again, it was deflating," Acta said. "Our offense just battled all day and scored enough runs. We played so hard for eight innings to score enough runs. You lose the game in one inning, it's just tough for the whole team."
What gives a team the ability to overcome virtually any lead?
"I don't know," said Ibanez, who's become a fan favorite in Philadelphia after being signed during the offseason as a free agent to replace Pat Burrell. "And I'm not going to try to figure it out. I just want to be a part of it."
His name was being chanted in the stands each time he came to the plate.
"It's definitely a good feeling," he said. "I'm humbled by it. They're paying attention to the game, know the details, because they're smart fans."
One of these nights, the Phillies might miss that long putt and lose the match.
It's useless to mention that to them now, because if anything, they're more motivated when they're not on the front end.
Or as Ibanez puts it: "This team plays 27 outs. It's amazing to be a part of it. One guy has a good at-bat, the next guy has a good at-bat, the next guy -- one after another. I really don't have a word to describe what it's like to play with this group of guys. Everyone is focused on helping each other out -- and winning."
Which is something they've been able to do this spring, even if they've gone about it the hard way.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.