Hail Hail, the Gang’s All Here
By the end of this week, the impossible might just happen. Barring another cataclysm, Phillies fans’ prayers could get positive answers. The waiting is over. Probably.
The lineup that we expected will be on the field. The one we were told would produce runs in bushels will be in tact. Tuesday, Chase Utley returns from nearly seven weeks of thumb-induced inactivity. By the weekend, Ryan Howard’s cranky ankle should be healthy enough to allow him back on the field. [SIGNUP]
After weeks of watching the Phils try to contend for a division title with a lineup that often looked like the junior varsity, fans will actually get to see the team’s eight regular players on the field at the same time. And that’s a great thing.
In previous years, we took that for granted. Of course, the starters would play. That’s what they did. This season, such a concept has seemed like a luxury, something fans didn’t deserve. Rollins and his calf. Polanco and his elbow. Victorino’s abdominal strain. Chooch’s concussion. And, of course, Utley’s thumb and Howard’s ankle. In short, 75% of the team’s regular players have spent time on the shelf. Rollins was there twice.
Because of that, we have become closely acquainted with Wilson Valdez, Brian Schneider, Cody Ransom, Ross Gload, Ben Francisco, Mike Sweeney, Paul Hoover, Dane Sardinha, and (thankfully) Domonic Brown. Usually, that group is taken in small doses. This year, it has been doled out generously. And, still, the Phillies have won. Sunday night’s victory put them atop the wild-card standings and kept them a manageable two games behind the Braves in the NL East. It has been a remarkable performance by a team that has endured misfortune that only the Red Sox can match.
By week’s end, it may be – finally – time to apply a lead foot to the accelerator and show the rest of the National League how it’s done. The returns of Utley and Howard make the Phillies whole for the first time since May.
Now, it would be wise for fans to line up every piece of wood they can find and start a week-long bongo solo, because given the luck the Phils have had this season, one never knows when a foul ball, wayward pitch, awkward slide or swarm of locusts could strike another, heretofore relatively healthy player. But one would expect the end of Utley’s and Howard’s exiles would signal a period of good fortune, or at least good health.
Neither will be ready to make All-Star contributions right away. By the time Utley returns to a big-league field, he will have missed 46 days, almost the exact mid-point of the six-to-eight week prognosis delivered when he busted his thumb. No one steps in and dominates right away after a hiatus that long. Howard will likely need a period of acclimation, too, even though his absence hasn’t been nearly as lengthy.
But once they get comfortable, the Phillies can go about the business of establishing themselves as the league’s best. If the previous four-plus months of action have shown us anything, it’s that they’re not exactly up against a collection of juggernauts. Sure, the Cardinals can pitch, but their lineup lacks pop beyond Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. The Giants are even less potent, and the Padres need Cialis at the plate. Atlanta was a formidable adversary until Larry Jones tore his ACL. Though hardly the star slugger he was five years ago, Jones was still a key part of the lineup. Cincinnati is too young and stupid, as the Reds proved last week when they were swept by St. Louis.
So, it’s all there for the taking, and finally the Phillies are in a position to grab it. No more treading water or piecing together a lineup with spit and baling wire. By Saturday – next week at the latest – everybody should be on hand for the title run. And the timing is perfect. Tuesday, the Phillies begin stretch of (barring rainouts) of 24 games in 23 days. September is filled almost completely with games against division rivals, including six of the last 12 with Atlanta. If there were ever a time to have the grown-ups on hand, it is now.
Not that the heavy use of the team’s reserves won’t pay off. While I was on the air Sunday on 97.5 The Fanatic, a caller suggested that all the at bats Valdez, Gload, Schneider and Francisco have piled up will make them more effective come the post-season. That was a great point. And when Charlie Manuel needs to rest his varsity, he can call on bench performers who have contributed to victories.
It all sets up perfectly. Utley and Howard are coming back. The starting pitching staff is performing well, particularly at the top end. Even Brad Lidge seems semi-reliable. Perhaps the months-long ordeal is finally over. Maybe.
• Fans need to calm down about Michael Vick. So he completed a couple passes and ran for a TD against Jacksonville’s backups. That doesn’t mean the Eagles won’t be in big trouble if has to play regularly this year.
• The Sixers’ decision to hire Rod Thorn as president may not make Ed Stefanski too happy, despite his brave face, but it gives the team strong leadership and the potential for future success. Finally.
• Good luck to the Council Rock Little League squad, which goes up against Toms River tonight for a berth in the World Series. CR has been invincible to this point and has a great shot to make its second-ever trip to Williamsport.