Stay in the yard

The last time we saw the Phillies they couldn’t hit or score runs unless it came on a long ball. In fact, I even hatched up some harebrained idea that the Phillies’ brass should go out and shore up the offense by signing Barry Bonds to some type of bargain basement deal.

But rather than dig into the T.J. Maxx of all free-agent signings, the team was reportedly kicking the proverbial tires around the Colorado Rockies and All-Star Matt Holliday.

Holliday ain’t no T.J. Maxx or even Filene’s Basement, you know.

Anyway, the Phillies’ hitting and more to the point, it’s so-called “situational hitting” was so freaking lousy that skipper Charlie Manuel called out his hitters by telling them how much they stunk.

“You’ve got to really concentrate on moving a runner,” Charlie vented last Sunday in Miami after an extra-inning loss. “You’ve got to want to move him. Sometimes they feel like we’re giving up an at-bat. No, you’re not. There’s hits all over the field. If you hit behind the runner, you can still get hits. That’s just called execution and hitting the ball in the right direction. When we don’t do that, I was telling some of our guys around the cage, it’s going to be hard for us to win.

“I hear everyone [praise] our lineup, but people don’t realize, we’ve got a different lineup than we had last year. We’ve got three or four top-notch major-league hitters. Have they had better years? Yes. At the same time, they’re still good hitters. But if you follow our team, we’ve got different people. Sometimes, one guy makes a difference.”

Was that one guy Aaron Rowand, the gritty and playoff-tested centerfielder who took a multi-year deal from the Giants last winter? Or maybe past league MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins had grown complacent with the fundamentals? After all, the national TV media digs the long ball.

Regardless, it’s difficult to get the fawning attention the ballplayers crave without the October spotlight. After all, that’s where the real legends are made and the statistics really matter. To feed the narcissism, the Phillies need to score runs and that just isn’t going to happen if they decide to wait around and hope someone hits one over the fence.

It ain’t beer league ball, folks.

But maybe the Phillies finally got it during the ninth inning of last night’s improbable comeback at Shea Stadium to knock off the Mets, 8-6. Sure, Johan Santana leaving the game after eight stellar innings of work probably spurred the Phillies in the six-run ninth, but it wasn’t so much about the finish as it was the journey.

Sure, So Taguchi and Jimmy Rollins drove in the biggest runs with extra-base hits, and some mental errors by the Mets clearly helped the Phillies in the big ninth inning, but look at what they did to set the table for the game-breaking hits.

Look:

• Jayson Werth, Greg Dobbs and Shane Victorino singled to start the ninth and load the bases.
• Carlos Ruiz reached on a fielder’s choice when Jose Reyes inexplicably missed stepping on second base. One run scored.
• Taguchi tied the game with a two-run double. Still no outs.
• Rollins drove home the go-ahead runs with a two-run double. No outs.
• Chase Utley advanced Rollins to third on a ground out.
• Pat Burrell walked.
• Ryan Howard drove home Rollins for the sixth run of the inning on a ground out.

What’s missing? You guessed it, the home run.

See how fun that was without a homer.

Anyway, the important part was that the Phillies kept the lead in the NL East and should return to Philadelphia for the weekend series against the Braves no worse than a game out of first place. Prodigal right-hander Brett Myers makes his return to the big leagues tonight at Shea…

It should be interesting.

Going up top

It took the three tries for the legendary, prolific mountaineer Apa Sherpa to summit Mount Everest. Only after hooking up with Peter Hillary, the son of Sir Edmund, and a group of Kiwis was ol’ Apa able to reach the rooftop of the world.

But since that first successful ascent up Everest, a lot has changed for Apa. Raised in the foothills of the mountain in Nepal in 1960 or 1962 – the Nepalese don’t keep track of such trite things such as one’s birth year – Apa moved his family from the highlands of the Himalayas to the Rockies of Utah, because, as he once told an interviewer, “the schools are better.”

He also summated Everest 17 more times since that maiden effort with Sir Ed’s boy. That’s more than anyone in the history of mountaineering.

Like Apa Sherpa, I moved from the Philadelphia suburbs to Lancaster, Pa., because “the schools are better.” At least that’s what I tell people from Philadelphia. This morning on the shuttle bound from the car rental joint to the main terminal of Denver International, I told some Texans I was passing the time with that “Philadelphia is the ugly step-brother of New York, Washington and every other major Northeast city.”

But as my man DMac says, “Philadelphia will do…”

At least for the time being.

Anyway, unlike Apa, I reached the summit of the first peak I aimed for. I also did it without any technical gear other than a pair of Brooks Radius shoes and blue and red-trimmed Brooks running shorts. Yessir, I ran to the top of Twin Sisters Peak, which is located to the east of the more famous Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I ran to the top of Twin Sisters in 67 minutes, took a short drink, checked out the view where I saw the town of Estes Park, some clouds, what I think was the city of Boulder, and a whole bunch of lakes. I stood there with the view and felt the stiff wind through my flimsy clothes and looked down at the tree line a few hundred feet below the edge of the peak as one of those dreaded altitude headaches began pounding against my temples.

That was my cue to get down.

With that, I headed down the same route from which I climbed. Fifty-four minutes later I was at the trailhead where my rented car was parked.

Yes, 67 minutes up and 54 minutes down for the slowest nine miles I ever clocked.

And yes, unlike Apa Sherpa, I ran up my first mountain on the first attempt…

Of course Twin Sisters Peak (pictured above from the back porch) isn’t quite Everest. My run started at 9,000 feet of altitude and rose to a little more than 11,400. Though it’s quite a bit of climbing packed into those four-plus miles of trails, Apa’s mountain is three-times higher than mine. For a sea level dude like me, the daily runs in Colorado from 7,500-feet up and over 8,100-feet are pretty substantial. Going up to 11,400-plus takes some effort.

Apa, of course, probably looks at something like Twin Sisters as a walk in the park. In fact, a walk in the park might have been the best way to describe my pace as the trail became rockier and the wind a little more fierce as I pushed on past the tree line. If I can run up over the tree line with relative ease, Apa probably would have skipped up while juggling flaming torches.

Hey, I’m not exactly Jon Krakauer here… or even CSN’s Lance Crawford, who once did a technical climb up the famed diamond of Long’s Peak. Lance, our resident Apa, took mountaineering classes in Estes Park, practiced on some smaller climbs, and then took down one of the most famous “14ers” in the Rocky Mountain chain.

Legend has it that Lance performed a series of one-armed, fingertip pushups at the summit of Longs.

I believe the legend.

And while I was in Colorado running up a mountain and visiting such places as Boulder, Black Hawk and the exquisite Sundance Lodge [1]in Nederland, I also was privy to a few more tales that could be called legends, stories and, better yet, rumors. The fact is stories and rumors are the currency of ball writers everywhere and this is no different in Colorado. In fact, folks I talked to told me that the Colorado Rockies are debating whether or not to trade away All-Star outfielder and 2007 MVP runner-up, Matt Holliday. Because the Rockies were/are beset with injuries all season and Holliday’s contract status doesn’t exactly give a ballclub much wiggle room when contemplating a move toward rebuilding, the so-called conventional wisdom looks at Holliday’s days as a Rockie as numbered.

The Phillies, they say, are a team that could package a deal for a player like Holliday.

I’m not so sure. After cornering the market for overweight, right-handed and underachieving Opening Day starters in the acquisition of Joe Blanton, the Phillies cleaned out the cupboards and sent the top-notch minor-league prospects to Billy Beane in Oakland. Therefore, to get a star like Holliday, the Phillies would have to pick up all of the remaining years on his contract and throw in some big leaguers like Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and whomever else the Rockies fancy.

Meanwhile, after being told the Holliday tales, I countered with the idea that the Phillies had long been interested in side-wheeling left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes. The Phillies have just one lefty in their solid corps of relievers and Fuentes has always given them fits. But when I broached the idea of Fuentes being dealt from the Rockies to the Phillies, I was told, “Take him. You can have him.”

From the outside Fuentes seems like a good fit for the Phillies’ bullpen. After all, he strikes out more than a hitter per inning, has a respectable 3.23 ERA and has saved 16 games in 20 chances. Plus, Fuentes has not allowed a run since June 30 and is hell against the Phillies. In 16 career appearances (including three playoff games), the lefty has never allowed a run when facing the Phillies.

But Fuentes has whetted his peak in the closer pond and likes it. In fact, he told the Denver Post in last Sunday’s edition that if he gets traded, he would like to go somewhere to be the closer. A free agent at the end of this season, Fuentes said he would seek out a gig as a closer during free agency.

That kind of eliminates the Phillies right there. Brad Lidge is going to be the closer until at least 2011.

So that leaves us with a lot of unfinished stories with plots left to twist. The non-waivers trading deadline is just nine days away and even though the Phillies already made a move for Husky Joe, it doesn’t seem as if Trader Pat Gillick is finished with the wheelin’ and dealin’.

At least it doesn’t seem that way if ol’ Pat wants to go out standing on top of the mountain.


[1] If you ever find yourself in Nederland or on the Peak-to-Peak Highway an hour west of Boulder and Denver, you owe it to yourself to have a meal at the Sundance. The first time I ever heard Ted Leo’s song “La Costa Brava” I immediately thought of the little spot just off the road near Nederland. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Sundance; have an ever-changing menu with tons of choices and some of the best fresh-brewed iced tea ever tasted. Plus, the view can’t be beat. It’s always hard not to stare at snow-capped mountains through large picture windows (or on a sun/windswept deck). My wife and I snuck away for a quiet dinner last Thursday where she had homemade chicken marsala and I had tofu steaks with a citrusy teriyaki that came with grilled veggies and fantastic mashed potatoes. Man, what a place.

Forging ahead

Jimmy RollinsThe series that everyone had anticipated got underway in the first inning when Troy Tulowitzki (that’s T-U-L-O-W-I-T-Z-K-I) and MVP candidate Matt Holliday launched back-to-back homers off rookie starter Kyle Kendrick.

Tulowitzki’s shot was a CBP Special that scraped the flower planters in left-center before bouncing back onto the field. Charlie Manuel argued a bit, but it was a lost cause.

Holliday’s homer was struck with such ferocity that it seemed as if he was trying to get back at someone. It was angry and it went a long, long way.

Kendrick settled in to retire the side and carried on relatively unscathed to the third inning (which is where the game is as I write this). Kaz Matsui doubled to lead off the third, but was left stranded there.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Phillies, as he and Holliday appear to be dueling one another as if fighting it out for the MVP Award. Rollins smacked the first pitch thrown by Franklin Morales deep into the seats in the power alley in left and the crowd was finally given a chance to get into it.

Apropos, Rollins’ stroke was smooth and pure and the ball carried out of the yard like a perfectly thrown Frisbee, never gaining a course of altitude that was too gaudy.

Chase Utley followed the homer with his fifth straight whiff.

Rollins continued his MVP duel and put the Phillies ahead in the second with a two-run, two-out triple in the second. He slid into third, but that was just for show – the pop up slide and the point to the heavens looks better on TV than if he goes in standing up.

Anyway, the Phillies have a lead. Let’s see what they do with it.

Strike three, con’t…

Matt HollidayTom Gordon remained in for the eighth where he struck out Tulowitzki only to follow that up with a home run to Matt Holliday that might strike the earth’s surface by sunset.

The foul Holliday hit was a rocket – his homer was a bomb.

It also spelled the end of the work day for Gordon. J.C. Romero came in and pitched two-third of an inning to extend his scoreless games streak to 21.

Tadahito Iguchi pinch hit for Romero to start the eighth and grinded out a six-pitch walk. Things always seem to happen when Iguchi gets into a game… maybe that’s a story for later in the series. The premise will be: Things happen when Tadahito Iguchi gets into the game.

Call the Pulitzer people.

But things haven’t been happening when the meat of the Phillies’ order has stepped to the plate. Jimmy Rollins is 0-for-3 with a whiff, a double play and a walk. Shane Victorino is 0-for-4 with a whiff. Chase Utley was punched out looking against another lefty – reliever Brian Fuentes – for auspicious Golden Sombrero.

Mix in the 0-for-3 with a pair of whiffs for Ryan Howard and the top four hitters for the Phillies are 0-for-14 with eight strikeouts.

Wow.

We like you… we really, really like you

Jimmy RollinsUndoubtedly, whenever Jimmy Rollins steps into the batters’ box during the first two games of the NLDS, the packed house at Citizens Bank Park will scream, “M-V-P!” over and over again as if they have some odd social disease.

Likewise, when we go to Coors Field in Denver for the second pair of games (if necessary), the friendly fans will also shout, “M-V-P!” from the mountaintops whenever Matt Holliday comes to bat.

On one hand it’s kind of neat to hear so many people scream in unison, mostly because it’s not something that occurs in normal life. For instance, I’m sure you have never gone to the grocery store with a bunch of friends to gather in the produce section so that you can scream, “BROC-COLI!” until you begin to hyperventilate, turn blue and pass out on the floor at the feet of the cart checker. Frankly, it’s just odd behavior.

Plus, the folks at the Whole Foods don’t like it – trust me on that one.

But what makes those chants seem so odd instead of neat is that, essentially, the fans are screaming, “WE LIKE YOU!” at one person. Actually, they aren’t just walking up to a person they know to say, “You know, we’ve known each other for a long time and we’ve been really good friends throughout the years and because of that I just wanted to say… well, I like you.”

That’s it. One, “I like you.” It’s not shouted by the liker to the lickee with such an ardor that it seems angry or until someone has to get a restraining order or a taser. A simple, solitary, “I like you” goes a long way.

But there is nothing about sports fandom that is normal. We all know that. Compared to the soccer fans in Europe or the Broncos fans in Denver, Philadelphians are a relatively tame bunch. They also don’t have any trouble revealing their true feelings toward the Phillies’ shortstop either, which is nice. I think Jimmy thinks it’s nice, too, even though he says he tries to block out all sound when he goes to the plate.

Kevin Costner & Oprah!You know, kind of like in that really bad Kevin Costner movie… wait, that didn’t narrow it down. I meant like that really bad Kevin Costner movie about baseball… that didn’t narrow down either, did it?

Anyway, I think you know which one I mean.

So what’s the point of all of this? It’s simple. I’m going to reveal which players I’d vote for in the Baseball Writers Association of America ballots for the post-season awards. Truth be told, I don’t actually vote because I’m not a practicing member of the BBWAA. Dogmatic organizations are such a turn off, though I have to admit I enjoy a good, ol’ secret society. And when it comes to secret societies, the BBWAA is right up there with the Skull & Bones, Masons, Elks and Stonecutters.

Here are the votes (without comment):
MVP
1.) Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia
2.) Matt Holliday, Colorado
3.) Prince Fielder, Milwaukee
4.) Chipper Jones, Atlanta
5.) David Wright, New York
6.) Hanley Ramirez, Florida
7.) Aramis Ramirez, Chicago
8.) Chase Utley, Philadelphia
9.) Miguel Cabrera, Florida
10.) Todd Helton, Colorado

Manager of the Year
1.) Charlie Manuel, Philadelphia
2.) Clint Hurdle, Colorado
3.) Ned Yost, Milwaukee

Cy Young Award
1.) Jake Peavy, San Diego
2.) Brandon Webb, Arizona
3.) Carlos Zambrano, Chicago

Rookie of the Year
1.) Ryan Braun, Milwaukee
2.) Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
3.) Kyle Kendrick, Philadelphia