Wednesday, October 08, 2003

What went right

Updated: Items 3 through 5 were added first thing Thursday morning.

As I look at the 2003 Phillies season, I tried to identify five things that went really right for the team this year. I am sure that my list will differ from yours, so I'd love to hear your feeback.

1) Jim Thome -- If your list does not start with Jim Thome, we have some talking to do. The slugger was the Phillies' number one target in the 2002 offseason, after a year in which he hit .304/.445/.677 with 52 home runs and 118 RBI for a declining Indians team. While most critics applauded the energy with which the Phillies pursued Thome, some questioned the length of the deal. We don't know what will happen five years from now, but most Phillies fans will gladly hand over the $85-90 million that was agreed upon for just this one year, much less six.

To say he started off with a bang is an understatement. In his first spring at-bat, he ripped a home run. In his first regular season at-bat down in Florida, he crushed a double off the wall, scoring a run. And is his home debut, with the theme from "Superman" playing as he walked to the plate, he ripped a triple off the wall. Talk about first impressions.

Thome struggled in the early part of the season, some of which can be blamed on unfamiliar NL pitching. But by the end of the year, Thome had caught on, and in a big way. He finished with averages that were lower than expected -- .266/.385/.573 -- but his power numbers were up there. He finished with 47 home runs and 131 RBI, mostly thanks to a big finish. Over the final two months of the season, Thome cranked 20 home runs and 51 RBI, with a slugging mark over .600 and an OPS over 1.000. For a stretch in September, Thome carried the offense on his back, helping to keep the Phillies in the Wild Card race until the last week in the season, and earning him Player of the Month honors.

Thome may not have carried the Phillies into the postseason this year, but he generated a level of excitement that this town hasn't seen in ten years. He brought the fans to the park, and has given them hope for the next couple of years. Six years may turn out to be too long, but for year one, Thome was worth every last cent.

2) Joe Kerrigan's work with the pitching staff -- He had a year to study the Phillies' pitching staff as a TV analyst, and he knew what he was working with coming into the year -- a young starting staff with promise, but without a leader; and a bullpen that had been ripped apart by local sports talk shows, and rightly so. All Kerrigan did was guide a staff with four 14-game winners and turn the bullpen into one of the best in the league.

The offseason acquisition of Kevin Millwood seemingly gave the Phillies the ace the staff needed. Millwood may not have pitched to the levels that Phillies' fans were hoping, but he did offer leadership that had been lacking. Serving as the ace of the staff, Millwood's presence allowed Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla to fall comfortably in the 2 and 3 spots in the rotation. Millwood also served as a mentor for Brett Myers, a large part of the Phillies' future. With Millwood in the lead role, he, Padilla, and Myers all racked up 14 wins apiece. Wolf earned his first All-Star selection, and won a career-high 16 games. Padilla's 3.62 ERA ranked 14th in the NL, and the other three were all beneath 4.50.

But Kerrigan best work may have been in the bullpen. What was once filled with question marks turned out to be among the league's best until the last month of the season. Carlos Silva filled the long relief/mop up role well enough. He struggled at times with his stuff, and to a certain extent with maturity, but got the job done more often than not. Turk Wendell returned from a horrible 2001 and injury-lost 2002 to shock Phillies' fans: his 3.38 ERA is good by itself, but inflated by an awful August (7.11 ERA in 12.2 innings). He allowed just 54 hits in 64 innings, and just two runs in the first three months of the season.

Dan Plesac made the best of his limited opportunities in what is likely his final year: he appeared in 58 games, but threw just 33 1/3 innings. He allowed 29 hits while striking out 37. The lefty finished the year with a 1.20 WHIP and a 2.70 ERA. Before injuries derailed his season, Terry Adams was throwing up similar numbers. His 68 hits in 68 innings shows that he got into trouble, but the 1.34 WHIP and 2.65 ERA says that he got out of the jams more often than not.

But the capper to Kerrigan's success this year was Rheal Cormier...the same reliever that I said in March "may find [himself] on the outside looking in." What I didn't take into account were that Cormier's best years were with Kerrigan in Montreal and Boston. Add Philadelphia, 2003 to the list. Cormier appeared in 65 games this year, throwing 84 2/3 innings. He allowed just 54 hits, 16 runs, and had almost a 3:1 K:BB ratio. He allowed fewer than one baserunner per inning, and finished with a 1.70 ERA. That ERA looks even better if you remember that he allowed 5 of his 16 runs in his first appearance of the year -- a two-inning appearance to forget in Florida.

The common thought in the preseason was that the Phillies would be carried by their offense and hoped that the pitching was good enough to stay with them. Under Kerrigan's guidance, the pitchers led the way this year, just waiting for the offense to catch up to them.

3) Keeping Marlon Byrd in Philly -- On May 30th, Marlon Byrd was hitting a very sad .193. His OPS was at a Rey Ordonez-level of .538. Rumors were flying that the Phillies were going to send him back to AAA for some more work and/or acquire another CF. The Pirates' Kenny Lofton was at the top of the shopping list, and various reports were that he could come across the state at any time. But Ed Wade held off...and held off...and held his breath. And Marlon Byrd finally delivered.

Byrd sat out the first game of a double-header on June 1st, but went 2-for-2 in the second game. He went 2-for-3 in the next game, raising his average 34 points in two games, before an 0-3 knocked him back to .220. He then went 10-for-19 over the next six games spiking his average to .273. And he just kept going from there. He hit .364 in June, .351 in July, and .330 in September, finishing the year at .303.

It could be argued that the real spark in his season came on July 8th in Montreal. The Phillies were in the midst of a four-game losing streak, and placed Byrd in the leadoff spot to shake things up. He went 3-for-5 on the night and scored four runs; he hit leadoff for the rest of the season. In the leadoff role, he hit .319, had an OBP of .374, and scored 64 runs, helping to spark the offense for the second-half run.

Ed Wade was criticized for not tweaking the roster more around the trading deadline; in late May, he was being criticized for not doing something about Marlon Byrd. But Wade can tell all of us "I told you so!", because he was doing something: he was giving Byrd the time he needed to become the player we all expected. Over the last four months of the season, Marlon Byrd showed that he will be the Phillies' CF -- and perhaps their leadoff man -- for the next few years.

4) Kevin Millwood's no-hitter -- Coming into the Sunday afternoon game on April 27th, baseball fever had not yet overwhlemed the Philadelphia area. The offseason excitement of adding Jim Thome and Kevin Millwood was kind of wearing off; Thome was hitting .270 with only three home runs, while Millwood was a decent 3-1, but with an ERA approaching 5.00. The Phillies sat at 14-10 as the first full month was reaching an end.

But on this Sunday afternoon, there was a buzz running through the Vet, as the fans poured in. 40,000+ plus were expected on this day, and who could blame them for coming: it was the Phanatic's last birthday party at the Vet. But the furry green guy soon took a backseat.


9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 10 K

Millwood took the mound against a hot-hitting Giants' team, a team that came into the three-game set in Philly with a 17-4 record. And Millwood just mowed them all down. After a leadoff walk to Ray Durham, Millwood set down 11 straight before Rich Aurilla drew a free pass. He got 15 more in a row before walking Durham again with two outs in the ninth. But when Marquis Grissom flew out to Ricky Ledee in center, the Vet rocked like it had not rocked in years.

For me, I will never forget two things about this game: 1) driving north on I-95, tuning in to try to catch the end of the ballgame, and hearing Scott Graham scream "Kevin Millwood has just thrown a no-hitter!"; and 2) I was supposed to be at that game! Such is life...

5) Playoff Fever in Philly -- Alright, so the Phillies finished out of the money. Despite that, you cannot deny that they brought some excitement and anticipation to the sports scene in this city for much of the summer. The Phillies held the Wild Card lead for most of the second half of the season, and had even casual fans checking the paper every morning to see if the red-pinstripers were still in front of the race. The six games with the Marlins over the last two weeks of the season were the most anticipated and hotly-contested baseball games that this town has seen in ten years.

So they fell a little short. I was disappointed, you were disappointed. But they managed to give us something that Phillies' fans have not seen very often in the last 20 years: significant games in late September. Even better than that: the realization that things should only get better. If you enjoyed 2003, then hopefully 2004 and beyond will be even better.


So, that's my list. Like I said, yours may differ. Let me hear what you think. In the meantime, I'll work on the five things that went wrong for the Phillies this season.