Gate to stretch, Phillies on a ride


August 30, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

PHILADELPHIA -- The baseball season is pretty much over up here in Booville with five weeks left, which is the way most people had it figured. Only the figuring was that the Phillies would be furlongs out of first place by now, not so far in front that dozing off was their main concern.

Welcome to the blessed event of this major-league season: the Phillies by a mile in the NL East. If you can't see the handiwork of the baseball gods, you just aren't looking.

A year ago, the Phillies lost 92 games and finished in last place for the third time in five years. They were as dead as any team in the bigs, so bereft of talent that they protected Juan Bell in the expansion draft.

The GM, Lee Thomas, made some noise about regaining the fans' trust with a splashy free-agent signing, a Puckett or Cone, but failed to get it done. Instead, he brought home a shopping bag filled with bargain-rack free agents, such as Pete Incaviglia, Milt Thompson and Jim Eisenreich, and said, "That's all, folks."

He said it was what he wanted all along, but, predictably, the talk shows, fans and columnists went a-ripping. Seventeen teams were going to have higher payrolls than the Phillies in '93. Ownership was accused of counting nickels.

How was anyone to know that Thomas had put together one of those magical teams on which the sum far exceeded the parts? One of those teams on which, for reasons clear to no one, the pieces fit perfectly?

It's called "good chemistry" in today's lexicon. You can't pin a definition on it, but it's obvious when it exists. The '89 Orioles had it. So do the '93 Phillies.

"We don't have the biggest stars," Eisenreich said in the loose, loud clubhouse yesterday at Veterans Stadium, "but we have a lot of guys who concentrate, play consistently and know what they're doing. The whole thing has worked from the first day of spring training. Those games in Florida mean nothing, but we were so in sync that we developed the attitude where we felt it was our turn."

That led to a start to the season that was, simply, an astonishment. The Phillies won 44 of their first 61 games with late rallies and relentless pitching, and by June were far in front of the anticipated contenders in the NL East -- the Expos, Cardinals and Cubs.

There were vague rumblings of a collapse when a slump allowed the Cardinals to close within 3 1/2 games in July, but the Phillies got hot again and pulled away. Today, they're 10 in front.

"Unless something very weird happens, we're going to win," Eisenreich said. "And we won it in the first two months. That start was the thing. When you're winning game after game, you develop the confidence that you're a good team. We don't talk about it, but it's there."

The Phillies are not all about intangibles, of course. Hardly. They're potent hitters, first in the league in runs, walks, doubles and total bases, second in average, homers, triples and hits.

And their pitching, jiminy. Imagine the course the Orioles' season would have taken had Mike Mussina, Arthur Rhodes, Rick Sutcliffe and Fernando Valenzuela stayed healthy and/or pitched better than anyone could have imagined. That's what has JTC happened here. Every starter has at least 10 wins, and few turns have been missed.

It's one of those years: built not so much on a foundation of overwhelming talent or brilliant planning as, simply, everything going right for once.

One of those years when every one of your must-hit stars -- Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Darren Daulton -- hit.

One of those years when Juan Bell flames out at shortstop and the kid who gets called up from the minors out of desperation -- remember his name, Kevin Stocker -- starts playing like Luis Aparicio.

One of those years when Mickey Morandini and Pete Incaviglia, the latter with 79 RBI on 86 hits, become cult heroes.

One of those years when Danny Jackson, who hadn't had a winning season since 1988, arrives in a disdained trade and becomes a dependable starter.

What does it all mean? That, suddenly, the safest place in the bigs is the Phillies' clubhouse. The Blue Jays and Yankees are running even. The White Sox are hanging on grimly. The Braves are menacing the Giants. The Phillies? Just waiting for October.

Incredible. This was a dead baseball town six months ago. Remember those stories about Philly fans escaping to Camden Yards for thrills? Well, the Phillies might draw a record 3 million fans to the uninviting Vet this year. Notice how it helps to give the people something to watch.

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