Phillies chip away at Braves' pedestal

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

September 23, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Atlanta Braves still hold a slim lead in the National League East, but they've got to be wondering if their divisional dynasty is about to end.

The Philadelphia Phillies might have signaled an impending shift in the long-term balance of power in the division when they won the first three games of a crucial four-game series against the Braves at Veterans Stadium.

It wasn't just the fact that they gained two critical games in the standings with the series victory, or that they showed that they are capable of playoff-caliber pressure under playoff-like conditions. It was the way they did it.

The Phillies defeated the Braves' top three starting pitchers in succession, scored a couple of dramatic late-inning victories and got a huge performance from once-embattled third baseman Scott Rolen.

If they can hold on to the momentum that was generated over the past week, they are in great position to overtake the Braves and solve a long-term problem in the process.

The schedule favors them the rest of the way. The Braves, who will be hosts of a three-game, head-to-head series the first week of October, are the only team with a winning record left on the Phillies' schedule. Philadelphia plays all its other games against the Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds.

The Braves also have two series remaining against the Marlins, but entered the weekend with six games remaining against the sizzling New York Mets.

The long-term problem? Doubts about Rolen's future in Philadelphia have hung over the team throughout the season, but his chances of re-signing with the club have improved dramatically over the past few weeks.

"You take him out of the lineup, you take him off the field, and we're a totally different team," said teammate Pat Burrell. "I don't want to see him go. No one wants to see him go. It would be a huge loss.

"I don't know if I can put into words what he's meant to this team. He's just been the backbone of this team all season."

There has been speculation that the Phillies might trade him this off-season if management determines that it will be too difficult - or too expensive - to lock him up before he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2002 season.

There also has been speculation that Rolen - still miffed at some critical comments directed at him by manager Larry Bowa and front office adviser Dallas Green earlier this season - might be looking for a way out of Philadelphia.

Of course, success has a way of healing strained relationships. If the Phillies get to the playoffs and Rolen's season ends on an up beat, the chances of him staying for the long haul should improve significantly.

"I think he's in his element right now - winning," Burrell said. "It's something he hadn't had a chance to do before now.

"This is what he's all about. This is the most important time of the year, and look what he's doing. The first game [against the Braves], he had two homers. Two big hits the next two nights. That's what we need. That's what the big boys do."

Mets making a bid

The Mets appeared to be destined for a dismal fourth-place finish as they headed down the stretch, but they suddenly find themselves within range of a postseason surprise.

Friday's dramatic victory and last night's rout of the Braves gave them 22 victories in their past 27 games and left them only 3 1/2 games out of first place.

Both the Braves and Phillies are hearing footsteps from the inspired New Yorkers, who refused to count themselves out earlier in the week when they reached .500 for the first time in months.

"Why ask why right now?" said Mets catcher Mike Piazza, Friday's hero with an eighth-inning home run. "Just keep doing it. We just know how tough it is, and how tough it's still going to be. You don't have time to ask about it. You just have to do it."

The Mets and the Braves play another head-to-head series next weekend.

K-quest

While fans have been fixated for months on Barry Bonds' run at the single-season home run record, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson has been sneaking up on Nolan Ryan's single-season strikeout mark.

Johnson needs 42 strikeouts in his last four starts to eclipse the 383 strikeouts Ryan rolled up in 1973. It's very possible, considering that the Big Unit is averaging more than 10 strikeouts a start.

What's more impressive is that Johnson is in range of the record while on pace to pitch 70 fewer innings than Ryan threw in his record-setting season.

Really, the biggest thing that stands in Johnson's way is the possibility that the Diamondbacks will be far enough ahead in the NL West race to cost him his final regular-season start. No doubt, the D'backs will save him for the first game of the Division Series if they have the luxury of doing so.

Cy Young talk

Polish up this year's AL Cy Young plaque for Roger Clemens, who just became the first pitcher to win 20 of his first 21 decisions in a season, but it is possible to make an argument for Seattle Mariners ace Freddy Garcia.

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