Breaking down on road to playoffs

Baseball: The Phillies, who had high expectations at the start of the season, are struggling with injuries as they try to stay in the playoff race.

August 12, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - It's hard to settle for nothing when you thought you had everything, and therein lies the problem for Larry Bowa and Ed Wade, the two men standing in the crosshairs of fury from the Philadelphia sports public.

They opened shimmering Citizens Bank Park this April and trotted out a team with a $93 million payroll. They added a sure thing at closer, in Billy Wagner, and solidified their starting rotation by re-signing Kevin Millwood and trading for University of Maryland alum Eric Milton.

With lumberjack-like Jim Thome in the middle of a potent lineup, they began the National League East race buoyed with hope that this could be the year the Atlanta Braves' run finally comes to an end.

But the scene in Philadelphia this week has looked anything but promising. After leading the division by three games on July 5, the Phillies are six games behind the red-hot Braves, seven back in the loss column.

"You could have an All-Star team, and if the Braves keep playing the way they're playing, nobody's going to catch them," Bowa said. "The Cardinals, Phillies, Yankees, it doesn't matter."

The Phillies turned their focus to the wild-card race, where they sat 3 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs, but even that looked hopeless, considering Philadelphia's recent onslaught of injuries.

Wagner is out indefinitely with a strained left rotator cuff. Millwood has a sprained ligament in his elbow and probably won't pitch again until mid-September, at the earliest. Left fielder Pat Burrell will have season-ending wrist surgery tomorrow.

Filled with discouragement, Philadelphians have taken to the airwaves, blistering the team on talk radio. In his fourth season as Phillies manager, Bowa is no stranger to their scorn. He had scruffs of white hair covering his face this week and hadn't shaved in days, as if to say he was through trying to impress people.

But it was the clean-cut Wade who was the surprise subject of the fans' latest wrath. The seventh-year general manager had let the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline pass without making a major move, and suddenly everyone seemed to forget the trades he made for Wagner and Milton, creating so much hope in the first place.

"We have very passionate fans, and they're anxious to see us get to where we want to go and win a world championship," Wade said. "I understand the passion and the frustration. It's up to us to do the job, and do it the way that we feel is most appropriate."

Sometimes that means making unpopular decisions.

As the deadline loomed, Wade made it clear he would not part with four of the franchise's top young players - infielder Chase Utley, reliever Ryan Madson and minor league pitchers Cole Hamels and Maryland native Gavin Floyd.

The Phillies picked Floyd with the fourth overall selection in the 2001 draft out of Mount St. Joseph. He has blossomed quickly and recently made the jump from Double-A to Triple-A, where he has lost his first two starts despite posting an impressive 2.08 ERA.

"With Floyd, we think we have a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher," Wade said. "And what we have to do is be patient with him."

Wade said Floyd, 21, needs to command his fastball and breaking ball better before coming to the big leagues, but "his stuff is there. We know how polished a pitcher he will be. He's still just a kid."

The same goes for Utley, 25. When the Pittsburgh Pirates asked for him in their discussions about pitcher Kris Benson (who eventually went to the New York Mets), Wade refused because Utley figures to be his everyday second baseman next year.

So Wade acquired relievers Felix Rodriguez and Todd Jones before the deadline, addressing a bullpen weakness but hardly making a splash. And then the Burrell injury hit and the team no longer had Ricky Ledee to replace him in left field.

Ledee went to the San Francisco Giants for Rodriguez.

Then, when the seriousness of Millwood's elbow injury became apparent, Wade scrambled to acquire Cory Lidle, who was 7-10 with a 5.32 ERA for the Cincinnati Reds.

Once again, it was a ho-hum move.

But even when things start going well for this team, it looks cursed. The Phillies won five of six games at San Diego and Los Angeles last week, prompting Wade to give another vote of confidence to Bowa.

"Larry's our manager, and I fully expect him to be the manager at the end of the season," the GM told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The club returned home from the road trip riding high, and then the hapless Colorado Rockies pinned a pair of losses on its bullpen, beating Jones on Monday and de facto closer Tim Worrell on Tuesday.

After that Tuesday loss, the clubhouse was like a morgue. Vicente Padilla had returned from the disabled list and pitched five strong innings - a critical development with Millwood down.

Jason Michaels, Burrell's replacement in left field, hit a home run. And Mike Lieberthal, who is hitting a ghastly .125 with runners in scoring position, hit a broken-bat RBI single in the eighth inning, giving the Phillies a 3-2 lead.

But the Rockies came back and scored three off Worrell in the ninth to earn a 5-4 win.

At that moment, it was hard for anyone to fathom catching the Braves or the Cubs when the Phillies hadn't won five in a row all season.

"We're still looking for a hot streak," Worrell said. "We've been looking for a hot streak since the beginning of April."

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