After 19 get-togethers, the Marlins and Phillies are probably done with each other -- except for the likely possibility of at least a two-way tie for the National League wild card. During a recent four-way coin flip to determine home field for the one-game playoff, the only one the Phillies won was to host the Marlins at Citizen's Bank Park on Oct. 4, if they can't settle their differences in 162 games.
That's a decided advantage considering how Philadelphia has been demolishing its rivals lately in its new ballpark, but Saturday, instead of amassing double figures on the scoreboard on Florida in nine innings, they did it all in the ninth inning. The 10-run, four-error fiasco was beyond the memory -- or imagination -- of even 15-year veterans like Jeff Conine, making for a locker room unlike any other either he or anyone else had experienced.
Left stunned and speechless to describe the meltdown, some Marlins left early, some lingered longer than usual, but all I spoke to acknowledged it made the series finale essential to any hopes they had of staying in the postseason race. It's rare to get a major leaguer to acknowledge they're through (even after they've been mathematically eliminated), but following this disaster, the Marlins understood that being swept would be suicidal. Fortunately for Florida, Josh Beckett continued to be their only winning pitcher of the week, and they set out on their final road trip on a positive note.
Manager Jack McKeon was asked to compare the current edition of his team to the one he took over in mid-2003 that went on to win it all. "First of all, the 2003 team doesn't lose that game Saturday; we win ones like that, either the way the Phillies did or by holding that 2-0 lead," said McKeon. "These Phillies remind me a lot of that team we had, with [Jimmy] Rollins and [Kenny] Lofton up front, the way we had Juan [Pierre] and Luis [Castillo], and the way they finish games with that bullpen. The biggest difference between our team that year and this one is I wish I had [Chad] Fox and [Ugeth] Urbina the way they came on in September. We don't have that this year. We've tried so many guys leading up to [Todd] Jones in the ninth, but we just can't find any consistency -- no matter who we've tried there. I don't know where we'd be without Jones; he's been just amazing."
Urbina, with Billy Wagner, is now part of the Phils' formidable one-two punch closing games that's made such a strong impression on McKeon, and the other contenders. But getting Urbina came at a high price for Philadelphia, as manager Charlie Manuel still misses the flexibility, depth and offense Placido Polanco gave him before the trade with the Tigers.
What has lifted the Phillies in their recent offensive surge has been the month-long burst of Rollins at the top of the order. Carrying a 24-game hitting streak into Atlanta on Tuesday, Rollins has batted over .500 the past week and a half, and Manuel says the biggest difference for his leadoff man is that he's working more counts now and taking pitches. Overaggressiveness and swinging at bad pitches was an issue for most of the Philadelphia hitters through much of the first half, but Rollins has adjusted to become the consummate table-setter the Phils needed him to be, and it's influencing the lineup from top to bottom.
Manuel acknowledged the outcry around Philadelphia to move Rollins out of the leadoff spot when he was struggling to get on base, but he never wavered -- "I knew Rollins was my leadoff guy no matter what" -- and now that commitment is paying huge dividends. Manuel hasn't had to change his lineup much since Polanco left; Lofton locked down center field, and Chase Utley blossomed in the three hole. Now, it's just a matter of getting Jason Michaels and Todd Pratt at bats to stay fresh, and watching Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu stockpile RBIs in the middle of the order.
It's a far different story for McKeon, who through a myriad of injuries and underachievement, has constantly turned his batting order and defensive alignments upside down. Pierre's mystifying struggle to recapture his knack for getting on base first forced his manager to flip-flop the center fielder with Castillo atop the order, but recently, it resulted in the radical move of batting Pierre seventh, and moving Conine up to second. Conine loves the two hole: "With those guys hitting behind me [Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado], you wouldn't believe the amount of fastballs I see."
While Conine may benefit from that, Pierre is even more lost in the seven spot: His speed is nearly neutralized because he has no one hitting behind him, and his inability to drive in a run becomes glaring. Saturday, he found Dontrelle Willis hitting behind him, as McKeon moved his productive pitcher's bat up a notch to eighth. It wasn't only because Willis is such an effective hitter, but also because rookie shortstop Robert Andino has seemed so overmatched offensively in his first week in the majors.
McKeon may occasionally end up with Cabrera playing some shortstop in a late double switch -- like he did in the 2003 playoffs -- but has no intention of starting Cabrera in a pennant race game no matter how much Andino struggles at the plate. McKeon doesn't want to put Cabrera at a new position this late in the season, but then he realized he had already done that recently -- moving him to third base for the slumping Mike Lowell, and putting him back out in left field Sunday night. Thus, it's more about Andino's steady defense than disrupting Cabrera.
But the defensive and batting order adjustments underscore another issue for many of the Marlins and their manager. When Pierre dropped in the order, Conine moved up, or even when Willis made the unorthodox move out of the pitcher's normal spot batting last, none of them knew about it until the lineup card was posted in the locker room before the game that day. Most managers, especially with veteran players, and almost always with moves so severe, will discuss the decisions with the players beforehand -- let them know the changes are coming and why they're doing it, giving them the respect and courtesy of knowing ahead of time. In Willis' case he had to have a teammate ask him "have you seen the lineup card?" to find out he was making an historical at bat for a Marlins pitcher.
It's been quite a September for Willis, who missed out on his 22nd win Saturday. He blamed himself for the loss (after walking Chase Utley in the ninth inning), rather than anything his teammates did in the ten run unraveling. After notching his 20th win Sept. 9, he officially joined the exclusive club of "Black Aces," becoming just the 13th pitcher of African American decent who have had 20 or more wins in a major league season.
Jim "Mudcat" Grant, J.R. Richard, Dave Stewart, Vida Blue and Jenkins were among the members who intended to get together personally with their newest member as he went after his 21st win in Houston. However, the plans were postponed, and now some of them are hoping to hook up with Willis for his next start in New York this week.
Several of them called to wish Willis luck going into that win in Houston, or congratulated him afterward, but as honored as the young pitcher is to be included in this fabled fraternity, he really shuns the attention, and doesn't even feel he belongs -- considering what the other members did over the course of long and productive careers, and in the cases of Jenkins and Bob Gibson, Hall of Fame careers. It has been 15 years since Stewart posted the last of his four 20-win seasons, so the Aces have been waiting awhile to add a new member.
Willis has admired Vida Blue since growing up in the Oakland area, and still shops at West Coast Sporting Goods -- the store run by Vida's brother Dee -- where Willis has been getting all his gear since Little League. One piece of information Willis will allow in a rare moment of pride is the fact that the San Leandro, Calif., shop now stocks Marlins hats and jerseys, including his No. 35, and that they're usually out of the regular sizes in his stuff, which he sees kids wearing more and more around the Bay area.
Another humble superstar is the Cubs' Derrek Lee, who remains an MVP candidate despite his team's collapse. The Triple Crown talk has been reduced to his chances of winning his first batting title. Willis is on record as saying he'd vote Chris Carpenter and Roger Clemens 1-2 ahead of him for the Cy Young award, and Lee had a similar response in placing himself third in MVP balloting. Somewhat surprisingly though -- especially considering his friendship and shared position with Albert Pujols -- Lee thinks Andruw Jones should be NL MVP, with Pujols second. "When you consider all the young guys hitting throughout that lineup, and how much time Chipper Jones has missed, you've got to give it to Andruw, with the numbers he's been able to put up in that lineup, and no reason to pitch to him."
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.