Pass me that Phillies Kool-Aid

By Chris Ruddick
MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A couple of weeks ago I was going to do a column on managers that were already on the hot seat, even though the season was less than a month old. I was going to focus the article primarily on a couple of managers, but the focal point was going to be Philadelphia's Charlie Manuel.

Instead I chose to do something on Albert Pujols and it is a good thing that I did because since that time the Phillies have been the hottest team in baseball and will likely be atop the National League East standings by the end of the week.

The Phils had hit rock-bottom in Pittsburgh on April 29th when they dropped a 3-2 decision to the hapless Pirates after losing the opener of that series the night before. Reports were swirling that general manager Pat Gillick held a closed-door meeting with Manuel after that game, meaning it was probably just a matter of time before Davey Johnson's phone was ringing.

A funny thing happened, though, after that loss in Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia won the next day to salvage the finale of that set and have lost just once since then. The Phillies reeled off nine straight wins before losing to the New York Mets on May 10 and have won four straight since that loss to close to within a game of first place in the East,

They are just doing everything right at the moment. They are getting tremendous starting pitching, they are hitting in the clutch and that bullpen is about as nasty as any, not only in the National League, but in all of baseball.

When it is all said and done it will probably be a two-team race in the NL East with the Phils and Mets going back-and-forth all year. If the Phillies do wind up coming out of the division, though, one of those games and moments they can look back on as the defining moment of their season occurred last week.

After splitting their first two games with the Mets, Philadelphia found itself in trouble in the first inning of the finale. After getting two quick outs, starter Gavin Floyd was having control issues and walked the bases loaded. New York's Xavier Nady then ripped a shot to dead-center that appeared to be heading over the head of Aaron Rowand. The center fielder, though, chased it down, caught it and crashed face-first at full-speed into the wall, making one of the most unbelievable catches I have ever seen.

Rowand, who immediately moved into cult hero status in Philly after the catch, easily saved the game for the Phillies, who went on to win, 2-0, in a rain- shortened five inning contest. But who knows what would have happened if not for Rowand's heroics. If he drops that ball at least two runs score and the flood gates may have opened.

After that catch it was almost as if the Phils refused to lose, they just would not be denied. That kind of thing carries over. How can anyone in that locker room not give everything they have when they see what Rowand is willing to do to win a game?

However, with that said I still don't expect Bobby Abreu to be running through walls anytime soon.

Being the anti-Phialdelphia guy that I am, I just chalked the winning streak up to the Phillies getting hot at the right time. But watching the catch from Rowand and the way they played this past weekend in Cincinnati I might be hopping on the bandwagon.

It seems as if I have been hearing for years about this Cole Hamels character, the Phils top pitching prospect who has been bitten hard by the injury bug since being the 17th overall selection in the 2002 draft out of high school. Well Mr. Hamels is healthy now and made the jump from Single-A Clearwater to Triple-A Scranton in late April.

In his first game with the Scranton Wilkes/Barre Red Barons, Hamels was lights out, striking out 14 over seven scoreless innings. You should have seen the way the Phillies press box was buzzing that day, almost as if the second coming of Sandy Koufax was upon them.

Well Hamels didn't disappoint in either of his two minor league starts after that. He was so good in fact that the Phillies promoted him to the big club in time to start Friday's game in Cincinnati.

Great American Ball Park is no place for a rookie pitcher to get his feet wet. Hamels, though, answered the call and was tremendous in his major league debut, as he allowed just one hit over five scoreless innings. He also struck out seven and walked five, but did not factor in the decision of his team's 4-2 win.

Jon Lieber, who opened the year with four straight losses, was even better the next night at the hitter friendly park, as he took a perfect game into the seventh inning and surrendered just two hits over 8 2/3 scoreless frames in a 2-0 shutout for the Phils.

Then to cap off Philadelphia's impressive weekend Brett Myers allowed just a run on four hits on Sunday, as the Phillies completed the three-game sweep with a 2-1 extra inning win. You have to feel a little bad for Myers, who is 0-1 with three no-decisions over his last four starts despite allowing just eight runs in that span.

Hamels looks like the real deal and if he and the other two stay healthy, Manuel has himself quite a little threesome there.

As good as Philly's starting pitching has been, though, its bullpen has been even better. There were a ton of question marks surrounding Tom Gordon before season, but he has been one of the best closers in baseball this year. Veteran left-hander Arthur Rhodes has also been sensational as Philly's eighth-inning guy.

The bullpen was made even better last week with the addition of Ryan Madson, who was bumped from the rotation to make room for Hamels. Madson thrived in the pen last year and there is no reason to believe that he won't have the same success from here on out.

It is not just the pitching that has been impressive. From top to bottom the Phillies lineup is as good as any in the league. With sluggers like reigning Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Abreu sprinkled throughout opposing pitchers don't get much of a break. While Abreu is probably the best all-around player on the team, Howard is becoming one of the biggest home run threats in the game. And don't forget about Jimmy Rollins at the top of the order.

It's fortunate Howard has been as good as he has considering the way Jim Thome is swinging the bat in Chicago. Things might have gotten a little ugly in the City of Brotherly Love had he gotten off to a slow start.

The time is right for the Phillies to return to the playoffs. Outside of the Mets, the NL East is down right now. The Mets seemed like a lock a few weeks ago to run away with the division, but they are starting to deal with some injuries to their pitching staff.

There is no town more title starved than that of Philadelphia. The Eagles let the city down year after year, the Flyers rarely make it out of the first round of the playoffs and the Sixers, well let's just say at least they own the town's last championship. Oh by the way that championship came back in 1983 - the same year Hamels was born. Coincidence?

The last four World Series champions have been surprises. Could Philadelphia be this year's Chicago White Sox?

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Chris Ruddick
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