IN OCTOBER, the Phillies will look back on the first week in May and decide that this was the period that either killed their season or saved it. Just like that, in a Flash . . .
Out to the West Coast they flew Wednesday night, their plane a little lighter because closer Tom Gordon and his aching shoulder were headed on a different flight to Philadelphia, their burden a little heavier for the same reason. Not that anybody is shocked, mind you. The only people who didn't see this coming at some point don't have eyes.
It happened last year and the Phillies didn't survive it. They lost six games in the bullpen in the space of about 2 1/2 weeks, as August melted into September, as Gordon returned at an achingly slow pace from his aching shoulder problem.
That period of time was the Phillies' best chance to take a lead in the National League wild-card race as the pack headed for October. Instead, because of a bullpen where necessity made for roles being shuffled nightly, it was gone.
Instead, they chased - and fell short.
Eight months later, they are in the same spot again - same Gordon, same shoulder, same implications for the season.
After kicking away the first couple of weeks of April, the Phillies simply are not in a position to be kicking away a couple of weeks in May. To do that would be to doom them.
Serious stakes, then. And Crazy Uncle Charlie, crazy like a fox, is the only reason that this thing has not gone to nine alarms overnight. Manager Charlie Manuel's decision to move Opening Day starter Brett Myers to the bullpen on April 18 in Washington is the only thing keeping the baseball populace from panic.
Crazy, crazy Charlie. He begged for an eighth-inning reliever all winter, a guy who would be able to close in the event that Gordon grabbed an appendage at some point, which everyone thought he would do. What they got for the manager to fill that hole was Antonio
Alfonseca, and Silent Tony has really pitched well overall. But nobody wants to see him close for any extended period of time, not anymore.
So, who? There were three different moving parts when Manuel made the decision to move Myers to the bullpen. Let's review.
The first was Jon Lieber, a starter his whole career, miserable this season in the bullpen, borderline-unusable in the bullpen. To get the most they could out of him, they moved him back into the starting rotation. Since then, he has given the Phils three fine starts. Success.
The second part was the general ineffectiveness of the seventh/eighth inning relievers to that point. Adding Myers into that mix took a measure of pressure off all of the rest, and they have been better since the move was made. They have found more comfortable spots and pitched accordingly. Success.
The third part was Gordon. Now, Manuel and the rest of them denied it up and down, but that was the clear implication of this move - they were afraid that Gordon was going to blow up, or blow out, or just blow a bunch more games.
Now, nobody would say it out loud - just as nobody would admit that Gordon's trip to see the doctor in March was not a routine tuneup, but because of a check-engine light that was blinking insistently - but it was obvious. He was blowing saves, and he wasn't throwing his breaking ball, and there was talk of the need to build arm strength after a spring where he was handled like Wedgewood.
Unspoken, then, was the need to get somebody ready for the day when Gordon broke down. Manuel had been thinking for months that Myers was the somebody, and he made the move when the team got off to its terrible start in April, and people said he was nuts.
Now, that move is the only reason this team still has a chance.
Mind you, it is only a chance. Through Wednesday, Myers had yet to close a game, no less three or four games in a week. He has pitched well out of the bullpen so far, but it is not as if the innings have been pristine or anything. The rhythms of the bullpen, both physical and emotional, are something to which Myers is still getting accustomed. And the closing thing, another whole set of emotions, remains an unplowed field.
But it is what the Phillies have, and it is more than what they had last season when Flash Gordon's shoulder betrayed him.
Now we get to find out if it is enough.