The Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays shared an experience in October, as two unlikely teams fighting through a rainy World Series. This week, they meet for the first time since the postseason, spring training aside. Both are dealing with the repercussions of success, though the Phils have enjoyed a smoother encore so far.
The teams have a number of similar problems, as their bullpens and starting rotations suffered the injuries and drop-offs in performance common after a long playoff run. But both the Phils and Rays benefit from the leadership of managers who have demonstrated an ability to steer their teams through adverse circumstances.
The Rays' erstwhile ace, Scott Kazmir, has missed even more time than the Phils' sometimes-fragile No. 1, Cole Hamels. Currently on the disabled list with a quadriceps strain, Kazmir has struggled for most of the season. He is 4-4 with a 7.69 earned run average, "leading" a rotation that also features the under-performing Andy Sonnanstine (5-6. 6.65), a surprising and important contributor to last year's success. The Rays' bullpen has also been shakier than last season.
Ancient closer Troy Percival, who broke down before the World Series, is injured again, leaving J.P. Howell to assume most of his duties, though the Rays have not officially named a closer. Howell has pitched well, but it is difficult to imagine a team without a closer competing in a division with New York's Mariano Rivera and Boston's Jonathan Papelbon.
Late-inning specialists Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler gave Tampa Bay a shutdown bullpen last year, and both have struggled after pitching so many innings in 2008. As of Friday, Balfour's ERA was 5.28, Wheeler's 4.57.
The Phillies, of course, have their own rotation issues, and are increasingly concerned about their relievers. Hamels has flashed brilliance but not consistency, and many of the starters who helped the team win last season either are hurt or have struggled. Problems in the rotation have led to an overworked bullpen, providing no rest for relievers who were asked to pitch an additional month last season.
The most significant health issue has been Brad Lidge's knee sprain, which helped cause him to blow six saves and end up on the disabled list. But others have been affected by overuse, and the pen last week began to show significant signs of strain and contributed to the team's 1-5 record in home games against Boston and Toronto. Clay Condrey's back was sore; Chan Ho Park's arm hurt. It will be difficult to compete into October if the relievers cannot find a way to rest their tired bodies.
Both the Rays and Phils made their most notable personnel change in left field. While Raul Ibanez has been much more productive than former Phillie Pat Burrell, the veterans have each been slowed by injuries. Burrell has dealt with a neck strain, and the 37-year-old Ibanez strained his groin, underscoring the risk involved in offering long-term contracts to even the most talented older players.
One thing the teams do not have in common is quality of competition. The weak National League East has masked some of the Phillies' shortcomings and allowed them to remain in first place while attempting to resolve their issues. The Rays' margin for error is much tighter, because they must compete with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, even the Toronto Blue Jays. They began the weekend in fourth place, two games over .500, and face a much more arduous path to the playoffs than the Phillies.
Both teams' attempts to repeat their league titles are made easier by managers who are masters at facilitating group dynamics, albeit in very different ways. Charlie Manuel is the essence of the Phillies' persona. He believes in living wholly in the moment, building a winning season by viewing each game as an isolated event. Manuel's Eastern-tinged philosophy, derived in part from years playing in Japan, has resonated with most of his players.
Rays manager Joe Maddon is himself one of the most interesting thinkers in baseball. Both esoteric and concrete, he steered the team from punch line to American League champs in just three seasons. On his second day of spring training after being hired in 2006, Maddon told reporters, "When I close my eyes, I have a vision for how this will be a championship team in three seasons."
The line drew laughter, but Maddon was serious. His strategy for motivating players is highly individualized; he knows how to coddle the insecure and discipline the arrogant. Maddon writes each Ray a letter during the off-season, helping the player establish and assess goals. He has been known to tell players to spend off-days watching from the stands, reminding them to appreciate the game as they once did.
Like Manuel's, some of Maddon's influences are nontraditional. He was deeply affected by journalist Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book Blink, which deals with rapid cognition. Gladwell theorizes that research and preparation can make people's snap decisions more intelligent. So Maddon drills the fundamentals of fielding and hitting, so his players will develop muscle memory strong enough to remove conscious thought from their actions.
Now, the Rays also have the memory of an exciting postseason run, which they, like the Phillies, hope to repeat. Doing so will be difficult, though it surely wasn't easy in 2008, either.
Inside the Phillies:
Read Andy Martino's Phillies blog, the Phillies Zone, at http://go.philly.com/sports.
Blog response of the week
RE: Sosa and Wall St.: Greedy, arrogant liars
Posted by spinmeister 03:52 p.m., 06/17/2009
I'm always amused at fans who say "what's the big deal about steroids?" IT'S CHEATING, and ILLEGAL!!!!EndText