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Bill Conlin: From one extreme to the other in Philly sports

IN AN APRIL "King of the World" column, I bundled the seasons of the underachieving Flyers and uninclined Sixers in a few uncomplimentary sentences, concluding:

IN AN APRIL "King of the World" column, I bundled the seasons of the underachieving Flyers and uninclined Sixers in a few uncomplimentary sentences, concluding:

"The Chairman of the Great Indoors, Ed Snider, will avert his gaze from the wretched Sixers and focus on the equally unwatchable Flyers."

A team picked by many to be exactly where it is today - very much alive on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals - staggered to the final game of the NHL regular season needing a win at home over the New York Rangers to take part in playoff hockey.

Does it get any hairier for a team on the brink of elimination than rolling the dice in a shootout to win a pass into the postseason as a No. 7 seed?

The watchability began when Brian Boucher turned away two Rangers and Danny Briere and Claude Giroux beat Henrik Lundqvist.

It was a great escape and what has happened since then to absorb an entire region into this breathless and unlikely drama has turned my "unwatchable" premise into, "Don't even blink until the final horn and then watch the replay at least twice." It has been that good, that compelling.

Who knew Michael Leighton would replace an injured Boucher and turn into a taller, 21st-century version of Bernie Parent?

Between Leighton and the Phillies' offense, this is the only town in America where the odds are good that you'll see a shutout no matter which sport you choose.

And with that, the shades and nuances of the Flyers-Blackhawks tussle between two Cup-famished franchises can do without my meager contribution.

A familiar stench emanating from Flushing Meadows compels me to join the growing number of concerned folks asking, "What the hell is up with the Phillies?"

No Rollins . . . No Lidge . . . No Happ . . . Chooch hurting . . . The Big Piece perfecting his opo-singles swing . . . Utley looking sallow and listless, as if that flu bug has taken up residence while he mans his way through it . . . Raul looking older than Jamie Moyer, and definitely playing older . . . Shane leading off second and failing to get a jump on an Utley single through the right side, then being held at third on a ball he normally would have scored on running backward.

The Phillies no longer run, nor do they stop the other team's running game. They dropped anchor even when they had two knuckleballers in a row to run on. Guess you have to get on base to run, right? Even with Jimmy Rollins out, they still have three viable running threats. But when Shane Victorino doesn't run on knuckleballer Robert Alan Dickey and Rod Barajas, you've got to say, "Whoa. What's going on here?" Even with Rollins disabled, Victorino, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth are palpable and respected running threats. But that trio appears to be more concerned with their batting funks than their leads and jumps.

Charlie Manuel is an inveterate tinkerer, always looking for combinations that will click in his never-ending pursuit of improved offense. But it now appears the spring-training plan to bat Placido Polanco second and Victorino sixth or seventh was ill-advised. On paper, it had a clean, textbook look: Rollins, a speed leadoff guy who hits a lot of doubles and steals a lot of bases, being first-to-thirded or advanced to third by Polly, a disciplined hitter born to move runners. Last year, batting behind Rollins, Victorino played with his hair on fire, confronting enemy pitchers with a perfect storm of offensive versatility and challenging speed. Rollins doubles, Shane singles and the Phillies have a run. Then the centerfielder steals second. All the while, Utley is getting a high ratio of fastballs to hit.

With Polanco in front of Utley, that scenario no longer applies. Polly doesn't steal bases. He doesn't cause pitchers to use hurried slide steps. He doesn't command serial throw-overs. Top-of-the-lineup speed disrupts pitchers.

The idea, which looked so solid on the blueprint, was that Polanco's sophistication and ability to take pitches and hit the ball to the right side would enhance the effectiveness of Rollins. And Polanco, a career .300 hitter, would be on base enough to amp up RBI opportunities for Utley and Ryan Howard. Not lately.

Teams in deep batting slumps always seem to be hitting 0-2 and 1-2. Back when they were jack-booting teams - even with Rollins out - the Phillies were always working into hitter's counts, 2-0, 3-1, 3-0, with Charlie flashing green lights like a Center City traffic signal.

The unintended consequence of prolonged team slumps, of course, is that it really doesn't matter if you have a closer or not. You need to have a lead to protect one. Jose Contreras could have stayed back at the Grand Hyatt while Jose Reyes was running anchor in the 4 x 90 Queens Relays. One of these scoreless days, Manuel probably will have to get his fill-in closer an appearance just for exercise.

Meanwhile, with the Phillies scoring runs in clusters of one and none, Mitchy Poo and Ricky Bo could be down there entertaining the troops with some really neat stories.

And when Ryan Howard's grandchildren ask, "Pop-Pop, what did you do during the Phillies' great hitting slump of 2010?" the Big Piece can reply, "Next to nothing, kids. Absolutely next to nothing."

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