After taking three out of four with Atlanta, the Phillies must carry that momentum forward against Florida in the most imperative series in two years.
Instead of the customary Friday morning series wrap, my thoughts are focused on the Fish, and I’m hoping that’s where the Phillies heads are, too.
There’s no point dwelling on last night. A four-game sweep is extremely difficult, especially one against Atlanta. Nearly everyone has had a superb week with the sticks, but they can’t relax and admire the box scores.
If the team is, in fact, better away from the pressure of Citizen's Bank Park, then Dolphins Stadium - located in the heart of Miami’s thriving industrial and military wasteland - is just the place to wash out the noise.
Florida has the worst fans in baseball, and it’s the worst city for baseball. Expect plenty of well-tanned bodies with red hats peppering the seats. I was at a game in 2002 and my entire section was filled with Ricky Ledee's relatives. The rest were transplanted New Yorkers watching the score of the Yankees game.
Unfortunately, Miami hasn’t been a sunny paradise for the Phils. Since 2003, Florida is 18-7 at home against them and 4-2 this season. The last time these rivals met for a series of this magnitude, the Phils were swept in three back in September of 2003.
As a fan back home, bailing out now and jumping on board with the Birds risks missing the decisive moment of the baseball season. The Phils are tied with the Fish for the National League Wild Card, and just 0.5 back of Houston. The end is very much in sight – a little over two weeks away.
This is as close to October as it gets. How the team responds will partially define the careers of the veteran core – Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, David Bell, Mike Lieberthal and Jon Lieber. For the young guys – Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and especially Eude Brito – they’re getting a crash course in big games. Brito pitches Sunday against former World Series MVP Josh Beckett.
Tonight represents their best opportunity to win – and they have no other choice.
Jon Lieber (14-12, 4.42 ERA) – their best pitcher and the one with the most experience in pressure games – takes on Brian Moehler (6-9, 4.00 ERA), who lasted only three innings against them just a week ago.
Then it gets tough. Enigmatic Vicente Padilla (8-12, 4.67 ERA) matches up with my choice for Cy Young, Dontrelle Willis (21-8, 2.48 ERA), for a rematch of a goofy game that happened back on July 17. The Phillies pounded D-Train in his worst outing of the season, smacking him with eight earned runs, including a two-run triple by Padilla of all people. But which D-Train will they see? If it’s the one who dominated them the previous three starts, they’re in deep trouble.
Then on Sunday, the Phils send rookie Eude Brito (1-0, 1.72 ERA) to the hill against Josh Beckett (14-8, 3.53 ERA), who’s been a little like his "twin" Brett Myers lately, not going very deep into games. Like Willis, the Phillies busted Beckett pretty good in one game this season, this one coming on May 1 (2 innings, 5 ER). For Brito, welcome the stretch run, amigo.
This series will be tooth and nail, decided by which team gets the best starting pitching. The advantage lies with Florida.
The Phils benefit by not having to face pesky shortstop Alex Gonzalez, my least-favorite player wearing aqua. Gonzalez, who's on the DL, is batting .308 against the Phils this season and always seems to come through with an annoying hit or dinger.
The Phils need to peck away by getting men on base and moving them along. Jimmy Rollins needs to be just as sharp as he was against Atlanta. On the other side, the Phils need to prevent the leadoff hitters from getting on base and short circuiting Vicente Padilla's brain.
Essentially, the Phillies must be perfect.