After a day of second-guessing, the Phillies are back at it against a familiar September foe.
No need to bore you with a whole lot of pregame. We’re all aware of what’s happening. Down three games in the Wild Card, the Phillies have entered a make or break situation against the hottest team in the league. Crunch time.
This is a different Marlins team than the timid group of unknowns they faced earlier in the season. They've matured quickly into a dynamic club, with an explosive lineup that can beat you in a lot of different ways, to go with tremendous young pitching staff, which just added Anibal Sanchez’s no-hitter to its growing resume.
The Fish are for real, and playing as well as any team in the National League. But for sake of talking playoffs, they’re in the same boat as Philadelphia. The Phillies and Marlins are knotted up at 70-69 on the season, hoping someone can capsize San Diego, winners of five-straight themselves and playing solid overall baseball.
I would imagine there is a different clubhouse feel from a week ago. The new acquisitions, brought in to deliver those heavy, veteran blows, have settled into the mix, aware the Phillies are behind the eight ball yet again. Once left for dead, the Phillies could never shake this Wild Card possibility. It’s been sitting there for over a month, and now there are expectations to seize it.
How will the Marlins respond tonight? They’re coming off an emotional no-hitter; and it wouldn’t come as a shock if they came out flat. Just one of those things. After emotional games, you'd think teams would get a charge. Most of the time, it works the opposite. As they always say, momentum is only as good as tomorrow's starting pitcher.
The Phillies went on a nice run against cookie right-handers like Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio. Now they've run into the Rocket, Pettitte, and will see these young guns who are giving the rest of the league fits, beginning tonight against Josh Johnson (12-6, 2.99 ERA). Johnson will give up walks, including 68 of them in 147.1 innings, but his ERA places him third in baseball. Johnson beat the Phillies 15-2 on July 31, allowing one run and five hits in seven innings.
The Phillies will counter with Jon Lieber (6-9, 4.93 ERA), who needs to win. Period. Over his career, Lieber is a good September pitcher, and has improved dramatically since the trade deadline.
Expect a return to conservative scores, and unfortunately many more big spots for the bullpen. Tom Gordon could be the key to this series, and perhaps the rest of the season.
In addition, if you think teams will pitch Ryan Howard the way he's been pitched most of the season, think again. They've seen the highlight tape of the Howitzer smacking all pitches. With the quality of pitchers coming up, including two left-handers in Scott Olsen and Dontrelle Willis, he's going to be lucky to see much of anything. This will be an important series for the five hitter, whoever that might be.
Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino must keep at it, and Chase Utley needs to come up with some more RBIs. 1-2-3 will be critical. Anything the rest of the lineup 6-though-9 can produce is a bonus.
We should know more on Monday, perhaps from the color of the baseball caps people are wearing out at the supermarket. Fire-engine red, or hunter green.