Phillies bring survivor mentality back to NLCS
The Phils could become the first NL team to repeat as champs since the '76 Reds
Charlie Manuel is the perfect fit for a team -- and a city -- of survivors
Much of this Phillies team embodies the game's traditional essence
It was just a bunt, a little roller in front of the mound off the bat of Dexter Fowler, but it confounded the heck out of reliever Scott Eyre. Before he could even reach the thing, he'd stumbled horribly to the ground, where he grabbed an ankle, writhed about and pounded his fist.
Oh, the pain. Oh, the MRI. Oh, the rehab.
Wait a minute, check that. By the following night -- Monday's Game 4 of the Division Series -- Eyre was ready to run wind sprints with Usain Bolt. He was out there to start the ninth inning, for crying out loud. These are the Phillies, after all. They look so vulnerable at times, but they never go away.
Poised to defend their honor in the NLCS, which opens Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, the Phillies have a larger goal in mind: the first National League team to repeat as World Series champions since the 1976 Cincinnati Reds. "The Big Red Machine," as they were called. The Phillies have some big guys, and they dress in red, but they're not exactly a machine. They're more like a well-worn stock car, cranky and battered but somehow whipped into shape at the very last minute.
So much of this image was fostered last year, when consummate leader Jimmy Rollins got benched (brief lapse in motivation), Chase Utley played through a hip injury when he should have been on an operating table (that would come later) and Pedro Feliz tried not to reveal the lower-back pain that tormented him throughout the postseason (he, too, had offseason surgery). Feliz wound up getting the hit that beat Tampa Bay in the World Series-clinching game, a moment fully capturing the Phillies' resolve.
It is nothing short of remarkable that Charlie Manuel, a good ol' boy from West Virginia, is in charge of this team. You'd picture something closer to Ernest Borgnine or Jimmy Cagney, some no-nonsense guy who swaggers into the toughest Philly bars and matches street-smarts with the wise guys in the upper deck. Someone at least remotely connected with the town. When people got a load of Manuel's first press conference, with that slow, country drawl, they must have thought the Phils were kidding. As in, "Who's that rube? What is this, Hee-Haw?"
Learn a bit more about the man, though, and he's the perfect fit for a team -- and a city -- of survivors. Over the years, Manuel has managed to survive a heart attack, quadruple bypass surgery and prostate cancer. He has become an odd sort of local hero, forever evading the pitfalls of eccentricity.
With Game 2 of the Division Series in progress and the Phillies' Game 3 starter a total mystery, Manuel used two of the candidates, Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, in relief. The third option was 38-year-old Pedro Martinez, eventually held back for what loomed as a 17-degree evening in Denver -- but when the snowstorm cleared and Game 3 arrived a day late, it wasn't Martinez at all. Pedro's next postseason start, if it happens at all, will be his first for the Phillies.
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