Schilling, Byrd, Wolf. That's three. There are nine other pitchers on the Phillies' 25-man roster. Righthander Chad Ogea (4-7, 5.28 ERA through Sunday), who follows Schilling in the rotation, has been wildly inconsistent. After Ogea, there's no one resembling an established pitcher among the other eight. The fifth starter is ever changing. The relievers, most of them, are minor league call-ups without enough experience to have any kind of reputation, good or bad. The closer—replacing righthander Jeff Brantley, who is out for the season with a torn labrum—is third-year righthander Wayne Gomes (1-1, 3.65,11 saves), who routinely allows a hit or a walk or both before settling in and securing the save.
They try hard, you can say that for the relievers, the starters, the bench, the whole club. It may sound hackneyed, but that's the thing the Philadelphia manager, Terry Francona, insists upon. In a 10-year career with five big league clubs, Francona was a utility player, and he manages his bench well. But his team was six games over .500 because he's been trotting out the same eight guys pretty much daily, and they can all very much hit. Four of the regulars—catcher Mike Lieberthal (chart, page 45), rightfielder Bobby Abreu, centerfielder Doug Glanville and shortstop Alex Arias, filling in for the injured Desi Relaford—were hitting better than .300 at week's end. Leftfielder Ron Gant, batting in the number 2 spot (.259, nine homers, 37 RBIs), just keeps moving guys over, then smiles when he gets back to a bunch of raised arms in the dugout. The nominal offensive star of the team, third baseman Scott Rolen, has been in an offensive funk for much of the season, but last weekend he feasted on the Cubs' dismal pitching, going 5 for 12 in the series with three homers and 10 RBIs. The Phils, who were hitting .280 as a team and averaging almost 5.5 runs per game, have pop. That should keep them in half their remaining games.
So far, most of that pop has come from Abreu, the number 3 hitter, and Lieberthal, who often bats sixth. Abreu, a 25-year-old from Venezuela with a cannon arm and only one error through Sunday, was among the top 10 in the league in batting average (.331), on-base percentage (.418) and runs scored (59). The 27-year-old Lieberthal, Philadelphia's first pick in the 1990 draft, not only has been calling games with quiet assurance but also had thrown out a commendable 35% of attempted base stealers and had a .998 fielding percentage. At the plate he's been looking like Mike Piazza. As the Phillies improve, people are asking, Who is their leader? Lieberthal would be a natural answer, just as catcher Darren Daulton was the leader of the '93 pennant winners. But this is a different time, and this is a different team.
"We're a young team, but there's a core of us who have been together for two or three years," Lieberthal says. "We know what we can do, and we're playing the game right, so it's hard to pick a leader. If somebody stood up and shouted, 'Let's go,' they'd get a laugh." Which is another way of saying the Phils are pros, young ones.
This team is taking the George Bush route to improvement, practicing prudence at every turn. "We're not trying to gear up for the wild-card race," Francona says. "We're trying to become the next Atlanta Braves." The view is to the 21st century and a new ballpark. All of Philadelphia's farm teams are playing better than .500 ball, and first baseman Pat Burrell, the first pick in last year's draft, is devouring Double A pitching at Reading.
For years the Phillies were led by amiable chairman Bill Giles, who was essentially a fan turned loose. Two years ago Giles handed the reins over to Montgomery, who quickly installed Wade as general manager. They've made good decisions at every turn, not all of them popular. Maybe that's why, through Sunday, the team was drawing an average of just 23,142 fans at the Vet. But maybe that's also why the team is improving.
When Wade became acting G.M. in December 1997, his first major transaction was to trade Mickey Morandini—Schilling's best friend and a well-liked second baseman from the '93 team—to the Cubs for Glanville. Wade knew that center-fielder and leadoff hitter Lenny Dykstra's career was over, even though Dykstra, a beloved core member of the '93 team, did not yet know it himself. A few months later he released Dykstra. Since then Glanville has become a graceful fielder and dependable leadoff hitter.
Early last Friday night, before all the fireworks, offensive and otherwise, Wade, wearing a dark suit on a sultry evening, was walking behind the cage during batting practice. Morandini was loosening up. "Man, Eddie," the Cubs infielder said, "are you ever turning gray." Improvement comes at a price. The Phils are getting better. Nobody said it would be easy.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]