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Win or Else!
Stephen Cannella
May 21, 2001
With new manager Larry Bowa laying down the law, the formerly phlegmatic Phillies have gone from grim to grins
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May 21, 2001

Win Or Else!

With new manager Larry Bowa laying down the law, the formerly phlegmatic Phillies have gone from grim to grins

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Worst to First

One reason the Phillies had the best record in the National League through Sunday was their bullpen, a disaster last year but (with the likes of Ricky Bottalico, left) a bulwark this season. Here are the league's five worst bullpen ERAs in 2000 and the five best in 2001.

RANK, TEAM

2000 ERA

RANK, TEAM

2001 ERA

12. Cardinals

4.84

1. Phillies

3.15

13. Expos

5.17

2. Cardinals

3.18

14. Astros

5.18

3. Brewers

3.34

15. Cubs

5.19

4. Padres

3.54

16. Phillies

5.72

5. Reds

3.66

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

When Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa scampers out of the dugout to make pitching changes, first-year shortstop Jimmy Rollins joins the ensuing conference on the pitcher's mound. In such situations baseball etiquette dictates that players fewer than 40 games into their first full season behave like Victorian children: They should be seen and not heard, especially if the call to the bullpen comes in a tense late-game situation. However, the fact that Bowa, a former shortstop, had played in four All-Star Games and won two Gold Gloves before Rollins was even born doesn't stop the 22-year-old from tweaking his skipper. "You're nervous, aren't you?" Bowa says the mischievous Rollins will sometimes say to him during these mound confabs. "Come on, I see you pacing in that dugout. Say it, you're nervous, aren't you?"

"Hey, look, I played over 2,000 games in the big leagues," Bowa, in his first season as Philadelphia manager, says he once snapped back. "I am not nervous."

It was an unconvincing rebuttal, because anyone can see the same sideline spectacle that Rollins is witnessing game after game. The ultraintense Bowa spends every inning bouncing around the dugout like a hyperactive child who's just found where the Halloween candy is hidden. See Larry pace. See Larry fiddle with his cap every five seconds. See Larry bark—at his coaches, at his players, at umpires, at opponents, at himself. See Larry grimace and knead his face with his hands when things go poorly. See Larry pump his fists and stamp his feet when things go well. See Larry's tightly wound psyche riding on every pitch as if there were a World Series to be won or lost in the third inning of a game in May.

In an era in which most managers display all the external emotion and activity of a golem, Bowa is a whirling dervish. How wired is he? After a tense 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves last month, Bowa high-fived bench coach Greg Gross so hard that the next day Gross's hand was swollen and had turned black-and-blue. The Philadelphia Daily News has been running a contest to guess the game and inning he is first ejected. (Amazingly, he hadn't been tossed as of Sunday.) If Bowa continues at the pace he set in the season's first six weeks, Philadelphia clubhouse attendants will have to add Ritalin pills to the dugout smorgasbord of bubble gum and sunflower seeds. "He's a nut," says third baseman Scott Rolen. "We need to get him a seat belt. He's nonstop high-energy. You stay out of his way during the game and try not to get hurt."

"He's always pacing and cheerleading and trash-talking, as if he's itching to get out on the field," says centerfielder Doug Glanville. "It works. We're all focused from the first pitch of the game. He gets everybody's attention."

Bowa has been an adrenaline shot into the heart of a moribund franchise. After completing a 4-2 road trip by taking two of three games from the Arizona Diamondbacks last weekend, the Phillies, who in 2000 under Terry Francona were the dispirited co-owners (with the Chicago Cubs) of the majors' worst record (65-97), had the National League's best mark (22-14) and a six-game lead over the second-place Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins in the East. It was the latest Philadelphia had been in first since 1995, and the lead was the Phillies' largest in the division since '93. That magical season, when they went to the World Series, also happens to be the last time the Phils finished above .500.

"I don't see anything flukey about what they're doing," says former Philadelphia ace Curt Schilling, who after nine seasons with the Phillies was traded last July 26 to Arizona for first baseman-outfielder Travis Lee and pitchers Omar Daal, Vicente Padilla and Nelson Figueroa. Last Friday, in his first start against his former team, Schilling lost 5-1. "We've played every team in that division, and so far, top to bottom, I think they're the best."

Philadelphia's fast start has been fueled by what most observers thought before the season would be its biggest weakness, the pitching staff. Through Sunday the bullpen, spearheaded by free-agent acquisitions Ricky Bottalico (1.71 ERA), Rheal Cormier (2.89) and Jose Mesa (10 saves in 11 chances), was 8-4 and had the league's lowest ERA (chart, above). Meanwhile, lefthander Daal and righthander Amaury Telemaco made the Phils the only team in the majors with two 4-0 starters. The stellar pitching plus solid defense have compensated for a sputtering offense. Only one regular, Lee (.302, with six home runs and 16 RBIs), was hitting better than .280. The heart of the lineup—rightfielder Bobby Abreu, Rolen, and catcher Mike Lieberthal—was batting a combined .233 with 12 homers and 53 RBIs; the three of them had barely surpassed the home run and RBI totals of Boston Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez. "If you'd told me in spring training our 3-4-5 hitters would have the numbers they do now, I'd have said we'd be in a lot of trouble," says Bowa. "It's a huge positive that we're winning without them producing."

Philadelphia survives by getting timely hits—its .289 average with runners in scoring position was the league's third-best—and by playing with a Bowa-esque blue-collar spunk and focus that were lacking last year. Take last Saturday's 6-5 victory over Arizona. The Phils jumped to a 5-0 lead in the third inning, a rally keyed by a two-run double from backup catcher Gary Bennett, who entered the game in the second inning after Lieberthal tore his right medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments while getting picked off first. (He's out for the season.) Arizona tied the score in the sixth, but Cormier, Bottalico and Mesa allowed the Diamondbacks only three singles and an intentional walk over the final three innings, holding the fort long enough for Philadelphia to win in the 10th on leftfielder Pat Burrell's RBI single on a 1-and-2 pitch.

"That would have been an easy game for us to fold in," Bowa said. "We blew a five-run lead, we lost our catcher, but we kept competing. That shows the character of this team."

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