Phillies leftfielder Pat Burrell confronted Vicente Padilla in the visitors' clubhouse at Dolphins Stadium last Saturday morning before the righthander, whose 8-12 record belies the quality of his stuff, was to start against the hottest pitcher in baseball, the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis. "We need you to come up big," Burrell told Padilla. "It's time to step it up." Philadelphia closer Billy Wagner heard Burrell's exhortation, smiled to himself and filed it away as another piece of evidence that these were no longer the same torpid, good-but-not-good-enough Phillies of the previous four seasons, who under erstwhile manager Larry Bowa had accrued seasons of 86, 80, 86 and 86 wins and whose clubhouse brimmed with all the joie de vivre of an SAT exam room.
"Guys are making themselves heard," Wagner said later. " Pat Burrell speaking up? That's great to see. There's a looseness and a confidence that wasn't here last year, with all the tension from the coaching staff. Nobody's pressing."
Wagner spoke after an even more resounding statement by the Phillies had followed Burrell's challenge to Padilla: a 10-run ninth inning, the biggest in the team's 122-year history, which came with Willis on the brink of a three-hit shutout. Said Wagner of the 10-2 stunner, "We beat the D-Train when he had us beat. We don't win this game last year. This team quits last year. Too much pressure."
With two weeks left in the season the National League wild-card race was tougher to pin down than John Roberts. The Washington Nationals (4 1/2 games back at week's end) refused to go away even though they'd been outscored by 31 runs this year, and the Houston Astros, Marlins and Phillies were playing leapfrog almost daily with the lead (claimed at week's end by Houston, which was in front of Philadelphia by 1 1/2 games and Florida by 2 1/2). Among the more startling developments amid such nuttiness was some swagger in the hard-hitting Phillies.
After a five-game losing streak, including three unbecoming defeats to Houston at home on Sept. 5-7, Philadelphia ripped off seven wins in nine games against the NL East--leading Braves and the Marlins, outscoring them 77-33 over that span. When shortstop Jimmy Rollins crossed the plate with the first of those 10 runs on Saturday, he noticed an uncommon exuberance. "It was kind of like the World Series," Rollins says. "The whole team was out of the dugout and halfway to the plate. I've never been to college, but that was like a college team. It was exciting."
Like Wagner, Rollins traces the team's attitude adjustment to the arrival of the easygoing Charlie Manuel, who was named Phillies manager on Nov. 4. "Now we come to the ballpark expecting to win," Rollins says, "and if we don't win, we look forward to winning tomorrow. I don't want to say we expected to lose last year, but we waited for something bad to happen. That doesn't happen anymore.
"Why? It starts at the top, and Charlie's at the top. No matter how things are going, he doesn't change: 'Way to go; go get 'em tomorrow; J-Roll, you're playing great.' That's all you hear. It's all positive. You definitely feel less stress. It's a whole lot better than the [coaching] staff moping around all the time."
the 26-year-old Rollins, who broke in with Philadelphia in 2000, has never played a postseason game. Indeed, the Phillies are one of only eight franchises never to have reached the playoffs in the 10-year history of the wild card, keeping infamous company with Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Montreal/Washington, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Toronto. In June, Rollins, who could have left as a free agent after the 2006 season, committed to the Phillies through 2010 when he signed a five-year, $40 million extension--a nice chunk of change for a leadoff hitter who at the time had a .263 average and a .305 on-base percentage.
In the past month, however, no player has been more important to Philadelphia's playoff push than Rollins. At week's end he was second in the major leagues in hits in September (30), owned the longest hitting streak in the NL this year (24 games) and had hit a scorching .488 (21 for 43) while Philadelphia won three straight series. Rollins, the 28-year-old Burrell (.281, 30 homers, 111 RBIs), 26-year-old second baseman Chase Utley (.282, 22, 89) and 25-year-old rookie first baseman Ryan Howard (.289, 18, 50) give Philadelphia a youthful energy.
"Jimmy's been the guy carrying us," righthander Jon Lieber said after Rollins scored or knocked in seven runs in a 13-3 rout of Florida last Friday. "When he gets on base, good things happen for us." Since July 26 the Phillies were 20-5 when Rollins scored a run and 8-17 when he didn't. His ability to jump-start the club was never more apparent than it was on Saturday, when he opened the ninth inning with a base hit off Willis, his fellow alum of Encinal High in Alameda, Calif.