Phillies look to turn weekend sweep into sustained run


Phillies look to turn weekend sweep into sustained run

After a stretch of 17 games in 17 days, the Phillies had an off day Monday.

All things considered, Charlie Manuel would rather have kept on playing.

“When you’re playing good, or starting to play good, or have a streak going, I like to keep playing,” the Phillies' manager said. “If I had my way we’d play.”

A month into the season, the Phillies finally have a reason to feel good about themselves. They are coming off their best three-game stretch of the season, a sweep of the New York Mets in which they received good pitching and even better hitting. Their offense, which had sputtered in the early weeks of the season, produced 18 runs in three games against the Mets and collected nine hits in 25 at-bats with a runner in scoring position. To put that in perspective, the Phils lost three in a row to Pittsburgh before heading to New York. They were 4 for 29 with runners in scoring position in those three games against the Pirates.

Yes, the Phillies’ weekend sweep came against the Mets, a team that is expected to finish near the bottom in the NL East, and Matt Harvey, the Mets’ best arm, did not pitch in the series. But you can only beat the team in front of you that day. The Phils weren’t about to throw back the sweep and the momentum they hope they gained with it.

“We knew we were kind of due for a series like this,” said Laynce Nix, whose two-out, pinch-hit in the seventh inning helped key Sunday’s win. “Now we have to try to keep it going.”

The schedule remains kind to the Phillies as they visit the Cleveland Indians for a two-game series starting Tuesday night. The Indians entered play on Monday in last place in the AL Central. After the quick two-game series against the Terry Francona-led Tribe, the Phils return home for four games against the lowly Miami Marlins.

The Mets. The Indians. The Marlins.

These are teams the Phillies (12-14) must clean up on if they are to make a run at a playoff spot.

So far, so good, by the way: The Phils are 7-2 against the Mets and Marlins. Tougher tests will come and maybe the Phils are becoming better equipped to handle those challenges.

First, Roy Halladay, who starts Tuesday night, seems to be finding himself after opening the season with two poor starts. He has given up just eight hits, five walks and four runs while striking out 16 in 21 innings over his last three starts. If he can continue to perform at or close to that level, the Phils’ rotation should be formidable with Cole Hamels (he’s due to go on a big run), Cliff Lee and Kyle Kendrick (see story).

Second, Ryan Howard is finding his groove after a slow start. He has two doubles, two homers and 10 RBIs in his last five games. He hit everything hard in New York. Howard’s production in the cleanup hole has always been crucial to this team and so is Jimmy Rollins’ work in the leadoff hole. Rollins had a strong series in New York with four hits -- including an important two-out single to cap a nine-pitch at-bat in the seventh inning Sunday -- two walks and four runs.

The third reason to believe the Phils could be ready to put something together is this: Their lineup is about to get deeper and better. It got a little better and deeper with the return of Carlos Ruiz on Sunday – “He just makes our lineup feel more complete,” Hamels said -- and will benefit from the addition of Delmon Young in the coming days. May 1 has been the loose target date for adding Young to the roster. He is currently rehabbing from ankle surgery with Triple A Lehigh Valley. Ruiz and Young are two solid right-handed bats that should make the Phils less susceptible to left-handed pitching and more productive overall.

First-year hitting coach Steve Henderson liked what he saw in New York and thinks the lineup is poised to continue to produce.

“Every hitter in Major League Baseball will have little bumps in the road,” Henderson said. “It just so happens we had ours early in the year. These guys are proven hitters here. All of them. When it does click, you’ll see an example like you saw this weekend.

“Having Delmon and Carlos is going to make a lot of difference. It takes a little pressure off everybody so they can just do their job. Early in the year, we weren’t scoring runs like we should, but everybody was putting pressure on themselves, trying to make something happen. Now you have a full team together and that will be a more relaxed team.”

Said Manuel: “When you start playing more relaxed, good things happen.”

Good things happened for the Phillies in New York, but it was just three games, a drop of water in the Olympic-sized swimming pool that is a major-league baseball season. The Phils need to use the weekend as a springboard into a successful month of May.

“We were able to come through in some crunch situations [in New York],” Hamels said, “but we still have a lot to build on. I know we can get a lot more hits, we can put up a lot more runs, throw a lot more strikes. This is just a small step to where we want to go.”

'Next year' arrives: Lovable Losers Cubs, Indians begin World Series

'Next year' arrives: Lovable Losers Cubs, Indians begin World Series

CLEVELAND — The last time the Cleveland Indians won the World Series, Dewey led Truman in the polls. The Chicago Cubs' last title was 13 days after the first Ford Model T car was completed.

Lovable losers known for decades of defeat meet in this year's championship, a combined 174 seasons of futility facing off starting Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

Cleveland's last title was in 1948, when 16 teams from the East Coast to St. Louis competed in a just-integrated sport. The Cubs are trying to win for the first time since 1908 , a dead ball-era matchup at a time home runs were rarities along with telephones.

No player is alive from the last championship Cubs or even the last to make a Series appearance -- Tuesday marks the 25,948th day since the Cubs' Game 7 loss to Detroit in 1945. One player remains from the 1948 Indians, 95-year-old Eddie Robinson.

"It seems like it's just forever," Robinson said Monday from his home in Fort Worth, Texas. "When we got home from Boston, there was a monumental parade. It just looked like everybody in Cleveland came out on Euclid Avenue."

One team's fans will let loose with the celebration of a lifetime. But while history weighs on the supporters, Cubs manager Joe Maddon focuses his players with a now-centered battle cry of "Win the Inning!"

"Air conditioning is popular right now. So is color TV," he said. "You've just got to change with the times."

Both teams worked out under cloudy skies Monday as the new 59-by-221-foot scoreboard behind the left-field seats -- the largest in the major leagues -- trumpeted the Sisyphean matchup. While the Cubs play in Wrigley Field, the 102-year-old brick-and-ivy jewel on Chicago's North Side, the Indians are in a 22-year-old throwback-style ballpark originally called Jacobs Field.

Led by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs led the major leagues with 103 wins during the regular season, then beat San Francisco and Los Angeles in the playoffs. But since the playoffs expanded in 1995, only four teams with the best regular-season record won the title: the 1998 and 2009 New York Yankees, and the 2007 and 2013 Boston Red Sox.

"I promise you, our guys are going to be in the present tense," Maddon said. "I think we all have a tremendous amount of respect for history and what's happened before us or not happened before us. But, you know, you go in that room right now, they're very young. Really not impacted by a lot of the lore."

Jon Lester, 7-1 in his career against Cleveland, starts for the Cubs and Corey Kluber opens for the Indians. Lester is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three postseason starts this year and 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in a trio of Series outings. He learned to prepare from watching Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett in Boston.

"They prepared the same way for this start as they would for a regular start during the season," he said.

Kluber pitched shutout ball twice in the playoffs before allowing two runs in five innings in Game 4 at Toronto. His father, Jim, was born in Cleveland and rooted for the Indians growing up in suburban Highland Heights.

"I think every parent is excited if their kid has a chance to play in the World Series," said the 30-year-old right-hander, who could win his second AL Cy Young Award in three years.

Both teams were dealing with injuries that caused changes in planning.

Chicago included outfielder Kyle Schwarber, out since tearing knee ligaments on April 7. He played a pair of games in the Arizona Fall League, going 1 for 6 with a double and two walks.

"Reports are good," Maddon said. "He's swinging the bat well. He's running really well."

Cleveland, juggling all year because of health mishaps, put on pitcher Danny Salazar, who could start Game 4. The All-Star right-hander has not pitched since Sept. 9 because of forearm tightness but threw a simulated game Sunday.

Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis was dealing with a sprained left ankle, hurt when he jumped and shortstop Francisco Lindor accidentally stepped on his foot while celebrating the last out of the ALCS.

"He might not be 100 percent, but I don't think it's going to get in the way," Francona said.

Cleveland fell three outs short of the 1997 title when Jose Mesa blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 at Florida and an error by second baseman Tony Fernandez led to the Marlins' winning run in the 11th.

The Series starts just after a ceremony across the street when LeBron James and the Cavaliers receive championship rings before their opener celebrating this year's NBA title, the first for Cleveland's big league teams since the NFL's Browns in 1964.

"It's a pretty neat set of circumstances," said Indians reliever Andrew Miller, the ALCS MVP. "Obviously the fans wish they had won quite a bit previously, but I think the Cubs are even going to overshadow us in that history."

While Chicago has many famous fans, among them actor Bill Murray and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Cleveland is rooted on by Tom Hanks and Drew Carey. And the Indians' losing history received nationwide attention in the 1989 film "Major League," featuring Charlie Sheen as Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn.

Maddon prepared for the Series while watching some baseball movies, "42" -- "we had to beat the Dodgers before I could watch it" -- and "Field of Dreams."

"I'm that guy," he said. "I cry easily, so the connection to the past is very important, very important."

Once ridiculed in Philly, Terry Francona is 4 wins from Cooperstown

Once ridiculed in Philly, Terry Francona is 4 wins from Cooperstown

If Terry Francona wins four ballgames over these next nine days, he is going to Cooperstown.

And not as a visitor.

Francona sits at the helm of a Cleveland Indians team that has so far rolled through the postseason, winning eight of nine games as it opens play Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs in a World Series that is filled with compelling storylines.

Of course, the biggest storyline is the “Lovable Loser” angle.

Both clubs long ago became punch lines for their failures. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and their shortcomings have been blamed on everything from the curse of a billy goat to black cats to too many day games at Wrigley Field to Steve Bartman. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They were so notoriously synonymous with losing that Hollywood made a couple of movies about them. Well, sort of.

With four more wins, one of these teams will shed the Lovable Loser tag forever.

And if it’s Francona’s Indians, he will forever be honored with a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. You can bank on it. That’s where managers who win three World Series end up.

Time flies.

It was 20 years ago this week that the Phillies hired Francona for his first big-league managerial job. He was 37 at the time. He’d managed at the Double A level with the Chicago White Sox and been on the Detroit Tigers’ big-league coaching staff. Loaded with personality, smarts and the experience that came with growing up in baseball family (his dad played 15 seasons in the majors), being the best college player in the nation at the University of Arizona, and, probably most important, having been humbled by the ups and downs of 10 injury-riddled years as a big-league player, Francona was considered an excellent managerial prospect when the Phillies hired him. But he never deluded himself. He knew he got the job because the Phillies were rebuilding, because they were going to be young and bad for a while and he had the personality and youthful resilience to deal with it all. “If the Phillies were ready to win, they would have hired Jim Leyland or somebody like that,” he used to say.

Francona took over a 95-loss team in Philadelphia. He managed the club for four years, never had a winning season and was jeered out of town with slashed tires after the club lost 97 games in 2000.

Was Terry Francona a great manager in Philadelphia? Nope. Few people are great out of the gate in any line of work. But Francona had little chance to succeed in those Phillies years. There wasn’t close to enough talent on the field. The club was going through a sloooooow rebuild and the organizational focus in those years was probably more about getting a new stadium than putting a winning team on the field.

Francona was committed to becoming a successful manager when he left Philadelphia. That’s why he didn’t want to take a year off after he was fired. He wanted to stay in the game, stay in sight. He took a job in the Indians’ front office, then a year later was back in uniform, first as a coach with the Texas Rangers, then as a coach with the Oakland A’s.

In the fall of 2003, Francona interviewed for managerial jobs in Baltimore and in Boston. At the time, reporters in Baltimore asked him about the possibility of getting a second chance to manage.

“It would be like getting a mulligan,” Francona said.

The answer infuriated some in Philadelphia.

It shouldn’t have.

Francona’s use of the word ‘mulligan’ showed self-awareness, humility and accountability. It showed that he knew he had hooked his first chance into the woods, that he had made mistakes, that he’d learned from them and was ready to tee it up again. Francona’s use of the word mulligan showed how human he was and that is a priceless quality in the art of leading a group of men through the ups and downs of seven months of baseball and getting them to lay it all out for you night after night. Joe Torre had that quality. Charlie Manuel had it. Joe Maddon, the man Francona beat out for the Boston job and now squares off against in the World Series, has it. Francona has it. Just look at the way he kept the Indians believing after injuries wounded their starting pitching.

Of course, all of these aforementioned managers have or had talented players. That ultimately is how you win. Just ask Torre, who was dismissed as a loser until George Steinbrenner gave him some talent. Torre led it beautifully and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Francona got his second chance to manage in Boston in 2004 and quickly led a talented group of players to a curse-busting title, that franchise’s first World Series championship in 86 years.

He won another in 2007.

He has managed 12 seasons since leaving Philadelphia and the growth experience that it provided. He has won 90 or more games in eight of those seasons. Yeah, he has had good players. But he’s led them well. And he’s done it particularly well this month, maneuvering his bullpen pieces like a master chess champion.

The World Series is upon us and it should be a good one as baseball’s two Lovable Loser franchises vie to end decades of frustration.

And 20 years after his managerial odyssey began with many losses and much ridicule in Philadelphia, Terry Francona, already a big winner in his career, has a chance to punch his ticket to the ultimate winner’s circle, the Hall of Fame, with four more victories and another World Series title.