…And DOWN the Stretch They Come!

clinchOK, here we are, with 17 games to go and the Phillies need to start winning games immediately if they want a playoff berth.  Sound familiar?  Yes, it was at this exact point last year, with the Phillies down 7 games to the Mets, when everything suddenly went terribly wrong in Queens and triumphantly right in South Philly.  Since that final day of the regular season, when the Phillies completed the miracle comeback, conventional wisdom has been that this Mets team lacks the heart and the leadership of the Phillies and that the Phillies are the team that can handle the pressure, the team that comes to play when everything’s on the line.  Well, we’re about to find out. 

Of course, this season there are two huge differences (besides the numerous roster changes for both teams). First, the Phillies find themselves only 2.5 games back instead of 7.  Baseball people like to say that it takes a week to make up a game in a pennant race, so with the equivalent of 2.5 weeks left, no one in Philly is hitting the panic button just yet, and certainly no one in the Mets organization is pondering how sweet the champagne will taste at the end of the month.  Second, thanks to the stumbling Milwaukee Brewers, the wild card is very much in play, as the Phils find themselves just 3 games back in that race, with the Brew Crew coming to Philly for a four-game set starting tomorrow night. 

Ultimately, the Mets may have done the Phillies a huge favor by sweeping Milwaukee last week, but the real show here is not in a Phillies-Brewers fight to the finish.  The continuing psychodrama between the Phillies and the Mets should make for great theater over these last couple weeks.  I was at Shea Stadium on Sunday night and I can honestly say it was the tensest crowd I’ve ever seen at a baseball game.  There were plenty of Phillies fans on hand, and plenty of mini-brawls breaking out in the upper deck.  It’s safe to say the Mets fans are eager for some payback and the Phillies fans are in the unusual position of feeling fairly confident, even with ground to make up and not much time to do it.  Personally, I think the best finish to this story would be one of the teams taking the wild card, and then the Phillies and Mets settling this in the National League Championship Series next month. 

With time running out on the 2008 NL East pennant race, here are 5 players that could make the difference: 

1. Luis Ayala:  Surprisingly, Mets fans have become pretty happy with their new look bullpen, lately.  Just yesterday I heard a few of them talking themselves into the Ayala/Heilman/Stokes back end.  Ayala has emerged from the pile of muck that is the Mets bullpen and taken hold of the closer job, with 6 saves and a 2.46 ERA in 11 appearances.  Now, I’ve always seen Ayala as a solid relief pitcher in his days with the Expos/Nats, but there’s a reason he only had 9 career saves before coming over to the Mets, and he posted an ERA near 6 for the Nats this year.  He doesn’t have overpowering stuff and I can’t imagine anyone being shocked if he went out there tomorrow and got shelled.  But, like I said, he is solid, and when a solid guy gets hot, he can be really tough.  Maybe Ayala has gotten hot at the right time, but we will see. 

2. Pat Burrell:  This is a heady time for Mr. Burrell, with his time as a Phillie most likely coming to an end, and the size of his upcoming contract to be determined, in part, by what he does over these final weeks of the season.  He has struggled mightily in the second half (hitting .212 with 7 homers since the All-Star break), and has seen his playing time start to go to the newly acquired Matt Stairs.  With all due respect to the “professional hitting” Stairs, the Phillies really need Burrell to get back to producing runs and providing the right-handed power that is somewhat lacking in the lineup. 

3.  Jose Reyes:  Reyes has had a great year, with a .300 average and 47 steals, and is a great player.  I was never as down reyeson him as many people were after his vanishing act last September.  But the big knock on Reyes has been that he’s not a big game player, that he shrinks under the pressure.  Well, it’s September again, the pressure is on again, and Reyes will have a chance to redeem himself and silence a lot of critics if he can close out the year playing at his usual level.  The bad news for Mets fans: Reyes is hitting .167 (5-30) since the calendar flipped to September this year. Uh-ohhh. 

4.  Joe Blanton:  The Phillies have to have a lot of confidence right now in their top 3 starters, Hamels, Moyer, and Myers.  Kyle Kendrick has blown up and (hopefully) pitched his way out of the rotation for the remainder of the year, but the Phillies will probably attempt to get by with a 4-man rotation the rest of the way (with Moyer pitching on Thursday after three days rest).  That means Blanton, the 4th starter, will have to step up and pitch better than he has in his last two outings.  He’s shown flashes of quality since coming over at the trade deadline, but he hasn’t found consistency and the team is left to hope that he can give them some strong outings down the stretch. 

5.  Pedro Martinez:  The best I ever saw when he was in his prime, he’s well past it now and he has admitted that he’s still trying to figure out how to get it done the way Jamie Moyer does.  Like the Phillies, the Mets will probably attempt to get by with four starters the rest of the way, especially considering John Maine will most likely not return before the end of the regular season.  That leaves Pedro as the #4 guy, after Santana, Pelfrey, and Oliver Perez.  Both the Phillies and Mets came into the season with question marks at the back of the rotation, and, in the form of Blanton and Pedro, that could be what determines the division title. 

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