THE LAST LAUGH
The butt of jokes a year ago, the Phillies are now a wild-card
The following tale was a popular one in Philadelphia last
summer. A mother takes her three children to Veterans Stadium
for a Phillies game, and the kids get lost. For an hour she
frantically searches for them, and then she hears the P.A.
announcer say, "Will the woman who lost three children please
come to the security desk and pick up her kids. They're beating
the Phillies 8-1."
It's an old joke, which is precisely what the Phillies had
become when they won a total of four games in June '97. This
season Philadelphia had a 49-46 record at week's end, which
doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider that at
this time last year the team was 38 games under .500. From that
pathetic position the Phils have astounded the experts by
putting together the seventh-best record in the majors since the
'97 All-Star break.
After salvaging a split of a four-game series with the Mets by
coming from behind to win 7-6 in 10 innings on Sunday,
Philadelphia was only three games out of the National League
wild-card spot. When Phillies manager Terry Francona is asked to
explain his team's success in '98, he credits the front office's
off-season decision to make the club younger and more athletic,
pointing specifically to three new additions: outfielders Bob
Abreu and Doug Glanville and shortstop Desi Relaford. Abreu, 24,
is hitting .309, and Glanville, 27, has four hitting streaks of
14 or more games and ranks among the National League's top 10 in
hits, runs and triples. The two are also tied for the league
lead with 11 outfield assists. Relaford, 24, has played solid
defense and become the most consistent number 8 hitter in the
league, with a .279 average. "There haven't been many growing
pains for them," Francona says. "All three have hit the ground
Naturally, the Phillies have also leaned heavily on the '97
National League Rookie of the Year, third baseman Scott Rolen,
who through Sunday was batting .306 with 18 homers and 61 RBIs,
and on staff ace Curt Schilling, who led the league in complete
games (nine) and strikeouts (189). Veteran righthander Mark
Leiter has also been invaluable, stepping into the breach to
replace injured closer Ricky Bottalico and getting 20 saves in
The Phils don't dazzle anybody with team stats, ranking 13th in
the league in home runs, eighth in runs and 12th in ERA, but the
club has 29 comeback victories this season--third best in the
majors--including a defining victory against the Pirates on June
16, when Philadelphia scored seven runs in the bottom of the
ninth inning to win 8-7. "In recent years when we were behind in
the late innings, we had guys asking, 'Where do you want to go
to dinner?'" veteran outfielder Gregg Jefferies says. "This
season we have stopped accepting defeat. Now we get mad after
losses. Everybody has one goal, and that's to make the playoffs."
Well, not necessarily everybody. Francona and general manager Ed
Wade sound like reluctant pursuers of the wild card. After all,
the Phillies are probably overachieving and over the long haul
don't have enough talent to reach the postseason, so it isn't
part of their long-term rebuilding plan to trade for immediate
help this season. Says Wade, "If it's a situation where we would
have to give up guys we think can help us in the future in order
to acquire a player to put us over the hump this year, we're
still not of a mind to do that."
The Phillies players aren't quite as patient. "We're enjoying
speeding up the evolutionary process," Schilling says. "We've
gone from the Jurassic stage to 20th-century pennant race in one
Wade must decide before the July 31 trading deadline whether or
not to unload veterans such as Leiter and Mark Portugal for
prospects. The average age of the Phillies' every-day lineup is
just 26.2 years old--only the Marlins and the Expos are
younger--and thus the future in Philadelphia is brighter than
anyone could have imagined just one year ago. "Last June we were
the laughingstock of baseball," Jefferies says. "But now a
mention of the Phillies isn't followed by a punch line. No
matter what happens the rest of the year, that's a big step for
NO RELIEF IN SIGHT
In his first major league appearance since June 12, former Braves
closer Mark Wohlers entered last Friday night's game against the
Brewers at Turner Field with a 4-0 lead, two outs and nobody on
in the ninth inning. He still couldn't finish the game. Wohlers
began by walking Marc Newfield on four pitches and then threw
two more balls before allowing an RBI double to Bobby Hughes.
Four of those pitches bounced in the dirt, two of them to the
backstop. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox was forced to bring in
rookie John Rocker, who got the final out for his first major
"We've got a lot of work to do," Cox said of Wohlers after the
game. "Maybe if we keep working and cross our fingers, and he
takes a few steps at a time, he'll be running pretty quickly."
Said Wohlers, "Maybe I was trying to do too much and overthrew a
Wohlers, who had a total of 97 saves from 1995 through '97, was
7 for 7 in save situations this season before going on the
disabled list on May 3 with a torn muscle in his side. He has
struggled mightily with his control ever since his return from
the DL on May 24, pitching to a 10.80 ERA in 6 2/3 innings
before finally requesting a minor league assignment on June 20.
At Triple A Richmond he had a 21.60 ERA in 7 2/3 innings,
allowing 17 hits, 14 walks and 18 earned runs while tossing six
wild pitches, all of which led to questions about why he was
brought back to Atlanta so soon. "We had agreed to a limited
number of days, and that time expired," Braves general manager
John Schuerholz says. "We think it did him a measure of good to
go down there and throw. If he gets going, great. If he doesn't,
hopefully we can get someone or a combination of guys who can do
the job in the bullpen."
While Schuerholz pursues available closers such as the Phillies'
Mark Leiter, the Blue Jays' Randy Myers and the Twins' Rick
Aguilera in earnest, Atlanta will continue to try to rehabilitate
Wohlers in mop-up middle relief appearances. He pitched one
inning and allowed two earned runs in a 7-1 loss to Milwaukee
Braves officials worry that Wohlers's control problems are less
mechanical than psychological and that he is suffering from a
strain of the dread Steve Blass disease, named after the Pirates
pitcher who mysteriously and permanently lost his control in the
early '70s. Wohlers is consulting with sports psychologist Jack
Llewellyn, who has the pitcher watching videotapes of his most
successful outings. "What is stored in his mind is negative
stuff, so Mark goes out there and tries not to throw wild
pitches," Llewellyn says. "It's like trying not to miss a free
throw, trying not to miss a putt. What we try to do with the
videotape is show him what he is capable of doing. He has been
there, and we're trying to just get back there."
Last Friday became a particularly emotional night for Wohlers as
Braves fans gave him an ovation before and after he pitched.
"After the ovation, I wanted to end the damn game with a bang,
but it just didn't work out," Wohlers said. "I don't want to say
too much about it or I will get tears."
If the Braves don't settle on a closer soon, there may be plenty
of tears shed at Turner Field before the season is over.
LUCK TURNS AT THE BREAK
What was it about the All-Star break that caused some players
and teams to catch fire while others seemed to treat it like the
beginning of the end? Here are some of the odder turnabouts:
--The Orioles entered the break having lost 11 of their last 12
games and were talking openly about a fire sale to start
rebuilding the team. Coming out of the break, Baltimore won 10
of 11 games and crawled back into the wild-card chase, though
they were still a daunting 9 1/2 games behind the Red Sox at
--The Giants went south about as quickly as the Orioles turned
north. San Francisco entered the break having won six of eight
and was fighting for the National League West title with San
Diego. The Giants lost eight of their next nine and gave up the
wild-card lead, trailing the Cubs by a half game at week's end.
--The Rangers' Juan Gonzalez had 101 RBIs at the break and was on
pace to challenge the single-season mark of 190 held by Hack
Wilson. Gonzalez had just four RBIs in the first 11 games after
the break. (The hitters at the top of the Texas lineup are the
main culprits, though; Gonzalez had batted only seven times with
a runner in scoring position in that span.)
--Rico Brogna finished the first half with 67 RBIs, the most by
a Phillie since Mike Schmidt had 68 in '79. Brogna had zero RBIs
in his first nine games of the second half before driving in two
on Sunday against the Mets.
--The Mariners' Randy Johnson was 7-8 with a 5.07 ERA before the
break, and his value on the trade market was plummeting with
each poor start. He came out of the gate with back-to-back
shutouts, yielding only six hits in 18 innings while striking
out 26 hitters. The Big Unit is now a big-ticket item again if
Seattle decides to deal him.
--The Cardinals' Todd Stottlemyre appears to be buckling under
the strain of carrying an injury-depleted pitching staff. In the
first half he was 9-6 with a 3.10 ERA. In his first three starts
after the break he was 0-2 and allowed 30 hits and 20 runs in
just 20 innings.
--Before the break the Expos' Mark Grudzielanek hit .245 and was
sometimes benched in favor of rookie Orlando Cabrera.
Grudzielanek started the first 11 games after the break and went
16 for 41 (.390) with 12 RBIs, which just might be good enough
to get him traded out of Montreal.
BRING ON THE YANKEES
After Cleveland was swept by Boston in a two-game series at
Fenway Park last week, there was a growing sense that come
playoff time, the Indians might prefer to face the seemingly
indomitable Yankees than the wild-card Red Sox. New York (14
games up in the American League East at week's end) and
Cleveland (10 1/2 up in the Central) appear to be locks as
division champs. Boston has the lead (3 1/2 games over Anaheim)
in the wild-card race, but the wild card can't play a team in
its own division in the first round. That means the Yankees
would face the division champ with the worst record, which
through Sunday was the Rangers, who were 10 games over .500.
The Indians, 12 games over .500, might be better off finishing
with a worse record than the eventual West champs, because they
are 3-4 against the Yankees in '98 and defeated New York in the
Division Series last season. Cleveland starters Bartolo Colon
and Jaret Wright have a combined 3-1 record with a 2.60 ERA
against New York, fueling speculation that the Yankees' hitters
have more trouble against hard throwers than breaking-ball
pitchers. The Indians, meanwhile, have lost seven of their eight
meetings with Boston this season, including four one-run losses.
Asked about his postseason preference, Indians manager Mike
Hargrove wouldn't bite. "What month is this?" he asked. "I can't
be thinking about the playoffs now. This is only July."
For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Young and restless In only his second season, Rolen is a team leader for the callow Phils. [Scott Rolen batting in game]