Wednesday October 14th, 2009

It was just a bunt, a little roller in front of the mound off the bat of Dexter Fowler, but it confounded the heck out of reliever Scott Eyre. Before he could even reach the thing, he'd stumbled horribly to the ground, where he grabbed an ankle, writhed about and pounded his fist.

Oh, the pain. Oh, the MRI. Oh, the rehab.

Wait a minute, check that. By the following night -- Monday's Game 4 of the Division Series -- Eyre was ready to run wind sprints with Usain Bolt. He was out there to start the ninth inning, for crying out loud. These are the Phillies, after all. They look so vulnerable at times, but they never go away.

Poised to defend their honor in the NLCS, which opens Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, the Phillies have a larger goal in mind: the first National League team to repeat as World Series champions since the 1976 Cincinnati Reds. "The Big Red Machine," as they were called. The Phillies have some big guys, and they dress in red, but they're not exactly a machine. They're more like a well-worn stock car, cranky and battered but somehow whipped into shape at the very last minute.

So much of this image was fostered last year, when consummate leader Jimmy Rollins got benched (brief lapse in motivation), Chase Utley played through a hip injury when he should have been on an operating table (that would come later) and Pedro Feliz tried not to reveal the lower-back pain that tormented him throughout the postseason (he, too, had offseason surgery). Feliz wound up getting the hit that beat Tampa Bay in the World Series-clinching game, a moment fully capturing the Phillies' resolve.

It is nothing short of remarkable that Charlie Manuel, a good ol' boy from West Virginia, is in charge of this team. You'd picture something closer to Ernest Borgnine or Jimmy Cagney, some no-nonsense guy who swaggers into the toughest Philly bars and matches street-smarts with the wise guys in the upper deck. Someone at least remotely connected with the town. When people got a load of Manuel's first press conference, with that slow, country drawl, they must have thought the Phils were kidding. As in, "Who's that rube? What is this, Hee-Haw?"

Learn a bit more about the man, though, and he's the perfect fit for a team -- and a city -- of survivors. Over the years, Manuel has managed to survive a heart attack, quadruple bypass surgery and prostate cancer. He has become an odd sort of local hero, forever evading the pitfalls of eccentricity.

With Game 2 of the Division Series in progress and the Phillies' Game 3 starter a total mystery, Manuel used two of the candidates, Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, in relief. The third option was 38-year-old Pedro Martinez, eventually held back for what loomed as a 17-degree evening in Denver -- but when the snowstorm cleared and Game 3 arrived a day late, it wasn't Martinez at all. Pedro's next postseason start, if it happens at all, will be his first for the Phillies.

A bit of Manuel magic: Cliff Lee had a real gem in progress Monday night, taking a 2-1 lead into the eighth inning of Game 4. With one out and a man on first, he fooled the esteemed Todd Helton so badly, Helton managed only a weak grounder to second. The Phillies messed up the force play, certainly no fault of Lee's, but he was removed from the game by a manager who basically trusts no one in his bullpen and would prefer to use none of them at any time.

The old-school baseball guys hate this. Never remove a starting pitcher when he's in command and just made a great hitter look bad. But here came a double-switch, removing one of the Phillies' best hitters (left fielder Raul Ibanez) as Ryan Madson replaced Lee. Things did go sour in the inning, but only after the new left fielder, Ben Francisco, made a spectacular catch that Ibanez couldn't have pulled off.

Charlie just knows things, that's all. Spend enough time around his associates and you'll learn how much he taught Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and many others as the Cleveland batting coach in the mid-1990s, or how his tips improved the balance and timing of Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. Then there's the strange and complex case of Brett Myers, revealing Manuel at his fair-minded best.

The Phillies were in Boston for an interleague series three years ago when Myers was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife on a busy street, just as the bars were letting out. Charges were dropped, but witnesses described a scene that left Myers' reputation in tatters. In a disturbing episode last year, Myers stalked angrily around the mound upon being removed from a game, then sarcastically doffed his cap and got into a vicious argument with Manuel in the dugout.

Very few managers would go out of their way to make such a rogue feel comfortable, but as summer gave way to autumn, Manuel set up his NLCS rotation so Myers wouldn't have to pitch on the road. He knew that opposing crowds would be in a heckling frenzy, and that Myers tends to get flustered, so he did the man a huge favor. Myers felt so invigorated, he got three hits in Game 2 against the Dodgers, driving home three runs, while picking up the win.

"Charlie knows how to manage a game," said first-base coach Davey Lopes. "He manages people even better."

So much of this team embodies the game's traditional essence. Rollins leads off as a game-changing protégé of his idol, Rickey Henderson. Utley is a modern-day Charlie Gehringer at second, drilling line drives and making the big defensive plays. Jayson Werth is the classic right fielder: stout-hearted, great arm, hitting for power out of the No. 5 slot. Give similar check marks to the stylish lefty (Cole Hamels) and the hulking first baseman with tape-measure power (Howard).

Still, for all that familiarity, these Phillies seem to lack an identity -- and they don't seem to want one. They survive, period. Call them champions, and that's quite enough.

"We must love the pressure," Rollins said earlier this season. "We must look forward to playing in a rough city. There's glory in it, you know? It's almost like a high, like how close can you get to the edge and still keep going?"

We're about to find out. At some point in this NLCS against the Dodgers, the Phillies will take a terrible pratfall. They'll be right on the edge. Put my money on a full recovery.

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