Look Who's Playing Tough

Sept. 26, 2005
Sept. 26, 2005

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Sept. 26, 2005

SI Players: Life On And Off the Field
Pro Football
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Inside: The Week in Sports
Inside College Football
Inside The NFL

Look Who's Playing Tough

Embroiled in the National League wild-card race, the happier, hungrier Phillies have a new swagger and showed the Marlins they can handle the heat now

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.

This is an article from the Sept. 26, 2005 issue Original Layout

"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.

Willis (21-9 through Sunday) had won six consecutive starts since Aug. 12, two of them complete games. Working under old-school manager Jack McKeon, the Marlins' 23-year-old southpaw has produced throwback numbers, joining fellow Cy Young Award candidate Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals (21-4) as the fourth and fifth pitchers since the White Sox' Jack McDowell in 1993 to amass at least 21 wins and seven complete games in the same season. Willis also runs the bases with headlong zest and hits with such gusto--decimals aside, his batting average (.250) is even better than his ERA (2.48)--that McKeon batted him eighth on Saturday, ahead of rookie shortstop Robert Andino. "He's such a good hitter," McKeon says of Willis, "I think he could be a first baseman in the majors if he weren't such a good pitcher."

Says Marlins infielder Mike Mordecai, "On the days he pitches we're an American League team because he's as good as a DH. Dontrelle brings a Little League mentality to the major leagues. You know when you were a little kid and you couldn't wait to play the games? That's the way Dontrelle is. Every day he walks around here with a smile on his face. I don't think he wants to leave the clubhouse at night. It's like this is his bedroom, with the posters on the wall. That's how much fun he has just being here. He gives baseball everything he has. It's a pleasure to watch. As a player there are few guys you'd pay to see, but Dontrelle is one of them."

Though not an especially hard thrower--he topped out at 92 mph last Saturday--Willis confounds hitters with the uncanny movement of both his pitches and his body, which seems equipped with more well-lubricated hinges than the standard-issue human form. Hat slightly askew, brim flat and low in a somewhat comic camouflage, Willis sets his feet on the third base side of the pitching rubber, then throws himself into a series of jerks and feints as if a bug had just crawled down the back of his shirt. He yanks his bent right knee toward his chest, raises the ball over his head in his glove and, with elbows splayed, shows his backside to the batter. (There is less of that rear end these days, thanks to an upgraded off-season conditioning program.) "It's all asses and elbows coming at you," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus says.

As he begins to untangle himself in sections, like a chaise lounge unfolding, Willis steps toward the lefthanded batter's box and, with orthopedists cringing, wickedly slings the ball across his body. The baseball arrives from this diversionary windup as an afterthought, like the little puff of smoke left by a speeding cartoon car. It's gone before you know it.

"It's hard to pick up the ball because of his delivery," Ausmus says. "Plus, what really makes him tough is, he has such great late movement on the ball. You see it coming and think you have it measured, but then it moves off the center of the bat and he gets a ground ball to shortstop. That helps him get a lot of quick outs. He can pitch a lot of innings because he gets a lot of one- and two-pitch outs."

"There's no reason to change him," McKeon says. "The way the game is now, they might as well hire police officers to scout. They can point their [radar] guns and say, 'Ninety-five? He can pitch.' But give me the guys who know how to win. Give me [Greg] Maddux. Give me Dontrelle. I don't need a damn gun."

On Saturday, Willis had thrown 110 pitches and retired the previous 12 batters easily when he sprinted to the mound for the ninth, the crowd of 27,203 rising to its feet and applauding because the game remained in his hands. Rollins, a .229 career batter against his friend and with his hitting streak in peril, pounded a fastball into the hardpan in front of home plate. The ball bounced high over third baseman Mike Lowell and into leftfield for a single. Willis then put the tying run on base with his first walk, to Jason Michaels.

Bobby Abreu followed with what should have been a double-play grounder, but second baseman Luis Castillo played it timidly and the ball flicked off his glove for an error, sending Rollins home and Willis to the bench. Seven more batters would reach base (10 in all) before the Florida bullpen recorded an out.

As the last remnants of a pitching duel were eradicated--the inspired Padilla had yielded only an unearned run in seven innings--Rollins caught the gaze, from one dugout to the other, of a brooding Willis. Rollins raised a clenched fist to his friend in a silent salute to his effort. It was no solace to Willis, who said after the game, "I feel like I let my team down today."

In the other clubhouse Rollins wore a smile that was only slightly smaller than the gigantic bejeweled jr that hung from his neck in possible violation of various outdoor signage ordinances. Wagner pointed toward the Marlins' clubhouse and said, "Do we have the talent those guys have? No way. But we're playing with intensity, and at the same time we're relaxed. That's how we've played the whole second half. That's a big step for this team."

On and off the field the Phillies have a different vibe about them, one that's familiar to McKeon, whose team two years ago went 18-8 in September on its way to a wild-card berth and a world championship. Said the venerable skipper, "They're like us in '03. They're getting all the breaks."

Says Phillies closer Wagner, "Do we have the talent [the Marlins] have? No way. But we're playing with intensity and at the same time we're relaxed. That's A BIG STEP for this team."
PHOTOBOB ROSATOATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT Rollins (left) and Ugueth Urbina typify Philly's new feel-good vibe.PHOTOPhotograph by Tom DiPaceCATALYST The Phillies' offense starts with Rollins, who recently hit .522 during a key 10-game stretch. PHOTOTOM DIPACEBAT MAN Willis, who on Saturday became the first Marlins starter ever to hit eighth, has a respectable .250 average to go with his stellar 2.48 ERA.