Friday, September 22, 2006

Wild for the Phils?

By Claire Smith,
For The Inquirer

There's an adage in baseball that while players crave long-term contracts, endorsements, home-run records and the like, what they really want is to still be around when the leaves turn brown.

With 152 games down and only 10 regular-season games to go, the Phillies are very much still around.

Nine wins in 13 games - leaving them a half-game behind the National League wild-card leading Los Angeles Dodgers - ensured that.

Now, the Phillies enter the final weekend of their final regular-season homestand tantalizingly close to their first postseason since 1993.

Four games. And every single one will mean something, beginning with Florida tonight and ending Monday night with a makeup game against Houston.

Florida, desperately clinging to its own wild-card dream, threw crucial defeats at the playoff-hungry 2005 Phillies.

The Astros? They filleted the 2005 Phils, winning six of six, then won the wild card by one game over, yep, Philly.

Fish vs. Phils. Ryan Howard's power vs. an old nemesis.

What Phillies fan, what Phillies player, could have asked for more?

"It's huge, just what you want," Pat Burrell said. "We've had a kind of inconsistent year, but we've somehow managed to stay in this thing, and now is the time when guys have got to get hot and do their thing. And, hopefully, that will happen."

Indeed, when the Phils get to Fan Appreciation Day on Sunday, they pray they will have given away something more precious than prizes by then.

The real prize fans crave is hope.

Hope that the "no game today" postings that follow homestands won't stand until April but rather only until October.

Hope that the baby-faced home-run basher, Howard, gathers enough strength to return to being, as catcher Mike Lieberthal dubbed him, "the X-factor." In the wild-card chase. In the MVP race. Heck, even in the spirited debate about true home-run records (the purists' 61 hit by Roger Maris or Barry Bonds' unbeloved 73).

Finally, the Phillies are holding hope that at long last the fans who cautiously have been driving up the box-office numbers and TV ratings placed their faith in the right pews.

"It definitely feels different. At this time of the year, in the past, we'd draw about 20,000 fans," said Lieberthal, a veteran of 12 Phillies seasons - some of which played out in Septembers so somber and devoid of meaning that barren, old Veterans Stadium resembled Siberia.

"But it just seems like fans are more into it now," Lieberthal said. "Games may not be sold out, and school is back in, but it seems like the fans are more into it now. There's definitely more excitement."

That can be measured among TV viewers, who drove the Phillies' audience share to double digits five times in the last eight broadcasts. That included an 11 share, or 11 percent of those watching television at the time, for Wednesday's game.

The 6-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs drew a 6.7 rating on CSN - the third such 6-plus rating in eight games. (Each ratings point in the region represents about 30,000 homes.)

As for the box office sales, the Phillies have yet to sell out a game during the homestand that began Monday. Attendance did edge up from 31,100 to 31,500 to 35,000 as the now-completed three-game series against the Cubs progressed.

Initially, the team expected similar crowds for the games tonight and tomorrow at Citizens Bank Park, then 40,000-plus for Fan Appreciation Day.

No more.

"We've moved our projections up," John Weber, the Phillies' director of ticket sales, said yesterday. "We're now hoping to get above 40,000 [tonight], in the mid- to high 30s on Saturday. We are expecting to sell out our game Sunday.

"Monday is still up in the air," Weber said. "It is our last home game... and, hopefully, Howard will be going for a little higher of a number. But the low 30s would be our projection right now."

When walk-up ticket sales projections become as riveting as actual wins and losses, you know there's pennant fever in the air.

Home-run fever could be an added lure, thanks to Howard, a likable, larger-than-life figure who has given this city its first truly Ruthian home-run king.

Howard will enter play tonight against Florida righthander Ricky Nolasco (11-9, 4.56 ERA) with 57 homers.

But having gone without one since Sunday, Howard was very much looking ahead - to the needed off-day yesterday.

"I'm trying to be more comfortable at the plate - and trying to go into this day off not thinking about anything," said Howard, who is sitting on major-league-leading totals in home runs and RBIs (140). "I'm just going to try to forget everything. That's definitely, definitely important."

Getting one's mind right and rested is critical, agreed lefthander Jamie Moyer, a veteran brought in late-season to lend the value of stretch-drive experience to a young team. And, said Moyer, "since I've been here, I've seen guys that are hungry and who want to play the game.

"Some are still learning how - and that's a process that can go on for a long time. But it's important to stay in character, to bring [something] every single day to the ballpark that will help you win games."

Veterans Burrell, Randy Wolf and Lieberthal know that these four games might represent the final times they appear in Phillies home uniforms.

"But when we finally leave here [Monday], I don't think anybody's going to be too emotional thinking this could be their last game played here," Lieberthal said, "because I think everybody believes we're going to be in the playoffs, and that we're going to be back."