Sunday, October 4, 2009

Off to a Good Start!

This year's edition of the Flyers seems to be off to a flying start. They're 2-0, and Ray Emery has looked absolutely phenomenal so far. He shut out Boston in the first game and outplayed Martin Brodeur, generally acknowledged to be one of the two or three best goaltenders to ever strap on a set of pads, last night, 5-2. Emery looks like the hot-handed goaltender who led the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. "If he had any doubters, I think he's proved them all wrong," said rookie winger James van Riemsdyk after the game. "He made some sick saves," said Ian Laperriere. "When you see a guy make saves like that, everybody on the bench gets a boost. In this league, you go as far as the goalie takes you." If Emery keeps playing this well--and keeps his head on straight--he should have a tremendous year.

In the wake of last year's painful playoff defeat at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, this team has a lot of important questions to answer. "The mentality is probably different than last year," said Briere, of the team that started last year at 0-3-3 but still managed to tally 99 points. "Last year, we were maybe a little overconfident, a little too loosey-goosey. This year, there's a little bit of an attitude change." In other words, this team now understands that this is a serious business that must be taken seriously in order to have a realistic chance of winning it all.

This year's edition of the Flyers is very different from last year's team. Sure, the stalwarts, like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Scott Hartnell, are all back, and all are expected to have big seasons again this year. In addition to these important links in the chain, the Flyers also expect a lot from proven veterans like Simon Gagne and Danny Briere, who seems to be healthy again after an injury-plagued season last year.

In addition, the Flyers have added defenseman Chris Pronger, who is known as a hard-hitting defender who can also move the puck. More than anything else, Pronger brings a winning record and a fierce attitude to the game, and he's known as a leader wherever he goes. Hopefully, some of his fierceness will spread itself around to the rest of the team, which will hopefully show some of the attitude of Broad Street Bullies teams of the past. Kimmo Timonen, who remains one of the NHL's best defensemen, joins Pronger and gives the Flyers two of the leagues most reliable defenders.

At the same time, the Flyers have to play smart and avoid stupid penalties. "Discipline is going to be the big thing," said Timonen. "We can't take six, seven, eight penalties every game. That was a problem last year. That has to change. If you look at the good teams and how they win, they don't take penalties." Or, if they do take them, they kill them. So far this year, the Flyers have done just that.

Before the season opener, coach John Stevens observed, "It's a matter of starting better and finishing stronger. They all make a difference in the end. We've gone through a lot of experiences the last two years. Now it's time to put it all together." So far, Stevens and his team are off to the best possible start. Let's hope that they continue to play this well for the entire season.

I'm looking forward to what looks like it's going to be an excellent season for the Flyers. Let's see how it plays out. So far, so good.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Magic Number is 0!

The Phils clinched their third straight National League Eastern Division title in grand fashion last night, dispatching the Houston Astros 10-3. The actual victory didn't clinch it--a few minutes before the last out of the Phillies game, the Marlins defeated the Braves to eliminate Atlanta. It didn't matter.

Pedro Martinez struggled last night, giving up three runs in four innings. Luckily, the Phils' bats awakened last night. Raul Ibanez set a career high with his 34th homer of the season, and the Phils coasted to victory behind excellent relief pitching by Kyle Kendrick, who took over from Martinez in the fifth. Scott Eyre came out to pitch the ninth inning, and got the first two outs quickly. With two outs and the Bank rocking, Charlie Manuel made the slow trudge to the mound. He signaled for beleaguered closer Brad Lidge to close it out.

"Awesome," said Eyre. "I looked at Charlie and said 'I'm good with this.' Normally I would have been like, 'Come on!' But he should be on the mound for the last out." The crowd, recognizing what Manuel was doing, went nuts.

"That's what I wanted to do," declared Charlie. "I wanted him to pitch in front of the crowd. I thought it would be good for him and the crowd and crowd responded good. It was the ideal situation for me to run him out there. I want to get his confidence back because I know how talented he is. I wanted him pitching in that situation."

The pumped up closer needed one pitch to finish the job, inducing a game ending out. "That was huge," said a grateful Lidge. "I was really hoping he would. A lot of guys down there in the bullpen deserve it. The other guys have all done a great job, but I was hoping and praying it would be me tonight. This season has been a grind, no doubt about it. I always felt like it was going to end well, no matter what. I think it's going to. I really believe it will."

And the little ballpark erupted. Once again, the Phils were division champs, and Charlie Manuel let his weary veterans celebrate and enjoy the moment. "I let them celebrate because it's more their celebration and I like it that way better," said Manuel. "They're the ones who play. They're the ones who got it done and that's kind of how I like it."

All that was missing was Harry Kalas. The players spontaneously included the legendary late broadcaster in their celebration, congregating around the memorial to Harry on the outfield wall, pounding it with glee, and including the memory of their legendary play by play man in their joy. Chase Utley even offered Harry a celebratory cigar. Somewhere, I have no doubt that Harry and Whitey Ashburn are enjoying this moment.

"This what I came here for," declared Ibanez after the game. "I came here because it's a great ballclub. But I didn't realize how special a club it is until I got here."

The joy of the night was tempered by the news that Jamie Moyer, who has meant so much to this team for the past three years, would need season-ending--and perhaps career-ending--surgery to repair three torn tendons in his abdomen and groin that gave way in Tuesday night's game. But Moyer was there, where he should have been, celebrating with his teammates. It remains to be seen whether he will ever pitch in the major leagues again at 46, but he is an important part of this team.

I particularly like the photo above. That's Jamie Moyer on the left and Pedro Martinez on the right. They're two old pros who, between them, represent 477 major league wins. Moyer, of course, is from the Philadelphia area and won a World Series with his hometown team. Martinez was a member of the 2007 New York Mets team that melted down and blew a large lead to the Phillies, and Martinez took Moyer's place in the Phillies' starting rotation. It was undoubtedly a bittersweet moment for both of them that also demonstrates what class acts both of them are. The Phillies are better off for having both of them.

And so the Phillies move on to the playoffs, adding more luster to the greatest decade in the history of the franchise. Not since Connie Mack's A's dynasties has Philadelphia enjoyed so much prolonged success on the diamond as it has this decade, which has featured seven straight winning seasons, three straight division championships, and a World Series championship. The regulars will rest for a few days while the Phils try to claim the home field advantage through the National League playoffs; the Dodgers are locked in a great race with Colorado, who have closed to within 2.5 games. The Dodgers and Rockies finish the regular season against each other in a weekend series that I will watch with great interest.