Once again, as goes Jimmy so go the Phillies.
The Phils All-Star, MVP shortstop had said all along the road to the post-season would be traveled "the Philly way." Translation: Philly teams never take the easy route but we're going to reach our destination. And sure enough, thanks to a brilliant diving stop and toss to Chase Utley who then relayed the ball to Ryan Howard for a game-ending double play, the Phillies are the 2008 NL East division champions.
It wasn't easy, not by a long stretch. First, the Phils knew the Mets had won their game already. Second, the Phils took the lead over Washington early in the game but always seemed one batter and one batted ball from surrendering that lead. When Pedro Feliz knocked in an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth inning, few knew at the time just how crucial that policy would be in the next half inning. Brad Lidge, whose arrival and success had been the biggest difference in this year's bullpen compared to the 2007 installment, had converted 40 straight save opportunities but the last two or three had been adventures. As it turned out, those were walks in the park compared with yesterday's ninth inning.
The Nationals scored a run to make it 4-3 and had two men on and one man out when the dangerous Ryan Zimmerman, who is among the league leaders in grounding into double plays, hit a ground ball up the middle. J-Roll dived to his left, flipped the ball to Utley while still on the ground and Chase converted the game-ending relay to Howard. With that, the celebration began as players rushed Lidge in jubilation. It was a great play, perhaps one of the greatest in Philadelphia's long, often tortured history, but it wasn't a surprising play. Nothing surprises us where Jimmy is involved. No one rises to the occasion better than the Phils great shortstop.
It is customary for the voters for season-ending awards to cast their ballots prior to the start of post-season play. With that in mind, here is my choice for Phillies MVP for 2008: the 25-man roster. Who could argue that, say, Howard deserves the nod over, say, Greg Dobbs? Yes, he had a monster month of September and leads all of baseball in power numbers, but Dobbs is the best pinch-hitter in baseball and fills in more than adequately when needed in the field. What about Jayson Werth, who came out of nowhere to secure a starting job in late season and blast more than a few crucial home runs? Where would the Phillies be without his breakthrough? Should we ignore Shane Victorino, who took over the centerfield job, handled it brilliantly, and led all regulars in batting average? As great as Brad Lidge was all season, could the Phils have taken the crown if Chad Durbin, J C Romero and the rest of their bullpen mates had not been so superb?
Utley may have been the odds-on choice in the preseason to be the Phillies third straight NL MVP winner, but after a monster first half, in which he carried the team as Howard struggled, the Phils stoic second baseman tailed off quite a bit at the plate though never in the field. Fortunately, he found his stroke again in the month of September, to end the year with a career high in home runs while knocking in and scoring over 100 runs for the second straight year.
Pat Burrell rode quite a rollercoaster this season, starting off hot, then cooling off dramatically. But in the end he produced more than his share of big hits. Pedro Feliz provided plenty of defense and just enough offense to shed a little light on the perennial black hole that has been third base. Among the starters, Carlos Ruiz struggled at the plate (though he came on the final few months), but he was rock solid as a defender and more significantly, became a strong batterymate for the starting rotation. One need only look at the game-ending rituals in which the starting pitchers greeted him affectionately to know how much those guys trust and respect him. Brad Lidge acknowleged after yesterday's dramatic win that he had always thought Brad Ausmus was the best cather he'd ever thrown to but that Ruiz, who blocks balls with remarkable consistency and abandon, was as good as the Astros' catcher in that regard.
And what about Jimmy? His numbers fell considerably short of last year's MVP totals, but everyone in baseball agrees that the only way the Phillies contend is when Jimmy is setting the table or making the plays. They simply cannot succeed without him. His "front runners" gaffe, which wasn't what he really meant in the first place, is long forgotten, by him and everyone else.
Jamie Moyer, aka 45-year old Jamie Moyer, was first among equals in the starting rotation. People continue to cite Cole Hamels as the staff ace, but for big game heroics and a steady positive influence no one topped Moyer. Where Utley leads by example among the position players, Moyer assumes the same role in the starting rotation. Brett Myers had a Jeckyl and Hyde season, but for a stretch of six or seven starts after the All Star game he was magnificent.
The 25-man roster is this year's MVP.