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The Advance Scout: April 24-26 @ Philly

So I thought I would try something new; seeing as it's something new, it probably will cease to be before it becomes old. But I'll give this type of thing a whirl before each series and see how long it lasts. By way of clarification, I am not a scout and this analysis is not particularly advanced. As far as false advertising goes, I suppose it rates somewhere near "The Neverending Story" and "All You Can Eat Seafood."

Philadelphia Phillies In A Box

Record/Position/Streak: 7-11 (2-5 at home), 4th in NL East, W3 (5-5 in last 10)

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 87 (4.83 RS/G) vs. 89 (4.94 RA/G)

Otherwise Noteworthy: 0-3 in 1-run games; 0-4 in extra-innings

Scheduled Starters: Tuesday, Jamie Moyer (2-1, 3.05); Wednesday, Jon Lieber (0-0, 3.38); Thursday, Cole Hamels (2-0, 2.57)

Phillies Blogs: The Good Phight; Balls, Sticks & Stuff: Beerleaguer; Phillies Flow

They're Feelin' . . . : A bit relieved given the modest winning streak; still, they're Philly Phans so they're ill-tempered and probably angry drunks. (No offense intended, of course.)

You might remember the movie Thirteen Days for its membership in a sub-genre all Kevin Costner's own: the Unaccountably Ridiculous Accent vehicle. Costner must've taken on quite an assignment with his portrayal of Kenny O'Donnell (who miraculously receives a status bump from Friend of Kennedy to Ultimate White House Insider), because if the accent is anywhere near accurate then the real O'Donnell spoke with something between a pervasive warble and a dozen doughnuts stuffed up his mouth. Of course, Costner's accent is nowhere near accurate, because "Mr. President, wure ah waurh" doesn't resemble any language spoken on our not-quite late, not-quite great planet earth. In a way, Costner's O'Donnell is a perfect fulfillment of Costner's Jim Garrison in JFK: "Boss, they shot the President." "Aw naw, Lou." Same kind of thing, which is especially impressive considering Garrison was from New Orleans. Some Cajuns sound sort of like they're from the Bronx (trust me on that), but none that I know of talk like Diamond Joe Quimby on quaaludes -- and Garrison was born in Iowa, anyway.

All those Costnerian affectations overshadowed a poignant -- if not necessarily historically faithful -- scene during the middle of the movie, which I'll call the Adlai Stevenson Grows a Spine Scene. Adlai, we might remember from history class, was a big-time loser and the movie depicts him bringing his A-Game to the United Nations as the American envoy. For much of the movie, he lets the evil Soviet bastard run rings around him, metaphorically tickling him with a hammer & (John) sickel, and you can sort of sense the other nations guffawing because Movie Adlai is clearly such a tool. Imagine the opposite of gravitas, or at least the opposite of Team America.

Well, Kenny O'Donnell's had enough of this, and he's not going to let the evil Soviets, a timid diplomat, or an unintelligible accent get in the way of Kicking Commie Ass. Costner's guy calls a T.O., so to speak, and yanks Movie Adlai to the side.

GROW A SPINE! . . . {softer} Cohme ohn, Ahdhlahai, wuhrerh ahll cuhountin awn yawh.

Movie Adlai marches right back to the U.N., takes a couple shots from Nikita Koloff, but you can see the momentum turning. Blam! Another shot the head, but this time Movie Adlai won't wither. Again! And again! But Movie Adlai rises up, clenching his fists, pumping his arms, shaking his head, his face a model of intensity. The other delegates turn on the Russkie. Adlai! Adlai! Nikita tries one more roundhouse, but he's intimidated and the effect is weak. The Million Dollar Adlai catches his opponent's right hand in mid-air and yanks the arm, sending the whimpering Soviet to the canvas, pleading and desperately trying to buy time to scheme up another offensive. But it won't come. Adlai's blood is angried up, all righteous-like, and he ain't letting nothing knock him off this mountaintop high. So he pounds away, fists and slams and pile drivers.

Isn't that right, Mr. Ambassador? Isn't that right?! . . . DON'T WAIT FOR THE TRANSLATION!!!!!

And the character arc is complete.

Maybe Kevin Costner is a Phillies fan. Maybe he does his Rocky accent in a British voice, or an Indian one, or in California surfer dude. Who really knows, but a few days ago Philly manager Charlie Manuel was down for the count. Four wins, eleven losses, fifth place, and like nineteen former big league managers on his coaching staff. And this was supposed to be the year for the Phils! Talk about an untenable situation. Yet, suddenly, Manuel's team has made it tenable again:

Take that Cincy! 4-1, pard'ner!

You like that, don't you? 9-3, dog!

You want some too, Houston? Do you? Well, BLAM! 11-4.

And now the Nats come to town fresh off allowing 21 runs in the final two games in Florida. Perhaps Matt Chico and Jerome Williams spent Monday's off-day debating whose embarassment was more ignominious: allowing ten runs in one start (Williams, Sunday) or missing the target by a hundred feet (Chico, Saturday). I suppose it's ten runs in one start, since according to Chico the absurd wild pitch thing happens three or four times a year (?!). At any rate, the point is the Nats come to Philly a bit out of sorts (though neither Williams nor Chico will factor into this three-game set).

Philly's recent hot streak probably means Manuel will survive to see May, but will he see June? (As manager, I mean.)

* * * *

A somewhat similar situation unfolded eighteen years ago in Toronto. These were the days when an AL East title was a mere expectation, rather than an entitlement, and Toronto had as reasonable an expectation as any. The Blue Jays had been a competitive club since 1983, though they had claimed only a lone division title (under Bobby Cox). The preceding years had been frustrating: a disappointing third-place finish and a devastating final week choke to runner-up status. Many observers thought '89 was their year, and their division rivals seemed to set it up that way. The defending division champs, the Red Sox, had some holes in the lineup and an uncertain pitching staff beyond Roger Clemens. The Yankees were marching into their pre-Jeterian wilderness. The Tigers were about to fall off a cliff and wouldn't climb back up until Cecil Fielder and the rest of the take-'n-rakers came aboard. The Brewers, led by Jim Hunter's favorite third base coach, were two seasons removed from their illusory 13-0 start. The Indians' young talent never materialized. The O's seemingly didn't have any talent.

The Blue Jays had a neat little flush lined up but damn near got plunged down the toilet. Sitting at 12-24 in mid-May, general manager Pat Gillick made a change in the dugout, promoting batting coach Cito Gaston to manager. The Jays slowly but surely clawed out of the pit and claimed the division that most thought was theirs anyway. And, after another tough second-place finish in 1990, they subsequently claimed another division crown in '91 and back-to-back World Championships in '92-93 under Gaston.

Just over a decade after that '89 season, another team was loaded for bear in the (realigned) AL East. The Yankees had won four of five division titles (and, not insignificantly four of five World Series), but the 2000 team was seen as the weakest of the bunch. A September slide gave a disappointing Boston team some late hope, at least a little bit, until the Yanks eventually clinched.

While the Yanks were gearing up for a last hurrah with some core regulars (like Scott Brosius and Paul O'Neil -- yes, I know I am viewing that in hindsight), the Red Sox were adding to a core that included Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. The big splash was Manny Ramirez, one of the big prizes of the 2000-01 free agent season (second only to A-Rod), an individual so significant that ESPN dedicated a proto-reality show to his agent's bargaining tricks. Also, the Red Sox signed starter David Cone, a down-and-perhaps-out veteran but one who, not to be forgotten, had defected from the Yankees. So he knew how to win. The Red Sox jumped to a 16-9 April and, withstanding a slight May lull, found themselves 46-33 as June closed. That was a half-game better than the Yankees and also well-positioned in the wild card picture.

Boston played decently in July but lost four games to the Yankees, who motored to a 19-9 month. The Yankees idled to a 15-14 August, but he Red Sox lost three more games in the standings. The bottom fell out with a 5-14 September (losing 7.5 more games in the race, which ceased to be one), and the manager fell on his sword.

You might remember the 2004 Houston Astros. Big things were expected of them. Around the turn of the decade/century/millenium, they owned the NL Central with four division titles in a five-season span. Too many postseason flameouts cost manager Larry Dierker his job (even directly after his fourth division title), and a new guy was hired to take the team to a new level. I suppose the new guy was just pacing himself, because 2002-03 brought consecutive second-place finishes and nary a wild card berth. But 2004 dawned, and the time was right. Andy Pettitte and the great Roger Clemens joined Roy Oswalt in a star-studded top of the rotation; Octavio Dotel and an emerging Brad Lidge looked sufficient to withstand the free agent departure of closer Billy Wagner.

The new-look Astros went 13-9 in April, but subsequent months brought mediocrity, the slow and lurchy kind: 14-14, followed by 13-14, followed by 12-15. The Astros made a change in the dugout, bringing in the retreaded Phil Garner, and the fellas eventually took off: 37-18 in August/September, including a 20-7 final kick. They took St. Louis to seven games and would reach the World Series the following season.

* * * *

In all three of these instances -- '89 Jays, '01 Sox, '04 'Stros -- the teams had something in common. They had the same manager, Jimy Williams. This is the same Jimy Williams who is reportedly Philly GM Pat Gillick's choice to replace Charlie Manuel should the need arise, the same Pat Gillick who fired Jimy Williams eighteen years ago.

The thought occurs to me that very few managers have done less with more than Jimy Williams. To be fair, he's 120 games above .500 for his managerial career and his '98-99 Red Sox earned wild card berths. But either his signature unluckiness as a manager is heading teams with unreasonably high expectations, or his teams have been bailed out by, and rallied behind, guys other than him. (Even the '01 Red Sox turned things around a little bit after Williams' departure, and by the following season they were back to winning 90+ games again.) You make the call.

But if I'm Charlie Manuel, the last thing I want is to manage an underachieving team, be relieved of my post, and then watch Jimy Williams charge ahead to glory in my wake. Maybe Manuel's a goner, and maybe he's not. He made a bold move last week -- one I mocked, by the way -- in converting his top starter, Brett Myers, to middle relief. It sure looked like a stupid panic move to me (and many others), but sometimes things that look like stupid panic moves aren't, or at the very least they work out, making the critics look stupid and panic around for rationalizations. And maybe Manuel's move (assumign it was his move; I don't know) was a reasonable one given the current abundance of viable starters this team has. Presumably, one of those guys will go down at some point, and now Manuel has an ace-quality ('05-06 version) guy waiting in the wings. A white knight, if you will.

Was that his Adlai Grows a Spine moment? I suppose time will tell. As for now, thuh Philluhs ahrurh bahkke ehn dawh wurhrer.