Phillies

Manuel's great run shouldn't have ended this way

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Manuel's great run shouldn't have ended this way

It did not have to end this way.

It should not have ended this way.

The most successful manager in Phillies history, the man that brought tears to fans’ eyes when he shouted, “Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans!” back on that magical night in October 2008, was fired Friday (see story).

Charlie Manuel is out.

Ryne Sandberg is in.

And it didn’t have to happen this way.

Let’s make something clear here: This day had been brewing since March 2011 when Manuel signed a two-year contract extension with a year to go on his existing deal. On that day, all parties -- from the front office to Manuel -- acknowledged that there would be no talk of another contract until this one was finished. Manuel even made a point to say he’d be close to 70 when the deal was up and he’d take stock of himself and his life at that time before deciding how he’d proceed in his career.

From this seat, that always seemed to be tacit acknowledgment by Manuel that he’d move on after the 2013 season and hand off, head high, to a younger man as the organization changed course.

This spring, Manuel made some noise about wanting to manage beyond this season, but that was probably just the proud, tough guy in him talking. Manuel never took kindly to suggestions that he was weak, so whenever questions about his lame-duck status came up, he handled them by digging in and defending his record instead of shrugging and saying, “We’ll see what happens.”

That’s just Charlie.

But deep down inside, Manuel knew he was not going to manage beyond this season. He’s a smart baseball man and knows organizations have to occasionally churn the mix and it was going to be his turn in October -- unless this aging team somehow pulled off another World Series title. He knew his expiration date had been stamped the day he signed his extension. And he knew it more than ever in recent weeks when the losses piled up and the writing on the wall was in big, bold letters.

Manuel meant it, meant it from the bottom of his surgically-repaired heart, that night when he said, “Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans!” On the best night of his professional life, he dedicated it all to the fans, the real lifeblood of an organization because it is from them that all revenues spring in this business called baseball.

Manuel handled his firing with class Wednesday. He said he was mad not because the front office had given him a leaky bullpen and failed to upgrade it at mid-season, but because he lost his nine-year hold on the best seat in the house. Manuel didn’t just watch the rebirth of a dormant franchise from that seat, he, along with others, many others, helped lead it. Five division titles. Two National League championships. A World Series title. Immeasurable red-pinstriped good will spread while shopping at Wegman’s or eating breakfast at Ponzio’s -- hey, this guy said it himself, he’s a "peoples person." For all these reasons, Charlie Manuel deserves better than this.

He deserved to finish this road-to-nowhere season, tip his cap and head off to wherever he chooses, another team, a front-office adviser’s position, retirement. He didn’t deserve having the word “fired” attached to his name. (Though he has been offered a position with the franchise, he was fired as manager and he made that quite clear Friday.)

Manuel deserved better than this, but he didn’t get it because, in the irony of ironies, his players let him down. A number of them, not all of them, but enough to make a difference, have mailed it in for the past month. And why is that ironic? Because Manuel was just about the best players’ manager there is.

Why now?

Why not let his contract run out?

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said that once he decided Manuel wouldn’t be back in 2014 he didn’t think it would be fair on Manuel to wait. He mentioned that he wanted some time to evaluate Sandberg, the interim skipper.

Here’s the real reason they did it now:

“Because we sucked,” one player said.

Yeah, the Phillies have been beset by injuries, and, yeah, they have a bullpen made up mostly of guys that have been at Triple A this season.

But is this really a 5-19 club?

That’s what the record was since the All-Star break entering Friday night’s game.

This team is not good. But it’s not that bad either.

Some of the players on this team never came back from the All-Star break. Some of them stayed on vacation. Sandberg indicated that when he said his first order of business would be to “remind” the players that they are “major leaguers” and every game is “meaningful.” Pressed on that point, Sandberg admitted he’d seen “lackadaisical” play recently. Cole Hamels, who has pitched brilliantly since the All-Star break, concurred with Sandberg.

“It’s true,” he said. “I’m as guilty as anybody else. We really have to focus a lot more on what we have to do out on the field because we have to do it the right way. Charlie preached it, but we weren’t doing it.”

Does that comment suggest that the players were tuning out Manuel? Sure it does. But a pro doesn’t need to be reminded to show some pride in how he plays. A pro should be embarrassed by a run like the Phillies have had. A pro, or group of pros, should have found it within himself/themselves to turn things around so that at the very least the manager who always had their backs could have exited gracefully at the end of the season and without the word “fired” next to his name.

Sandberg has work to do in the clubhouse. It is not a happy place. Aside from a pocket of young guys with eager eyes and hopeful futures, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of togetherness. There is finger pointing. The fun is gone. That’s understandable because losing is not fun. The lack of togetherness is also somewhat understandable considering that Jonathan Papelbon recently indicated that he did not come here for this. Those comments did not sit well with a number of players who wondered, whatever happened to We’re all in this together? In this summer when we pray for Darren Daulton, a man who led a great Phillies team with those words, that concept seems to have escaped the team’s closer. The clubhouse has been a dour place ever since Papelbon’s self-serving comments and the clubhouse, as they say, leads to the playing field.

On the day he spoke out, Papelbon suggested changes were needed from top to bottom.

The Phillies made one at the top Friday.

It did not have to end this way.

It should not have ended this way.

Hey, Charlie Manuel, this thumbs-up is for you!

Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

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Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

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HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve embraced Justin Verlander as confetti rained down. An improbable thought just a few years ago, the Houston Astros are headed to the World Series.

Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined on a three-hitter, Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Astros reached the World Series for only the second time by blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Los Angeles opened as a narrow favorite, but Verlander, the ALCS MVP, and fellow Houston ace Dallas Keuchel will have plenty of rest before the World Series begins at sweltering Dodger Stadium.

"I love our personality," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We have the right amount of fun, the right amount of seriousness, the right amount of perspective when we need it. This is a very, very unique group. To win 100 games and still be hungry is pretty remarkable."

The Astros will try for their first World Series title, thanks in large part to Altuve, the diminutive second baseman who swings a potent bat, and Verlander, who switched teams for the first time in his career to chase a ring.

Four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees on consecutive nights after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first crown, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

"This city, they deserve this," McCullers said.

Clutch defensive plays by third baseman Alex Bregman and center fielder George Springer helped Houston improve to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and become the fifth team in major league history to capture a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four. A noted curveballer, McCullers finished up with 24 straight breaking pitches to earn his first major league save.

Combined, they throttled the wild-card Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

"I know people are going to talk about how we didn't win many games on the road. There were some other teams that haven't won many games on the road, either. We just happened to run into a very good team that just beat us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The Astros also eliminated New York in the 2015 postseason, with Keuchel winning the AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.

CC Sabathia entered 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double. He snapped an 0-for-20 skid with an ground-rule RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night in a 7-1 win.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York went 1-6 on the road this postseason.

After going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position through the first three innings, the Astros got on the board with no outs in the fourth with the 405-foot shot by Gattis.

Altuve launched a ball off Tommy Kahnle into the seats in right field with one out in the fifth for his fifth homer this postseason. It took a while for him to see that it was going to get out, and held onto his bat until he was halfway to first base before flipping it and trotting around the bases as chants of "MVP" rained down on him.

Altuve finished 8 for 25 with two homers and four RBIs in the ALCS after hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs in the ALDS against Boston.

Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit consecutive singles before Kahnle struck out Gattis. McCann's two-strike double, which rolled into the corner of right field, cleared the bases to push the lead to 4-0. Gurriel slid to avoid the tag and remained on his belly in a swimming pose at the plate for a few seconds after he was called safe.

It was just the second Game 7 in franchise history for the Astros, who lost to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS exactly 13 years earlier.

Sabathia allowed five hits and one run while walking three in 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in a Game 3 win and just 36 of the 65 pitches he threw were strikes.

Morton got into trouble in the fifth, and the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out. Bregman fielded a grounder hit by Todd Frazier and made a perfect throw home to allow McCann to tag Greg Bird and preserve Houston's lead. McCann held onto the ball despite Bird's cleat banging into his forearm. Chase Headley grounded out after that to end the inning.

A night after Springer kept Frazier from extra-bases with a leaping catch, Judge returned the favor on a ball hit by Yuli Gurriel. Judge sprinted, jumped and reached into the stands to grab his long fly ball before crashing into the wall and falling to the ground for the first out of the second inning.

Springer had another nifty catch in this one, jumping in front of Marwin Gonzalez at the wall in left-center to grab a ball hit by Bird for the first out of the seventh.

With McCullers in charge, the Astros soon closed it out.

"It's not easy to get here. And I don't take any of this for granted. And this is what we play for," Verlander said. "These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career when you look back, winning these games, just playing the World Series. Hopefully winning the World Series."

MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS

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MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS

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HOUSTON — Justin Verlander remained perfect with Houston, pitching seven shutout innings when the team needed him most, and Jose Altuve homered and drove in three runs as the Astros extended the AL Championship Series to a decisive Game 7 with a 7-1 win over the New York Yankees on Friday night.

Acquired in an Aug. 31 trade, Verlander has won all nine outings with the Astros. And with his new club facing elimination in Game 6 against the Yankees, he delivered again.

After striking out 13 in a complete-game victory in Game 2, Verlander threw another gem. The right-hander scattered five hits and struck out eight to improve to 9-0 with 67 strikeouts since being traded from Detroit. George Springer helped him out of a jam in the seventh, leaping to make a catch at the center-field wall and rob Todd Frazier of extra bases with two on and Houston up 3-0.

Game 7 is Saturday night in Houston, with the winner advancing to the World Series against the NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers.