Phillies

Once ridiculed in Philly, Terry Francona is 4 wins from Cooperstown

Once ridiculed in Philly, Terry Francona is 4 wins from Cooperstown

If Terry Francona wins four ballgames over these next nine days, he is going to Cooperstown.

And not as a visitor.

Francona sits at the helm of a Cleveland Indians team that has so far rolled through the postseason, winning eight of nine games as it opens play Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs in a World Series that is filled with compelling storylines.

Of course, the biggest storyline is the “Lovable Loser” angle.

Both clubs long ago became punch lines for their failures. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and their shortcomings have been blamed on everything from the curse of a billy goat to black cats to too many day games at Wrigley Field to Steve Bartman. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They were so notoriously synonymous with losing that Hollywood made a couple of movies about them. Well, sort of.

With four more wins, one of these teams will shed the Lovable Loser tag forever.

And if it’s Francona’s Indians, he will forever be honored with a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. You can bank on it. That’s where managers who win three World Series end up.

Time flies.

It was 20 years ago this week that the Phillies hired Francona for his first big-league managerial job. He was 37 at the time. He’d managed at the Double A level with the Chicago White Sox and been on the Detroit Tigers’ big-league coaching staff. Loaded with personality, smarts and the experience that came with growing up in baseball family (his dad played 15 seasons in the majors), being the best college player in the nation at the University of Arizona, and, probably most important, having been humbled by the ups and downs of 10 injury-riddled years as a big-league player, Francona was considered an excellent managerial prospect when the Phillies hired him. But he never deluded himself. He knew he got the job because the Phillies were rebuilding, because they were going to be young and bad for a while and he had the personality and youthful resilience to deal with it all. “If the Phillies were ready to win, they would have hired Jim Leyland or somebody like that,” he used to say.

Francona took over a 95-loss team in Philadelphia. He managed the club for four years, never had a winning season and was jeered out of town with slashed tires after the club lost 97 games in 2000.

Was Terry Francona a great manager in Philadelphia? Nope. Few people are great out of the gate in any line of work. But Francona had little chance to succeed in those Phillies years. There wasn’t close to enough talent on the field. The club was going through a sloooooow rebuild and the organizational focus in those years was probably more about getting a new stadium than putting a winning team on the field.

Francona was committed to becoming a successful manager when he left Philadelphia. That’s why he didn’t want to take a year off after he was fired. He wanted to stay in the game, stay in sight. He took a job in the Indians’ front office, then a year later was back in uniform, first as a coach with the Texas Rangers, then as a coach with the Oakland A’s.

In the fall of 2003, Francona interviewed for managerial jobs in Baltimore and in Boston. At the time, reporters in Baltimore asked him about the possibility of getting a second chance to manage.

“It would be like getting a mulligan,” Francona said.

The answer infuriated some in Philadelphia.

It shouldn’t have.

Francona’s use of the word ‘mulligan’ showed self-awareness, humility and accountability. It showed that he knew he had hooked his first chance into the woods, that he had made mistakes, that he’d learned from them and was ready to tee it up again. Francona’s use of the word mulligan showed how human he was and that is a priceless quality in the art of leading a group of men through the ups and downs of seven months of baseball and getting them to lay it all out for you night after night. Joe Torre had that quality. Charlie Manuel had it. Joe Maddon, the man Francona beat out for the Boston job and now squares off against in the World Series, has it. Francona has it. Just look at the way he kept the Indians believing after injuries wounded their starting pitching.

Of course, all of these aforementioned managers have or had talented players. That ultimately is how you win. Just ask Torre, who was dismissed as a loser until George Steinbrenner gave him some talent. Torre led it beautifully and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Francona got his second chance to manage in Boston in 2004 and quickly led a talented group of players to a curse-busting title, that franchise’s first World Series championship in 86 years.

He won another in 2007.

He has managed 12 seasons since leaving Philadelphia and the growth experience that it provided. He has won 90 or more games in eight of those seasons. Yeah, he has had good players. But he’s led them well. And he’s done it particularly well this month, maneuvering his bullpen pieces like a master chess champion.

The World Series is upon us and it should be a good one as baseball’s two Lovable Loser franchises vie to end decades of frustration.

And 20 years after his managerial odyssey began with many losses and much ridicule in Philadelphia, Terry Francona, already a big winner in his career, has a chance to punch his ticket to the ultimate winner’s circle, the Hall of Fame, with four more victories and another World Series title.

Phillies’ next 3 opponents have even more to play for, which doesn’t bode well

Phillies’ next 3 opponents have even more to play for, which doesn’t bode well

The Phillies will begin their final road trip of the season Tuesday and they’ll be either four or five games out of the second wild-card spot with 14 to play, pending the result of Cubs-Reds Monday night.

The first stop of the 11-game trip is Atlanta, where the Braves will have as much to play for as the Phillies. They are four games behind the Dodgers in their long shot attempt to gain home-field advantage in the NL playoffs. If the Dodgers had a larger lead and no advantage was to be gained, Atlanta might have been resting key players by now.

After that three-game set comes a weekend series in Cleveland. The Indians are 1 1/2 games behind the Rays for the second AL wild-card spot. That series against the Phillies will be a must-win for Terry Francona’s club.

The last stop is D.C. for five games, including a doubleheader on day two. The Nationals are in good shape, leading the wild-card race by 1 1/2 games over the Cubs and 2 1/2 games on the teams chasing them. The Phillies will see all three of Washington’s aces in that series.

The Nationals clinched their eighth consecutive winning season over the weekend. That streak began the same year as the Phillies’ current string of losing seasons.

The road to a wild-card spot is damn near impossible. Even the path to a winning record will be challenging for the Phillies, who must go 6-8 or better to finish with at least 82 wins.

There will be change this offseason, the question is how much. The Phillies put together some nice pieces but not a winning formula in 2019. That may have even been true if half the injured relievers were still active, given how few games the Phillies had the pitching advantage in the first five innings this season.

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Bryce Harper fumes at umpire as Phillies lose more ground to put winning season in peril

Bryce Harper fumes at umpire as Phillies lose more ground to put winning season in peril

After a homestand that saw them lose four of six games, and with a killer, 11-game road trip looming, the question no longer seems to be will the Phillies make the playoffs, it’s will they even have a winning season?

They have done neither since 2011.

Making the playoffs became the longest of long shots after the Phils lost a pair of games over the weekend to the Boston Red Sox. The Sox completed a two-game sweep with a 6-3 win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies scored just four runs in the series. Only two of their 12 hits were for extra bases and they struck out a staggering 25 times.

Twenty-freaking-five.

With 14 games remaining, the Phils are 4 ½ games back in the NL wild-card race and their overall record is 76-72. They need to go at least 6-8 to finish with a winning record and that won’t be easy with this remaining schedule:

Three games in Atlanta.

Three games at Cleveland.

Five games at Washington.

Three games at home against Miami.

Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington entered Sunday a combined 74 games over .500 and Miami gives the Phillies fits.

Finishing with a winning record will be a challenge.

But for now, manager Gabe Kapler remains focused on keeping the Phillies’ faint playoff hopes a-flicker.

“My only concern is the step right in front of us,” Kapler said after Sunday’s loss. “That's winning the game (Tuesday night) in Atlanta. I'm already past what happened in this Boston series. It's going to sting. It's going to suck. The plane ride's going to be difficult, and we'll start game-planning for Atlanta. One game at a time, one step at a time.

“We have no choice but to continue to fight. You know what? Sometimes you see the best come out in people when their backs are against the wall. Ours are against the wall. My expectation is that you'll see our best.”

The Phillies were not at their best on Sunday.

Starting pitcher Jason Vargas did not keep his club in the game and lasted just three innings for the second straight start. His ERA over his last four starts is a plump 7.63.

“It's one of those things where you don't want to say one game means more than the other but it's easier to say that earlier in the year than later in the year,” said Vargas, who surrendered a third-inning grand slam to Christian Vazquez. “When it comes down to it, you really feel like you're in a spot where you have to put Ws on the board and when it doesn't happen you feel like you let everybody down."

The Phillies were also not at their strongest on Sunday. At least they did not have their strongest personnel on the field, not after Bryce Harper got ejected for protesting a called third strike with home plate umpire Gabe Morales in the fourth inning.

Morales missed the call and Harper retreated to the video area behind the dugout. He watched the replay of the pitch, saw that it was outside the zone, returned to the dugout and shouted, “It’s not even bleeping close,” to Morales.

The umpire ejected Harper.

“Then I kind of let him have it,” Harper said. “It just sucks. You’re in the middle of a race and you’re in a 1-2 count and (Boston starter Rick) Porcello throws a front-hipper like he did in my first at-bat, which was a good pitch. I’m going to tip my cap when he throws me a good pitch, but I disagreed with that call and I kind of looked back at him and said, ‘That’s not a strike.’ He kind of looked at me like, ‘Yeah, right, stupid.’ It was that kind of look and I went back and thought, ‘Maybe he’s right.’ I went back and looked at it and it wasn’t close.”

Kapler was also ejected for defending Harper.

“I think everybody can look at the pitch and see why both Bryce was upset and I was upset on his behalf,” Kapler said. “It’s an enormous game, obviously, with a lot of implications and I thought, obviously, Bryce was right about the pitch, but just as importantly, I thought, in a game of this magnitude there could have been a little bit of a longer leash to allow him to stay in this game and allow it to play out on the field.”

A pool reporter attempted to speak with Morales shortly after the game. Morales was present but said he could not speak because crew chief Jerry Meals had already departed for the airport. Talk about your quick getaways.

Harper did not dispute that his getting ejected left his team in a bind.

“You can’t get thrown out in that situation, of course,” he said. “I don’t want to get thrown out in that situation. But, you know, it happened.

“I usually don’t complain unless it’s there. I’m pro pitcher, too. If a pitcher throws a good pitch, I’m all about it. Like I said, first at-bat Porcello threw that front-hipper and punched me out, so I tipped my cap to him right there. So the next at-bat, I’m kind of sitting on the same pitch because he kind of did the same thing and it wasn’t close. You get into a 2-2 count against him and you see another pitch. He might have punched me out on the next pitch, but also I might have hit a double in the gap and I’m on second base.

“On both sides, you have to be better, especially in these games right now. You have to be better back there. I know he’s not trying to call a strike or not call a ball, but he just has to be better for me.”



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